Shrieking at Strangers

To the man I shrieked at last April, who was waiting to use the bathroom, I apologize. I was unable to explain at the time, but here’s the whole story:

I was sitting on Flutterby, hauled out in the boatyard in Georgia, and I needed to use the bathroom. It was the middle of the day, the sun was out, and the distance was only about 50 yards. Yet I lingered on the boat, shaking and trying to get up my nerve.

Finally, I put my head down and went slowly down the stairs. I trudged across the sandy lot, looking intently at the ground. My hands were clasped tightly around my elbows to dampen the shaking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an alligator.


Concrete alligator


I looked again and realized that it was only a small statue, a piece of yard art. But it was too late: Adrenaline was already surging through my system and taking over my brain. The pure chemical reaction made me want to run for my life, screaming.

“It’s only a statue. It’s only a statue. It’s only a statue,” I repeated to myself, as I continued past it to the bathroom. Once inside, I locked the door securely.

But even after ten minutes in the bathroom, I couldn’t stop shaking with fear. I stood with my hand on the doorknob, and some prehistoric portion of my brain was screaming, “Alligator! Alligator! It’s going to eat you! You’re going to die!”

Finally, taking a deep breath, I opened the door v-e-r-y slowly.

Unfortunately, while I was having my crisis in the bathroom, I didn’t realize that a nice gentleman was now waiting to use the facilities. I was so shocked to be face-to-face with a 6-foot human being that I gave a bloodcurdling scream. Then I ran all the way back to the boat and didn’t come out for a couple of days.

At the time, I had no idea what was wrong with me. A few weeks later, I got an answer: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD.

In a given year, nearly 18% of American adults will be affected by some form of anxiety disorder, including GAD, PTSD, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  As you can see from the alligator story, GAD is not a simple matter of worrying about the economy or whether the boat will go aground. Sufferers are unable to cope with excessive, irrational fear of things that are not actually very threatening, like a concrete alligator or a trip to the post office.

Puget Sound

A healing view of Puget Sound from West Seattle

My initial reading about the problem helped a lot. Then I returned to Seattle for months of medical treatment. I had ups and downs. Some days, I got dressed to go to the post office, but I never made it past the bedroom door. Other days, I seemed fine, giving public presentations and newspaper interviews and pitching my book, Strangers Have the Best Candy. All summer, I stayed close to home, never knowing when something unexpected would trigger me.

I had made incredible progress by August, when Barry and I set out on a 2,000-mile road trip in the Squid Wagon. I did fine in Eugene, Oregon, visiting with family. We continued south to see friends in California — Alameda, Oakland, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz. By the time we reached Burning Man, I felt like myself again. Out in the middle of the desert, in the most inhospitable circumstances, I was joyful and strong.

I had arrived back to myself just in time. Five days after arriving at Burning Man, I came down with appendicitis and landed in a hospital in Reno!

Obviously, I survived. I even made it back to Burning Man, and I have some great stories to share. But I wanted to write about the alligator incident, because I’ve struggled with anxiety disorder all summer.

Please, have compassion for people who are acting strange; you have no idea what internal struggles they are facing. And if someone comes out of the bathroom, screams, and runs away, don’t take it personally. She thought you were an alligator, but she’s better now.

Gator at the front door

Thank God it’s just an alligator!


Ivy the Dog

Waiting for her “people” to return

A month ago, Barry and I started house-sitting in Seattle. The day our friends left was completely chaotic — luggage scattered about the house, last-minute baking, noisy children, and a slightly hyperactive dog. Then they swept out the door, and it was painfully silent.

A chicken clucked in the backyard. The second hand on the kitchen clock went: Tock. Tock. Tock.

I peered into the fridge, where mysterious leftovers waited in unlabeled, and more alarmingly, undated, containers. “I think I’ll walk down to the grocery store,” I announced, as I set off down busy 65th Street.

I took a different route coming back, down a tree-lined side street: 63rd.

A couple of blocks before I reached home, I came upon an interesting scene. There was a table in the middle of the sidewalk, surrounded by lawn chairs. On the table were chips, crackers, and hummus. Nearby, in the grassy parking strip was another circle of chairs. There were wine glasses on the grass, some empty, some half-full.

There was no one there. As someone later commented, “It looked like the aftermath of Chernobyl.”

What I knew, that added to the strangeness of the scene, was that the chairs were on the corner where I’d found the Original Happy Spot. As I stood there, puzzled, I heard music and  followed it to some concrete steps leading up to a tall fence. There was laughter and the clink of glasses, but I couldn’t see who was on the other side of the gate. Would they be young? Old? Friendly? Suspicious?

I raised a trembling hand, and I knocked.

A woman leaned over the patio railing and hollered, “Who’s there?” Before I could answer, she said, “Come on in!” In the backyard, about twenty people and a Black Lab stared at me curiously. It may have been because I was a stranger. It also may have been my loud outfit, a combination of an orange t-shirt with a tie-dyed blue-and-purple skirt. I’ve heard dogs are color-blind, but this one knew something was weird.

“Um, hi,” I said, nervously. “I’ve never crashed a party before, but I wanted to tell you something about your corner. It’s featured in a YouTube video about the Happy Spot.

“The what?” they exclaimed, in chorus.

50 Happy Spots

Happy Spots, as interpreted by Julie, Cody, Emanuel, and Gabriel Miller

I went on to explain that their corner was where I’d found the Happy Spot in 2009, how I’d taken it to Burning Man that year, and ever since, I’d been spreading the idea of Happy Spots wherever I went.

“Does anyone know who marked the original Happy Spot in your street?” I asked.

They interrupted each other in their eagerness to talk. No one knew of a happy spot, but they told me the corner was known as “Chalk City,” because so many of the neighborhood kids drew on the pavement there. “I’ll ask my daughter,” said one woman. “There’s a big block party there, you know,” said someone else.

Burning Man Happy Spot

Happy Spot campers, called “Happy Spotters,” at Burning Man 2013

“It was there two years in a row; surely somebody will remember,” I told them. “It’s kind of a big deal to me.”

“Would you like a glass of wine?” somebody asked. I shook my head, politely. “I was on my way home with these groceries. My husband will be wondering where I am.” That led to them insisting, “Go get him!” “OK, I will,” I said.

I walked back to the Chicken house with my groceries. After I put them away, I asked Barry, “Do you have some time to come with me right now? Maybe an hour or so? It’s a surprise.”

I couldn’t wait to crash the party again, with Barry this time.

Happy Spot

Philip’s sunset Happy Spot in San Leandro, California

He got up from his computer, and as he put on a fleece, I surreptitiously picked up a piece of chalk and put it in my pocket, as Philip Wilson had once done for me. Later, he told me, “I was expecting you to take me to the Happy Spot. I just didn’t know there would be anyone there.”

I walked him back to the corner, but he was puzzled as I kept going past the Happy Spot and marched up the concrete steps again. Instead of knocking, I flung open the gate and barged in. “I’m baaaack!” I announced, “and this is Barry.”

They immediately sat us down with a couple of glasses of wine, and we chatted and enjoyed the music. One of the guitarists was our neighbor from two blocks away. It was a beautiful summer evening, and a lively group. I couldn’t keep track of everyone’s names.

Eventually, as we were talking about the Happy Spot, someone said, “Let’s go out there and make one.”

Drawing a happy spot in chalk

Meps, drawing the Happy Spot for the Original Happy Spotters

I held up my piece of chalk. “I’m on it!”

I marched back down the steps, followed by Barry and a few of the party-goers. In the appropriate place, I knelt and drew the familiar box, labeled it “Happy Spot,” with a smiley-face in the O, and then wrote “Stand Here” with an arrow.

I stood up, and Barry and I demonstrated how it worked. Then everybody wanted to try it, and we all took turns standing in the box, hugging each other, and taking pictures. Eventually, the rest of the party came down to see where we’d gone, and we hugged them, too. The party continued, literally in the Original Happy Spot in the middle of the street, for quite some time.

Smiling neighbors in the Happy Spot

Smiling neighbors in the Happy Spot

It was only a few feet from the Spot to the abandoned table and chairs I’d first noticed. For the next hour or so, we sat there, periodically getting up and introducing other neighbors to the concept of the Happy Spot by giving them unexpected hugs.

It was exactly like the Happy Spot at Burning Man, where we routinely welcome and hug complete strangers. Could it be that the Happy Spot is magical, whether it’s at Burning Man or not?

Group in the happy spot

Friends, family, and strangers were hugging each other in the Happy Spot

You try it and tell me. All you need is a piece of chalk or pencil-and-paper; a big, friendly smile; and lots of hugs.

Look out, world! No party is safe from Meps, the Happy Spot Party-Crasher now!

Cheerful pariah

I went to Seattle, unsure of how I could be useful to Jacqui during her cancer treatment. The requirement to have a “caregiver” was imposed by her medical team, partly because no one knows how an individual will respond to treatment. Given her strong response to previous procedures, Jacqui figured the caregiver requirement was mostly a formality.

That’s pretty much how it panned out, in part because the actual treatment was postponed several times. Except for one hospital procedure and an emergency early-morning coffee run, I was most useful as emotional, not physical, support.

As a result, our relationship was very balanced between “giving” and “receiving.” We were caregivers to each other, rather than a giver and a receiver.

That is, until my world turned inside out on Tuesday. As usual, Jacqui was up before me, making coffee. I slowly drifted awake, enjoying the aroma. But what was this? Something wasn’t right. I swallowed. Ouch! I had a sore throat.

I gave it a few minutes, some water, and a cup of coffee. The sore throat persisted. “Jacqui, I have something to tell you,” I said. I knew I had to speak the truth, and quickly, but I was mortified about the disruption I was about to unleash.

No one with a “bug” could be this close to an immune-suppressed patient. But the transplant hadn’t yet begun, so did I have to leave?

Jacqui left a message with the clinic, then headed out for a morning appointment. A little while later, she phoned me. The medical team said I had to leave immediately. Using her car for transport was out of the question. And no goodbye hug!

I started packing in a daze, feeling like a pariah. How could I foist my sick self on friends? Nobody would want to risk catching this cold. Maybe I should hole up in a hotel room, alone, as penance. My luggage had expanded to twice its size; instead of a carry-on plus laptop, I now had too much to carry on a bus. I kicked myself for the shopping I’d done at five thrift stores and three international groceries.

I took a deep breath, put aside my martyrdom, and called my friend Tina back. She’d offered me their guest room in a phone call a half hour earlier. But in a strange coincidence, Tina was also undergoing cancer treatment. I wasn’t sure it was wise for her to invite Typhoid Meps into the house.

Tina got the go-ahead from both her partner, Will, and her oncology team, and a little while later, Will appeared at the door. He kept me company while I attacked every surface I could find with a disinfecting bleach solution. Then he took me to their home, with a brief stop for a soothing smoothie. I still felt dazed and disoriented, and I attributed it to the fever that was setting in. But it was something else: I had suddenly gone from the role of “caregiver” to “caregivee.”

Many of us live our lives feeling that we don’t have enough, so we can’t give to others. We don’t have enough time or money or energy, so we have to hoard what we’ve got.

I tend toward the other extreme, feeling that I have lots to give — time, skill, love, creativity, energy. Sometimes, though, I run low on supplies. What I was running short of on Tuesday (and Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) were energy and health.

Ensconced in Tina and Will’s beautiful guest room, decorated with Eastern art and photos of family, I suffered my physical ailments without complaint. I accepted their gifts of hospitality and caring, and laying flat on my back, I thought about how I could give back. I couldn’t wash dishes or cook or make myself “useful.” My voice had given out, so I wasn’t even very good company for talking.

In that time, I figured out a simple thing I could return to my friends to help maintain the balance between giving and receiving: Gratitude. It’s good stuff.

A few days later, my cold and I were sitting on a plane, heading back to Barry and North Carolina. I opened my pack, and there was the little paper bag Tina had given me as I left their home. Inside, I found a napkin, a baggie of apple slices, some ginger cookies, and a favorite exotic treat — jackfruit chips. Alongside, I’d packed one of the organic, dark-chocolate-covered pomegranate bars Jacqui had squirreled away when she discovered how much I liked them. I made my snacks last through all three flights, and each time I opened the bag, I beamed my gratitude, not just at my friends, but at the whole world.

Thanks, y’all.

Cock-a-doodle who?

A decade ago, when we were living in our not-so-upscale house in the upscale Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, we had a neighbor with chickens. Like us, she had a not-so-upscale house and a devil-may-care attitude about what the neighbors might think.

During a period of a couple months, I discovered that roosters don’t necessarily crow only in the morning, they crow all day. I thought it was charming. Other neighbors — the upscale ones — didn’t find it charming. They complained, and the flock was made compliant with Seattle law: Three hens, max, and zero roosters.

After that, the chickens were very quiet in their little coop, tucked behind some bushes and against the house in the front yard.

Given this experience, when we were invited to chicken-sit four chickens at a different friend’s house in Seattle, I was puzzled. “How can you have four?” “It’s OK. One of them is not a chicken,” was my friend’s response. This friend will remain nameless, because I’m afraid that the one that is not a chicken acts so much like a chicken, there might be a slight compliance issue. At the risk of being an accessory to the crime, I will not publish any names.

Except for the chickens’ names. First names only.

We arrived at the house for our chicken-sit instructions, and indeed, there were four creatures that looked like chickens. Two brown, two black-and-white. Mango, Frango, and Lucky are chickens. But Clam is simply the most chicken-like clam you’ll ever meet. There is no compliance issue. “This house has three chickens and a clam, Officer.”

Which one of these is not a chicken?

Which one of these is not a chicken?

Like the other girls, Clam bursts out of the coop with a rush of flapping, flying energy when you open the door. Then she runs around the yard, clucking and looking for bugs. She digs up the dirt in the side yard, which may explain why the cucumbers are stunted. She hates being cooped up and wants to be top in the pecking order. She runs over and attempts to eat anything you toss on the ground, whether it’s a cucumber peel or a frisbee. She has been seen drinking from the infamous avian-nipple watering system. She produces award-winning volumes of chicken shit.

But lately I’ve noticed that Clam’s behavior is a little different from the others. Yesterday, she came over to me as I was standing on the patio. I thought she might be suffering from insecurity, being the outsider, so she was going to be more affectionate. “OW!” That was not affection, it was aggression! After she pecked me on the big toe, I punished the whole lot of them by vanquishing them from the backyard. And decided it was no longer a good idea to stand barefoot on the patio.

Ow! (Chicken pecking the photographer's foot)

Ow! (Chicken pecking the photographer's foot)

Today, I went out in the yard wearing clogs. Picking green beans, I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my heel. Clam had found the only exposed flesh on my foot and pecked it. Back she went, along with the others, into the Chicken Prison Exercise Yard. Barry seemed relieved.

Barry contemplates the risk of squatting near a clam with a beak

Barry contemplates the risk of squatting near a clam with a beak

Right now, the chicken-sit is pretty easy; the chickens are too young to lay eggs. But what will happen when they start laying? Will Clam lay eggs, too? Or will she lay clams? She just might be the juvenile delinquent of the chicken yard, in which case, I hope she’ll straighten up and fly right. Otherwise, she’ll be out of here, and her owners — no, I still won’t tell you their names — probably won’t give a cluck.

Clam emphatically proclaims, "I am not a chicken!"

Clam emphatically proclaims, "I am not a chicken!"

Squidley's diesel-dribbling revenge

Whoops, I squeaked too soon.

Remember that post about starting each day with “a giant roar and that diesel rumble that sounds like a UPS truck?”

I’m sitting in a library in Casper, Wyoming. It’s a lovely place to hang out, with wi-fi, desks, and big comfy chairs where you can curl up and read the local paper or the New York Times. It’s also walking distance from Thomas Crawford Auto Repair, where Squidley is getting a new fuel heater installed.

Things went awry at Burning Man, when Squidley decided not to start after 10 days of sitting in the desert. We had to crank and crank and crank the engine to get it primed, and finally, we made it out of there.

For the next week, we crossed our fingers every morning and drove our neighbors (and sisters) crazy with all the noisy cranking. I began to say prayers to the Gods of Starting Motors. Finally, in Burns, Oregon, we made our home at the Burns RV Park for three nights and Barry made friends at the parts desk of the Ford dealer. The morning we left, with a new valve on the fuel filter cap, the van started perfectly.

Things went great from Burns to Crystal Crane Hot Springs and then the World Center for Birds of Prey, outside Boise. We popped into Pocatello and Lava Hot Springs and Soda Springs, and it was there I pointed out the new problem.

The little puddle of diesel under the engine.

We made it to Kemmerer, where all we could find were RV parks with no bathrooms. Finally, I asked a couple on a motorcycle if there was a campground nearby.

“No, well, wait a minute, there is that place out by the dog pound…it’s kind of ugly, right on the highway, but it has a couple of porta-potties.” He painted such an awful picture of it, we were about to give up and go to a motel. Then our motorcycling friend insisted that he lead us over to the campground, and sure enough, it was a picturesque spot, far enough that the barking dogs were quite faint, and the “highway” was a rural Wyoming road with one car per hour. We had the place to ourselves, which is a good thing when you are doing car repairs to a big ugly old van. Motels and nice RV parks frown on that sort of thing in their parking lots.

But it was our anniversary, and though Barry tried to find the source of the fuel leak, he didn’t want to take the engine completely apart. So we kept going, to a campground in Casper.

That night, we sat in a Wells-Fargo parking lot, having a heated “discussion” (argument) about the new problem. “I don’t think we can trust just anybody with a ‘mechanic’ sign — we need a good referral,” said Barry. “Well, I don’t want to drive to North Carolina dribbling diesel the whole way!” said Meps.

That night, we asked the man who ran the campground, and he told us to check with Keith, the maintenance guy, the next day. “By the way,” I asked, “what are all those animals along the highway? We saw hundreds or thousands of them — they look sort of like deer?”

“Pronghorn antelope,” he told us, “the fastest animals in North America. But they’re not good eatin’. They taste like goat.” He made a face.

We looked at each other. “Oh, we like goat,” we said. He shook his head, “Antelope’s not even good for jerky. It tastes like the sagebrush they eat. I shot one once. Never again.”

We were a little skeptical, because the critters we’d seen seemed too big for antelope, and we hadn’t noticed the horns. But he was sure of his local knowledge.

The next morning, I found Keith and a couple of young folks standing around the bed of a pickup truck, staring solemnly into it. When I walked up, there was a dead antelope in the truck. OK, so they were antelope, after all.

“I heard they weren’t really good eating,” I asked the guy with the blood on his hands. This started a discussion of the relative merits of antelope-eating, with 33% in favor (the hunter) and 66% opposed (the hunter’s wife and Keith). The hunter said, “It makes good jerky.” I guess he’ll be eating a whole antelope worth of jerky by himself.

I wandered back to our campsite and gave Barry three pieces of valuable information: One, that I could personally confirm that we’d seen antelope. (How do you know? I just saw a dead one. You did? Where?) Two, the name of the auto repair place in town to avoid at all costs. Three, his recommendation for Thomas Crawford.

We were set. The only downside was when they told us the part wouldn’t arrive until the next day. “Oh, no,” I said in dismay, “We’re going to need a motel, I guess…”

Barry, who’s more straightforward than I at times, finished my statement. “…unless you don’t mind us sleeping in your parking lot.” The folks behind the counter chuckled. “You won’t be the first!”

So we took advantage of their “free” camping spot, a half block from a grassy park with porta-potties and picnic tables. Best of all was dinner — no antelope jerky for us. We went to Johnny J’s diner and ate a huge, gooey two-person banana split for our anniversary.

When the van is fixed, we’ll pay the bill and continue on, with a new soft spot for Casper, Wyoming. At 180,000 miles and 18 years, we’re just happy that the Squid Wagon is not B.E.R., or Beyond Economic Repair.

I was just wondering if you guys were back yet

That’s what everyone says when they call us on the phone or send us an e-mail. Shoot, which trip were they referring to?

  • In May, we took Amtrak from Seattle to Los Angeles for our friend Will’s 50th birthday celebration. We had a first-class sleeper on the train, and Michael took us to Disneyland TWICE!
  • Then we did a couple of weekend sailing trips aboard Complexity and Panta Rhei.
  • I had a crazy pirate-themed 40th birthday party for Barry, literally on top of Interstate 90 (there’s a park there). One little boy came up to us, staring at our pirate costumes, and asked, “Where are the kids?” Check out the photos.
  • Then a weekend in Moclips, with a bonfire on the beach. Lots of phooning with Will and Tina.
  • That’s around the time we got involved with the Funder’s Choice website and met Michael Kaminski — thanks to Jacqui for introducing us to such a cool guy!
  • In July, we went to the Oregon Country Fair with Daisy and the gang. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I just posted the pictures.
  • Then we raced up to Camano Island to rendezvous with Barry’s sister’s family. Barry’s nephews are 4 and 7, and they are fun, fun, fun!
  • In August, we sailed on Sparrow (formerly known as Nereid) for a week in the San Juans, including the Around Shaw race with Jacqui and friends. Check out the photo album!
  • And now (drumroll, please!), we are heading for Burning Man with Stuart and Linda! I don’t even know how to describe this event, so just go to their website and read up. It’s going to be a temporary city of 40,000 people in the Nevada desert, with tons of art and performance. You won’t believe the costumes we’re taking…

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all this stuff and write about it, too. I promise to catch up when the rainy season starts again. I need to tell you all about the crazy LA trip, and post the pictures and video from Around Shaw, and share more stories, adventures, and just plain fun.

Why married men live longer

I’m only three days into the twelve days of Christmas, and it’s almost April. Maybe I should have set a hard-and-fast deadline for myself, rather than waiting for the Muse to simply arrive? The problem with this sort of writing is that before I’ve written about the last adventure, I start having the next one. Sometimes, I feel like a cat chasing her tail. “Wait, wait, I haven’t made it all the way around the circle yet!”

Eventually, I will write more about Portugal. I have New Year’s Eve stories about Carlos’ amazing multicultural gathering. I want to tell you about getting lost in the medieval alleys of Porto one night, with fog so thick you couldn’t see across the street. And about the towering aqueduct in Vouzela, and the “Janieros” (Christmas carols) … and the tour Nelson gave us of the third-oldest university in Europe, and the library with the bats, and the book we touched from the 16th century.

I don’t meant to tease my readers (both of you), but I’m not here to write about Portugal this time. This piece is to give you an update on the news ’round here.

Barry was doing some contract work, and it ended about a month ago. Suddenly, he’s retired again.

Two and a half weeks ago, he was on his way to an optometrist appointment on his new bike, and he had a accident. Something about not making the turn at the bottom of a steep hill. He got up, shook himself, and then rode another mile to the optometrist, favoring a sore shoulder.

About a half hour later, while he was picking out his glasses, he started bleeding on the desk. The folks at Pearle Vision freaked out. They went into optometry because they couldn’t stand the sight of blood.

About then, Barry called me for a ride home. He was having trouble using his arm.

No wonder. He broke his humerus. Along with one of his fingers. And he poked a big hole in his elbow, blacked his eye, bruised both legs, and made a general mess of his lovely (my opinion) body.

In the three weeks since then, I’ve had to dress him, bathe him, change his dressings, give him physical therapy, and drive him to one or two doctor’s appointments every single day. On top of this, I’ve had to do all the cooking, dishes, laundry, and shopping. I have to peel his oranges.

And I’ve had to take over those tasks that Barry traditionally does: Taking out the trash. Seasoning the cast-iron skillets. Charging up the batteries on the Squid Wagon.

This litany explains why married men live longer than single men. I can’t imagine what a single person in Barry’s predicament would have done. The alternatives to having a wife-nurse are expensive and not nearly as pleasant.

He’s healing now, and we’re getting into that risky period where he could easily overdo it and hurt himself again. Having given him all my attention for the last three weeks, I’m not going to repeat this ordeal. I told Barry that if he does, I’m going to toss him into a nursing home and go on vacation without him.

In the meantime, as long as he is careful, I’m taking him on vacation with me. We’re heading out tonight and going sailing in Florida and the Bahamas for the next couple of weeks.

I think we can handle all the broken bones and wound care while traveling. And we both deserve a reward. I deserve one for being the on-call 24-7 nurse. And Barry deserves one, too, for not killing himself in that bike accident.

Seattle's bicycle freeway

“Psssst, Julie, you awake?”
It’s 8 AM, and an indistinct mumbling comes from under the guest bed pillow.
“You’re sleeping in the garage, and I need to get the car out!”

Normally, I wouldn’t make a guest sleep in the garage. But in this case, my sister had come for the week, and she was sleeping in the guest room where all the bicycles are stored.

Our current house-sitting gig is in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, and we’re walking distance from restaurants, grocery stores, and the library. We parked the Squid Wagon, our 3/4 ton Ford van, when we arrived weeks ago, and we walk or ride bikes everywhere.

Luckily for us, only two blocks away from us is the bicyclist’s version of the interstate: The Burke-Gilman trail.

The Burke-Gilman is about 18 miles long, and it runs along the Ship Canal from Ballard to the University District, then it loosely follows the shore of Lake Washington to Bothell. From there, you can connect to another 10-mile trail, so an out-and-back bike ride is well over 50 miles.

Admittedly, the trail can get overused, especially on the weekends. But it’s still more relaxing than dealing with traffic, potholes, and stoplights.

The trail is named after two men, Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman, who were responsible for the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern Railway. They were forward thinkers with big dreams for their railway, considering that in 1885, there were only a few families living along the route. It ended up being a heavily used spur route, but by 1971, it was abandoned.

The unused tracks, though, were just right for a bicycle route. Some forward-thinking Seattle and King county voters approved the bond issues to pay for the various portions of the trail, so that by 1978, you could ride from Gasworks Park to Kenmore.

The day after waking Julie to get the “car” out, Barry and I borrowed a friend’s bicycle so she could ride the Burke-Gilman with us. We moseyed along, dodging college students with iPods and backpacks in the University District. There were many people walking and bikes, bikes, bikes.

On the way out, I looked at the scenery. Everything was a riot of spring, and some portions of the trail felt like peaceful green tunnels. Plum and cherry trees had exploded in pink and white blossoms, and daffodils and hyacinths provided yellow and purple accents. We rested halfway in a park under blue skies with fluffy clouds, watching a floatplane lazily follow the surface of Lake Washington.

On the way back, I paid more attention to my fellow trail-users. There were a few roller blades and lots of strollers, some accompanied by young parents and some by grandpas. I was surprised that there were no children on bicycles, only adults. But such variety of bicycles! It ranged from recumbents to old-fashioned bikes with baskets and wide handlebars. There were some slow cyclists, like us, but more fast riders. The really, really fast riders were dressed as “space aliens” and had strange bulges in their clothing that I suspected might have been bananas, also known as bicycle fuel.

I’m sure Burke and Gilman would be amazed to see their railroad line converted to a bicycle highway. They probably wouldn’t even recognize the things we call bicycles, given what bicycles looked like back in 1885. Cyclists didn’t dare ride fast, because they hadn’t yet invented brakes!

Thank goodness Burke and Gilman put in their railroad, so we can have our “bike freeway.” It’s thanks to forward-thinkers like them that we have an extensive rail network across the U.S. — the same network that brings bananas to bicyclists.

Hello, sailor!

Back in the days of Jack Aubrey’s Navy, officers didn’t go to a traditional school. They learned aboard a ship, starting as midshipmen. Before they’d ever shaved, these children in uniform had to master celestial navigation, as well as how to manage a bunch of smelly men sailing a ship with dozens of sails and no engine.

As a matter of fact, nobody in those days paid for sailing lessons. You signed on, if you were desperate, or you were pressed aboard, and then the experienced sailors helped you “learn the ropes.”

It was an effective means of passing along the information. Today, even if you don’t know how to sail a boat, you probably know colorful phrases like “three sheets to the wind” or “let the cat out of the bag.” Even “passing with flying colors” is an idiom that comes from sailing.

Ten years ago, I wanted to learn to sail. I knew sailing was a tradition, something passed from one person to another. That led to a vague fear that you had to be born into it. If you were supposed to learn it from your parents, then Barry and I were never going to be sailors.

It never crossed my mind to pay for sailing lessons. Instead, I discovered local sailing clubs and the generous boat-owners who were willing to teach me to sail in exchange for a home-cooked meal. Many of them were bachelors who would otherwise be reduced to a steady diet of Dinty Moore and Top Ramen. Along the way, I learned to be a pretty good propane chef and make do with whatever facilities were available.

I was incredibly grateful to them, guys like Bill on Freebooter, Randy on Determination Too, and Brian on Nereid and Cayenne. “One day,” said Brian, “it will be your job to help other people get out on the water.”

When our first chance came to share our knowledge, we didn’t even recognize it. In 1998 a good friend, Michelle, bought a Santana 30/30 that she couldn’t sail herself. We sailed her boat to Blake Island, Port Madison, and Port Ludlow, learning and teaching at the same time.

Then we got our own boat, the Northern Crow. At 25 feet, it was small and funky, but we took people out on the Sound and Lake Union. My favorite trips were the long ones up to Port Townsend in the middle of summer under blue skies. One woman we took along was deaf, but communication was no problem. The joy of sailing is that it’s easy to show someone how to do it without a lot of words.

It does help to read up on the vocabulary, to be prepared for that moment when the boat is heeled way over with the rail buried and the skipper asks, “How’s the weather helm?” I’d read all the books, and when that moment came, on a Swan 44, I was ready. Another woman aboard, though, was not familiar with the concept, so Jay explained it to her, passing the information along in the time-honored fashion, verbally.

I was surfing the Internet late last night, when I came across a Craigslist posting that struck a chord. ” I’m just a guy/student who knows very little about sailing, but is very interested in learning … (I can) trade LABOR FOR BOATING KNOWLDEGE. I just want to learn, and I don’t necessarily have the money right now to pay for sailing lessons.” The posting took me right back to 1995, when I would do anything to get onto a sailboat, and I realized what a wonderful position I am in now.

I e-mailed the writer of that post, a guy named Nick. I gave him a whole list of Seattle-area resources for learning to sail without paying for lessons and wrote e-mails about him to a couple of friends with boats. It took me a while to generate all the information and links and craft the messages, but it was worthwhile.

Because now, it’s my turn to help other people get out on the water. To all new sailors: Welcome to the world of boating! Drop me a line, and I’ll do anything I can to help you learn to sail, the time-honored, traditional way. It’s the least I can do.
Do you want to learn to sail in Seattle? Some of these resources can get you out on the water!

  • Seattle Singles Yacht Club offers free lessons.
  • Puget Sound Cruising Club has great presentations on sailing to exotic destinations. (I’m jaded, since I was once one of the speakers)
  • Seattle Women’s Sailing Association used to welcome guys, but I’ve heard they’re not so friendly any more. Still, you might check out one of their meetings, just to see what you can learn and who you can meet with a boat. Look in 48 North for their meeting announcement.
  • If you’re not a reader of 48 North, pick up a free copy at any boating store and check out the Crew Wanted listings in the back.
  • Cascadia is a virtual e-mail club, but if you join, you’ll probably find some friendly folks who need crew.

Making the best of a 4-hour commute

When I take the commuter bus to Seattle from Stanwood, I literally catch it at the end of the line. It is the longest bus route; anything longer would require Greyhound. And the stop I use is at the most desolate, isolated, lonely park-and-ride lot I have ever seen.

Waiting for the bus in December and January was cold, damp, dark, and surreal. A single streetlight did little to dispel the gloom, and across the road, there was only a bleak, empty farmer’s field.

At 6:25 am, I huddled at the bus shelter, my teeth chattering from the unstoppable wind. I wished I had a car to wait in, like that other lady. She was sitting in the driver’s seat, using the rear-view mirror to apply her makeup.

When she got out and joined me, she was friendly and chatty.

“I hope the river doesn’t flood today!” she said, cheerfully.

On the other side of the bleak farm field was the Stillaguamish river, known locally as the Stilly. I knew there was a flood watch in effect, but I didn’t realize it applied to the bus stop.

“At least, I hope I don’t come back and find my car under water,” she added.

I’d originally been a bit jealous when I noticed her sitting in her warm, toasty car. But now I felt a bit smug — after all, my car was safely back at home with Barry. I’d heard that cars at this lot were often broken into, but I didn’t realize they might flood as well. I began to wonder about this woman, whose choice to ride the bus meant not only hassle, but serious risk to her personal property.

I saw her whenever I rode the bus, and each time, I became a little less reticent. Her presence made the bus stop seem less surreal. We’d have a brief conversation, but when the bus came, I went to the back. As the first person aboard, she always sat in the front row.

I took about a month off, and when I returned to the bus stop, the days had lengthened. It was light enough that I could actually see her, a middle-aged lady, nicely dressed in a leather coat and low-heeled pumps.

“Hello!” she said. “You haven’t been riding the bus lately.”

I was surprised that she remembered me. “We went down to stay in Seattle for a bit,” I admitted, “and next week, we’re going to start house-sitting in Fremont for nine weeks. I can’t wait to live in town again, in the Center of the Universe. This commute is awful, and I only do it one day a week.” I smiled at her, sympathetically. I was fairly certain she did the grueling bus ride five days a week.

“Oh, I know what you mean,” she replied. “I used to live in Greenwood, and I really loved it, being right in town, where you can get to everything.”

I wondered, out loud, how she ended up out here at the end of the bus line.

“We were raising kids, you know, and so we moved to Mill Creek.”

It made sense, a logical step. I could imagine a couple living in Seattle with a couple of kids. They might have concerns about city schools, might want a bigger house. So they’d move to the suburbs, to a place where you can get a big new house on a big lot for not very much money. Mill Creek is like that, with reasonably good schools and lots of conveniences, if you don’t mind driving everywhere. To me, it’s sub-urban, but a lot of people like that kind of lifestyle.

“After we were about done with the kids, my in-laws offered us their place on Camano Island,” she continued. “They said we could have it for pretty much what they paid for it, 25 years ago.”

It sounded like too good a deal to pass up. Except that it had another price.

“My mother-in-law loves the place. She hated to leave it, and she wanted to write something into the contract to say that if we ever sold it, they would have first rights to buy it back at the price we paid them for it.” She laughed. “My friend, who’s a lawyer, told her that was ridiculous, that once they sold the house, they couldn’t say what was to be done with it.”

Perhaps, from a legal perspective, that’s true. But not from a family perspective.

Moving into her mother-in-law’s dream home was a trap. She never said so outright, but I could tell. To sell the home would be unthinkable; they don’t dare upset the family: As long as her in-laws are alive, she cannot move. She’s stuck, indefinitely, living on Camano Island, over 60 miles from the city where she’d like to be.

As other people board the bus, I look at their faces. The daily commute of over four hours makes many of them look like zombies. How many do it because they want a good-paying job, lots of money and nice things? Or is the story more complex? Perhaps, like the lady at my bus stop, the reason involves other people’s lives and feelings.

She saves the seat beside her for a friend, and the two of them catch up on the day’s news before turning to their respective magazines. She’s always smiling, always cheerful. Starting at the end of the bus line, she has the longest commute, but she doesn’t look like a zombie. That’s what comes of making the best of it.