It’s a good thing that ORP is out in the middle of the boonies, because it means that a group of 20 solo drivers like us can descend on the track on a Monday/Tuesday in April and have the place to ourselves. What a playground for a whole bunch of Porsches, my M2C, a Honda S2000, and an Audi R8 race car.
If this place was any closer to a big city, it’d be a whole different scene: every day would be busy, and the best you’d get is a day with a high-performance driving organization, with timed sessions and just a hell of a lot more structure. As it was, we had the whole day to ourselves: Want to run 40 minutes? Do it. Need a break after 8 laps because you put two wheels off exiting turn 3? Take 5 minutes and get back on. Organizer John Kleven (co-owner of Metropolitan Detail) said it and I know now it’s true: once you’ve had an open track day, you’ll never want to do it any other way. Sounds like pretty much everything else in performance driving: get a taste of that next level, and you never want to go back. It’s a good thing I didn’t take a ride in one of the many Porsches in our group: I would have had a hankering for a faster car.
I hope my impressions of the experience at ORP are useful; they’re just my perspective, nothing comprehensive. I wish I had taken more pictures (you can see the whole album here if you can tolerate it) and I wish my one lap video didn’t have so much vibration, so I’ll mostly use my words. Take it for what it’s worth.
If you’re at all like me, you use the days before a track day—especially a track day at a new track, as this was for me—to gather intel. I look at track maps (it’s amazing how different they can be, depending on the style and whether they show you the driving line or not), read “track notes” from other drivers (Paul Blake did one in a recent AVANTS magazine that was super helpful), and watch as many track videos as I can. My favorite from ORP was this guy running 1:54 laps in his damned Alfa Stelvio SUV! I didn’t realize how fast that really was until I got down to the track and say that many of us never did break the 2:00 barrier (with some notable exceptions, of course).
It’s silly that I cram my head so full of this stuff before getting on the track, because the longer I do this the more I realize I just need to get on the track! I love a track walk when I can get it (I did this time, as you can see), but mostly I just need the seat time to feel the track inside and out.
Only on the track can I really start to understand the turning and braking points; before that, they’re just so much clutter in my mind. Following faster drivers is super helpful, and I got to do this a lot at ORP, since there were a combination of monster cars and monster drivers making it interesting. Even if I only kept up for a turn or two, I learned something. It’s going to be great when this COVID thing passes and we can start getting instructors and even fellow drivers back in the cars with us, as there’s nothing like having someone in the passenger seat note the things you can’t figure out.
Another thing that made this track trip so cool—hell, it’s the second best part of track driving—was the brotherhood of car guys. If you are under the misguided impression that the kind of guys who can take their expensive cars off to the track on weekdays must be a bunch of arrogant assholes, you couldn’t be more wrong. Think of it this way: this is a group of people (it’s mostly guys, true, but not solely) who found something they love to do and are doing it with as joy and enthusiasm, happily sharing it with the like-minded, regardless of the price tag on the window sticker. Most of us got hooked into this group because of someone we’d met at another event (thanks Doug, Adam). There’s no arrogance, just humility, as we dissect our laps between sessions: we all know we could go faster.
Back to the track itself: ORP is a technical track, with 16 turns across 2.3 miles. I don’t think there’s a true flat spot on the track—you’re always rising or falling, which creates blind hills and blind corners all over the course. This technical quality made day one on the track a real challenge for me as we started lapping: I’d come into a corner and not know where the hell I was! For the better part of the first morning, I couldn’t tell turn 11 from turn 14. So I learned it bit by bit, all morning long: I’d figured out how to string three turns together, then add another two, then be lost again. Eventually, just before lunch, I started to feel the flow, to feel like I could drive continuously and confidently around the entire track. It’s then that I start to experience the deep joy of driving.
Day two felt so different. In theory, it should have felt like a new track again: after all, we were going in the opposite direction, counter-clockwise, so the line was very different even if the asphalt was the same. But I found day two much more enjoyable. Perhaps I had cleared the “new track jitters,” perhaps I had internalized the track map just a bit, but I got into the flow state much earlier and just found that I enjoyed CCW a hell of a lot more.
I don’t think you can fully appreciate how special ORP is without mentioning the people there and the location. Bill Murray, the general manager, leads the morning track talk, gives the “track tour,” and hangs out to cook and offer advice all day long. He knows this track like the back of his hand; hell, he helped design it. You can tell from his track stories that he’s told them a few times, but put him in the car with you and it’s all thoughtful attention, tailored to your experience. Bill serves the lunch and then he comes around and clears your plate and it might be that my delight in being there clouds my vision, but I suspect this guy just really loves his job, loves being out at this track, with the wind blowing and his faithful dog at his side. I should have asked him.
The whole crew at the track is on the vibe: Brenda’s just as cool as can be, coming out to fill your tank from the big white gas tank that sits off on a trailer, noting down your name so you can settle up later. I listened in to the turn workers when I took a radio out to the tower at turn 8 to take photos: they delighted in the roar of these fast Porsches coming through, noting all the different types of wings. They seemed to be having as much fun as we were. And why not? They’re out in this beautiful countryside, with 100-mile views in every direction, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood peaking out to the northwest and west, the vastness of eastern Oregon stretching the other way. ORP’s a pretty damned special place.
I used to think the point of a road trip was pretty well summed up by Jerry Reed in “East Bound and Down”:
“There’s a long way to go and a short time to get there …”
Even if I started a trip thinking we could take our time, at some point the urge to make time grabbed me and we’d keep driving, stopping only to eat and pee, driving sometimes through the night. That feeling—push on, don’t stop—fueled most of the road trips I’ve ever taken, including multiple road trips across the United States, Michigan to Washington, including a memorable 1000-mile final push that ended with me hallucinating in the Palouse and lumps of dried cat shit in our bed. That same feeling pushed us to leave Peggy and Joe’s in Gaithersburg, Maryland, at 9 PM on a cold November night, determined to make a mad dash back to West Lafayette, Indiana, before our infant son woke up. (It didn’t work.)
But this time was different … or should I say, this time “time” was different. There was no deadline: no new job that started next week, no cold front to drive through, no track day to get to, no sleeping kid threatening to wake. Just a few days before the start of the trip, I’d left my job of 14 years and the whole world lay wide open before me. What better time to hop into our super-comfy Volvo V90 Cross Country and set out on an open-ended road trip across the American West with just one agreed-upon resting point: Albuquerque, New Mexico?
This is the story of a road trip, told in 3 parts: one about the car, one about the drive (both parts in this blog post), and one about the great big hole opening up in my mind along the way (that’s coming soon).
We call the car “Rootbeer Float.” That’s the name Sara gave the car shortly after we bought it in the summer of 2017 and for obvious reasons: the car is a lovely chocolate brown on the outside (Volvo calls it Maple Brown Metallic), but open the doors and you just drink in the sumptuous creamy foam of the leather, all over the dash, the doors, the seats, all the way back. Rootbeer Float it is.
Sara chose the name for the car, but the car kind of chose her. Our car shopping started that year because we’d made a decision to change out our car mix, to just acknowledge the fact that Tom was going to be driving a coupe, so that meant Sara needed something bigger. We started out shopping for an SUV, and we ran through drives in the Jaguar F-Pace, a couple Land Rovers, and both the Acura MDX and RDX, but none of these swept Sara off her feet. And then I suggested we take a look at Volvos. When we walked in to Sandberg Volvo in Lynnwood, Sara walked right past the XC60s and XC90s sitting outside and went straight up to the long brown V90 Cross Country that sat in the showroom. We didn’t even have to drive it to know that this was the car, but we did drive it and she loved it. I liked it too, but I had a thing for the Volvo “Bursting Blue” color and I said to Sara, “I love the car, but we should order the blue one and wait for it.” She pulled me aside and said, “We’ll use the fact that this isn’t our first choice color to bring down the price,” and sure enough she did.
I’m not going to rave about the driving dynamics of the car, at least the way I typically think of driving dynamics, spoiled by my M2. I find the tip-in too abrupt—ask for a little oomph and suddenly you get it all—and the engine sound is just meh. It’s a soft ride, so there’s too much roll and you learn not to attack corners but rather to ease into them. But there’s another kind of driving dynamics that the Volvo excels at and that’s just the experience of sitting in the car, being in the car. The 400-way adjustable seats are incredibly comfortable and supple, and that’s before you turn on the massage feature. The full-length sunroof bathes the car in light, and you can filter it with the shade if it’s too much. But you want the light, the better to showcase what may be the most beautiful interior and dashboard I’ve ever seen in a car, with the real wood panels and the luscious creamy leather. Driving in Rootbeer Float is just a different kind of car experience.
I liked Rootbeer Float before the road trip, but after 5,000 miles in it, I think I’m ready to say I love the car. All the things that make it comfortable on short trips just grow in importance when you’re spending hour upon hour in the car for days on end. The comfort, the quiet, the supple ride … yeah, let’s go. We spent most of our time about 10 MPH over the speed limit (sometimes more, as you can see in the photo below), which meant we were doing 75 or more much of the trip, sometimes cruising along at 90, and we returned 28.4 MPG for the whole trip. Not bad for a big wagon.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, though, as we blew out a tire 40 miles north of Rock Springs, Wyoming, but even this lone glitch was totally my fault. When we left Rock Springs in the early morning, the temperature was in the low 20s, and we got a warning that said we had low pressure in the left rear tire. This was just the car overreacting to the temperature swing, I reasoned, as it had several times before. So we ignored the warning and kept going, and didn’t think of it again until 40 miles later—40 miles driving straight north into the vast high desert—when it suddenly sounded like there was a helicopter flying overhead. Whap, whap, whap, whap, whap. I looked ahead, as a big truck was coming in the other direction, and thought it must be the truck, but then he passed by and the sound didn’t stop—whap, whap, whap—and then it dawned on me, we had a flat tire.
I pulled off into the drive of a ranch road and hopped out and saw to my intense shame that I had shredded the tire: it was in tatters, nearly wholly ripped off the rim. Whenever I saw other people along the road with a tire in that condition, I thought and generally remarked: “Fucking idiot.” Who would be so dumb to drive so far on a flat tire? Didn’t they know you should pull off right away and not risk damaging your rim or, hell, losing control of the car? So here I was, a fucking idiot, standing alongside the road 40 miles from nowhere, unloading all the gear in the trunk so that I could get at the space saver tire, Sara all the while calling tire stores to find out if anyone had tires that would fit the car.
It really wasn’t that bad from there though: in the 20 minutes it took me to change out the tire, 4 people stopped to offer help. The first two were cowboys in a big-ass pickup, coming out the ranch road. They pulled up and the passenger gave me a big grin and asked if I needed anything. I said I thought I had it figured out, but I knew I looked like a damned fool with a tire shredded like that. “You said it, not me,” he laughed. Two minutes later a young guy stopped over and he too was fully willing to help out, but by then it was pretty clear I was in good shape. I asked him which was the closest place to find tire repair and he said it was either 60 miles north or turn around and go back south to Rock Springs, which would be the better bet. That’s what we did and we had the pleasure of landing at a Les Schwab where, within the hour, they had slapped on four brand new Continental LX25s and had us on our way. The thousand dollar tab didn’t even hurt, as we were getting to the end of life for the tires that were on the car, OEMs from when we bought it new. Hell, the tires were quieter and smoother than before—it was an upgrade! When life gives you lemons, you stop in at Les Schwab for lemonade.
There is a fairly direct path between Seattle and Albuquerque, if you don’t mind sticking to the Interstates most of the way. It’s a 1,444 mile journey, something you could easily knock off in 2 days, maybe even one day if you’re young and hungry and don’t mind ending your day jacked on caffeine. But we aren’t young, we wanted to avoid Interstates, and the only thing we were hungry for was novelty—the novelty of new roads, new sights. After a year of being confined to our house in Snohomish, we were ready for a little adventure. So we chose to lengthen our trip by half each way, choosing two different routes that ended up being right around 2,100 miles each, and because our goal was to also get out for 4-6 miles of walking and exploring each day, that meant we gave ourselves breathing room: 5 days/4 nights.
The conventional way to describe to you our route would be to use road names and numbers and to tell you which direction we went and which towns we went through. Screw that. I want you to narrow your eyes—to squint, try it with me—so you don’t see the details too clearly, and then pretend that you are going on a roller coaster ride across 2100 miles of the American West, with the entire trip compressed into 3 minutes of fun. Ready?
We start out—clickety clack, rackety rackety—up the long climb on-90, east over Snoqualmie Pass, boring, ho-hum, done it a million times (except for the quick trip into Owen’s Custom Meats in Cle Elum to stock up on landjaeger and jerky, because damn, I left them in the bread box). This is the long, slow climb up to the top of the first hill on the massive roller coaster we’re on, and it takes forever but we reach the top just east of Ellensburg, where we get off 90 and then start the long, swerving, dipping slide down the far lower flanks of first the Cascades, then the Sierra Nevadas.
For 3 whole days—but remember, it’s passing in a blur—we barrel up and down across rippling sage colored landscape, up and down the swells of this massive wave of land—Goldendale, the Gorge, narrow canyons opening out into vast plains, the world closing in with forest then boom, just around the bend, widening to an incredible vastness as we come up over a rise and the land falls away, taking our stomachs with it, a flat, nearly white lake in the distance promising water that may just be salt, with some unnamed range beckoning a hundred miles distant. Scale and perspective are all blown out; the world is huge. The ride slows in Bend for a burger and a beer, outside in the cold, then blows wide open as we turn left into morning in the “Oregon Outback,” emptied of people, sometimes thick with trees, sometimes blown free of anything but scrub. We rise again, hardly noticing the climb but for the growing presence of snow around us until we find ourselves impossibly high over Mono Lake, then we wind down, down into a land that grows ever more arid, arid enough to hold an internment camp, testament to our shame, so arid that finally we dive right down to the bottom of Death Valley, and it’s only there that we shake free from the grip of this massive upthrust range and set out across the wide, regular swells of Basin-and-Range Nevada.
Our roller coaster ride had a little transition here: we popped up out of Death Valley for BBQ in Beatty, Nevada, and here was a decision point: turn right for the well-traveled road leading to Vegas, or turn left, north, to spend the night at the Shady Lady, a former brothel exactly one-third of the way to nowhere, backtracking to set ourselves up for the fun house ride across Nevada. You know which one we chose.
Our ride got weird here. No more dipping, rising, plunging vastness; to cross central Nevada is to be in a trance. We gassed up in Tonopah, knowing it was our last chance for a while, then we entered the twilight zone. We’d glide across these long straightaways that stretch ALL THE WAY to the horizon, and just when you think you’ll never turn again, that you’ll just keep driving straight into the endless dry distance, you jog left, then right, wriggling up across the slight rise that defines the range, thinking maybe there’d be something new beyond but no, just another long straightaway, A sign warned of low-flying aircraft, then sure enough, a fighter jet marked his highway crossing on one rootbeer brown Volvo: WHOOOOOSSSSHHH, and the car shuddered, briefly, side to side. 9 times we cross the basins: 9 times we wriggle up then down, then straight, straight, long enough to muse about what would happen if we broke down out here, 50 miles since we’d seen another car, and then, just as we’re getting a little worried, we drop down into Caliente, gassing up again, prematurely maybe (there’s still a third a tank) but it feels right, before entering a new land, scrub pines and the start of red rock country.
The dream, the roller coaster ride, stopped there, at least for me, and became a drive again. The land tightened up as we came into Utah: there were still huge open spaces and vistas, but the features changed more rapidly as we twisted and turned south of Zion and up through Coral Pink Dunes to Kanab. We planned a morning hike in a box canyon nearby, but the morning surprise—2 inches of fresh snow everywhere—kicked us into gear: time to get to Albuquerque. With a promise of “mixed” weather all day, we scooted out, dark brooding clouds and spitting snow chasing us across northeast Arizona—Kayenta, Many Farms, Window Rock—before we dropped down, plop, onto I-40 heading east out of Gallup, poor Sara taking the wheel for the freeway driving, full of semis, as a dust-storm blew us into Albuquerque. As we took the familiar exit onto Rio Grande Blvd. we looked at the dusty brown squalor of the city and wondered, what the hell did we ever see in this place? When we woke to blue skies over the Sandias, we remembered.
The return trip was just as good … but let’s save that story for another time.
Part 3 of this “story” is also Part 3 of my earlier series I’ve called “The Attention Experiment,” so I’ve broken it into a separate blog post. Check back soon for that one.
Seventeen years ago, Sara and I decided to repaint our house, an old farmhouse originally built in 1904, dramatically transformed in 1934 after a fire gutted half of the original, but still a classic, simple structure. (I’ve included a picture of how it looks today.)
Being the detail freak perfectionist weirdos that we are, we decided 1) that we’d do it ourselves and 2) that we’d do it right. Of course the only way to ensure a good coat of paint was to remove all the paint presently on the house, and thus to correct some of the bubbling and flaking that we knew was a result of poor prep work however many years earlier. We started with some garden-variety scraping—and quickly found that the light green top layer covered up multiple layers underneath. We had to get to the bottom of it, and so we embarked on a journey to remove all the paint from the cedar siding, determined to get down to the bare wood below. We scraped; we used heat guns; we used a belt sander; and finally when none of these proved adequate to the task we bought a $400 paint grinder and ground the paint off the house. By the end of what became a two-year odyssey (we quickly realized in year one that we’d never do it all before the rains came), I swore that I’d never, ever paint my own house again.
It occurs to me now, two weeks into what I’ve called my attention experiment, that there are going to be many layers to get through as I reorient how and what I pay attention to, and in reorienting thus change who I am and what I do. Because what I realize as I scrape away my first layer of attention is that this whole problem of attention is much more complicated, much more intertwined with my identity, than I ever expected. There’s a lot of layers of paint, and I’m looking to get down to the bare wood.
Maybe this first layer that I scraped away—the layer that consists of newsletter subscriptions, social media follows, etc. that I described in an earlier post—is like the green paint atop our house when we started: just a topcoat, hiding many layers beneath. Maybe it’s like the brittle, thin outer skin of an onion: easily removed, almost ephemeral, and hardly indicative of the thick, juicy, flavorful stuff that lies within.
For me, getting rid of that first layer of attentional noise was easy and, bam, instantly liberating. In an instant, I was no longer hip-deep in cybersecurity and privacy news on LinkedIn, with its inevitable share of loudmouths and narcissists among all the good folks. Right away, I could stop paying hours of daily attention to the “breaking news” I had deemed so important. All I had to decide was that it wasn’t important to me. The world, these worlds, didn’t need me to pay attention, and so I didn’t.
Perhaps too it was easy to shuck off these first layers because I immediately set off on a 2,000-mile road trip across the West, taking a path that ensured that for good parts of the journey, I had no internet access at all. I couldn’t have paid attention to the digital world if I wanted to. The rhythm of my days changed too, with new sights unfurling in front of me constantly.
So, removing that first layer was easy and delightful—I felt freed of noise, able to pay more attention to my present moments. And yet subtly, little by little, I became aware that there were some deeper currents to my old self, to “work Tom,” that I would need to scrape away, to get beneath and discard.
Somewhere south of Mono Lake, as we started the long descent that would eventually put us at sea level on the floor of Death Valley, I recognized that next layer that I’d have to scrape off if I really wanted to pay attention to the world differently. I put it to Sara like this: “I’ve built up some armor plating over the years and I think I may just not need it any more.” As this came out of the blue, she looked at me quizzically. “For years,” I explained, “I’ve been driving myself with this imperative to always be on top of the latest news in my industry, because I never wanted to be caught not knowing something. But that’s just one manifestation of this deeper push, push, push that always been part of my professional life. It’s what made me successful, but if I’m going to really step back from what’s driven me for the last 10 years of my career at least, I think I’m going to have to let it go.” We talked about whether “armor” was the right term for this “disposition,” this deep attitude or underlying drive that lay beneath the mere things that I paid attention to.
I compared my mental armor to the plating that you put on an icebreaker, so that the icebreaker can push through a frozen sea, breaking through and pushing aside the resistance of the ice. Yeah, we agreed, armor was the right term. But now it felt like this was armor I didn’t need, added weight. If I didn’t foresee any ice ahead, why not see what it was like to ply the seas without it?
This is all a way of saying, it’s not just what I pay attention to that shapes who I am, but it’s also why I pay attention to it, and especially the deep “whys” that drive my choices, consciously and unconsciously. I’m paying attention to those deeper drivers of my attention now—even as I’m already basking in the greater receptivity and calmness that accompanies my distance from the hum of the hyperactive hive mind.
I’m trying to answer this question: how do I regain control of what I pay attention to?
It’s not a “digital detox,” where I swear off all things electronic for a month or a year. I’m not moving to Opt Out Village. I like my digital interactions too much for that.
Instead, it’s a recognition that I’ve slowly and incrementally developed a dissatisfying if not unhealthy relationship to big parts of the digital world–that is, the world I experience via the internet, it all its forms. I want to reinvent and reimagine what I pay attention to in this world. I want to pull back, soften my focus, and see what I’ve been missing.
Why now? Because my break from my longtime workplace provides me with a great opportunity: all the communications and connections that came to me via “email@example.com” are now gone! Whoopee! I don’t have to pay attention to all things cybersecurity and privacy because of my job, and I get to step away from the “hyperactive hive mind” that is the contemporary workplace (see Cal Newport’s A World Without Email on this topic).
But why stop at merely trimming away the attention I pay to the obligatory work world? Why not see how much else I can pare away and discard?
So I’m going to see if I can step way back, disentangling myself from the constraints and commitments that I’ve made in the past, discovering what a new informational landscape might look like, teaching the algorithms to know a different side of me.
I’m going to unfollow and unsubscribe from everything that doesn’t brighten my day–on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, my inbox.
There’s exciting news as MediaPRO becomes part of the KnowBe4 family. What a kick to see so many of my friends and colleagues joining on with this clear industry leader …
But not me. It’s time for me to get off the bus and set off in a different direction! I’m going to start by throwing all the privacy and security balls I’ve been juggling high into the air; I’ll watch them float down and decide which ones look interesting enough to catch. I’ll sure I’ll be writing in the days ahead–about track driving, hiking, birds, who knows–and I’m likely to get back to privacy and data protection soon enough. If you’ve got a story to share about how you’ve navigated life’s adventures, drop me a line.
I wouldn’t call myself a “fair weather hiker.” Not only would it imply some flaw in my character but it’s just not true: I hike in every month of the year, and I’ll take off for the mountains in nearly any condition. But I prefer sunshine. For me, hiking is all about digging beauty … and let’s face it, it’s prettier in the sunshine. (And, it’s kind of hard to dig beauty when you’re cold and wet and your glasses are fogged up and you can’t see a goddamned thing!)
Truth is, I’m pretty much committed to getting outside every day, and to at least starting out for a hike no matter what (though if I can delay by a day to grab sunshine, I’ll do it). Honestly, if you put off hikes on the chance of bad weather in the Pacific Northwest, you won’t hike much. Besides, the weather changes around here so rapidly that you never know that what you’ve got at home is what you’ll have at the trailhead, let alone a few thousand feet higher. So a lot of times, I’ll go out anyway, taking a chance for the big payoff that comes when you start in the murk, in a raincoat, and maybe slog through the morning mist for miles, or drive two hours in the fog, like we did getting up to White Chuck just this last year.
Sometimes you start in the murk and never escape it, and hey, you get some nice exercise in a cloud. It’s not like there’s really a bad day in the mountains.
But sometimes the world just transforms as you rise, the clouds shifting and thinning as you switchback up, patches of blue materializing overhead, and you realize you’re right at the top of the cloud deck as it floats and weaves around you–like you’ve been underwater and now you’re coming to the surface of a wavy sea. And then, suddenly, you’re above it all, and it’s just blue above and the nearby summits rise out of the cloudy sea.
It’s days like this that convince me to keep trying, just to keep heading out, taking the chance that today is the day for the big payoff, when you climb out of the clouds and look across a pillowy white sea. My favorite “popping out” days happened not on the big boys—Baker and Rainier—but rather on Dickerman with Sara; on Bald Mountain with Alex; and then just this last fall, with John, Sam, and Louisa on White Chuck. The pictures will tell the story better than words.
Oddly enough, there’s an odd parallel to my daily practice of reading, for there too the regular practice sometimes leads to an outsize payoff.
Most days it’s pretty conventional, but every now and then I go running off on a wild goose chase that feels like I’ve stepped into a different world. Just last week, for example, I chased down a reference from Austin Kleon that led me to Alan Jacob’s quirky blog (specifically, one titled “A Newsletter of Newsletters”) and from there I went careening off off into wilds of the web, running into Robin Rendle, Paul Kedrosky, Lauren O’Connell, … man, I don’t know how I started or which led to which, but it was an adventure that just lit me up!
When Sara came down the stairs around 6:30, I was giddy, grinning from ear to ear.
“You look happy,” said Sara.
“Honey, I feel like my head has exploded!,” I replied. I felt like I was riding a big wild wave of variety and quirkiness that had rolled in off the free, wild Internet that’s still out there when I venture off my beaten path.
This post is akin to my “Christmas letter” and it’s primarily intended for friends and family.
The year began normally enough, with business travel. Two trips to San Francisco for work conferences and then four days of product management training in Salt Lake City. I felt like I was off to a roaring start, but Sara traveled more, back and forth to Atlanta and other cities for her consulting business. Work was an endless hurtle forward.
And then, at the tail end of February, we had a brief joyful jaunt to Sedona, Arizona, where the only cloud on the horizon was the specter of this odd virus that seemed to be spreading around the world, starting in the U.S. at a nursing home not far from my work. I recall the slight pall of paranoia that clouded the plane as we returned home from Phoenix: lots of empty seats; I coughed and drew an accusatory stare from the couple across the aisle.
But in a matter of days, it got all too real: Back at work on March 4, we (the executive team) advised employees who felt nervous about coming to work to feel free to work from home, then just two days later, on March 6, we followed the lead of the big tech companies nearby (Amazon, Microsoft, others) and “strongly encouraged” all employees to start working from home. And with that, 2020 really began.
I think of March 6 as the day that divides my old life from my new life, because I’ve not been back to the office since. The old life looked like this: chase work all week, don’t slow down, regroup on Friday night, and have fun until it all starts again on Monday.
Ah, but this new life! No more commute, comfy clothes constantly, and there’s my lovely wife every day and we can go for walks to Vetucchio and make meals and sit by the fire at night. Time seemed to slow right down, and suddenly I began paying attention to things that had rushed by before: birds singing in the trees, bread to bake, a lawn to mow, music to listen to. In the 2020 that started in March, someone turned down the volume and turned up all the colors.
I first recognized that 2020 was rewiring my brain as I mowed my lawn with my new battery-powered mower. Without the noise and exhaust fumes, lawn mowing became a banquet of sensory delights: the smell of the grass, the sound of birds singing, the patterns of straight lines I drew across our newly-seeded lawn, the smell of the lavender. I mowed in a goofy meditative trance, pausing to wave to neighbors walking by, moving slowly, slowly, because I wanted straight lines and because mowing had become a way of expressing love for this home where I was now spending so much time. Why rush through something that brings so much pleasure?
It wasn’t the logic of slowing down that caused our remodel to linger so long into 2020. We started this remodel* on June 14 of 2019 but a hiccup here and there–earth to be moved, walls to be painted–pushed the last steps so late into the year that they just had to wait till spring, but then spring came and the ‘rona kept all contractors from finishing their work, so completion dragged on into the middle of the summer and it wasn’t until September that we finally put the finishing touches on with the front porch mosaic project. (In truth, we may have intimidated ourselves a little bit with the complexity we had designed in–there are 503 pieces of slate tile involved, and I had to cut every one of them–but it truly is the crowning touch on the project.) In the midst of this long project, I (finally) realized that when it comes to matters of aesthetics and design, I should just shut the hell up and let Sara call the shots, because her eye for design just knocks my socks off. When I mow the lawn and trim the lavender, it’s just me doing my part to celebrate Sara’s wonderful vision for this place.
*Note the term “this remodel,” because this was the third major remodel we have undertaken on this house since we bought it in 1998 and it’s intended to be the last, not counting minor stuff that we’ll never stop doing. We determined that with this remodel, we’d have completed the house in a form that we could then live in forever. Forever! Ha!
Three months into the pandemic, it felt a bit like the walls were closing in, so we planned an escape down to an AirBnB on the Washington side of the river in the Columbia Gorge. What an escape it was: this big airy house had a wall of windows that looked south to Mt. Hood, and it sat alone on the edge of an orchard. The kids came down too and we relished the new sights and the chance to pretend for just a little while that we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic.
A couple months later, Sara and I escaped on our own, celebrating 30 years of marriage at an AirBNB out near Sequim, where we spent four days biking, hiking, eating–but mostly just digging each other’s company. It feels like we’ve got this whole loving each other thing pretty well dialed in.
It’s not like I discovered my need for speed this year, but I sure as hell indulged it. I got my new car—my first real sports car—in mid 2019, but other than a few autocross days I didn’t really lean in on what it could do until this summer. The moment the BMW CCA offered a track day at Pacific Raceways, I jumped at the chance to get my M2 out on the track. I had flogged other people’s cars on a track before but never my own, so I eased into it slowly, adding speed here, more brakes there, slowly, incrementally finding the limits–and finding them well beyond my own capacity. It was up to me to build the skill and the courage to go faster, and this became the immensely rewarding mental challenge of the summer and early fall. I did several more track days, burning through a set of tires and pushing my OEM brake pads well past their limits. I started making plans for some 2021 modifications–R-rated tires and track pads–that would allow me to go even faster … but then this opportunity came up. For a guy who had been reading about tracks all his life, the chance to drive my car at Laguna Seca was simply too good to pass up, so I accelerated my planned modifications and hauled my ass down I5 to Monterey to see what I could do. I wrote about this quite a bit, so if you’re a car nut, check out those links above.
After a couple years of pretty avid running, I hit a bit of a snag in 2019 when I ripped the muscles in my lower abdomen. After trying multiple courses of PT and steroid injection, I hit the summer of 2020 resigned to the fact that I’d likely need surgery to fix the issue—but I said to my doc, let me just get through the summer hiking season (as hiking didn’t seem to exacerbate the tear very much) and then maybe we could address the issue in the fall or winter. Well holy shit, it’s like I opened the door on the best hiking season ever! For a bunch of reasons—the injury, craving variety, wanting to hike where we wouldn’t run into a bunch of people so we wouldn’t have to play this stupid pandemic theater mime-show of “oh yeah, I’m wearing a mask even though I’m out in the wilderness”—I summited a bunch of new mountains and that was just a blast. Among the highlights: Alta Mountain with Jeff Morgenroth; turning around just short of the summit Hibox Mountain with Louisa, and then nearly getting lost in the woods, great learning experiences both; Silver Mountain with Julien Duplant; White Chuck with Louisa, Sam, and John Tucker, which was by far the most scenic hike of the year; and an anniversary vacation hike to Mt. Baldy with Sara where we never saw another soul the entire time (this never happens, never). On Baldy, realizing that we had the place to ourselves, I stripped bare-ass naked just to feel the air on my skin. I’ll spare you the pictures.
Conrad and Abbie moved in together on July 18 to a terrific spot overlooking the city, and they are already remaking the place in their tasteful image. It sure is nice to see him so happy with his delightful girlfriend. And he also got a new job at AWS. Good job son.
Sam and Lou got a puppy: Grover P. Underfoot. In their characteristic way, they carefully planned how they would train him and it worked: our grand-puppy is a delight. Lou is mid-way through her PhD, tending her kidney cells in the lab, and she also got a new part-time gig working as an analyst for a biotech VC firm in Seattle. And Sam is living his dream as a firefighter for the City of Tacoma.
Late in the year, Sara took the pedal off the gas on her consulting work and started painting more. Her paintings dry on a rail in my office, which is awesome for me, her biggest fan.
That’s what this year felt like to me. How was it for you?
I’m no fan of this pandemic but without it, there would be no Vetucchio. There would be no magical land of early morning fog, no kaleidoscope of birds, no month-long daily binge on blackberries, no daily escape from the routine to this wonderful landscape just down the street from my house.
Let me clear with you: Vetucchio didn’t exist before the pandemic … or at least it didn’t exist as Vetucchio. It’s not that it wasn’t there. Hell, I had even been there–it’s just that I rarely paid much attention to it. I’ve lived in my house since 1998. Once, when the kids were young, we walked across the old treatment ponds during a dry summer, as if it was just a field of tall grass. In fact, it was the location of years worth of “unscreened biosolids” that had been deposited in the lagoon from approximately 1958 to 1995, years in which this site had been used as the city’s very old-school wastewater treatment facility. We walked all the way across to the cement spillway, the overflow point that allowed raw sewage to drain out into the Snohomish River if the waters got too high.
Then the city was forced to shut it down and pump their effluence west to Everett, after the first stage of treatment had been completed in the newly built treatment facility. Local birdwatchers started to patrol the periphery, and eventually convinced the city to support making all the area around the treatment ponds into a wildlife refuge with walking trails. Their master plan, submitted to the city in 2013, called for the creation of the Riverview Wildlife Refuge, and the signs you see pictured here date to 2014.
You would have thought that the designation as a wildlife refuge would have caught my attention. My friend Bill Fulton, who was part of the committee that pushed for the refuge, told me how much he liked walking there, and the access points, both of them, were literally just down the street from my house. And yet, we rarely if ever walked there. Sara and I had our 4-mile loop, our 3-mile loop that cut across the back of Freshman Campus, hell, I think we even had the walk we now call Pilchuck Flats. But the refuge never captured our interest. I always viewed it as a kind of marginal re-use of city land, blighted by the proximity of the city yard, the Highway 9 bridge passing overhead, the treatment plant. For more than 20 years, I walked my town nearly daily, and yet I was virtually a stranger to this location.
I can’t pinpoint the day I discovered Vetucchio, but I can triangulate it within a set of conditions that came into existence somewhere between March 7–when MediaPRO employees were directed to start working from home—and my first photographs of Sara and I walking toward Vetucchio on May 7.
It was this peculiar mix of conditions that created Vetucchio: conditions that opened my eyes and my mind to seeing the world in new ways. The first month or so of the pandemic shutdown was what I call the “walking days,” days when suddenly the streets were filled with walkers: middle aged couples, families, teenagers, all strolling out in the spring sunshine in the middle of the day, often in the middle of the street. The pandemic was young and new to all of us; there were no masks. It was a big adventure and we all smiled and said hello. Sigh!
I can’t pinpoint the day, but I can pinpoint the moment—the moment my mind opened to seeing the world differently, to slowing down and digging the beauty that was in front of me, instead of being distracted and sucked along in the vortex/slipstream of work and email and meetings, the combined energy of a group of people working toward a common objective, an objective that had once mattered a lot to me but now, well, not as much.
First, there was the pandemic. It sent us all home, wiping out in one fell swoop not just the vast time suck that was the commute and its associated preparations—showering, eating—but also the bounded time of “office hours,” even those as flexible as mine. Suddenly you could start and end work whenever, and that meant you could also find holes in your day when, if you looked outside and the sun was shining, you could dash out for a quick walk.
Second, there was the birding. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about birding prior to April 24th. Hell, I was actively dismissive, ridiculing the obsession with those who obsessively identified and named all the birds they saw. If anyone drew my attention to a bird, I’d opine: “There are really only four kinds of birds: killing birds, cool birds, water birds, and the rest are all little brown dicky birds.” Thus, I thought , I put in their place those folks who paid too much attention to things that didn’t matter. (I was wrong.)
Then, on April 24th, Jeremy Schwartz gave his bird presentation to the company. We were, by this point, six weeks into working from home. I suspect we were all just beginning to recognize that we missed interacting with our co-workers, or at least interacting with them in ways that didn’t involve the prison of the work Zoom meeting. So Lauren, our office manager, gamely arranged some Zoom lunches for people to share their interests, and sincere, earnest Jeremy stepped up to give a talk about birds, a group version of his ever-present offer to go out on a bird walk at lunch, back when we were all in the office and could do such a thing.
I’ll write more about birding at some time–about the permission it gave me to slow down and look more closely–but for now, suffice to say that the moment I began to pay attention to birds, Vetucchio became a magnet for my attention. The city publishes a brief birding guide to the refuge on its website.
Third, there was the permission I granted myself to think differently, for it was right around this time that I opened my mind to thinking differently about work, thanks to giving up my operational duties at MediaPRO, reducing my load to half-time, and taking up the work of writing a regular blog for the company and supporting our marketing efforts as the Chief Evangelist. This major shift in my worklife meant I allowed myself the opportunity to think about my mental space differently, to open it up to purposes other than the growth of the business and solving the problems that the business presented. Granting myself permission was crucial, because it was purely a cage I had put myself in. It’s as if I opened the door to a cage that had never even been locked and all I had to do was push open the door. Was this the most important condition of all? It will take me some time to figure that one out!
So there it was: the pandemic and the way the whole world shifted, the birding, and this sudden openness of mind, and in that moment I walked into what has become Vetucchio. Floating in that moment, I awakened to the beauty of the place: to the sound of the Common Yellowthroat singing in the marsh, to the perfect perspective of the lane stretching along the wetland, to the sight of Mt. Index and Persis beyond the bridge. It roused the romantic in me, the guy who exclaims “I dig beauty” whenever I am struck by how beautiful the world is (quoting a line from the Stuart Dybek story, “Blight,” from The Coast of Chicago.)
How could this beautiful place not have a beautiful name? I asked. So I sought one, trying the sound of various words in my mouth as I walked about, remembering the feel of the Italian hilltop towns along the Amalfi coast: Ravello, Positano, Sorrento. And I stumbled upon—which is to say made up—Vetucchio, and it’s now my name for this combination of wetlands and river and stretching lane, fragrant with blackberries, trilling with birdsong. And I made up the spelling too, using conventions that lean Italian: there is a real place, Verucchio, a comune in Italy, and an Italian family that runs Vertuccio Farms, outside of Mesa, AZ, but as best I can tell there is no other Vetucchio. It is one of a kind.
I’ll end this with a few of my favorite pictures of Vetucchio. You can be sure there will be more.
When Volkswagen announced it’s Spektrum color program for the Golf R for deliveries in 2019, I was pumped. I had always lusted after the hottest of the hot hatches, but I didn’t like the standard VW blue offered for the R—it was too purple for my tastes. I wanted one of the older blues, and when I saw I could order the Deep Blue Pearl (which I remembered from the 2004 R32), I happily put down my $1000 deposit with my local dealer and started to anticipate the day it would arrive. I thought I was waiting for my dream car.
Anticipating the delivery of a car is kind of fun. You get on these car forums and listen to the rumors and then real stories, with pictures, about people taking delivery. By early spring 2019, people were regularly reporting on getting their cars … but none in Deep Blue Pearl. I called Justin at Pignataro—okay, I may have called him every several weeks—to see if he could give me any timeline on when my car would arrive. And he couldn’t. He seemed to have no more visibility into it than I did. By early June, I was chomping at the bit.
And then, on June 14, a call from Justin. I figured the car had arrived. But when he said, “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news,” I kind of knew which news it was going to be for me. Sure enough: “The good news is I can have you in a Golf R next week.” And then: “The bad news is, VW decided not to make all the Spektrum colors it had originally anticipated, but I can get you in one in Welch’s Grape Soda [note: my name, not the official VW name] or X [some other color I didn’t give a shit about].”
All this trouble to put in the special order, all this anticipation for a car that I’d been kind of longing for ever since I owned my first VW, a 1977 Rabbit, that I just adored. I told him I’d need a day to think about it.
And then I drove straight down to the BMW dealership. You see, I was in a lease on a 428ix Gran Coupe, and my lease was up in several weeks. It was a pleasant enough car, but underpowered, maybe a tad too big, and just a little sedate. I had planned to turn the car in but now … I might as well see what was available.
The salesman heard what I was after and correctly pointed me to the M235i (I think, or was it the 240 by this point?). I was sold and we sat down to start the paperwork when the salesman said—and here’s where the clouds part and the ray of light shoots across the landscape and the angels start to sing—“Oh, before we do this, I just realized that we got an M2 in today and the guy decided not to take it, so that’s also available.”
At this point my memory gets a little funky. I’m pretty sure I tried to play it cool. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say, “The M2! The M2! The car I drove down at the M Driving School last year and swore that if it ever came available I had to have it,” only to be told that the waiting list for the car was two years long and the best I could hope for is that it might be my lucky day to walk into the dealership on the day someone who ordered one decided not to take delivery. That M2? Yeah, okay, I suppose I could take a look.
It was fresh off the truck, the protective padding all over the car, only a few sections of the body even visible. It was in Long Beach Blue, 6 speed manual, my dream configuration on my dream car. Honestly, it had a bunch of options I wouldn’t have chosen: the sun roof or the executive package that lifted the speed limiter and threw in a day at the M School. But I didn’t get to choose this car. It chose me.
I could bore you with more details: how my wife, who was there with me, simply said: “It’s your dream car, you’ve got to do it”; how we had to register it in her name because I’d forgotten my driver’s license; how we stopped down at the local Bank of America to grab a $10,000 cash down payment.
All I know is that a little while later, we were leaving the lot, me grinning ear to ear, driving my dream car. And I’ve been digging it ever since.
A track is a track is a track, right? You’ve got your straightaways, your curves, the pit, the paddock.
It’s like football fields: they’re all 100 yards long, end zones, sidelines. The playing field is the same at the high school down the street as it is at the Orange Bowl or Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
The components are the same … and yet there are some fields, some tracks, that just seem a little bigger, a little more epic, where the game is played at a higher level. Laguna Seca is that kind of track.
You approach the track from the valley floor, turning off the Monterey Salinas Highway and winding your way up the 16% grade to the entry gates before topping out and peering over into a large bowl (a former lake bed) filled with track.
If you’re a race fan or a gamer, all the sights and signs are immediately familiar: the WeatherTech Laguna Seca banners on the bridges and the famous Corkscrew sign high up on the hill that obscures the actual corkscrew, one of the most famous turns in racing, from view.
And then you enter the paddock, first crossing over the straight that separates Turns 5 and 6, then winding down into the lake bottom and into the massive parking lot in the center of the track. As the driver of a modest BMW M2 Competition, I wasn’t expecting to be the belle of the ball, but holy shit, there are some cars here! There’s a whole row of race prepped 911s of one type or another (I’m going to disappoint my Porsche friends by failing to distinguish them all), the dominant make among a smattering of other cars: Mustangs, a Camaro, some BMWs, Audis, a Caterham. The garages—there are 24 bays—are filled with the real precious cars, with more GT2RS models than you can count, Audi R8s, and real race cars as well, a stock car (that I neglected to photograph), and an LMP2 car I believe. Outside the bays are the massive trucks used to haul them in, some of them combining full RVs alongside the car storage. Hell, many of the “support cars” that pull up put my little M car to shame.
And then there are the really special cars (and drivers): a Gunther Werks 993 piloted by none other than the nicest race car driver on earth, Randy Pobst. Pobst holds track records for most makes of cars at Laguna Seca (including the M2, at 1:40.83) and he set one in the air-cooled 993 at 1:30.99. Pobst rolled up to the track in the most modest rent-a-car you can imagine—was it a Chevy Sonic?—and walked around and said hello to everyone. We should all be so comfortable in our own skin.
The other stunner was a McLaren Senna that was trailered into the paddock late in the day Saturday and immediately caught everybody’s eye. I’ve seen the car in the mags, but to see and hear it up close—the dazzling technology, the bold aero, the rip of the engine—made all the difference.
But enough of the wide-eyed gushing. Neither I nor anyone else were here to be car fans; we were here to drive.
Track Day on Steroids
The weekend’s event was run by Exclusive Track Days, led by former pro driver Ace Robey and his excellent crew. All I can say is, these guys take the normal track day conventions and turn them up to 11. There were three run groups—Race, A, and B—and even in the B group that I ran in, people were out for speed. The ETD guys jammed 7 sessions into the day and it wasn’t a question of whether you could get your money’s worth; the question was, did you have the stamina to run all 7? Not everybody did.
Laguna Seca has 11 turns, but the one that loomed largest in my mind as I lined up for our first session was Turn 8, the famous corkscrew. So as we set out of pit lane for a yellow-flag, get-to-know-the-course lap, the early corners were a blur until we climbed the hill toward Turn 7 and then set up for the hard left and the roller-coaster ride down the corkscrew. It was every bit as steep as expected … and yet, it wasn’t really all that scary. You had to scrub speed to make the first turn, and from there it was just like falling off a log—only with a lime green GT3 glued to your ass, itching to get by. What I soon came to recognize was how much I had to learn on all the rest of the course.
The first session on a new track is always a bit of a blur for me. No matter how much I prep for the day by watching track videos and studying racing lines, there is simply no substitute for having wheels on the ground. You simply can’t prepare for the elevation change, the sight lines, the sheer texture of the surface … all the things that make reality so much more compelling than the virtual experiences. I love the preparation for track time, the videos, the games, reading track tips, but it all pales next to the visceral thrill of finding out how fast you can go and how hard you can brake in the real world.
What surprised me then was that Turn 8 wasn’t so scary, but Turn 1, a slight turn to the left, scared the crap out of me! Coming out of Turn 11 it was full throttle down the straightaway, up a hill toward the slight Turn 1, knowing you couldn’t see what lay beyond. You knew you should keep your speed up, but dammit you just didn’t know what lay over that hill until you’d done it time and time again. It took me at least a dozen laps before I got over the pucker factor going up over that hill and finally trusted that I could keep my foot to the floor, only lifting once I completed the turns and straightened the wheel for the hard braking into Turn 2. It made me feel a lot better that even more experienced drivers like Thad “Land Baron” Berger had to get over the heebie jeebies on this one.
Mark Manson, the author of the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, says that the secret to a happy life is finding interesting problems to solve—and that’s what makes driving on a track so damned fun. A race track is a whole bunch of interesting problems, all strung together in a row. There are so many variables: placement on track, where you turn in, where you apex, where you track out. The moment you solve one problem and think you’ve got it mastered, next level problems show themselves. You’ve got visual cues that you need to learn, sound cues as your tires tag the rumble strips, and you’ve got that mysterious sensation that we call “seat of the pants” that tells you when you’ve figured out the best path through a turn. I think it must be that endless depth of interesting problems that keeps people like Randy Pobst coming back to a track again and again.
The biggest problem you’ve got to solve is the one in your head. You’ve got to be confident enough to hold your speed going over the hill in Turn 1, and then brave enough to hold off on braking too early in Turn 2. You’ve got to trust your grip going into Turn 9, which looks so simple and yet proved to be one of the most difficult turns for me to unlock. There’s a mental game to every corner on the track, and you have to match that to your technical approach. Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it?
All of day one, I just tried to “solve” one or two corners per session, trying different entry and exit points, different braking points, etc. Anybody who thinks guys are not talkative should hear the between session banter—we all compare notes about how we’re approaching parts of the track, and even the most experienced drivers are eager to learn and improve. Everybody talks their drive a little differently, and this makes it worthwhile to listen to as many different people as you can. Doug Steding (who is a serious student of technique) had a driving coach there named Robert Orcutt whose approach was smart, subtle, and low-key; he may have been coaching Doug, but he was so generous with his insights that all of us learned something. Other people told you how to read a curve; Robert asked questions—Where did you set up? What did you look for? Where did you track out?—and led you to unlock it for yourself.
At some point, I don’t want any more talk; I want to get out and feel the road.
What a treat to have a second day on the same track. I was able to sleep on all I learned on day one, and then day two felt like heaven. The nerves were gone and I was already fairly happy with how I was doing, so I felt like I could really just lean in and get into the flow of the track. The feeling I had on a number of laps on day two, when it felt like all the turns linked together seamlessly and I didn’t have to think, just drive—I’m smiling just thinking about it.
As the turns became more familiar, as I was able to see and feel more of the details, it became easier to take some of the coaching from pro driver Andrew Evans and put it right into practice. The world needs more people like Andrew—who along with beloved Avants leader Adam Cramer organized the trip. Despite being a rising star in prototype racing, Andrew was incredibly patient and gracious with all of the drivers from Avants. I wasn’t ready for the help he offered on day one, but mid-way through day two I was ready to sit down and listen to him unlock some of the corners I had been struggling to come to terms with. The feeling I got when I finally nailed Turn 6 (brake at the second marker, turn, keep your wheel just off the curb, and right back on the gas) was one of the highlights of the day.
At the end of the fifth session on day two, Jeff Hsu and I were debating whether we really had anything left. I’d put two wheels off the track between Turn 2 and 3 in the previous session and it had shaken my focus, and I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to stay focused and sharp for another session. But we bucked each other up and went out for session 6, and both of us had real strong runs. For me, it was some of my best flow of the whole day.
At the end, I was wrung out, track drunk, ready to chill. First, I had tires to change …
Looking back on my planning for this trip, I can see that I may have overthought it a bit. But hey, give me a break: I was excited and maybe a little scared too, scared that after committing all this money and time I’d end up turning back in a chain-up zone before Siskiyou Pass, an early snow falling all around me. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
Day 1: Snohomish to Redding
For the way down, I chose Plan A: fast and direct.
It wasn’t pretty, and for the first several hours—hell, make it six hours—it didn’t feel like a road trip at all. It felt like just another drive: rain lashed the car as I drove down 405 and while the rain let up south of Olympia, the boredom didn’t. This was all familiar territory and I quickly decided that you can’t really get that road trip sensation when you’ve been down a stretch of road too many times (there’s a lesson in that, I’m sure).
The boredom let up a little when I made a pit stop in Salem to meet up with a high school buddy, Darin Wilson, who I last saw when I was 18 years old, as best we could figure. We walked just long enough to unlock my hips and laugh at the parallel paths that had taken us from Romeo, Michigan, out to the West. He wasn’t going back either. His wife, Kristin, who I’ve never met, sent along some peanut butter cookies and not just a few, a whole damned cooling rack of them. I wish I had a picture when Darin opened his back door and there were the cookies, cooling on the rack. They lasted me until the morning of day two on the track, I swear.
And on I went south of Salem, still just a familiar drive until somewhere between Roseburg and Grants Pass, something started to change. Was it the fact that around every corner there was something new, or was the numbness in my butt and hips somehow triggering me into that quasi-hypnotic state that signaled my drive had turned into a road trip? All I know is that I found myself slipping into a kind of trance state, looking far down the road to navigate the Tetris path between semis and clueless Prius drivers, and digging the beauty of the mountains. There was Mt. Shasta, beautiful even from the rest stops where I shot these pics, and at last I rolled into Redding, where I had picked a hotel because it looked funky (and it was, but only a little, and maybe that was just funky enough).
As I closed on Redding, I wished I didn’t have to stop. I had finally hit it, that state of mind called road trip. After about mile 500, I felt like I had slipped into the zone, and that I could just keep going, floating onward into the night, the miles clicking by. It felt like I had slipped the clutches of gravity and was just floating …
It reminded of the road trip Sara and I took in my blue Chevy Malibu in the summer of 1986. Already two or three days into our trip heading west from Michigan, we had woken up in Wyoming at a campground called Crazy Woman Green Trees and had decided it was time to finish the trip. We pressed on 1100 miles in one long day, winding down through Lolo Pass in Montana, into Lewiston, Idaho, and then up the Lewiston grade for the final stretch to reach my friend’s house in Palouse, Washington, not far north of WSU, where Sara was joining me to start our lives together. By the time we got north of Lewiston it was late at night, after 11 PM, and as we turned off the highway onto the secondary road that led to Palouse we realized just how black the night had gotten. There are two qualities to the roads through the Palouse: they are curvy as hell, winding through the flowing hills, and they are as black as the basalt they are made from, the basalt that lays beneath the soil that makes the Palouse one of the richest wheat farming regions in the world.
Had I been well rested, I would have welcomed the curvy black roads. But I was nearly losing my mind with fatigue, and the only thing that kept me going was knowing we only had 30, 20, 10 more miles to go, that and Sara poking my red dot. That was as close as I’ve ever come to hallucinating while driving (save for that time in Kansas City when the shrooms kicked in too soon). But we made it, pulling in to stay the night in the upstairs bedroom of my hippie friend Lisa’s farmhouse. We went up the ladder to our room and pulled back the covers to see an old, dried-up cat shit sitting black on the white sheets. It was an omen, I see in hindsight. We brushed it aside and hopped in bed. That’s how tired we were.
Day 2: Redding to Monterey
I had knocked off two-thirds of the journey getting to Redding, so day two was always going to be a breeze. There was just one little wrinkle. Somewhere in the 300+ miles I had left I needed to figure out a spot to do a tire swap. I left Snohomish on my winter tires (Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4s, for you car guys), but I was packing a new set of Bridgestone Potenza RE-71Rs in the back seat, and I knew that if those brand-new tires were going to be ready to hit the track Saturday morning, I needed to get a few miles on them first. So I pulled over into the Dunnigan Southbound Rest Area at 9:55 AM, found a flat spot, and prepared to execute my first ever tire swap.
I’ve got to give it to my friend Ben Crowell for the inspiration. Ben and I met at a BMW CCA track day out at Pacific Raceways, where we chased each other happily round and round the track, trading leads as one or the other of us were feeling faster. He was in a 2018 M3 Competition, and we got to talking between sessions about mods he had made to his car: better brake pads, better tires, etc. The more Ben described it, the more I felt like I could do that too. I’m a relatively handy guy–there’s not a thing in my house I won’t try to take apart and fix before I call somebody else–so why should I not figure out how to do the brakes and the tire swaps on my car?
What do you picture when you imagine some guy jacking up his car in a rest area? I imagined some old beater car, the back seat full of clothes and sleeping bags and trash, and some derelict dude standing there wondering how the hell he was going to move his car another inch. So that’s kind of how I thought the world must be looking at me, wondering what kind of crazy shit I was going through to be putting my Bimmer up on jack stands. I fully expected someone to say something, anything, but despite a steady stream of motorists, nobody said a damned word. Maybe it would have been different if it wasn’t COVID, I don’t know.
It was smooth sailing from that point on though, all the way down into the Bay Area and around San Jose and into Monterey. I got there in time to enjoy a quick trip out to Point Lobos before joining up with the Avants gang for In-N-Out Burger and a drink before an early bedtime. We had some driving to do, and you can catch that in my next blog post. But I had a road trip back too, and this time I was taking the scenic route.
The Return Trip
There was no reason not to take the scenic route home, now that the Laguna Seca driving was done. And so I did: up Route 1 through Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay with a brief, traffic-heavy dip into the city before hopping across the Golden Gate Bridge and then shooting north along Highway 101, through Santa Rosa (hi John and Linda) and with a brief stop at a beach in Eureka before getting in early to Crescent City … and boy was I glad I did.
You don’t think about Northern California as being remote, but wow, once you get north of Santa Rosa there’s all kinds of nothing for miles and miles, and by the time you get to Crescent City it could be the end of the world. There’s not much there … except a roadside art gallery and fine slice of beach that allowed me to watch some surfers enjoy the sunset before the sun dipped into the sea. There’s not much else to say: I drove and I dug beauty. Here’s some of it:
For the final day of my little adventure, I knew what awaited: 80 miles of curvy roads linking Crescent City to Grants Pass, Oregon, and after that the numb sameness of I-5. I figured I’d enjoy the curvy part by first light, but when I woke up at 3:55 AM I thought, “Hell, I could leave now and I’d by home before I hit the Seattle traffic.” So I loaded up the trusty BMW and drove non-stop, 8 hours, all the way home.
By 2:30 in the afternoon we were sitting in front of the fire, sipping on an Old Fashioned I had mixed up with some of that cheaper California bourbon I had picked up along the way–cheaper because it didn’t have the Washington state sales tax. We had some stories to share.
My grandfather, Morton B. Stratton, never told you what he wanted. At the dinner table, for example, he wouldn’t say: “Please pass the butter.” He’d say, “I wonder if there might be room for the butter at this end of the table?” He didn’t ask for another helping of dessert; he asked if I thought the edges needed to be straightened on that pie.
Grandfather was much like his brother, John, who owned and ran the family farm outside Philly. For years, John acted as a father figure to generations of men and some women in my family who went to work on the farm for the summer. John never told us farmhands which field of sweet corn we were to pick; he asked: “Do you think Field 17 is ready to pick today, Tom?”
Some of their gentleness and indirection sure came from our family’s Quaker heritage, which expressed itself not in religious terms but in never telling others what to do or think, preferring that they develop the tools to decide for themselves.
But John and Mort were also just inherently decent, kind, fair men. John’s daughter Betsy and I joke that in a different context, a different age, John would have been a saint. Mort was more of a rascal, but he shared John’s gentle demeanor.
I was thus a little surprised one summer day some 15 years ago when my grandfather pulled me aside and said, “Tom, don’t you think that with a young family to support, your mountain climbing is a little selfish?” My hikes with the Caribunkle boys had grown from quick one-day scrambles into something closer to full-on mountaineering, including ascents of Adams, Baker, and Rainier, and my grandfather knew all too well those were mountains that people died on. Still, he asked a question; he didn’t make an accusation. But I knew what he meant, just as I knew to pass the butter or go pick in Field 17.
I sidestepped his veiled criticism. I assured him—truthfully—that I took great care and that I always prioritized coming home safely over reaching the summit. But I wasn’t about to quit climbing. I loved and still love the freedom and the thrill of it. It makes me feel alive.
Grandfather didn’t like my answer very much, but he didn’t press me and we never spoke of it again.
I wonder what Grandfather would say if he knew that I was about to go on a six-day excursion across state lines, right as the Western states issue a tightening of restrictions on commerce and contact, all for the purpose of driving on a race track? Would he use the stinging word “selfish”? Would he ask why I was willing to put myself and others at risk for the pure thrill of a track drive?
I hear those questions when I first rise in the morning, when I’m drinking coffee at 5 AM. I wonder: am I doing the right thing? I believe that responsible people act not just for themselves, but with the good of the community in mind, or at least that they don’t act against the good of the community. If this is what I value, is my trip a violation of those values? I’ve been visiting this question a lot.
Here’s what I’d tell Grandfather: I’ll mostly be alone alone in my car; I’ll limit my contacts with others (gas stations, hotel, at the track); I’ll be outside; I’ll wear a mask at all the right times; my COVID test came back negative. In short, I’ll take all the precautions that one can reasonably take to reduce the risk to me and to others.
But dammit, I’m not willing to give up on adventure. I’m going to keep climbing mountains, driving on race tracks, and yeah, I’m going to cross state lines in the midst of a pandemic to do it. To live fully is to experience risk.
This may sound like a suitably “principled” justification, but I’m not trying to get myself an easy pass. I’ll admit, I’m an arrogant ass who thinks most rules don’t apply to me. I’m the guy who dropped his shoulder and sent his mother to the ground when she tried to get in the way of me chasing my brother (when I was 17). I know I have it in me to go after what I want, damn the consequences.
I’ve been waiting all my life for a chance to drive at Laguna Seca, and it’s going to take more than some COVID restrictions to turn me back.
But I won’t deny that hitting the road Thursday morning will be a kind of relief: it will no longer be a question of if I’m going; I’ll be gone.
There’s not much mystery in a road trip these days. Between Google Maps and weather apps, you can be pretty sure of what lies ahead.
I’m old enough to remember a different kind of roadtrip, one where you navigated from a Rand McNally atlas or a series of state maps and got your weather reports off local AM stations. The lack of predictability around what lay ahead made for some fun trips, like the non-stop run my brother Pete and I took from Salt Lake City to Detroit that got considerably longer when we found out–surprise–that a massive section of I-70 had been closed for nighttime construction and we had to do a major detour in the middle of the night. This was after we had finally eluded the crazy son-of-a-bitch who rode tight on our bumper for 30 minutes with his lights off in eastern Colorado. We could see the moonlight reflecting off his hood in our rear-view mirror, but we didn’t want to stop or hit the brakes, so we just kept going until he finally backed off into the blackness. I’ve always wondered if he had as much fun as we did.
There was a stretch of my life when it felt like I made a cross-country run just about every 15 months. There was one in the dead of winter between Pullman, WA, and Ann Arbor, MI, when budget cuts at WSU killed both our jobs and we headed back “home” to work for a landscaper and figure out our next steps. We were nearly grounded at a hotel in Missoula–where the temperature stood at -24 degrees–but a patient wrecker driver helped me get the car started and told us, don’t turn the car off again and we didn’t until we got home, for fear it wouldn’t start again. What the hell did we know?
Then there was the time we were visiting my aunt and uncle in their townhouse in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with our 16-month-old son Conrad. It got to be about 9:00 at night and Sara and I didn’t think we could take another night there so we said, “Conrad’s getting sleepy, let’s drive home,” but home is Lafayette, Indiana, maybe 10 hours away … or it should have been 10 if we hadn’t hit a snowstorm crossing the Indiana state line and then I spent the last couple hours of the drive white-knuckled and half hallucinating, the falling snow making a tunnel in space as dark gave way to morning. It scares me just to think of it! Conrad slept the whole way through, right up until we got about 5 miles from home and then he was ready to roll. We about lost our minds. We both swore never again to drive through the night.
In Google I Trust (with a Little Help from My Friends)
The road trip I’m planning today is a whole different ballgame: technically, all I do is enter my start point of Snohomish, WA, and my end point of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (near Monterey, CA), and I can let Google do the rest. 932 miles, with the vast majority a straight shot down I-5. If I left right now, it would take me 15 hours and 12 minutes. Google will offer me route changes if there are problems ahead, and I’ve given myself 2 days to get there, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
In summer, I’d just hop in the car and go. But it’s mid-November, I’m driving a rear-wheel-drive M2, and I know that Siskiyou Pass in southern Oregon could pose a serious challenge in a snow storm–a challenge that could jeopardize the pretty penny I’ve laid down for 2 days on my dream track. So Plan A is get there fast, I-5 all the way.
But I needed a Plan B, and for that I tapped the hive-mind that is the Avants community. Avants is a “premium membership program for gearheads,” says the website, but it’s also a living, breathing community of 1500 people (and growing fast) who are really into all things drivable and among the most helpful, welcoming groups I’ve ever run across. At noon on a Friday, I posted a question on the org’s Facebook group asking for route advice through southern Oregon, and by day’s end I was absolutely convinced of my Plan B: if the weather turned to hell by the time I reached Grants Pass, I would veer right and take the lower, warmer route 199 to Crescent City, California, then bust my way south on Highway 101 the rest of the way. (Hell, Todd Peach sent me a multi-page guide that spelled out every option possible—who needs GPS when you’ve got friends like this?)
If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, Plan B sounds a hell of a lot more interesting, well, you’re right. But I’m laser focused on being my freshest self when I hit Laguna Seca, and that means it’s Plan A for me if at all possible. We’ll see what the weather gods bring my way, and how I find my way back.
PS: The car guys are gonna bust my ass for not mentioning the cars I was in, but they were, surprisingly enough, not that important. In order, mid-70s VW Rabbit, 1987 Saab 900S, and 1992 Saturn SL2.
Prior to November 2nd, I would have told you I didn’t have a bucket list, or I would have at least scorned calling it a “bucket list.” Partly it’s the 2007 movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freemen, which just seemed stupid; partly I think life is just too spontaneous to have a list of things you’ll check off as you go. But I’ve kept a running list of mountains that I want to climb, places that I want to visit, and (naturally) race courses that I want to drive on. The Nürburgring; Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps; Interlagos. But one above all else: Laguna Seca.
So imagine how I felt when I got a message from Adam Cramer at 3:58 PM on Monday, November 1: “Hey Tom, should have sent this to you earlier. Since I know that you are a track junkie, thought you might be interested in the Laguna Seca trip that we have coming up. It’s Nov 21-22. Two days on track at Laguna. Hotel, food, etc. Details here: https://www.avants.com/avants-laguna-seca-driving-experience.”
I was sitting out on the back porch in the sunshine, soaking up this amazing sunny day. I had cajoled Sara to sit out there with me, telling her that this may be the last sunshine we see in a while, and we were enjoying a nice cold martini when the message came in.
“Sara, you’re not going to believe the message I just got,” I began, and quickly laid it out. “Tom,” she replied, “you’ve been wanting to drive on that track all your life. You’ve got to do it.” We took a big gulp about the money and I told Adam, “Hell yes I’ll come.” Let the planning begin!
Now I quickly confirmed with Adam that this wasn’t one of those deals where you showed up and drove other people’s cars, like the Porsche and BMW driving days I’ve done. Nope, this was a bunch of folks from Avants taking their own cars down. So my wheels starting spinning: I was going to have to get my car down there and it was going to have to be track ready.
Job 1 was new brake pads. My last day out at Pacific Raceways I’d really been hammering on the brakes and as the day wore on they were starting to fade, not badly, not dangerously, but enough that on my last session I had to slow down, especially at the end of the long straight, and use my engine braking more. It was good experience, but when I talked to my friends at Broadstroke, our local BMW performance shop, they said this was as good a sign as any that I needed to step up to some track pads.
I’m sure there are some people who would have dug the prospect of comparing specs on the available pads for their car, and would have had all the tools to put them on themselves. But I’m not that guy: I’m a guy who will obsessively watch track videos to try to visualize the perfect line and braking points, hoping that if I drive the track enough times in my head it will be easier when it’s real (generally true, by the way, but it’s also true that the map is not the landscape). But dammit, I’m just not into the mechanical stuff!
Luckily, I belong to some amazing car communities: Avants, first and foremost, but also the BMW CCA Puget Sound Chapter and a group of people I’ve met at track days and at AutoX at Evergreen Speedway. I started pinging my connections there and within a matter of days I had it all figured out: I was going with Carbotech XP 10 and 8 brake pads , and I worked with our Avants partner down at Discount Tire to find what seemed like the last set of Bridgestone Potenza RE-71R track tires left in the whole country. Both the pads and the tires were hybrid equipment, straddling the line between road and track use, because my blue M2 is not a pure track car but also my daily driver (though that concept had been radically reshaped by the pandemic).
The plan was now in place, all I had to do was get the pads and tires put on and plan my route and it was time to go. But that’s for my next installment.
“Caribunkle!” called Alex from down the steeply sloping snow.
“What?!” Asked Nick.
“Caribunkle!! Throw me a caribunkle,” called Alex.
“Alex, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” cried Nick. He looked at me and John and we stared back blankly.
“I need a caribunkle, I’m out of caribunkles!,” Alex’s voice rose in frustration.
And then it hit us—he wanted another carabiner. “Oh for fuck’s sake Alex, it’s a carabiner,” I yelled down. We didn’t know if he’d forgotten the word or if we’d just misinterpreted his thick Glaswegian accent, but we sent him down a carabiner.
Ever since that day in the spring of 2007, we’ve called ourselves the Caribunkle Boys. We were training for a summit attempt on Mt. Rainier, so we hung out a lot. We were prone to call out “Caribunkle” when we had gotten spread out on the trail, or when one guy on the rope line needed a break. Sometimes we’d just call it out because something was fucking absurd. We never just spoke the word, nor did we use it in a sentence. It was always a call—“Caribunkle!”—with a faint Scottish accent. It knit us together.
I’ve known Alex for twenty years now, and for the first 15 minutes of seeing him, I don’t know what the hell he’s saying. On the phone? Forget it. It’s usually he wants to go for a hike or to get together for a beer. We figure it out. Once I’ve been around him a bit I warm up to him and know just what he’s saying.
Every now and then he gets exasperated with us, and he puts on what he considers to be a John Wayne accent and talks real slow: “Well boys, let me tell you …”
It’s good to have friends like these. We’ve raised our kids together, summited some peaks and turned back on others. We’ve enjoyed each other’s company in 2-man tents amid too-friendly goats and over beers at Fred’s, Trail’s End, Josh’s … where-ever it’s quiet enough for us to hear each other.
So what’s caribunkle mean? Well, I guess it literally means carabiner … but let’s not let that hold us back.
When Sara took off for Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 2012, just a few weeks after our daughter left for college in Pittsburgh, I watched the plane fly off into the distance and thought that this wasn’t how becoming an empty nester was supposed to work out. But Sara was chasing a lifelong dream and it wouldn’t last forever, so I determined to make the best of it.
I filled that gaping 18-month hole in my life with all kinds of boring shit—like working too much and watching lot of sports on TV—and also with a little weird shit, like going to beaches, bringing back smooth round rocks, coating them in clear varnish, and putting feet on them (oh yeah, I made a video of this one). I climbed a lot of mountains. There was a sad stretch too, which I affectionately call “Caipirinha Summer,” after the strong Brazilian cocktail I had learned to make during our Christmas visit to Ihlabela. It sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Well it wasn’t: it was day after day of me sitting alone on my back porch, drinking myself into a dull stupor, bored and lonely. There was no tawdry shit.
Of all the holes that Sara’s absence left in my life, there was only one I filled to my satisfaction: I learned to make my own bagels. For many years Sara had made bagels for me. She loved to bake and I loved bagels. I was the big winner in this exchange, true, and that made it all the harder when she was gone. I tried to fill the hole with grocery-store bagels (blah) and I tried switching to oatmeal, but what I really wanted was a crusty, dense, home-made bagel. And so I learned how to make my own.
Here’s the recipe I use. I got it off the internet and I’ve tweaked it here and there, but it’s basically the same recipe as the original.
Try following the recipe closely first few times, until you get comfortable with the feel of the dough, then by all means experiment. I’m still searching out the perfect way to get chunks of jalapeño into the dough: chopped fresh, they add too much liquid, but roasting makes them to soft and they fall apart. I’ll figure it out, eventually.
Tom’s Bachelor Bagels
1 teaspoon instant yeast
4 cups bread flour (white)
2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
3 3/4 cups bread flour (I prefer 2-3 cups of this to be wheat)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon malt powder (I order from Amazon)
1 tablespoon malt syrup, honey, or brown sugar (any of these work well)
Baking soda for the water (1 tablespoon, or a good shake, as you wish)
Cornmeal for dusting the pan
Toppings for the bagels such as seeds, salt, onion, or garlic
This is a 2 day recipe, with the bagels spending the night in the refrigerator before baking on day 2. My only rule on when I start is that it’s got be at least 4 hours before bedtime.
Day 1: Kneading and Shaping
To make the sponge, stir the yeast into the white flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the water and stir until all ingredients are blended. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for two hours in a reasonably warm place.
Remove the plastic wrap and stir the additional yeast, malt powder, and salt into the sponge. I use the kneading hook on my mixer. Then add the rest of the flour; you can add 3 cups right away, then add the last amount slowly as the dough comes together.
A note on this second addition of flour: it’s up to you on the proportion of white and wheat flour. White flour will make a lighter, fluffier bagel; wheat makes it richer, thicker. Over time, I’ve come to prefer 2-3 cups of wheat flour, but make it the way you like. I’ll just say, the wheat flower is “thirstier” and makes for a drier dough, so you might not use quite as much.
Knead the dough in the mixer until it starts to form a dense ball. I’ll say, this dough is so dense that it eventually overheats my mixer and I take it out and finish the kneading by hand. You’re looking for a stiff dough that springs back when you poke it. I generally lookin for a combined kneading time of about 10 minutes, but it’s really all about the feel.
Immediately after kneading, split the dough into 12 equal pieces. This will get you a pretty decent size bagel. Roll each piece into a ball and set it aside. When you have all 12 pieces made, cover them with a damp towel and let them rest for 20-30 minutes.
Shaping the bagel is easy: punch your thumb through the center of each ball and then rotate the dough, working it so that the bagel is as even in width as possible.
Place the shaped bagels on an oiled sheet pan (you can use parchment paper if you prefer), with enough space between the bagels that they can rise a bit. Cover the pan with plastic (I use two small plastic garbage bags, one from each end) and allow the dough to rise for about 20-40 minutes; you just need enough time for the bagels to start to rise and fill in again before you pop them in the fridge to “retard” overnight.
Day 2: Baking
I love a fresh-baked bagel for breakfast so I always do the baking first thing in the morning, but it’s up to you. For me, day 2 starts when I take the bagels out of the fridge, take off the plastic bag, and let them come up to room temp and just start to rise again.
Preheat the oven to 500 (yes, 500). Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add one tablespoon of baking soda to the pot to alkalize the water. Or don’t add baking soda, if you think “alkalize the water” sounds like I’m making something up.
You’ll also want to lightly sprinkle a baking sheet with corn meal to receive your boiled bagels. I often spray my baking sheet with oil before adding the corn meal, because I think it makes clean up easier.
When the pot is boiling, drop a few of the bagels into the pot one at a time and let them boil for 1 minute. Use a large, slotted spoon or spatula to gently flip them over and boil them on the other side for another minute.
Now here’s one trick I learned from experience: you don’t want to put the wet bagel straight from the boiling pot onto the baking sheet. You need to get some of that moisture off. I lay a dish towel on the counter and put a wire rack on top of that, and then I drain my bagels on there before moving them to the baking sheet.
You’ll want to top your bagels while they’re still moist, so don’t wait too long. I’ve had success with salt; everything bagel topping; grated cheese; slices of jalapeño peppers. They’re your bagels, do your thing.
Once the bagels are topped, place the sheet pan into the preheated oven and bake for 7 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for another 7 minutes until the bagels begin to brown. Remove the pan from the oven and let them cool. Well, let most of them cool but you have to eat one right away.
When it comes to cooking time, it took me a while to get to the 7 minute rule, because my original recipe called for 5 minutes and I ate a lot of undercooked bagels. Don’t be afraid to let the bagels brown a bit. You’ll figure out what is best for your oven.
I generally slice mine once they cool and put them all in a bag in the freezer, then I them each morning of the week and eat them topped with cream cheese and fig jelly but with Mick’s Beyond Buzztail Habanero pepper jelly.
Ever since I started working in cybersecurity and privacy fifteen years ago, I’ve been trying to think of the simplest possible principles to guide my actions as I navigate the digital world. This is my online manifesto, principles I try to live by in my personal life and also to embed in my work:
I’m going to devote a bunch of my writing and thinking in the coming months to playing these ideas out in detail, in part to test how these work for others.
So how about you? Do you have principles that guide your behavior in the digital world? I’d love your commentary.
In the sections below, I’m putting flesh on what these principles mean to me. This is very much a work in progress.
There’s a lot of truth out in the world, but I’d be the last one to tell you that there’s one “truth.” In fact, I think there is room for people to have different truths—as long as we agree on how we’ll handle ourselves when we hold different versions of the truth. For example, you may believe in an omniscient deity and I may not, but as long as we both agree that it’s okay for us to hold different opinions about things that aren’t knowable, we can get along. Similarly, I may believe in one role for government and you may believe in another, but as long as we agree on some principles for how we’ll resolve our differences in shaping shared governance, we can all get along. It’s violations of these shared principles that have been for me the biggest problem in politics in the last decade, and especially the last several years.
So, truth is not one thing that’s out there, but rather a process of reaching understanding that is characterized by reason, verifiability, utility, and the absence of the qualities associated with bullshit (see below). Psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton MD suggests that truth can be easily known by testing how it feels: “Does it feel calm, considered, and nuanced, or shallow and knee-jerk? Am I taking the welfare of others into consideration, or is it just all about me?” You can see that the former is truth. You know it when you see it. Need more? May I suggest that you start with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, read for ten years, then come back to me with something simpler.
Let’s say, then, that truth is the opposite of bullshit: in other words, truth is good, bullshit is bad. It stands to reason that if you want to reject bullshit, you’ll want to spread truth. You want truth to be known, because of its qualities of making sense of the world, making it easier and more pleasant to navigate. But just like the intensity of how you reject bullshit is up to you, so is the urgency with which you spread truth. You’re not obligated to post every true thing you discover (I know sometimes I wear the patience of my friends a little thin with my habit of sending out “must reads” at 5 AM.) I guess you’re not obligated to share truth with anyone else at all. But I do think the world might be a little better place if people shared the truths that helped the world make sense to them. I’m always happy when someone shares that kind of thing with me. (My colleague Brian Hansford shared his thoughts on the tensions between sales and marketing on LinkedIn the other day, and I was blown away by how cool it was to see somebody sharing their honest and thoughtful view of the world.)
Bullshit is the opposite of truth. When you see something on social media that seeks to stoke outrage, to raise alarm for its own sake, to stir your emotions, or to throw stones at a perceived enemy, chances are you have run into bullshit. The aim of most bullshit on social media is to get you to “like” or react to the bullshit, and if your reaction includes spreading the bullshit to others, then it has done it’s job. When you react to bullshit, you reward the spreader of bullshit, sometimes with money, sometimes just with attention. But you increase the chances that you will see more bullshit. Basically, you’ve told the algorithm “I like bullshit,” and so you’ll see more bullshit soon. When more and more people like bullshit and spread bullshit, pretty soon you discover that the whole world is awash in bullshit.
That’s why it feels so important to “Reject Bullshit.” You can start by just not reacting to the bullshit that comes your way: when you see something that outrages you, pass it by. Ignore it. Or better yet, use the reporting functions of social media to tell the algorithms: “I’m not interested in bullshit.” Pretty soon, you’ll find that you get less bullshit in your world. Better yet, if we all stopped liking bullshit, the bullshit would (mostly) go away.
There’s a kind of activism in the world “reject” that may make you uncomfortable. I’m not saying you have to confront bullshit. You don’t necessarily have to become an anti-bullshit activist (though it’s perfectly okay if you do, as long as you work through the complexity of not giving bullshit too much attention by confronting it.) If all you ever did was ignore bullshit, that would be a great start. But you can also push back against bullshit, to be a little more forthright in your rejection (and if you can do it while still being kind, all the better).
A word about the term “bullshit”: I’m sorry for swearing; I wish there was a word that captured the nuances that bullshit captures without offending anyone, but I don’t how to convey what I mean without offense. In fact, the offense is part of what makes it the right word: bullshit offends the sensibilities of decent people not just for falseness, but also for its ill intent. That’s the thing about bullshit: it’s bullshit.
This one is so simple to say, but so complicated in application! How do you kindly reject bullshit, for example? The thing is, if you follow this principle dutifully, you almost can’t help but do the first two. But it’s worth calling out because it’s the lack of kindness that’s been such a big problem on the internet for so long. I won’t belabor this point: we’ve all seen the damage trolls can do, the enmity that exists when people hide behind obscure user names. We’ve seen how ugly political life has gotten when we villainize and stereotype others.
I’m not asking you not to feel anger or vindictiveness or cynicism or any other negative emotion. But I’m convinced we’ll be better off if we moderate those feelings in our digital interactions. When those harsh, negative feelings are directed at other people they elicit similar feelings (or defensiveness or retreat) in response, and they escalate and then the entire interaction gets sidetracked. It turns away from truth and toward bullshit. So I’m saying, feel all your feelings, then ask yourself if you can possibly express them with kindness.
I try to submit all my online communications to the kindness test. Whether I’m writing an email, a text message, a blog post, whatever, I ask myself: is this a kind way of making this point? And if it’s not–if I find myself expressing negative, angry, mean-spirited stuff, I put it aside and come back to it.
I’ve got a lot more to say on this one–including calling myself to account, because anyone who has known me for any duration knows that I sometimes indulge my sharp tongue. It’s true, I can be a real a**hole–but I always wish I had found a better way.
Or, How I Ruined My Shoulders on Whitehorse Mountain
When I think back on all the hikes I’ve done over the years, there are a few that stand out:
The first summit of Mt. Baker, when we were too excited to sleep; finally making it up Glacier Peak, after bailing out on multiple earlier attempts due to the weather turning to shit; John, Nick, and I stuck on Sperry Peak, where we took the wrong route and found ourselves on a high ledge, choosing between two bad options—keep going up, or try going down; my fall on Merchant Peak.
Those last two are the closest I’ve come to … well, I don’t want to be melodramatic and call it “death,” because who knows, but certainly the closest I’ve come to serious injury. There’s a good story about all of these hikes.
The funny thing is, the climb on which I had my most serious injury goes down in my mind as one of my absolute favorites: Whitehorse Mountain, which John and I climbed on May 23, 2009, where I ended up tearing the rotator cuff on both shoulders and the labrum on the left. My shoulders have never been the same since—but this story isn’t about my shoulders.
When John and I set out that May morning, we didn’t really expect to get to the summit. We were out for a “conditioner,” just something to give our legs a workout without going up Pilchuck for the umpteenth time. When you call something a “conditioner,” it kind of lowers your expectations; we expected to get to Lone Tree Pass for sure, maybe High Pass, but not the summit. Since I’m expecting you’re going to go out and do this soon, here are just a couple route description links: WTA and Mountaineers.) But then we got going, and everything just kept going our way: we hit snow early and the snow quality down low was not bad (meaning, not too wet and slushy), and then as we got to the back side of the ridge and started up again, a group ahead of us left such a great boot path that it made our work “easy” (watch the video to see why I put easy in quotes).
Soon enough we had reached the second, higher ridge (High Pass) and were looking at the summit and we said, hell, why not. It was just one of those blue-sky days where the snow was beautiful and our legs felt good, like we could go on forever. It wasn’t until we got to the bottom of the last stretch to the summit that we understood why people roped up. Damn, it was steep! But it wasn’t far and there was so much snow and we felt good so, why not? And off we went, digging in with the ice axe, kicking in hard with our crampons, until we made the summit.
Up top, we met another group, four or five climbers who had roped up. And we started to talk about the difficulty of getting down.
One of the things that you learn when you start stretching your climbing skills is that it’s easier going up than going down. I say you learn this, but really, it’s something the mountains teach you. Facing the mountain, looking into it, you keep your feet planted beneath you and you probe with your hands and your eyes going up. You can easily do more than you should. But head down the same path and it’s a whole different ballgame. Suddenly you’re facing the void, keenly aware of the depths beneath you—the space you could fall into and through. It’s harder to see the footholds, and you can’t probe with your feet the same way. Gravity wants to pull you forward. It can be fucking scary. So over time you learn that you never want to go up something you don’t want to come down. So you calibrate in your mind, how will this be going down? And if you’re smart, you find a route that will provide a safe return.
We did this little calibration on Whitehorse and we concluded that we could make it down. In truth, I’d probably make the same decision today.
As we prepared to head down, the folks who had rope offered that we could use their rope on the downclimb. I liked that idea; John preferred to turn his face into the mountain and downclimb, kicking steps and using his axe. Turns out his was the better decision.
I didn’t have a climbing harness, so I decided to do an “arm rappel.” I had never done this before so I made it up and it went like this: I held the top end of the rope in my right hand, looped the rope around my back, and then held the bottom end of the rope in my left hand, holding enough tension that I could kind of lean back into the rope. The idea was I’d kind of “bounce” my way down the steepest part of the mountain this way, until the slope started to mellow and I could get off the rope. It sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But given the steepness of the pitch it wasn’t easy at all. I’d feed myself some slack, reset the rope, then drop backward—fifty or a hundred times, jerking myself to a stop, taking the full weight of my body onto my shoulders. I felt a bit like a puppet, holding to the strings of some cruel puppet master who kept dropping me and jerking me to a stop. (Experienced climbers will observe that there are techniques to make an arm rappel easier, the Dülfersitz rappel being the most common. What can I say? I didn’t know.)
But soon enough the slope let up, and I left the rope, waving to my friends at the top, calling out “thank you.” As I watched John cautiously, methodically downclimb the same slope–facing the mountain, kicking in, planting his axe–I rubbed the shoulders I had just thrashed. They hurt! But what was I going to do: we had seven miles and 7,000 vertical to hike out, some of it in steep snow. We packed up our ice axes, lengthened our poles, and off we went. It was a spectacular climb, such a worthy summit, and every time I see Whitehorse I remember it fondly.
But my shoulders have never been the same. In 12 years, I’ve had two surgeries, stem cell injections, multiple round of physical therapy … and still, a couple tough yoga poses and I’m back into full-on pain, my shoulders aching with any rotation.
One great climb; years of aching shoulders. Still, I’d do Whitehorse again, if any of the Caribunkle Boys are up for it.