More stories from the road

As I’ve explained before in other stories, my first 4 years after college were spent traveling the country. Not the 60’s, hippie, hitchhiking, peace-love-and-understanding kind of travel. (That was my Big Bruddah) No, my adventure was all expenses paid by my employer. Of course, the one catch to this deal was I had to go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted me to. Not knowing what state I was going to be in from month to month, and sometimes day to day, tended to put a crimp in planning my social calendar.

It wasn’t the easiest way to live, but it wasn’t without its charms. Had I not been living out of a suitcase and eating all my meals in restaurants, I’d have never met the lovely Mrs. 20 Prospect. I’d also have  much lower cholesterol.  For 3 years I think I ate French fries at least twice a day. Not the healthiest way to live, but far from the worst vice for a field service engineer.

Most of my co-workers and I fell into the category of social misfits, or eccentrics. It really is the perfect sort of job for a person that can’t function for any length of time in normal society. Whether I was spending weeks alone in some God-forsaken corner of the country working at a power plant, or enjoying the camaraderie of a team of coworkers it always helped to be easily entertained. I know it’s hard to believe but such locales as Colstrip, Montana; Stanton, North Dakota; Springerville, Arizona; Pascagoula, Mississippi; and Nekoosa, Wisconsin weren’t exactly hopping places. While the poets of my generation were living in Seattle, or Prague, taking in the “scene”, and spending their nights in bacchanalian orgies, I was usually sitting on my bed in a motel room watching Twin Peaks, and drinking beer from a can.

I had a simple policy that I tried to follow no matter where I traveled; I never went to bars alone. So no matter where I was stuck, unless there happened to be another field service engineer along with me, I stayed inside most evenings. Even at 22 I knew that this sort of lifestyle was all too conducive to becoming a hard core alcoholic. It seemed that in this line of work you were either single and in your early 20’s, married with kids and in your mid-30’s, or divorced and in your late 40’s. I vowed to get out while I was still young.

In the mean time, I was paying off debt, and enjoying the lessons in humanity 101 that seemed to play out before me on a daily basis. I swear I learned more about people in my 4 years of traveling, than any school could ever have taught me. The cast of characters I encountered were drawn with sharp lines, and bold colors. I think I feel a story coming on…

In the spring of 1993, I was one of four engineers on site for a 3 week outage inspection in Central Pennsylvania. We were working 7 day weeks, and the lead engineer on the job was a friend of mine named John, from Philly. He was seemingly always unshaven, cussed with every sentence he spoke, and always had a dip inside his cheek. He amused me endlessly. We’d worked together before out west, and he’d taken me under his wing like a kid brother, always looking out for me as we shot pool in cowboy bars. For my part I became a great non-judgmental resource for him to learn proper grammar, and teach him the ways of normal society.

The second engineer on the job was a short, skinny Irish kid from eastern Massachusetts named Pat. He spoke with a classic Boston accent, and looked for all the world like a leprechaun. Putting a beer into him, was like inserting a quarter in the jukebox. His mouth would start moving, and for the next 20 minutes you could just sit and listen.

The third and final engineer on the job was a 40 something guy from Texas named Steve. I’d had the displeasure of working with Steve several times before in various spots around the country. He was far from being a stellar performer, which explained why his District Manager was always shopping him around to other districts that were in desperate need of a warm body. I won’t mention his last name, except to say that it started with “R-U-D”. This is important to our story because John from Philly insisted on calling him the “Rud-Dud.”

Rud-Dud would show up at the breakfast room at the motel each morning, coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other, and a far away smile on his face. As the day went on, he would gradually become more and more cantankerous, until by 4 pm he was downright surly. John wasn’t the sort of guy that had a lot of patience for ineptitude, so he always teamed me up with the Rud-Dud. It was my job to babysit him, and make sure he didn’t wander off and find a quiet corner of the boiler to take a nap in.

I was still a pretty young and naïve guy, and as such I was curious as to why he was always so happy in the morning, and cranky in the afternoon. One Saturday afternoon as we peeled off our coveralls to eat our lunches, John looked at the clock and asked if we’d like to put in another 4 hours to finish off our work, so that we could take Sunday off. For me and Pat, it sounded like a great idea; a morning to sleep in, and lay around the motel watching TV and reading the paper. So I was surprised when the Rud-Dud refused. John lived a couple of hours away with his wife and small kids, and was hoping to be able to spend a day at home with them, so he pressed on and insisted that we put in the OT. It was at this point that Rud-Dud got squirrely, and started to sweat. He continued to refuse to stay late at the plant, and finally confessed that his issue was the local Liquor Store closed at 7pm, and wouldn’t open again until noon on Monday.

That’s when I learned to never come between and alcoholic and their alcohol. A compromise was reached, and we let Steve stop at the liquor store during our dinner break so that he could restock himself with a bottle of Jack.

Sunday passed peacefully. I sat in my room reading the NY Times, and drinking coffee, while Steve stood out on his balcony smoking and sipping on his Whiskey. When Monday arrived the weather had turned, and heavy wet snow was falling hard. We met for breakfast in the lobby before heading to the plant, and in a momentary lapse of judgment, Pat and I decided to let the Rud-Dud drive.

The snow was piling up quickly as we drove through the dark. Climbing a hill I saw a pair of headlights appear ahead of us, and begin drifting into our lane. Sitting in the passenger seat, my eyes grew big, and my mouth fell open, but the Rud-Dud just drove on staring straight ahead at the onrushing car. Finally Pat let out a scream, and yelled at him to watch the eff out, and slowly the synapses began to light up in the Rud-Dud’s cerebral cortex. He turned the wheel and veered into the other lane, just as I dropped my cup of coffee onto the seat and reached for the dashboard to brace for impact. The whole world seemed to slow down, and I can remember watching my coffee cup bounce off of the seat and land upside down in the Rud-Dud’s lap. I can remember looking out the window and seeing the open mouth of the other driver as he slid helplessly into our path. I can even remember thinking “why isn’t my life flashing before my eyes like it does in the movies? What a gyp!”

Thankfully, the angels were watching that day, and swept down from the heavens to steer us out of harms way. The other car smashed hard into our passenger side door, bounced off of the guardrail and came to a stop 100 feet down the road.  We spun in circles on the icy road and came to rest in the ditch facing back down the hill.

I sat there stunned, looking out the window at the tire marks twisting through the snow, as the Rud-Dud screamed in pain from the lap full of hot coffee, and Pat lay in the backseat spewing a stream of profanity that would make a sailor blush. I suddenly had a new appreciation for life. Brushes with death can be like that. To this day, that is the closest I have come to biting it in a car accident. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the incident soon became fodder for Pat to tell over the bar at happy hour. Hell, we even bought a round for the Rud-Dud.  Just not before breakfast.

Riding the Bridgeport Ferry

an oldie…hopefully it’s also a goodie.

Water churns up from behind, and the ferry hesitates for a moment, before the gap between the boat and the dock begins to widen. I climb the steps to the top deck and walk to the railing. I look out into the parking lot, and she is still standing, watching the ferry pull away with one hand shielding her eyes…

It had been 2 years since we had last seen each other. As I was walking towards the stage to graduate, I looked down, and there she was, sitting in a chair with his family. She was dressed in a short polka-dot dress, and white stockings, as she smiled, and held up the camera.

My heart burned within me, and my face went flush with anger and embarrassment. The camera flashed, and then I was on the stage, shaking hands, and being handed an empty portfolio. It was over before I knew it, and it wasn’t until hours later, after my folks had left for home, that I walked out into the field behind the house, stood beneath the gnarled old oak tree in the fading light, and cried.

Two years later I was sitting alone in a hotel room in some small Midwestern town still thinking of her. As winter rain fell outside, I wrote her a Christmas card, and wished her a Merry Christmas wherever she was, then mailed it to her parents without adding a return address.

I expected nothing, and yet I hoped that if I did not include a return address on the envelope, she would try to write back. She always enjoyed a challenge. Months passed before a letter arrived in my mail.

I had just come home to an empty apartment, in a wet and cold Minnesota spring, when I opened the mailbox, and her letter fell out. Before I had read a word, I knew the hand writing. She was living in Long Island, and working for an electronics firm, still struggling with the transition from college to the “real world.”

We corresponded for a few months, back in those days when people still sat in quiet rooms, beneath desk lamps, and composed thoughts on paper. All through the spring I traveled for work, always wondering if I would find another letter when I returned home.

The letters led to phone calls, and before summer had even arrived in full, I found myself in Hartford for work. I called her and arranged to visit her over the weekend. So when Friday arrived I drove to Bridgeport, and crossed the Sound. She met me on the dock, her eyes darker, and wider than I had even remembered them.

It felt so strange to see her again. I had spent so many nights thinking of how different our lives could have been, if she had stayed with me instead of him. Driving back to her apartment I looked across the car and realized she was a different person than the doe eyed girl that had me so twisted in knots at twenty-one; a little older, a lot more sure of herself. They had broken up not long after graduation she told me, and she had yet to start dating anyone on the Island.

Her roommates were gone, and we spent the weekend together talking non-stop, and laughing at things that we knew only each other would understand. At times she seemed so close I could have reached out and kissed her, and at others she seemed less substantial than a ghost haunting a dream. If I closed my eyes, and listened to her voice, I was right back in Potsdam feeling the stabbing pain in my gut like the night she told me she was seeing him.

I slept on the couch in her living room. Laying there in the darkness staring at the ceiling, I wondered if she was ever going to make a move, or let me know what she wanted. As close as she was, she remained a riddle whose meaning I would never understand. All I knew was that I could not bear to be rejected twice.

When Sunday came she drove me back to the dock. We sat on the curb waiting for the Bridgeport Ferry to arrive. Every moment now was precious, and seemed to be slipping from my grasp. We talked in generalities, and pretended not to wonder what we would do next.

The ferry approached like a storm cloud across the water. After the cars had loaded, I turned to her to say goodbye. We hugged, then stepped back and paused. She hesitated, and so did I. This couldn’t be goodbye. She leaned forward again, and I stepped toward her, but for reasons I will never understand I could not bring myself to kiss her. We hugged for longer this time, and I knew it was goodbye.

…now the space between us widens with each second, until the dock begins to grow small in the distance. The ferry rolls with the waves on the Sound, as I lift my arm and wave for one last time.

She stands upon the dock with one hand over her eyes. The sun glimmers on the water, and in a moment, she is gone.

Eating Fleischkuechle at the Golden Cafe – 1993

Leland Olds Station - Stanton, N.D.

In my memory it was late winter. But in my memory, in this part of North Dakota, it is always late winter. Bleak, wind blasted winter, where the icy wind tears at your cuffs like an ornery dog.

I was in the lignite fields of North Dakota working at the Leland Olds Station, just east of Stanton. We had a vendor there with us, who had invented an isokinetic sampling probe for drawing coal samples from the coal lines leading from the pulverizer to the burners. This was a bit of an experimental project for us, and our local guru from the Denver office, a white haired mid 30’s engineer named Scott, was running the show to try to figure out if it would be worth our while to sign up to buy and distribute this invention. My friend Kent and I were just along for the ride, as it was a slack time in the office and we figured we’d try to make ourselves useful in the field.

The vendor was from Germany, and had brought along his teenage son to help with the demonstration. A sure sign we were dealing with the classic nutty professor entrepreneur. Spend enough time in any engineering field and you will come across these guys. Usually they are brilliant scientists and engineers, who were born with a lack of common sense, and personal hygiene. Most eek out a living as consultants, and spend their down time working in their basements and garages, dreaming up new inventions.

The nearest hotel was over in Washburn, which we made the decision to stay at for only a few days. It was a clean enough place, but eating at the same diner every night, and drinking 3.2 Bud & Bud Light at the local on/off sale bar got old in a hurry. Our lunches were spent at the Golden Fleischkuechle in Stanton, which was an interesting little café on the main street. Interesting because the proprietors, and their teenage daughter, spoke German. A language that oddly enough still exists in small towns sprinkled around Missouri and North Dakota, so isolated from the outside world that their inhabitants have been able to maintain their immigrant traditions far longer than those that settled in more populous places.

The first week was entertaining enough. I had taken a liking to fleischkuechle, which is a sort of deep fried ground beef patty that traces its origins back to the Fatherland, and really, what is there not to like about that? But I think the enjoyment of life in Stanton and Washburn went out of us one evening when our German visitor screwed up his nose, held his glass of 3.2 beer at arms length and said accusingly “Zis iz beir????” There wasn’t much point in defending it, so I just sighed, shrugged my shoulders and said, “well, that’s what they’re calling it here”. Shortly thereafter, we decided the 2 hour drive from Bismarck wasn’t such a bad commute after all.

After the Nutty German Inventor had returned to the Fatherland, we relocated back down to Bismarck. I always wondered what the German thought flying into a town named after Bismarck. If he beamed with Teutonic pride, it sure didn’t show. Mostly he exuded incredulity, and disgust at his surroundings. Fair enough, North Dakota, like fleischkuechle, is a bit of an acquired taste. The wind out there on the prairie was evil. It cut against your skin like blades of grass. Try as they might to keep the dust down from the coal pile, in that cold dry season, it found it’s way into everything.

Each day when work ended, we’d pick up a six pack at the gas station in Washburn, for the drive down Hwy 83 to Bismarck. We decided that our time in Washburn had qualified us to live the high life at the Bismarck Radisson, right next to the convention center in downtown Bismarck. I think it cost us a princely $59 / night at the time, but they had Killian’s on top in the bar, and after a week of 3.2 Bud, that alone was worth the price of admission.

The Missouri River near Stanton

It was just three of us on the project, after that. Scott, my friend Kent, and I. We were spending days drawing samples from the coal pipes, chasing our tails trying to adjust the air flow, and balance the coal flow between the lines. It was maddening work, and being three overly intellectual types with too much time on our hands, we spent a great deal of our time in the car arguing about the philosophic and scientific merits of our efforts. I contended that the pulverized coal was a two phase, compressible flow, the little solid particles being carried within the air stream, and that any attempt to balance out the coal flow by adjusting the airflow was pointless.

Each pulverizer had four pipes leading out the top of it, running varying distances, and twisting turns, to the four corners of the furnace. The goal was to balance the flow of the coal so that we could control the fuel / air mixture at the burners, and better reduce the emissions of Nitrogen Oxide. Scott and Kent both argued that with enough science, it was possible, they only needed to fine tune the isokinetic probe to be able to accurately measure the coal flow within the pipes, then adjust accordingly. I argued that even if they could achieve that, the data would just be a snapshot in time, dependent on many variables beyond their control, each one of which would throw off the balance as soon as their backs were turned. Most days we were back in Bismarck long before the argument was finished.

cavalierco-nd-winter-2009

We’d shower, scrub the coal dust from under our fingers, inside of our ears, and around the collar of our shirts, and then meet in the bar for a drink before dinner. After a beer or two we’d head out to the Ground Round, or some other chain restaurant for dinner. Scott would look at Kent and I, both in our early 20’s, and ask “Should we get a pitcher?”, and so the long beer soaked evenings would begin. For our part, we always said yes. We knew that Scott really wanted it, and who were we to deny him? This scene repeated itself for days, until one morning Scott met us in the lobby for the drive out to the plant and told us “Sorry guys, but I am just going to stay in tonight. I woke up this morning, fully clothed, sitting on the bed with my laptop open. I just can’t keep up with you young guys, so I’m going to stop trying.”

I don’t think I had ever been more relieved to not drink beer. Kent agreed, we both had been quietly amazed by Scott’s apparent drinking problem and we were wondering how much longer we could continue to keep up with him.

The job continued for a few more days before the phone rang, and my boss in Denver informed me he’d found me a paying gig out in Pennsylvania. So I packed up the Jeep, and started the drive back to the Twin Cities, across the long bumpy expanse of I94, to fly out to Scranton. Such is the life of the service engineer. You never know when the call will come, or where your next stop will be. Driving that interminable highway home, with the wind pushing me along, I wondered how much longer I could keep it up. I was into my 3rd year of this life, and had already worked in close to 40 states. Pennsylvania held some hope and promise of paying a visit to friends and family. But for the most part, I think I just looked forward to seeing the color green again. For years after that trip to Stanton, little flecks of coal dust would settle onto my dashboard whenever I turned the defroster on.

Copyright picturethepromises @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/9199449@N08/2305704187/

Crossing the Escalante

It was late afternoon as I turned off of the highway, and started south on Hole in the Rock Road. The drive down from Salt Lake had taken me longer than expected, and I was hurrying to reach the turnoff for Harris Wash before sunset. Out here, in the midst of the Utah desert, there would be little but starlight to see by once the sun set.

The Grand Am scrabbled over the washboard board, and I had to take it slow to watch for the turnoff. The guidebook had given exact mileage to the turn, and even when I reached it, I almost drove past it. The road was little more than two tire tracks leading off to the East in the scrubby brush. I pulled onto the Jeep trail and drove a mile in before parking the car off to the side of the road. Already the sun was sinking toward the cliffs of the Kaiparowits Plateau and the desert was gilded in gold. Shouldering my pack, I set off towards the east, following the Jeep track into the desert towards Harris Wash. Just before sunset I stopped and pitched my tent, out on the open plateau, with nothing but the sky to shelter me for the night. That night I slept uneasily, feeling the empty expanse around me.

My plan was to spend 4 days hiking in the canyons of the Escalante River. One of the most remote corners, of a state full of remote places. It was 1991, and the area had yet to be declared a National Monument. Instead it was just open country, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It is an unforgiving landscape of slick rock, broken by red rock canyons, and almost impervious to travel by any means except foot. This area was one of the last places inside the continental United States to be mapped, holding tight to its secret topography until finally yielding to aircraft photographic surveys in the 1950’s.  Four days alone in the wilderness, with only myself to rely on was a challenge that I did not take lightly.

Harris Wash

I rose early with the sun, and made a quick breakfast on my camp stove before packing up, and continuing on my way. The trail followed the lay of the terrain until it finally crossed a shallow depression, where the sandy residue of runoff had washed across the trail. Consulting my map, I was fairly confident of my location, and that if I were to turn off of the trail and begin following the dry wash downstream I would eventually find my way into the canyons. I quickly began to warm up in the chill morning, removing my sweatshirt as I followed the flow of sand and the sun climbed the sky. Eventually, I came upon a trickle of water flowing in from a depression to the north, and as I hiked the water became a stream, and then a creek. As the stream began to slowly carve it’s was down into the desert, walls of slick rock began to rise around me. My compass and topographic maps would be of little use in finding my way now. There was only one way forward, and it led down with the water, towards the confluence with the Escalante River ten miles away.

As the water increased in depth and flow, the vegetation changed. Pinyon pine gave way to willows and tamarisk. The color green began to accentuate the reds and oranges of the sandstone. Deeper, and deeper I went. As lunch time approached, the canyon walls had grown, and reached over 100 feet high along the wash. I pulled out my map, and decided to turn off into a blind canyon that entered to the south side of the wash, to look for a fresh water spring to replenish my Nalgene bottles. Entering the shade of the narrow slot canyon, I could feel the cool air flowing past me. The floor of the canyon was choked wall to wall with growth. Pushing my way slowly through the undergrowth I came at last to the back wall of the canyon. There at it’s base was a small pool of clear water. I filled my bottles, and poured some water over my head to cool off. Even for late September, it was getting warm out.

Photo of Harris Wash – from Panoramio

Returning to the main canyon, I continued on. By now the only path was the water. The canyon floor was covered wall to wall with luscious green undergrowth. Walking through ankle deep stream was the only option. The sounds inside of the canyon were otherworldly. There was an underlying silence that was punctuated by the sounds of birds, and the rustle of leaves. The colors of the sandstone walls varied from orange, to buff, to a deep russet patina over the smooth rock face. In places they came together almost close enough to stretch out your arms and touch both sides. In other places the canyon widened, and large deposits of sand rose like hills along one side of the canyon, dotted with brush and cacti.

There was no path to follow but the water, snaking its way through the stone, folding back upon its self, over and over. I surrendered myself to the canyon and followed the stream as it deepened, and widened, the water flowing into it from the stone itself. North facing walls sported beards of moss as the water seeped from inside the red rock. I stopped many times to explore the width of the canyon, or marvel at the smooth walls carved like an amphitheater, now rising over 1,000 feet above me. In the recesses of a high cliff wall, I could see the remains of a stone granary, left behind by the Fremont peoples, ancestors of the Pueblo Indians that lived in these canyons between 700 and 1,200 A.D. The ruins suspended in the middle of a sheer face, accessible only to the birds.

Harris Wash – photo from Panoramio

Following a side canyon to its end, I came upon ancient footholds, carved into the stone face, rising up the sloping canyon walls to the slick rock above. Even after one thousand years of erosion they were deep enough for an experienced rock climber to gain a grip. Not that I was an experienced climber, or had any such delusions to climb the steep walls. Being there alone was adventure enough for me.

Finally, as the afternoon sun began creeping up the walls, and shadows deepened through the canyons, I came upon the Escalante River. Harris Wash flowed out, and blended with the water coming down the river from the high country to the north. The Escalante canyon was much wider here, with a broad arid plateau 15 to 20 feet above the water line, dotted with desert plants. As hard as it is for a Midwesterner to believe, they graze cattle in these canyons, releasing them in the spring to forage the undergrowth, and rounding them up in the fall and sorting them out between ranchers. While I never came upon any cattle in my wanderings, I did come upon the skeleton of one, an unsettling sight to say the least.

Escalante Canyon

After scouting out the area, I decided to make camp in a clearing on the flat bench above the river. I was doing well on food, and had been careful to keep my water re-filled at every chance I had. Sitting down in the evening light I looked at my map, and plotted my route for the following day. I planned to be down in the canyons for 4 nights, and figured I would spend the next day hiking down river to Neon Canyon, exploring the side canyons along the way, and return back to this spot in the evening. That evening I slept well, my dreams carrying me away like a river, deeper and deeper into the wild. I awoke in the before dawn, to a low rumble, like a growl, rolling in from a great distance. Walking outside and looking into the sky to the west, the stars had disappeared, and a faint flicker over the horizon told me what I feared was true. Rain was moving in slowly to the Kaiparowits plateau, and with it would come the flood. I considered my options. I could stay where I was and wait out the flood, spending perhaps another two nights on the high ground in the wide Escalante canyon, until I could hike back out Harris Wash. Or I could pack quickly and turn back up Harris Wash in the morning, to a spot 3 miles away where a wide bend in the canyon had left a bench of land, sheltered beneath the sloping, thousand foot walls, 30 feet above the water. I choose to head back.

Crossing the Escalante

So I crossed back over the Escalante and began the hike up Harris Wash. The sky to the west was dark and overcast, I was sure it was raining up at the higher elevations. I hurried through every narrow slot, prepared to have to seek high ground at any moment. Finally, I reached the spot that I remembered from the previous day, and climbed the bench to set up camp, and wait. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, waiting and worrying. There was little that I could do, and I stayed calm and pragmatic. I found shelter in an alcove, on a level above the river that supported growth that appeared to be years old, and had obviously not suffered from flash flooding. So I waited.

Camp site waiting out the flood

About 3 o’clock in the afternoon I heard it coming. A noise like a freight train approaching down the canyon. The noise grew louder, as did my heartbeat. Climbing to the top of a small hillock, I got a good view of the nearest upstream bend in the canyon. Finally it came into view, a 3 foot high boiling wall of mud and debris, the color of a chocolate milkshake. It flowed on down the canyon picking up branches, and wood, and carrying it away. The noise rattled and echoed off the thousand foot high walls, and I wondered how long it would last. Hour after hour went by. I wrote in my journal, and read a little bit, but it was hard to concentrate. It was not a peaceful sleep that night, sitting there alone with my thoughts, wondering how long I would be stuck there. There was only one way in, and one way out of Harris Wash, and for the moment it belonged to the river.

The first thing I did when I awoke was to check the level of the river. It had subsided over night, and the mud, and debris had given way to murky brown water about knee deep. I packed my bag ate a little breakfast and started the long, slow slog out of the canyon. It took me most of the day to hike the 7 miles back to where the Jeep Trail crossed the wash. With each step my boots would sink into the soft muddy bottom of the stream, and tug at my legs as I pulled them out. If nothing else, it was a heck of a workout.

When I reached the car, I stripped off my boots, and wool socks, and threw them in the trunk. With mud drying on my legs, I started the car and started making my way back up Hole in the Rock road. The culverts over the low spots had held during the rain, and within a few minutes I was back on the highway headed west. That night I would check into a Casino hotel in Nevada, still caked in mud and smelling like a wild animal. I made the mistake of leaving my mud saturated boots in the trunk of my car, and there they sat baking for several days. When I finally took them out they were as hard as red bricks.

It had been a little over a year since I had left New York behind, and begun my life on the road. In that time I had crossed the country twice, and struggled to find my place in the world beyond college. When I went into the canyons I wondered how I would manage with such solitude. In the end I came away not with hallucinogenic visions, or deep enlightened thoughts, but with a pragmatic, matter-of-fact outlook on my surroundings and situation. It was deeply moving and lovely being surrounded by such grandeur, but I found my thoughts continually returning to the mundane matters of food, water, and shelter. The beauty of this world will never cease to amaze me, but the true lesson of wilderness is that survival is ultimately all that matters. God may know the number of hairs on our heads, but nature is utterly indifferent to our very existence. After crossing the Escalante, there would be no looking back.

The Ballad of Yellowstone Sue

Oh hell. I’m teaching again, and it’s been a busy week, what with my dark corporate overlords collecting their quarterly pound of flesh, so here’s a rerun environmentally conscious, re-cycled blog post, following along in yesterday’s great Wisconsin paper valley milleau.

It was ‘round about the winter of 1991, and I was a confused and conflicted young man still trying to re-build from disaster of my last semester at Clarkson and find my place in the working world. I had already been a resounding failure in the first district office I had worked in, Birmingham, Alabama, and I was taking another shot at a fresh start with our office in Chicago. As I mentioned before, I had been placed on a long term assignment at a new construction site in Northern Wisconsin, where I was the youngest and the greenest of our 5 person crew at the site. We were working long hours during the day, and spending the long winter nights in the neon lit bars of Wisconsin’s “paper valley”.

Main Street Nekoosa WI

Like I said, I had still not found my groove after losing most if not all of my self confidence during my final days in college. Like most new grads I hated my job, and was very disillusioned about my choice of career. Lucky for me, the other four engineers on the project were all younger than 25, so my life outside of work wasn’t as miserably lonely as it had been during my stint in the South.

It was after work one afternoon, when my friends Cathy and Joe and I stopped into the supermarket across the street from our hotel to lay in some supplies. She was working one of the registers, and when she looked at me and smiled, her piercing blue eyes made me suddenly speechless. There was no doubt, I was smitten. I told Cathy and Joe about it at dinner that night and they both goaded me in to returning. So on my second trip back to the grocery store that evening I made sure to stake out the registers until her line was empty. Then I picked up a pack of M&M’s, walked up to her, and struck up a conversation.

She was just out of college as well, with a degree in Elementary Education, that old stand-by for women who are lacking in imagination. She was living at home and substitute teaching for the winter, working at the store to save some cash until Spring. Then she would hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, before finally entering the working world. I was intrigued. She was fun to talk to, and not at all shy about sharing intimate details of her life, hopes and dreams with a total stranger. Still, I was a chicken, so when someone else got in line at her register I said goodbye and left. Back in my room at the Chalet Motel I was tortured. Why hadn’t I asked her out? How could I let that opportunity pass? So I swallowed my pride and with a pounding heart, and sweaty hands I went back to the supermarket.

On the third trip through her line that evening I confessed to her that I wasn’t really addicted to M&M’s, but that I wanted to know if she’d like to maybe, possibly, like, um… go out sometime, maybe. The date was on.

We met at a local restaurant one evening that weekend and our conversation picked up where it had left off. She told me of the wonderful and amazing subculture that “through” hiking the Appalachian Trail was. How each Spring people from all parts of the country and world, in all different stages of their life, began the journey from Springer Mountain Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Northern Maine. On the way they developed friendships, and “trail families” that looked out for each other, and pitched in to help each other reach that common goal. It was a life changing experience for all of them, and when they finally reached the summit of Katahdin in October they would never be the same.

I was enthralled. Now I had done some hiking in Alabama and Georgia the previous summer. With no friends, and no place but a hotel room to call home it was one of the few pursuits I had found where being alone wasn’t such a socially unacceptable thing. But I had never conceived of such an adventure as that. I wanted to join her, and as we continued to date, I began to read books about “the Trail” and dreamed of quitting my job and going from living out of a car, to living out of a backpack. It was so romantic, and seemed to be just what I needed. A six month sabbatical in the woods to find myself, and my calling.

But there was more. I was smitten with her. She was a tall, apple cheeked, all natural girl, with eyes as blue as a glacial lake and seemingly as deep. She had a mystique that reminded me of Ingrid Bergman in the movie “Casablanca”. I remember one night after shooting pool with my friends, we stayed up half the night talking and telling each other stories about the places we had been and the adventures we dreamed of having. So it came as no great surprise when under a dishwater gray March sky I made up my mind. I was going with her.

I bought a backpack. I bought a tent. I made a list of all the gear I would need. I bought maps, and started planning my trip. Then I told her. She was thrilled, but made me promise her that I was going because deep in my heart I was doing it for me. She said that if I was doing it for her I wasn’t welcome. I lied of course, what could I do?

Then I told my family. Well if the trouble I had gotten into before graduation didn’t kill my parents, this would surely finish the job. They cried, they screamed, they pleaded. How could I be so stupid? How could I throw away a good paying job, and ruin my career. Nobody would ever hire me again after a boneheaded decision like that. They even convinced my big bruddah to call me up and tell me not to make the same mistake he did when he dropped out of college to hitchhike around the country.

I was torn. I wanted so bad to chuck it all, tell my family to get bent, and for once in my life think only of myself. But I knew I couldn’t do such a thing. Then fate intervened. I got a call from my district manager that they needed a body on a job in Alabama. So there it was. I could say yes, pack my bags that night and go to Alabama, or I could say no and…

I packed my bags that night, and said goodbye to Sue. She was cool with it. Nothing ever upset her. After she left I cried like a pathetic little baby.

The funny thing is she never did hike the Appalachian Trail. Her friends backed out, and when Spring came she didn’t have the cash. So instead she found a job in Sequoia National Park working at a snack bar. You see she had spent the previous three summers working summer jobs in Yellowstone National Park, and had become something of a seasonal employment groupie to the National Park System. I never knew there even was such a thing.

So I went South again to Alabama for a week, and when the job ended I was back to sucking flyash, and crawling boilers in Waukegan, Illinois. We wrote letters to each other. The dormitory in Sequoia only had one pay phone. The difference between her letter’s filled with awesome vistas of the Sierra, and mine filled with descriptions of the purple chemical sunsets of Waukegan, Illinois couldn’t be more striking. I was miserable in Chicago. My district manager thought I was a malcontent. I thought he was a jerk. I had to get out of there. It was my second district office in 12 months, and I was running out of country. So during the national meeting that summer I lobbied hard with the Denver district manager and the following week I was headed West. Sure I was still 800 miles from Sue, but I was getting closer.

I had a week’s vacation coming so I decided to fly to San Francisco with my friend Joe, and help him drive an Alfa Romeo Spider he had just bought, back to Chicago. I called Sue and told her, I’d be on her doorstep a week from Saturday. So exactly one week from Saturday, as the sun sank into the California sky, and the stars blinked on above the Sierra Nevada, we drove the Spider up the mountain into the park and showed up on her doorstep. She wasn’t there. She’d left for the weekend, and told no one where she’d be.

In the Sierra Nevada

I was crushed, and humiliated. The gods mocked me all the way back across the country. I was angry, but I couldn’t let it rest. So I wrote her. She apologized. Her parents had come to town unexpectedly, so she’d left with them for the weekend, and had no way to tell me. Fair enough I assumed, I couldn’t hold that against her could I? It’s amazing the depths to which a person will delude themselves over a pretty girl.

In the mean time I had finally hit my stride at work. I clicked with Charlie, my new boss, and suddenly big time responsibility, and projects were mine. The chances I never got in Birmingham, or Chicago were mine at last. Amazingly, I didn’t screw them up, and soon I was a rising star in the district. I decided work wasn’t so bad after all. I bought a Jeep, and started putting that backpack and tent to use on the weekends. Gradually I began to forget about Sue.

Then while working in Salt Lake City, Utah that September I got a letter from her.

She had found a position for the fall in Yellowstone National Park. She was only 6 hours away! When the job in Salt Lake ended, with no phone number and no idea where to find her in a national park the size of Connecticut, I headed north. It was the week after Labor Day, and the hordes of summer tourists had disappeared. The elk had come down from the higher elevations to mate. The temperature had dropped, and steam rose from the paint pots and fumaroles in the cold morning air as I entered the park that Saturday. After a day of searching, she was nowhere to be found. I was bummed. I thought that intuition, and luck couldn’t possibly fail me now. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d never find her, then I stopped at Old Faithful Lodge to get some lunch before heading home. I looked up, and there she was, my waitress.

Yellowstone

She got off work at four, so I stuck around. We spent two hours walking around the trails by the lodge talking. It was funny. There was nothing there. No spark, no interest. Just the same stories I had heard the previous spring, only this time in the midst of all the glory of Yellowstone they seemed as flat and dull as the Midwest. We promised to keep in touch and I left.

Over the years we did keep in touch. Each winter and summer I’d find a letter in my mail box telling me what park she happened to be working at. She never did get a job teaching school. She just cooked fries, and served food to a mobile nation of old guys in Bermuda shorts, and women with bouffant hairdos. A few years later we started corresponding via e-mail. She was working in Colorado for Outward Bound. Still seasonal, but no longer beholden to the whims of Government budgets. Her e-mails were full of the plans she was making, and the things she was going to do. She still hadn’t hiked the Appalachian Trial.

The funny part is I did eventually climb Springer Mountain in Georgia. When I reached the summit it was surrounded in fog. I sat down to take a rest, and the clouds began to part. Sitting there watching the fog roll back from the southern foot of the Appalachians I realized I had done it for myself after all. I may not have walked all the way to Maine, but the path I had chosen I had cleared myself, and it belonged to me alone.

The Trail up Springer Mountain

Working at the Mill

As I’ve talked about before, my first few months out of college were a bit of a struggle for me, as they are for most people. The transition from the unstructured, chaotic life of a college student, to the long boring expanse of the workday is never an easy one. Adding to my misery was the cultural upheaval of being assigned to a district office in Birmingham, Alabama.  The Southeast district was full of middle age engineers who had no interest in training, or helping out some kid from New York, and my days in the deep South were lonely. I struggled with the Southern culture, and never really felt at ease out on my own in the Deep South. I just stuck out too much. I used to just dread hearing someone say in that slow drawl “You ain’t from around here, are ya boy?” while in the distance a banjo played.

So when I was sitting in the district office in the Autumn, and the Area Manager came up to me and asked if I would be willing to head up to the Chicago district to help staff an outage inspection I responded “I can be packed noon.” By nightfall I had crossed the river into Illinois, and I felt like getting out of the car and kissing the ground. The Chicago district manager had a young female engineer that he correctly had deduced wasn’t long for the lifestyle of a field service engineer, and had talked the Birmingham office into a swap. I was the player to be named later. They took me sight unseen, willing to take a chance on me only because I was a guy. The Y-chromosome has more privileges than just being able to pee standing up.

The Chicago district was a big change from Birmingham. The field service staff was larger, and split almost equally between veterans, and young engineers in their first few years of work. After a few short weeks in Central Illinois, they sent me up to Wisconsin to be the 5th person on a startup. The project was the construction of a new recovery boiler in Nekoosa, at the Georgia Pacific paper mill. GP had just recently taken over the 100 year old Nekoosa mill, in a hostile takeover that was all too common at the time. The Paper business was struggling through the recession, and the bigger fish were out gobbling up the little Mom and Pop mills all over. This was my first project at the Paper Mill, and the difference between it and working at a coal plant was striking.

Nekoosa Mill - photo copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

The mill was close to 100 years old, and had been added onto over the years, giving it a real cobbled together look. Nekoosa was a small mill town, with only about 2,500 residents. The as you can see in the postcard above, the city consisted of a Paper Mill on one side of main street, and a row of businesses on the other side. The paper mill expansion was a huge boom time for the town. There were several hundred Union laborers working on the project, and the city was always swarming with guys in Carharts coming and going in their pickups.

I showed up at the plant, and began asking around for our construction trailer. It was across the street from the plant, in a parking lot across from the Jack ‘n Jill supermarket. I had not been on a start-up project yet, just outage work, and the buzz of activity going on around the place was a bit disorienting. Walking into the trailer I was surprised to see that the field service crew was as young as I was. There were four of them on the project, and during the next 6 months, I would come and go as the workload ebbed and flowed, helping out as the 5th guy whenever things got busy. The project lead was a quiet bearded guy, who seldom spoke more than 2 words. He was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and had been working startups in the Paper Valley of central Wisconsin for about 5 years. The rest of the crew consisted of Mike, a 3rd year field guy from Massachusetts, Cathy, a 2nd year engineer from Worschester, Mass, and Joe, another 2nd year guy from Aurora, Illinois. We also shared out trailer with the team from ABB Impel, who were the control system contractors, and had 3-4 young 20-something electrical engineers on the project.

Nekoosa Mill - Photo copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

It did not take long to fit into the crew. Mike and Cathy were classic extroverted Easterner’s, quick to laugh, or swear like sailors. Joe, or “Jumpin’ Joe” as we called him, was a quiet Midwestern guy that made Eeyore seem like an optimist. As for the boss, the “Quiet Man” tried to fade into the background, and pretty much left Mike to communicate with us kids and give us our daily assignments. Being older, he had a wife and kids, and had been in Central Wisconsin long enough to buy a house and settle down. A rarity in our line of work. The rest of us had overrun the Chalet Motel in Wisconsin Rapids, a town of about 10,000, about 15 miles up river.

It was late Autumn when I arrived on the project, and deer hunting season in Wisconsin was another new cultural experience. In Packerland just about everybody hunts, and if the talk isn’t about the Packers, it’s about hunting. For a bunch of college kids from towns and cities, the Up North accent, and blaze orange cammo’ amused us to no end. I discovered that folks in Wisconsin are some of the friendliest, and most welcoming people you will ever meet. It wasn’t long before I knew the names of all the old Ladies working the front desk at the motel, or in the deli at the Jack and Jill.

Winter came quickly, and the weather reminded me of my days in Potsdam. But unlike school, I was now working outside in it. I was not set up for working in the cold, and I soon had to get to the Shopko, and Fleet Farm to get outfitted in Carhardt, wool socks, and long johns. Dad also helped out when I was home for Thanksgiving, by setting me up with some helmet liners for my hardhat. Those “Rocky the Squirrel” liners looked absolutely ridiculous, but were a life saver. I doubt I’d have made it through the winter without them.

The hours were long, and often required us to pull night shifts, or weekend shifts to keep the project on track. I had no idea what to do, but Cathy and Joe were great about taking me under their wing, and helping show me the ropes. Most of our work at the point in time was checking out the electrical system, and doing wire tests with multimeters to make sure things were wired properly before we fired them up. A recovery boiler is smaller than a large coal fired boiler. The boiler building was only about 8 stories tall, and much tighter inside due to the amount of process piping involved. A recovery boiler provides steam to run the paper machines, and co-generate some electricity through a small steam turbine. The fuel is actually a byproduct of the paper making process.

“Black Liquor” as it is called, is a byproduct slurry of wood pulp, and chemicals that comes off of the digester tanks. It is sprayed into the furnace through oscillating guns that look like fire hose nozzles, and as it burns it forms a pool in the bottom of the furnace. That pool of burning liquid, then pours out through a tap into another tank below, having now been transformed into “green liquor”, which is then fed back into the digester. This allows the mill to recover the inorganic chemicals used in the Kraft process for making paper. The Kraft process is as foul, and smelly as they come, and is responsible for much of the rotting eggs mixed with flowers smell that hovers in every Paper Mill town. The whole process is quite involved, and results in a lot of humidity being vented into the atmosphere, which in the winter time means that a paper mill is always surrounded in fog.

Nekoosa Mill copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

We’d arrive in the morning, and that smell would hit us as soon as we crossed the bridge into Nekoosa. By the time we left to go home at night, the town would glow in a yellow cloud, and the smell would have permeated our clothes. On Friday’s we’d stop for Happy Hour in one of the bars in Nekoosa before heading back to Rapids, and getting cleaned up. One Wednesday night in March, Cathy (a good Irish Catholic girl) and I were sitting at the bar feeling guilty about being out drinking on Ash Wednesday, when our guilt got the better of us and we left the bar after 2 beers to go to Mass in our work clothes and receive ashes. You aren’t truly Catholic until you have gone to mass drunk. As filthy, and smelly as we were after working in the mill all day, I think the priest’s thumb actually left a clean spot on my forehead.

Nekoosa Mill copyright Shane Rucker @ http://woodcountywisconsin.blogspot.com/

As I said before, Main Street in Nekoosa consisted of a Paper Mill on one side of the street and a row of bars on the other. The bars were making a killing off of the craft laborers that year. Every night at quitting time the guys would pour across the street from the construction site to the bars. Each Union had their own bar. Being college grads, we usually drank with the Electrician’s, who are like the intelligentsia of craft laborers. Meaning they can read. Mike was the only one of us crazy enough to hit the bars next door with the Pipefitters, and Millwrights. But only on rare occasions would he go into the Boilermaker or Ironworker bars though. Those two were the places the fights broke out.

Winter in Wisconsin is a 6 month long reason to drink. Not that Wisconsinites need a reason. I remember one Saturday we all piled into the car and headed up to Rib Mountain in Wausau to go skiing. Afterwards we stopped in the lounge at the Holiday Inn to have a few drinks. There was a band playing, and things quickly got out of hand. I remember being out on the dance floor with some girls that we had met, and looking up to see Cathy on stage playing drums in the band. When the bar closed at 2 am, the waitresses came around with plastic “to go” cups for everyone to take their drinks home with them. I can remember thinking “What a country!” Wasting a drink was a bigger concern than drunk driving.

There were many nights like that during the Winter of 90-91. We’d drink on weeknights in town, and on weekends we’d sometimes road trip to Madison to drink and sleep 4 to a room in some dive hotel within walking distance of State Street. The funny part about it, is that it wasn’t that out of the norm. By Wisconsin standards we were all tea-totalers.

Winter passed slowly, and I came and went several times while the project churned slowly on. By summer 1991, most of the systems were operational, and the staff was greatly reduced. We each went our different ways. I was transferred again, this time to the Denver district office. Joe went back to Chicago, and worked the ComEd plants. Mike stayed on in the Paper Valley for awhile, before finding work back in the HQ in Connecticut. Cathy switched to the performance testing group based out of Connecticut as well. You can take the kids out of Massachusetts, but you won’t take the Massachusetts out of the kid.

Those were some great days though. I’d never have known that I would end up in Minnesota, married to a good Wisconsin girl, but it wasn’t that hard to imagine. I’ve never felt more at home, than I did working in Nekoosa that winter. We’ve all grown up now. I have lost touch with both Cathy and Joe, as they have their own families and have moved on like me. But when this gray season of overcast skies, and low hanging fog roll into the upper midwest, my mind returns to Nekoosa.

Optima dies, prima fugit.

Sitting beside the Lake of Memories

Another Friday slips through our fingers, puddling in a pool of memories. Spring Break begins in a few hours. Time to sit in a window and meditate. Peace everyone.

Disclaimer: This blog post contains 90% post consumer recycled material

I can think of nowhere more peaceful than a window looking out at Lake Superior. No music. No television. No Internet. No electronic distractions buzzing through my brain, just an old fashioned book of dead trees, and the slow tick, tick, tick of the clock above the mantle, counting the time.
Time.
Time.
Time.
The slow inexorable drip of time. Like melting water falling from the eaves, it splashes around my feet, and puddles in pools of memories.

I have always felt the passage of time, and struggled with desperation to catch it in my hands, and hold it back. Just a little longer, another season, another year. Even as a kid I had the curse of melancholy and mourned it’s passage. Somehow I knew, once it was gone it could never come back. But things seemed so permanent then. When you are 10, or 15, it is hard to imagine the world looking, or being any different.

Each year had a number assigned to it, and seemed to take an eternity to pass. It is easy to place those memories. 4th Grade, Sister Annette, the year that my Big Bruddah was a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame. The year we drove out for parents weekend to see ND play Oregon. The year that Joe Montana and the green machine won the National Championship. 1977-78. Tagged, classified, and filed away in my memory.

But as we age, time speeds up. The increments we use to mark it get wider. High School, freshman year, walking to school in the mornings because a girl I knew who lived on State street also walked to school. Timing my departure to the minute so that when I reached the top of Prospect, she would be passing by on Richmond and we could have a “chance” encounter on our way to school. Hoping that time would slow down for the 5 block walk to ND to give me more time with her. Spring 1983.

Then time begins to change not only the season, but our location as well. Our memories begin to break free of the years, and attach themselves to a place. A winter night in Potsdam, walking home from the bars on Market Street. Crossing the bridge onto Fall Island alone. Walking out to the edge of the weir, standing above the rushing water as the snowflakes blew in through through the collar of my old Air Force wool overcoat. Listening for a siren’s call in the wind. Winter 1987? 88? 89? Winter in Potsdam.

And then the years are no longer named or numbered. The tether holding them fixed in time breaks loose. For a decade I measured them in terms of jobs. The 4 years on the road. Three and a half years at a small company in Plymouth. The interminable twelve years I have spent with my current Corporate overlords. A summer afternoon in Paris between meetings. Walking the streets, and riding the Metro, sweating in the sweltering July weather, when every sensible Parisian was away at the coast. What Company was that? What year?

And now the long, broad expanse of parenthood. Time stretches out like the prairie in front of me. I can ride for days, and it seems like I have hardly moved, but time is passing more quickly now. The kids are growing so fast. Already their toddler years are fading from my memory. They are already ten and eleven, and halfway to leaving home. We build a home around them, feed them in body, mind and spirit, and do our best to prepare them for what lies ahead. But it all blurs together. Sometimes I am sitting at my desk, in the fluorescent hum of my office, and I have to stop myself, and try to focus. What season is it? Is it Fall? Winter? or Spring? Think… I saw snow on my way to work, it was melting, it is Spring today, I am sure of it. Check the calender to confirm it.

Time.
Time.
Time.
The drips are closer now, and have become a stream. The sun beats down on the roof, and the snow is melting faster with each passing day. How long before the roof stands exposed in the bright heat of summer? How many more days, and nights, before the memories, like the melting snow, are all washed downriver to an ocean beyond our reckoning?