Sunday, August 28, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 269: Tucker Mythology - Western Spaghetti

Tucker Mythology
Western Spaghetti

We hadn't known each other for even a year. Tucker had turned fourteen. I'd turned fifteen. At that point, I was trying to get a handle on what was adult and what was cool. They were different things.  I'd seen a few Clint Eastwood movies on late night television but, although Clint seemed sort of cool, I had no desire to emulate him. Tucker was four years away from falling in love with those films and learning the term 'Spaghetti Western.' After that, it was a term he used for the rest of his life. Usually, he said it with a delighted smile.

But that day, we were still getting to know each other. And he thought I was weird.

"What are you doing?" Tucker asked from the top of the stairs. He thumped down to my spot on the landing. "Have you lost your senses?"

"I was just curious." I'd already finished half of the sandwich. So far, it had been good.

During the Korean War and Vietnam War years, American tastes in food had gotten pretty simple. Lunch was baloney and cheese if you had the money. Dinner was meat, a potato, and a vegetable. Our country's tastes were dominated by the question, 'Is there enough?' Once World War II ended and there was, in fact, enough, tastes changed. Our parents found time to worry about the extent of their enjoyment. So did we.

I was the first person I knew to try this sandwich, banana and peanut butter together. It was something I'd read about, a bit of weirdness I'd encountered in a paragraph about Elvis. The combination had been cited as an example of how unhinged he had become. And yes, the idea of it was weird. Elvis was a strange, fat and sloppy man who smelled bad even through the television. But I guessed he had been right about peanut butter and bananas.

"How is it?" Tucker leaned against my basement wall, his head to one side.

"Needs milk," I answered. "Or honey."

"You're going to do it again?"

"Maybe." Definitely, I thought.

When I considered food, it was normally for the purpose of withholding it from myself, fasting. Or for choosing the healthiest of a few options. This time, I'd read something about food and it had turned out to be a treat. That by itself was a departure from accepting the usual boiled meat and vegetables at my table.

Boiled foods were healthy. There were no diseases on them. And they were virtuous. When I was even younger, one of our family friends had ranted in front of me - to her husband but where we could all hear - about sugary foods. She had been scandalized by my birthday. It was the concept of cake and ice cream that launched the tirade. Bad enough, she felt, that you got a treat. Either type of sweet dessert was allowable for a special occasion. Having them both together, though, was not only bad for your body but bad for your soul. You couldn't have two tasty things together. That was degeneracy. Her parents had not approved when she was young. And she didn't approve, either.

Tucker's parents would have expressed similar opinions, I think. His father, at least, had expressed the idea of food simplicity unprompted.

This started on a Saturday. Tucker came to see if I was free and I was, or near enough. We played during the middle of the day at the creek. Then, back at my house, we spent the afternoon cracking croquet balls across the lawn with my brother, took a break to eat apples and cheese sandwiches, switched to throwing baseballs, then tennis balls, and we started a game of freeze tag with frisbees (you had to stand and get hit with a frisbee) when Tucker's father called him in.

"See you tomorrow," he said.

And the next day, Sunday, was more of the same. We set up and knocked down a volleyball net, We played a game of croquet. After that, strolled around with mallets and whacked weeds that I had missed when I'd cut the grass. We reached the east side of my house, the downhill part of the yard. Tucker lifted his head.
"That smells really good." He turned toward a side window. "What is it?"

"My dad's making spaghetti." It wasn't my favorite but my dad did a good job of it. Also, he enlisted my help as a second set of hands on the dinner. The prospect of the meal usually meant I didn't complain about doing the work. At least once a month, our family got a break from boiled meat and boiled vegetables. This was one of those times, his April batch.

"That doesn't smell like spaghetti." Tucker's mouth hung open. "It smells good."

"He's making the sauce." I paused to think for a moment. It was still early, plenty of time to negotiate with our parents. "Do you want to stay for dinner?"

"I don't know," he said. "I don't like spaghetti. But the sauce smells really good."

"I guess."

'I didn't know you could make your own sauce."

As we played and talked more, I learned that spaghetti and chow mein were the only ethnic foods that Tucker knew. They both came from a can. He didn't like either of them. But his dad tolerated spaghetti, so his mother made it regularly. Well, she poured it from a Chef Boyardee can and heated it as a side dish. Spaghetti was a bland accompaniment to the real food as far as Tucker was concerned.

"You know what?" he said as we hiked back to the shed to return our mallets. "I'm going to go ask."

"Ask what?"

"If I can stay for dinner. I'll have to speak up before my mom starts cooking. Otherwise, it's no."

"Dad?" I yelled into the house. "Can Tucker stay for dinner?"

"It's spaghetti," my father shouted back. He glared at me across the kitchen. He was proud of his spaghetti. He also coveted it. Nothing irritated him more than not having enough for leftovers. With three boys in year-round athletic training, he found it hard to make batches big enough to last a few days.

"That's why," I said.

"Oh really?" He put his hand on his hip and gave a cynical smile. "Right, then. I'll add some more stewed tomatoes."

Tucker got the timing right with his parents. He obtained his required permission.

"I have to do a bunch of chores first," he added. I shrugged off the news because I'd expected it. He hadn't stayed for dinner before but Tucker had asked his parents for favors in my hearing. I knew whenever he asked for something, he would work extra chores as part of the deal. He marched back to take care of his list. I figured I might as well start the homework I'd been ignoring.

In the late afternoon, Tucker returned for more games. We hiked and played catch until the sun dipped below the tree line. Not long after, an incoming cloud front turned the sky dark.

By my family's standards, we were still early when we walked in. But Tucker turned down the offer of a peach and resisted all other snacks. Instead, he stared, fascinated, as I stirred sauce for a while. He studied my father as he added spices to the saucepan. Tucker backed off, alarmed, as we boiled and drained the pasta. He hadn't seen that before. Then, patiently, he waited.

On the plates in his home, meat and potatoes were the main features. In our setting, spaghetti was the main thing. Vegetables sat in separate bowls off to the side. You served yourself. But Tucker seemed afraid. My mother spooned him a hefty serving. He leaned in to sniff it. He grabbed his fork.

"Oh my god," Tucker said. He put his fork down after his first bite.


He leaned back. His chewing slowed. "My god."

"Is there a problem?" my father asked.

"No. I mean, no sir." His hand returned to his fork. He twirled up another helping. "I really like it, Mr. Gallagher."

"Good." The rest of my family exchanged puzzled looks.

Our side dishes were peas with butter and spinach with butter. With us, you could eat as much as you liked, as fast as you liked, until you were full or the food ran out. Often enough, we ran out and got full at the about same time. I ate half as much spinach as spaghetti. Tucker didn't touch the spinach. He watched, slack-jawed, as the rest went about our business. By his expression, he was stunned to see my brothers and I serve ourselves. The sight affected him nearly as much as the food.
Tucker had to stop himself after three helpings. It seemed like he wanted more, really, but he was trying to be polite.

In our generation, Tucker's food situation wasn't unusual. If a dish was traditional for non-Anglo-Americans, it was by definition an ethnic food. Bratwurst was German. Unleavened bread had to be Jewish. Chow mein was Chinese. Rich foods were French. All of them were regarded with suspicion by the descendants of English, Swedish, and Dutch immigrants.
Maybe Tucker didn't know he'd been longing for food that tasted better or at least different. But he had. And he wasn't alone. His conversion to homemade spaghetti was the beginning I witnessed to a generational change in American foods. 

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 268: Tucker Mythology - The Tree Fort

Tucker Mythology
The Tree Fort

This is how Tucker told it:

In the spring of 1981, while I was slogging through classes and fast food jobs at the University of Maryland, Tucker was having fun as a senior in high school. On the weekends, and sometimes the weekdays, he and my brother Dylan were building themselves a tree fort.

I’m not sure if they had a clear endgame for the tree fort. Maybe Tucker thought he would be able to invite babes over to smooch. Or he could maybe drink a beer in seclusion. But I think mostly the fort was just a cool thing in and of itself.

In order to build the fort, they chopped down a lot of trees that were about nine or ten inches thick.

To hoist the logs into place at the right height between four trees, they built a pulley system. When they worked out the method, they would chop down a tree, hack off the branches, haul it over to the right spot, tie each end with a rope, toss the ropes up and loop them through their pulley system, climb up to their starter log, hoist the new logs, and lash them into place. It was a long process and they took a long time coming to it. Their first starts were not efficient.

After a while though, they started getting the hang of the process. They cut down tree after tree, dragged them next to the fort, and stacked them.

One time, when my brother cut down a tree that was over a foot in diameter, it was more trouble than usual for Tucker to drag. As they were coming to their site, his hands slipped. His end of the log pulled the other end out of Dylan’s hands after it pulled Dylan off balance. To make it worse, the middle of their big log fell onto the stack of logs. The top of the stack acted like a fulcrum. As Tucker’s end fell down, the other end rose up and crushed my brother in the chest.

Dylan went down, gasping.

“I couldn’t help it,” Tucker told me later, “ it just looked so damn funny.“

Dylan stayed down for a while. Eventually, Tucker stopped laughing and realized it was kind of serious. And Dylan recovered enough to get up. Then he got so indignant about Tucker laughing before that Tucker started laughing again at how indignant he was.

The two of them continued to work on the fort for another couple weeks. Each workday, they spent time stacking more logs beside their work site and lashing more and more of them into place. When Tucker had half of a platform built, he started to feel proud about it. The project had taken a lot of work. And brains, too. They had to figure out a lot of details.

Weeks later when the two were lashing more logs to the platform, Tucker slipped. The log that he was hoisting spun out of the pulley system. His right leg got flung up and out by the rope. A moment later, the rest of his body followed the falling log to the ground.

He could have hit the log that he had been working on and had his skull broken in a couple of places. Or he could have landed on the stack of logs and broken his spine. But instead, Tucker says, he landed on his back between the two sets of logs. His vision exploded in a burst of color, then blackness. For a moment, he passed out.. He blinked at the boughs overhead.

Dylan hopped to the edge of the platform. He pointed down at Tucker.

“Ha!” he yelled. “Now you know how it feels!”

Tucker was in no shape to reply for a long while.

“Eric,” he told me later. “He was completely right. And I realized that I was really lucky. That fall could’ve been a lot worse. People break their necks doing stuff like that. And I have no skull  in the back of my head. It could’ve been bad. I had a headache for a while. But I really wasn’t hurt.”

He paused, lost in thought for a moment.

"And he was right. I shouldn't have laughed. But man, when that hit him, it did look like the coyote getting smacked around in a road runner cartoon."

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 267: Tucker Mythology - Drunking and Driving

Tucker Mythology
Drunking and Driving

In 1979, I started drinking before driving home from parties. Tucker usually sat by my side. We went to a party every week or so. In fact, when someone else from school wasn't throwing a party, we'd hold one outdoors in the fields by our houses or we'd set up a place in the woods.

We drank mostly because the cool kids did and we wanted to seem mature. I had another motive, too, which was my makeout sessions with cute girls. If I drank enough, I would do funny things, people would laugh, I'd sit on a couch or a chair and, after a while, a girl would sit in my lap. Or she'd come by to chat me up and I'd pull her onto my lap while we talked. The arrangement usually ended in kissing and a little more. Those encounters are what kept me drinking.  
But as I drank more and longer into the night at parties, Tucker got worried that I was getting too tanked up to safely drive. He had witnessed my overly-cautious, impaired driving. He usually had a bit less than I did. Not always, but usually, and he didn't like what he was seeing when I'd drunk a lot.

One night at a house in Montgomery Village, Tucker told me I'd had too much to drive.

"I'm not going home with you right now, man," he said. "And you shouldn't go either."

He pointed to a girl who was a mutual friend of ours. On cue, she said, "Don't leave yet. Stay and sober up for a while."

But I had gotten grounded every week for a couple months running and I wanted to get home at the time I promised, so I decided to go. After I found my jacket and stuff, I discovered that Tucker had stolen my car keys. It took a moment to figure out what he'd done and barely another minute to steal them back.

"Eric, you're going to make me call your parents," he warned me.

I got furious and stomped out to my car.

That is, I tried. First, I had trouble finding my car. When I found it, I had trouble getting in. It was pointed in a different direction than I remembered. I opened the passenger door, slid in, and had trouble getting to the steering wheel because I'd left stuff in my own way. I put the key in the ignition, turned it, and nothing happened.

"Well, shit." For a second, I assumed I'd gotten into the wrong station wagon. I'd done that before. But I checked the ashes in the ashtray, the hat on the seat, and the papers on the floor. It sure looked like my family car.

I got out of the passenger door and walked around to the other side. After fumbling around on the street, trying to look sober when a car passed me, I managed to slide in. But I blanked out for a while. When I woke up, I remembered I was supposed to be driving home and tried to find the steering wheel in the dark. I fumbled for the wheel, couldn't find it, gave up, and rested. After I revived and slapped myself across the face a few times to wake up better, I got systematic. I carefully ran my hands across the dashboard in front of me from the left side of the car to the right. Dumfoundingly, I missed the steering wheel again. And I remembered that the car hadn't started anyway, before. This was getting to be a puzzle. As I thought, arms folded, I gave up on some level. For a serious block of time, I slept. I even woke up for a moment to move from sitting to lying down.

When I roused myself, I found that my eyes had adjusted better to shadows from the distant street lamp. Or maybe I was more sober. Anyway, I saw that I was in the back seat of my car.

"I'm going to be late," I told myself and hopped out. I dashed around to the driver's seat. For sure, I felt less drunk than I had earlier.

Once again, I turned the key in the ignition and got nothing.

Well, I was grounded again, for sure, and I had a date coming up. That seemed bad. I stalked back to the house, trying to figure out how to manage more time with my girlfriend. Her parents hated me. Mine hated me, too. It was a challenge. In the party home, a fair number of teens were still wandering the halls and having fun. But the place seemed quieter. Maybe half the guests had left. I successfully found and used the first floor bathroom. Soon, I felt better. I'd gotten more beer out of my system.

With my face cool and drying from a washup, I went looking for people I knew.

"You've been gone a long time," said the girl who was our mutual friend. I found her, Tucker, and another teen at a kitchen table.

"Yeah." I rested my hands on the back of an empty chair. "My car won't start."

"You found your car?" she said, startled.

"Well, yeah."  Duh. My legs started to feel shaky. I leaned more on the chair.

"I guess we didn't hide it enough."

"What?" I pulled out the chair and took a seat.

"We were all worried." She said it as if it were a natural thing but, for teenagers in 1979, it wasn't. Our state had laws against drunk driving but no one enforced them.

"Yeah." Tucker tapped the table top. His hand made a hollow, metallic sound. "Everyone thought moving your car would do it. I was sure it wouldn't, though."

"What have you got in your hand?" I could see it was something black and round.

"Your distributor cap."

Tucker had taken the distributor cap off my family car and hidden it behind a houseplant. He'd gone a step beyond taking my keys from my jacket and putting them in his. Those, I'd had no problem finding. But the distributor cap was something I'd barely known existed. Finally, I understood.

After getting mad and snatching back the distributor cap, I staggered back out, opened up the hood, and fumbled around for about ten minutes. I was working by the light of a streetlamp. I'd never put on a distributor cap before. At some point, Tucker appeared.

"Almost," he said.

He found the missing wire and put it back in place.

"You really still shouldn't drive, you know."  

I was still angry and hoping to tone down my grounding enough to keep my usual pattern, which was four days grounded each week, Monday through Thursday, and then finding an excuse to take the car on Friday anyway. It usually worked.

I managed to drive home, still fairly wasted but more careful than usual. It didn't help. Tucker's phone call to my parents had done it. Grounded with extra force. No car for two weeks. Well, I broke that rule by offering to do errands a few days later when my parents didn't want to go but as far as taking the car on dates or to school, it seemed I really was stuck. Normally, I had college classes and had to drive to them. But the college semester ended earlier than the high school semester. So I didn't have my standard excuse. My parents could keep me grounded.

Every day for a week, I stood next to Tucker at the bus stop and didn't talk. I glared and didn't say a word. And kept glaring. Finally, near the end of the two weeks I got permission to run errands on a Friday, which I knew I could turn into taking the car on a date. Plus, Tucker kept telling me jokes. While I glared. I didn't say anything but a couple of times, he'd gotten me to laugh.

"She looks great today," he confided in me despite my silence. As the bus pulled up, he gazed longingly at one of the girls he was infatuated with.  

"Yeah," I agreed. He gave me a startled look.

I'd forgiven him already for being a traitor. In a way, I'd made up my mind about it. He could betray me again and I'd forgive him again. Likewise, he forgave me for being an idiot. Neither of us ever quite forgot. But somehow the foolishness of the other fools in school drew us together again. It was hard not to make jokes about the awfulness of our prison-mentality high school. And we were still best friends.

Even on the initial bus ride after I started talking, we laughed about the some of the same, stupid stuff we always did. A few hours later, at lunch, we started plotting about how to get away from our parents. But Tucker had me promise to at least try, just try, not to drive so drunk again.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Not Even Not Zen 266: Tucker Mythology - Nice, Another Near Death

Tucker Mythology

He held the door for others. Even in high school, when some were telling him it was sexist, he insisted it was the right thing. Because he would do it for anybody. If he saw anyone struggling to carry something, wrangle an awkward package through a door, or finish a task he understood, his instinct was to help.

He did help. A lot.

For years, he mowed the lawn and did chores outside not only for his own house but his neighbors. How many people do you know who actually do that? Maybe a handful. And he was one of them.

He would actually listen. Yes, he would talk, too. He might interrupt with his own ideas but in an age of people not quite hearing what others were saying, Tucker listened carefully. He loved to trade ideas. He could laugh and talk for an hour, two hours, sometimes more. Not everyone says thank you. He always said thanks.

He shoveled snow from the sidewalks for others. He committed to the community chores no one else wanted to do; he knew they needed done. He lent his heart in a real way, with his efforts. He lent his couch to friends.

He volunteered at the Isaac Walton League, of course, and worked there for a couple of decades to make a friendly, fun place to be. He saw neighbors raking leaves and pitched in. He brought treats to the office. And most of this, he didn't do for any other reason than the joy of seeing people smile and laugh.

Tucker Mythology
Just Another Near Death

In the fall of 1980, my brother Dylan and Tucker decided to visit me at University of Maryland. I was living on Patricia Court, off of Metzerott Road. Since I walked everywhere, when they visited, they had to walk with me.    

That afternoon, we decided to go bowling. It was a short walk up Metzerott Road and over the one lane bridge to reach route one. From there it was not much more than a block to the bowling alley. I had walked this path when I was a kid.  

As we hit route one and turned left, we continued talking, throwing stones, and cracking jokes. Tucker and Dylan got out in front.  I pointed out the bowling alley across the street. Tucker turned to finish making his joke and, with his back to traffic, he stepped out into the road.

At the same time, A car going about 55 miles an hour, the only car on the road, changed lanes into his lane. To hit Tucker. Dylan and I could see it clearly. But only Dylan could reach Tucker. He grabbed Tucker hard by the forearm and threw him back onto the sidewalk. An instant later the car barreled by. It never slowed down.

Some people do survive getting hit by a car. But I don’t think that speed was survivable. And Tucker didn’t know it had happened for a couple seconds. He was irritated at Dylan even when he heard and felt the winds of the car passing him by just a foot away.

“What the hell, man?“  His eyes widened in realization. “Oh, that was close!"

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 17: Washington and Vancouver 9, Our Neighborhood

Our Seattle Neighborhood

The northeast area of the city was modest, a swath of former suburbs that supported middle-class standalone homes edged by small yards. I don’t know where the wealthy neighborhoods of Seattle are; they're probably closer to downtown. This one was nice, though. The neighbors were pressed close together but in a comfortable way. It had a bit of a San Francisco feel in that the architecture styles looked random. Someone with an original World War II era cottage could sit next to a post-modern house, next to a craftsman style house, next to a Cape Cod, next to a shipping container house, next to a Tudor, next to a Victorian. In my home town, there's no place I can see variations in construction style thrown close together quite like that.

That evening in the northeast corner of the city, we checked out more of the local life. Oddly, there didn't seem to be squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, or dogs except on a leash. 

We saw only two cats roaming, both shy and hiding from us after they grew aware they'd been noticed. Of course, we were in a city but with so much greenery around, I expected more wild animals.

Plant life abounded. The residents of our Seattle neighborhood used their herb gardens as a form of landscaping, as Diane had mentioned, and their plants were bigger than on the East Coast. I'm not sure why. Rosemary grew in bushes, four feet tall and about that wide. Daisies were often six feet high. Dandelions grew two to three feet. As far as the dandelions are concerned, I wouldn't be surprised if east coast lawncare practices have encouraged the survival of varieties short enough to not get killed by lawnmowers; we've eliminated the bigger ones and permitted the small ones to flourish. 

That doesn't explain the other types of plants growing so large around Seattle, though. The cause might simply be that it's a great environment for growing plants.

Here were the fruit plants in our three block walk to Cloud Coffee:

Strawberries mixed with wild strawberries
Squash or pumpkin (too early to tell)

Diane noticed these herbs:

Variegated Sage
Russian Sage

The flowers:

Lambs ear

All of this was on top of other landscaping oddities, such as flowering vines we didn’t recognize, bamboo groves, butterfly bushes, ivy, and plenty of ferns. Again, we saw all of this in three blocks. We don't have as much variety of cultivated types in Frederick. We do have a few gardens, though, and if you look around our neighborhood, you'll probably trip on a rabbit. Or a fox. It's nice to have foxes around.

As far as the people of the northwest, I found them business-like but friendly. It is easy to understand the economy of a large, port city. Seattle has industries like aircraft manufacturing nearby because it's easy to transport components in and out. It's got technical companies like Microsoft and Amazon AWS. The northwest is a reasonable place for businesses based on importing. Even better, the surrounding lands aren't vulnerable to wildfires. So far. There are hills, water, a ton of plants, and rich soils full of volcanic ash.

Oh, the volcanoes. Mount Rainer looms, beautiful but deadly. Mount Saint Helens killed people forty years ago. Mount Baker, Goat Rocks, Glacier Peak, and Indian Heaven are all active. All of them sit reasonably close to the Seattle Fault or the Tacoma Fault.

Nothing will happen in our lifetimes, I'm sure. But I've thought that before.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 16: Washington and Vancouver 8, Dead Branch Theory

The Dead Branch Theory

As we hiked in Olympic Park and through Deception Pass, we kept seeing branches fallen to the ground. A surprising percentage of the time, the branches had fruticose lichen on them. In fact, the fallen ones seemed always to be the most lichen-covered of branches.

Were the branches dying from the lichen? Or were the trees killing off infected branches deliberately?   
The fruticose lichen had to interfere with the leaves photosynthesizing on branches below, at least. On some trees, they visibly grabbed a significant share of sunlight. But they might have done worse. They might have been sapping energy directly from the trees, probably in the form of sucking out glucose from the lining under the bark. That would go against the generally accepted rule for lichens now but I think it's good to be suspicious of what seems like overly-quick, overly-general conclusions. We seem to be in the infancy of understanding biochemical relationships between different plants. It wouldn't seem like any surprise to learn that some lichen behave chemically different from others. Their fungal components might be partially parasitic or at least opportunistic if they happen upon cracks in bark. 

The deadfalls seemed to lead into the central question: were these branches breaking accidentally?  Were they killed by lichen robbing them of their leaves? Or were the trees cutting off resources to those branches deliberately so as to let them snap off in the next strong wind? At this point, we know trees have intentionality. But do they have it in response to these lichen? 

For a while, I contemplated experiments that might reveal the intentions of the trees, if any. None of them would be easy. It is not enough that the branches hit the ground, not enough that the falls correlate to the heaviest growths of lichen (if they do), not even enough to show the branch losses are far greater than chance. After all, the lichen could be killing those branches even in a non-parasitic way. 

No, to really demonstrate that the deadfalls were intentional, you would have to know the basic chemistry of trees, perhaps of each individual tree, and you would need a way to track individual changes in their living chemistry. That's how it was done when spotting how acacia trees turn their leaves bitter when they need to discourage herbivores. In that case, biologists took leaf samples. That's probably not applicable here. You might not pick up distinctive signals in leaf chemistry. And you wouldn't want to conduct an experiment by cutting trees or branches down. (That has too often seemed to be the current state of forestry practice.)

My suspicion as a casual observer is that the trees do respond to lichen invasions. But it's only a suspicion.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 15: Washington and Vancouver 7, Deception Pass Park

Deception Pass Park
Before we decided on a trail head, we took the chance to check out the beach. Diane started hunting the shoreline for shells. We played in the water. From there, I noticed southward along the coast a group of people I thought were clammers. They numbered twenty or so and they were walking through a muddy, exposed plain of sea life that had been exposed by the low tide. 

When I got closer, I saw the tide pools. There were kids playing in them but they were being careful. No one stomped through the water or dipped nets into the puddles to pull out wriggling fish. No one dug for clams, either.  Instead, local experts, sea life hobbyists, had set up an informal sort of office. They pointed out the fish, chiton, and other types of life in the tide pools. Low tide was the perfect time for them.    

As we strolled through, inspecting the pools carefully, we found barnacles, sea stars, crabs, anemones, sculpins, chiton, sea cucumbers, and abalones. Moving off carefully to the sides, we found small animals no one else had noticed yet. Diane found a pair of anemones, purplish and beautiful, in a wide pool at the southmost edge of the tide pool area.

Our explorations came to an end eventually, though, and we marched off in search of a trail head.

The one we chose was the Pass Lake Trail, which started above Cranberry Lake. It was a friendly path, at first, with a view of the water. It soon swept uphill, however. Trees, moss, and lichen blocked everything else from view.  After about a mile and a half, we hit part of the loop that no one hikes. We started wishing for staves or machetes to cut a new path. The place had become overgrown. It was slow going.

Along every two meters of the way, though, we came across fallen branches with lichen on them. It solidified a hard-to-prove theory in my mind. 

Not Even Not Traveling 14: Washington and Vancouver 6, Deception Pass

Deception Pass

Deception Pass is a strait. It connects Skagit Bay to another channel of water, the Strait of Juan de Fuca. All three channels are part of the Washington state coastline. The coastline is a jigsaw puzzle of small islands, straits, sounds, peninsulas, passes, lakes, and bays. It's not so much that pieces are missing from the puzzle as that you quickly get the impression you are looking at extra pieces. 

We drove northwest from Seattle to the pass. While the roads were clear, we could see fog on the hills. Even after a couple of pitstops, we arrived early enough to sit, wait, and eventually help the guides when they arrived.  

When we finally got into our sea kayak, we pushed out into a shoreline clogged by bull kelp. In places, the paddling was pretty smooth. In others, we had to push through islands of kelp in our attempt to reach the ocean. To make things trickier, the tide was double-low. That seemed to freak out our guide. He had never seen it like this. There were dangerous rocks that had been exposed and the waves tried to push us onto them. We spent a few minutes hunting for a safe channel through the breakers. 

"Can you see anything?" our guide asked. "Do you want to?"


"Of course."

"The fog isn't usually this bad." He rubbed his head and looked around. He paddled closer to the shore but that path seemed filled with boulders to turn the kayaks.

We navigated through in about twenty minutes. In calmer, more open water, we discovered a jellyfish. The guide smiled to see it. So did we. About the width of a forearm, it shone with orange and purple patches of color. Beneath, the tentacles hung down about two feet. 

"Lion's Mane jelly, I think," the guide announced. "Not very poisonous."


"Don't pet it, though. Just in case I'm wrong."

That was not going to be an issue.  By this point, I could tell our guide was feeling happy, calm, and maybe a little lost. The double-low tide had changed his inner landscape. He was a native of Michigan, not Washington, and had transplanted himself here for the summer to relax and do his thing. After we paddled farther north, he exclaimed, "Oooh, cormorants."

He grooved on the various birds for a while. As we passed an island, he pointed out the two different kinds of puffins that lived on it. We traveled farther and saw gulls, terns, loons, herons, and murrelets, too, but mostly cormorants and puffins. We had a hard time telling the types of puffin apart because we don't know that kind of stuff, really, and they wouldn't hold still.

"Oh, wow."  As we moved northeast, we came across something our guide hadn't seen before. "This is cool. The cave is open."

The extra low tide had opened a sea cave that was usually filled with water, hidden. Our guide had heard about it but never gotten to paddle into it so he was curious. As we got close, I started feeling slightly alarmed. We eased our kayaks deliberately into a tight and relatively dangerous spot, a cave entrance where the waves tried to throw our kayaks against the rocks from two directions. I spent most of my time near the cave mouth managing our position between those currents. 
Also, the cave had a ceiling and the tide was rushing in. It was the kind of place an inexperienced sea kayaker might flounder and capsize. Diane was the only one of us who could really look around and take pictures. She spotted a large purple sea animal on the rocks. To my glance, it had looked like a rock. When she directed my attention, though, it was obviously not.

"What is that?" she asked our guide.

"Wow, that's an ocher sea star!" he exclaimed. "Those are, like, endangered. They nearly got wiped out a few years back. I think they're making a comeback."

"What did you call it?" I asked. The name didn't seem right. For a second time, he labeled it as an ocher sea star. It was the purple-est shade of ocher I've ever seen but apparently that's the name, so okay. 

Not far from the giant sea star, we found our second Lion's Mane jellyfish floating in a bed of bull kelp. It had been driven to the cave by the same currents that kept trying to throw our kayak against the rocks and capsize us. 

On the way back, Diane asked our guide about the hiking trails.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Not Even Not Traveling 13: Washington and Vancouver 5, Seattle

British Columbia

Already, it was another travel day. (For years, our pattern has been to keep moving around the countryside even after we've arrived in the state we're visiting.) We headed out to catch the BC Ferry line from Vancouver Island, outside the town of Victoria, to the city of Vancouver on the mainland.

Customs to Seattle

On the way into Canada, the customs officer was a polite, middle-aged woman. "Wow, Maryland!" she exclaimed after we told her where we were from. She told us to have a good time on our vacation. As we headed back through U.S. customs, we weren't sure what to expect. U.S. customs officers can be a bit brusque sometimes.

What we got was a traffic jam. Driving south on Canadian route five, we hit a line of cars that clogged as we approached the border. Customs agents let swaths of vehicles proceed, stopped us, let more go, stopped us, and waved us on through with another big batch of travelers.

The lines to the customs stations were long. At least they moved at a reasonable clip - not fast, exactly, but fast enough. The agents proceeded with their questions and inspections at a steady pace.  We didn't seem to trigger any suspicions or a second inspection so the process was straightforward. The agent did a visual check. He validated our passport cards. We drove through.

Heading south to Seattle took so long that Diane and I talked about books, friends, relatives, and the trip so far. Finally in the afternoon, we passed into the city and navigated through the friendly streets of the northeast section of Seattle near 'the university,' meaning University of Washington, I think. When we reached our AirBNB, we bumped into our host in her backyard. She seemed excited to see us. We had a long chat with her and her partner. The two of them gave us a lot of advice about the area. The woman also showed off her backyard garden, which was fantastic, kept in five raised beds with chickenwire fences and a shed.

"Take all the lettuce you want to eat," she offered, although we didn't.

The gardening prowess of our host was not unique in the neighborhood, either. Many of her neighbors had gardens. Those who didn't grew luxurious plants on all sides of their yards. Almost immediately, Diane remarked on the size of the rosemary bushes, the dill, and mint.

"It's weird that they're using herbs for landscaping," she said.

We walked to dinner at the Kona Kafe, a Hawaiian style restaurant - not very good, really, but convenient to our rooms. 

A Stroll Through Downtown Seattle

On Sunday, I thought we would have our best chance to visit downtown Seattle. We woke up early, still partly on east coast time, and got drinks at Cloud Coffee, a few blocks' leisurely walk away in our neighborhood. After we hopped into our rental car, we hardly saw traffic as we navigated the city streets. Coming from the northeast of the city to the center is a downhill trip because the center is nearer to the water.

Although the traffic was fine, the parking was not. Seattle's low buildings and winding streets felt similar to Washington, DC. All the cars from Saturday night had been left in place as of nine the next morning, also like DC. We wanted to browse through the bookstores but we had to park a few blocks away and take a little hike to the closest of them. Still, we found our spot. Someone had departed from a row of parallel parking on a residential street. Our walk to the brownstone shops was pleasant, especially since we started from the top of a hill where we could overlook the skyline.

Downtown is reasonably busy, even on a Sunday. We visited a few bookstores and decided to drive on to another, the Hernandez Brothers comic book store (and publication label), Fantagraphics Books. As we never left the city, I had to think about how GPS makes hitting these unique places and shops much easier than it used to be.

Inside Fantagraphics, I reminded myself that my suitcase has limited room. I can carry a hundred electronic books around or even more but only a handful of graphic novels. Although I love the convenience of reading say, a Bill Bryson collection on a Kindle, I despise reading comic books the same way. The library in my house has shed a lot of standard books over the years but I still have Constitution Illustrated, Girl Genius, Logicomix, Japan Inc., and other graphic tomes in paper form.

After buying only a handful of books, maybe a handful and a half, we decided to walk to lunch. We found a biker bar nearby called Smarty Pants. Luckily, we arrived just before the lunch rush hit. The place served good food. The bikers seemed odd to us, a lot of crotch-rocket riders. There was even a leader board posted on one wall that tracked local dirt bike circuit riders and their standings in a league. Everyone seemed friendly.

There, we plotted our next moves.  

Not Even Not Traveling 12: Washington and Vancouver 4, Victoria

The Midnight Glide
Before sleeping our first night in Victoria, we booked a late-night kayaking trip. Paddling in the dark may seem odd but, if it doesn't seem uncomfortable enough, add in the strange scheduling for us as Marylanders. The 9:30 to 11:30 PST tour was actually midnight to 2:30 EST. Since we had been getting up at 4:00 a.m. EST for half a year to let ourselves exercise at the start of each day, the time difference meant we were arranging for ourselves to arrive back at our room roughly around the time we should have been waking up.

Still, it was good.  

But not as good as it sounds. We went on the kayak tour to check out the bioluminescent sea life around Victoria. It's not impressive. It's only plankton. When you make the plankton fire off with your hand in the water, it's like being a human sparkler. That part is nice.

As small as plankton are, their fluorescence is barely noticeable. And yet it is there. You can feel fascinated by the sparkling water.

Backing up a moment - the trip started at sunset. There was light in the sky as we set the kayaks in the water. Our group was six people in three two-person sea kayaks plus two guides in single-seaters. We pushed out into an estuary that connected to the Salish Sea.

Within a minute, we saw something in the water swimming toward us.

"A seal!" one of the guides shouted.

We saw only the head of an animal. A moment later, the seal dove. The ripples behind it disappeared.  A second later, we saw another seal, more distant and swimming in a different direction. There were at least two. Our boats seemed to scare them off, though. After the first glimpses, we never saw them again.

As we continued to our bioluminescent rendezvous, we met more large animals. To our left, north, we saw blue herons. To the south, we passed three different types of geese. Later, a pair of ospreys circled over our heads. Apparently we were paddling next to a tidal shallows where about seventy ospreys roosted. Each time the tide went low, it revealed their nests. The osprey call from one to another is a light sound, not like the harsher tones of an eagle, vulture, or hawk. We heard it a lot.
As nice as it all was, I'd say you shouldn't travel all the way to Vancouver Island for a late night glide into the dark shores only to witness the bioluminescent plankton.

"Is this it?"

"Yeah, those little lights." When it was dark enough, disturbances in the water triggered the plankton. The guide demonstrated with his paddle. He stroked the surface. "Those little flashes."

"I can barely see them."

"Plankton are small."

Not satisfied by the sparkle and glow from my paddle since it was so faint, I stuck my left forearm in. The water felt fine. I shook my hand. Twenty specks of greenish light flew up. I shook more. The motion turned my fingers into faint but natural sparklers.

The plankton store up energy from the sun all day. Their bodies allow them one shot to emit the energy as light. As far as anyone studying them can tell, the flashes they emit lure small carnivorous predators. An example: perhaps a minnow nearby is looking for something to eat. An even smaller herbivorous creature, perhaps a snail, is swimming over to the plankton. The plankton feels vibrations from the snail as it closes in. Alarmed, it gives off its flash of light. That's when the minnow takes notice. It swims over to see if there's something to eat. The minnow doesn't notice the plankton. Instead, it finds a delicious snail.

That's how the flashes of light are useful to the plankton. They help eliminate the animals that would otherwise feed on them. After the one burst of light, though, each phytoplankton needs more time in the sunlight to charge up. Each time I played in the water, I was surprising some of the plankton and making them act in self-defense.

Knowing that makes you (well, me) give up after a while. Still, it was neat to see.the faint fairy lights in the water.  The plankton must store an astounding proportion of the solar energy that they receive during the day.

The return trip was quiet but it was as beautiful as the trip out to the cove.  I hadn't been kayaking in such darkness before. We docked quietly so as not to wake the people in the village. Then we drove back across Vancouver Island to our rooms, tired but giddy.


We rose late, after waking up several times and returning to our sleep in the west coast darkness. Finally, we left our bed at seven a.m. PST.  

We tried breakfast at Floyd's Diner, another place that didn’t look like it would be much good. But the food was better than usual. The owner/manager talked to us about the places we should try for dinner. We chatted with her a while about other things, too. She knew the inside scoop on local restaurants right down to who was having trouble keeping staff and why.

We spent a fairly gentle day in Victoria. We drove around and walked, too. Our rooms at the AirBNB gave us access to the laundry room so we spent part of the time on chores, a general life penalty for going on a lot of outdoor trips that require changes of clothes.

That night, we had a terrible dinner at a golf course restaurant. Well, it happens even with local recommendations. When you live in a hometown like Frederick, one that has had great food for the past decade, it can be startling to find that people in other towns consider mediocre food to be really nice.