Return to Vashon

In the summer of 2010, we were invited to spend a day visiting with a friend who was house-sitting on Vashon-Maury Island, a semi-colon of land hanging below the exclamation point of Blake and Bainbridge Islands in the middle of the Salish Sea southwest of Seattle. We immediately accepted, of course, as it was a chance to revisit the site of a major turning point in our life and careers, more than 20 years ago.

In the spring of 1988, we decided we’d like to consider an island lifestyle. We were, at the time, living in the heart of downtown Bremerton, an industrial community framed by the U.S. Navy’s Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, U.S. Submarine Base Bangor, and the Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station Keyport. I was, at that time, a systems engineer, mostly working on systems life-cycle engineering support at the submarine base, but had worked at all three facilities. The other half of the family had recently moved from the hospital and surgery center surgical suites to a claims analysis job at a major insurance company in Seattle. Our last child at home was about to enter college in Seattle, and I, in my mid-40s, was about to start long-delayed graduate studies.

In 2010, the Country Store and Farm on Vashon sells bumper stickers that read, “Keep Vashon Weird.” Vashon, once a major fruit and vegetable supplier to the Seattle metropolitan area in an age when the Mosquito fleet put the islands at the hub of the Puget Sound transportation system, had, by the late 1960s, become a haven for hippies seeking the idyllic pastoral life and yuppies seeking cheap waterfront properties. The island is no longer cheap, and the counterculture has evolved into a community of artists, writers, and folks interested in sustainable green living. The Vashon-Maury atoll still stands out as an island of cultural leftism as well as a physical island, accessible only by boat or airplane, and not very, at that. The single short grass-runway airstrip deters most sky-borne visitors, and the only safe public anchorage is within the lagoon of Quartermaster Harbor, with its entrance facing Commencement Bay in Tacoma, to the south. The Washington State Ferries serve the island at north and south ends, where the island rises abruptly from the deep waters, as it does along most of its perimeter.

We moved to the island in the fall of 1988, found the real estate market rather restrictive, and ended up building on a secluded mid-island site with a peekaboo view of 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, 70 miles to the southeast. For the first nine months, we commuted in opposite directions from the north ferry dock from various rentals while we prepared to build. My commute was convoluted by evening graduate school classes in Seattle, resulting in a clockwise grand tour of the archipelagos of the Salish Sea. Driving around Sinclair and Dyes Inlets north to my office near the Hood Canal in the early morning, I left work in the afternoon and headed north around Liberty Bay, onto Bainbridge Island to catch the ferry to Seattle in time for class, then south to West Seattle and the westbound ferry to Vashon. To save a few dollars, on the days I didn’t have school, I parked the car in the commuter lot on the Kitsap Peninsula side of the Sound and walked on the ferry, meeting at the commuter lot on Vashon, where the other car was waiting.

After nearly a year of this personal madness in pursuit of “the good life,” a collective madness took hold of the corporate world in the pursuit of higher profits: the “angel of downsizing” visited us in the summer of 1989, and I found myself prematurely retired at the age of 45, with a new house under construction and no prospect for re-employment soon. I had spent 24 years in the world of proprietary software and hardware systems, compounded by serving in a niche of that world where almost everything was classified in the interest of national security. I had no discernible job skills. I was an expert in the details of designing and analyzing distributed parallel programs in high-availability compute clusters on multi-processor systems, about 20 years before anyone in mainstream information technology realized this was a valuable skill or desired to build such systems. I had, according to my resume, worked on systems XXX, YYY, and ZZZ, programmed in the ABC and DEF languages. I had learned to program in Prolog on a PC to support my projects, but logic languages weren’t then and still aren’t mainstream outside academic research. If I got an interview, the first question was usually, “And, what makes you think you are in our line of work?”

Cast loose from a 24-year career in a highly specialized niche, our move to Vashon was truly a life-style-changing event. The new house was completed, thanks to wiping out the rest of our meager retirement savings. Graduate school tuition, paid the first year by corporate reimbursement, got paid with credit cards. Meanwhile, I was learning a bit about Unix on Seattle University’s system, spending time before and after class in the terminal room.

By spring, I found a job–of sorts–on the island, at Software Research Northwest, which later became part of Bi-Tech and is now Sungard Educational Systems Division. After avoiding COBOL for 29 years since it was developed, I found myself in a crash course in COBOL programming to prepare me for a job as an entry-level COBOL programmer. The operating environment was HP’s MPE. Meanwhile, I converted our 80286 Sperry PC-IT computer from Windows 2/286 to Coherent, a Unix System 7 clone, and starting learning Unix in earnest, along with C programming. The job didn’t pay the bills, and I couldn’t work long hours because of my almost daily commute to Seattle for school, working on a Unix-based (SunOS) Master’s project, so advancement was out of the question.

As graduation loomed, I found a better-paying job, but back in the old military-industrial complex, managing a test engineering group contracted to write system test procedures to certify naval combat systems after overhauls and upgrades. Once again, we were back to the daily opposite-direction commutes and the problem of staging transportation. An opening for a key medical review position at another insurance company opened up a few blocks from my new job, so soon we were both commuting westbound in the morning, though we now spent little more than a few hours a night on the magic island that was to have been our forever dream home.

In the early summer of 1992, we sold our custom home on Vashon. Like Brigadoon, the isle faded into the mist over Puget Sound, and we rejoined the hustle and bustle of fast-paced, fast-food, and bright-light life in a rapidly-growing industrial city. Later, when we both got new jobs in Seattle, she in medical policy and case management with her old employer and me in my first full-time Unix system administration job, we commuted across the Sound, with only brief glimpses of the fair island in the distance to the south in mid-passage. By this time, I had been teaching Computer Science nights at Chapman University’s branch campus on the submarine base, to pay off my tuition bills, so we were tied to the Peninsula. Vashon was lost to us.

When I was in my mid-50s and it was time to look for another job, the Salish Sea had become the heart of Microsoft country; Unix jobs were scarce, and age-agnostic jobs even scarcer as the dot-com boom propelled eager young turks into the computer field. We started building a fall-back: a primitive cabin in the mountains of Montana in which to retire if necessary. As luck would have it, Unixers were scarcer than jobs in Montana: we stayed there ten years building yet another lifestyle as quilting replaced case management and Unix became a tool for genomic research rather than an end in itself.

Returning to the Salish Sea, where we had forged our careers and raised our children, we, now in our mid-60s and battered by the housing slump recession, dismissed the idea of island life, choosing instead to live between the Olympic wilderness and access to civilization, within sight of saltwater. But, Vashon still beckons, at least for a weekend excursion. Like all small communities, many of the businesses depending on steady sales have turned over, but other island institutions have survived and prospered. The custom home we built has been expanded and transformed, and now houses law offices. The trees and bushes have grown to obscure the view, as they have in our new mainland home, perched on what was once a neighborhood with a view and is now a secluded forest hilltop.

Ship traffic and Mt. Rainier, the scenery from Gold Beach, Maury Island

Ride On! Taking advantage of flex time…

Today was the first nice day in a long time.  It didn’t rain during the day, and the sun came out off and on, and the temperature hit 70F, after a couple weeks in the 50s.  I didn’t mind the cold and rain so much while working on migrating a web applications server from Solaris 10 to Linux (CentOS5.5) late last week through yesterday.  After replacing the SPARC binaries with Intel binaries for Linux, updating Ruby from 1.8.5 to 1.8.6 so I could load rubygems and the database gems, and adding the Perl modules needed for the spreadsheet generators, I tweaked the scripts and Apache configuration for the new disk layout and lit off the new system.  It works!  So, I decided to take advantage of the nice day and take an afternoon bike ride.

Working from home on hourly contract does have its advantages, one of which is being able to mow the lawn or go for a bike ride in the middle of the day.   I’ve been having bike withdrawal lately.  It’s June, after all: prime bike season in the Pacific Northwest, but colder and rainier than usual.  Going to the gym and pounding on the stationary bike just doesn’t seem right in June, so the weight goes up and the leg muscles go slack.   Time to ride.

Lately, I’ve been riding one-way, with the destination being somewhere my tandem stoker has gone with the car for some other activity, but the out-and-back in Montana a couple weeks ago whet my appetite for a round trip.  Besides, the car went off too far today: she’s off to the islands for an overnight, so I’m on my own.  There’s not a lot of short loops in our hilly town on the bay.  I’ve been meaning to check out a relatively flat route between the Sound and the Hood Canal, so plotted a course for Mason Lake, a large fresh-water lake northeast of town, 17.2 miles one way to the county park at the east end of the lake.

I’m on my old commuter bike, “Rocky,” a bare-bones Specialized Hard Rock I picked up in ’97 to commute to my job in the Seattle industrial district and rode for ten years in Montana.  It isn’t fast, but it handles hills and rough roads fairly well.  A fast downhill into town, then a long climb traversing the north hill, and soon out in the country, on two-lane roads with fairly heavy traffic and no shoulder.  I hug the fog line and roll with the hills.  Past the congested Lake Limerick area, the traffic thins out and the road travels through the farmlands of Mason County, where the crop is Douglas Fir, and the growing season is 70 years.  Between the mature stands and the clearcuts are the 25-year-old, recently cultivated fields of thickly-set poles.

It’s good to be back in the Pacific Northwest, where I put the bulk of my bike mileage behind me in the 1980s and 1990s.  The summers are mild, if you don’t mind a little rain; the rich smell of the deep forest greets you in the shady stands, and sometimes the clearcuts offer views of distant mountain ranges.  I haven’t ridden enough this spring, and the legs and seat  start complaining about the 15-mile mark.

But, it is always so.  Today’s ride, almost 35 miles, is the longest of this season, but I’ve found if you can ride 35 miles, the pain settles into a constant and your body adjusts to the energy output, provided you eat and drink moderately and often to match.  I think about another day near the summer solstice, 27 years ago, when “Big Red,” my 1979 Fuji Grand Tourer, and I hung together as a transportation machine for nearly 15 hours, riding from the Seattle City Hall to the Portland City Hall, a bit over 200 miles on the back roads of Washington and east on US30 through Oregon from Rainier to Portland.  Back then, I was a year older than Lance Armstrong is this year, but never a racer.  I started commuting by bike half a lifetime ago, at age 33, and became an accidental bike tourist while training for the Seattle-to-Portland ride. After 33 years, bicycling has become part of who I am, and riding to the horizon and beyond is like walking out to the mailbox. You just have to keep doing it in order to be able to keep doing it.

Just about 90 minutes after leaving home, I arrive at the county park at the east end, after riding what seems endless road through the forest after coming to the west end of the lake.  It is warm and sunny, and I take a few minutes to eat and drink, watching a couple of guys wrestle a power boat up the boat ramp.  I’ve made it this far, now all I have to do is reverse course and ride home.

The fun part of out-and-back rides is you get to spend time admiring the scenery you missed on fast downhills and skip the scenery you spent too much time passing uphill on the way out.  Somehow, the first half seems shorter, but then stretches out.  In my one-way rides, I’ve taken the north route out of town several times, but this is the first time I’ve returned this way.  On the dive down into town, I’m on par with the cars, and even have to slow down as I spot a police car ahead.  The road is rough and grooved from the wet spring, so a fast downhill is a bit dicey; I catch the right turn on the yellow at the bottom of the hill.

Unfortunately, we picked a decidedly bike-unfriendly town in which to spend our golden years.  Angry shouts from a couple of cars back greet me as I wait in the through-lane at the cross-town traffic light, “Get off the road!”  It takes him almost two blocks to pass me.  In Missoula, Montana, I used to be able to cross the city from east to west faster than the car traffic, by using bike paths and secondary streets.  Still, automobile drivers are too often unwilling to share the road.

Across the Simpson mill railroad tracks, I shift all the way down and hit the hill head-on, but quickly grind to a halt on the double-digit grade.  I alternately push and ride up the steeper fork of the Y, as the shorter route has no shoulder, fast, aggressive traffic, and blind curves, no place for a bicyclist to assert road rights.  At the top, it’s a shallow downhill back three blocks to home and a quick left turn in front of the blind curve and the stop sign that no one actually stops at: most just slow down for a quick glance left, ignoring the driveways on the right.

One of these days, I may make it to our hilltop home on my wheels, but not today.  But, at 66, with over 45,000 miles of road behind me since,  I’m still stronger than I was that summer day in 1976 when I saddled up for that first 4-mile commute to work, after which I fell down when I got off the bike because my legs were run out.  But, I got back on, and rode farther, until that day seven years later when 200 miles passed under the wheels before I was done for the day.  Biking keeps you young.  Today was a training ride, so this fall, I can hope to ride my birthday miles, as I have for the past five years–a one-day ride as many miles as you are years old.  I haven’t ridden a full century ride since 1987 (We switched to fat tires in 1986, so a 60-mile day loaded for touring is like 100 on a racer, and we’ve done lots of 100KM days), but I’m working toward my next one, in 34 years.  Maybe on a lighter, faster bike.

Road Warrior – the Internet Version

When I first saw the Mel Gibson film, “The Road Warrior,” it was one of those moments when you knew it would be a classic.  Lots of symbolism, among a violent tale of post-apocalypse survival.  What makes it classic is the hero’s vulnerability, despite all his bravado and ingenuity, standing alone between those clinging desperately to order and building a new future and the lawless determined to get what they can before it is gone forever.

Working “on the road” in the Internet Age isn’t Mel and the Humongous cruising the Australian outback looking for fuel, but it’s close.  I spent most of the week near a small lake resort town in Montana.  We have an off-the-grid primitive cabin in the mountains nearby, and I  cruise into town looking for Internet access from time to time.  In most towns across America today, there is plenty of Internet access.  The coffee shops and libraries are the most reliable, and you can usually get a signal parked out front even if they are closed.  So, the Information Highway (as it was called, briefly, in its infancy as a world-wide phenomenon) is accessible and relatively open.

The real problem is fuel supply.  Few of the places I stopped this week had power outlets.  One of my colleagues says they would never get rid of us if they did, so maybe he has a point.  My point, not having a source of electric power at the cabin, was, I needed juice to keep the computer running.  I’d been thinking of putting in a solar panel, but it rained all week, so good luck there…  I had a car-starting battery and an inverter, but had foolishly let the thing sit in the back of the car without recharging it from the last trip, and it was flat.  Inverters are inefficient power hogs, so running the computer off the car while parked in range of a good wi-fi signal wasn’t attractive.

I did get the local library to take pity on me and unplug something non-vital long enough to get a full charge.  I forgot I carry a double-outlet compact surge protector, or I could have split the line.  Complications, complications.  In our former home town, the library has plenty of electrical outlets at the study carrels and even in the stacks near tables, and the coffee shops are similarly equipped, but not here.  It could be the tourist thing–a town weary of the onslaught of sun-and-fun seekers for the short Montana summer might consciously or unconsciously discourage the tourists from camping out in their favorite winter haunts and sipping power (which, by the way, comes from a large hydroelectric plant just downstream from the lake–no short supply there).

My old laptop came with double batteries, but both together had less capacity than the modern ones, and they needed recharged eventually and had a relatively short service life.   The increasingly mobile Internet access needs a reliable source of fuel.  What good is wireless Internet access if you need wired power to use it?  Cell phones and computers are rapidly growing in capacity to be able to run most of the day on one charge, with the assumption that you will have a ready source of power for recharging while you sleep.  A few years ago, there was some briefly serious look at fuel cells, but they were never perfected, and the post-9/11 security put an end to the possibility of toting a liquid-fueled computer on an airliner.

In my travels, I’ve spent too much time sitting on the floor in the waiting areas at airports just to get close enough to the rare electrical outlets there, and had queues form, fellow ‘Net addicts desperate for a quick charge before boarding (where was that multi-port surge protector then?).  I haven’t traveled by air lately, but I understand that some of the international carriers have put power jacks in the seat consoles for long flights.  But, for the rest of us internet road warriors, it’s a desert out there, with the inevitable clashes when we come across a lone vacant power jack.  Battery’s fading.  Gotta go.