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The Story of Orion - Part 4


I am uncomfortable with change.

I wear the same clothes day after day, haunt the same haunts, perform the same routine over and over. Amongst the instructors, during guide training, the common refrain goes, ". . . but, we always do it that way!" And yet, between 1974 and 1976, I careened from one of the smallest colleges in the universe, to one of the largest universities ever built, to a state college in the farthest reaches of the continental United States.

In suburban north Dallas, my life was so free of change I attended elementary through high school without ever leaving one street! Arapaho was the name of the residential street where Arapaho Elementary, West Junior High and Richardson High School were located one after the other like some sort of meat processing facility or car manufacturing assembly line.

Arapahos were nomadic Plains Indians who never set foot in north Texas. I was a sedentary suburbanite who had hardly set foot outside of Texas. I love to observe the irony in these things.

In any case. . . change.

I landed in Bellingham and enrolled at Western for my third institution of higher learning in the same number of years. I expected my friend from Prescott, Bob Ratcliffe, to also be enrolled, but I learned belatedly from his (former, but unbeknownst to her) girlfriend, Marcy, that he had taken one of life’s little detours. She had no clear idea what his plans were but he hadn’t enrolled at Evergreen State either, which had been his first option. It must have caught her by surprise, as much as it had thrown me for a loop, because, within a quarter, she recollected her backpack and returned to Colorado.

I remained at Western on my own. I imagined Western, being a state college, would be filled to overflowing with local yokels. Hundreds of in-state students who hadn’t been accepted at the larger universities. Students whose grade points were not worth getting worked up over. Community college graduates climbing the academic ladder.

Imagine my surprise when the first dozen people I met were from out-of-state. And then the next two dozen people I met were from out-of-state. There were so many of us we formed our own little clique. I encountered Washingtonians who reinforced my stereotypical image and many who shattered it, but the cadre of folks I hung with were predominantly transplants.

I clearly remember the day I remarked to a table of new friends at a Fairhaven District teahouse that "I wouldn’t be surprised to look up one day and it will be six years later and I will still be in Washington." It seemed incredible to be imagining such a long span of time in such a strange land. My comment was spoken after my first quarter of homesickness because I also remember re-packing my Pinto for Christmas break fully intending to return forever to the Lone Star State.

However, a sudden relationship with an erudite, environmentally sensitive blond sprite from Ohio brought me back to Bellingham. I say ‘sudden’ because it unfolded and sprung to life only a week before I packed to head home. We had been ‘study hall’ friends throughout my first fall in the Northwest, but intimacy had not surfaced until the eleventh hour. Our relationship didn’t survive the summer of 1977, but it served as the bridge between Texas and Washington that helped me to leave behind the past and begin to concentrate on my very own future.

Talk about a simple twist of fate. I have no idea what path I would be traveling if I had returned to Texas. Odds are, however, I would not know anyone in the Northwest that I know today. Once I arrived back in Bellingham I committed myself to the half-baked idea of pursuing a degree combining recreation and counseling.

But first I had to figure out how to survive monetarily. I enrolled in the work-study program and landed a job with Bellingham Parks and Recreation. What I loved most about my job with park maintenance was the carte blanche to drive a city vehicle with impunity --- across park grounds, double parking in the roadway, driving the wrong way on a one-way street. In the fall of 1977, I scored a coveted position as a Resident Aide for the Fairhaven complex on the south end of the campus.

The Fairhaven R.A.s convened in early August and determined that the twelve ‘stacks’, or apartment buildings, at Fairhaven would each be given a theme and we would try and match the incoming students to the ‘theme’ of that dorm. I opted for the ‘Outdoor Recreation’ and ‘Environmental’ stacks.

Meanwhile, from the moment I drove back to WWU, I immersed myself in outdoor activities by proposing and leading river trips on the Skagit River through the college’s Outdoor Program. I was amazed at the ease with which I could check rafts out from the Outdoor Program on my flimsy credentials. It would not be inaccurate to say, after my brief apprenticeship on the Colorado River with Prescott, that I ‘cut my teeth’ refining my rafting skills on the mighty, ‘Magic Skagit’.

A spring trip in 1977 was an eye-opener for me. Michael Bellert and Linda Zimmerman, two new friends who recently moved from Chicago, and my high school sweetheart, Jill Jeanes, who had flown to the Northwest for a visit, suffered an icy dunking in the S-Turn when the hysterically historic raft we were paddling, known as a "World Famous", stood on its hindquarters (if rafts had hindquarters to stand on) and the four of us unceremoniously slid into the frigid, emerald waters. No neoprene in miles, of course. Lots of New Zealand wool, however.

The "World Famous", of unknown vintage and origin, was equipped with wooden slats for seats, instead of thwarts. To compound the hilarity of its design, the seats were varnished and the front end bulged like a snake in half-swallow. Additionally, the "World Famous" was as substantial as a gas station vending machine condom.

As we dropped into the entry of the S-Turn, and the bow bucked high toward the sky, Linda, Michael, Jill and I all slipped off of the seats like pats of butter on a hot roll. To be fair, the "World Famous" wasn’t meant to be a whitewater raft. But, also to be fair, we were, generally, clueless. When we returned our bedraggled selves to Goodell Creek Campground, we met an outfitter from Alaska who showed us what a real raft was supposed to look like and taught us our first drinking game. He and his wife also introduced us to a blended whiskey we were unfamiliar with. . . the drink of choice on hoary winter nights by gold-addled prospectors and wild-eyed river runners...Yukon Jack.

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