Honer Homestead

The idea to put this story to page was one borne from a conversation I had with my Dad one afternoon during deer season in 2019.  Every year I return to my parents’ farm in northern Minnesota to sit patiently, quietly in the woods while the world moves around me in a cautious state, some aware of my presence and most others completely oblivious to my observing their every move.  It is during these hours and days of solitude in the woods that I start to make room in my life for improvements and loftier goals.  I am often moved to tears reading books in those deer stands as my mind is allowed to run free from ambient and electronic noise.  Against conventional wisdom I spend at least 50% of my time in the deer stand reading – my Dad can’t understand why I do it, but then again he’s never had a good reason to urge me otherwise.  I’ve killed plenty of deer after turning a page.

The book that had enraptured me this past November was ‘Flight of Passage’ – about two young brothers who set off on an epic flight from New Jersey to Los Angeles in a Piper Cub they rebuilt over the winter in their family barn.  It was the 1960’s and well before air traffic had congested the skies over America – these boys were flying free (without a radio) and by visual reference only as they puttered across this massive expanse of land.  The story conjured up memories from my childhood and adventures taken with my brother and family.  We never did anything quite so daring as these New Jersey boys but our lives were filled with fantastic memories that could easily fill pages in a good yarn.  I implored my Dad to read this book – but I think the reality of his flying days being over was too painful to wax nostalgic with some similar boys of his youth in a book that he would have to set time aside to read.  Instead he started to tell me about his neighbor, Bill Honer.  Bill lived just down the road and had been helping my folks with their maple syrup operation in the spring.  For the uninitiated, maple syrup is derived from copious hours of evaporation in a ‘sugar shack,’ requiring the constant vigilance of a cook.  It is during these long days of boiling sap that my father came to know his neighbor and friend. 

Bill was full of stories – and my Dad is one of the best listeners I know.  They must have chewed the fat for days on end in that shack, my father doubled over with laughter realizing this man’s tales were impossibly true – his twin brother Fred would ultimately vouch for it all, adding a few unbelievable and incredible stories to the mix. 

Dad started conveying some of these anecdotes probably as a response to my egging him on about this great book I was reading.  It was of course easier to laugh than to reminisce, and so he did his best to retell some of the more fantastic events, the most notable being the Brothers’ joint odyssey into the Alaskan Bush to homestead along the Stony River, south of the mighty Kuskokwim drainage.  The timing was probably the early 70’s by Dad’s estimation of Bill’s age – a time when American youth were casting off onto the last Great American Walkabout. 

The country was embroiled in the Vietnam War era and distrust of the government was at an all-time high, especially for college-aged men and women who were affluent enough to abscond to a different fate.  Alaska was indeed the most extreme and taunting place for two hardened farm kids from outside St. Cloud, Minnesota who weren’t planning to attend college.  Raised in a strict Catholic family, Bill and Fred Honer understood that work came before play, and anything extra was a tithe to the Church.  Their father was a staunch figure in their upbringing and taught the boys to be resourceful and honest.  After graduating high school, they started their own drywall business to capitalize on the high demand for all construction trades during the housing boom that was happening in St. Cloud.  According to Fred, “There were three drywallers in town during those days, us and two other guys – and they were drunks.”  And so business boomed and the Brothers saved their money.

Periodically Bill would take off for San Diego to see their brother, _______, who was a Navy Corpsman stationed with the Marines.  The trip from St. Cloud to San Diego was indeed a cross country adventure, sidelined by a few forays into Texas and Mexico that once resulted in a warrant being issued for Bill’s arrest by the infamous Texas Rangers.  These arduous journeys were simply fodder for the fire brewing in the boys’ hearts – they had almost made a mockery of travel throughout the Lower 48 by the time Alaska beckoned for them.  By the time they were in their early 20’s they had enough money and moxie to embark on the most audacious trip of their collective lives, inside a converted electrician’s van that was initially heated by a wood burning stove that would one day blow up under their immediate supervision, somehow leaving only soot and a good laugh to be shared with anyone who would believe these guys.

Although Bill and Fred grew up in a rural community they were not alone in their quest for a great walkabout.  Dewey was maybe a year or two older in school and had taken off for Alaska a couple years before the boys decided to head north.  His love for sled dogs and apparent isolation was strong and requisite to sustain a life in the bush.  During a trip back to Minnesota in the winter of 1973 Dewey regaled the Honer Brothers with details of his life as a homesteader.  He even found a girlfriend who was crazy enough to strike out with him on this bold adventure, a fellow lover of sled dogs and solitude.  They had friends in the bush and in Anchorage – in fact there was even a plot of land available to anyone willing to work for the patent offered by the BLM.  The offer was irresistible to Bill and Fred.  They weren’t loving hanging drywall and cold was cold anyhow – why not exchange Minnesota for Alaska?

The plan to move to the bush didn’t take long to materialize.  Dewey was making it happen and he was just one guy – these brothers were two in one, stronger than three men and stubborn enough to think there was no other way.  The challenge was set and their minds were made up.  Provisions could be acquired in Anchorage but that was still a few thousand miles away.  The journey to Anchorage alone would test the nerve and tolerance of most hardened travelers, especially during January in 1974, before the Alcan Highway was paved over.  It never occurred to them that summer would be a more convenient time to make such a trek, especially in a jalopy van, but that would mean more wasted time at home working to earn money they’d never need in the bush. 

When the time had come to leave for the frozen north the brothers said goodbye to their friends and family, took some last advice from their father and made haste for the border.  The drive would take four days to traverse Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and finally to the eastern border of Alaska.  They had embarked on a one-way mission, never lending thought to passing these routes south.  The characters they met along the way were on similar walkabouts, testing their mettle where most sane travelers wouldn’t dare venture.  Their focus was honest and simple – they weren’t opportunists or capitalists or scholars, but rather the sinuous fiber of American youth at the time.  They were pursuing a dream to strike out on their own against odds that seemed obvious enough to prevent thousands of others from trying it. 

Upon arrival in Anchorage they set out to exhaust their meager funds on whatever they would absolutely need to survive in a frozen and endless wilderness.  Their choice of timing would prove fortuitous since the only way to access the bush is by plane or boat, the latter not a great option if the former was available.  Bush pilots convert their planes’ undercarriage from floats or wheels to skis in the winter, opening vast opportunities to land where it would otherwise be impossible during summer months.  Accessibility is greatly improved but allowable cargo remains scant.  The haul out to their new homestead site would require six different trips, the final flight carrying Fred and their second canoe.  Sleetmute is a lonely outpost on the north bank of the Kuskokwim River and serves as a critical outpost for the inhabitants of the bush, both homesteaders and native Alaskans alike.  The rivers are frozen solid during the long winter months, creating a vast network of highways and byways for the local sled dog teams.  It would require a few trips behind these amazing animals to transport Bill and Fred’s precious belongings to the proposed homestead site, which of course didn’t offer any shelter or structure.  Dewey offered his unfinished cabin to the Brothers while they took time to carefully locate their new homesites and plan for the requisite cultivation for acquiring a homestead patent.  Food provisions would last them through the remaining winter months but they would need to hunt, trap and catch their meat, something that would prove far more difficult than they would initially believe possible.  It would be a difficult existence from Day 1.

Despite their obvious solitude and blatant separation from society a community did exist among the dwarfed Spruce trees and frozen tundra that was to become their new home.  A young couple from Oregon, Dan and Sylvia lived in a cabin perhaps a ½ mile distant.  They welcomed their new neighbors with open arms and an open dining table, but the boys were relegated to finishing Dewey’s cabin if they wanted a reliable shelter.  Fortunately trees don’t freeze and an axe in the hands of an accomplished farmer or woodsman can be set to prosperous work any day of the year.  They skinned felled logs by hand employed a whipsaw to mill floorboards. When Dewey’s cabin was near complete they were free to begin work on their own cabins and smoke house. 

Building a safe and sound structure is paramount to survival – right next to the acquisition and retention of water and food.  Dan and Syl had been surviving on melted snow, which Fred and Bill thought ridiculous since their cabin sat so close to the Stony River, albeit slightly ensconced in ice at the present time.  One afternoon soon after they first arrived Bill and Fred set to work chopping a hole in the ice to fetch fresh water.  Most people would have stopped chopping after the hole required widening to fit an upright man who stands 6’ tall – but the boys kept chopping until they finally struck water, some seven feet closer to the riverbed.  The hole would serve as a water well and a means for catching fish, except they only found about two inches of unfrozen water below the suffocating layer of ice.  So fishing was out of the question, but they had been resourceful enough to create a wellspring for their tiny community, which they covered with tarps to keep open until the mighty breakup came in the spring. 

As previously disclosed, hunting proved less than fruitful despite seeing a moose close to camp on their first couple days in country.  The moose escaped unharmed and perhaps was a fleeting omen that rarely does a free meal come around twice in one winter.  A few grouse and hares would supplement their meager diet but for the most part it was beans and rice for several months.  Dan and Syl shared their pathetic supplies as well to create an equal if not utopian community under the northern lights and the boys did the same.  Then one day Dan left for Anchorage to bring remedy to some dental malady and never returned.  He left his girlfriend alone in the bush with these two young Minnesota farmers, obviously not caring to live out his exhausted dream of raising a family on a homestead. 

In the event of a true disaster the boys carried an emergency locator beacon, commonly used in aircraft to alert overhead traffic of an emergency on the ground.  The idea was if the shit really hit the fan, they could activate the beacon and simply wait for help.  This device wasn’t a radio – it was merely a means of broadcasting a signal to passing pilots who are required by law to at least report and if possible investigate the source.  In a world where people now call 911 to report late pizza deliveries it is unfathomable to think of the extent of emergency or tribulation that must have occurred to require such an action. 

One of the surprises awaiting the Brothers at Dewey’s cabin were two sled dogs, Willow and _____.  Dewey had apparently left these dogs in the care of Dan and Sylvia when he last left for Anchorage and he expected Bill and Fred to care for them upon their arrival, perhaps in exchange for free rent in his floor-free cabin.  Feeding themselves was a constant hinderance and now they had two additional stomachs to fill.  Unfortunately for the dogs some of their meals were recycled from Bill and Fred but they survived the winter and were healthy enough to haul logs and materials that the boys desperately needed to get to their building sites.  Willow demonstrated an ever-expanding appetite and it was obvious there were going to be more stomachs to fill.  Dewey’s sled dog team was growing without his supervision and the Honer Brothers were soon in care of a litter of pups.  Aside from their four-legged brood they had pilfered a wild young goose that was more faithful than any dog they’d ever met.  The goose turned out to be an excellent mosquito trap once the winged devils took to their annual onslaught of anything warm blooded.

Unbeknownst to the boys an erosive undercurrent was at play to the east in Anchorage while they were diligently chopping trees and fighting to survive their first winter in the bush.  Their neighbor to the south was Richard Nevitt, at least on paper.  He had abandoned his belongings inside a tent that had collapsed under the predictable weight of snow during that winter of ’73-’74.  Fred and Bill rummaged through the items careful to preserve anything of importance to their survival or of possible value to Mr. Nevitt.  It appeared that they were going to be more successful than he had been by the look of things around his property.  Rumor had it that he had thrown in the towel and retreated for the safety and security of civilization as so many had done before him.  His failure was nothing less than encouragement for their drive to succeed at this gargantuan task of cultivating a life from a stingy and spongy landscape.

As the days grew longer and the temperatures climbed higher into the twenties and thirties the mighty breakup began in earnest.  It starts at the lower elevations and creeps up the rivers and streams bringing renewed life to everything frozen in suspense.  Icebergs the size of school busses start their voyage to the lower reaches and confluences of other rivers and ultimately the river deltas in the ocean.  Water begins to cascade from slopes and hills and mountains, forming spontaneous riparian courses over a bewildered expanse.  The breakup signals the salmon to start their fateful voyage up the rivers from their staging areas along the coastline, beginning with the legendary Chinook.  These behemoths battle their way up rivers and streams in search of the exact spot where they were propagated, stopping only to rest momentarily, never taking a break to eat.  Their last meal was somewhere in the saltwater, providing for enough energy to make the epic journey.

Native Alaskans have employed nets to capture salmon for eons – it is a terribly effective way to arrest their forward progress and to bring relief to the depleted stores of dried fish the locals depend upon for survival.  Some of these Chinook salmon can weigh close to 100 pounds and are considered the finest fish of all the Alaskan waters.  Other salmon species like Pinks and Chum are prized for their use in dog food in these communities, but the Chinook feed the people.  The Kuskokwim is one of the largest drainages in western Alaska, visible on a satellite map running almost parallel to the Yukon which begins its journey almost twice the distance to the east in Canada.  The Stony River, where the Honer Brothers were encamped, meets the Kuskokwim west of Stony River village and east of Sleetmute.  It is a good-sized river that attracts massive salmon runs and a means to a more stable existence.  The allure of salmon fishing in Alaska brings thousands of anglers to the state every year with rods and reels in tow, but Bill and Fred didn’t have the time or patience to catch fish like a ‘sportsman’ – they needed to capture as many fish as possible for their drying racks and a net was a proven means to success.

With warmer weather and a wealth of resources for even the most feeble homesteader, Bill and Fred set to completing their personal homesites with Fred’s cabin and the smokehouse the first of their collaboration.  Every tree was felled with an axe and every corner was notched with the same implement.  They skinned logs by hand and skidded each new course to the jobsite atop more skinned logs that were slick to the touch as sap oozed out.  They laid down earthen roofs for each building, using the bounty of gravel that lie just a few inches underfoot to provide weight and a good foundation for what may grow in time to come.  Security from bears and wolves was a real consideration and their buildings stood firm against the elements.  They had graduated from eating rice and beans and moldy oatmeal to a daily supply of dried fish and smoked & jerked moose meat.  The latter eventually came to them in the spring and the animal provided meat for everyone they knew, including some natives who occasionally ventured down or upriver from their camp on the Stony. 

With the constant presence of giant Brown Bears the Brothers were wary of storing their dried fish or meats too close to their cabin, so they erected the drying shack on the opposite side of the Stony River to discourage unwanted guests.  It didn’t take long for one or more of the local bears to sniff out this wealth of free food and it threatened their survival if not dealt with accordingly.  A trap was set one day for the prowler and their scheme worked a little too well.  The bone chilling sounds of an enraged Brown Bear filled the river valley one evening well past dark and the boys knew their trap was sprung – the bear would need to be dispatched and that meant they had to cross the river at night.  As they carefully paddled across to the opposite shore they could tell the bear was wreaking havoc on their fish drying operation but they couldn’t actually see what was unfolding a short distance from the cut bank.  Bill took their only rifle onto shore but wisely turned back a short distance later, opting to execute the mission and the bear under better visibility.  The next morning they returned to find their fish shack completely destroyed along with some pathetic remnants from the bear’s meal.  They had mistakenly secured the snare to a pole that was too close to the drying shack and therefore the bear had plenty to take out it’s frustration against.  This was a devastating blow to their enterprise at a time when they needed to be storing as much fish as possible.  Rebuilding wasn’t an option, it was a necessity.

After the boys had been in country for a few months word spread of their resilience and fortitude and people started reaching out to seek their assistance in all matters of interest.  One gentlemen had concocted a scheme to bring Whitefish to market in Anchorage, but would clearly need help with transporting and logistics – would they be interested?  Another neighbor wrote to them asking for help with his homestead, claiming someone had attempted to ‘claim jump’ him.  The local Inuit elder asked Bill if he wanted to take a native wife, one of his daughters.  Fortunately for Bill he was already enjoying the private company of Sylvia, who apparently wasted no time replacing her former Oregonian beau.  This also must have afforded Bill some time to delay in building his own cabin, as Fred’s was nearly complete before site prep work began for Bill. 

Summer was in full swing by the time the Trooper and Nevitt showed up.  They’d been working up to some sort of finale that no doubt would have involved the Troopers had any number of the boys’ schemes come to fruition.  Nevitt had been encroaching on their home sites more and more with each passing week and he was likely ignorant to their potential.  Fortunately for them all Nevitt was wise enough to come back in the protection of a State Trooper after he had petitioned to have the boys kicked off what he now claimed was his property.  It was simple mistake, that’s all – boundaries were drawn incorrectly and therefore subject to a re-draft.  And conveniently Fred’s sturdy cabin sat right in the middle of the newly portioned boundaries of Nevitt’s homestead.  Details are murky, but the end of the road was standing before them as the Trooper advised them to pack up and head down river, they were technically squatting on someone else’s land.  Nevitt agreed to pay Fred $500 for the cabin he had worked so hard to build from scratch – which according to the Trooper wasn’t even required to clear them off his land, so it was a pretty good deal and Fred should take it, which he did.  Apparently that $500 bought their first case of beer in many months from ______’s place in Sleetmute – they paid $18 for those twenty four beers, equivalent to about $97.88 in 2019 money.  They had drank the entire case before they got back to camp.

Four months in country – that’s all they had to pursue their dream of being homesteaders before they were usurped by what was probably a scantily staffed BLM office tasked with reviewing such matters.  The whole program of homesteading was ill-conceived, yielding more confusion than anything for the local and indigenous peoples who have populated and propagated that land for hundreds if not thousands of years.  The US Government carved out bazaar tracts of land to deed for homesteaders who would promised to work the land to build sound structures and cultivate crops.  The original program was supposed to expire in 1974 but was extended to 1978, most likely because the land wasn’t being occupied and worked over to the standards the government envisioned.  In fact, the last registered homestead patent ever granted by the US Government was to Ken Deardorff in 1988 – but he had filed for his patent in 1978 just before the final deadline – making his patent the last ever awarded despite it came a decade after he applied.  Ken was the very same man who sent a letter to Bill and Fred, asking for help with the claim jumper on his property.  Ken Deardorff was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and was missing a leg by the time he showed up to start work on his homestead with his young family – not that a missing appendage would prevent this man from doing what was required of him by his country.  He satisfactorily cultivated his land and eventually moved to McGrath, AK to provide a more solvent means for his family.  He was named ‘Trapper of the Year’ in 2010, over 30 years after he relocated to the bush.  Ken Deardorff embodies the fortitude required to subsist in this cruel yet beautiful environment, and he represents perhaps 1% of the thousands of starry eyed homesteaders who actually made a life out of something free from the government. 

When it came time to leave their temporary home they chose to take a couple of the pups with them, one of which made it all the way back home to Minnesota, where the boys were now men and they carried on with their respective lives.  Fred admits now that they were ready, although reluctantly, to leave the bush.  It was more than they imagined it would be, they were tired, hungry and angry.  Home made more sense than whatever had transpired back on the Stony River, and they had come out relatively unscathed.  Nevitt was still alive thanks to his probably paranoia and he would continue to lobby for his patent, finally being rejected by the BLM and Dept of the Interior in 19___ – court documents show that there were two complainants on file disputing his right to his land or any of the nefarious tracts around his original parcel.  Those two were Libby Riddles and Dewey ______ – they ultimately prevailed and prevented Nevitt from acquiring his patent. 

Libby Riddles went on to become the first female winner of the infamous Iditarod in 1985, never giving up on her passion for sled dogs and racing, an obsession she carried from an early age in Wisconsin where she witnessed her first sled dog sprint race at the age of 16 – her life’s purpose was pretty clear after she moved to Alaska.  She too represents the finite percentage of homesteaders who achieved what she had come for.

When I interviewed Fred and Bill for this story it was in a race for time – Bill had succumbed to the rigors of his cancer and was bound to a wheelchair and difficult to understand without a lot of patience.  He has difficulty finding his words but you can see his eyes flash with memories as he tries to express a simple thought.  He laughs more than he shows frustration, despite what must be torture for a man who has so much to say.  Fred is a man that you might get a nod or a hello from but I doubt he’s too jovial with strangers.  I felt honored to have these two men sit in my parents living room and try to convey their incredible story to me.  Fred brought their journal and a box of slides from their trip – items he’d stashed away for over 40 years, quite possibly afraid to revisit until now.  Bill’s son, Frank joined them during this visit and interview, partly to help get his Dad around but I think it was so he could hear these men tell stories he’d never heard before.  He sat back with arms folded behind his head, soaking it all in.  He was patient with his Dad and would laugh hysterically when a good story would materialize.  He claimed to have never heard most of this, so I felt doubly honored by his admission. 

My initial focus was the homestead – I was under the impression that these guys were out there for a few years making a go at it, and I must admit a bit disappointed when I computed the timeline – four months?  That’s it?  But the stories just started coming and I realized the subject wasn’t the homestead but rather the Walkabouts these men embarked upon in their youth.  Fred recounted a story of hitchhiking from San Diego back to Minnesota one winter.  He started in trucks, moved into some freight trains headed east and eventually got picked up in Wyoming by a Montana sheriff who was too hung over to drive home from a conference he had been attending.  He told Fred to keep it on the speed limit and to wake him when the 8 hour trip was over, to which the sheriff summarily dismissed young Fred Honer outside of town to find his own way home. 

When Fred and Bill returned to Anchorage they brought one of the canoes with them and Fred still uses it to this day.  They were desperate for money to get home so any job looked promising, even unloading boxcars full of nitroglycerine to a depot that had already once exploded and leveled every tree for a mile.  It was perhaps the only time the boys quit a job on the same day they started. 


By now I should have known even dream jobs were prone to abject disappointment.  To get here I had flown hundreds of miles across barren tundra, thin forests, braided rivers and thousands of lakes to one of the most remote fishing lodges in all of Alaska. Upon landing on the gravel airstrip I was awestruck by the surrounding wilderness that was no longer an exception but the rule. Whatever dreams I had chased in my mind as an adolescent were unfolding with every step forward off that plane. It was the raw definition of personal adventure – voluntarily emerging from a zone of comfort and immersing oneself into a foreign and unfamiliar world.

I was nervous about meeting the expectations of my new employers and consequently the head guide at Unalakleet River Lodge, or affectionately to be known as URL. The head guide was a lanky old dude from Idaho named Norm.  He wasn’t genuinely friendly nor was he interested in reciprocating friendly gestures. Initially I brushed him off as perhaps a stoic savant and offered simple banter to hopefully pacify his demeanor – to no avail. As for the rest of this budding fraternity we came from all points south, every guide an addict at heart willing to do just about anything for the promise of fish. On the surface it was the only thing we had in common, but it was enough to form friendships rather than foes. 

There were plenty of opportunities during the first few weeks to out fish even our most far out dreams.  Life had restored its pulse to the area after a typically harsh winter. Chinook salmon were beginning to run up the rivers even though they were frozen highways just weeks prior.  Daylight engulfed a generous portion of the day and we only had to work a modest schedule readying the lodge for the first round of guests.  The remaining 10+ hours we spent exploring the Unalakleet River and its’ most prolific tributary, the North River.  It was imperative we become confident in our own skills here before the actual guiding began, so technically we were training and perfecting our craft. 

A couple guys had returned from previous guiding seasons which was a sign I had picked a good lodge – with so many guiding opportunities in Alaska it’s impressive to have guides return for more.  The money was predictably good but the fishing was apparently legendary in this place we had never heard of and just recently learned how to pronounce.  Their info and tips were critical to our initial success, as some of the methods employed were foreign to anyone who hadn’t taken salmon from heavy current in a boat.  We were all fly fishermen at heart but the job at hand was to put fish in the boat – that required the use of level wind reels and stiff rods feeble clients could handle.  We ‘back trolled’ in the current, pointing our stern up-river with the bow pointing downstream.  The idea was to position the lure(s) in the prime seams of current where the salmon would be swimming, creating an obstacle to their relentless forward progress.  These fish were no longer feeding and would be making haste for their spawning grounds nearby, so anything in their way was swiftly dealt with.  A neon orange or pink wiggling mag wort was a deadly mistake for these early season Kings.

The first two weeks were known as ‘Early King Season’ and offered guests a chance at world-class fishing for 50% the normal fee.  It was a bit of a gamble considering they could arrive when the Kings were still stubbornly making laps in Norton Sound, but this particular year paid out handsomely for those willing to come early.  It was also a great opportunity for the owners and Norm to flush out any problem guides – which had happened in the past.  It was about this time Norm’s reputation as an enforcer came to light.  Apparently, Norm was a former law man for the US Forest Service in Idaho – a black belt in some kind of martial arts discipline to boot with the personality of a saddle blanket.  He had known the owners for many years, and this marked his sixth or seventh season, his tenure earning him the title of head guide by default.  The story told from the other seasoned guides was that Norm kicked the shit out of the previous head guide and forced him to voluntarily extricate himself from the lodge.  I don’t recall the circumstances, other than there was a disagreement and Norm’s special skills were either undervalued or discounted entirely by his predecessor.  The guy supposedly hid in his tent for three days until he could arrange return transport to Anchorage.  Then Norm assumed the role of head guide. 

I may have mentioned before that I was gregarious by nature at this stage in my life.  I was 25 and still believed most people were honest and worth forging a friendship with.  Norm was no different – I tried but failed to earn his admiration which was becoming a bit frustrating despite my attempts to find his soft underbelly.  I eventually took his rebukes to be offensive and considered our interactions to border on contentious.  The owners were cognizant of his reputation among the guides but they cared little to intervene.  The other guys were far better adapted to this type of adversity in the workplace than I was and it made me a prime target for Norm.  His former career in law enforcement should have been my first indication that this guy was used to winning, and subsequently I was going to lose.  The thought of this old lanky geezer physically kicking my ass amused me to the point of wanting to poke the bear.  I was plenty accustomed to brawling but to be honest I’d never had my ass kicked by anyone except my brother and my luck was probably running out.  I didn’t get the sense Norm wanted to throw down in his waders but I was damn glad to have my dog at my side when we weren’t fishing.  Bear Dog would have killed that old fucker had he decided to kung foo me on the trail. 

The stage was set for a fabulous summer of fishing despite my rocky start with Norm.  I got along famously with a couple of the other guides and we spent hours fishing together after the guests were fed and tucked in for the night.  My clients were having a great time and it was my boat that brought in the first Coho for the season – an exciting development for everyone who had ever dreamed of having their backing exposed.  My reputation with the owners was also on solid ground despite the negative undercurrent flowing with their most seasoned veteran.  They offered some advice to help quell the animosity but it was useless.  I still didn’t understand that it wasn’t important for Norm to like me – he didn’t like anyone.  My best friend in the group was Lee – a big kid from Oklahoma who to this day remains one of my favorite personal encounters. His good friend Ty had spent a season at URL a few years prior, prompting Lee to apply for a job the same season I had.  Ty was a bit of a character and pushed Norm to the same level of consternation that I had – to the point of seeking Norm out in his home waters of Idaho despite Norm telling him to never talk to him again.  The story Lee told was a great reminder that revenge didn’t have to come in the form of violence.  Norm was a Steelhead fisherman – only the lucky and the dedicated are successful in their pursuit and I’m sure Norm was exceptionally honed at catching these noble beasts in his local rivers and streams.  Ty was the ultimate fishing addict, doing a fair amount of globetrotting to find sport fish when he wasn’t guiding.  The fabled Steelhead of Idaho rank up there with Copper River Kings, Tarpon and Roosterfish – people can spend a lifetime in their pursuit.  Ty saw his opportunity to fast track his mission to success and tracked Norm down on his home water – he was warned to go away but persisted to the point of taking fish from Norm’s secret holes, never earning the approval or respect from Norm that he no doubt cared little to obtain.  I loved that story and Lee would recount it anytime I wanted to seek revenge against the only drawback to an otherwise perfect posting.

One particular trait that I possess in deference to most fisherman is that I’m usually in a hurry.  This didn’t sit well with Norm who was in nobody’s hurry.  I wanted to go farther than anyone normally went to catch fish that would otherwise have been home free.  In that pursuit I had a tendency to encounter shallow water and, consequently, gravel.  Jet drives don’t necessarily care for gravel and the ramifications can be deadly to the impeller system.  The owners warned us about running thin, braided sections of the river and so I earnestly took every precaution to lighten the load in my jet sled every time I could predict a close scrape.  Once I had memorized both rivers I knew precisely where to ditch my client(s) on the bank while I navigated the treacherous section and we’d be safely on our way above or below.  I led some epic adventures up the North River to places few white men or women had ventured by boat – or at least it seemed like the natives that occupied fish drying shacks in that area were just as mystified by our presence.  No roads existed – nothing could be accessed without a 4-wheeler, boat or snowmobile in the winter.  It was what people referred to when calling Alaska ‘The Final Frontier.’

The summer heat became oppressive and temporary relief would come from torrential rainstorms, swelling the river to what would be considered flood stage had any populace existed along its banks. Debris in the form of entire trees and their shallow root wads would come with elevated flows, requiring focused navigation as we explored the rivers north and east.  Giant sweepers would block critical channels and the flat bottom jet sleds could essentially be driven over them with caution.  The actual jet sat flush with the bottom of the boat’s transom, but you wanted to tilt the motor as you cleared the debris to avoid sucking junk into the impeller.  This became a routine practice on our outings, but again the owners cautioned us against using the tiller of the outboard as a lever to tilt the engine, as it would cause unwarranted stress on the engine – fair enough, at least under supervision. Abusing the equipment that we needed to traverse these amazing landscapes was never a good idea considering they had to be flown into camp. My cavalier attitude toward machinery in that wilderness outpost was just enough to tip Norm over the edge.  Ultimately it would be the linchpin to his unhinging and he focused his wire framed, government issued spectacles on my every move.

A wild group of bankers from Atlanta were on a return trip to URL one week, the choice guides getting at least one or more constituents in their boat.  These guys were party animals on a fishing trip – they weren’t die hard anything except fun boys, which was great considering they wanted their guides to revel in the madness as well.  So it was a fast and furious week with this crew and I was determined to meet their expectations, within reason.  Shore lunches were scheduled every afternoon with coolers stuffed with beer and mixers.  They must have brought over a pound of weed with them which suited the guides fine, we were dangerously low on supply.  Their antics were contagious and it was easy to get lost in the fun. They were just as much in love with our situation as we were.

Returning from a typically long day on the river I was following a line of boats down the final ¼ mile to the lodge when I saw a giant sweeper billow off the bow, right in front of the lodge.  Of course I was running full tilt, so the natural behavior was to slam down on the tiller to raise the jet foot, clear the sweeper and head for the dock.  I do remember him standing there at the fish cleaning station – his piercing eyes somehow visible behind his glasses from over 200 yards away – but I knew he saw me do it and I knew we were headed for a row. I had committed the fatal error that would bring Norm and I to truly understand each other.

After I dropped my clients at the main dock I returned my boat to her respectful place along the other guide boats and started the proverbial cleanup process.  Norm was waiting for me on the trail in the woods that connected our tents to the main lodge, about 100’ above the river’s edge.  Like a friggen bird of prey he stood up there gawking, waiting.  I had time – hopefully he didn’t.  The long climb to my tent seemed formidable – but Bear Dog was waiting for me and Norm was going to intercept me along the inevitable trek to the guides’ pantry through the woods.  At least I had ascended to fair, high ground – I didn’t like him standing anywhere above me – if it came to blows I was going to need to use gravity to my advantage. 

The resulting encounter was the first time I had ever come to disrespect an elder – and Norm had me by a cool 40 years.  I recall guides trying to intervene from both directions of the trail, cautioning us that everyone in the area could hear us shouting , but I could care less.  He had me in a compromised position, blocking my way to food and my dog was on full alert behind my heels.  He called me reckless and incompetent – the former probably true, the latter an unforgivable insult. Despite the explosive nature of our squaring off it never came to blows, thankfully.  After that heated exchange he knew precisely how I felt about him and enough respect had been earned to stave off any further problems between us. 

Following our public display of disdain for each other I figured I was as good as fired. I grovelled over the frustration of having to leave the lodge early but the owners also knew they had an asset to keep on board if possible.  The clients liked me and I clearly loved my job – it was just Norm that I couldn’t stand.  Tough shit, kid – you’re gonna meet a lot more Norms in your life.  That was the sage advice Sally gave me – and of course she was right.  He was the worst I had ever dealt with, but he taught me how to identify his type as I navigated my life thereafter. Norm was what I now consider to be a necessary evil in life – he was inexplicably yet strategically placed in my path as an immovable object that conjured up humility and confidence. He represented every critic I’d ever tried to discount or ignore in my life but he was inescapable. It forced me to deal with my flaws and to understand that I was indeed fallible and disposable. It was simply time for me to learn how to get along better.

I never saw anyone from URL again after that summer. I informed the owners that I would guarantee my return if they could promise Norm was finished – but they were right to refuse such a pompous proposition. Norm was reliable if not shy of insufferable, and he could catch fish. I could catch fish too, but at the end of the day clients weren’t coming to Alaska to meet gregarious guides – they were coming to feed an addiction.


A.J. was a rather interesting character – probably more of a con man than anything, but he was an employer and a means to making rent. We first met on a trail ride outside Healy, AK on a scorching mid-July afternoon. It was my job to make sure the rides were conducted in a safe but enjoyable manner, so I would occasionally hold back from leading the group and move to the rear of the single-file line. As a general precaution we kept novice riders near the front, and those suspected to be less prone to failure positioned near the rear. I found some fascinating folks at the tail end of these groups, perhaps suggesting their manner of confidence in riding a horse conveyed a bit more substance to the individual.

I was gregarious to a fault, which was ideal for the job. Technically we were billed as ‘horse wranglers’ but in truth it was a ruse to lure cruise company tourists into the tundra for a chance encounter with nature on horseback. We were essentially tundra tour leaders and the horses of course carried the burden. I absolutely loved meeting all those people from different parts of the country. I was 24 years old, embedded on a hiatus from anything that might advance my career, which at the time included car wash detailing; bar tending; table waiting; handy man, and now horse wrangler. The latest employ was a means to getting up to Alaska, which had been a dream of mine since I was a young boy.

A.J. was unique in the sense that he was visiting from Anchorage, and not Pennsylvania or Texas or South Carolina like the rest of the ‘Tourons’ we guided along the spongy trails. He was with his girlfriend and a young boy, not his son. He sported a mean Jheri Curl and a slouched posture that exuded confidence and a sly invitation to inquire what he was all about. He didn’t blend in with anyone, despite the predictable diversity of their origins. A.J. was a singular distraction that could be avoided or investigated by anyone willing to pay attention. His smirk was inviting rather than offending, and he possessed that rare quality of a conversant.

Fast forward a couple months and I found myself unemployed and homeless. I had just drawn the line with the ranch owners and been warned to vacate their property within the hour, or else. Legally they couldn’t fire my girlfriend but she poetically rejected their limp gesture to stay on board. The Subaru was once again overloaded and we had a choice of driving north or south from that terrible place of employ. Naturally we turned south knowing the impending winter would only get worse in Fairbanks. Anchorage seemed logical considering there were jobs and places to rent, although this should serve as a bit of foreshadowing that perhaps Fairbanks would have been a better gamble for the former criteria.

That first night we pulled into a roadside shanty and I tried to douse my furor with beer – one of the other wranglers was there, secretly reveling in my dismissal but playing coy enough to encourage my rants. It was cheap entertainment in a place that could feel suffocating despite the vast wilderness and lack of oversight that came with the territory. I have no idea what our parting words were, but I didn’t blame him for my ejection and I still hope he made out OK in life. At some point he drove back north to the ranch while I climbed into the back of our Subaru to await sobriety and a new plan. Alaska was great like that – you could camp virtually anywhere you wanted, so long as it wasn’t impeding road or rail traffic. My faithful dog, Bear was usually relegated to bedding down outside the car since there wasn’t much room left after two adults were stretched out inside. His rousing howl would keep anything at bay, and I bolted upright many nights to his suspicion of unwanted prowlers nearby. The area was thick with grizzlies, moose and some wolves, although we never really felt threatened by their presence. I encountered multiple moose and bears while fishing the local rivers, never once in a negative gambit. Still, car camping felt a lot safer than chucking a nylon tent over the ground.

The next morning began with a sense of urgency to get moving anywhere but there – we had ventured south once or twice in the few months since we’d come to Alaska but it was all new territory for the most part. Anchorage held promise that we could spend our winter here instead of turning tail for home in the lower 48 like most seasonal workers would do. There wasn’t much for us back in Seattle and we had only tasted some of the amazing wilds we had come to feast on. The basics needed to be met immediately so we set upon a copy of the Anchorage Daily News and flipped to the classifieds. Apartments were available for our budget, which wasn’t much. In our moment of desperation we picked the first place that had an opening near the center of town and agreed to meet the landlord that afternoon. It was during that drive into Anchorage I remembered my conversation with A.J. several weeks prior – he had offered me a job if I even needed it, but at the time it never dawned on me I’d be trying my hand at landscaping in Alaska. Now I needed a paycheck so I fished his business card from my journal. I rang him from a pay phone in Wasilla, wondering if he’d remember who I was. Thankfully he did and was quite receptive to my solicitation for employment. I could start the following Monday, take a few days to get settled. I was jubilant – we weren’t even to our new home yet and I already had a job.

The apartment was fine enough with two bedrooms and a single bathroom. We didn’t own any furniture so we paid a visit to the local Salvation Army and lugged home a console TV and a shit-brown couch that didn’t smell too bad. We purchased an air mattress and enough dishes from Walmart to make the kitchen feel functional. Then we went to work. My girlfriend immediately found employment as a personal trainer at the regional fitness giant and I began to learn of my new boss’s nefarious ways. A.J. gave me a work truck to use at my discretion, at 1 ton Chevy connected to a utility trailer that hauled his skid steer. A.J. had plenty of work lined up and I was quickly learning my way around town with a trailer in tow. My experience in operating heavy equipment was limited to farm tractors and implements we had used to reap our hay crop in Missouri. I was handed the keys to the skid steer without any hesitation and went to work sculpting a new yard for a mansion west of town. Amazingly I managed to move over a hundred yards of fill and topsoil onto that property despite never having operated a skid steer. It was a job well done until I managed to flip over a drainage ditch in the front yard, with the bucket fully extended, creating a whole different set of problems. The utility crew up the street wouldn’t dare lend a hand with their backhoe, and I was forced to face my new employer with the obvious news when he showed up to the job.

“Got yourself into a jam, huh?” he said as he slowly moved from the drivers seat of his truck, lighting a cigarette and tossing his strands of curls behind his shoulder – it was the kind of gesture you might expect from someone who discovered you in a desperate plight but wanted to savor the moment before providing a solution. You’d expect most bosses to be livid at the scene, but A.J. was almost expecting it. Hydraulic fluid dripped from the floorboards and side panels while the engine ticked as it cooled. There was a limited amount of time to rectify this situation and I was horrified that I had just ruined my new job. A.J. climbed awkwardly into the cab, laying sideways as he pulled the safety bar tight to his chest so he could activate the controls. He worked the bucket arm and wheels until he somehow crawled out of that hopeless situation and back onto the street. Without turning the machine off he hopped out and gave me the address for the next job. No hard feelings, there was work to do. And with that A.J. was gone again to who knows where.

As the weeks went by darkness began to engulf more of the workable day. We found ourselves moving from landscaping into subterranean work installing a water main to an apartment complex. In Alaska all water lines must be buried 10′ below the surface to avoid the frost line, so this work is performed in the trenches. Trenching required the use of an excavator to cut the enormous channel that ran from the water main at the street to the rear of the building, about a 150′ course. A.J. dug the first 50% of the trench and turned the machine over to me for the rest of the project. I never told him that I came within inches of completely leveling the 2nd floor of that apartment building one morning while I was practicing operating the giant shovel, in the dark. To the uninitiated, excavators require the use of both feet and both hands to perform what is simply magic in the hands of experienced operators – of which I was not. While swinging a partially extended arm and an elevated bucket I damn near destroyed that building, thankfully stopping just short of contact. It was just another stark lesson to learn without having to face serious ramifications.

It was on that particular job that I started to understand my predicament in the employ of A.J. He would dispatch me to rental companies to temporarily procure large wrenches or other tools not commonly owned by thieves and con men. The more observant rental shops would inquire as to whom I worked for – and of course I believed this to be none of their business. Finally one of them refused to accept my application for rental, laying before me a trove of instances where my employer had scammed them and multiple other rental companies out of tools and machinery. Pointing past me to the truck in his parking lot that I had showed up in, he figured it was probably stolen too, along with that skid steer and trailer. “Be careful, son – that man is bad news. He’s trying to get you to rent his tools because he knows better than to come around here. Don’t get involved.” Sage advice from a well informed business owner, no doubt.

A.J. blew this off as an affront from an old nemesis – of course he was legit. But I had seen too much at this point to believe anything he said. His personal truck was a veritable den of illicit drug distribution, and I had been fortunate enough not to get caught in some rather scary places with A.J. over the past few weeks. One particular apartment we visited during normal work hours was equipped with more security cameras and guns than a sporting goods store – and enough coke and crystal meth and weed to get everyone in the confines of that shit hole multiple years behind bars. His girlfriend was a pathetic tweaker who constantly picked at her thumb with tweezers, convinced there was glass embedded in her skin. She drove a school bus for the Anchorage School District, and we would occasionally rendezvous with the bus on her route to make exchanges. Yep, she would pull that big yellow bus over to the side of the road and wait for A.J. to make a brief entrance and exit and we were on our way. This happened at least a dozen times. I kept a nervous look over my shoulder, always. The risk was apparent and my future started to feel rather fragile around A.J. It was only a matter of time before I got stopped by the cops in his truck and would have to explain why I was transporting who knows what besides the pound of weed in the console. Call it naivete, I call it sheer luck.

A.J. was eventually confined to house arrest – he was involved in some seriously shady activities that had finally caught up to him, and he needed me to run his ‘business’ – so I demanded more money and agreed to stay on. The trenching was finished and the 2″ copper water main needed to be connected to the apartment complex, so that task fell to me. If you’ve never had to manhandle a 150′ coil of 2″ copper in a 10′ deep trench in the pouring rain, it’s not an experience I would recommend. Trench work has apparently killed enough workers over time that someone had the presence of mind to report our particular condition to the authorities one morning. As I struggled to uncoil the giant coil of copper I saw a light flash, causing a brilliant reflection in the water around my feet. It happened again, prompting me to look up toward the dimly lit sky, into a camera lens and recurring flashes. A white hard hat with an officious looking logo sat atop the head of a man who probably saved my life that day. “Good morning! How about you climb out of that hole!” he shouted down to me. I started looking for my tools and anything else I’d taken down with me when he yelled a commanding, “NOW!” That prompted me to scurry up the aluminum ladder we had propped at the corner and onto the dripping, soil-caked edge of the trench. He was taller than me and older by many years. OSHA was clearly visible now on his helmet and jacket markings, as was the seal of The Department of Labor. I felt relieved to be standing before this patron saint of gullible and stupid workers. He had fished me out of a trench that could have caved in at any moment, considering A.J. never installed a proper trench box or any kind of shoring to prevent such catastrophe. He explained to me that an anonymous tip was called in to his office and he was there to shut the job down. He strung tape around what could have become a crime scene.

I stood there in the rain that morning, suddenly jobless and dumbstruck over my misfortune with recent employers. I felt somehow vindicated by being forced to stop rather than quitting, but that didn’t make up for the diminishing confidence in my obstinate career path. A.J. was an obvious con man and a drug dealer who damn near killed me. I’m sure my presence and lackluster criminal profile confused the hell out of the local police and perhaps federal agents who knew every move A.J. made, but fortunately never came to know me personally. Once that OSHA inspector taped up our soggy job site I knew where to find A.J. My better sense told me not to go to his house knowing everything I knew about him, but it was a matter of cash and closure – the former being a hell of a motivator. I told him squarely that I would report him to the Department of Labor if he didn’t pay me upfront for all back wages and for the wages he owed some poor young sap that had recently started working with me. He handed over several hundred dollars in cash and that was the last I ever saw of A.J. It didn’t keep me from looking over my shoulder from time to time since our parting interaction involved a direct threat to his criminal enterprise.

Once my stint with A.J. was up we desperately needed a 2nd vehicle to solve our constant transportation needs, to which I acquired a beautiful blue 1982 Chevy Suburban that was a former north slope work truck. The gentleman I bought that truck from happened to be originally from Minnesota, and we bonded quickly over stories of ‘home’ as he’d once considered that lowly 48 freezer. His son worked on a construction crew building houses in Anchorage and the owner of the company was a good friend – he’d give him a call for me to see if there were any openings. By a stroke of luck or perhaps on behalf of a favor there was a spot on the framing crew, I could go meet them that afternoon. Pat was the owner, a polite and friendly man originally from Ohio. He was clearly legitimate and was proud to show his company name on his truck – this guy wasn’t hiding from anyone, and I needed a solid place to land for awhile.

My carpentry skills were sharpened dramatically during my tenure with Pat’s crew. John was the crew boss and another native Ohioan, about my age but with four kids and a curious past in an agrarian cult. Jimmy was the son of the guy who helped me get the job, a nice kid, albeit a bit confused with what to do with life after high school. Dave was the oddball of the group but he was a sweet guy, harmless despite his wish you’d think of him as a bad ass. Kenny was the group clown and paid dearly for his antics with undesirable assigned duties that must go to someone. We worked through pitch dark and into pathetic daylight for months that winter, pouring concrete foundations despite the freezing temperatures (giant tents were erected over the entire foundation and kept aloft with diesel jet heaters – the ambient temperature inside was a dripping 65 degrees), framing the structures and finishing the individual condos. It was steady work that provided invaluable skills training with a crew of unique individuals who otherwise would have never known each other.

As spring approached and longer days returned I began yearning for another job beyond the city. The carpentry work was a means to my true love of fishing, and I made frequent visits to a local fly shop where I was building a fly rod. During one of the many evenings I spent toiling over the delicate rebuild of my Dad’s busted #4 Leonard I met the next link to a promising new job. He was a gregarious and fittingly large man who claimed to be the PA (Physician’s Assistant) for this particular lodge. He of course knew the owners and he’d put me in touch, what more could I ask for? I was sitting on tentative employment with a dreamy spot called Valhalla Lodge for the impending summer, but this new opportunity promised to go even further into the wilds of Alaska, to a region most visitors never consider. Unalakleet River was just southeast of Nome by 400 miles and square in the middle of Norton Sound, way to the northwest of my current locale. There weren’t any trout up there but the salmon were legendary and competition was of the four legged variety. Dolly Varden would come with the salmon so there was a great variety of action to be had with a fly rod.

Arranging for the new job was pretty easy – the owners seemed organized and had a good reputation – they were even part of the Cabela’s lodge system which was reassuring. I’d learned enough about employers in Alaska by now to be weary, so I considered my choice a solid one. With new orders on the horizon my remaining days in Anchorage were spent scouring Ship Creek in town and the many lakes in the Wasilla area, perfecting my skills to leave zero doubt in my ability to catch fish anywhere, anytime. Guiding was a new endeavor for me but it was an exciting challenge, one that would ultimately teach me more about myself and the strength of naked confidence. I was going it alone this time – no tag along from Washington and my girlfriend was staying behind in Anchorage to keep earning money – we had big plans to move hemispheres in the fall and it would take a pile of money to accomplish our goal. I had short timers syndrome so bad it didn’t matter who got in the way or cast aside, I was finally heading out for my dream job and leaving some hard lessons behind. Anchorage was an ideal resting place for my first Alaskan winter and I was fully charged to write the next chapter. When it was time to go there were reluctant goodbyes and empty promises to see everyone again soon. Bear Dog’s crate was stuffed into the rear of what the locals in Unalakleet would call the ‘sewer pipe,’ which was something like a Fairchild Metroliner. I watched them close the hatch and walked to the staircase that would take me farther than I’d ever been in my life.

MoHartWheels – The Last Supper

I don’t remember much about the famed TV series ’30 Something’ because I was too young to give a damned about 30-somethings when that aired. I can imagine, however, that it was about the great friends and greatest disasters that visit you in your 30’s, like the Ghosts of Christmas Past in ‘Scrooged.’ At certain points of my 30’s I recall thinking about that show, simply because of it’s title and popularity – and wondering what part of my life would emulate something worthy of a script for TV or other more novel-esque re-enactments. To the best of my knowledge I never identified a single event while living my 30’s but now I know precisely what it is.

The other night my wife and I were discussing the gritty details of yet another divorce that thankfully doesn’t include us. I am a spectator, she is a pillar of support for the wife in this particular case. We have known this couple for many years, living out the hey days of our 30’s in Providence, RI with them and becoming so close we envisioned owning a commune with them someday. Hell I’d still do it if he didn’t turn out to be a conniving methamphetamine addict who I am reluctant to see again. The commune would have involved a third family – a total of six adults, five kids and plenty of dogs – preferably somewhere on the coast of New England. We were sincerely the best of friends in a small community that fostered idyllic child rearing.

Providence was never a place I figured we’d stay for long. It was a stopover from our departure from Manhattan once a new baby and a desperate need for more space dictated a move. We didn’t want to go south to Philly and Long Island is best suited for Long Islanders. Boston was no bargain and the surf nearby was garbage from what I could tell. Providence checked a lot of boxes but I am certain it would have never been a candidate had I known that was where Lloyd and Harry started their ill-fated adventure to find Mary Swanson and return her briefcase. It was only after we moved to Seattle that I realized the truisms of that movie were spot on, despite our having thoroughly enjoyed living there.

When you’re raising a kid in any community it becomes obvious who the other first time parents are. You see each other in parks, farmers markets, playgrounds, school orienteering, grocery stores – there is no escaping this reality unless you parent from the couch. Judgments are quickly formed as we learn how to be parents without losing whatever level of cool is left at that point. We yearn for friends and will go out of our way to find similarities that most likely aren’t there, except that everyone collectively got knocked up about the same time. I look back on some of those early conversations and wince at the naivety, but never with the group that came to be known as MoHartWheels. It was the only judgment free zone I felt safe in, free to be myself as I was at home with my wife and daughter. I cherish my wife because she is the only person I ever felt comfortable enough to reveal myself too – with friendships we have a tendency to withhold a lot of that material, and rightfully so. But with this group I wasn’t a dominant or a shadowed figure, but rather a true equal among my peers. It felt wonderful to find that intimacy with other adults and we spent many nights and days together watching life grow up around us.

I am a restless person by nature. I haven’t lived in one city or town longer than six years since I left high school, including Tacoma, WA; Columbia, MO; Seattle, WA; Healy, AK; Anchorage, AK; Unalakleet, AK; New Zealand; back to Seattle; Walker, MN; New York, NY; Providence, RI; Rumford, RI and finally Seattle for the 3rd time. This all happened from the time I was 18 until 39, so roughly 20 years on the move. It’s not hard to imagine lessons learned are easier to implement in a new town, and by the time we hit Providence I considered us to be fairly savvy at making friends. That of course didn’t stymie our restless nature, and ultimately we decided to relocate from Rhode Island to Seattle where we’d hopefully grow some deeper roots in the mountains and sound. The decision to leave Rhode Island wasn’t a difficult one, especially after we had endured multiple miscarriages and narrowly lost a bid for a home on the water in Bristol that would have realized all of our dreams many years ahead of schedule. The rate of loss for us seemed unshakable and simply moving across state lines to Massachusetts would never provide enough distance from whatever omen we’d been enshrouded by. Public schools in Providence were on the deplorable scale and private school tuition was staggering. We were in love with the local real estate and our new found friends but something kept beckoning us west.

One evening just before we moved out of our condo on Cooke Street I struck up a typically long phone conversation with my sister in Seattle – “why don’t you guys come out here?” It was a novel idea, one that I hadn’t floated since we became equipped with child. So I passed it along to my wife and surprisingly she was game to check it out – she’d only been there once on a college search with her Dad and then once again back in 2000 just after we moved home from Europe. Two weeks later she was on a flight from Boston to Seattle to explore the city, real estate, weather, etc. To my absolute relief she loved it, even in the dead of winter when Seattle dishes out impressive levels of moisture and darkness. We were going to take I-90 west all the way to I-5.

The act of relocating is either loathed or embraced – you cannot embark on such an adventure without a strong opinion about your destination, and that will of course determine your mindset. Thankfully we had never been told where to live and it was simply a function of where we wanted to be – a freedom so few realize until they are on the backslide of life. As stated before, this was my fourth time moving to the Pacific Northwest, the third time I was to call Seattle home. We were giddy to the point of obnoxiousness and suffered from shortsightedness and blind ignorance. Seattle’s real estate market had undergone a terrific boom over the past decade and homes were nearly unattainable, but our desire to live there and to start a new life for ourselves was so pure and honest that I knew it would all work out – call it a last ditch cavalier move to bid adieu to my tumultuous 30’s. We didn’t have a house, or a neighborhood or a school district yet, but we were taking off for Seattle.

Our friends were not pleased. The news was unsettling to the group and it caused us to latch on tighter to the time we had left. We cooked up epic lobster feasts, smoked tobacco from a Tunisian hookah and drank fine liquor that was acquired in Mauritius. Our kids were the best of friends and required little supervision, leaving more time for unforgettable conversations while the calendar allowed. Our final supper was the penultimate event of my 30’s – it was the only going away party I ever allowed to be held in my honor, and it was a simple and sweet affair. Nothing crazy happened that night – everyone behaved themselves, even the kids. Our truck was packed for the cross country haul, the other car had already been shipped west and the moving trailer with all of our belongings was locked and ready for transport. The only thing left was to say goodbye, which I always found easier after I had left. I had spent all of my 30’s on the East Coast and this final evening was honestly one of the happiest I can remember.

If we hadn’t left Rhode Island it’s unclear what would have become but it turns out we started a bit of a mass exodus. Shortly thereafter one of the couples spontaneously moved to Grass City, California – which only triggered a downfall for that family, hence the big D mentioned earlier in this story. The other couple held on for a couple more years but eventually moved to Miami, a place neither of them seemed to have on their radar but was ultimately selected for a job change.

With all three families now segregated to points afar we maintained vigilant communication. The MoHartWheels text thread on our iPhones was rich with history and memes and well wishes. It seemed inevitable that such a dynamic group of people would be forced to separate someday but that didn’t soften the indignity. We still secretly wished they’d all move to Seattle so we could start that commune on the opposite coast, but those far out dreams were dashed as details began to emerge from that sleepy town west of Tahoe. Turns out sobriety from alcohol was a thin veil for the husband of that family. Methamphetamine was rampant in the area and it was a cheap alternative to the cocaine habit he’d been hiding from everyone. It was devastating news to all of us who thought he had been 100% straight with us, as we had been with him. And those two little boys were now facing a different life entirely. It was a stark reminder that life is riddled with unforeseen pitfalls and nuances. My shock developed into anger from being lied to by someone who I felt incredibly close to – like discovering the sick truth about a priest or scout leader. The trifecta was forever severed, ushering in a new era of gossip and unbelievable latest developments from their shaky outpost.

On a recent solo trip to California my wife made plans to visit the other wife and her two boys – but altered her itinerary once she learned the husband was not only staying on the property he was told to leave but he was refusing to unbarricade himself from the garage. The stop was verboten as we simply feared for her safety. Apparently his drug addled state has developed into full-blown paranoia where he’s holed up for days in his garage office, fearful of boogeymen that he constantly scans the security cameras for (never mind his wife and kids would be the first line of defense in that scenario). I can’t even begin to imagine what their daily lives are like now, and I don’t really want to know.

Our 40’s have been less interesting but more rewarding. We are more cautious about who we become friendly with, and I think that is the prevailing behavior among our peers because I have never felt so judged by any group of people. But our daughter is growing up fast and is honestly more fun to hang out with so that’s become a wonderful and fruitful distraction. When we do encounter someone we feel a kinship to we secretly keep our fingers and toes crossed that they love lobster and wouldn’t mind knowing us for who we truly are.

Whitmeyer’s Bass

The bucket sloshed at my legs, spilling water down my shorts and into the rubber boots as I used all my strength to complete the 200 yard dash from our neighbor’s farm pond to the newly anointed ‘lake’ in our backyard of Ear Acres. These fish didn’t have long in that bucket since a few had been in there now for over 30 minutes while I desperately tried to increase my quota. When there were enough to keep each other company I would drop my rod and strain at the handle, lugging it uphill over the first 100 yards to the property boundary, secretly hoping no one would catch me in the act. Getting that bucket over the fence was the real challenge, spilling the water was not an option since I still had a massive field to cross before these fish would breathe sweet, fresh water again. Even at the ripe age of seven I knew they didn’t have long in that bucket.

Once I had crossed the fence and crested the hill where our driveway made its terminal roundabout I was home free. No one but a Morrill could see my progress now, and it never seemed like anyone was really watching what we were doing on our property anyways. The final 80 yards was all downhill and I used the momentum to my advantage, running and skimming the bottom of the bucket along the patches of grass and dirt of our newly planted yard. A small stream entered the south end of the pond, and I chose that spot to dump the bucket and release my captives to their new home. As they eagerly disappeared to explore the murky depths I was already running back up the hill with the bucket, swinging it vigorously as I ran, imagining how big those fish would be someday. I would launch it over the fence and vault myself into the tall grass, careful to skirt the asparagus patch that old Mrs. Whitmeyer tended to daily. Occasionally I would see old Mr. Whitmeyer or his son driving a tractor or pickup around their farm, taking very little care to notice what I was up to, or choosing work over conversation with this new neighbor kid. Whatever the outcome of those encounters they weren’t enough to deter me from mining their stock of bass and transplanting dozens if not a hundred or more into our home water. It was a much different scenario from my fishing excursions in Wichita, where my mom lived on a golf course. Those ponds were just as stuffed with fish but they came with unwanted baggage – snotty golfers who couldn’t stand to see a kid fishing on their pristine course. I remember being chased out of those ponds when I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 – and if any of those people are still alive today and happen to read this – you can go F*** yourselves. I still hate golf to this day because of those shitheads.

Ear Acres matured as we manicured the woods, fields and trails. We dug new ponds but were remiss not to line them with fly ash like we did the first pond – and consequently they never held full volume, making tough conditions for most fish. But the first pond held water even during the worst droughts – and there were some bad ones in those days. We enlisted the help of the Missouri Department of Conservation to create a ‘responsible’ stocking program in that pond, unfortunately after we made the egregious error of transplanting crappies from Truman Reservoir that first fall. Fortunately for the pond’s ecosystem we endured a severe freeze that winter and the promiscuous little devils froze to death near the surface, hundreds of small crappies wearing the look of shock from asphyxia in their eyes. The bass, bluegill and sunfish survived – so did the six grass carp who held the honorable distinction of the pond’s first inhabitants.

The DoC suggested catfish – which seemed odd considering they weren’t usually a target specimen during our fishing forays, but we watched the first twenty five slide into the lake the next spring, curious what might come of these whiskered ancients. I must admit I was sorely disappointed to see so few of any species going into that pond, especially after the herculean efforts I had undergone robbing the neighbors’ pond. But wiser minds prevailed and those catfish grew to epic size and numbers, making for a wholly unique fishing experience for even the lamest of rod handlers. Dad stationed a 50-gallon trash barrel by the lake just above the foot of the dock and filled it with ‘catfish food.’ One heave of the 6-cup scoop would summons hundreds of sucking lips to the surface, methodically removing any trace of a free meal for the less than fortunate species below. Any fly pattern that resembled a piece of dog food was guaranteed to provide five + minutes of sheer joy on a 5 wt. rod.

The catfish were easy to catch, as described above – but the bass were typical bass – leery and cautious. There wasn’t great visibility in that water so you didn’t exactly have to stalk them, but they weren’t offering up free rides like the catfish. Barb had one she called ‘Walter’ – he lived among the Christmas trees we sunk every year just west of the goose tub. It might have been about 10-15′ deep over there, and I remember Dad and Barb always paddled the canoe over in that direction. Barb would let out a yelp whenever she hooked a big one – which was often because Barb is the best fisherwoman I’ve ever known – and they’d get pulled around the pond by Walter or one of his kin, undoubtedly trying to find the portal back to the home water they came from.

We grew up swimming in that pond, always stroking for the middle so we didn’t have to feel the mucky bottom with our toes. We’d push the canoe out there and flip it, resurfacing under the gunnels always amazed that it didn’t sink. We knew there were snakes in that pond but the real menace were those damned channel and flathead cats. They’d come up and nibble our toes thinking the commotion above must be delivering their daily feeding. We’d squeal and kick and thrash to get that canoe turned right side up to escape their sandpaper-lined mouths. Then we’d do it all over again until Barb would ring the iron dinner bell from the house up the hill.

Toward the end of our tenure at Ear Acres we allowed some interlopers to fish the fabled waters of that pond. ‘Boss’ from the local (and only) Chinese restaurant would lounge on the shore like a giant Buddha statue, always expressing gratitude with some free appetizer or maybe a Tsingtao for Dad. The neighbors who bought a farmhouse from us eventually schmoozed on in once Dad and Barb were only temporary residents and Nick and I were off to college – and from what I gather that pond got stripped clean by less than scrupulous visitors. My last fish from that pond was a #8 or #9 bass – or at least it’s the last one I remember. At the time I was hell bent for destruction, staying up all night partying with anyone who could keep the stamina. Watching the sun come up is always a lonely feeling, but one that feels right with a fishing rod in hand. The picture of me holding that fish is gross – I have long hair and a thin, strung out face. I am beaming from ear to ear but I look all wrong. I’m holding the giant awkwardly, pointing my elbow up and to the side to bring the massive fish into the frame, perhaps instinctively trying to hide my face in the prematurely morning light. That phase of my life eventually passed, but the memory of that fish has never left.

A few weeks after I graduated from college in December 2000 we finally sold Ear Acres. I was there to show the realtors around when they came with ‘interested’ parties, but for the most part no one had the vision it took to maintain that property. We mowed over 60 acres of grass between the yard and the runway. The trails needed mowing and the fields needed bailing. Most people ventured down that mile-long driveway looking for an oasis that would take care of itself. Eventually a church from the inner-city picked it up for a bargain, planning to provide a safe and unique outlet for the kids they were trying to save. The neighbors were not thrilled with how ‘dark’ we’d made the town with that sale but our time was up – the Morrill Family was gone for good, dispersed to Minnesota and Washington State and Alaska. Our name was tarnished with some of the locals but personally I felt good knowing those kids from Kansas City were going to experience what I had known most of my life.

As the years passed we always reminisced about Ear Acres and the paradise we created there. I spent the first decade after college refusing to go back to Missouri, somehow equating failure with going home. At my 10-year high school reunion I finally flew back to MCI, crossing the Platte County water tower that sat just off the south end of our grass runway – I could see the entire property as we crossed the middle and inner marker to finally touchdown. My dear friend Josh Hulett was back home too and we raised hell like always. Not caring for the new property owners’ rights, I invited my classmates to the ‘top of the runway’ for an evening tailgate. We parked our trucks up there and listened to I-29 hum nearby while our little town kept growing – telling stories of our childhood, laughing at all those lights in the water tower we used to shoot out with our .22’s. It was fitting – one last party on the runway that had grown too tall for a safe takeoff or landing.

A few years later Josh and I snuck back out there and got really brave after a case or more of Miller Lite. The runway had become a cul-de-sac by this point and I was incensed. I wanted to see that log house for myself, so we slowly crept down the gravel drive with our lights off and parked at the bend in the road just before it turned east for the house. This was tricky business when we occupied the house, not only because my Dad was known to greet unwanted guests with a .357 but because our ‘alarm’ was 5-7 dogs who were kenneled near the house. If Nick and I ever wanted to sneak home after hours the first line of defense was to sprint through the woods and encounter the dogs before they sounded the alarm. We got pretty good at this and rarely got caught, but I knew none of this would stand in our way on this inky night. We pushed the iron gate open, knowing damn well no one would be home with that gate shut – the place was ours to survey. The gravel drive gave way to concrete at that gate, an improvement Dad made a few years after we moved in, probably about the time he finally put railings along the deck that surrounded the house. The driveway looked deserted and the home looked worn. The logs hadn’t been treated in years and the decks hadn’t been pressure washed since we had left, no doubt. I stuck my face to the double glass front doors, peering into someone else’s house. I didn’t care about being caught because I felt I had a right to be there. Josh sheepishly stayed behind as I circumnavigated the house on both levels – not daring to enter but just barely. As I rounded the back of the house I couldn’t believe it was still there- hanging where we had left it nearly 15 years ago was the iron triangle dinner bell. I snatched that rusty treasure and bolted for the woods. Josh wasn’t far behind and we made haste for our truck up the hill. No dogs barked, no lights came on and we had a clean getaway. I just wish we would have spent the rest of that night trying to catch Walter.


I can recall the day we sat around the family dining table mulling over the options, rated one to ten in order of preference. It seemed a terribly important decision at the time, picking the six letters that would stare back at every car, truck, semi and motorcycle we overtook on our voyages. Dad sure seemed confident his top choice would get selected by whatever deciding authority prevailed over such bureaucratic importance in Jefferson City. Six letters that would define who we were as a family – it seemed almost impossible to capture such adventure and spontaneity without using a corny pop culture reference like ‘TOP GUN.’

It seemed fitting that we would have personalized plates for our new Chevy Suburban. This would have been 1989, before the new body style adulterated a classic and just about the time trucks were getting a serious makeover to eventually rival some luxury sedans. Our new Suburban was white with maroon body stripes and a plush ‘conversion’ interior that was similar to luxury vans of the era. It was truly one of a kind, replacing our first Suburban, a mud-brown late 70’s vintage that had a 4″ suspension lift kit, monster tires and manually locking hubs. Dad bought that beast up in Minnesota one fall and drove it back to our farm in Missouri – we were thrilled to have a close replica to Big Foot in our driveway. It dwarfed the ’85 Cadillac Seville that migrated to our farm from our former residence in Kansas City – which was fine with us because that car didn’t really belong in the country anyhow.

So now we were replacing Big Foot with this luxury liner and it needed a name. I don’t know when ‘vanity plates’ became popular, but I sure don’t recall seeing too many back in the late 80’s, which means there were lots of available options, and Dad got his first pick: WE-BGON. Damn if that didn’t sum it all up. The man was constantly on the move and falling behind wasn’t an option. There was never a dull moment in my childhood, which usually meant we were in some other state or possibly in Canada, exploring mountains and lakes and rivers and all the highways and flyways that took us there. The drive from our home and farm in Missouri to our lake home in northern Minnesota was a cool twelve hours, but I’m pretty sure we covered that distance in about ten. There weren’t many stops unless requested by Barb or declared absolute emergencies – and I don’t recall wearing a seat belt since Nick and I were usually lounging in far back of the rig with the dog(s). The early morning departures were the best – Dad would load us into what Barb called ‘Eagles’ nests’ and we’d hit the road under complete darkness for several hours. When we finally woke up it was in Iowa or Kansas or Nebraska, depending on which direction we were fleeing, although we never, ever went east or south – always west or north. Dad and Barb would be sitting comfortably in their respective thrones in the front while the sound of the highway and rear axle droned on beneath our heads. We had yellow Sony Walkman players that chewed through AA batteries and worn out tapes of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Skid Row. We were inseparable in the back of that rig because we didn’t have a choice – but it was an ideal incubator to foster what would become a lifetime of needing each other close by.

The predecessor to this road warrior, besides Big Foot, was our red ’87 Chevy Scottsdale pickup. It was our farm truck but it also carried us great distances into northern Manitoba and Ontario and Minnesota – all four of us plus sometimes my Dad’s best friend, Crazy Pony. It was a single cab truck with a bench seat and a little 305, but it was automatic and four wheel drive and dependable like all Chevy’s were back then. Dad put a white camper shell on it for these trips and built a plywood bench/bed system that would serve as our riding quarters for hundreds of miles, rolling around with no safety restraints precariously above fuel cans, outboard motors and all of our camping gear. Nick and I loved to moon the passing traffic, especially when the heat in that camper started creeping into near lethal temperatures. We’d slide the glass windows open, roll over and press our butt cheeks to the mesh, laughing hysterically at the shock on the passing faces. All that separated our bare asses from the scorching asphalt and speeding traffic was a flimsy screen. Dad and Barb and Crazy Pony would be wedged into the cab having a great time, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, oblivious to what antics we were committing. I’m sure they got a few hard stares as north and southbound traffic tried desperately to escape the pre-pubescent skin show.

It’s funny now to recall the manufactured years of these vehicles, realizing that they were not so far apart in age but they spanned such epic times of my childhood. What happens in the course of one year for a ten or eleven year old plays out as what feels like decades during post-recollection. I was recently back home in Minnesota, browsing through my Dad’s tool bench and I came across the old license plates. Dingy black with stark yellow letters: WE-BGON. Below that in much smaller letters: SHOW ME STATE. (I always loved seeing that phrase, because it baffled me as a kid but was so memorable. People would repeat that quirky phrase when they discovered our origin, but I had no idea what it meant until I moved away as a young adult.) I picked up the plates and turned them over in my hands, inspecting the damage from years of abuse while being helplessly bolted to the chrome bumpers of that Suburban. How do license plates get so many dents? Well I guess I know how that front one got dented – but why the back plate? Thankfully it was not too warped and the final registration sticker was still in place: ’96. The significance was not lost on me since I graduated from high school that year and promptly fled home for the west coast, trying like hell to forge my own way. Twenty five years later I had so much to look back on, a life that never slowed down. I knew I had to have one of those plates, so I took the one with the registration sticker and left the front plate sitting where I found it.

The plate now hangs above my home office window – symbolically staring me down every time I cross the threshold to provide means to the end. WE-BGON – it’s always calling me out to a new adventure, trying like hell to do it as well as my Dad did. I haven’t come close to his level of success in business but I think my kid will look back and remember a hectic pace growing up, and that is an accomplishment worth striving for.

Rah Rah Shish Koom Bah

“That’s what I learned in college…” the jaunty rhythm of lyrics sounded tinny and occasionally crackled as the needle coursed the vinyl grooves of an ancient record. We stuck our ears up to the green felt covered speaker on the record player console, laughing at the old and sometimes dumb ass songs cataloged in thin black LP’s. We were children of a far more advanced era, musically definitely but especially when talking about technology. We were rocking cassette tapes at this time, walking straight past the fading record section of music shops. Before our time were 8 tracks and who knows what other silly contraptions for listening to music. But these were the days of N.W.A., 2-Live Crew and Billy Idol – tapes were small and could conceal truly illicit material, whereas these old records were undoubtedly cast down to the basement because they were too bulky to lug around. So here we were – a couple elementary-aged kids in the 80’s playing some goofy records from the 60’s and probably older. I was particularly fond of a transparent, red record that had X-rated labeled on the jacket – Jimmy Hendrix. The Beatles’ Abby Road and The White Album. The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel. There were dozens of these records just sitting in there, as if they were left by a group of random people rather than just one person. What happened to them after we cleared the last layer of dust off in the 80’s, who knows.

Early this morning I moved through the house singing that dumb ass song, “Rah Rah Shish Koom Bah! That’s what I learned in college!” And I kept repeating it, laughing at the thought of those memories with my brother in the basement of our old house in Platte City. My eight year old daughter didn’t say anything but I could tell she was slightly annoyed by my overly-joyful mood at 6:45am. How could she know? That record imprinted words in my brain that I’ll never forget, and of course having the power of Google at my fingertips just realized I was saying those words all wrong after all – but who cares? Neither of us could figure out where that record came from – did it belong to our dad when he was younger and had wild parties around the good old record player? Did it belong to our older brother Kent, who probably stole it during some college prank? Our family was full of colorful characters and we had just as much fun imagining the source of these great finds as we did memorizing their lyrics.

As these memories strike out I try to capture their significance and record the thought. The easiest and probably most interesting observation to make here is just how different our music and technology world is today, in 2019 – compared to the 1980’s when we were mocking the record player. Music was always in the background of my upbringing. Even when riding in our 87′ Scottsdale pickup, which only had an AM dial, we listened to music or whatever we could tune into around the farm. My parents had great music and a badass stereo system that encouraged us kids to play DJ during the evenings. There wasn’t much for television where we lived unless you were willing to look at a giant satellite dish (we were not) so the music was always on during family gathering time. John Denver, the Allman Brothers, Marshal Tucker, Michael Martin Murphy and of course Merle Haggard. These were folk songs and ballad-type music that told stories to a keen ear. Even though in private we poured Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Skidrow and Poison through our Walkman earphones, it was this music we listened to with our family that still draws warm and safe feelings from deep inside.

I have a bazaar palette for music these days – a mix of rap, old country, vintage techno and quirky new stuff that catches my ear. My favorite playlist on Spotify would cause major confusion if played to a diverse group of people, boring to some and hardly appropriate for others to hear. But I guess that’s what is great about remembering our formative years of listening to music – the diversity of what we heard then will hopefully translate to an even more eclectic sampling of what we tolerate today. I can’t imagine my dad listening to Snoop Dogg – but damn, Snoop is the shit. I remember loathing Eminem when he first hit the scene, but as I got older and more tolerant I found great motivation in his music, no matter how sick or intolerable it may be the masses. So there is the underlying relevance here – tolerance. Tolerance should lead to open acceptance of diversity.

I have no idea what happened to that record player console or any of the records that were stored inside the door on the front. We lost a lot when that house was sold, but I can’t honestly say I know where it was even in the latter years. We had moved on to CD’s by then and boom boxes roared from our private bedrooms. We had achieved volume 11 but no one told us to stop – they must have hated our music but they were always tolerant to the point we never felt oppressed.

The other night we were at our parents’ house in Minnesota and Nick struck out dad’s 1969 Gibson acoustic guitar and proceeded to serenade them with some really great songs that we all listened to back in the day. I couldn’t stand to be in the same room while he poured it out like that but I was honestly proud of him and what he’s learned on the guitar. He’s not afraid to sing, either. My parents were glowing, of course. I sat in the TV room within earshot so I wouldn’t miss anything but hoping he wouldn’t notice that I cared.


The brilliant palette from the oaks and maples churned with vivid greens from the pines billowed up from the forest canopy below as my father massaged the controls and setup for a short field approach to the little airstrip in Ava, Missouri. The engines were reduced to near idle and the stall warning buzzer sounded just before we lightly settled onto the paved runway. Generally at this time brakes are applied and the airplane is brought to a controlled stop, except I could see my dad grinning once we touched down, calmly stating, “watch this…”

The airstrip at Ava was actually built on a hill, so that he didn’t even need to tap the brakes on that gorgeous Golden Eagle 421. We simply coasted uphill until the force of gravity slowed our forward momentum to near zero and turned right to taxi off the field. No one was there to greet us at this place. It was fall in the Ozarks and this airport probably hadn’t seen too many twin engine jobs like what we’d just flown in on. In fact, based on the ‘rental car’ left for us I wasn’t sure if anyone had actually been to this airport in as many years as I’d known on this great, green Earth.

After tying down 873LF we unloaded our bags from the wing compartments into the trunk of a shit brown Dodge Aries-K that proudly sported years of gravel dust caked over it’s faded finish. I could barely see over the windshield, sagging into the plush corduroy bench seat as we sped along the state-maintained pavement. My dad always seemed to enjoy that transition of flying a plane to driving a car, and later in life he would caution me against speeding after leaving the airport – it was an easy rule to break after descending from the heavens. The country highway climbed and descended hills and dales and wound down through ravines and along streams lined with limestone bluffs that exposed millions of years of sea life that once covered the great state of Missouri.

Our destination was ultimately revealed in the form of a well appointed ‘ranch’ spread across a shallow valley, abutting a picturesque stream lined with limestone outcroppings and occasional pools that ended in spectacular cascading ledges. We parked the Dodge in front of a motel-style room and unpacked our gear from the trunk. It was early afternoon and the fish were calling! Looking back I cringe at the persistence I must have inundated my father with at that time – he was my only companion on this trip but if he was ever annoyed, he never showed indifference to me. Perhaps I was aware enough to know when to lay off, and if so I owe that to my grandfather.

My grandfather had forcibly instilled what little patience I begrudgingly owned – I was relentless in pestering the man for time on the water when we visited their lake home near Hackensack, Minnesota. The pine needle-laden road in front of their little red cabin lead straight to the water’s edge, the only place of profound importance. That is what I remember most about Minnesota as a kid – pleading for my grandfather to take me fishing after I’d scared all the fish away from the dock. He’d load me into his red aluminum Lund and I’d lacerate the water or stare at a bobber with no perceptible level of discouragement. Occasionally we were fruitful – but mostly I remember taking instruction on how to kill “those damned perch” and how to behave in a boat, not necessarily how to catch fish. Those were the most formative days of my adolescent fishing career, until now.

Standing next to the veneered table in our cramped motel room I watched my father unpack his fly fishing bag to reveal a world of unimaginable opportunities. It’s hard to say if a kid truly knows their calling, but something was so profound in that moment I would say I had a revelation. It came when he unpacked the surprise – my 12th birthday gift. It was (and still is) an Orvis Green Mountain Special, 7’9″, 2 pc., #5 wt. rod, complimented by an Orvis reel. The cork felt soft in my left hand – not like the foam handle on spinning rods. Stringing the guides the line fell delicately in a pool on the ground, so new it coiled in memory. I was taught how to ‘clean’ the line by stripping it through a special cleaning rag to remove dirt and grime left clinging from the water. I was shown how to tie a perfect knot with super thin line that was part of a very long, tapered leader – because apparently trout could see everything. An assortment of flies was laid before me, somehow the perfect selection for this very body of water. We were in trout country, and I had just been given the means to start a lifelong obsession.

Memory has me working that stream alone – not next to my dad or even near him, which seems foolish considering the complexity of fly fishing to a complete novice. It was like I was handed something that required instruction and patience far beyond the capacity of a 12 year old kid, but I was more than ready to accept the challenge. He had loaded my new fly vest with the essentials, stuffed a net in the back pouch and cast me off.

I was there to practice my craft and become the great fly fisherman my father was, destined to roam the American West with fly rod in hand. All I really knew about fly fishing at the time was there sure seemed to be a lot of casting involved. It was hard to figure how all that casting resulted in catching fish, but hell – I could whip that line with the best of them. Not sure how many flies I busted off that day in the trees along the stream’s edge but it was damn far more flies than I put to the fish. When I wasn’t robbing branches of singularly and spectacularly colored leaves I would try to discover that overhead rhythm of looping the line in front and behind, in front and behind…then came the sage advice from dad who was of course not really that far away after all, “Hey pal, it’s hard to catch a fish unless you have your line in the water…”

One thing I would be remiss to omit here is that we actually caught fish. Big trout – huge rainbows. These fish were ravenous! Even a novice 12 year old could catch those fish, and my father was genius to make these waters the site of my baptism. Turns out not too far above the first pool in the stream was a rearing pond. And, one was expected to keep the fish they caught and payment per pound was rendered at the end of the day. I don’t mean to detract from the ambient beauty of it all – the natural setting was unlike anything I’d ever seen in my home state and I was impressed. For all I knew this is how trout fishing was done – amble up to a stream, whip the line around and monster trout would leave the security of an undercut or from behind a fallen log to snatch wooly buggers from the current. Magic – I was a pro right out the gate.

By the end of our first day I remember pulling a stringer of fish from the water’s edge to proudly show my dad – who was undoubtedly calculating the imminent price per pound we’d be paying at the lodge. Maybe this wasn’t unlike letting kids bowl with bumpers or learning how to drive at a go-kart track, but none of those experiences laid before me a clear cut path of an endless pursuit filled with happiness. Allowing kids to experiment and explore without imposed and obvious boundaries fosters imagination and the all-important taste of freedom. I can’t honestly say that my dad kept tight reigns on us as kids – in fact we were on the verge of finding the true Lord of the Flies in those Missouri woods around our house. So freedom wasn’t something we yearned for, but independence was becoming an interesting concept. Everything we did as kids we did together or with our dad – hunting, fishing, flying, skiing – it was never done for one but with all. Fly fishing was different, however. It was singular. Crappie fishing improved with the more lines over the side of the boat, but on the trout stream your odds improved if no one was there to witness your success in fooling Mother Nature. Until this discovery, fishing was something I associated with my grandfather and Baby Lake and my brother sabotaging the bait by releasing worms and leeches to the inky depths below. I had watched my dad wade rivers in Montana and New Mexico and Oregon most of my life, finding subtle beauty in the sound of fly line disturbing the air as birds and insects competed with the sound of water plying course over stone and sediment. I remember the smell of sage and cattle as we crossed fence lines to stalk meandering streams in the pastures of Wyoming. And never any people – we were almost always alone it seemed.

I don’t recall how many days we fished on that private stretch of farm-raised trout heaven, but it was enough to fan a bonfire of obsession for me. Fishing is the only remnant from my childhood that still seems worth pursuing beyond the acceptance of others. It took me to places I never imagined I’d visit and has humbled me so bad I actually quit once like it was a bad habit. When we left Ava, Missouri that October back in 1989 I think I could actually see over the windshield of the plane a little better, and I damn sure had one extra feather in my cap – I was a fly fisherman.

That was a gift I’ll never part ways with. My daughter is chomping at the bit to start fly fishing but she’s got a few years to go. When the time is right the old Orvis Green Mountain Special will be there for her. I will introduce her to the art of fly fishing much in the way my father did for me – so she can feel the strike at a fly and the consequent bend in the rod. I can’t say if fly fishing will resonate with her or if it will fall somewhere in line with bowling and laser tag, but it will be my gift to pass along. I even have the original fly vest my dad gave to me in that motel room. It should fit her nicely.


New York City is a place I never imagined I would ever live, at least when reflecting back to my youth and distant speculation when people were so curious about what my future held – I had all sorts of notions but none of them involved the East Coast. My Dad once said that if he had to live in a city it would be Manhattan – which struck me as odd since he was so happy living in the country as we did, and seldom spoke highly of any place where more than 10 people congregated. I could tell it was something bigger than him, something that held his interest, and that was intriguing to me. Fast forward a decade or more, there I was residing in Manhattan just on the outskirts of Central Park. And he was right – it was a wonderful city, worth striving for. I took up residence there in 2006 and didn’t leave until my daughter was nearing her first birthday. We always moved on or near Halloween, which in New York is a strange day even for the initiated. Our last apartment was my favorite, hard won by true grit in the pursuit of what little there was to grab in the ‘upgrade’ category – it took me over 50 viewings before I found that gem. Finally detached from the agent I scoured the side streets whose confluence was Central Park West, until I found an unflattering building just steps from the fabled park with a poorly placed sign advertising pending vacancy. I don’t recall who answered, but it was standing under the french windows of the 2nd story unit, directly across the street from Lennon’s former residence at The Dakota that I knew I scored my first real New York victory. I managed to slip into the building and walk through the vacant space, ecstatic of the potential. The price was a bit high for what I wanted to spend, would they consider less, perhaps my price point? Sure, why not, this was New York during The Great Recession, even rent was negotiable.

I built my career from that apartment – my daughter was born while we lived there. It was where we watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade lumber by mere yards from our windows and where my Bear Dog took his last breath. It was the last place we called home before we left Manhattan in an inevitable but perhaps begrudging retreat to a more realistic place to raise our daughter. And let’s face it – Manhattan was on the come back in 2011. Rents were back on the rise and even the Financial District was regaining popularity. Our time was up and it was never to be forgotten. What I learned in New York should be the title to a memoir when I’m far older than now, during a time when I can even laugh at what I’m thinking and doing at this age.

After New York we stayed on the East Coast for a few more years until I was able to get back west. The opportunity came to pick a new landing zone for our young family in 2016 and we chose Seattle. We were relocating from Providence, RI so the move was pretty simple, really – just hop on I-90 and head west until we ran smack into I-5. And it was a great move, one that has allowed us to finally set roots and remain comfortable to plan for the next chapter(s) of our lives. Seattle has a special place in my heart which should be covered in separate telling, and especially the skiing available a short drive to the east. Back in 2001 I was on the Alpental volunteer ski patrol and discovered a place I longed to be a bigger part of, but of course that isn’t possible while gallivanting about. In fact it was my ski patrol director, Dave something or other who was traveling down a highway in Montana and ran into some friends of mine from Alaska – they saw his Alpental sticker on his car and mentioned my name and the world shrunk to manageable portions for just a moment at that gas station. It would be over 12 years until I pointed my skis down Alpental again, but I eventually got back and appreciate every day on that mountain.

My daughter was 5 when we moved to Seattle and our first winter was her third ski season but her first on a real mountain. Rhode Island offered some legitimate but clearly introduction level slopes – the Cascades were to be cautiously negotiated. Naturally we made Alpental ground zero, and although it took several trips to smaller, nearby hills we ended up back at Alpental that season, ready to tackle degrees of difficulty she couldn’t conceive three months prior. As she improved we watched the other kids from the lifts, especially the racers. Best skiers on the mountain, no doubt. By the time she was 8, she was ready to join the elite rippers.

Ski racing is completely new to me, but something I’ve always wanted my daughter to at least attempt. Coincidentally the first year she decided to give it a shot was the first year she was eligible, so we felt strong in our decision to jump right in. The program is quite involved and geared toward the totally committed. Events and training start in early October and skiing starts by December. New parents are indoctrinated with a quick PayPal transaction and the realization that soccer was such an easy commitment.

It was during the inaugural U12 parent meeting where this story comes full circle. It felt like the first parent gathering for Kindergarten, the newbies nervously working the room to find a cozy spot to schmooze without getting in the way or being singled out by the overly-confident host and supreme know all of the organization. Eventually we settled to meet the kids’ new coach and another mom whose son was about our daughter’s age. While I eagerly chatted up the new coach I could tell my wife was having a very relaxed and natural conversation with the other mom so I was that much more at ease in this group. After about 10 minutes of this cordial banter I could hear the pitch of their voices start to rise and their statements to become more factual quips as if comparing similarities like in the Parent Trap. Suddenly it became quite obvious my wife and the other mom had something unbelievable in common, which had caught the attention of my fellow conversant. Then the firm grip on my bicep, her fingers wrapped tightly around my arm. I was now being abruptly drug into their conversation and the focal point of prying eyes. “Matt, what was the address of our last apartment in New York?” came the pleading request. Christ I couldn’t remember that detail in this moment – it was 2 something, but why was this so important? While I was digging through old boxes in my memory these two were starting to zero in on crazy details that only a former resident of 7 W 73rd St; Apt. 2A would even know. The light switch in the bathroom controlled the outlet, so electric toothbrushes never got charged unless the light was on. The fireplace burned real wood. The french windows actually worked and revealed an epic street-front view reminiscent of a Parisian promenade. The old man who owned the building would use some kind of drain cleaner that only had a white cross-bones, no other label. These details kept pouring out until she asked, “wait, when did you guys live there?” Couple quick anecdotes were thrown around to gauge the years and we settled on 2008-2011. “Oh my God, you guys took that apartment over for me, I moved out in October of 2008…”

We recently attended an auction for this same organization and ran into the same mom and consequently her husband and some other folks from the east coast. Never thought I’d admit this but east coasters are really my kind of people – they’re brash, sincere and I don’t feel like they’re judging me behind my back, because it’s quite obvious they’re judging me to my face. Others had heard this story and crazy coincidence by now and were commenting on the serendipity of it all – which reminds me more of a New York moment than anything else. In New York I ran into old college girlfriends, elementary schoolmates that my wife knew and many other coincidences that would only happen in New York – but here we are thousands of miles from that city and we can’t escape the undeniable impact it had on our lives.

First Entry

Barb told me to write – it was really cold that night, but that’s nothing new for northern Minnesota in mid-November. We stood outside in the dark while Dad and Nick watched football in the cozy den just beyond the insulated window facing our porch. They couldn’t hear what we were talking about and I was glad – really glad. Something so personal as being told what to do by your Mom shouldn’t be shared or revealed to prying ears – especially from a younger brother who regales in the small joy of discovering fodder for the eternal pyre cast beneath his older brother. Nope, this was a clear directive handed down from above like Moses to Noah – “get that damned boat ready before it’s too late!”

I spent that week contemplating all the stories I had to tell – it was what I thought sobriety or AA must be like – having to conjure up the good and the bad but more importantly to get them documented. I always knew I was given a unique and extremely privileged life from my Father. He was (and still is) of the generation that wildly outpaced their parents with accomplishments that most people of my generation still marvel at. He was raised in rural, southeastern Minnesota during the late WWII era, when tough times were just the norm. He never groveled about how rough they had it, in fact quite the opposite – he recalls what sounds like a Garden of Eden, resplendent with clear streams, fields with pheasants and a railroad that provided a life for their family. This idyllic Mayberry of the North was either interrupted or perhaps blessed by the arrival of my Father’s first son, Kent Jeffrey Morrill – which must have fueled an insatiable pursuit for this very young man to care for others.

Nick and I were the last two Morrill kids born into the brood. We met our brother Jon when we were still in high school, which brought the sibling clan to six: Kent; Katie; Kirk; Jon; Matt; Nick. Most of us had grown up in Missouri but during different eras – Nick and I were high schoolers in the mid-90’s so that should set the age range for anyone trying to do the math.

We grew up in a small, predominately agrarian community about 30 minutes outside Kansas City. We were both born in KC, MO but after 2nd grade Dad hauled us out of that crazy city and onto ‘the Farm.’ I entered the Platte County school system at age 8, grade 3 – but was never a true ‘local’ – this was a town full of kids whose parents and grandparents went to school (or didn’t) here and never left – the fact that we didn’t have other family in the area was an obvious sign that we were interlopers in a landscape that was destined to be overrun by suburban expansion far beyond the years of our landing there. Dad had the property for several years before we actually moved out there but no house or lake or prairies or serpentine pathways existed through the forests. In fact, the signature and quite literally crowning feature of the property was a grass airstrip, which he shared with the adjoining property owner. The property line was divided right down the center of that 2,250′ strip, we owned the eastern half. It started as about 40 acres – named EarAcres by my Father early on, probably way before we ever took up residence there. The driveway was 7/10 of a mile long and ascended a plateau of ancient limestone and oaks to crest just below the airstrip and continued to parallel until finally departing runway left, descending again through prime Missouri deciduous forest until EarAcres was truly revealed. There stood quite possibly the finest log home ever constructed in Platte County, out of 12″ spruce logs that were logged and milled in Montana. I’ll never forget Robby Baber’s crew of carpenters who built that house – they’d never seen anything like it prior or since but they did a hell of a job.

Dad had an awesome John Deere 4020, probably 1963 vintage. It was a monster of a tractor to us kids – somehow always present during those early days and years of sculpting the property and pushing beyond the original boundaries of EarAcres. Dad did everything around that farm – I mean he literally built everything except the house. It was our home, we were never going back to the city and it was time to build our future. Forts were quickly erected with palisades and fire pits and dual stories. Aerial creek crossings were accomplished by trusting the vines that descended from overhead canopy, occasionally releasing their sinuous grip and sending the passenger to their ultimate heap in the congested forest floor. Epic games of cowboys and Indians were played out after we’d met enough kids to start our own circle of friends. We were always building, always improving – the fun was part of a cycle of work and play, an early exposure to what life should be all about – work hard, play hard. Enjoy the fruits of your labor.

We took flight regularly. In fact most of my early childhood memories revolve around flying or destinations we flew ourselves to. Oddly enough most of the early flying I can remember didn’t actually originate on our home-base grass strip. Dad kept a majestic Cessna 414C at Kansas City Municipal, just north of downtown in a southern oxbow of the Missouri River. 4694N was sleek, fast and everything I knew about my Dad. He’d grab us from school on some random day and we’d be off to Pinedale, Wyoming or Taos, New Mexico or Portland, Oregon – Nick, Dad, Griff and I. Griff was our dog, he was built like the log home we lived in and had a magnificent set of balls that I guess Dad just couldn’t bring himself to have removed. Fly fishing, skiing, and of course work. Dad’s job required him to be everywhere and he took us along. I remember so many nights falling asleep under restaurant tables with Nick while Dad and his business associates talked away. Work was always there, but we didn’t mind. It was familiar and constant, just like our Dad.

Those airplanes were freedom for my Dad, I realize that now. It’s inconceivable for me to think about owning something like one of his planes, the risk associated with piloting an aircraft with your family on board. The skill and confidence it takes to be a pilot, let alone a great pilot like my Dad. He was fairly young but had a long history as an aviator, instructor and always a student. He flew ‘at altitude,’ meaning he operated a pressurized aircraft with twin engines. This wasn’t casual flying, but serious and technical aviation that requires focus. But it meant we could go virtually anywhere, and boy did we go. I remember Dad in deep concentration in pilot shacks across the great American West, contemplating routes, weather and safety. I remember watching other pilots ‘go for it’ when my Dad called them crazy behind their backs, opting to wait out the weather just one more day, probably allowing for some more time in the streams. We were free and it was the best time of my life.

My adolescence played out like a convoluted series of riffles in a stream. Rapacious flow checked by periodic pooling of time – events that pockmark a timeline of rapid growth and development, ultimately yielding a supreme opportunity for reflection earlier than most would probably succumb to. But that’s how life goes – every terminus at the ocean started as a small rivulet that congealed with multitudes of other rivulets to stave off ephemeral flow. The higher the elevation of the waterway, the younger the flow and inevitably the more turbulent the water. The distinguishing characteristics of any flow starts with the immovable obstacles that force the water to bend and ebb and pause. This momentary disruption also provides a safe haven for insects and fish, a pause in the turbulence to gather strength and fortitude from the next bite of food that is delivered rather than pursued. But down it must fall, toeing the line of gravity because there is no other way – all the way from the highest post-alpine reaches to the fertile valley lands and ultimately reaching the great collecting pool. Moving fast when we’re light and free and slowing as we gather mass and purpose. I’m hoping to capture a few of the stones and boulders and log jams that created the interruption of flow. Enjoy.