The PowerWagon Changed Me

The Beast

This is part of a series on life and careers that that started with this post, An Unconventional Journey – Life, Learning and Work.

It had been a rough semester at Harvard. Getting away from the city seemed like a really good idea. It was a short trip from Cambridge to Newton’s Silver Lake Dodge in the spring of 1970 to take delivery of a shiny Dodge PowerWagon.

I have described it as a beast and like other trucks of the day, it rode like a truck. It had a four speed manual transmission. Of course the shifter and the transfer case that allowed you to switch into four wheel low were both on the floor and far from silky smooth. For the day, the standard tires were pretty big. The big 3/4 ton truck had manual locking hubs, two gas tanks, and an eight thousand pound mechanical winch behind its extended front bumper. On a good day, it would get ten or eleven miles to the gallon. The plan that I hatched with one of my roommates was to drive to Alaska with it.

School at Harvard in that spring was cancelled because of all a few riots and lots of demonstrations. I headed home as soon as I got the truck. I had ordered a cover the same height as the cab for the back from a place just south of my home in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It would allow us to build a platform for our four inch foam mattresses and store our gear underneath it.

We outfitted it with my faithful Coleman Stove and lantern, my favorite camping cooler, and a large Igloo water cooler. In addition we had our sleeping bags, climbing ropes, my fishing gear, first aid gear, cooking equipment, a couple of big bumper jacks, medical supplies and a good selection of tools that might save the day.

There was also a five-shot Remington 30-06 semi-automatic and a 30-30 Winchester lever action plus a 44 magnum pistol. I had talked to a bush pilot in Anchorage. He told me that they would not fly us into the back country unless we were armed. The only gun I had to buy was the 44 magnum pistol. Neither rifle had ever been used for anything beyond target shooting. I had given up hunting four or five years earlier.

Around the third week of June, we packed up and headed off from Mt. Airy. The goal was to get to Alaska or at least the western US mountains as quickly as possible. Somewhere on a country road in the Midwest, we pulled down a short slope into the edge of a farmer’s field. We were going to catch a few hours sleep. It rained a little and we decided to move on but the top few inches of the field had turned to mud. We locked the hubs, engaged the four wheel drive, and nothing happened.

I ended up taking the locking hubs apart and adjusting them in order to get us out of the field. It would not be the last time I would be reminded that four wheel drive just lets you get stuck in worse places and that whenever something can break, it will break.

Somehow we managed to make our way out to Colorado where we started climbing. We had been doing some practice climbing in Maine and rappelling down anywhere we could find a place to tie off. I had even rappelled down from the fourth floor attic of our Mount Airy home.

The first few climbs went fine but one day about seventy-five feet up with my boot clinched to a ledge of rock barely an inch wide, I decided that I would rather fish than climb. I rappelled down and that was it for me and climbing. My roommate seemed fine with my decision, we figured that we could find someone for him to climb with when we got to the climbers’ camp in the Grand Tetons. I would fish by myself while he climbed.

After driving across some high passes where snow still partially covered the picnic tables in the highest campgrounds, we finally made it the Tetons. It didn’t take long before a climbing trip to the Grand Teton was arranged. I dropped my partner off and agreed to pick him up three days later.

Over the next few days, I tried a number of trout streams without any luck and enjoyed a few meals at Moran’s Chuck Wagon. When I went back to pick up my traveling partner, I was told that he was not there. He had slipped on an ice slop on the descent from the Grand Teton. He had been unable to stop his slide and ended up falling one hundred fifty feet to a ledge barely a foot or two wide.

After they got him off the ledge, he managed to walk out five miles with a broken collarbone. They had taken him to the Jackson hospital which is where I headed. After talking to the doctor, I called his parents and soon afterwards, I loaded him into the back of the truck and headed off to the larger hospital in Idaho Falls. They were fine with me handling his “care.”

I spent a week in the Idaho Falls KOA campground while my partner got well enough to travel. Of course he was in no shape to drive and would not be for a long time, but he was determined to make it to Alaska. After the hospital stay we headed up to Montana’s Hungry Horse Lake by way of Yellowstone Park. We finally got to a camping spot near the lake, I found a stream full of cutthroat trout. It was my first success fishing on the trip and I loved it. The fresh fish were great fried up on the Coleman stove.

The trip would get more exciting as we headed north through Alberta.

It Started With Nova Scotia

The view from the top of the hay field at the back of my new home in St. Croix Cove, NS

Thanksgiving during my junior year in college, three college friends and I decided to take an extra long break and go camping on Cape Breton Island. This was long before the days of the Internet and Google maps. We had little idea of what was ahead of us when we choose to drive up Route 1 through Maine and then into New Brunswick and finally Nova Scotia where we could finally cross the Canso Causeway to Cape Breton Island. Even today with more bypasses, Google maps says the drive is thirteen hours. It probably took us sixteen hours.

We went in my old 1966 Bronco which had a can of stop leak as an item in emergency equipment. Fortunately, we were young and driving that far and crossing an international border was not nearly as hard as it would be today. By the time we got to Cape Breton, it was sleeting and snowing. All the provincial campgrounds had shut down months earlier. We managed to pitch a tent in an abandoned field one night. We almost froze. Everything was soaked. By the time we got back to Halifax, I pulled out my emergency credit card and we booked a single room for the four of us in a Holiday Inn. Hot showers never felt so good.

We drove back down Nova Scotia’s south shore stopping only to grill a steak over a fire and eat a barely thawed bag of Nova Scotia shrimp. Our trip back was on the Bluenose Ferry which in those days traveled from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor, Maine. The seas were rough but there were few people on the ferry besides us. We stretched out and slept on the long bench seats. I have vague memory of a weighted ash tray sliding by me in the rough seas.

The trip has no moments that suggest that Nova Scotia is a place to visit again but as my wife has always said, “If you can tolerate a place during miserable weather, you are likely to live it when the sunshines. Somehow what I saw of Nova Scotia planted a seed. I started watching the Sunday Boston Globe for Nova Scotia properties for sale.

The spring after the trip to Nova Scotia, the anti-war protests hit Cambridge. In a classic case of taking to the woods after all the debates and marches, a roommate and I decided to take a road trip to Alaska in the Dodge Powerwagon that I convinced my parents that would keep me out of trouble for a summer. It was a beast, a 3/4 ton 4X4 with a mechanically driven (PTO) 8,000 pound winch on the front. It had two gas tanks since it barely got ten miles to the gallon with its 383 cubic inch V8 and four speed transmission. The Powerwagon would come back to school senior year, haul me to Nova Scotia and even have a place on the farm in New Brunswick.

Sleeping in the back of a truck while traveling thousands of miles seemed like a good idea. I was in love with wilderness. There were great adventures on the trip including my roommate almost getting killed while climbing. It was to be an epic trip and one that would give me a life long love of wild places. It would make Nova Scotia the place that I wanted to live.

An Unconventional Journey – Life, Learning and Work

My wife, Glenda, in Newfoundland, October 1973

I recently started reading Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons. Dan and I have crossed paths a few times. The first time was when he was in full Fake Steve persona. He offered me sanctuary when it appeared Apple might be coming after my Applepeels blog.

In Dan’s book which starts with losing his job at Newsweek and finding a new job as an editor at ReadWrite. The description of his first new job made me smile.

“Suddenly I am the editor-in-chief of a struggling technology news website called RedWrite a tiny blog with three full-time employees and a half-dozen, woefully underpaid freelancers”

Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

I was one of those “woefully underpaid freelancers.” Dan was actually my first real editor. I had already written my first book, The Pomme Company, by then but the editor of that book had been my very patient but comma-obsessed wife with some help from two former colleagues.

I wrote for ReadWrite for a few months at end of the five years it took me to find my four or fifth career. After nearly twenty years at Apple that was a tall order. During the years after Apple, I worked at a couple of VP jobs in technology, including one at a startup which fortunately unlike Dan’s misadventure was actually generating revenue and went on to a successful acquisition. However, there were enough similarities in my experience to Dan’s to bring back some interesting memories.

Though writing is one of the things that I love to do, I have never thought of it as a possible career. I also love photography and fishing but I have never understood how to make a career out of any of my favorite things. I have supplemented our income through writing and photography. Perhaps having been “a woefully underpaid freelancer,” I learned how hard it is to make good money doing something you love. Good money is required to send three young adults off to college and help them get off on the right foot. I also figured out that what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as doing it with someone you love at your side in a place that you both learn to love.

How you end up in your career is an interesting topic that Dan talks about in his book. My experience has some similarities but is very different. I hope to write about it through a number of blog posts here.

Only a couple people in my youth even mentioned a career to me. Things were very different in the fifties especially if you were the only child of a single mother and no one in your family had even gone to college.

Mother worked long hours as a beautician in the beauty shop that was attached to our house. We lived in the small community of Lewisville, just west of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My elementary school and church were just a short walk from home. There were deep woods around our homes. As we were growing up, we thought more about building forts in the woods than we did about building careers. There is no question that I enjoyed my childhood in spite of its share of challenges.

A big turn in my life came in 1963 when I got sent off to a military school that was a six-hours drive from home. Being a boarding student in a dorm was not how I envisioned my teenage high school years. At some point after I got over the worst of being homesick, I decided to make the best of it. Getting good grades had never been a problem for me so I focused on that first. Next I figured out how to do well in the military, stick to the rules, shine your shoes, and do what you are told.

McCallie, where I went to military school did have an important impact on my future. It was assumed that every student would be headed to college. I was part of the pack there so college was clearly now part of my future as well.

While the years at McCallie rolled by, I did get to meet a number of adults with careers that were new to me. Whether they were at McCallie or in Mount Airy where I moved after my mom and dad decided to get back together, meeting new adults did give me an opportunity to think about my future. One of the most interesting people who came into my life was RJ Berrier, who was at the time was the editor of the Mount Airy Times, one of two small local newspapers. RJ was something of a local legend and he loved what he did which was getting the paper out the door onto people’s doorsteps in time for them to enjoy it with their morning coffee. The Times was still using lead type and bourbon to make deadlines. People looked forward to RJ’s Mount Airy After Midnight column as much as I look forward to the comics and the morning paper today.

Though I was already showing some talent for writing, RJ gave me no encouragement to go into the newspaper business. He often explained the pay was poor, the hours long, and job security non-existent. Getting a liberal arts degree at Harvard was not much of a push in that direction either especially since it was during the turmoil of the late sixties and early seventies. I did really hit my stride with writing at Harvard. I am not sure whether it was the expository writing class or all the long papers. However, something clicked and I could churn papers that got stellar marks even at Harvard. I also got paid to do some research work, but there were other things on my agenda that created a hard turn away from writing.

Perhaps, the best description of what was pulling at me was the necessity to get away from the cities that threatened to smother me. Like many others, getting my hands dirty seemed more important than a law degree.

In my case, Nova Scotia appeared to be the locus for a cure. My wife, Glenda, seen contemplating Newfoundland at the top of the post also became a big part of the equation. That we spent ten years building a herd of two hundred head of Angus before I went to Apple is just part of the magic that has touched our lives. I will get around to our lives in Atlantic Canada and how Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick became part of the magic.