Rob's Blog Archive

July 22, 2012

There’s No Place Like Home










It’s a sad story---I discovered the cache of “Numb3rs” episodes on Netflix and have been working my way through them.  My behaviors mimic those of an addict.  What will save me is that there are only a finite number of episodes.

I had watched a few episodes in days of yore when I still had a satellite TV connection, but not many.  For whatever reason, I hadn’t noticed that all of the outdoors on campus scenes were at Caltech, my alma mater.  In many ways, Caltech was the first place I really felt at home---for the first time, I was normal.  Seeing scenes featuring Millikan Library behind Gates Laboratory---knowing that “The Court of Man” is right behind the camera--- I am again twenty and heading to class.

Ten years earlier, based on my father’s recommendation, I read “The Microbe Hunters.”  Starting with Leeuwenhoek and ending with Ehrlich, it documented many of the people who pioneered the fight against disease----Pasteur got two chapters.  What enthralled me was the excitement the scientists felt as they made their discoveries.  I may have been very immature socially, but I understood the thrill of discovery and adventure.  When I gave my oral report on the book, I talked about this.  Only the teacher got it---I did get the highest grade in the class and that was the top 6th grade class in Dapplegray Intermediate School.  Still, none of my classmates seemed to understand what I felt.

The conundrum of my life at that time was how to be myself and not intimidate people intellectually.  My natural competitiveness conflicted with my desire to get along with others.  This was compounded by the fact that others couldn’t differentiate my showing off from my just being me.  Finally, add to this that my innate ability to understand social cues was about as bad as my ability to do math problems was good, and my chances at solving my conundrum were zero.

At Tech, perfect scores on math and science tests were the norm.  Among other things, this meant that the kids I was with knew when I was actually showing off and when I was just being myself.    Being with other kids who understood and liked science and math as much as I did didn’t mean my social incompetence went away, but it did mean that my love of these no longer separated me from everybody else.  By the time I left, my social maturity approached normality for a 21 year old male. 

Aside from growing up a lot, I left Caltech with two things:  The first was that with the education I received, I believed I could learn anything.  The second was my dog, Sapura. 

Sup and I had found each other a few days after the U.S. Bi-Centennial.  At that time, I figured she had gotten away and somebody missed her.  In the years since, my opinion has changed and I suspect that she was abandoned, something way too common with dogs.  It’s also possible she escaped, something she remained very adept at throughout the 13.5 years I had her, but even then I’d guess nobody really missed her. 

I started graduate school the fall after I finished at Tech.  While a grad-student, Sup and I lived in Seattle then Berkeley then Seattle.  From there, we spent three years living in Boulder, Colorado.  Next, we lived near Cambridge, Mass. for a year and a half.  Finally, we drove across the country to Silicon Valley.  For both Sapura and I, home was wherever we were with each other.  About half a year after I got to Silicon Valley, Sapura passed away.  That was 1989.

The summer of 1992 saw me take a six week tour of the Rockies.   This included a successful trip into the Wind River’s Cirque of the Towers---I led climbs of Pingora and Wolf’s Head with a friend, an unsuccessful trip to solo climb Grand Teton---I hit a blizzard at Lower Saddle, and three other summits that varied between a trail and fourth class.  During that trip I realized that while I preferred climbing with friends, I could climb more peaks if I went solo.  Moreover, the preference for climbing with a friend was mixed.  More than anything, the satisfaction of working with somebody else to reach a summit differed from the satisfaction of soloing.  I liked the former more than the latter, but not by much.  I enjoyed both. 

With this realization, I became a bit of a vagabond---maybe a suburban yuppie vagabond---but still.  It wasn’t unusual for me to make a decision to head into the Sierras on Friday for a solo climb or ski tour, do it, and be back Sunday evening.  Not that I didn’t climb with friends too, but these always required that I plan a bit more to coordinate schedules.

That same period was also my most productive as a scientist.  I played with some very neat toys and I mentored the next generation of researchers.  There were plenty of successes with both of these.

The one area in which I failed was with women.  I always had wanted to be happily married and never had issues with committing to a relationship.  Sadly, a good year was one in which I had a date.  Accepting that I was going to live alone was far and away the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  That too happened during my vagabond years.

My solo climb of Mt. Ritter’s north face---a straightforward third class route where the only alpine challenge was the 45 degree neve ice below the Ritter-Banner saddle, marked the end of my vagabond period.  That was October, 1998.  I started building the Silly Lake Pack with Dawn and Tenaya three weeks later.

By the time spring of 2003 rolled around I had decided to move to Montana.  I could ski, hike, climb, and live in the local mountains.  I could also mush dogs, a new passion I had acquired with the girls.  I arrived in Huson, just outside of Missoula, that July.  That fall, I added Jake and Jag to the Silly Lake Pack. 

During the first week of summer, 2004, the Silly Lake Pack had its two most profound changes:  First, Vixen, Fondue, Tok, and Sima joined the pack.  Second, I closed on my purchase of the twenty acres north of Seeley Lake on which I now live.  Those twenty acres include a beautiful lily-pond big enough to show up on a U.S.G.S. topographic map.  The previous owner had named it Silly Lake.  My friend, Jacques, suggested Silly Lake Siberians for the name of my kennel.  After a brief macho vs. poet internal debate, the kennel was named.    

Dawn, Tenaya, and I had lived in four different houses between Halloween, 1998 and when I moved to Silly Lake in 2004.  While I remember the houses as physical entities, my images are dominated by interactions I had there with the girls---everything from securing yards against their escape to play fighting with them to watching the two of them play with each other.

Tenaya passed away at Silly Lake in November of 2009.  I had Dawn euthanized, cancer had ravaged her entire body, six months later.  By that time, the Silly Lake pack had grown to more than 20 dogs and me. 

The view of the stars on a clear night still astounds me but they’re really no different than I’ve seen on any clear night in the mountains or desert.  And I have made friends here but the reality is that locally, I am closest with my pack.  What makes the stars special here is that I am sharing them with my dogs, even if the gang might have a bit of difficulty differentiating Orion from Scorpio.

The architecture at Caltech is both distinct and pleasing.  But that’s irrelevant.  The buildings I see while watching Numb3rs episodes take me home----not to them but to the people I knew and know.  One day I’ll move away from Silly Lake just like I moved away from Caltech.  But I will always know that, with my pack, I had a home.

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