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My journey into the museum field started when I was a very small child. I grew up in Portland, Oregon but one set of my grandparents lived in the bay area. When I was six years old my dad took two weeks off in the summer so we could go down to visit them. It was a big deal! It was also a road trip. Before the sun dared to show its first rays in the morning dawn, Dad packed my mother, brother and a very car-sick prone dog all up in our Ford Pinto station wagon and we headed west.
That’s right…. for those geography buffs out there you’re thinking “isn’t San Francisco south of Portland?” Yes, yes it is. But my father decided that a proper road trip was needed and that meant taking highway 101 from Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River all the way down the Oregon and Northern California coastline. A 12-hour car ride on I-5 just became a 3-day sojourn on the pacific coast highway.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. We camped at state parks on the beach, we ate things we weren’t normally allowed to eat, and according to my mother’s meticulous record keeping, my brother and I went 87 minutes straight without fighting. A record that holds to this day!
This is where my first memories of museums begin. There was not a historic marker, scenic loop or wide spot on the road that my father skipped. He was the kind of driver that would scan the horizon pointing things out and turning around in the driver’s seat to engage my brother and I in dialog while his knee on the steering wheel kept the Pinto between the lines. He called it driving by feel. My mother called it reckless. In fact, my father’s driving technique was so advanced it was basically a self-driving car.
I can recall very clearly one late night drive on our way to a scouting event when we were driving in an old Ford van (we had quite the envious car collection) on a dark two-lane road on the east side of Mount Hood in Oregon. The fog was so thick you could not see more than a few feet in front of us. What made the experience more terrifying is that I remember very clearly being afraid of that same drive without the fog because the drop-off next to the road was disastrously steep. My knuckles were white on that drive, and I wasn’t driving. My dad on the other hand found things to look at despite the fog and at our reduced speed, sometimes even his knee took a break. This was the man tasked with navigating and piloting our road trips.
On our journey to San Francisco, we stood in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark at several different points. No, they did not make it to San Francisco, but they did make it to the Oregon Coast which is where we were headed. My brother and I posed with our hands shading our eyes as we scanned the horizon the way we believed the great explorers had done. And then we were tasked with reading the plaque. There was always a plaque. At six years older than me, my brother was usually the reader of plaques, and I was the polite and patient little brother hanging on his every word. At least that’s how I remember me behaving.
I also remember very distinctly wondering even at a young age, “how do they know they were standing right here on that date doing this thing.” My young mind took all this historic data into my central processing unit in a very literal fashion. Nuance and interpretation were not yet skills that I had in abundance. To this day I am skeptical of any plaque that declares “on this day this person did this thing right where you’re standing.” It does not stop me from imagining it having happened, but how do they really know?
Our next stop was at a tribal reservation interpretive center. At six years old you do not yet have a firm enough grasp on our nation’s historic treatment of first nations people. Despite my parent’s best efforts, the idea of a reservation and sovereign nations and treaties (and the failure to uphold said treaties) was just too much for my still developing mind. What I could understand and appreciate was the beauty of everything around me and the innate sense that these were a group of people who really had a connection to the world around them. A very nice lady met my brother and I at a station and greeted us in her first language. I was mesmerized because it was a language I had never been exposed to in my previous six years of wondering the planet. I felt special because she said it to me, and then told me what it meant, which was hello. Then, she tried to teach me how to say it back to her. At six I struggled to say hello in my native language so saying it in another felt like a lost cause, but it didn’t stop me from trying.
We were then ushered to the next station where we were going to weave pieces of nature together to make a basket. Again, at six years old I was only just now realizing that you could make one thing out of another thing. Up to that point I assumed things just kind of arrived as is for whatever thing you needed. There were plenty of beautiful baskets on the shelf meant to serve as examples and inspiration. My brother and I were set up at a station with a kind of jig to help us in our weaving. The kind lady showed us the basic steps on how to weave these long slender pieces of reed together around the jig. In and out, in and out. This one over that one, in and out. She sang a song, again in her native language that matched the pace of our weaving. We were encouraged to join the chorus.
At twelve years old my brother was having nothing of it when it came to singing the song. At six, I hadn’t yet learned how to be embarrassed so I belted out my version of the kind lady’s beautiful song. It’s possible I found the limits of even her seemingly endless patience with my version of her song. A few minutes later our baskets were complete. My brother’s looked more like a bird’s nest whereas mine looked like if a bird had eaten its nest. Neither of our artifacts held any of the basic structural necessitates of a basket.
Our visit to the interpretive center ended at yet another plaque in front of a giant mural on the wall. The pattern repeated itself. Older brother read the plaque, me and him pose for picture (because there’s going to be a slide show when we get back from this trip), and then a stop at the bathrooms before piling back into the Pinto. I was careful to pack my basket between two large suitcases in the back figuring they absolutely would not shift around and squish my creation at our first turn out of the parking lot. I figured wrong.
The good news about the interpretive center is that it signaled our arrival at highway 101 and we could turn south and begin the real journey of getting to San Francisco. It also signaled the arrival of another major event. I think I mentioned earlier that we were traveling with a very car-sick prone dog. Getting up and over the coast range mountains that separate Portland from Astoria reaffirmed her diagnosis. It also alerted my fellow travelers that I too shared the affliction. Dog puke is one thing, but when co-mingled with little kid puke…that’s a sin that my brother who shared the back seat with the patients has never forgiven. Good thing we had several hundred windy miles to go!
In Astoria my dad hit the turn signal and took a long sweeping left turn and before we knew it, we were on the 101 or Pacific Coast Highway depending on where you grew up. Either way we were headed south. For several miles we gently glided left, then right, a slight climb, then a downhill. All of the subtle movements designed to induce maximum vomiting from the boy and his dog in the back seat. I was miserable and my mother slowly came to realize that the age-old first aid technique of “sucking it up” would not suffice so she instructed my father to stop at a drug store in the next town so she could use modern science to combat my debilitating illness. He objected of course because stopping was only intended for gas and historic markers, but as always, mother prevailed.
At the drug store my mother selected the house brand of a motion sickness pill called Dramamine. And she selected the latest issue of Mad Magazine for my brother. I’m still not sure that was a fair arrangement, and my brother definitely knew he came out on top of that deal. The next step was getting the drugs into my body. The pill itself was no larger than an uncooked grain of rice. It was tiny. At six years old the only medicine I had ever consumed was a children’s chewable aspirin so when presented with the medication I popped it in my mouth and without awaiting any instruction I bit down and started to chew it up. I learned a very valuable lesson that day about chewable vs. non-chewable medicines. The taste was so insulting to my sensibilities that it had the opposite effect, and I emptied the contents of my belly in the middle of the drug store parking lot.
Take two. This time with the proper instructions given, I placed the tiny pill on the back of my tung and waited for my mother to hand me something with which to wash it down. This is when my entire family learned something new about me. Apparently, I had a highly evolved gag reflex. The lizard part of my brain kicked in and my body instinctively began to try to expel this foreign object from my body. Once again, I baptized the drug store parking lot with the contents of my gut (how was there anything left in there…I was 6 years old…there’s only so much in there). The next 30 minutes was consumed by my mother trying different techniques of on boarding this life saving medicine. Finally, my father said, “for Christ’s sake.” That was the phrase that was reserved for letting the entire family know we were done dealing with whatever issue was plaguing us at that time.
He told us all to “get in” which meant reloading the Pinto and buckling up. I assumed he meant we were getting back on the road, and we would resume the suck it up technique. Instead, he drove the 200 yards to the Dairy Queen that was across and down the street from the drug store and ordered a small vanilla soft serve cone. He took the tiny pill, shoved it into the middle of my frozen treat, handed me the cone and said “eat.” Message received pop! Despite 30 minutes of dry heaving at the drug store I downed my cone in record time. My brother looked up from his magazine and declared, “hey!” Which loosely translated to “why didn’t I get a cone?” Another order was placed, and a medium swirl cone was soon in his hand.
Just to sum up this part of the story, my brother had a medium swirl cone (without drugs in the middle or my father’s finger) AND a Mad Magazine. Whereas I had to experience my mother’s advanced interrogation techniques in the middle of a drug store parking lot, empty the entire contents of my tiny six-year-old body, only to receive a laced small ice cream cone that had been violated by my father’s finger. The good news for everyone is that the drugs worked! And they worked quickly. The bad news for me is that one of the side effects was drowsiness. Not the kind that lets you slip off into a restful sleep but the kind that leaves you just barley clinging to consciousness. You want to sleep but you can’t. You can track what’s happening around you, but you can’t really participate. Not great symptoms to have as you’ll see at our next few stops.
The next few hours passed relatively calmly. Occasionally my dad would point out a landmark or some vessel out on the ocean when the highway was running parallel to the Pacific without any obstructed views. I was somewhere between a coma and a hangover in the back seat, but I was not nauseous, so we all had that going for us. Unfortunately, we did not give any medication to the dog, so she continued to yack on a somewhat regular basis. Our next stop was arriving, and my dad slowed the horses under the hood and we made the all to familiar approach to the turn out. Our destination was the Eldbridge Trask historic marker.
I know what you’re thinking, THE Eldbridge Trask? Yup, the one and only. For those who may not know the history of Mr. Trask, he was an early pioneer who explored the coastline of the Pacific not long after Lewis and Clark made their return home after their historic journey. He was a cartographer and was making maps of the various rivers, streams and mountain ranges that dotted the coast. Conveniently there’s a river with his name on it, or maybe they named it after he discovered it, my memory is a little foggy on the details. He was briefly taken captive by the Clatsop Tribe but later released after befriending some tribal elders. How do I know all this? Because the advanced reader and medium swirl ice cream eater read the plaque to me. Pause for picture and reload the Pinto. The next stop was waiting.
Another 90 minutes were logged in the back seat drifting between various states of alertness. My head felt like the two-hour mark in Apocalypse Now. But I was gritting through it because the next stop had been advertised and talked about ever since this trip was first discussed at the dining room table. We were headed to the Sea Lion Caves.
If you have not been you have not yet lived. On the rugged southern Oregon coast there is a cave. The forces of both geology and erosion have hallowed out a massive cave in the side of a towering rocky cliffs that end abruptly at the surf. Think of the white cliffs of Dover only they aren’t white, it’s not in Dover, and there’s a massive hole in the side infected with sea lions.
Who discovered the caves and how they stumbled upon them is a mystery. Today they are managed as part of a private wildlife preserve and attracting tourists like us help fund their conservation work. The main event involves descending into the gave via a 12-story elevator where you step out onto a giant viewing platform. Think of it as a big stone deck. If you’re short, like perhaps that height of an average six-year-old, there’s not too much to see until you get up close to the rail. However, your other senses immediately alert you to the fact that you have just entered another realm. This was the first time my little lizard brain kicked in and introduced me to the idea of fight or flight.
Lesson one was flight. For no clear reason I was immediately and intensely afraid of the situation in which I found myself. For starters, the gave was dark. Duh, it was a cave. Not dark dark, but dark enough. There was natural light pouring in from the ocean side of the cave, but it was obscured by the rough looking ceiling. There was an amber glow to everything that was aided by the artificial lighting that the proprietors of the cave had run probably at the same time they installed the elevator.
Next came the smell. Nothing gross or gag worthy (thank goodness, we had all experienced enough of my retching on this trip). First there was the cool wet salty air of the Pacific Ocean. This is a smell I was already familiar with and very much enjoyed, but one that also told you this was a massive and powerful body of water not to be trifled with. That was the base layer on top of which sat a smell that was new to me. At first, I thought it smelled like the barn where my God Mother kept her horse. Then I thought it smelled a bit like the elephants at the zoo, if they were wet. And then I decided this was indeed a new smell to be logged and recorded.
Of course none of that mattered. My brain could not process the low light or the new smell because all my processing power was desperately trying to make sense of the overwhelming auditory input. Again, the base of the soundtrack was the familiar roar of the Pacific Ocean. On the Oregon coast the ocean is not a serene soundtrack where you sip a cold beverage. It is Thor’s hammer relentlessly pounding the surf against a rough-cut coastline. That power is what carved out the cave we were standing in over the course of a few millennia. But laid down on top of that base track was a racket of a few hundred Stellar Sea Lions, each of whom had something to say to one of their peers. The noise was deafening.
After trying to make sense of the urge to flee and all the new and startling inputs to my brain, my dad saw our chance to move up to the railing. Once there, my height was no longer a limiting factor and as I peered over the rail I came face to face (plus or minus a hundred yards) with the few hundred Stellar Sea Lions who were responsible for all the racket and stench. Gathered together on the rocks ranging in shape and size from a few hundred pounds to over 1,000 the flight instinct vanished. Their thick brown coats and enormous dark eyes gave them a lovable appearance. The fact that they were voracious eaters and one of the oceans most prolific killing machines was a fact lost on me as I locked eyes with one seal after another. This was one of those ah-ha moments. The experience was so powerful that it would be forever etched in my mind.
As my mother and I were enjoying the experience of seeing all these amazing creatures, my brother made an observation of his own. He elbowed me (the universal communication method between brothers), and with a rigid arm ending with his index finger like a spotting scope, pointed to two sea lions and said, “they’re doing it” and then laughed harder than I had seen in recent memory. I laughed too because that’s what you do when you have no idea what your older brother is talking about. My dad gave him a look that said, “thanks for that” and tried to redirect before the inevitable questions arrived. He was successful, for at least a little while.
In the elevator on our 12-story ride back to the surface I decided to pose a question to all those assembled in our metal box with nowhere to go. “What does doing it mean?” I asked. Simple enough question that was greeted by giggles and muffled laughter by everyone who wasn’t my mom or dad. My brother was ready to answer but my dad stopped him before he had a chance with a firm hand on his shoulder at the base of the neck. You know, the grip that says, “I will end you here and now if you say one word.” Before I got the chance to reframe my question the door to the elevator opened and we were back at the visitor center.
There was another plaque to read and while my lesson on the Stellar Sea Lions continued, my dad procured the must have souvenir from our latest stop. It was a giant yellow bumper sticker that we slapped on our Pinto’s rear bumper declaring to all that we had “Survived Sea Lion Caves!” Up and down the highway you would see those stickers because those of us who made the journey wanted everyone else who had not to know our superiority.
After another night spent along the Pacific Coast Highway, our journey continued south. There was great fanfare when we crossed the Oregon/California boarder. I assumed that since we were now officially in California and had surrendered all our illicit fruit to the mean looking man in a booth at the border that we were naturally only minutes from San Francisco and my grandparents. Did you know that California is a really long state? I did not because we hadn’t yet covered topography and millage in the first grade. San Francisco is very proudly in Northern California, that does not mean it’s located at its most northern point touching the Oregon border. We had another full day of car time ahead of us. And another torture session with mom to take my Dramamine.
Then something happened. The cool wet air began to dry out a bit and our majestic views of the ocean became fewer and fewer until they were gone. Dad was very clear we were following the ocean until we got to my grandparents. Something was amiss. Turns out the night before my father had decided that we made such great time (by whose estimation I have no idea) that we could execute plan B. My brother and I were not invited to the meeting, nor were we informed that there was a plan B. As we were regularly reminded when we doth protest too much, our household was not a democracy. As it happened, plan B would deliver an experience that to this day is one that I cherish.
The diversion inland had us on a collision route for Muir Woods National Park. If you are unfamiliar or have never gone, your life is not complete. Yosemite, The Grand Canyon, Yellow Stone are all great national parks and the ones that get all the hype. But Muir Woods is home to the meta sequoia or the Giant Redwood trees. The word giant does not do them justice. These trees are known to be some of the longest living organisms on the planet, some living for a few thousand years. Old growth is an understatement, these trees are older than old. They were old and tall before the first Europeans touched foot in North America. They choke out the sky above and everything has a red and green hue. The air is thick with freshly generated oxygen thanks to these carbon guzzling giants.
I became a tree hugger and lover that day. Part of our experience involved what today I find to be a horrific act of eco-terrorism. We drove through a tree. Yeah, the trees are so massive that a long time ago when men were dumber than they are today…no scratch that, dumber in a different way…they cut a hole through a living tree large enough to drive your entire car right through the middle. It became a tourist must and well, we did. Today I’m not proud of this fact, but as a six-year-old kid, the memory was permanently imprinted on my mind. The scale and beauty of nature became very real for me in that moment. To this day whenever I see a big tree I will subtly reach out and touch its trunk and whisper my little prayer of thanks to my botanical brother. Well done father, plan B was well worth the trip.
From Muir Woods it was a comparatively straight shot to my grandparents. It was always a special time to spend with them. My brother and I were treated like princes per the birth right that only my grandmother appeared to recognize. Our grandfather told endless funny stories about his life and taught us every card game known to man. Our journey here had been well worth it, and no one wanted it to end. But of course, the day came when we had to pile back into the Pinto, say our teary goodbyes, and once again hit the road for home.
Once on the road we were informed that we would not be traveling northbound via the Pacific Coast Highway. This time dad opted for the more efficient and industrial route of Interstate 5. Once we merged onto the massive vehicular artery the monotony of the drive set in. I could begin to understand dad’s disdain for this drive. Even the dog was too bored to yack. The only significant plaque or roadside markers to be found would be at the various rest stops along the way. Of course, we would read them. I’m fairly certain we’re the only travelers to have ever actually stopped as a family to read the informational signage at a rest stop along a highway. There would be no posing for pictures on these stops.
My brother and I learned an important lesson about trust that day. When dad said we were taking the big boring freeway home we should have known there was a catch. We did this because it was the most efficient way to get to one last stop. The scenic route to end all scenic routes. After a half day’s drive, we once again left the major three lane highway for a two lane road that almost immediately began to gain elevation and straight sections lasting no more than 8 feet at a time. The dog and I immediately resumed our team yack routine. This would go on for several more hours.
As we gained elevation, the views got more and more spectacular. I know this because we were introduced to another of dad’s favorite roadside stops, the viewing spot. Often not much wider than the lane we just excited and enough length for four to six cars to park end to end, the viewing spot was the place where you could pull over and, well, view. These spots were strategically placed by road engineers to optimize your view and to prevent roadside disasters. If people like my dad didn’t get regular chances to view stuff, he was going to do it while driving and either smash into another father dragging his family along for the ride, or worse yet right off the side of the mountain we were summiting in our Pinto. It also gave the dog and I a momentary respite from our nausea.
After a few hours of this rollercoaster routine, we began our final approach. This time our destination was the historic lodge at Crater Lake National Park. Built by the Works Progress Administration as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal to put American’s back to work during the great depression in the 1930’s, the lodge was massive and everything you think of when someone says the word lodge. Straight from the Alps in Europe, the five-story building stood on a rustic boulder foundation that had been harvested during the blasting of the road to get to this location. The views were spectacular as we drank in the panoramic landscape that is Crater Lake.
The lake itself was formed almost 8,000 years ago when a massive eruption in the Cascade Mountains resulted in the mountain imploding. The island in the middle of the lake is believed to be the previous peak of the mountain. It is the deepest and most pristine lake in the US and one of a handful like it around the globe. It was a fitting and lovely final stop before our last push towards home.
Despite my father’s notorious frugality, he opted to spring for a night in the lodge. One room with two rolling cots for my brother and myself. This is a harsh mountaintop retreat and the years and reduced federal parks budgets had not been kind to the lodge. Wrapped around the entire outside of the building was a thick steel cable. The cable was a structural necessity essentially holding the building together until the necessary funds could be secured to rehabilitate the facility. Even at six years old I can recall thinking that this solution felt suspect.
The highlight of our stay for me was dinner in the grand dining room. Complete with ornate chandeliers and a complicated mosaic pattern in the deep rich red carpet, you could practically hear the ragtime music of yesteryear and the giggles from the girls dancing in their flapper dresses. Yes, I was a very well read six-year-old. Plus, they had a plaque in the lobby. Of course there was a plaque! While the oldness of the place could conjure up all kinds of ideas and images of my great grandparents, that was not what captured my attention.
Given the age and the structural challenges of the facility, there was not a single right angle left in the lodge. Everything creaked, groaned, and there was a constant whistle in the air from the wind wiping through window sashes and doors that didn’t close all the way. This meant there was very easy egress for the local wildlife who also liked to dine in the grand lodge. The occasional swallow or finch got a giggle or a yip from some diners, but the star of the show were the chipmunks. Smaller and cuter than their squirrel cousins, the chipmunks would frantically skitter from table to table collecting crumbs that may or may not have been accidently dropped by guests. Once I caught on to the scheme I could not be stopped. I have no idea what I ate for dinner that night but I can tell you that no fewer than a dozen chipmunks went home that evening absolutely stuffed!
The next day was greeted by our regular pre-flight routine. Another round with mom and my gag reflex, a quick argument with the dog to pea, and we were off. This time even dad was done and ready to go home. We had a full day’s drive ahead of us most of which would be a boring drive on the interstate. We had to get back to the interstate which meant another two hours of twisting and winding roads. Eventually we merged onto I-5 for the home stretch. Nature called at some point so once again we exited at the next rest stop. For the past several hours the car had been silent. Everyone was tired and done with the trip. I didn’t want it to end. The day in day out drudgery of my six-year-old life was waiting for me back at home and I wanted no part of it. I sensed the same thing from my dad. He liked his job just fine, but he liked being on vacation much more.
Sensing his sadness, I caught sight of another historical plaque at the rest stop and drug him over to read it to me. My usual interpreter was busy drooling on his Mad Magazine in the back seat half asleep and was not interested in reading another panel to his illiterate little brother. Dad read the sign, and I posed for a photo. It was the last one of the trip, the only one taken at a rest stop, and it was the best one because it was just me. Every other photo was of “the boys,” meaning my brother and I forced into the same frame pretending to tolerate one another. Now I had my own slide in the show to come!
That trip was foundational in my life. Over those two weeks I created more memories and logged more experiences than I ever thought possible. I’m still unpacking all that I learned. It has informed my career and the magic “ah-ha” moments that we work so hard to create in museums. Those early life experiences matter more than we know. When they are happening, we take them for granted, but the seeds of curiosity and lifelong learning are being planted at the site of Lewis and Clark reaching the Pacific Ocean, with the nice lady signing her tribe’s song, and where Stellar Sea Lions do it on the rocks.