For years I went backpacking every summer with Jeff Fairhall. Jeff's the guy who founded Essential Foods, now defunct, makers of The Essential Sandwich. He later cofounded The Essential Baking Company. Jeff was a genius.
Tilth Organic Harvest Fair. I met Jeff at Seattle Tilth the summer I landed in Seattle, 1991. A friend was the coordinator for that fair. Within a few days of my arrival he cajoled me to get involved. Jeff was also a key player in that. That year I became the house calligrapher, making signs, banners, and a t-shirt, reprising my role at Naropa. For the next three years I would be the harvest fair coordinator. I had landed my first Seattle job within days of my arrival; it just had a delayed start. I was not a writer in that job. But alas, I still had to make the mistake of becoming a professional writer in Seattle. It started out as a job with benefits.
Working for Jeff. Jeff and I hit it off right away. He was one of the most congenial, humble, genuine people I ever met. He was a millionaire who made his fortune out of nothing much more than inspiration, determination, and genius. During my early years in Seattle I ended up working for both of Jeff's companies at various times. My first gig with Jeff was designing labels for new sandwiches. His original designer was not available, so I picked up where she left off, using her label designs as templates. Only trouble was, she lived in Mac world and I'd come of age in Windows, excuse me DOS. Back then the two worlds were very much not on speaking terms. So I got my one and only Mac. Absurdly expensive, and what's with the one-button mouse? But I adapted and started designing labels for new Essential Sandwiches. I got to be more creative when the Essential Burrito came along, designing all those labels from scratch. But that wasn't enough work; I needed more of a job. Jeff gave me one delivering sandwiches to downtown Seattle. It wasn't a high-volume route, but it was interesting. Driving that route I became the wizard of parallel parking. I could zip into a space and have less than a foot clearance fore and aft. That's a skill that I sadly seem to have lost entirely. Yes, you can walk to the curb from here.
oh-dark-thirty. Somewhat later Jeff and his bakery partner George gave me a job delivering fresh bread from the newly opened bakery. I had to get up a little before oh-dark-thirty, which soon inspired me to find work as a writer. But in the meantime I had a route that included fka Winslow, now just Bainbridge Island. A sweet route: get paid to ride the ferry. When I got married, a mistake I needed to make, Jeff and George gave the wedding cake as a gift. Only it wasn't a cake, it was a special edition of George's heavenly challah, filled with dried fruits and nuts, and braided into two interlocking braided rings, an amazing artwork. George was nervous it wouldn't turn out, so he made three. They all turned out beautifully. They delivered all three. Some nice leftovers. French toast, anyone?
All my years were right. Jeff and I both loved to hike and backpack. In 1992 we made a spur of the moment plan and set out on our first weeklong backpacking trip. The annual getaway with Jeff became a touchstone for my life, the way maybe Christmas is for some folks? The year was not gonna be right without my week with Jeff up in the tundra somewhere.
Enchantments. Jeff and I hit a lot of the local high spots for backpacking over the years, but we never got our ducks in a row in time for the Enchantments lottery; I have no regrets. We operated more seat-of-the-pants, like hey, it's about time we went backpacking, yeah? In like, late July or early August. Reservations? What? Two spots stand out for me: Heart Lake in the Olympics, and White Pass. We camped in each of those areas more than once. At Heart Lake I had what I now know was an episode of atrial flutter. Is that ironic? I know because I had another episode a few years later that did not autocorrect, the last of many in my life. Stretching back to college days. I had to go in for an ablation, which worked like a dream. I had a good time at Heart Lake anyway. We watched bears fattening up for the winter on huckleberries and swimming in the lake. Jeff went swimming with the bears, but at a very safe, discreet distance. Jeff was a very respectful guy.
High altitude squall. The area behind White Pass ended up being our favorite spot. We camped there three or four times. There was a lot of open back county tundra to explore, far enough off the main trail we rarely saw any other humans once we got into our favorite area, and high and rocky enough to make traveling off trail dead easy. A gorgeous area. Once we had a squall blow up in August, and the only thing that kept our well-staked tents from blowing away was our bodies in sleeping bags. Sleet and snow were blowing sideways. No more than ten minutes later it was sunny and calm.
Cucumber. Our last trip to White Pass was our last backpacking trip together. The hike up White Pass is a humdinger. There's no water, and it's a long steep hike up an exposed south slope. We knew all that but we still ran out of water. Jeff was doing OK with it, but I began to get a little batty and irrational. Jeff pulled us over in the shade of a boulder and dug in his pack, producing a huge cuke. That gourd gave us enough juice to make it up to some snowfield trickles. At that point we were both more willing to have giardia than to pull out the filters. Evidently no wildlife had crapped in our snowfield.
Brain tumor. Jeff had been living with a brain tumor, probably since long before I met him. On this last trip it showed through. I wasn't alarmed, he was still very much my beloved friend Jeff, but he had some strange ideas to share with me. Jeff had a few more good years left at that point. And though we never managed to connect for our annual trip again, that was at least as much my fault. My life was headed into a foolish new phase. But when his strange ideas started to become public, I wasn't surprised. By that time he was out of my reach, out of everyone's reach.
Manly. In Boulder TH told me to work on being manly. He wanted me to do things like hunting, fishing, rock climbing and chainsawing. I was too much of a wuss. Guilty as charged, your honor; I am a card carrying wuss to this day. He said that hunting and fishing were especially good. I was never interested in either. They were things my father and brother did that I avoided. I successfully avoided hunting with them, but not fishing, alas. I hated sitting in the hot sun waiting for my cork to bob so I could jerk it too hard and lose the fish. In Boulder I was trying to be a good student, so I borrowed my dad's .30-06 and enrolled in hunter safety classes. As I was studying for my test, I discovered that the bag limit for the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep was one per lifetime. That's the kind of friend Jeff was. I'm grateful to have known him.