Monday, March 29, 2010

Six Years Ago

It still seems funny to me that it’s been this long. Actually, its something I don't really think about much, but for some reason the other day it hit me. Six years ago this week I was accepting the transfer to the Redding office. Although we had talked about moving for years, in a very short time span we uprooted and relocated our lives to a place three and a half hours north, to a community we really knew very little about. I was taking a job that promised to be quite a bit more challenging than the one I was happy with at the time, and we willingly threw Gina into a state limbo, as she would wind her business in the Bay Area down for a few months before moving up to join me in the summer. It was a time that tested our marriage to the fullest and looking back at it now, ended up giving us our greatest reward.

We were happy in the Bay Area. It was the place where we had met, where we had fallen in love, the place where all our memories together had taken place at. Gina had a successful cleaning business, complete with a waiting list of future clients in the wealthy Orinda-Moraga area and I had the best job of my life working for PG&E on a special project. After years of struggling, we were finally feeling secure. Although we could only afford to rent, we were living in the biggest house we had ever had, a nice 1750 square foot place in San Ramon. The neighborhood was great, clean and safe, with a walking/bike/running trail just down the street. We knew exactly where to go to get all the things we might need, from where to go for a good hike to which dog park to take the dogs. In short, we were comfortable. So why change?

Although comfortable, Bay Area life wasn’t perfect. It’s an expensive place to live, and to afford our nice house in San Ramon I worked another job in addition to my job at PG&E, delivering newspapers for the Contra Costa Times. This meant waking up every morning – and I mean EVERY morning – at 2 am and heading off to the Distribution Center in Concord, wrapping newspapers, and then heading out into all types of weather to throw newspapers. The money was too good to stop, and was necessary for us to make ends meet. Unfortunately, finding a substitute so we could go away on weekends was not cheap, and I found myself with the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime, whenever I wanted to. But there was another reason, a reason that was much bigger than just my daytime napping skills.

We had to get closer to a mountain. For beginner mountaineers, Mt. Diablo was fine. At 3800’ but with the base at almost sea level, Diablo offers a respectable 3500’ or so of elevation gain from base to top, depending on which trailhead you are at. When we began climbing we were on Diablo constantly, always searching for new trails and enjoying the beauty and serenity of this Bay Area treasure. We explored probably every square mile of the park and enjoyed it as much as we could. We tested ourselves physically by how fast we could climb it with our loaded backpacks, as we trained for climbs of Mt. Whitney (both the normal and Mountaineers’ routes), Mt. Rainier, and lastly Mexico’s giant volcanoes Izta and Orizaba. After the Rainier climb, we had full-on become climbing enthusiasts, and the trip to Mexico only reinforced our new passion. Diablo was an excellent training area for where we were then, but Gineth had dreams to go further, much further. She knew she wanted to climb the Seven Summits. I knew that for in order to make this happen, we needed to be closer to the mountains – to BIG Mountains, the kind of mountains that we could only travel to occasionally from a Bay Area home. We needed to find a new training ground, one that would prepare her for the adventure she was about to embark on.

There were a couple of options for us. Working for a company whose service territory encompasses most of Northern and Central California has its advantages, and it’s not impossible to move around if you so desire. The union has a bid system, and based on your seniority you are given a number. The person with the most seniority gets first crack at it, and so on and so forth. I had put bids in around the system and was weighing the possibilities based on the likelihood that my number would come up. The locations that offered the most hope for happening were Santa Maria and Bakersfield. Redding was in the mix, but my number seemed too high for it to really happen. Santa Maria seemed like it would be nice, the beach and everything, but for mountains it was no better than where we were. Bakersfield seemed like a better choice. Neither of us had ever been there, only passed through on our way to Whitney. It wasn’t really that close to Whitney though, probably still about 3 hours away from Lone Pine, as one has to go south and down around the horn of the Sierras, back up through the Mojave to actually get to Whitney and mountain country. Not a perfect choice, but do-able. So maybe it would be Bakersfield…..

Then things started to happen with my Redding number. Each day as I checked my bids my number got smaller and smaller, as people ahead of me turned down the job. Through the grapevine I learned that in fact there was going to be not one, but two job openings in Redding. Through the weeks I watched as my number went from a beginning of #17 down all the way to #5. I also learned that the company fills open positions by a rotation with management. One position would be filled by union bidding, the next would be filled by management’s choice. Since the special project I was on would be ending within another year, guys from my group were given priority consideration for open positions. The Redding option suddenly leaped forward to the front of our list. You see, not far from the city of Redding, just another hour north on Interstate 5, sits the North State Icon Mt. Shasta. All 14,179’ of its snowy slopes towering above the hills around it, watching over the entire north valley and seen from as far away as Orland on a clear day. Years earlier, on our honeymoon trip after our church wedding, Gina and I had stopped and gawked for hours at the sheer immensity, magnificence and splendor that Shasta possessed. We wondered aloud (back then, before we became climbers) how anybody could scale such a monster, and took a slew of touristy photos with Shasta standing in the background. Now, all of a sudden, an opportunity to move within striking distance was at our doorstep. Would we, could we, take the next, risky step to get closer?

We thought about it a great deal. For Gina, this meant that she would have to end her business in the Bay Area, then restart it again in Redding. Its hard to think about closing a successful business in one place, just so you can start all over from scratch in another. But Gina wanted to make the move just as badly as I did. She was already making plans for her first expedition, a trip in July to attempt Mt. Elbrus in Russia, the European representative of the Seven Summits. We knew we wouldn’t be able to afford to send her unless her money kept flowing in. The business in the Bay Area had to keep going at least until July. My opportunity, however, wasn’t going to hold until then. That meant for those months in between, during the week we would have to live in different places, with only the weekends to spend together. We made the decision, if it were to happen, then we would move the house up to Redding, where rent was cheaper, and rent Gina a room so she could keep her business going Monday through Friday. For her dream, Gina and I gave up being together 7 days a week, all for the future dream of living in proximity to a mountain.

We took a day trip up to Redding one Saturday. We told ourselves that we were just going to go to Blue Mountain, a hiking trail we enjoyed up a little north past Berryessa Lake, one that you had to go north on I-5 to get to. But we kept going past the off-ramp, kept going to the north. We stopped in Redding and found a Starbucks to have some coffee. Redding had a mall, at least some sign of civilization. (Later we would find out how small the mall was, but that day it didn’t matter.) We went to the grocery store to buy some lunch. The cashier said hello and started conversation with us. Cashiers in the Bay Area don’t do that. The friendliness of the people actually shocked us, we were so desensitized from years of Bay Area indifference. We continued up I-5 to Mt Shasta. We kept going up the Everitt Memorial Highway, all the way to the trailhead at Bunny Flat. Since it was late March, the parking lot was already crowded with skiers, snow-shoers, and best of all to us, even some mountaineers getting ready for a climb. This was the place we needed to be.

Things happened pretty fast. A cowboy named James took the union position a couple of notches ahead of me. That meant that I had to get the management’s choice position. The Supervisor, Ron, invited me up for a look-see. The ADE who I would be working for, Rodger, invited me to stay at his house for the night I came up. I don’t know why, but immediately I felt at home. The area was going through an unprecedented building boom, one that taxed all the employees to the extreme. I was told I would be able to, and that I would probably feel the need to, work up to 30% overtime. Customer contact, something I had never dealt with before, was mandatory. I had always heard the horror stories of estimators who had customer contact and before thought that was something I would never want to do. But here I was, willingly and blindly saying “no problem”, I’ll do whatever I have to for the job. At the end of the day, Ron took me aside into his office, and told me that the job was mine, if I wanted it. I accepted it on the spot. I called Gina and told her. We were so excited, but so nervous. Finally, we were going to move closer to the mountain.

They needed help immediately, and I was given a report date that was in just a couple of weeks. We came up the first weekend and looked at houses for rent, found one that suited our purposes, and the next weekend came up and finalized the deal. The rent was unbelievably low to us, but average for this market. I realized that my days of working two jobs were about to be over. I delivered my last newspaper and got familiar again with what a full night’s sleep felt like.

The whole house was packed up as me, the 2 dogs and the 2 cats all prepared to move, while Gina was left with just a few basics to make it through the next few months. While I moved in April, it wouldn’t be until August, after she returned from Russia, that Gina would join me in living in Redding full-time. The next few months she would live out of duffel bag, driving from Redding to work in Orinda early on Monday mornings, then living and working by herself until Friday afternoon, when she would make the return trip north to be with me. The move was much harder on Gina than it was on me. I had the house, the dogs, the TV, the normal life, while she had her days alone, with nobody but a voice on the other end of a telephone. Gina was the one who really sacrificed for this, and it was her dream of climbing that got her through it.

I started working in Redding April 15th and two weeks later, at the last weekend of the month, the day came to move the last of our things to Redding. Gina rode with me as we pulled out of the driveway of our San Ramon house for the last time. Even though Gina would live/commute for the next months, we both knew that our time in the Bay Area was over. I turned the 4 Runner to drive away, and Gina stopped me to look one last time at our old house. Tears welled up in her eyes, and I asked her what was wrong. “Its just that we were so happy here, I can’t believe that we are leaving.” I held my wife and told her not to cry, that everything would be alright. “Everything’s going to be fine, sweetheart.” I told her. “You’ll see, it’s all going to work out for the best.” I flipped on the radio, just to help get her mind off of the sadness. Over the speakers came the strains of Bachman-Turner Overdrive in mid-tune, jamming “You Ain’t See Nothing Yet, B-b-b-baby you just ain’t see nothing yet….” And we drove away.

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