Sailing in Lake Michigan can be dangerous for small craft, but in large Green Bay, even a boat that can be pulled behind a pickup truck can be safe enough, and we are visiting the little towns of Door County that line the eastern shore of the bay. As we sail north, however, we know we will have to pass through Porte des Morts, the Door of Death. where Green Bay joins Lake Michigan. Although the name originated from a battle between Native American tribes, the shipwrecks that litter this strait are a warning that things can go terribly wrong here. It has been claimed that the strait has more shipwrecks than any other section of fresh water in the world…. and we don’t want to improve that record.
We had sailed a piece of Lake Superior two summers before and we knew weather could put a small craft like ours in grave danger when on big water, and now a storm is coming, but it seems like there is plenty of time to pass through the strait.
We could not know that this storm would be a deadly one.

The summer between these two Great Lake trips was spent at a different Deaths Door. I work for a major university that has a medical school, so I go to university clinics. There you have the advantage of young, fresh minds and older wise ones. One Friday, I returned home from a trip and there was a message saying it was urgent that I come to clinic on Monday to get results of some “tests” ……and they could not give those results over the phone.
That is the kind of message that makes for a miserable weekend.
Many times, your imagination can conjure up things much worse than reality delivers. Although my imagination was quite creative, that was not the case this time.

A young, nervous resident, unaccustomed to giving bad news, sat with us and went over the serious issues in the test results. We did not understand the ramifications until he finished with a statement that burned itself into memory:
“I’m so sorry, this can’t be cured, and there is nothing we can do for you here.”
“Oh, my God, do you mean this is terminal?”
His only response was “Well, you should never give up hope.”
Which, when uttered by your doctor, immediately makes you give up hope.
He tried to reassure me by explaining he had gotten one of the University’s top oncologists to meet with me the following week.
But hope was gone.
I began to make “arrangements” in my head even though there was no timeline….yet.

Until you are sitting at Deaths Door, you can’t fully understand what it is like. There is nothing to do. Nothing important enough to do. Without an ETD, you can’t tell your kids or parents or friends. You can’t take your clothes to Goodwill yet. You can’t go shopping. New tennis shoes? What would be the point? What activity is worth using your last remaining days doing? No need to lose weight, or plan a trip, do push-ups, or learn anything that might be useful later…
There is no later. get it?
I got it.
I didn’t go through the stages of grief–very little denial–no anger, no bargaining with God. I went straight to acceptance. “I’ve lived a good, love-filled life…an exciting life–exciting enough that some friends might say “I always thought he would go in a ———-”
So long days and sleepless nights were spent waiting. Waiting to hear details….details of what lay between now and when Deaths Door would open and swallow me.

Things are, however, not always as they seem. After meeting with the oncologist, we figured out that the resident, when saying “nothing we can do for you here”–meant “here” at the clinic…and, even though my condition could be fatal and often is….in fact, a lot could be done…. And, so, of course, it was done.
At first, I was furious that this young doctor had left the impression that my condition was guaranteed terminal with no treatment options…and we had lived with that for days…but, looking back, in many ways it was a gift. When your expectations are sickness followed by a pain-filled death, even chemo can be good news! I could write another blog post someday called “The Summer of My Discontent” and perhaps I will. It was a tough spring and summer, indeed. A very rocky road as my friend would call it.

The happy, and ironic, climax of this story came later–I had recovered from treatments and had an appointment with a yet a different young resident. She had studied all about my condition and all my test results and she came in all excited and looking knowledgable and pleased:
“Mr Miller, I studied everything about your case and I think, well, I think…well..that you are going to die of something else!”
“OH My God”, I said, “WHAT?”
“Oh” she said, “No, …Uhhh…I don’t know! ….I mean..I mean I don’t know what you will die of….I just mean that you probably aren’t going to die of this!”
And then I understood.
Someday…..off in the future, I would die of something……
….and not knowing where or when, restored all hope.

A year later, I am healthy and I do not want that something to be a storm while crossing Deaths Door, so we are scurrying across the strait, the sails full and the bow rising and falling to meet each wave, throwing drops of Lake Michigan into the face of a very alive sailor.
The storm will hit, but by then, SILK will be tucked safely in a cove, shuttering with wind gusts, but with two strong anchors holding firm.

Sadly, another sailor, in a sailboat in the open water of Lake Michigan will be killed by this storm. He will pass through Deaths Door….but this time, I will not.

We don’t always travel in an F150 pulling a 28′ boat behind us. This fall we debated–do we take a long trip back east, visiting lakes and looking at the turning foliage in a meandering trip, or leave Silk behind and take a car trip on a quest to find the most beautiful fall leaves in the USA? As teachers, we had lots of opportunities to take summer trips and even short spring trips, but never fall trips, so the year after we both retired, we started going east in the fall and they were sweet trips. The Great Smokey Mountains are beautiful in the fall. Vermont is supposed to be even better!

We had high expectations! We were headed for Vermont to see the most magnificent display of fall colors in the nation! The Vermont blogs said we were a few days early and we wanted to make a stop in Corning, New York to visit a former student. New York! Of course, we had to drop by Niagara Falls! I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid and Kathy had never been there. We walked across the bridge and left the USA. We were only “in Canada” by a few hundred yards but I still counted it as an “international” vacation! Upstate New York was beautiful and that raised our expectations even further…if it is this pretty here, imagine what Vermont is like!!

We arrived in Vermont on a dreary day crossing by car ferry. We found a hotel in what the pundits said would be the center of “Peak Fall Foliage” and our timing was perfect. We could tell that indeed there was a lot of color in the leaves– but low clouds and mist allowed no brilliance. The next day’s forecast was for bright and sunny and we were so excited. We had driven 1300 miles and we were about to get our reward.

What we didn’t realize was that a cold front was going to clear the fog and mist and clouds. A long line of thunderstorms with lots of wind moved through the NE US that night and when the bright sun shone on the leaves the next morning, they were on the ground. The peak foliage was over for Vermont.

I believe that happiness isn’t dependent on what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens to you. Probably the best example of that can be found in a book I just finished called Endurance. It’s a story of a failed attempt to cross Antarctica in 1915. What happened to the men on that expedition was horrendous, but how they responded was inspiring.

I also think that happiness is dependent on expectations. I even made an equation to quantify it and shared it with my students.
Results divided by Expectations. R/E

I remember one evening I had to attend a high school play since some of my students were in it. On a scale of 10, my expectation of an evening of enjoyment was about a 5. The play was delightful! A definite 10!
10/5=2. My happiness quotient was a 2! I drove home smiling, proud of my students and their drama teacher.

The expectations on our Vermont trip was a 10. The morning after the storm, the view was like a 2. 2/10 A fraction of happy.
In your life there have been lots of times when the event, the person, the food, did not live up to the expectation and that resulted in unhappiness. There are so many things that have designed in high expectations: the prom date, the wedding, the 5 star restaurant, the dream vacation. If our expectations are a 10, the best happiness quotient is a 1. Last fall we stopped at a little restaurant outside of Pineville, Missouri. This is in the heart of the Ozarks–deep country. The building from the outside needs maintenance. But the inside was lovely and the food was a 10! Imagine how happy we were!

Usually we have pretty low expectations for our vacations. We are poor planners and I am “pathologically optimistic” according to my wife. I always believe there will be one beachfront motel room discounted because of a cancellation just waiting for us. That has resulted in some very uncomfortable nights. My wife says that if we don’t end up sleeping in a WalMart parking lot, her happiness quotient will be at least a 2!
Want a happy spouse? Keep expectations low!

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When my dad bought new tires, he always saved the best of the worn out tires as a spare, and it had become my habit. No need to buy a new tire to use as a spare, right?

We were on our way in an F150 pickup pulling Silk on a boat trailer that had two wheels. Silk is heavy enough that a tandem trailer (four wheels) makes more sense but up to that point we hadn’t had any issues. This trip, however, was not our usual trip to the lake. We were headed for the Apostle Islands near Bayfield, Wisconsin, on the western tip of Lake Superior. With a built-in detour to visit our daughter’s family, it would be a 1600 mile round trip. We left our daughter’s in late morning and decided we wouldn’t try to make Bayfield and arrive there tired in the evening and try to launch Silk into Lake Superior. The whole prospect of putting our little boat into such big water was going to be scary enough if we were fresh and had the entire day to get our bearings! It takes courage to do something you’ve never done before. Being well rested with plenty of light and plenty of time makes adventures more comfortable. We were still many miles from Bayfield, but when we saw a sign pointing to a boat ramp on a small lake, we went down a lonely road, planning a quick launch on protected water.

BAM. Blowout on the trailer. Ruined tire. Crummy spare. As you go farther and farther north in Wisconsin the population gets sparse and services and stores get less frequent. It had been a long time since we had seen any place that might sell tires, especially trailer tires of this specific size. We wold have to camp for the night where we are and take time to make a good decision.

There was a time when camping to us meant carrying a small inflatable mattress and sleeping in a tiny tent. One night of our honeymoon was spent under a tarp on a mountain in the Rockies! As the years have progressed, we’ve found that the likelihood of harsh conditions lessened our willingness to go.  I have found that if the Admiral knows where she is going to sleep, and that place isn’t too public, too hot or cold, and is quiet and soft enough to get a decent rest, she is ready to head out.  It doesn’t mean we haven’t had some unexpected uncomfortable places that we have had to sleep, but we are more likely now to go if we know we have a refuge that is dry and warm.  Silk is that refuge–our sailboat and our cabin. To have a cabin that can be pulled by a pickup means the compromises have to be significant. Those with camping trailers understand that, but our cabin has to also float….and move long distances under it’s own power. It has to be off the grid for days. It has to be strong enough to stand the waves of storms. A trailerable sailboat can be used as a camper when there isn’t a lake or river available, but it isn’t as convenient since you have to climb up and over the transom. Once inside, though, it has all the conveniences. There’s good LED lighting, an alcohol stove to cook meals, a small refrigerator that runs on battery power, and even a small head (bathroom) which is just barely large enough. Most importantly, there is a soft, dry, comfortable bed! There is even a small furnace and I’ve installed a switch that can be reached with outs leaving the covers.

So a cool night was spent sitting beside a small and lonely road, but we were warm and comfortable and it felt like home. We ate a good dinner and got a good night’s sleep.

The next morning it was decided. We would not pull the boat back to main highways on a poor tire without a spare to travel an unknown distance through unknown territory. I would unhook the boat, and Kathy would stay with it. I would drive the truck to a town that has a place that sold tires, and I would buy a brand-new tire for the blown out one and a new one for a spare.

Life is richer if we get out there and take some chances, but we can usually better our odds with thoughtful preparation. There still will be enough adventure created by the unexpected. A really bad event is rarely the result of only one, last minute, poor decision. It is usually the result of a series of poor decisions. If you are going into an area without resources, you need to make sure you carry your resources with you. To this day, the spare on Silk’s trailer is new, checked regularly for proper air pressure, and ready to take over if need be.

It’s hard to beat a night anchored out on a lake. Even on a lake that’s fairly busy during the day, the nights are owned by those willing to unplug and go out to find a place of solitude with a beautiful vista. One evening, we set anchor and were settling down with a glass of wine in the cockpit, watching a sunset in its last burst of color, when we heard rising noise on the shore. We then realized there was a campground hidden in the trees and a group of teens were coming in for the night. I love teens. I spent most of my life with them…lots of them. I taught biology and chemistry In high school and even that didn’t deter me from having two teens of my own for a while. One of those grew up and has two teens and the other has teens on the way and I love them all dearly, but this night we were looking for quiet and solitude and teens can’t provide that. We pulled anchor and motored to a quieter place. A sailboat lets you do that. If you buy a cabin in a quiet place with a beautiful view, someone with a yappy dog can move in nearby, or can buy the land between you and the view and build some monster that you will be sentenced to look at. We just pull anchor and move.

We are tempted to anchor in sheltered bays when sailing on big water. Those bays often have beautiful homes with big windows. If you anchor, you are like the guy who built the house and stole the view. The difference is, their view only has to suffer with your presence for an evening and perhaps a glimpse in the morning. We just borrow the view and move on. Besides, most people love to see a sailboat, as long as it is soon gone.

We often sail on Mark Twain Lake in northeast Missouri. The Lake of the Ozarks is closer, larger and the geography is lovely with its big hills. When the lake was young, people loved the beautiful scenery. Many loved it so much they moved there. They built cabins and houses…and then more people came and loved and built and moved, and they supported more gas stations and stores and bars and restaurants and amd an outlet mall and roads had to be widened and more roads built, but still there are traffic jams, and even the nights are now filled with someone else’s music and laughter and motor noise. Yes, there is growth…jobs…and the money flows, but do people not understand that if they love a place, they should not change it? The Lake is loved too much and the hills are covered with houses and the shoreline is obscured by boat docks. The boat-made waves make boating in a small, simple boat uncomfortable, so people have to buy bigger boats and they make bigger waves, so now the rich own the seas.
People go there for a different reason now, which means different people go there….people who want a different compromise than what we want.

Mark Twain Lake has been a refuge because the Corps owns the land surrounding the lake and the only boat docks are in the two marinas. There are no houses to obscure the view and it is quiet and dark and often we are the only ones we know of spending the night on the lake. There is a lot of money wanting that land and money has a way of changing things. If it does, we won’t have to find a buyer for our cabin. We will aim the pickup in a different direction and take our cabin that way.

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SILK is a sailboat.
That doesn’t tell you much, but it gives us a start. Your mind knows the concept and it starts generating possibilities even before I give details, so my job now is not to create a vision of Silk in your mind, but to modify those already there. Silk is white with black trim, and your vision clears a bit.

There is no wood on the outside, and so we have to talk about compromises. I just love wooden sailboats. They have character and warmth, and they satisfy some deep love of wood that most of us share. We surround ourselves with wood furniture, wood floors, and wood picture frames that form a perimeter around the faces we love. In our home, we have antique wood furniture, wood bowls in the kitchen and even a wood rolling pin. We love wood, but so do many little creatures that can live in it when it gets wet. Sailboats get wet.

You can have a wooden sailboat, and you will be in love with it, but a portion of your life will be spent inspecting and repairing and sanding and refinishing–all in an effort to keep the wood dry. Silk has lots of opportunities to be wet. She is always either in a body of water, or in our pasture at our farm. Most of us are willing to work for love, but we all have limits, and if the maintenance exceeds the love, things fall into disrepair. Part of wisdom involves being realistic and then compromising.

I compromised. We all do. We love the wooden bowl, but grab the Pyrex one more often. Glass requires little maintenance. A rinse off now and then is enough. It doesn’t care if it’s wet for months or sits in the sun every day. It’s harder to love the glass bowl, but we never start to resent it either. So Silk is glass. Not glass easily broken, but ground up glass, spun into fibers and woven into a boat shape. Wood is also heavy. Silk is strong and light. I chose practical and then loved my choice.

Now you know that Silk is not a really big boat. She is not a heavy ocean going boat. She is strong, but not strong enough to withstand a storm in the ocean. She is light enough to put on a trailer and be pulled with a pickup truck. Silk seemed way too small and way too light when we were sailing her in Lake Superior and a storm was approaching. She seemed way too big and way too heavy when pulling her on the hilly and curvy roads to get there. Isn’t that the way it is with all of our choices? The coat is too heavy when leaving Mexico to get on the plane, and way too light when you get to your home airport and you’re waiting for the shuttle and it’s below zero.