Thinking of Bellingham, Washington always makes me happy. I’m not going to lie and tell you that my life there was always happy, but for me, Bellingham was a magical place. I rolled in during the worst blizzard in decades. I wasn’t worried, I had a huge 4×4 and had first learned to drive on mountain roads in blizzard conditions up in Big Bear Lake.
I’ll never forget those moments on January 2nd, 1996, of driving up I-5 and seeing frozen waterfalls on the side of the highway as I blasted Rusted Root and the Grateful Dead on my far too expensive car stereo system. My dog was next to me, everything I owned was in the back of the truck, and the world was good. I’d left my terrible childhood memories, my troubled times in the Marine Corps, and all the drama with the girl in Raleigh behind. I’d been the one pushing for Bellingham when we were talking about moving together. She’d wanted either Boulder or Las Cruces – this was my town.
My dark blue 1988 full size Ford Bronco with big ass tires had brought me through the Rockies and across the continent. I’d passed through and by Redding, Canyonville, Myrtle Creek, and Tacoma without stopping. I had no idea where I would live, what work I would do, or what would happen – but Bellingham would be home for the next five years except a couple of small breaks in Juneau, Alaska and London, England in 1998.
I got a coffee at a hippie coffee house on High Street and began looking for work and a place to live using The Echo – a free classified newspaper – it was like Craigslist but in newspaper form. I quickly fell in love with KISM 92.9 FM Independent Rock – the most amazing radio station I’d ever listened to. Great DJs, amazing announcers, absolutely amazing music programming, and superb fun shows. The morning show DJ, Dave Walker, would end every show with his tagline “You live in the coolest place in the world, go out and enjoy it.”
He wasn’t lying. Bellingham has everything. The San Juan Islands, Mt. Baker, the Northern Cascades, the Alaska Ferry system, great music and art scenes, Western Washington University, amazing literary talent, beautiful gardens and forests, spectacular beaches, and four glorious seasons.
Those first months in Bellingham weren’t easy. No one wanted a new roommate with a dog but finally, I found a house full of heroin addicts who rented me a room. I got a job at a saw mill in Ferndale, Washington. The junkies were too much for me – it was a constant threat situation and it came down to either living with the junkies and having my dog or finding my dog a new home so that I could find a new home. Using The Echo, I found a cool guy with a cool family who loved my dog. It was heartbreaking, but it was my only option. After that, I found a very cool roommate situation in the hippie burg of Fairhaven on the south side of Bellingham. The guy who adopted my dog helped me to find a job with the company he painted for. I escaped from the mill and the heroin house. It was a tough decision, but it was the right one.
As a painter I made a bunch of new friends. I also made new friends through my new roommate, Alyssa. Every day, I listened to 92.9 FM while I was working. One day, I told my co-worker – I’m going to get a job at that radio station. At a blues festival hosted by the station, I saw my chance. I met the programming director, a guy named Ken Richards who was also one of the DJs – I cornered him in the beer tent and told him “I want to work for 92.9 FM, I don’t care what it takes – I’ll clean toilets if I have to.” He gave me his card and told me to call him the next week. I did. He offered me a job as an producer/intern on ‘The Morning Deal’ – I would have to quit my painting job and it was a serious pay cut, but I took it.
Over the next year, I managed to take every job that came available. I took the late night DJ slots, became the full time producer of The Morning Deal, did part time work for the station’s engineer cleaning the garage, cutting brush, wiring new equipment in – anything – then I took a job as a commercial copy writer. Radio didn’t pay great, but I loved it. That guy who I’d heard when I first rolled into town “You live in the coolest place in the world, so go out and enjoy it” – he became one of my best friends. I started writing a weekly column for The Echo called Rambling Man. Between the radio and The Echo, I was suddenly kind of famous. I had also enrolled at Whatcom Community College. My life was full and beautiful. I met a great girl and we began seeing each other.
The girl was great but she had two children from previous relationships and I wasn’t ready to be anyone’s dad. Then, one day, I met a girl I fell head over heels for – she was all I could think about for years. I pursued her with a single minded determination that utterly failed. All she ever wanted from me was my friendship, but I wanted more. That desire (the root of all suffering) destroyed me, destroyed my ego, and left me disjointed and dis-satisfied. It left me completely unsettled despite my very cool life, great friends, minor fame, and decent income. I wanted her and since I couldn’t have her, I wanted more from every other aspect of my life.
In 1998, I bought a 1976 VW bus, left my job at the station and moved out of my apartment. I decided to go to Alaska and see if I could shake the sickness that had enveloped my soul. It didn’t work. I sold the bus and went to London, England to pursue something else – but it didn’t work. My desire for her was like a fungus that had grown inside me and wouldn’t let me do anything else. In both places (and in Bellingham) opportunities were presented to me like golden apples – but I could see nothing but her. I kept coming back, trying to impress her, trying to win her. It didn’t work.
Back in Bellingham, I started a magazine and co-founded an early internet startup. Once again, there were plentiful opportunities presented to me in work, in life, and in love – but she was all I saw or wanted. It was a sickness, this love and obsession – and whenever I would find myself healing from it – then she would appear – at a party, a call out of the blue, in the street, at a coffee shop, or showing up at my door. She wanted me in her life and yet, the one thing she didn’t want was a romantic relationship with me. It was all I wanted. Finally, I realized, I just had to get away from her. She wasn’t doing it on purpose, but she had eaten my soul.
I took a tech job at a start-up in Seattle. The first months involved a four-hour commute each day from Bellingham but eventually, I rented a house in Green Lake with new co-workers. The girl would show up still or she would call me – but I was healing – I was recognizing that I needed to end the friendship and put some emotional distance between us. It still amazes me that she never wanted me – and I still wonder what the world might have been like if she had. She’s the one part of Bellingham that doesn’t make me happy when I remember that place.
In any event, that’s what led to me leaving Bellingham, abandoning my startup, and changing my life – again.
Bellingham is a treasure. It sits 20 miles south of the Canadian Border and 90 miles north of Seattle. It is sandwiched between the San Juan Islands and the North Cascade Range of mountains. There are about 92,000 people who live in Bellingham and it is the northernmost city in the USA with a population of more than 50,000. There are numerous lakes, streams, waterfalls, and great hiking, mountain biking, and outdoor recreation of all kinds in the area. Summers don’t get hotter than about 90 Fahrenheit and winters can get incredibly cold – well below zero if caught in a Nor’easter. The population of Bellingham has nearly doubled since the time I arrived there – I’ve heard that Fairhaven is now more of a retirement community than a hippie burg – which is too bad. As a side note – I’ve just looked at the cost of buying or renting a family home in Bellingham due in no small part to nostalgia in writing this – it turns out that the increase in population has led to a housing shortage – good old B’ham, which used to be cheap – is now way out of range for nearly everyone with rents nearly as high as in Honolulu and Seattle…All I have to say is it’s a damn shame…