Fourteen Plus One

Fifteen years ago this evening,  I stepped on a wine glass underneath a Chuppah to celebrate the best decision I’ve ever made, to marry Pam and begin a life together that I can only describe as a fairytale. A year ago today, we came within 24 inches of the end of our road together (both literally and figuratively). Let me explain.

We spent last summer in Southeast Asia & Africa doing some volunteer work with our children. On July 6th, we finished the last day of helping local teachers and students to build a school room in a rural mountain town outside of Luang Prabang, Laos. After our last day of work, we were surprised when the teachers brought us into one of the classrooms and honored my family with an incredibly powerful prayer ceremony to thank us for our work and wish us safe travels, followed by what can only be described as an enormous feast of local fare.

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the ceremony. The temperature outside the concrete classroom was well over 100 with what felt like absolute humidity. The small classroom literally felt like a steam bath. There was a small tower in the middle of the floor draped in white strings and incense. There were about 30 of us in the room and we were asked to kneel and everyone in the room had to be touching. The elder religious leader (The predominant religion in Laos is a blend of Buddhism & Animism) began to chant and then each one of the teachers and villagers took turns taking a white strand off the centerpiece and tying them onto our wrists. It was a powerful and memorable experience for all of us.

During the ensuing (and mouth-watering) meal, we asked about the many white strands now tied to our wrists. We were told that they were there to protect us during the remainder of our travels, and that we needed to wear them for seven more days for their prayers for our safety to be answered.

We left the village and stopped by a local waterfall to cool off with a swim before heading to town and the next part of our journey. Our chariot for the week was a Jeep with no doors (and only two front seats) that I’m quite sure was old enough to have seen significant action in the Vietnam war, driven by our friend (and project coordinator) Yai. The journey back to town was about 30 miles of a twisting two-lane road through heavy jungle. Pam was in the passenger seat with our son asleep in her lap and my daughter and I were laying down on the floor in the back of the Jeep.

Yai and his Jeep

As we came around a particularly sharp bend, I remember hearing Pam yell “he’s lost the steering.” I looked up to see the Jeep begin drifting into the left lane towards the far side of the road. Having given up on the steering wheel, Yai was now furiously pumping the brakes but to no avail, he had lost both the steering and the brakes. Miraculously, with one final mighty jump on the brakes, the Jeep came to rest with its nose resting just before an embankment. What we didn’t know until we got out of the Jeep was that had we gone another two feet, the Jeep would have tumbled down a 40 foot cliff into a river. Given that it was an open Jeep with no doors, rear seats or seatbelts, it was obvious to us what the outcome would have been.

After the initial shock wore off, we quickly realized what we were wearing and to this day, Pam and I believe that someone or something was watching over us that fateful day, July 6th, 2010. We all agreed that evening that we’d wear our prayer bracelets for the remaining two months of our journey and now have them safely tucked away here in our home. The rest of our trip passed by without the slightest incident and we’ll forever be grateful to those teachers in Laos who gave us so much more than they’ll ever know.

So that’s why today is Fourteen plus one for me. Each year with Pam and our kids feels like a bonus to me now. How we’re still here to tell this story I’m not sure, but for the last year (more than ever) I’ve tried to live my life like each day might be my last. I hope that when I’m old and gray, I’ll still be telling the story of our how we celebrated our anniversary in 2010, cheating death and learning to cherish every day together. Happy fifteenth anniversary Pam, our adventure continues!

Alone Time

This is a post I wrote on Highway 12 Ventures’ blog on the July 4th weekend a few years ago. As I head out on my bike for a long ride this morning, I thought it was worth sharing again…

It’s very early in the morning the day before the July 4th weekend and I’m heading out on my road bike for some “Alone Time”. I’m going to pedal up to the top of the Boise foothills to Bogus Basin, our local ski hill. It’s a fairly brutal climb: 18 miles of nothing but uphill switchbacks with over 4000 vertical feet gained from Boise’s 2950 to the resort’s upper parking at over 7000 feet. Starting in April when the ski resort closes and the cars are gone, it’s tough for me to even make it to the top after a winter of hibernating at the gym. My first couple of rides usually take about 2 hours. By the end of the season, I’m under 90 minutes. (For perspective, it takes Olympic gold medalist (and Boise’s favorite daughter) Kristen Armstrong under an hour to do it).

Two riders descending Bogus Basin Road

Since falling in love with cycling a few years back, riding up Bogus Basin Road has become my favorite way to be “alone.” Because there’s nothing at the other end of the road besides the ski resort, there’s virtually no cars on the road from April-November and the climb is tough enough that the only folks I see out there are the handful of knuckleheads like myself bent of proving something to themselves. Essentially, you own the road. It’s one of the most remarkable stretches of asphalt you’ll find anywhere. I believe that the Boise foothills are largely what differentiates us as a city. In the spring, they’re bursting green with brush, the sweet smell of sage overwhelming you as you climb. They’re also teeming with wildlife. I’ve seen countless deer, foxes, birds of prey, snakes (even rattlers, yikes!) and other varmints on my rides.

But what I love about riding Bogus the most, is being alone, and I mean really ALONE. The workout is the bonus. It’s one of the few times in my week that I get to participate in creative thought. “What the hell does a VC need to have creative thought for Mark?” I’m glad you asked. I think about a ton of things. For instance, I think about our portfolio companies and what more we can be doing to help them.  I don’t think just about work though. I think “creatively” about my family and what new things I can introduce into our lives to make them more fulfilling. For 90+ minutes up (believe me, the ONLY thing you want to be thinking about on the 20 minutes down is the bike and the road!), my mind seems more fertile than at any other time during the week. I know that my partner Phil (a lifelong pilot) has a similar experience as he glides over Idaho’s remarkable landscape.

Phil in front of the plane he built where he spends his "alone time"

It’s not lost on me how incredibly privileged I am to have both the time and the geographical pluck to be able to do this. As a matter of fact, I never ride that hill without drinking in the beauty around me and thanking my personal higher spirit for what he’s given me. (I happen to be cursed/blessed with an internal 5:00 am daily alarm clock that allows me to accomplish this, usually before my family is stirring).

However, I do think that everyone can find time to be alone, away from all of the noise in our lives. Away from the computer, away from our families, away from twitter and Facebook and all the other input in our lives. The July 4th weekend is a great chance for you to start this routine. Sometime during the next three days, find 30 minutes to be completely alone. Take your dog for a long walk. Go run a couple of miles away from your usual route. Go to an art museum by yourself and reflect. It takes 30 days to form a habit. I promise that if you commit to creating “alone time for yourself” you’ll start coming up with more ideas than ever before about how to make the rest of your work and personal life richer. Have a safe and happy 4th of July!

Thoughts Are Things

Last week, I drove to Bend, Oregon with my pal Pete to meet some friends for a long boys weekend of mountain biking, golf and fly fishing. We left Boise Wednesday afternoon with a 300 mile road trip in front of us. The bulk of the journey occurs along Highway 20, a stunning two-lane ribbon of road (mostly devoid of billboards or even buildings) which winds its way through a beautiful high-desert landscape of sagebrush, looming bluffs and farmland. As the sun began to set, we realized that we were pretty hungry and started looking for a place to eat. We finally saw a building on the horizon and to our delight, it was a roadside cafe which appeared to be torn from the pages of a Norman Rockwell coffee table book. We pulled in and it was clear that the woman out front was closing down for the evening. Despite just switching the sign from OPEN to CLOSED, she welcomed us with a big smile and invited us in for dinner. Quite hungry by this point, we took her recommendation and ordered a couple of big patty melts with all the fixins. She told us we were in Brothers, Oregon – population 13.

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Towards the end of the meal, I shared with Pete that I had been in Bozeman earlier that week to take part in film called the Montana Ethics Project in which I discussed the topic of how to create a better entrepreneurial ecosystem in Montana. During my talk, I made several references to my wife Pam’s great grandparents who jumped off their wagon heading west on the Oregon Trail and homesteaded in Pocatello, Idaho where they establsihed Rowland Brothers, one of the first commercial dairies in the State of Idaho. I used the Rowland story to make an analogy between entrepreneurs in the region who created the agricultural-based economy of the last century and those blazing the trail of transitioning to a knowledge-based economy in the 21st century. I shared with Pete that in preparation for my talk, I had spent a bunch of time over the last few weeks researching the Rowland brothers story and as a result, started looking around on the web for a way to buy some memorabilia from the early days of dairy as I had become a little obsessed over it.

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Having driven the 200+ miles so far, I got up to walk around the cafe to stretch my legs a bit and look around at the historic pictures on the walls. I wandered into a small side room with an “antiques” sign over the door. I wandered around for a minute or two looking at the various items and saw an armoir at the back of the room. As I got closer, I realized there were 5 antique milk bottles on one of the shelves. Four of them were facing me and the fifth one was turned around. You can imagine my surprise when I slowly turned the fifth bottle and staring right at me was a glass milk bottle (more than fifty years old) with bright red letters that read “Rowland Brothers – Pocatello, Idaho” and “Phone 624.” I stood stunned at what I was holding in my hand. I was more than 500 miles from Pocatello in a tiny town in Oregon. Nevere before in my life had I come across anything from the Rowland dairy. But on this day, when I had spent the last couple of weeks thinking intensely about, somehow the universe put this bottle in front of me. Adding to the sheer serendipity of the moment was the fact that not a minute earlier, I was telling Pete the Rowland Brothers story and how I was looking for items from the dairy. I’m not sure what the odds of this happening was, but they have to be lottery-like.

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My wife Pam likes to say that “thoughts are things”, meaning that you can turn your thoughts into reality just by thiking them. Just recently, my friend David Cohen wrote a simlar blog post about envisioning things to happen. While I’m not smart enough to get my arms around how things like this happen, I’m a believer.