The Stones and Me: Close Encounters with Erratics


Image by Gidon Pico from Pixabay

Am I the only person who liked the news that “MudHoney,” the machine boring a storage tunnel beside the ship canal, had ground to a brief halt? The tunnel is for the combined stormwater and sewage that would otherwise flow into the canal, Lake Union, and Salmon Bay after heavy rains. 

MudHoney, as it is called, had struck a huge boulder, lying unsuspected in the earth.  The collision damaged MudHoney’s cutting apparatus and forced a temporary halt to the project. It brought up memories of Big Bertha, the huge tunneling machine excavating the Highway 99 tunnel that replaced the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Bertha in 2013 hit a buried pipe and overheated, delaying that tunnel project for more than two years. 

MudHoney was laid up for only a matter of days.  The damage was repaired, and MudHoney ground its way slowly through the rock. I pictured the hidden boulder as a pale – and more horizontal – version of the mysterious black obelisk in Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci fi film, “2001.” 

But unlike the obelisk, the Seattle boulder didn’t arrive from outer space.  It was clearly an “erratic,” dumped there thousands of years ago by the last great glacier, the one that covered what is now Seattle with 3,000 feet of ice.  I like erratics.  I like the idea of them as leftovers from the last ice age.  And I like coming upon the objects in places where I don’t expect to find them, inexplicable huge rocks off in the woods or lying on the cobble of a Puget Sound beach.

Stones that people have put there deliberately fit into a different category.  I have liked seeing dressed stones from a Greco-Roman town scattered in the brush of southern Turkey, stone temples standing in the Mexican jungle, a stone circle as old as Stonehenge on a bare hillside in the Orkneys (I have a big photograph of that one in my house), and for that matter Stonehenge itself.  But none of those deliberate stones has just providentially appeared.

The news of MudHoney’s underground adventure reminded me of my own stony surprises over the years.  The earliest happened when I was seven. I and a friend were running through the oak and maple woods north of my house to another friend’s house where there was a TV we hoped to watch.  (My family never owned a television.)  We were just beyond the cesspool over which the first crocuses bloomed every spring.  The ground was mostly clear and pretty soft. 

I hurdled a stump, must have caught my trailing foot on the wood and fell hard on the other side.  There were lots of rocks buried or half-submerged in the dirt around there, but not on the ground in that stretch of woods.  Nevertheless, when I fell, my left wrist hit a rock and broke.  My wrist was still in a cast later that summer when my parents took me to an amusement park to celebrate my eighth birthday.  Bad luck to have come down right on that rock.  Good luck to have hit it with my wrist and not my head. 

I had a similar encounter with an unexpected rock when my wife, Barbara, and I were scrambling up Red Mountain in the Cascades near Snoqualmie Pass years ago.  It wasn’t all that difficult, but we were using hands as well as feet.  I was in the lead, a little higher than Barbara.  I looked up and saw a boulder hurtling down the slope right at us.  We weren’t in any position to hurry out of the way.

As the boulder got closer, it hit a stationary rock and shattered.  The shards just whizzed on by.  The next day, we read in the Sunday paper that right about the time that boulder hurtled toward us, two different people at two different places in the Cascades had been killed by falling rock.  A little creepy.  

Then, there was the rock on Mount Rainier.  We were hiking with a group of friends away from established trails at the end of summer, when bushes were already turning red.  We came to a ridge.  Because of some lapse in communication about the route, the person leading our group went to the left side of the ridge instead of the right.  There was a path, but it had presumably been made by and for deer.  It was very narrow.  To the left, the slope dropped steeply a couple of hundred feet to a litter of big rocks.  The drop wasn’t straight down, but it was steep enough so that if you had started sliding down, there would have been no way to stop – and nothing to grab – until you hit those rocks.

Barbara and I were walking at the back of the group.  Not far in front of us, one of our friends slipped off the path.  We didn’t see her go.  She never knew what had happened.  She went over the side right by a big rock, the only handhold along that whole stretch of trail.  She grabbed it.  When we saw her, she was clinging to the rock, her legs hanging over the drop.  She couldn’t pull herself back up. 

The other people in our group had already gone ahead, so they didn’t know anything had happened.  How long could she hold on?  I got my weight low, grabbed a handful of little mountain heather plants, gave her a hand and hauled her up.  She went on, but we decided this was nuts and went back to sit in the sun until the rest of the group came back.  She was unlucky to have slipped, of course, but lucky beyond belief that a lone rock had, for whatever reason, been right there. 

Since then, I’ve felt a whole lot friendlier toward big rocks that turn up where they’re not expected.

Little rocks – not so much. Some years ago, after a soccer practice, my son and I picked up some pizza in West Seattle. I took a bite. I bit down on a rock. My tooth broke. A day or so later, I went to see my dentist, who was a friend. I told him what had happened. I expected him to share my outrage. He didn’t. Ah, he said, your tooth shouldn’t have broken. “You’re just old!” Talk about a lack of sympathy.

I had planned to find the restaurant’s management and raise some serious hell. I don’t know what I expected the management to do – give me a nice new pizza? With a nice new rock embedded in the topping? I hadn’t thought this out. For better or worse, After the conversation with my dentist, I bagged the idea of confronting the management. But obviously I haven’t forgotten the incident. And when I read that MudHoney had bitten into that erratic, I could relate.


  1. I like your comparison to MudHoney drill. Erratics may have interrupted your deep dives into environmental issues of our time, yet you kept drilling for important information. Thanks to you we have a much better understanding of things from spotted owls, salmon, tribal rights and a host of other conservation issues. Now whenever I spot an erratic in one of our nearby prairies, will think of pizza!

  2. Excellent article.
    Life is full of rocks. Some we dodge, and some hit us. The hope is that its the wrist, not the head. But do we control or influence them and their trajectory? Not really. And so it goes.


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