May 9, 2013 Leave a comment
As I sit here reading through the stacks of stories of Bon Goffs life compiled into the book “Love Does” I feel inspired and slightly whimsical. There is a particular story of a scientists passion for his work and life that has effected most of us, us coffee drinkers that is, on a daily basis. It tell us about his experiments with coffee and his life journey proclaiming that God is good, all the time, even as he fought against diseases and cancers that ultimately took his life.
As a former employee and dedicated customer to Starbuks I thought this mans story, experiments, and zeal for life is something I should share. Whether you love Starbucks or if you hate Starbucks, this a story you should read. So the following is a chapter entitled “God is Good” from the book “Love Does”:
GOD IS GOOD
I used to think God was good some of the time,
But now I know He’s good all of the time.
I had a friend name Don Valencia, and I miss him. Don Valencia was another one of those secretly incredible guys. He was about my age and full of life when we met. He loved to backpack and race cars and climb mountains, he’d tell stories about sleeping high above the tree line or racing his car for a grueling twenty-four hours nonstop just see if he could do it. Well, I’m not a mountain climber and I don’t race cars, the more climbing and racing stories Don told me, the more courageous I felt about whatever I was facing.
We all have these friends, these amazing people who seem to live on the edge of death. It must be because its on that edge where they feel most alive, where they have the best perspective on life. It’s where one missed step, one wrong move would end it all that they realize all over again how beautiful the place where they live and breathe and love well. Have you noticed that lots of people who trust God seem to be wired to live near the edge.
Don’s love for adventure translated into his work as a cell biologist. I’m not sure what a cell biologist does exactly, but I know it has something to do with being really smart. Not afraid of death, early on in his career, Don played with some of the world’s most devastating diseases but freeze-drying death and put it under a microscope. It was like Don has a keychain full of keys to doorways opening up to a better existence, and he spent his life sliding the keys into locks to see if they could be opened. I’m not sure Don found it ironic that something so ugly as a disease could be redeemed by God and tuned into a doorway leading to a joy and freedom and a cure.
One day while preparing for a backpacking trip, Don decided to use his freeze-drying technique on coffee. He loved having a cup of coffee on the side of a mountain but was picky when it came to what he brewed. None of the freeze-dried stuff at the supermarket would do. He tinkered with different beans and different roasts until one day his wife, Heather, stopped by a little start-up coffee shop in Seattle and found some beans she thought her husband might be able to use. She brought the beans home like Jack and his fabled beanstalk. Don freeze-dried them and discovered this new coffee wasnt just good; it was amazing. Don shared his concoction with other backpacking friends and nobody could believe the coffee had been freeze-dried. I think that after they got in the mountains together at altitude and had a cup together, his friends kept looking around to see where the hidden coffee shop was where Don had scored the fresh coffee.
That little coffee shop in Seattle Heather found exploded into frachises, so Don decided to share his creation with the CEO, a guy named Howard Schutlz of Stabucks fame.
Howard opened the package Don sent him and tried the freeze-dried coffee with, I’m sure, a pack of skepticism. It wasn’t long, though, before he jumped on a plane to visit Don in his kitchen. They talked for hours as Don explained the process he’d gone though to preserve the flavor of the coffee beans. Faster than you could lace up a pair of hiking boots, Howard hired Don. No kidding, Don Valencia was suddently living in Seattle heading the research and development arm of Starbucks. No longer doing his work on the kitchen table, Don now had a multimillion-dollar laboratory for his experiments.
People who take huge risks aren’t afraid to fail. In fact, they love to fail. It’s because of failing means they found the edge. Don created some amazing products for Starbucks, but not all of them worked out. Have you ever of Mazagran, for instance? Exactly, me neither. Mazagran was a carbonated coffee-flavored soda Don invented and Starbucks rolled out quite a few years ago. The only problem was- no one liked it. Don didn’t seem fazed by disappointment. In fact, one of the first times I vistied Don, I walked up his driveway and saw his license plate that proudly read “Mazagran.” The guy celebrated stunning failures like I celebrated my biggest succeses.
Don taught countless numbers of people how beautiful it is to fail. More so, he demonstrated how beautiful it is to keep trying nevertheless, to keep moving forward and loving yourself enough to love your mistakes. It was that same spirit of adventure and dedication to redeem failure that led Don to create the science behind a coffee-flavored icy concoction called the Frappuccino. That one ended up doing pretty well.
Don kept perfecting his freeze dried coffee, sharing it with friends who were backpackers and the inner circles at Starbucks. Everybody loved the stuff, but for decades Starbucks wasn’t sure if or how they’d release it. I think they were concerned that freeze-dried coffee might hurt the brand Starbucks had established by serving the freshest, highest-quality brew. Don’s delectable freeze-dried crystals got out to a few people, however so Starbucks had to give the project cover names like “stardust” and “space needle” and even “jaws.” If you worked close to Don and were one your way to summit Mount Rainer or had an adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail, you could get your hands on a scarce supply of this concoction. I imagine it looked like a drug deal going down as a nickel bag of “stardust” changed hands and was slipped into a coworkers backpack next to the ice ax and crampons.
Almost two decades later, Don’s secret was still under wraps. By that time, Don had retired from Starbucks and had decided to throw himself and his family into two adventures. While always a lover of people, Don had a growing interest in serving them in more tangible ways. He joined the board of a fantastic organization called Argos, which serves in the rural poor in Central America, Mexico, and places in the world where the needs are immediate and great. Don moved the family to Central America for a time so they could immerse themselves in both culture and the service. Dwarfing his passion for all of these things, Don found himself closer to God in the adventure of helping people than he ever had been standing on the edge of a cliff.
Not long after returning, while on a trip to Whidbey Island with the Argos, Don began to feel terrible pain in his side. He was whisked to the hospital and diagnosed immediately. He had metastasized stage-4 cancer of the liver and lungs. He was now struggling with the same kinds of disease he’d studied under the microscope for years.
During his brave fight with cancer, Don continued living in a spirit of risk and adventure. It was plain that he was never afraid to die, and he had began to chronicle his journey. I’d read his letter and posts along with many other people, and his spirit of love and hope and anticipation was inexplicable. He said he felt like he was dancing on the edge of heaven–he wasn’t scared. He was almost like a commercial telling everybody about how great it was to have cancer. He was delighted about the opportunity to live even one more day, to take one more breathe, to learn one more thing about the character of God. He wanted to move from dancing on the edge of heaven to being in heaven.
Don lamented, to be sure, that when he stepped into heaven he would be leaving his wife and two sons behind for a time. He fought the disease for them and asked God to let him stick around to make as many memories as possible with the people he loved the most. Each time Don wrote a letter of post, he’d end with these words: “God is good, all the time, God is good.” It wasn’t just something he was telling himself, or hoping it was true. It was something he knew for certain, and he was hoping we’d know too as he stood at the edge of heaven. It was like he was peeking through a knot hole in the fence at the face of God and telling us what he saw on the other side. When Don spoke, you knew without a doubt God was good. And with every letter, it was as if Don somehow picked the lock again and swung the vault door open so we could all look inside at the treasure.
Don hiked his last miles valiantly, beautifully, knowing that death was a just a doorway to something better, something we only see traces of in this life. He saw the love of God in his bride and in the joy he found spending time wiht his sons. He knew the tunes he heard from his perch on the edge of heaven were just faint songs now, like a favorite song he couldn’t quite make out but he still knew the words even if his pitch wasnt perfect. You could see in his face that someday he would joyfullly join the chorus, maybe as a backgroung vocalist or something.
During our friendship, Don had been up to a lodge we built in Britsh Coloubmia, and in a season of suprising energy while he fought his cancer, he asked if he and his family would come up to create a family memory. I agreed, of course, and we made plans to receive the man who was teaching so many of us just how good God was. A week before Don and his family were to come, though, his health and energy cratered and Don found himself back in the hospital doing battle with the effects of his advanced disease. Not wanting his family to miss out on a time to recharge at the lodge, Don asked them to make the trip anyway and leave him behind. He wanted them to have a break as they moved into a season where fewer chapter would be written together.
We worked out the the details of transportation and communication so we could get the family back to Don in case he needed anything, and the family agreed with Don’s wishes to spend a couple of days amid the beauty of the inlet Don had come to love so deeply. It was as though Don was sending the family on an adventure so they could come back and report every detail–what they’d seen and smelled and experienced–and he could live it through them in their stories.
Heather and the boys arrived at the lodge, and while Sweet Maria greeted them, I called Don and we spoke on the phone. He was in his hospital bed and we talked about what he was learning about God and how is energy was holding up. Then our conversation turned to the possibility of one last great caper. We laughed about the idea of springing him from the hospital and sneaking him up to the lodge. I felt like I was back in high school plotting to put the principal’s car on the roof, and before we realized how absurd it was, we were putting the finishing touches on our caper to get Don to the remote inlet to surprise his family. We hung up the phone believing God was in the caper, and Don instantly had dozens of friends in on it too in order to pull it off. The only ones who didn’t know what was being planned were his family. Don figured out how to get the staff to spring him, tubes and all. He was shuttled to a seaplane waiting for him a few miles away in Lake Union and it was game on.
Don was weak, very weak. The plane ride was long. In fact, it was way too long. The seaplane hit fog halfway to the lodge and was grounded for the night. Don took on all the medical procedures that were typically done by a team of nurses. He did them himself in a small bathroom, and he must have felt like he was patching up a wound in the wild bivouacked on the side of a cliff in a snowstorm.
The next morning I was up early listening to the aviation channels in the radio room at the lodge. Then a crackle came through the static from a friend who was the pilot. The plane was just a few inlets away from closing in fast on his family. I asked about how Don was doing and was told he was almost giddy though the tremendous pain and complete exhaustion of the trip. Then I realized that Don was back in his zone–on the edge.
I asked Heather and the boys to go down to the dock with my family, explaining I needed help with a little project and a seaplane would be arriving with some groceries that needed carrying. A short time later, as the seaplane engine sopped and drifted to the end of the dock, I occupied them with a task behind a building so they wouldn’t notice the plane’s surprise cargo.
Don emerged wearing a read North Face jacket as though making the final ascent on one of the many peaks he’d scaled in his life. Any mountain would have been dwarfed, however, by the one he had just scaled to get to his family. Heather, glancing up form her task, looked once, and then again in disbelief. “Don!?” If there were subtitles coming from her mind, they’d probably read; How is this possible? You’r supposed to be in the hospital fighting for your life!
She exploded to her feet and in three gallops fell into Don’s strong arms.
We made our way up to the lodge and Don laid down on the large couch in the living room. The boys sat at his feet and Heather laid by his side. Our family disappeared into the kitchen but could hear them talking softly, then laughing, then talking softly again. They talked about snowboarding and photography and adventures that lay behind and ahead. Heather and Don held hands and looked into each other’s eyes a lot, and without getting up from the couch they slow danced on the edge of heaven together.
Don gave me the gift of a last , meaningful conversation too. I had come to love this man. When the family had left, I laid down on the couch and put my head on his chest. We talked about eternity and how we could all be back together at some point. And we talked about how God is good all the time, not just some of the time.
Don went to be with Jesus shortly after his last adventure at the lodge, and then Starbucks decided it was time to roll out their best-kept secret. What Don had created twenty years earlier became a reality. VIA, as its know and seen in every Starbucks around the world, is named after Starbuck’s first brave inventor: Don Valencia.
Who knows how many backpackers have sat down in the great cathedral of the mountains and shared a cup with a man they’ve never known but with whom they share the same love of life and risk and beauty? Perhaps those hikers who are looking out over the valleys below, watching the fog roll up the rivers from the ocean, are only suspecting something Don Valencia know to be absolutely true.
That God is good, all the time. God is good.