It was the beginning of a new decade. My partners and I were in our mid-twenties, essentially penniless, living hand-to-mouth. Each of us lived with our girlfriends in their rented houses or apartments. Michael’s wife-to-be, Rosie, was somehow cajoled into allowing her second story two-bedroom apartment near Green Lake to become Orion’s original Seattle headquarters.
At the time, I paid no attention to the Business section of the paper, but I was aware that America was suffering an economic malaise, or a hangover, from the oil shocks of the ’70s. There was a question whether Americans would fork out perfectly good money for unnecessary luxuries like raft trips. Traffic around Seattle was so light, it was possible to circumnavigate the greater metropolitan area in less than a half hour.
I distinctly remember the owner of Zig Zag, Jim Fielder, a quotable character with a mop of hair and a bushy beard, a six foot four philosophizing Lothario, state that he had read that during the Great Depression Americans spent more than ever on frivolous purchases and, in particular, for ‘death-defying’ rides on roller coasters. He had no doubt that raft trips would continue to be popular with the public and, indeed, he proceeded to book thousands of clients, corporate and otherwise, in the upcoming three-month season.
During the early years, Zig Zag was ubiquitous. Jet black cargo vans were everywhere with ‘Zig Zag’ magnified in white and sprayed across their sides like the mark of Zorro. Bus signs with colorful shots of rafters caught in a moment of whitewater ecstasy — mouths agape, water splashing everywhere, huge grins and sunshine — could be spotted all over town. And right beside the beautiful shot of beautiful people was ‘Zig Zag’ and their toll-free number. Zig Zag rented an office space downtown on the 13th floor of the Terminal Sales Building across from the Virginian Inn and installed a bank of phones for their small army of persistent phone solicitors.
When asked where the name Zig Zag came from, Jim Fielder used to explain that he had always been an admirer of Crazy Horse, who was known to paint a distinctive bolt of lightning across his cheeks prior to battle. Fielder claimed his distinctive scrawled Zig Zag logo was reminiscent of Crazy Horse’s markings. Of course, having such a memorable name, usually associated with the tobacco rolling papers, could also be seen as a promotional coup. I think Jim thought of it as free advertising and collateral promotion.
Since Zig Zag was noted for psilocybin mushroom float trips and skinny dipping on the Skagit, being associated with marijuana was not necessarily a negative. Rafting demographics was primarily baby-boomers with newly acquired disposable income who did much more than ‘inhale’ in the ’60s and ’70s. In other words, Zig Zag’s public would not take umbrage to the association with marijuana or any other minor recreational drug.
Zig Zag’s guides sported colorful nicknames and were often as flamboyant and brash as the name itself.
Almost all of the names of the rapids and obstacles on the Wenatchee are attributed to Jim Fielder and Zig Zag — Rock N Roll, Satan’s Eyeball, Gorilla Falls, Drunkard’s Drop, Snowblind, Granny’s.
While the Zig Zag juggernaut concentrated all of their efforts on generating business, and building a formidable, seemingly prosperous business, Orion made a conscious effort to be their antithesis.
We copied their sales tactics by targeting corporations’ human resource departments and employee groups — but we never hounded people with sales calls. We copied their classy swoosh-like corporate typeface — but we weren’t willing to pay thousands of dollars to a nationally known designer to create it. They didn’t offer a meal option — we did. Their guides seemingly regarded flipping and ‘yard sales’ as part of the package — we took pride in not having any swimmers, if possible, yet still offering a thrilling ride.
Jim Fielder was a master of self-promotion landing meaty newspaper articles on a regular basis and, to be fair, we rode his coattails. As Luke and the Jedi Knights were to Darth Vader, the rest of the rafting industry were to Jim Fielder in the early days. And just like Luke, if we hadn’t fought the good fight against a worthy adversary, we wouldn’t have been pushed to excel.
It wasn’t until the early ’80s that I brainstormed the slogan “The Good Guides In The White Rafts” (at the suggestion of my father), but the imagery was directly connected to this ongoing adversarial, yet strangely symbiotic, relationship with Zig Zag.
McDonald’s versus the local hamburger joint.
White, as in opposition, to black.
The Rebels or the Federation.