I've found this piece oddly difficult to write. Perhaps it's the forever exhausting plight of being a self-conscious nerd that's followed me, unwavering, into my adulthood. Perhaps it's the fact that this is such an intrinsic and personal story, unexpectedly tugging at my heartstrings. I envisioned this as a light-hearted celebratory sort of piece, but as I reminisced, researched, and interviewed, I found it was so much more than that.
My journey to nerdom is undoubtedly like many of yours. I didn't have friends growing up. I was a quiet, exceptionally shy child who preferred the company of her own imagination to other children. I would think up and write my own stories from the moment I knew how to hold a pencil. They were my escape, my happy place.
It shouldn't come as a surprise then that I ended up on roleplaying forums at the dawn of the Internet age. Waking up at 5AM to the dulcet sounds of America Online tying up the phone lines before the adults in the house needed them, I found a community of creative, shy people like myself who all wanted to tell stories with one another. This place was Redwall Beach.
The Redwall series by Brian Jacques told the story of Redwall Abbey and the animals that lived there. It was populated by mouse warriors, a badger for an Abbess, hares with dialects, moles that were cooks; the stoats, rats, and foxes were the enemy. It's a rich series of adventure, family, and fantasy; it was everything 13-year-old me needed.
I picked up one on random at the library, Mossflower, and immediately devoured it. Then Redwall, Martin the Warrior, Salamandastron, and more. I couldn't get enough of these characters, tried to make cordial in my kitchen (and failed), and dreamed of a day when I could go to England and tell Brian Jacques how much I liked his books. He was from Liverpool, so that's where I wanted to go. No other reason. Just because of Redwall.
Following the link on the back of one of the books, I found my way to the official Redwall site, learning more about Mr. Jacques, Liverpool, and the world he had created. And then I saw a link to something new: Redwall Beach Abbey.
And that's where my roleplaying journey began. Following the link from the website, I found myself greeted with a whole world of fans and fan creation. I'd never experienced anything like it before. It was a fan site of sorts, with fan art, recipes, and poems. But it also had its own story. Redwall Beach Abbey was a different abbey from the one in the books, run by fans, acted out by fans. I could write with other people about my favorite thing? Sold. I signed up, created Danneal, whom I referred to as an ice mouse (she was albino and had magical ice powers, sshh, I was 13), and joined The Docks, their eZboard forum, and jumped straight in.
It was there I met Mike and Jess.
Michael McKiernan was one of the founding faces of Redwall Beach Abbey. Run from his basement in Philadelphia, Mike was there more or less at the beginning and saw it through its height and drama.
"When we got the internet, I took right to it," he tells me on our first Skype chat in 18 years. His first Redwall experience was much like mine; a chance encounter with one of the books in the library. His was Pearls of Lutra, and Mike credits that with the fact he always loved the otter character, giving life to his roleplaying character of Brother Joterr. But before that character came his own exploration of the fan pages of the net.
"This was before Angelfire, before Geocities. I remember searching the internet, couldn't Google, it wasn't a thing yet, and I was searching for Redwall websites, Redwall fan sites." Mike ultimately found a fan site, but it wasn't ticking the boxes for him creatively. "Back then a lot of fan sites didn't have their own original ideas. It was always like, oh this is a Redwall forum, you're at Redwall as it exists in the books."
He wanted something more, and a bigger community. And then he saw a button on the site and it changed everything.
"You kind of tricked people into linking you in those days. You would send another Redwall website an award, but really it was just a way to advertise your Redwall website. But through that, somehow, I found a website called Redwall Beach."
It was totally different, but still i. It was tropical and nautical themed. It was like candy for Mike, all but for one thing.
"The website sucked." He laughs. "No one is going to come to this website." So he learned HTML, downloaded an early version of Photoshop, and built Brad, the owner, a new website. Didn't even talk to him, just built it and sent it to him. Luckily, he loved it. And that's when Redwall Beach truly started. Mike took to guerilla marketing, finding clubs and other websites, sending awards, advertising, inviting people along. But he wanted more people to write with.
So, 14-year-old Michael McKiernan had an idea. He went to the official Redwall website and emailed the webmaster, sending a link and asking them to check it out. And then a few days later, he gets an email back.
"Hey checked it out, really cool. Brian really liked the recipe section."
Brian was Brian Jacques, the author of the Redwall series.
"He tells me, 'we want to link to your site on Redwall.Org.' You're 14, Redwall is your favorite thing, and someone tells you the person who created it saw what you made, liked it, and wants to put it on the official website."
Least to say, Redwall Beach exploded after then. That's how I found it, through that telltale link. If Brian Jacques endorsed Redwall Beach, that was good enough for me and thousands of others.
Jessica Williams was one of the first role-players I got to know at The Docks at Redwall Beach. She played a mouse, like me, and was a major player not only in the stories, but in the administration. She, Mike, and Brad were the trifecta, though Jess admits that she always felt overwhelmed by that. She was younger than us and sometimes wondered why she kept being given responsibility as a 12-to-13-year-old. But she held her own, especially when drama broke out, becoming the moderator. The community manager before the term had been coined.
Brad and Mike had different visions for Redwall Beach, especially as it grew to tens of thousands of active users every day. Brad wanted it to be more serious and mature, wanted posting, formatting, and log-in requirements. Mike wanted it to be more open, that anyone could come and play. "I just wanted it to be fun."
Brad had created Redwall Beach, but Mike admits he felt a bit of ownership of it. "I'm the one who really made it what it became. I was the face of Redwall Beach."
Their growing feud was mostly kept to Jess and a few others, myself included as I had weaseled (no pun intended) my way into the inner circle out of sheer enthusiasm. There were simply too many users to air it out in the open. There was a constant stream of posts, plot lines, and side-plots happening. I spent every moment I could online, participating. When my mom told me I needed to pull back at home, I would walk the two miles to the local library and use the computers there. When something was going down, I was there, when someone needed someone to role-play with, I was there.
I'm not so sure Brad liked me. Actually, I'm pretty sure he hated me. I came in like a hurricane with my crazy ideas of Ice Mice and their mortal enemy, the Fire Stoats. I accidentally started a war and invasion of Redwall Beach, pulling in most of the community into the plot line. It was everything Brad didn't want, but dang, I had fun. People were enjoying and engaging in an idea I had and it was like crack.
"I remember thinking, damn, this girl has amazing ideas for a 14-year-old." Mike chides me, and I can't help but laugh at myself. Outlandish and over-the-top, and surely exciting to the registered users who skewed young, but it was a dream come true to me. I had friends, I had a community, and I could write stories based on my favorite books. Why wouldn't I go all out? I clung to it with a desperation I wouldn't understand for years. Redwall Beach was so important to me.
Which made it all the more devastating when it started to die.
"The fall of Redwall Beach-- I completely blame that on myself and my vanity," Mike confesses. "People thought I was the owner, that I was the creator. From Brad's perspective, it was his idea, but I was getting all the accolades." They butted heads, puberty and testosterone getting the better of them and eventually coming to blows online. Their ideas were too different, their egos too fragile, and the community possibly just too much for a bunch of kids to handle. Mike, who admits he was in the wrong, rashly decided he was going to walk. And take everything he had created with him.
He shut everything down. Total blackout.
The website, the forum, the publicity. It was all gone in a petty one-shot attempt to tell Brad that he was better than him. He tried to make his own forums, but quickly realized just because you could build a website and forum didn't mean you'd automatically get a community.
We floundered. Suddenly everything I was enjoying was gone. It was devastating. The lonely girl who had found friends online and a writing family was back to be alone.
Eventually, he gave access back, but the damage had been done.
Jess was the voice of reason in much of the battles for power that pre-teens have on the internet. She'd smooth rumpled feathers, try to balance arguments out, but even she knew Mike had messed up. Nevertheless, she reached out to him, checking in, but the decline of Redwall Beach was already in motion. When Brad's Abbot dramatically walked off into the sea, signaling his departure from Redwall Beach after months, if not years, of feuding with Mike, it was Jess that was promoted to Abbess Flame Tallisco to try and hold everything together.
She tried. I remembered hanging around, trying to restart threads, engage with others, but the blackout and loss of Mike and now Brad was too much for the community. People were starting to leave to other boards or new fandoms. Though Jess would run Redwall Beach for years afterward, it was never the same.
I started a new forum with Mike a few months after, a sci-fi role-play. It didn't take off too well, and with Redwall Beach more or less dead, I went on to start my own. Some members of The Docks came with me, including my main roleplaying buddy Creejak. We would jump from forum to forum, eZboard to proBoard. My sci-fi board, I.S.A.T.I., based off my own story idea, would last for around two years, gaining new members and flourishing. What I had learned at Redwall Beach served me well, and my writing grew as well as my roleplaying family.
It was by the time I was seventeen that I found my way to a Harry Potter proboards RP and then to Gaia Online, where I helped establish an elite roleplaying guild, FeFiRo. Ironically, we required a writing test and a vetting process. I was a moderator and ran many of the most successful roleplaying threads there with strict guidelines and posting formats.
I'd turned into Brad, and rather hardline at that. Oops.
I always talked about Redwall Beach though. It's been 18 years since I joined that eZboard, since I found the website, since I read Mossflower. Yet, I still remember so much of the joy and companionship of those boards. I remember how I learned how to role-play, to write and cultivate characters. I remember the thrill of people enjoying my writing and my ideas. It fueled a passion for writing and acceptance of my nerdiness that helped me through my tumultuous teenage years. I was with FeFiRo through college and beyond to Japan, where I wrote a book.
It died out, like Redwall Beach did eventually. I wouldn't be the writer and nerd I was today without The Docks, without Mike and Jess, Creejak, and the other members. They were my first deep friendships, all online. I've never met any of them in person. Mike is married and lives in Silicon Valley, his experience building Redwall Beach now directly correlated to his career. Jess has a kid and can't wait to read her the Redwall books when she's a bit older. Creejak and I had admitted crushes on each other in our teens, our characters always winding up together in a cute sort of chaste way. We lost track of each other just after graduation. I always wondered what happened to him.
After we all talked for three hours, Mike, Jess, and I spent the next few hours in a wave of nostalgia. In our group chat suddenly we were posting old images we were finding, caches of ancient newsletters about the plot lines at Redwall Beach, and most important, trying to track down old members.
"Oh my god guys, I found Luke!" Jess was the best internet stalker of us all, especially after Mike unearthed an old email from Luke from 12 years ago. The famed recipe maker himself, and Master of the kitchens at Redwall Beach, Luke Pilalas, or as we knew him, Urthground Deepsoil. He might have been the real hero of Redwall Beach. It was his recipes that catapulted the website to fame.
"I was 11 when I began reading Redwall and it instantly caught me." Luke tells me after we all re-connected online. Least to say, he was surprised to hear from the three of us. "It was my escape and really the first fandom I ever really loved that I found on my own. Because of that I grew to love what Brian Jacques loved to write about in his books and that was baking. I was 14 when I started to really explore the foods I found in the book and since the internet wasn't as vast as it is today, I had to improvise."
Luke ended up writing his own recipes and giving them to Mike and Brad, who were in the beginnings of redoing the Redwall Beach website. Then, of course, was the fateful day when he received an email telling him Brian Jacques loved his recipes and they were being linked on the official site. "As a 15-year-old whose life revolved around these books, I couldn't hold it together. For days I couldn't stop going to their site and clicking the link. It was nothing huge, looking back, but it was the world to me then."
Luke echoes a lot of what we are all feeling, especially after taking this nostalgic journey back to The Docks. "To this day I look back at the times I had at Redwall Beach Abbey and smile. The friends I made and the stories I got to be a part of will never leave me."
We found other members as well, though haven't heard back, which is fine. Despite all hands on deck and trying as hard as I could, my internet skills were not up to par when it came to my main roleplaying partner-in-crime, Creejak. I traced him as far as DeviantArt, knowing he'd gone into the Canadian air force, but that's where the trail stops. So if you're reading this, Creej, thanks for the stories and the friendship. They were really important.
And, should you wish to make the scones that delighted Brian Jacques, below is the recipe, provided by Luke Pilalas.
REDWALL BEACH ABBEY SCONE
1 ¾ cup flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
¼ cup white sugar
Pinch of salt
5 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
¼ cup sour cream
½ cup of skim milk
1 egg white
1 tablespoon milk
1. Heat oven to 400 F
2. Sift flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Mix dry ingredients well.
3. Cut butter into small cubes. Using a pastry tool or fork, mix the butter and the dry ingredients until you have a crumbly texture with globs that are about pea-sized.
4. Mix in the sour cream and milk.
5. Be careful not to over mix or you will have very dense scones.
6. Either roll the scone mixture onto a greased pan and cut it into shapes or form into golf ball sized pieces and place on a greased pan or silicone mat.
7. In a separate bowl, mix the egg whites and 1 tbsp of milk and brush on top of the scones.
8. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or when they are golden brown.
9. Enjoy with a spot of tea and clotted (Meadow) cream.