Day 55: Patience
My dear friends, I’ve made it to Port Angeles! My long walk is over! My shoes, brand new at the start, are now in tatters, and I rolled into town on fumes after Olympic National Park — my only remaining food (no kidding) was half a stick of butter. But walking through the Olympic Mountains was stunning, making quite the capstone to the first leg of the journey. No more highway — in fact, no other people period — just a 44-mile trail right through the heart of the park, lined with big Douglas fir and delicious salmonberry. This stretch had the aded bonus of bringing me along the Elwha River that now runs free — the site of the largest dam removal project in history. As an environmentalist, it felt like a pilgrimage to a sacred land. I broke into the construction site to poke around, marveling at the river tumbling through the gorge below.
So I walked about 1000 miles in about 2,000,000 steps. Here’s a quick look at my walk from Stanford University to Port Angeles Washington, by the numbers:
• 55 days, including 2 rest days (Bandon, OR and Waldport, OR)
• 10 books read (Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, John Muir and the Ice that started a Fire by my friend and mentor Kim Heacox, The Commanders by Bob Woodward, Miles from Nowhere by Dayton Duncan, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Jarhead by Anthony Swofford, and Contact by Carl Sagan — yes, it was only possible to read this much because I read as I walked… even along the highway, which some might call dangerous, but you get used to it…)
• 746 photographs taken
• 16 blog posts written
• 200 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches consumed (approximately)
• 99 postcards sent (damn! So close!)
• 11 people came to visit me along the way
• 58’11” (the circumference of the world’s largest Sitka Spruce Tree, which I visited in Olympic Nat’l Park)
• 2 rivers crossed by swimming while rafting my pack
• 1 boat ride (Nehalem Bay), 1 bus ride (Columbia River)
• 10.7 degrees of latitude traversed
Before I start paddling, I want to take the opportunity of this rest time to tell you two short stories from my trek that share a theme: my impatience. Sometimes I found myself in a real hurry to charge up the coast, to put the miles behind me. It made no sense, because I was seeking no speed records, I had no timeline (except to reach the Alaska shore before things start getting stormy in fall), and I knew, head and heart, that only when moving slowly or not at all does the world open up and reveal itself. Yet something impelled me forward… maybe the frenetic pace of Stanford life hadn’t left me yet. Or maybe it was my ego, riding like a reckless cowboy, spurs gouging my sides. Impatience is the folly of a young man.
I bring these stories up more for me than for my few readers: I want to revisit them as an admonition for the next leg of the journey. Slow down, because in a kayak on the ocean, the stakes are higher. A moment of impatience — trying to beat the approaching storm or paddle against the wrong tide — could have graver consequences than a moment like it on land.
The first story begins in Northern California on Day 7 of the hike, as I was entering the Sonoma Lost Coast region. My guidebook told me it was time to get off Highway 1 and walk a trail toward the coast — but of course, my guidebook is written backwards (North to South), so as usual I didn’t know exactly what to look for. I crunched my way across a gravel parking lot and started down an unmarked trail. Almost immediately it didn’t feel right: there was a nagging in my head, a tugging at my shirt sleeve, telling me this wasn’t the way. I could feel this trail leading me down to the beach, when actually I should be climbing that rocky bluff up there to the north. The rocky bluff, I knew, jutted far out into the waves, making it impossible to continue up the coast from the beach — I had to climb. Hmm… I thought. Well, let me just go a little further and make sure this trail doesn’t start climbing. A quarter of a mile later, it was still leading down to the beach, following a creek now. Just a little further… OK, the trail was definitely leading down; this is couldn’t possibly be right. But I’ve come too far to turn back now… besides, what if it IS the right trail? I’ll walk all the way back, only to come down the same trail again. Soon I emerged — no surprise — onto the beach. Dammit. Out of the trees now, I had a view up the bluff to the North, and there it was, 200 feet above me: my trail, angling uphill through the scrub. Apparently I should’ve gone just a little further on Highway 1, and I would’ve come to the correct trailhead, just as the nagging had been telling me. I knew the right thing to do was to retrace my steps half a mile, get back to the highway, and find the right trailhead. But I couldn’t; my ego wouldn’t let me. I’d come too far.
I think all of us have experienced something like this before — all of us guys anyway. It strikes me as a very male story. The timeless headline might read: Abject Stubbornness Leads Man into Trouble in the Woods. I simply couldn’t admit to myself that I’d chosen the wrong trail, I couldn’t swallow my pride and go backwards. I had to charge ahead. I would make this trail work, goddammit. I started climbing up the bluff.
At first, the poison oak was just in little patches, easily avoided. But as I climbed up the crumbling rocks and dirt, the poison oak closed in around me, slowly, imperceptibly, until I was surrounded. The trail was still 50 feet above me, and that 50 feet was a waist-deep thicket of itchy agony and pus-filled lesions. I looked ahead, angrily, noticing for the first time that there was also a barbed-wire fence between me and the trail. But by now, I had really come too far to turn back (or so I told myself) — going backwards would get me into poison oak trouble too. I had probably already touched the stuff, and the trail was only 50 feet away. And so, shouting profanities and blasphemes, I climbed on through the bushes, trying to hop from island to island of benign plants, pinning the offending branches down with my feet as best I could, but knowing in the end that I was covered in the stuff, and there was no good reason for it. How easy would it have been to just go back and find the right trail? I finally reached the trail, fuming, and bitterly stomped on towards the Sonoma Lost Coast, looking for an ocean where I could wash myself off — a pretty ineffectual treatment against the oak oils, but better than nothing. Mainly, I needed to wash off my own stupidity. In the end, though little spots flared up all over, it was only my left leg that became an excruciating biohazard. I’d like to think I learned a lesson on that day about patience — about admitting mistakes and correcting them before you’re deep in the dark tunnel and things get worse. But another incident later on only affirmed my immaturity in such times.
On Day 40, I was on my way out of Waldport, Oregon. This was the pleasurable day that I recounted in a former post, when I visited Rogue Brewery and drank a Dead Guy Ale. About 5 pm, as the sun was just beginning to take on a little richer color, I found myself walking on the beach again, confronting a rocky outcrop that I didn’t expect. My map said nothing about it, but then, my maps of Oregon had far less detail than my California guidebook, and in situations like this I was on my own. The tide was in, and the waves were pounding it, but not consistently — it looked doable to get around. I climbed up on the rocks trying to get a look around the headland and see whether there was open beach and safety waiting on the other side. I scaled around, clinging to the rocks, and the seaweed was slick. The sandstone was full of wonderful fossilized scallops, but in my haste to deal with this new impediment, I barely noticed. I got a look around and observed no beach, only another little headland — but there was a promising gap between the two. Traversing back over the slippery rocks, watching the lulls in the waves, I decided to go for it. But I was impatient in the deed: as I scrambled around to the next gap, I got splashed by sea spray and before I knew it, the water flooded in up to my waist. I shook my head, thinking this is dangerous. I now found myself between two headlands, in a small rocky cove, cliffed-out from end to end, that afforded little protection. The waves kept crashing in and flooding up to my knees. I got myself poised to scamper around the next headland.
This illustrated to me the “narrowing range of choices” that I’d just read about in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. The boys on the Andrea Gail had lots of choices early on: become swordfishermen in a hazardous stretch of ocean, or don’t. Go out in late in the season, October 1991, or stay in port. Keep fishing to fill the hold, or go back early. Run north for land, or head into the teeth of the storm. They had so many choices, so many chances to avoid their fate, but by the end, the only choice left was to run the boat into the giant waves, or run away from them. Live or die. For me (in much less dramatic fashion) my choices had narrowed as well: go on a solo 1000-mile hike up the coast, or don’t. Stay on the highway for this stretch, or drop onto an unknown beach. Round the bluff, or turn back. Now my choice was down to this: go now, or wait for the next gap in the waves?
I knew there would be gaps — I’d seen them — where I could make it around nearly dry between sets of waves. But I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to go for it during a narrower gap — the water was still up, and there were waves coming in. I jogged around, high-stepping through the shin-deep water, nearly there, nearly there, when suddenly I hit a hole in the sand. There was no bottom, and my left foot plunged where it should have hit solid ground. My arms flailed to keep me upright, but I slapped down bodily into the frigid water, soaking my left side. Facing into the rocks now, I braced for what I could hear but couldn’t see, surging in behind me. The wave lifted me in its foam and rocked me into the sandstone. Not gently, but not catastrophically either — I gathered myself and stood, holding the rocks and rounding them as the wave train came in, big enough to soak, but not strong enough to pull me back down. I walked up on the beach, panting.
And so, stage 1 of my trek has come to an end. 1000 miles down, 1000 to go! I’m going to take about 10 days off here — resting, thinking, internalizing these lessons, planning and gearing up for the big paddle. I will pick up on Day 56, so stay tuned, my dear friends!