It was a pretty typical afternoon on the Oregon coast: windy, cloudy and cold. After hitchhiking for almost an hour for a ride to cover the six miles back to Scott's cabin with my load of groceries, I decided I'd just bite the bullet and walk back.
Huge seagulls tried in vain to fight the same headwind I was currently walking into. The old adage in Oregon had come true; "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." The relatively warm, sunny day had suddenly transformed into a windy, cold afternoon thanks to a change in wind direction and the imposing arrival of a vast front of sea fog. The tepid oceanic waters of the Pacific Northwest were, for me, the first time I'd really witnessed how sea fog can totally alter a whole climate. The scale of it was impressive, and its arrival could change the ambient temperature by up to ten degrees Celsius. A fact I was now experiencing first hand.
I plugged away, step after step. I was in a funk. Ramona the bicycle was in pieces back at Scott's place, and I'd forgotten how damn slow walking was. My mind was plagued by the uncertainty of bike maintenance problems for the first time on the trip. I felt strangely incapacitated. I also felt like I needed at least two more layers of clothing, as the biting wind tore straight through my woolen jumper — it felt as if little needles were jabbing my bare skin.
I kept my head down. The ocean roared as waves crashed to my right, filling my ears with that constant rumble that I've never heard any place else. As I neared Arcadia, and the promise of respite from the wind, I noticed a man standing on the beach staring out to sea. Even from a distance of a few hundred metres he seemed hypnotised, remaining remarkably still as his gaze reached out over the vast expanse of water before him.
As I neared the man, my curiosity increased. Not wishing to disturb his peaceful moment, my intention was only to acknowledge his existence with a friendly smile and continue on my way.
"What do you call these things?" he asked quizzically, pointing to a small transparent blob on the black sand between us.
I turned suddenly, aware that this man was talking to me. I mean of course he was, we were the only two people on the whole beach.
"I'm not too sure actually. We used to call 'em jelly blubbers. When I was a kid my friends and I would throw them at each other."
The man slowly turned again, his gaze returning to the ocean. I followed suit. I waited, knowing this man had more to say. As a writer, and more simply as a human being, I've started to recognise the beauty in those small silences before something important. It's almost as if that fleeting moment is charged with an energy that transcends the words that follow. Too often in my life, I've missed moments like these because of my tendency to want to tell everything all at once. I'm sure of it. This time, I made sure I didn't.
We continued to hold our gaze westward as the wind whipped across our faces.
"I've never seen the ocean before. It's so big. It makes you feel like an ant."
As the words slipped out, they seemed tinged with a mix of disbelief, awe and unshackled joy. I stood there dumbfounded. I didn't know what to say. More importantly I didn't need to say anything.
Forrest was from Idaho, and he'd come to the Oregon coast with his mother for a two week road trip. She'd been diagnosed with cancer, and with not long left to live they decided what better way to celebrate life than to get out and see what they could of this wonderful planet. They say that the cure for anything is saltwater; tears, sweat or the ocean. It wasn't going to cure his mother's cancer, but I hoped with everything I had that even for that afternoon, it provided an escape for Forrest from the suffering in his life. Open-ocean swimmer Lynne Fox says that the ocean allows you into your own thinktank, and through this it allows you to let in "as little or as much noise as you like." I'm confident the ocean was allowing Forrest to silence the noise and have a few quiet moments alone.
For me, meeting Forrest was one of the most powerful human interactions of the trip. It probably lasted less than five minutes but I think about it nearly every day.
Mai Huli`oe I Kokua o Ke Kai
The words above come from an old Hawaiian proverb that I read somewhere in the last few months. While we all know the limitations of translation, the sentiment effectively refers to this:
Never turn your back on the ocean
Over the course of my trip — and my life — there's been times where I've turned my back on the ocean. Maybe to light my stove while shielding it from an onshore breeze, or maybe to face a travel companion. When I do an uneasy feeling arises within me. I'm letting down my guard. In my twenty six year relationship with the ocean — one of the longest, most reliable and beautiful of my life — I've learnt countless times of the risks involved with complacency. To turn my back to the ocean is to ignore its power. The ocean gives life but can take it away with similar ease. Like any healthy relationship, mine with the ocean has its foundations in deep love, mutual respect and shitloads of fun. Any time I've disrespected or become complacent with that entity, it has taught me hard lessons that I won't soon forget.
This morning Matt and I paddled out in front of his place. The waves were knee height at best. As we waded out, I mentioned I'd stepped on a few stingrays the day before and how I'd been lucky not to get stung. Half an hour later I'd stepped on another, only this time I didn't possess the same good fortune.
I was presented with an all too familiar situation — my foot stuck in a bucket of very hot water. Except this time it wasn't urchin spines or bits of coral but the presence of venom from a stingray barb.
I'd been wanting to watch Fishpeople — a new documentary by Santa Barbara filmmaker Keith Malloy — and now was the perfect time to do so. As I sat immobile, Matt and Robin generously made me breakfast and regularly refilled the bucket with boiling water. "You should get stung by a stingray more often" laughed Robin. I couldn't help but agree. After a frustrating duel with technology, we finally sat down to watch Fishpeople.
The film explores the lives of six different humans who all share a deep and inextricable relationship with the ocean. It's beautifully shot and beautifully made and I recommend it to anyone. The important thing was that it reminded me of all the diverse groups of people who share that love and rely on that same important relationship. Surfers, fisherman, divers, swimmers, children, adults, birds, dogs and the plethora of marine life on our planet. Without it we humans would cease to exist.
I've never been that interested in space. Sure, it's infinitely fascinating and I absolutely love staring at the stars whenever the chance presents itself. But the wonder isn't there for me. In my endless pursuit for knowledge, I choose to leave space in the realm of the unknown. There is too much wonder and beauty on our current planet for me to use my time wondering about what's out there. Even if I had a thousand lifetimes, I feel I'd only be in the early stages of understanding the earth. And that's a pretty beautiful thing if you ask me. The endless wonder of our oceans is there for anyone who wishes to explore it, in whatever capacity they wish.
I know now that my relationship with the ocean will last a lifetime. As I get older, and — I think — a little more patient I've realised that I am capable of being away from the ocean, at least in a geographical sense. Our relationship doesn't end when I can't see it, or smell it, or hear it. It exists within me and no amount of physical space can take that away. I can work in the mountains — a place of equal and infinite wonder — and not get antsy. Because every time I return it feels like coming home.