On Tuesday morning, I climbed aboard a big, yellow zodiac and headed out to watch whales and play tourist for a day with my dear friend Liz and her family from Arizona—son Jeff, and teen granddaughters Katelyn and Lauren. Despite the wind, which made for some thrilling, bumpy and wet passages, the day could not have been more perfect. Nature pulled out all the stops: jumping humpback whales, a herd of young elk sunbathing up Ramsay Arm, a docile male grizzly munching on grass, even a black bear feasting on oysters at the water’s edge.
Cut off from cell phones and internet, surrounded by towering green mountains, with blue water below and blue sky above, it is impossible to believe that life is anything but simple and full of wonder. It is as if the wildlands of the west coast are a separate dimension, a safe haven from the worries and stress of civilization. Not a permanent solution, by any means, but temporary immunization against the chaos of our daily lives, without question.
Each time I venture out onto the waters of British Columbia, I am cleansed. My head clears, my shoulders release from their permanent squeeze, my heart makes room for an abundance of gratitude and humility. I am small in the face of mighty nature; I am only one more animal passing through. I find that knowledge reassuring.
Life has made me weary lately. Not a state I am used to dwelling in. More specifically, hate and fear and outrage and ignorance and expectations and narrow-mindedness and my own multitude of shortcomings have made me weary.
I spend a lot of time online. Sometimes for business and marketing purposes (gotta earn a living), sometimes for entertainment (there are some amazing stories out there), sometimes for education and research, sometimes to communicate with friends and tribe members, and sometimes because I just find myself sucked into the internet vortex (I am only human).
Every day, I watch a group of people who butcher and obscure language and meaning to serve their goals. With each new mutation of what used to be a common language, the fear builds. We blew right past “alternative facts” with barely a bump or rattle. How did we not stop right there. Stop the car. Get out. Demand an end to that nonsense. No, we drove by, rubbernecking like we were watching an accident in the other lane. Well, better them than me. And on we go.
Language is important. Language has meaning. Sometimes too much meaning.
On the other side of the online highway, I watch another group of people constantly tearing apart everything in their path, dissecting and debating and breaking off into ever smaller and smaller and more contentious groups. This movie was a triumph for feminism! Or was it? Out come the scalpels and tweezers. But! But…it got something important really right! But, no, it didn’t get everything right. Let us carve open your moment of victory and joy; let us show you why the things you value are wrong and dangerous and worthless. The car slows and eventually stops while we all discuss whether this car is the right kind of car and if this journey is the right kind of journey. We sit on the side of the road, terrified to speak, desperately wishing for some kind of forward motion.
Too much momentum, too much inertia. Back and forth. It exhausts me.
And when you turn on the car radio, the choice is static or outrage. So you look at the map and realize you’re getting nowhere. You check the GPS and it only says “Follow your dreams!” What dreams can you have any more? What dreams can survive on this highway?
At night, I wake to a different scenario. Night is the place where I analyze my mistakes and failures. I watch the movie of my life and note all the plot holes. “You had a chance to fix that right in the opening act, why didn’t you?” I never have answers. The solutions seem so clear with each screening of My Life So Far. Coward…my brain whispers. Coward, coward, coward. You always took the easy path, didn’t you?
When the self-loathing gets to be too much, I take a melatonin and wait for the voices to shut up.
You’re still running away, coward, I hear as I fall into a restless sleep.
I know the voices are right. I know I have demons to face. I know I have strayed far from the path and I’m not the person I want to be. But I wake up in the morning and climb back into the car to navigate the highway and it’s all I can do to plaster a smile on my face and keep fighting the good fight—for logic, for kindness.
But out on the boat, on the ocean that moves beneath me with strangely predictable chaos, I am free. The spray of cold salt water on my face wakes me up from all of it, brings me back to a place where choices are easy and reality bends for no one. The path is simple: avoid the rocks, avoid the whirlpools and waves, watch out for deadheads, and obey the rules of the water. There’s no alternative anything out here, no time for endless debates on minutiae, no place for outrage. The ocean doesn’t care. There are right choices and wrong choices on the water and the latter holds a shocking number of ways to end you.
When it’s time to travel, the boat goes into motion toward a clear destination. The wind in my face assures me everything is going to be fine. When we slow and stop, it is to avoid a hazard or to enjoy beauty. And what beauty. What heart-stopping, humbling beauty.
From the boat, against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, I see a big, male grizzly. He is unfazed by our arrival. An apex predator, he knows his place. He chews on tall, green grass and basks in the warm afternoon sun. I envy him.
The trip ends back on our dock, with smiles and hugs and laughter. We have been awed.
I sleep soundly that night. The sting of a mild burn on my face is a constant reminder of the wind and the sun. This bliss won’t last forever. Soon enough I’ll be back on the highway and wide awake at 3am. But for now, for the next little while, the wilderness has cleared enough room for me to dream again.
The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. ~ Cheryl Strayed, Wild