Rock, Snow, Water, Sky

From out of nowhere, two lives,

Sudden, like lightning, like budburst,

            They explode together

Inevitable, like rock, like wind, they entwine,

            Twin elements in some universe

 

Now, on the top of everything and the start of anything,

There is nothing

            But the joining together.

And their love…

            It is what must be

            It is all that ever was.

 

 

I figure my wedding day was saved by a Nalgene bottle full of Tang.

We were in the second day of our ascent of Mt. Whitney, which, at fourteen and a half thousand feet of elevation, is the tallest peak in the lower forty-eight.  It had sounded like a good idea at the time—we liked the poetry of getting married on that summit—but by the previous night at Trail Camp, at only twelve thousand feet, we were already getting goofy from lack of oxygen.  We were repeating ourselves, and finding routine tasks difficult.  A freeze-dried, just-add-boiling-water dinner only barely came together.

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Susan at Trail Camp with the altitude goofies

And now it’s the morning of our wedding day, and we’re up in the freezing dark, stumbling around and cramming stuff into packs with numb fingers.  The lake is a quarter mile away and the water is freezing cold, so, on my own wedding day, I blow off the idea of shaving.  We have 1,600 vertical feet of climbing to do to reach Trail Crest, at 13,650 feet, the last pass before the final push to the summit, and we have to be there by ten o’clock.  We have people to meet, including the man who will marry us.  We drop it into low and start climbing.

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Rock, Snow, Water, Sky: The view from partway up the switchbacks

The switchbacks are mind-numbing. There are ninety-seven of them (people have counted them), zig-zagging across the biggest featureless talus slope of my life, and I’ve known a lot of featureless talus slopes.  We’re so high above treeline that the forests below us look like nothing more than smudges of green on the sprawling rock landscape.  We are in an elemental world now:  rock, snow, water and sky.  The air gets thinner.   We keep climbing.

By the time we get to the pass, Susan’s gait is trudging and has some stumbles in it, and she’s lost her sense of humor.  A freezing wind is blasting through the two-mile high pass and she’s starting to shiver, but we have to stick around, because this was where the rest of the wedding party was going to come up from the other side and meet us, so I park her hunkering behind a rock, bundled up in her wedding parka, with sand and grit blowing past her face, and I mix up the bottle of Tang and put it in her hands.  Twenty minutes later she’s smiling again, like the hard-ass I fell in love with.

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The hard-ass I fell in love with:  Susan in front of the Whitney Skyline.  We’ll be traversing that series of razorback ridges.

The plan was audacious but simple.  We’d all meet at Trail Crest and hike to the summit together, and then after the ceremony the rest of the party would head back out to civilization, but Susan and I would disappear into the sunset and hike the John Muir Trail for our honeymoon.  The John Muir Trail is a famous trail that runs up the spine of the Sierra Nevada mountains from Mount Whitney to Yosemite.  Twenty days and 220 miles later, there would be a reception in Yosemite Valley, accessible to everyone including my dear old mother.  (Susan’s dear old mother would be on the summit.  She’s who Susan got her hard-ass gene from.)

You’d think that limiting your wedding party to people willing and able to climb Mt. Whitney would simplify it, but it hadn’t.  For various reasons, the rest of the gang had had to leave a day earlier from a different trailhead, but the complications hadn’t ended there.  My brother Byron’s daughter Brittany had gotten her trip trashed by the airlines and was arriving a whole day late.  Last Susan and I had heard before we hit the trail, Byron still hadn’t laid hands on her and wasn’t sure when they’d start hiking.  Byron was making the climb on a foot he’d shattered in a climbing accident not that many years before, but he absolutely refused not to be there.  We’d gotten him ordained so he could perform the ceremony, so he was a pivotal piece of the whole plan.  As things looked more and more uncertain with Britt, the Reverend Byron left a desperate message with his close friend Howie, an ultra-marathon runner who trots up Whitney for fun as a training exercise, begging him to show up in case Byron didn’t make it.  I’m trying to picture that voice mail:  “Howie!  Quick!  Get yourself ordained and be on Whitney at ten A.M. day after tomorrow!  They’ll explain!”

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The Reverend Byron on the summit

Britt finally arrived, but without any of her luggage (including backpack, sleeping bag…) and in the end, she and Byron weren’t walking until late afternoon, with Britt entirely in borrowed clothes and gear, and they hiked into the night by flashlight, and somehow—I have no idea how—they managed to find the rest of the party where they’d camped for their first night.

And now, two mornings later, we look over from behind Susan’s rock, and there they all are, showing up not twenty minutes after we had, as if meeting at a restaurant for brunch.  Susan’s mom is all smiles.

 

*          *          *          *

 

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The Whitney Portal Trailhead

The Reverend Byron is fond of saying, “In the end, all you have is the story.”  We were determined to make our wedding a good story—we just weren’t quite sure how to do it.  We had considered and rejected several ideas.  We’re not religious, so the church thing was a non-starter.  A country club, a picnic area, a winery, a beach—they were all a total snore to us.  And besides, then what would we do for our honeymoon?  Go to Disneyland?  It was Susan who hit on Mt. Whitney.  Then it immediately came to mind that not only would we be standing at the highest point in the lower forty-eight, we’d also be standing at the stepping-off point of the John Muir Trail. Oh, man, what a plan.  We were hooked.

 

*          *          *          *

 

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Aerial, sweeping, vertiginous and surreal: The view from the final approach

We all drop our packs at Trail Crest and go light for the last two and a half miles of the ascent.  It’s a spur trail, so we’d  be coming back.  Susan digs her wedding veil out of her pack and I put on my top hat, and the wedding procession begins.  There are the two of us, the Reverend Byron, Susan’s parents Fred and Betty, both age 66, Susan’s niece Andrea, age 10, Byron’s daughter Britt, age 15, and Betty’s very close friend Sandy and her son David.  Nine of us in all.

The Whitney Trail is not a technical climb, but trust me when I tell you that parts of it will make you dizzy, especially the last two miles, where it traverses a razor-back ridge top.  The views are aerial, sweeping, vertiginous and surreal.  To our right we can make out several different mountain ranges marching across the state of Nevada.  To our left is the more verdant west slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but we’re not seeing much lushness from up here, only continent-sized expanses of rock sweeping down and away from us into the distance, and then finally, way down there, a few smudges of green.  But, true to my nature, my mind is also on the minutiae.

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A non-technical climb, but dizzying in places

For there is a wildflower that grows up here, and it is called the sky pilot (Polemonium eximium).  It grows only in the Sierras, and only above about twelve thousand feet.  Most people will never see a sky pilot, and it’s one of the many rewards you get for climbing Mt. Whitney, or any of several other fairly serious peaks and passes in the Sierras.  It was obvious to Susan and I early on that the sky pilot had to be our “wedding flower,” but we also knew that it couldn’t be.  Not really, not physically.  God only knows how protected those things are, and anyway, you’re not supposed to pick anything at all in a wilderness area.  We had reconciled ourselves to enjoying the sky pilots only with our eyes.

But we hadn’t told the nieces that.

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Sky Pilots

Andi and Britt hit the summit before anyone else, chose the spot, built an altar out of rocks, and then ran gleefully around gathering great armloads of sky pilots, decking the altar out with them, and creating a small bouquet  for the bride to hold, tied together with nylon line.  I trudged up and stood staring at the spectacle.  I was mortified, but a smile was starting to grow across my face.  Okay, I said to myself, this was meant to be.  No way am I raining on Andi and Britt’s parade.  The dirty coppers can take me away in cuffs when I reach Yosemite Valley if they want, but right now, I’m shutting up and getting married among all these sky pilots.

Byron’s service was wonderful, starting with congratulating us on our choice of cathedral and ending with “Please tell me you have the rings.”  It took ten or fifteen minutes.

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Bride, Groom and Minister

But actually, truth be told, we had had a fallback ceremony in mind, Whitney being Whitney.  In case someone had altitude sickness, or a lightning storm was threatening, or it was freezing cold and blasting wind and someone was getting hypothermic, or for any other reason we needed to get the hell down, that ceremony would have gone something like this:

“Do you take—”

“YES!”

“Awright, we’re outa here!”

As it happened, though, several people experienced low points on the way up, but on the summit, everyone felt great and enjoyed the ceremony.  After it was over, another scene unfolded involving Andi, Britt and the sky pilots.
“You gotta throw the bouquet,” they said.

And I’m thinking, You know, I hadn’t wanted this in our ceremony.  That whole throwing the bouquet thing is an extremely sexist custom…

“You gotta throw the bouquet!” they repeated.

…I mean, it’s like, of course every unmarried girl in the audience wants to get married…

“You gotta throw the bouquet!”

…and of course their highest ambition in life is not to invent a vaccine or drive race cars, nooo, it’s to find a man…

“You gotta throw the bouquet!”

…but you know what?  Andi and Britt are girls, for God’s sake, and they want us to throw the bouquet.  For the second time that morning I told my brain to shut up, and Susan turned her back to them, and hefted the tiny contrivance of sky pilots and nylon line that Andi and Britt had so lovingly made for her.

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Andi and Britt chase the bridal bouquet toward a 3,000-foot drop-off

What happened next was too perfect for words.  Susan lofted it ten feet upward, and then a capricious gust of wind took that bouquet and whisked it right over the edge of the 3,000-foot vertical east face of Mt. Whitney.  That thing is probably still falling.  The girls were in hot pursuit, of course, leaping after it with great energy and athleticism, while the rest of us hollered, “STOP!  STOP!”

They didn’t actually get that close to the edge, which was a good forty feet from us.

We hollered anyway.

 

*          *          *          *

 

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Getting down: Neither party could see the valley they were dropping into for the smoke

There was a forest fire somewhere.  A big one.  The sky was becoming a pall of brown-orange, and the sun was weakening and changing color, making the gusting wind seem more ominous somehow.  Susan and I still had five or six miles to go, and the wedding party still faced eleven and a half to get out to the Whitney Portal trailhead.  The top is only halfway there, goes the old mountaineering adage—it was time to get down.   By the time we were approaching Trail Crest again, ash was falling on us and the air was a little difficult to breathe.  People were hacking and walking around with bandanas over their faces.  We gave Susan’s parents the keys to our pickup.  Andi took my top hat.  We exchanged many hugs and tearful good-byes, and then the wedding party dropped east off the mountain toward civilization, and Susan and I dropped west, onto the John Muir Trail.  Neither party can see the valley they’re dropping into for the smoke.

AndiCropped
Andi on the way out with top hat and Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.)

The wedding party would not get out till well after dark.  Everyone—including Andi, at age ten—had put in an 17-mile day.  When they got to the town of Lone Pine, everyone had heard of the ten-year-old who summited Whitney.  Byron and Britt got out just after the tiny restaurant at the trailhead closed, and had to share a single pack of ramen before sacking out in the back of his pickup.  They agreed it was the best meal in the history of egg noodles.  The next day Byron couldn’t even get around with a cane.  He calls the whole experience “The best of times.”

Susan and I had been planning on camping at Guitar Lake but kept going to see if we could lose the smoke.  We were dreaming.  For the next week the smoke would come and go as it pleased, and rumors abounded among the hikers about where the fire was.  We finally gave up and pitched camp.  Our wedding night was, I’ll just say, subdued.

 

*          *          *          *

 

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Gary gives the wedding toast

And so, by the power vested in Byron, we were married.  The following eighteen days of honeymoon were the second-hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  (The first was the Sea of Cortez crossing, though I’ll note that even that was over in two days).  But although it was one of the hardest, it was also hands-down the greatest.  I will never forget it.  I will never forget the unending trail, the heartbreaking views, the endless walking, and the hours, miles and days spent above treeline with nothing but rock, snow, water, sky, and Susan.

My older brother Gary gave the most beautiful toast in the history of wedding toasts, there at the reception on the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.  Then he traded cars with Susan and I for logistical reasons, so it was his Jeep Cherokee that got its door folded back by a bear in the parking lot of the Ahwahnee Hotel because I left the top of the wedding cake in it.

All that was twelve years ago.  I could have postponed writing this for a little longer, but I always figure there’s no time like the present.  Andi and Britt are both grown now, and Andi got the hard-ass gene too.  She just won a bodybuilding competition.  And just so you know, Britt got one from somewhere as well (not hard to imagine where)—she’s a warrior, and bravely serves the country I love.  Fred and Betty are seventy-eight now.  Betty went through hip-replacement surgery a year ago, and she still hikes, and so does Fred.

And that’s how I married Susan.

I think it ended up being a pretty good story.

 

 

 
Copyright © 2011 Randy Fry
By | 2017-05-24T00:03:09+00:00 July 22nd, 2002|Other Essays|2 Comments

The Cortez Commitment

The author discovers that crossing the Sea of Cortez by ocean kayak is about faith, commitment–and pain

Originally published in Sea Kayaker Magazine, February 1997 edition.
Copyright © 1997 Randy Fry.

 

“So you’re going to island-hop through the Midriff chain, right?”

My girlfriend Susan sets her shot glass down and reacquires my distracted gaze.

“Right?”

“Well, actually . . .”

Actually, what was sort of materializing in the air here was an open-water crossing of the Sea of Cortez, from Loreto in Baja California to Topolobampo on the mainland of Mexico.  There would, to offer scant comfort, be two initial island hops–from Loreto 24 miles to Isla Monserratt, and then out 17 more to Isla Santa Catalina–but only to get our footing for what my mind was already calling The Big One:  a single open-water crossing of 73 nautical miles to the mainland, which we expected to take a day, a night, and another day of steady paddling on a sea known for sudden change.  I am watching somewhat helplessly as the plan takes possession of my insides, and I am captivated, I am inspired, I am . . .well, terrified.  All day I’d been trying to come to terms with the most unnerving part of it:  I’d been invited.

Fortunately, Susan shares my dysfunctional attraction to marathons, crossings and pointless pain in general, so I don’t have to explain to her why I want this crossing more than I want world peace, which is nice, since I’ve never in my life been able to get it across to anyone who doesn’t already understand.  (“Because it’s there” stopped working for me when I read that climber George Mallory later died on the mountain under discussion.)  Was it to learn something about myself?  That can be a mixed-as-hell blessing:  I was already discovering that my greatest fear was not that I would die at sea;  it was that I would be the weakest paddler in the group.  Did I want the crossing for whatever notoriety it might bring?  Not likely–far bigger things have been done in ocean kayaks.   But then, those expeditions were all very different from this one:  I wasn’t on them.

Again I draw the familiar blank.  I would know after the crossing why I was on the crossing.  I look up, at a loss, but I recognize that grin on Susan’s face, and it means she recognizes that gleam in my eye.  Susan knows what’s got into me.  And I envy her knowledge.

There wouldn’t be much time for thought in my immediate future, though.  Things start to move fast, and four weeks later the trip has miraculously come together and I find myself loading a pair of double kayaks on a beach in Loreto with the three complete strangers who have taken a chance on a complete stranger.  Who are these people?  I am asking myself.  And what possessed me to trust them with my life?  What possessed them to trust me?  Do they even know what they’re doing?  I’ve long considered group dynamics to be the deadliest natural force on the water.  Will it  spin out of control, as I’ve seen it do too many times before?

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The author (left) meets the people to whom he is entrusting his life

We launch and head south-southeast, swinging around the southern tip of Isla Carmen and out toward Isla Monserratt.  It’s my first time on the Cortez, and I see with fresh eyes the arid colors of the Baja mountains leaping in understated splendor thousands of feet out of the water, and the frigate birds by themselves are enough to make my heart ache, with their effortless flight and elegant scissor-tailed profiles, but I’m not enchanted, I’m obsessed.  I’m a man on a mission.  I may be clueless as to its purpose, but that’s never cooled my fires a bit–nothing important I’ve ever done in my life has had a rational purpose.  This morning I have enough ambitions and anxieties in me to fill the burly breast of a conquistador.  I am Hernando Cortez with a GPS.

We camp on Monserratt, we camp on Santa Catalina, and during the crossings between we are shaking it down, knocking the bugs out and making it work.  We shuffle and reshuffle the pairings in the boats, leveling out the paddling strengths.  We  get to know my shiny new Global Positioning System, a life-saving little magic box (which could be dropped in the drink or killed with a paddle blade at any moment).  We practice with it, discovering a precocity for the kinds of programming errors that could give us a whole new trip. We practice with our drogue and our sponsons, pre-rigging them on our decks in case we have to sit out a serious blow.  Our plan is for one boat to deploy a drogue from its bow, while the other tethers to its stern.  This should keep us both turned into the weather, and the boat in the rear, which will tend more to fishtail back and forth, will have the added option of the sponsons.  But we are disturbed by the need to raft up to accomplish the whole thing–all gallantry aside, we  would prefer not to come anywhere near each other in seas nasty enough to require it.  We finally work out a system that involves the forward boat heaving a throw-rope, and the other clipping a bow painter to it with a carabiner, with all knots slipped for quick release.  We are happy with the system–it comes together in moments.  Famous last words run through our heads:  it should work.

And we are getting to know each other. Kim Burt, Tony Prendergast and Steve Wheeler all work for Colorado Outward Bound School, running kayaking trips out of Loreto through the winter.  For them, this crossing is an off-hours lark to keep the boredom away.  I find them to be a lionhearted group, in a peculiar, lighthearted way. It is not a reckless or rebellious fortitude, this dauntless spirit of theirs–they simply lack the usual bigotry about what can and cannot be done.  They are cheerful, optimistic, skilled, even cautious in their way–and absolutely intrepid. They have been running wilderness programs together for years and are like brothers and sister.  They are completely gender-liberated in all the completely incorrect ways.  They make lewd comments, laugh a lot, and use unconscionable terms like “girls” and “boys” that in my vocabulary have long been grounds for political imprisonment.  I find it refreshing, this style of enlightenment that does not involve mutual androgyny.  Nervous about being the unknown quantity in the group, their remarkable three-way relationship goes a long way toward relaxing me.

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From left: Steve Wheeler, the author, Tony Prendergast, Kim Burt

And always, the talk turns to the weather.   For these are the waters haunted by the monster called El Norte:  north winds that come howling out of nowhere, they say, and blow for, oh, anywhere from four hours to nine days.  In Mexico, marine weather broadcasts are just a small, wishful aside to the Great American Dream.  We are looking at the sky and making them up ourselves, but no one can predict a 30-hour weather window in Baja.  Anything could happen.  And anything’s okay with me, I tell myself–I’ve always wanted to see Guatemala anyway.  What actually bothers me more than the lurking Nortes is the fact that on both of the preliminary crossings we’d been fighting an uncharacteristic southeast wind of 10 to 15 knots.  We know that with even that much against us, we won’t launch for the mainland.

That final night on the beach on Santa Catalina, I awaken often, aware of every breeze that crosses my sleeping bag, and its strength and direction.

But finally, it is proven to me that at least some of the things they taught me in elementary school were true, and the planet is indeed rotating–Saturday morning dawns bright and foreboding, and the sea is already whitecapping, but the wind has changed:  it is from the north, and we hold a small hope that it might be wrapping around the island, and in open water will swing around to maybe a hair behind us, and be of a little help.  Right now it looks like ten to fifteen knots, judging by the water, but it’s early for a north wind–will it change from north to Norte?  We stand in the wet sand facing 73 miles of open water, and feeling that slight vacuum that exists when a great moment is finally at hand.  To the east, there is not a hint of land.  We talk, invent some more theories about the weather, establish decision-making procedures, elect Kim leader, and the discussions  have none of the cautious tones that characterized earlier talks on earlier beaches.  The group synergy is good.  The day is here.  The crossing is go.

 

*          *          *          *

 

“One:  Get on the water.  Two:  Keep moving.”  This is how I describe to people the secret of making a long crossing.  This group seems to understand it, and we are making steady progress on our first day, breaking only every couple hours,  crawling along our course, reeling in the opening miles.  By the rule of thumb that one foot of elevation is lost below the horizon for each mile of distance, the mountains of Baja should in theory be visible even from the mainland, but there is enough light haze on this day that by late afternoon we are out of sight of all land, and our universe consists solely of sea, sky, and descending sun. It is part of the character of a long crossing that it offers little material for the descriptive writer, or, for that matter, for the bored paddler.  For endeavors so profound, crossings can be remarkably unremarkable.  But only externally–for there is a rhythm, a heartbeat to a long crossing, which back-to-back islands would preclude.  As the empty hours move slowly by, I begin to compose entries for the personal journal I left at home.  The rhythm, I write, is the heartbeat of the crossing–it makes  it move, and gives it life.  The steady flashing of tiny paddle blades, alone on thousands of miles of water, give the sun reason to glint, give our bodies reason to move.  The rhythm is time combined with space–paddle strokes combined with water.

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Nothing but sea, sky and descending sun–the author and Kim Burt midway through day one

The seas have indeed come around to a gratifying ten or so degrees behind our beams, and they are small, ranging from one to three feet as the wind comes and goes.  As six-o’clock approaches, we tie off to the drogue and break for a cold dinner, and I take a reading on the GPS.  Neither the “weatherproof” GPS nor the “waterproof” radio bag I bought to hold it have performed as advertised, and condensation is already appearing in the display window.  I find this development pretty sobering, and it reconfirms my belief that any technological gadgetry carries an inherent risk in a wilderness situation.  So far, though, it’s still working–in eight hours of paddling, we’ve covered twenty miles of our 73-mile course, and we’re beginning to realize that most of our bail-out options are ceasing to make a lot of sense.  We are committed.  The crossing will succeed or fail.

Whatever “fail” may mean on this crazy trip–we have yet to see another boat, and our hand-held VHF radios have a reach of maybe three miles.

We are keeping to our course well, having only been blown a few miles south of our intended line, a deviation which we decide not to bother ourselves correcting.  Tony is proving to have an uncanny knack for estimating ferry angles in the wind, and we are slipping no further.  Ultimately, of course, it would be difficult to miss our objective–paddle east and you’re pretty likely to hit the North American continent–but what does happen south of Topolobampo is that the coastline cuts steeply eastward, and our crossing begins to swiftly pile on additional miles.  We are very, very interested in making that not happen.

With a collective sigh, we stow our food, seal our skirts, and start moving again, paddling toward an invisible mainland, and toward a long, long night.  The miles begin again to crawl beneath us.  The hours begin again to stretch out and out across the water before us.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Early evening.  The sun is low behind us, and the absence of landmarks is posing problems not just for the undisciplined mind, but also for the navigator, who, in the absence of even the stray distinguishable cloud to sight upon, must paddle with eyes glued to a wildly pitching compass card.  We have been trading off the tedious task when we break, and right now it is my own unfortunate eyeballs that are beginning to slip all mooring and roll around loosely in my skull.  Finally, I am saved by one of my favorite miracles of nature.  On the distant horizon, at a bearing of exactly 081° magnetic–which is to say exactly our heading–an amazing event occurs:  the moon rises.  Like an answer to a prayer, the three-quarters globe floats luminously out of the water, leaving us no longer alone to face the coming night.  Its presence is absolute, immediate–it has never seemed so real to me.  It is the closest thing to us; closer, certainly, than the mainland.  With spirits lifted, we paddle toward it as if toward a lighthouse.  I feel good.  I decide that I’m holding up well.  I can make it through this night.

Three hours later I’m nodding off with my arms still moving.  It’s dark, but the moon is high in a clear and starry sky.  I find myself wondering what would happen if I were to truly fall asleep.  Would I slump over and capsize us?  Would I lose my paddle?  I cling to a wisdom I have gleaned from long endurance events:  you will feel good, and then you will feel bad, and then you will feel good again….it will come back.  Ultimately, though, it’s an academic question:  crossings are crossings, and this is the magic of them.  There are no beaches, there is no bailout.  Quitting is not an option.  Crossings are about committing.  I splash some water in my face and paddle on.  We’re now thirty-two miles out, an average of two and one-half knots.  It’s roughly what we expected, but I’m having major problems with the figure.  An hour of paddling and two and a half miles go by?  Out of seventy-three?   Who the hell did I think I was to come off the wall and attempt a thing like this?  Clearly, my spirits are hitting a low point.  In my current state of mind, I’m not entirely convinced that the mainland will even be there.  Here amid all this water and all these stars, our yearned-for destination seems like nothing more than a wispy academic construct, assembled for our own comfort from a careless heap of photocopied nautical charts on a kitchen table in Loreto.  The crossing is also about faith, I remind myself.   You must know, somehow, that the mainland will be there.

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Steve and Tony as we attempt a short nap–whoever wrote that one can sleep in a kayak must have been more tired that we

At midnight we concede to the fatigue and tie off to the drogue for an extended break.  We squirm down into our cockpits to attempt a short nap, but whoever wrote that one can sleep in a kayak must have been more tired than we, though that’s a difficult state to picture at this point in our lives.  Forty-five minutes later we give up and are moving again.  I break out some chocolate-covered espresso beans, and they’re a big hit.  They churn up our stomachs and make our mouths taste like cigarette butts, but they do a serious trick.  Whales blow somewhere very near, and all we can see is some moonlit roiling of the surface waters, but they sound very large, possibly fin whales, or blues.  Comet Hyakutake is in the northern sky above us, adding poetry to our expedition, and an historical locus.

But what I would remember most about this night would be the three hours between moonset and sunrise, when we are plunged into darkness only to see the water ignite with bioluminescence.  The seas have kicked up to five and six feet, bringing us undeniably awake, and every bite of a paddle blade and plunge of a bow sends out a spray of silver-blue sequins.  They lie burning like icy embers on our deck, and on the shoulders of Kim’s paddling jacket in front of me.  They spangle the breaking crests of black waves and merge imperceptibly into the phantasm of Baja stars, with no visible transition between the two.  Stars above and stars below–at once unnerved and enchanted, we surf through the cosmos with comet Hyakutake, dreaming of a sunrise far away on a planet called Earth.

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Comet Hyakutake

Finally the eastern sky before us starts to brighten, and we tie off to the drogue again for an extended break.  Tony drops over the side for a dip, and Kim does likewise and pulls herself up the drogue line to him, only to learn that he is in the water to answer one of the more serious calls of nature.  Kim, of course, laughs uproariously, teases him loudly, but does beat a retreat back down the line to our boat.  A minute later, Steve sights a fin cutting the surface, and calls out to him.  What follows is one of the most miraculous re-entries I have ever witnessed in my life.  It resembles most closely a trained seal–or perhaps a nike missile–rocketing vertically out of the water, and in no more than a heartbeat Tony is sprawled crosswise across his deck with not a single hand or foot touching the surface–and with his shorts around his knees.  That moment while Tony was displayed to the sky would be the only time I saw this group exercise any restraint whatsoever in their unmerciful teasing of one another.  Looking back, Steve says he’s pretty sure he saw spines in the dorsal fin, suggesting it was a sailfish, and not a shark.  Probably.

We throw down some cold breakfast, stow the drogue, and paddle resolutely on, into what would be the longest day of my life.

At 7:10 Kim calls out that she sees land.  It is the merest hazy brown line on the horizon, and it seems achingly distant, but it uplifts us, and we paddle with new resolve.  Land!  We are in sight of land!

Ten minutes later it rises into the sky, proving to be only low clouds.

At seven-thirty, we really do sight land.  It seems no closer nor tangible than the cloud bank had, but it has the decency to stay put, and we begin to place our faith in it.  The daylight has awakened our circadian rhythms, and with our objective in view, however distantly, our mood rises.  We are beginning to feel, really feel in our hearts, that we might make it.  We paddle on, and the time is absolutely crawling.

The time, I mentally write in my journal, is thin, elongated, empty.  The time is depleted of objects and events  to give it shape, and it stretches with impossible elasticity all the way from Loreto to the mainland, strung  tenuously like gossamer across the water between the sparsest scatter of occurrences.  The time leaves us with nothing but ourselves, while the crossing leaves our selves with nothing but the crossing….

We probably have eight hours still to go.  We keep paddling.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Ten o’clock in the morning.  I have never in my life been in this much pain and kept going.  My torso feels like it is wrapped in an incandescent sheath from armpits to hips, and it lights up with every paddle stroke.  The deltoid muscles on the tops of my shoulders–the hold-your-paddle-in-the-air muscles–are on fire, and though I am confident of my endurance strength, I have a great fear of muscle failure.  Only one has to fail, I figure.  And even beneath the torments of the flesh lies another, more enduring and general exhaustion.  Between each stroke it is a conscious effort not to drop my arms and stop.  A mental image of my own torso is drifting around in my mind, and it is a scarecrow-like specter of skin stretched across ribs, thin and wavering, lacking the substance to be doing anything close to what I’m asking of it.  Back in the middle of the night I was at the point at which I normally say I have nothing left.  How long ago was that?  Ten hours?  Twelve?  All things considered, I am amazed to the point of immodesty at the strength that somehow remains in my stroke.  The miraculous biological machine is holding up.  Still, somehow, my blade bites water.  Still, somehow, my body lights with strength from somewhere.  I have no idea where I am finding it, but I know why I am.  I am finding it because this is a crossing.  I am finding it because I have no choice. Friends had asked me why we weren’t arranging for a support boat, and now I know.  Because the crossing would fail.  Were there any other option whatsoever right now, I would summarily quit.

The pain, I write as one stroke follows another, is the hard spot inside the crossing that gives it substance, distinguishes it from an amusement park ride.  The pain is the other half of some universal duality;  it is the opposing force, the reason crossings are not done, the reason we’re not sure this one can be.  The  pain is the spiritual airlift that removes us forcefully, bodily, from our complicated existences and gives us the exalted gift of thirty whole hours of simplicity.  Everything else, even friends and loved ones, drops away, and for thirty hours there is only one care, only one goal.  The pain is the greatest pleasure of the crossing.

Still the winds are no more than 15 knots from the northwest, the seas smaller than six feet.  At noon we take a short break, and the GPS (still working!) tells us we’re twelve miles from our landing site at Punta Arena.  Four or five hours, probably.  We consider breaking out the drogue and taking an hour’s rest.  My body craves it in a way it’s never before craved a thing, but I rally my resolve and argue for pushing on while our luck with the weather is holding so miraculously.  We do have a concern about encountering offshore winds as we approach the coast, and if they’re too tough to paddle into, we’d be in a pretty bad spot.  We certainly can’t turn around and head back.

It is partly the strength within each of us, and partly the group support between us, that is getting us through these last hours.  Kim, Tony and Steve, with their years of joint wilderness experience, seem to have evolved a group response to tough times: they get more gregarious as the exhaustion mounts.  It’s a nice trick, and I congratulate myself again for trusting the common friend who recommended us to each other.  Kim, in an inspiring display of group leadership, pulls us assertively into word games and team building exercises, drawing from a deep bag of Outward Bound tricks.  We each share the three historical people we would most like to meet and talk with (Kim goes straight for the hard answers, deciding on Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Mahatma Gandhi).  We each share our favorite sexual fantasy (talk to Tony for a really good one).  Tony and Steve (a.k.a. The Boys) spontaneously start singing old Eagles tunes.  We all join in, and an hour of something resembling drunken caterwauling goes by, during which not a single pelagic bird comes anywhere near.  I hearken back to my singer-songwriter days and amaze myself by remembering all the words to American Pie, and then pulling out some Arlo Guthrie, some Loggins & Messina,  and we finish the set with a medley of old Beatles tunes.  It distracts us.  It helps.  Anything helps.

The mainland is coming no closer and coming no closer and coming no closer.  I am convinced that our exhausted bodies are being outdistanced by continental drift.  But I feel a communal craving for the fervently-imagined beach on the distant shore, and, amazingly, we pick up the pace.  “The end always comes,” I hear Susan advising me.  “You will think that it never will, but it always does.”  And her advice is good–finally, incredibly, we are picking our way, with the help of some advice from a local fisherman in a small “panga,” through an extraordinary zone of currents and converging, haystacking systems of swells, to a deserted white sand beach on the south side of Punta Arena.  As our bows grind up onto the sand, I feel only an odd distraction and emptiness.  There is no welcoming contingent, no banners or brass bands.  Just us, our boats, our paddles, and our own small inner voices saying “You did it!  Listen!  Drop that drybag and listen!  You did it!”

The landing, I write to myself, is that slightly empty, is-that-all-there-is feeling of looking around the empty mainland beach and wondering why the sun hasn’t halted its heavenly circuit in commemoration.  The landing is a self-conscious groping for a scripted profundity.  The landing is distraction:  wobbly legs, necessary chores, reeking cockpits, gear coming out of hatches, bodies managing even now to carry on–but somewhere, in some nearly subconscious and nearly inaudible subcurrent of awareness there is . . .

. . . sand between the toes!

CortezCrossing3

By | 2017-05-24T00:03:09+00:00 February 1st, 1997|Other Essays|0 Comments

Junkies, Homelessness and Joy To The World

“Leave the planet, that’s what!”

The retort is barbed, I know, but I have a record for being cranky on this subject, and besides, how many good answers are there to a question like, “What do you want to do for Christmas this year?”

Yes, I have a problem with this season, and I have had for the past three times that it has flown unsolicited at my face.  I used to enjoy Christmas well enough—okay, I used to enjoy it a lot—but it ain’t so any more, and my theory is this:  Christmas is like democracy—it works fine on a full belly, but if your life isn’t perfect or you think too much, Christmas can become something to flee, like a flood, or a religious riot.  It’s difficult to describe if you haven’t been there, but I actually knew this even back in my happy years, because I had a short career as an ambulance driver, and I’ve picked up the suicides, and the drug overdoses.  It’s a known phenomenon.  People simply kill themselves more during the holidays, and there’s no other explanation for it. ‘Tis the season, that’s all.  The holidays are tough for people in transition.  They’re very tough.

Two and a half years ago my marriage broke up, and when the first Christmas hit, my response could only be called “going into hiding.”  Not four people knew the home number at my new rented studio house, and I kept it that way.  I hunkered in the little place, and it seemed that the flimsy walls shook beneath the gales of good tidings as Christmas ranted and raged outdoors.  I listened to the tolling of all the things my life had no more.  Family!  Togetherness!  Joy to the world, for heaven’s sake!  The screaming insipid voices were trying to bodily drag me back into a memory that would surely kill me if it laid hands on me.  I could not allow it, it was as simple as that.  A survival issue.  So I hunkered. I pulled the curtains and listened to the window panes rattle.  And then all the ambulance calls came back to me.  Suddenly I remembered every damned one of them.  So this is what it’s like, I thought.  This is what Christmas is like for the rest of us.  God, it hurts.

The second Christmas, I took a different approach.  Figuring the darkness would defeat me in the end anyway, I took a stroll directly into it.  I did this by accepting a volunteer job on the streets of a derelict, homeless neighborhood in a nearby town where I used to avoid even driving.  I wandered the streets of the dark side, on foot, up close and personal.  The tarps slung across the abandoned doorways now had people behind them, people I knew;  the hollow-eyed faces now had names; behind each tragedy of circumstance there was now a story.  I handed out food and clothing, listened to the people, talked to them on the rare occasion that I had something useful to say.  I learned to do needle exchange with the junkies, to try to keep AIDS from killing them long enough for them to save their own lives.  Now, the nameless sorrows of our existence were before me and around me—my interaction with the darkness was intimate.  I had entered a one-on-one relationship with my most feared enemy.

Did it help?  Did it make me happy by putting everything in perspective and pointing out my own blessings?  Sorry, no.  I wish our problems were that simple.  But I did feel that I was helping, in some small but irrevocable way.  And there was something else, too.  Each night that I was out there, I enjoyed a freedom that I enjoyed nowhere else.  For you see, on those streets, there’s no such thing as Christmas.

Funny thing is, though, I would keep doing this work long after the holidays had passed.  It’s been a year now, and every Friday night I’m out there, doing a job I can’t quite describe for reasons I can’t quite explain.  I looked around recently and discovered that the holidays were upon me again, and felt again the forces of cynicism within myself.  And friends were asking me, “Randy, is every Christmas going to do this to you for the rest of your life?  When are you going to come to terms with this holiday?”

Three weeks ago, the folks I do this outreach with decided to do a toy drive for some kids we know.  How could I help?  Well gee, I said, hoping to get off easy, I work at a large company; I guess I could send out an E-mail to all the employees, soliciting donations.  Cool, everyone said, and I was thinking, Right!  Soliciting help for dope fiends ought to go over just great in a large, conservative, white-collar corporation.  Don’t hold your breath, folks.  Warm and secure in my dark view of us all, and no more enamored of the project than I was of the holidays in general, I went ahead and pitched it, and I pitched it straight.  Here’s what blipped their terminals Monday morning:

 

People,

            I am soliciting toys for a small and special toy drive.  While I know many of you are already helping our company through its efforts with the Salvation Army, I would like you to read on and learn about some children in a very different situation.

            Through the local County AIDS Project, I am working with people in very difficult circumstances indeed.  Most are intravenous drug users (and hence at high risk for AIDS), and since this makes them necessarily live outside the law, they don’t dare show up at government agencies for help.  They are not accounted for in any of the figures we read, and are deeply mistrustful of any agencies or organizations that might be interested in helping.  Many are homeless.  The closest they come to surfacing is when they occasionally get arrested for their drug use.  They are an invisible subculture.  And they have children.

            Our toy drive is a very small and very personal one.  There are thirty-plus of these children whom we know, and can reach with some Christmas presents.  I will distribute them personally.  They need not be wrapped, and need not even be new.

            Please help.  Thanks.

 

I look back now at the memory of sending that E-mail as if through a strange, marbled pane of glass, as if looking at my last unsuspecting act before a sudden, life-changing event.  Here are some of the ways things are profoundly different for me now:  I now have no more empty boxes in my garage.  I now have no more space on my office floor or in my pick-up truck bed.  I now get no work done when I show up at the company that employs me because I spend all my time fielding phone calls and e-mail from coworkers, and accepting their donations.  For a week I have been receiving toys by the bagful and the boxful.  I have been receiving old toys and new toys.  I have also been receiving clothes.  I have also been receiving money.  My truck was such a Santa’s sleigh on Friday night when I drove in that we had to off-load the stuff we didn’t have room for to a nearby homeless shelter in the neighborhood.  And it is still coming in.

So, humbled and changed, I am taking keyboard in hand to announce to my community—and to myself—that I think I have come to terms with this holiday.  It is not the first time I have badly misjudged humanity, and it is unlikely to be the last.  But now as the coming years roll by, I will be able to say that on at least one Christmas in this smudged and fractured life, I received a very important gift, and the gift was a lesson, and the lesson was this:  There are good people out there.  A lot of them.  And there is joy.

Even in this heart.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

 

 

 
Copyright © 1996 Randy Fry
By | 2017-05-24T00:03:09+00:00 December 20th, 1996|Other Essays|2 Comments

Life, Death and Unbalanced Christians

“FTP, Bro’,” my brother Byron said to me over the phone in my motel room two nights ago in Santa Barbara.  The miles had been slow and disturbing on southbound Highway 101 on my way to my uncle Seab’s funeral, and I was headed for a badly needed shower when he called from Aunt Elleen’s place.  He needed some time with me bad, I could tell—he was in one of those family moods he gets into.  He was wondering about staying in my room with me instead of with our aunt and the gang, but I told him that though he was welcome, there was only one bed, and he decided to hang where he was.  We talked about the drive, and the memories.  We’ve both spent more childhood time on that highway that ran between the two families than I care to think about.  Joyful memories were flickering for me, of running through the woods in Santa Barbara with my cousins.  The extended families were huge, and there’s a beautiful cemetary down there that I feel like I grew up in.  I’m certainly one to remark on his mood—obviously I was in some sorry state myself.  I looked at the ceiling and pictured Byron’s face on the other end of the line.  “FTP,” I mused into the phone.  “Let’s see….F….T….”

“The last two words are ‘The Past,’” Byron said.

So now I’m back at home and sitting here in front of my laptop, and the whiskey is going down way too easy, and I can already tell that this will be one of those journal entries I don’t show to anyone at all.  But hell, that’s what journals are for—to allow you to ramble aimlessly to no one but yourself when you don’t have any answers.  So hey, I’m fine!  I’ve got a glass in my hand and a keyboard under my fingers, and there’s no problem in this world I can’t say something stupid about.

The redeeming quality about life is that at the end of it a bunch of people get together in a room and say nice things about you.  When you’re little and when you’re dead—that’s when people are nice to you.  The trouble with memorial services, though, is that they’re wasted on the living.  The only human being in history to manage to hear his own eulogy was Tom Sawyer.  Clever boy.  No wonder he ended up so famous.

So God sent Jesus down to experience this mortal existence for him, and Jesus came back with his forehead all scratched up and holes in his wrists and ankles, and he said to his dad, “Y’know what, this is a bitch!”  Or so Christian doctrine was described to Susan and I two years ago through a communal alcoholic fog at a bar on the Santa Cruz Wharf after our Monterey Bay kayak crossing.  The analysis came from an amazing personality who was throwing money and evangelism around the room in equally inspiring quantities.  It’s the first time I’ve been disinclined to take one of them on in debate, though Susan engaged him repeatedly.  But for me, the entertainment and the drinks were too good, and besides, he’d asserted that this life is a bitch, and some statements are simply unassailable.

I do love the profound things, though.  Life, love, death, political conventions, and unbalanced Christians.  I just don’t want any of them to get too close to me, that’s all.  From unbalanced Christians I’m protected by my atheism.  From political conventions I’m protected by the power switch on the television I don’t own.  Life, love and death have me by the balls.  Well, love does anyway.

I’ll probably figure all this out on my death bed half a second after I lose my power of speech.  The blinding light will dawn, and out will come a choking stammer of consonants and vowels, revelations reduced to refuse; a series of glottal double-clutches, here and there a hard C stumbling over a long O, a whining expellation of air, and finally a string of expletives reduced by a discreet god to a less offensive babble, as the lights go out.  “What did he say?” a roomful of dearly beloved kayakers will murmur.  “What were his last words?”

“….Coca-Cola,” someone will reverently intone.  “He said, ‘Coca-Cola.’”

Good reason to die without waking.  Drug overdose is good.  Remove the damned consciousness, then kill yourself.  Safer that way.  I’ve always had my doubts about jumping off a cliff, because I vividly remember the childhood experience of falling off the top bunk in my sleep and snapping to full awareness roughly halfway down.  That might have been the night I lost all respect for human consciousness.

Aw, screw this, I’m going to bed.

Carl Schaeffer is dead.  Passed away yesterday evening.  My old office mate.

Good night.

 

 

 
Copyright © 1996 Randy Fry
By | 2017-05-24T00:03:09+00:00 September 21st, 1996|Other Essays|0 Comments

A Brief Memoir

The first and last chapter of the memoir I’ll never write

 

Prologue

June, 1994

The invisible reader of this absolutely confidential journal may not know or care that there is still argument about the existence of the graviton.  The graviton is a sub-atomic particle thought by most to be the inevitable explanation for the force of gravity.  Isn’t that great to know?  It’s a damn silly thing to care about, but I’m not in a particularly damn smart mood, so the invisible reader will have to either indulge me or stop being nosy and set this absolutely confidential journal aside.

The sub-atomic world was simple and easy to understand back in the early forties when all we needed for it to do was kill people, but it is now fairly crawling with newly discovered particles, all interacting with the same old four forces.  Electrons have a charge but basically no mass; electromagnetic radiation, or EMT (which one could call light if one were trying to educate instead of impress) is photons, which they can’t even decide whether to classify as a wave or a particle;  neutrinos have basically no mass and no charge and don’t interact with shit, and a zillion of them pass through my body every second and it’s the only thing on this planet I don’t have to care about;  and then there are the protons, there are the neutrons;  but now there are whole fleets of other particles—hadrons and leptons and quarks and anti-quarks and gluons and intermediate vector bosons—it’s enough to keep my mind happily thrashing for the rest of the night, and, given my historical inability to stay focused, it’s likely to.

Even on this night.

But listen:  no being on this planet has ever laid hands on the graviton.  Gravity is simultaneously the most far-reaching force in the universe and the weakest one.  Isn’t that a fun paradox?  It is the force that binds our planet to the sun, keeps our moon in our sky, makes our asses sag and keeps our whisky in our shot glasses, but keeping one particle bound to another is for a graviton the stuff of dreams.  Its reach extends across the entire universe and holds our galaxies together, and will at some point—if you subscribe to the Oscillating Big Bang theory of creation—bring us all crashing back together for another Big Bang, where we will occupy, in that nexus between implosion and explosion, a space so small that it approaches the definition of a singularity.  Mass without volume—try to wrap your mind around that one.  Really, try it, it’s fun.  Trust me—you don’t want to think about the other stuff.  Think about the gravitons.

I am.  That invisible, undiscovered particle would become a screaming relevance to me if I were to, for instance, shove eight inches westward from where my ass is perched on this concrete balustrade.  I picture being suddenly hammered by a hailstorm of the tiny things.  A graviton typhoon would take hold of me, and every atom comprising the planet Earth would suddenly make my exhausted, emaciated human body its primary focus, and I would feel the combined infinitesimal pull of giga-billions of the things in sudden perfect orchestration, and they would accelerate me, dear invisible reader, at thirty-two feet per second squared until held fast by wind resistance to 110 miles per hour, and roughly eleven seconds later (I worked this out) I would hit a bed of smooth granite river rocks and be instantly limp, extinguished, a pile of rags and carrion under the Bixby Creek Bridge on the Big Sur Coast in California.

I always wondered what goes through a man’s mind moments before he kills himself, and now I know.  Physics.  Naturally.  I dangle my feet in space, sitting on the trailing edge of an inane life, and sure enough, my head is filled with inane thoughts.  Listen to this:  I know the reasons that the areas around my eyes and down my cheeks feel cold in this blasting night wind.  It is a physical process used by many organisms to thermal-regulate, in which another flavor of electromagnetic radiation called heat is absorbed by water molecules which transmute the energy into kinetic motion and become, in their “excited” state—

Well, fuck it.  I’d just call it evaporation, but I’m trying to impress you.

I know all this stuff because I used to have a life that had forces in it too, just like atoms do, and curiosity was one of them.  That was a long time ago.  Over a week.  That was before I had my disaster.  I had my very own personal disaster, just like Chernobyl did.  I don’t want to think about that, though.  I want to think about gravitons.

I dangle my legs over the vertiginous dark spaces below me.  A powerful northwest gust buffets me, and I am amused to find myself gripping the guardrail in fear of—what?  My life?  I hear some physicist whose work I once read, maybe one of the Huxleys, saying pedantically, “We are destined to know the darkness beyond the stars before we know ourselves.”  A wise physicist, that.  I wonder if he killed himself too—they say wisdom is a painful thing to possess.  Well, at least I say that. I guess I wouldn’t know, though.  All I have is information.  Lots and lots of information.  I was forty-one when I discovered that there was a difference between information and wisdom.

That was when things started to go downhill for me.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Later I wouldn’t remember the decision not to jump.  If it was even something one could call a decision.  I still don’t remember the act of swinging my legs back over the balustrade to repurchase the solid, gritty concrete of the walkway.  All I would remember is being suddenly, incongruously, back here at my pickup on the north shoulder of the bridge in this night, in this  blasting wind.  That’s all I know, to this day. It’s all I ever seem to know.  It’s my one crumb of unassailable Zen wisdom:  here I am.  I look out through the darkness toward an ocean whose surface I know must be a maelstrom of whitecaps, and a profound fear howls up the bluff at me from an abyss the size of the Pacific Ocean, and my insides are silently recoiling, cringing.  What is this?  I’ve never been afraid of the ocean before, heaven knows.  I’ve been criticized by safety-conscious friends for not being afraid of the ocean.  My rational self tries to ignore the voices and be here in the real world, here beside my truck, but I hear them anyway, and some whimpering childlike creature is screaming Oh god, the darkness, the darkness, please not the darkness! and another voice makes a pathetic run at rationality and says, What now, dude?  You seem to still be alive…

            I tell it to shut up and naturally it doesn’t, and naturally I refuse to answer, refuse to care what I do next, but I know that as long as I am drawing breath I am prisoner to the damned space-time continuum created, or at any rate described (if there’s a difference) by the damned physicists, and events will continue to barrel forward and something will for sure happen, whether I do anything or I do nothing, just ask any one of the pedantic bastards, and the next thing I would recall is charging hell-bent through the salt-stunted coastal chaparral of a precipitous, and I mean goddamned steep canyon wall toward the mouth of a creek 300 feet below, holding in my right hand the stern strap of the 18-foot bright red fiberglass ocean kayak that lives on the roof racks of my pickup truck.  It skids in front of me as I run (too steep to stand still!), launching my body into great leaps elongated forever by a slope that plummets away beneath my feet, my teeth flecked with tears and bits of coastal sage, the bow of the kayak pitching up and down, cresting with familiar motions the rolling swells of ceonothus, coyote brush and monkeyflower, and me simply not stopping.  I never stop.  The ground miraculously disappears and the kayak and I tumble in near free-fall the last fifty vertical feet down an escarpment of grating-hard granite and land in three feet of cold creek water, and when I stand up I still don’t stop,  don’t care whether anything’s broken, just straddle the boat there in the tugging current of the creek (what’s a guy to do, an ocean there, an ocean kayak here…), drop my butt into the seat, fold my legs into the cockpit, seal my spray skirt around the coaming, and start paddling.  Hard.  Downstream.

The outflow of the creek is not enough to dampen the surf at its mouth, and as I power toward it, I realize in a detached way that that’s because the waves are big.  Bigger than I’ve ever launched through, but I have no capacity for, nor interest in, decisions anymore, and when the tossing current of the creek drops me caroming through the bowling-ball cobblestones of the beach and pitching through the soup between me and the break zone I just pour it on, crunching into my strokes with practiced ferocity and surging forward so hard the bow wake hisses and splashes in front of me and the icy wind dashes the spray back in my face, and I am not thinking or judging or timing myself to the waves or even caring, and just before the first one hits me everything goes into slow motion and the wave . . .

. . . eclipses the stars of the Pacific sky in monstrous silence above me, and then ghostly-pale foam hisses along its lip high above my head, and then the lip begins to curl, and I know that I am hitting the biggest breaking wave of my life at exactly the wrong moment—dead at its peak. 

It is a vertical wall of water.

These needle-shaped craft can pierce your average wave if you hit it with some conviction and duck onto the deck as you blast through, but this one is too big, way too big, and in spite of everything I’ve been giving it, when I throw myself forward and the dark crystal wall smashes into me and explodes around me and smacks the top of my head and  compresses my cervical vertebrae and buffets my body and my boat, I feel my bow rise inside the mountainous tonnage of wave, shoved inexorably upward by bouncy and the chaotic, washing-machine turmoil of an angry ocean until I am vertical, and I know I will go over backwards and be dashed casually like a jumble of driftwood against the cobble beach, but then I break out into the air, pointed at the sky like an 18-foot red fiberglass missile.  I reach for the surface with a slapping brace to regain control, but there is only air.  Finally we hit on our sides, my kayak and I, and I blow my brace, trip  over my paddle blade and go under, capsized, and feel from the helplessness of below the dispassionate fury of the surges in a powerful surf zone.  I seal precious breath within me and lean forward in the upside-down violence, clutching my kayak to my chest with my knees to keep from being pulled out of it by the turbulence, and in a rare display of cool, I find the surface and set up well for my roll and don’t screw it up, rear miraculously upright again, still facing the horizon and the next wave, heave over and grab deeply with my left blade and power forward, exuberant, yelling with new air like a madman, like a wheeling bird, in a voice neither joyous nor angry, just wild, primal, unthinking, all judgment gone, ripped from me by enraged natural forces, and I know then that I have a reason to live.

I will live so that I can launch through this surf.

So that I can feel the bite of water on a paddle blade, I will live.  So that I can feel the burning of abdominal muscles, and make it through the next breaker, I will live.

So that I don’t die, I will live.

 

[Editor’s note:  Deleted from this location 13 dreary chapters about a marriage coming apart and some sort of search for meaning (?).  You need to be more brief, Randy.]

 

Epilogue

October, 1996

Through the vertiginous empty spaces among the slowly moving tops of 200-foot redwood trees, a small, pale-rust-colored moth with two white spots on each forewing navigates the night breezes under a half-moon, twenty miles south of Carmel, California in a land called Big Sur.  The moonlight illuminates downy fur on her back between her wings and refracts from the multitudinous facets of her enormous compound eyes as she moves through the breathing and swaying redwood crowns, high above the secondary canopy of tan oaks and bay trees.  Here and there, far beneath her, swatches of forest floor are visible in the moonlight, and down and to the right the waters of Rocky Creek gleam occasionally, where it is running quietly in its low autumn flow.  Now and then there is the flickering motion of a small bat working the spaces lower down, hunting the smaller flying insects and leaving her, so far, alone.

Her flight path seems aimless at first, but over time describes a methodical and consistent west by north-west course through the arboreal airspaces she calls home.  She is able to fly a relatively straight line by keeping the moon, the brightest object in her night sky, at a constant location in her field of vision.   She is locked in on it, following a cue hardwired by eons of evolution into the tiny circuitry of what passes for her brain.  She drifts between two elegantly tapered treetops on the shoulder of a ridge, and as the forest drops away beneath her and she catches an east breeze moving like a river down the canyon from the cooling peaks of the Los Padres, another light appears before her.  It is more directly to her right, and lower than the moon, but it is brighter, it is very bright, and her focus shifts to it, her programming not equipped to handle two objects this bright in her night world.  She changes course, now keeping the new light just off her right shoulder as she had the moon.  But an odd thing happens:  while the moon was for all practical purposes infinitely distant to this tiny flying creature, the new light is not, and by keeping it at a constant bearing, she flies a wide but slowly tightening spiral around it, looping downward past walls of foliage bordering a wide clearing on the mountainside, banking ever more steeply to keep the light off her right shoulder where it belongs, and within two minutes she is whirling in tight, frantic circles around the porch light where I am standing, gazing out vacantly, thinking about nothing in particular.

I love these little gibbosa moths, so pretty and luxuriantly furred, and as she hammers herself against the bulb I finally reach up and try to snatch her from her swerving flight path, but she also has some pretty good evasion responses on board, and she’s a lot quicker than me.  Besides, I muse as I drop my hand and lean back against the deck railing again, if I walked off with her fluttering in my fist and tossed her into the night, she would just return.  For a remarkably long period I stand watching her without realizing that there is a simple solution.  Reaching around the doorjamb, I turn off the light.

Darkness.  I’m so afraid of it sometimes.  Even now.

My life has been re-invented.  I live here in Big Sur with my girlfriend Susan in our coming-apart house in our redwood forest, and I’m finally starting to give the benefit of the doubt to friends who told me that time would heal.  Perhaps it is doing that after all.  There was a period, as the agonizing week-long days and month-long weeks ground by, when I was convinced it was a dirty lie.  But there is one thing that time can indeed be counted upon to do:  if it has not healed, it has at least passed.  If there is not closure, there is at least distance.  I, like the space-time continuum that imprisons me, have been moving.  Moving haltingly.  Moving tentatively.  Moving, I suppose, on.

Still though, sometimes…sometimes when the lights both natural and contrived have proven too small and feeble to endure here on the edge of the visible universe, and the darkness finally prevails, I feel again the buffeting of the freezing night wind on the guardrail of Bixby Bridge.  Still I feel the chilled wet streaks across my cheekbones, and the mysterious depths of darkness making their gusting and howling sounds below my dangling feet, and the great invitation, the siren call of the great forgetting.  I guess that I will carry it with me forever.  I seem to look at it only sometimes, like the picture in some locket.

But I suppose that I am here now, and I  suppose, in a sense, that I am here by choice.  Perhaps we all are—maybe some of us are just lucky enough to be shown our decisions.

It would seem that now I am supposed to realize that I have affirmatively chosen life by an act of free will, by the act of swinging my legs back over the railing.  It would seem that I should sally forth into it with fresh ownership and joy, and spiritual rebirth.  Sorry, but I have gotten no such exultation out of this. What I have gotten out of this, oddly, is that there was never anything to get.  It was never the job of this universe to give me purpose or to please my senses.  It was never the job of this universe to tell me why I am here.

I look at the walls of dark foliage, sensing the humming biological machinery within each redwood needle, the nutrients coursing up through the sapwood and the sugars down through the cambium, the water ascending silently two hundred feet up to the crowns, 167 feet higher than capillary action can explain.  The trees are handling their affairs infallibly, tirelessly, thoughtlessly, bringing order into the entropy.  That is their purpose and they fulfill it without question.  To live in harmony with the universe, I tell myself as I lean on my porch railing,  I need to do only two things:  to exist among its objects and events;  and to interact with them with freedom and awareness.

In short:  to be, and to live.

I look over at the darkened porch light mounted in the shadows of the eaves.  The moth is gone.  Order is restored.  I stand, empty and resonating in the darkness, and it seems, somehow, that I have it.  In the absence of questioning, the answer is here; in the darkness of my redwood forest, the illumination is mine; and it seems so clear that it must be elemental in the universe:

I am here to enjoy this night.  I am here to enjoy this life.

 

 

 
Copyright © 1994 Randy Fry

By | 2017-05-24T00:03:09+00:00 June 2nd, 1994|Other Essays|1 Comment