As much as I adore the mountains, they can suffocate sometimes. Depending on the day, chains of towering rock either inspire or hold you captive. Especially here in the Rockies where I live—I swear, they go on forever…like anything beyond their reach is a trillion miles away.
Maybe that explains why I went six years without seeing the ocean?
My heart had shriveled up from the inside out. It desperately needed water. So, I tossed my hound dog Pablo in a big, silver truck and sped off for the Oregon coast. Twisting two-lane highway hummed under our wheels. Italian doom metal surged through the stereo. This sonic concoction split open my veins and let life’s irrelevance drain free. As that disappeared, so went my whiskey hangover (acquired irresponsibly the night before), and so went my Mesozoic captor, Colorado, in the reflection of the rearview mirror.
Somewhere north of Wyoming’s state line, signs of human life grew few and far between. Wild antelope and bald eagles became our watchful guides. Up Togwotee Pass at ten thousand feet, late summer snow slicked the road dusky evening white; then down in drizzly Jackson Hole, charcoal rain clouds masked the night. After an eight-hour drive with only nine miles to go, I merged off the highway onto Moose-Wilson Road. There, we were blocked by a barricade and flashing orange sign. ‘Road Closed. Bear Activity. Moose Casualties.’ it read. Nine miles turned into an hour-long detour.
The next day, through Idaho Snake River country, insistent sunrays morphed Wyoming into memory. Stopping in Boise, we stretched our six collective legs, then sat down for a civilized meal: brandade croquettes, razor clams in uni broth, a crisp yet farmy crémant de Jura. Pablo, of course, drew all sorts of attention from strangers voyeuristically passing by. A handsomish man in blue flannel smiled and tried one of his better lines. He said he was certain he’d seen us before, outside a nearby grocery store. To this day and to my knowledge, neither Pablo nor I have ever been there.
About sixty miles later, we entered Oregon. Backcountry highways sliced high desert hills and wound us west toward Bend. The sun shined generously overhead—that is, until we met the Cascades. Then we hit a rainstorm so intense, I could barely see the road beneath us. It fell like BB pellets from the sky, ricocheting off our truck’s steel frame, blurring the pavement’s painted white and yellow lines, the lush forest we barreled through. But even still, old Douglas firs glowed deep emerald green. These stoic beacons have weathered worse storms. Come to think of it, so have we.
Daylight waned and the forest changed. Evergreens shifted to shadowy giants, wading in thick maritime fog, which snuck like smoke through opaque, wet night. Our sinuous road narrowed. Better not break down, I thought. A murderer might come and dump us in the ravine. My high beams flashed on a hairpin turn. I reigned in my morbid musings. Finally, we reached the Kiwanda shore in a downpour of pitch black rain. I couldn’t see the ocean, but I could hear it roar. Its cool mist kissed my tired skin.
That night, I couldn’t sleep to save my life. Our rental cottage smelled of must and someone else’s memories. And from its steps, the ocean’s edge just mere meters away. I longed for its waters to wash over my feet—coat them in cold, coarse, sticky sand—stand there, face against the wind, and realize how tiny I am. But a starless sky and threat of sneaker waves kept me housebound until daybreak. So, I cracked open the window, curled up with Pablo in bed, and stared for hours at unfamiliar ceiling. The air was damp and tasted of salt. The tide’s steady drone, hypnotic.
Once sunrise cast pastel across otherwise gray sky, we hiked up sandstone headlands on the north end of the beach. There, I found myself utterly unlost in this landscape’s wordless wisdom. It was just me and Pablo on a continent’s edge, divorced from the vacant, civilized world, from the toxic fodder so many mistake for relationship. The parents who decided I wasn’t their child, the friends who didn’t show up, lovers who loved what I could do for them—I tossed my past into the sea. Outmatched, it thrashed in silvery surf until an undertow came and swept it away. Bit by bit, I watched it drown in unrelenting water. Tension melted from my flesh. All anxiety ceased. Jade waves crashed shaking the cliff beneath my feet. Solitude’s never felt so sweet.
For the next three days, we wandered Kiwanda beach, keeping to ourselves as we usually do. I checked out driftwood and dunes, while Pablo tried his best to catch seagulls. Every now and then, somebody passed us by and tried to strike up conversation. It was fine. I obliged. It’s easy to like people you don’t know. Most wanted to meet Pablo—no surprises there—but some sought answers about me, to one question specifically:
“Are you traveling alone?”
Seconds passed like centuries. A wry smile crept from the corner of my mouth.
“Um, no,” I’d reply. “Pablo’s here. We’re on this trip together.”
Awkward silence ensued.
Clearly my aloneness stirred something in them. Perhaps it was fear or maybe it was envy. What exactly I can’t say, though I was baffled by the exchange. I mean there I was, free as free could be, playing on the beach with my über-cool pup. Why’s my party size so significant? What’s so strange about me traveling alone?
Spoiler alert. We’re all traveling alone. Each and every one of us, whether we like it or not. We entered this world alone. We’ll exit it alone. And in between, our interactions, our relationships will cloister us to some degree. It comes down to basic chemistry: Human beings are stacks of atomic mass who temporarily occupy appropriated space. Break us down molecularly, we’re ego-encrypted nuclei. And while our egos distinguish us from other matter, they’re also barriers that block people from fusing in. So, when we appear to be with somebody else, we’re just orbiting, isolated, around them. Few people see the same colors, few speak the same language, and few synthesize the same experience in identical time.
But we live in a culture where popularity is King, and solitude, misunderstood, is viewed as a disease. Marketers spend billions pedaling myths that trick us into thinking we cannot be alone. That we’re inherently broken and must be fixed by whatever it is they’re selling. Instead of taking pleasure in sitting with ourselves, we seek stimulation at an insatiable pace, moving through life in a disconnected state. Numb. Overstuffed. Distracted. Alone and lonely aren’t the same, though predators and profiteers would have you think they are. This happens by no accident. Codependence and consumerism make agreeable bedfellows.
So, when people ask the question, “Are you traveling alone?” what they’re really getting at is why are you alone. How can you possibly be OK with no one standing there to say you are? Whether or not they intend to offend depends on interpretation. But to those who ask, I simply say…
I’d rather be left alone than lonely with other people.
Friday morning showed up. It was time to go. I packed our bags back in the big silver truck. Then we strolled north to those prehistoric cliffs where I purged my past a few days prior. Pablo and I had to say goodbye. I imprinted Kiwanda in my mind, so the next time Colorado caged me in, I’d already be long gone. Gliding my fingertips across its craggy face, sandstone specks stuck to my hand. Each bore the weight of eighteen million years since these cliffs had been created. Gray sky met even grayer horizon. Sea spray laced wind splashed my face. A cormorant flew overhead and perched to dry its wings. I stood there, blissful, humbled, complete. A different woman than the one who arrived with her next adventure moments away. I took my last sips of ocean air, and I watched the ocean’s waves roll in.