by Heather Tingle
Looking up at the path above my head—a vertical climb through tree rain-slicked roots—I decided that there really was no point in trying to stay clean. Full body commitment was necessary now.
Amazed by just how deep the west coast mud could get in March (up to my thigh!!) I hauled myself and my too-heavy pack up, and then down, so many root ‘staircases’, hoping the roots I grabbed or braced on wouldn’t be too slippery. The only way to get past the giant fallen tree was to straddle it and slide over, until my other foot found purchase on the other side. So sorry, tree, for grabbing you there, I found myself thinking all too often.
The other recurring thought was what the hell did I pack in my backpack? What was I thinking bringing that heavy 2.5 person tent on a solo adventure? The unfortunate answer to that question was that I had been thinking of the destination, not the journey.
Here I was, on a little solo backpacking trip to sit on a deserted beach and contemplate what it meant to be a woman turning (gulp) 50. I hoped this trip would reconnect me to my inner Peter Pan lost girl—ragtag and refusing to grow up.
By the time I got to that beach, shaky from hours of exertion and a spectacular-but-ultimately-benign fall in the mud, I was feeling my age. It is humbling to get up from flat on the ground with a big pack strapped to your back. (Probably very entertaining to watch, though.)
Stumbling down the rocky shore towards the wilderness camping area, I was flabbergasted by the number of people visible on what was a sure-to-be-empty remote beach. A very clean trio of smiling people strolled past, eying my pack and mud encrustations with what I hope was awed respect and not bemused pity.
Two young men ran past with surfboards. Surfboards? How??! A third group, setting up camp in the second-last available spot, asked me where I came from (with tones of look what the cat dragged in).
Turns out I was the only one on the beach who had spent several hours getting up close with tree roots, skunk cabbage, and personal limitations. Everyone else had taken a “secret” surfer trail that took all of 45 minutes to walk straight from the highway.
So much for the wisdom of age! So much for solitary contemplation alongside the ocean. And there was CERTAINLY no chance of skinny dipping now! Good thing I had a nice spacious tent to stretch out in, because I was going to need some recovery time, both physically and emotionally.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it is that things don’t often turn out like you expect. I’ve come to enjoy the surprises (mostly, or find something to laugh about)—so why was this such a disappointment?
Turning a really big number like 50 years of age seemed like a good time to contemplate the years ahead, and for the first time I saw a future that might be diminishing. The natural losses that come with aging seem so much closer now. Yet inside my mind I feel like a vibrant young woman. The face in the mirror doesn’t reflect who I am anymore. And now, after SO much effort, there was the loss of hoped-for solitude to reconnect to nature on this beautiful beach.
But after my tent was up and I’d had some food, I watched a father set up a driftwood swing for his young daughter… A gull brazenly steal a meal, by swallowing it whole, from a gull who’d been leisurely eating… A group of teens out on their first camping trip as themselves, not as someone’s children along for the ride… Enthusiastically green spring foliage emerging… Surfers in wetsuits out there until the last bit of sun dipped below the horizon… A dog who inexplicably wanted me to throw him a big rock and absolutely not a piece of driftwood.
I realized we can be alone anywhere to contemplate life and be in harmony with the natural world. I remembered that the reward is in the journey, in the present moment; I don’t need to look ahead for treasure. And it wasn’t really solitude I was after—it was solace in connection with living things, and space to observe and just be.
In spite of being different from what I’d envisioned while slogging up the trail, that is exactly what I got.
But I still had to hike that darn tent home.