This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (now +25% complete!). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.
I let the fire go down, checked my phone, set the alarm: almost midnight, still some light in the sky north, reduced down to a soft, green glow. I went back to my bivy sack with the headlamp to review my notes from the day, only 36 hours since I’d been out, but it felt like forever. There was the last of the tri-tip roast I smoked last weekend, ate that in camp, compared it to bubblegum but better (you could swallow it), the Irish cheddar gone oily from the heat, the salt crystals I licked off my pocket knife…me, turning like a rotisserie chicken on the beach with no shelter, nowhere to escape the afternoon sun. Had to get into the cold creek to cool off, didn’t bother with the sun screen. The Belgian girl said goodnight; now there was no sight or sound of her in the tent, though you could see through the sides.
Slipping off to the sound of the tides clapping, coming in…there were times as a kid with a fever I’d have the oddest sensation the darkness had a palpability to it, a shape, and I was one with it, my shape changed too—but it was terrifying and hard to tell, was it me occupying the darkness, or the other way around? I’d push it away, and wake up sweating, scared—but as I got older the sense became exhilarating, less frequent, like only once a year—and I got superstitious about it, was it a portal, a kind of magic? But magic and madness are two things I don’t know much about, and it’s easy to confuse the two.
I woke to the sound of something flickering by my head and batted it away, realized it was a rodent, I could hear its feet in the sand, sense it sniffing my head…and I grunted at it, struggled to zip the sack shut to keep it out, but couldn’t…and lay there for a while until it came back, and on and on it went…and I fought with myself and my consciousness to ignore it, checked the time (3-something), thought of that torture scene from 1984, the rat: pictured the actor who played the character in the film version, his pale, greasy face, those darting eyes—his raw fear, fear like a wick in all of us that gives focus or melts our frames down, dissolves us.
Writing a book, all that excitement at the start, and the same I expected when I’d get to the end: but like running a long race, there was all this time and distance in the middle, all that time with just you and your will, your doubts, to deal with.
We were struggling halfway in, a 90-day road trip in the UK that winter with our kids, halfway into a longer, nine-month stay in Germany: the week outside of Galway, some lonesome place called Salthill, a sad apartment facing the sea, with nothing but clouds and rain most days, people bent back by the wind. Struggling with how I’d restart my memoir after months off, knowing it was time. The morning I walked out on a causeway to a lighthouse with the waves crashing, coming over the rocks: the causeway, a long finger pointing out to the sea. So alone, with only myself to figure things out.
Thinking I’d found that crux moment from my past, in Pittsburgh (we all had pivotal moments like that, but they could be forgotten or overlooked, like dreams).
That singer on the open mic one night, who just did a cappella, belted it. Everyone in the café stopped and it got so quiet, when he sang. And I went quiet after that summer too, clammed up with my writing, 1994. I’d perform poems but got self-aware in a bad way, realized it wasn’t really good. The fear and doubt, “the truth,” settled in. My guru, a guy who went by the stage name Bingo Quixote then, with a beard and top hat, suspenders: he said, I think you just need to take some time off and live.
About 10 years later in Seattle with Dawn’s friend Pat, we went to a poetry slam and I sang a poem a cappella about spiders and writers I wrote, the webs we make. I sang it, and may never do anything like that again, but I was glad I did. Moments in life, choices, can either be a slow building up or a slow falling down, the rise to make ourselves, or resign.
We left Galway, the west coast of Ireland, in mid-December, and headed south for a route that wound down to Cork, the southern coast.
Dawn was trying to help me with my book, suggested I go from first person to third, try fictionalizing it. I’d seen writers do that—one of my favorites was James Joyce, and he made himself a character called Stephen Daedelus, paired that name with a Greek myth, identified with things on a classical level. Took years with it though, nearly killed himself and his wife, I read. I didn’t think it had to be that hard to be so good. It just had to be.
By the time we got to England I resolved to write every morning for 30 days, all by hand, by candlelight, with dim music, my ritual. Each night before bed, I tried to go inside some cave-like space in my self-consciousness, to coax it out. I often didn’t know what to write in the morning, and would just write about my dreams. I was convinced if I kept going it would lead somewhere. I even had a Harry Potter moleskin with the Deathly Hallows symbol on the front, figured that couldn’t hurt.
I used to think, how ostentatious, to write so much about yourself. Like, who would want to read a memoir about somebody no one knows anything about, why would they care? There had to be some epic reveal, some gross kind of personal transgression people would slow down to stare at, on the side of the road.
But it became a challenge for me to live my life in a remarkable way—it got mixed in with how I identified myself, and I knew for writers and artists that was a universal struggle to be, by what you do. And isn’t life ostentatious, shouldn’t it be? Running marathons, climbing mountains, writing books? It had to be life or death, for me. I handpicked stories of death around me to serve as inspiration, from those who physically died or didn’t live their dreams as I would mine, who didn’t die, but didn’t live as much as I wanted.
My alarm was set for 5:45 and jingled me awake: I survived the mouse without exposing my fears to the Belgian girl, without having to scream, or freak her out. I’d thought it would be nice to make coffee in the morning and offer her some, but it felt too intimate. We never exchanged names, didn’t need to.
I broke everything down to their component parts and stuffed my things into compression sacks, dunked my head in the stream, decided to leave the crooked staff behind—forded the creek barefoot, blew a sideways snot-rocket Euro-style, looked back at her tent, and climbed the trail to the forest for the hike out.
I needed to get to the rock scramble by quarter past 8 for low tide, and onwards to the Kalaloch Lodge in time for breakfast, home by 3—like mom always said, “no time like the present, no present like the time.”