Look: it’s my favorite time of day. The sky has deepend into that rich periwinkle, and the first stars harken the return of the night.
No, no. Not out there. Look in here. Slow down, drop into the more real.
I know, I know. Crazy talk. That’s what I used to think about spirituality, too: just a Story. But let me tell you one thing I’ve learned about stories: they keep living inside of you.
What’s real? This stuff I can measure? This stuff I can smell, taste, hear, see, touch? Then what about the other stuff? How does that get categorized? What does one do with all that?
How do you let the Story go?
Take this story I’ve been telling you about DJ. When I think about it now, it almost feels like it happened to an entirely different person. Each time I remember it, I ask myself: what the fuck was I thinking? Was that really me caught in that footrace?
I can ask myself why. I can give myself an answer. Maybe the answer I give myself is even right. But having the right answer now doesn’t make up for what happened then.
You know what I mean? Do you also wish you were born perfect?
I’ll tell you what’s perfect: the periwinkle sky. The stars. The soft light emanating from the Temple.
No, no. Not yet.
somewhere near the oregon dunes
day 53. 1,370 mi. to go
It was well after dusk when I reached one of the largest campgrounds in Oregon, on the edge of the Oregon Dunes. The night was crisp, and the stars were brilliant. The campground map showed me the way to the communal, hiker-biker campsite, but instead, I veered off into the opposite direction and chose one of the normal, vehicle campsites on the far side of the campground. I set up my tent quickly, wolfed down a late dinner, then lay down in my sleeping bag and set my alarm for just after sunrise. I wanted to be out of there before DJ spotted me.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and I turned, continuously approaching the goal line of deep rest but never able to get the ball across. The sky was already lightening when I finally drifted off. Suddenly, I found myself in a vivid and uncomfortable dream about my ex-girlfriend, Sally. We were sitting at a picnic table next to a lake, and Sally was gushing about how happy she was in her new relationship. “He’s perfect,” she was saying. “He cooks all our meals, and he always makes what I want. Whenever he goes out, he always leaves me a precise itinerary of where he’ll be and how I can contact him. He only needs to work three months a year to pay our bills, and the rest of the time he spends caring for me. I love him. He’s my soulmate. He’s so much better a man than you are.”
Every word cut me to the bone, but I didn’t dare interrupt Sally—I didn’t dare insult her by putting my needs in front of hers. I kept listening intently, hoping that I would change her opinion of me. I’m not who you think I am, I was thinking. At least, not anymore. I was sitting at the picnic table, Sally was leaning against the table top. Suddenly, something shifted in the dream, and I realized that there was a man standing behind Sally. It wasn’t her new boyfriend—I had met him just once before she left me, but I had stalked him many times on Facebook. It was an anonymous man I had never seen before, and he was thrusting into Sally from behind. Sally didn’t appear to be enjoying the sex, but she didn’t not appear to be enjoying it either. The anonymous man finished, slapped Sally on the ass, and then stepped away so another man could take his place. I could see now that there was a queue of anonymous men that stretched from the picnic table, down to the lakeshore, and into the forest—they were all waiting for their turn with Sally. I tried to shoo them away, they wouldn’t leave; when I woke up the light was bursting through my tent, and I was drenched in sweat.
It was well past nine. I dragged myself out of my tent and boiled some water for my oatmeal, still hoping that I could escape detection.
Then I heard someone erupting in an ugly, hacking cough just a few yards behind me. I tensed all my muscles at once. I recognized DJ immediately.
“Whatcha doin’ over here?” DJ plopped down at my campsite picnic table and immediately began to roll a cigarette. (Pipe tobacco. Because it was cheapest.) He pointed to the trees on the far side of the campground. “Hiker-biker’s over there.”
“I got in late,” I said, not looking at him. “I must have gotten lost.”
“Lost? Pretty hard to get lost. They got maps everywhere.” DJ lit the cigarette and immediately began to cough. It took nearly thirty seconds before the coughing fit passed. “Me and Ace, we’ve been waiting here two days for you to arrive.” I got shivers, but I didn’t say anything. DJ sighed. “Anyway, it’s like I always say. If I was in a hurry, I wouldn’t be…”
“Morning boys!” I looked over: a female Park Ranger with a short haircut and a uniform had arrived at the edge of my campsite. She looked puzzled. “No vehicle? You do know about the hiker-biker?”
“I got in late,” I lied. “I must have been confused.” DJ seemed to make a point of looking off in the other direction.
The Park Ranger was gregarious. “Okay—I’ll let it slide this time. We’re pretty empty this late in the season.” I handed over five dollars, and the Ranger began to write out a receipt. “Say—you boys hear about the storm?”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. “Storm?”
“First big storm of the winter is supposed to hit today or tomorrow. Weather Service says it’s a doozie. Do you boys have a vehicle?” I shook my head and glanced at DJ. I could tell that his ears had perked. The Ranger ripped off the receipt and handed it to me. “Sounds like trouble. Hope you boys can find somewhere safe.”
As soon as the Ranger was out of earshot, DJ pulled a dog-eared map from the pocket of his camo cargo pants and laid it on the picnic table. “Here’s where we’re gonna hunker-down.” I followed his yellowed finger to an amoeba-shaped splotch of blue ten miles south. I leaned closer to read the label: TAHKENITCH LAKE.
“Cool,” I said, taking a noncommital bite of my oatmeal.
As I chewed, my eyes were darting around the map. The coastal highway was the only marked road south, and it led right along the shores of Tahkenitch Lake. The region was all protected land; there wasn’t another community for twenty miles until Reedsport. The only other way south was to walk along the beach, but to get there from the campground, I’d have to walk across the width of the Oregon Dunes—one of the largest swaths of temperate sand dunes in the world. It was a couple miles across the sand dunes to get to the beach, and I’d only be able to walk south a few miles before I’d have to return inland so I could cross the highway bridge over the Umpqua River to get into Reedsport. All told, walking the beach would be a significant detour, especially with the threat of the storm on the horizon.
DJ yanked the map from my eyes. “We’re not gonna walk with you today,” he said. “Me and Ace, we’re still hurtin’ from that day up by Lincoln City. We’re gonna catch a ride into Florence and pick up some supplies. Then we’re gonna meet you at Tahkenitch Lake.”
“Cool,” I said. There didn’t appear to be another option.
DJ’s eyes narrowed through his glasses, but he didn’t say anything. He took a final drag from his cigarette and flicked it into the fire ring. Then he got up heavily from the picnic table and limped off in the direction of the hiker-biker.
As soon as he was out of sight, I hurried to tear down my camp. Then I raced off into the sand dunes.
What was I doing? Why was I running from DJ again? I was dogged by shame as I trudged through a Saharan landscape, as long as you didn’t notice the stands of coniferous trees that shot out of the sand intermittently. The Oregon Dunes were bizarre and otherworldly and gorgeous, but I couldn’t care less; I was so deep in my self-pity. I felt trapped in a bad rerun that I didn’t know how to stop.
First, Jack the Chicken Man. Then, DJ on the highway. Then, DJ at three State Park campgrounds as I made my way down the coast. And in the parking lot of Sea Lion Caves. And by the Heceta Head Lighthouse. And by the supermarket in Florence. I was pretty sure that he was following me, but I couldn’t bring myself to be honest about why. Nor could I bring myself to do anything about it.
What a ridiculous situation, I thought. A drifter is chasing me down Oregon. And I was heading right into the rain.
I trudged through the deep sand like I was fighting through a snowdrift. The tallest dunes were hundreds of feet high, their flanks scarred with tire tracks from quads and dune buggies. As I fought to climb up a ridgeline, I thought again about my graphic dream about Sally. What was my subconscious trying to tell me? How many times in my life had I been in a situation like this?
“FUCK!” I screamed, when I finally reached the summit of the dune. From the top, I could see down the coast to the horizon, and there wasn’t any manmade shelter or even a single tree to shelter underneath. Dark clouds were gathering over the Pacific; the storm appeared ready to arrive at any moment. “Fuck,” I muttered again. I knew I couldn’t walk the coast—I’d be too vulnerable. I’d have to turn back to the highway, I’d have to walk right by Tahkenitch Lake. I was going to have to go right back to DJ.
I continued west across the dunes anyway, reaching the surf just as a few raindrops began to fall. Seagulls stood like sentries in the whitewash, watching me carefully but keeping their distance. I moped on the hard-packed sand, listening to my shoes squeak, trying not to think about what was ahead of me. The threat felt existential. I tried to analyze it, to pick it apart. I wasn’t afraid that DJ would hurt me. I wasn’t afraid that the situation might turn sexual, like Jack the Chicken Man. So what was I so afraid of? I spent nearly an hour searching for the answer, but I still didn’t have it when I returned to the junction with the coastal highway.
Just moments after reaching the junction, a southbound pickup screeched to a stop, then u-turned tightly to pull up to where I was standing on the opposite shoulder. The driver was a teenage boy. Ace was in the box. DJ was in the passenger seat. He jerked his thumb at the driver. “Bribed this kid with some weed to drive us into Florence and back to get supplies.” The boy glared through the cracked windshield, pretending to ignore us. DJ seemed exuberant. “Got you something!” he said. He reached into the clutch of grocery bags by his feet, pulling out a package of assorted pasta noodles. The label said, VEGETABLE FLAVORED. “Because you’re vegetarian!”
“Thanks, DJ,” I muttered. “That’s… That’s really thoughtful.”
“Right?” He seemed pleased with himself. Then his eyes narrowed again. “Tahkenitch Lake,” he said sharply. “Don’t forget.”
He nodded at the teenager, and the pickup u-turned again, then went screaming down the highway.
I stood by the side of the road, breathing heavily. Suddenly, I realized that I was holding onto Paul’s crystal. I was squeezing it for dear life.
Disaster happened at Tahkenitch Lake. At least, that’s the way it felt at the time. It started when DJ suggested playing chess. I told him that I’d love to play—I would have done anything to get my mind off the approaching storm. I was picturing a hurricane, with branches falling and tents flying. I had the sinking feeling that everything I’d been walking towards was about to be blown away.
The problem was that neither of us had a chessboard. DJ cracked a sly smile. “Just trust ol’ DJ.” He got up from the picnic table and limped over to his tent, returning with the cardboard sign that he used when he was panhandling. The sign read: HUNGRY. NEED DOG FOOD. in black Sharpie. “Idiots think the money is for the dog,” he groused.
He flipped the sign over and used the Sharpie to draw a chessboard on the blank side. But what were we going to do for pieces? Easy: pasta noodles. Shells for pawns, penne bishops, rotini knights and wheel rooks, with a dime and a quarter for the king and queen. We marked all the dark pieces with the Sharpie and faced one another at the picnic table. DJ moved a shell and fell quiet, a ubiquitous cigarette burning slowly between his fingers. He studied the board; I studied him, trying to figure out what had made this man into my kryptonite.
I thought back to when I’d met him a week earlier, how I’d idealized DJ as another spiritual seeker like Kelly the Astrologer. I’d tried to see the best in DJ, tried to project onto him an open-mindedness and curiosity that, by now, I knew didn’t exist. I remembered a story that DJ had told me recently about a time when he’d been traveling around Florida on his bicycle. Somehow, he’d come into possession of a carpenter’s level that he hoped to exchange for a handful of paperbacks. When he went to a pawn shop, the clerk offered him a dozen books for the level. “What the hell was I going to do with twelve books?” DJ groused. “I was traveling on my bicycle. I couldn’t handle the extra weight. I had to hunker-down at a campsite for more than two weeks before I’d read enough of ’em to keep moving.” He’d shook his head and took another drag on his cigarette.
I couldn’t help myself from taking the bait. “Why did you take all the books? Why wouldn’t you just take the ones you wanted and could carry?”
“Don’t your ears work?” he snapped. “I told you he offered me twelve. What do I look like? Some kinda idiot?”
I decided not to reply. DJ sighed. He flicked away the cigarette butt and immediately started rolling another one. “Anyway, it’s like I always say…”
He was definitely right about that part.
Then, I thought about my dream with Sally and that queue of anonymous men. Why had I tried to save her? Why was it my business who she slept with, who she dated, how she chose to live her life? A million answers came to the surface, it was hard to parse through them. I just wanted to love her, I thought. I just wanted to be in a relationship that finally worked.
I thought about when I first met Sally. We were both traveling in India at the time. I was 27, she was 23; we’d both spent months in the subcontinent trying to escape the memories of our other life. I’d dated another woman for the first half of my twenties, and the relationship had ended in disaster. Sally’s life had been a constant stream of boyfriends, lovers, affairs. She could count on one hand the number of days she’d been single since she graduated high school.
When I met Sally, she already had a boyfriend: they were living in Portugal at the time, already sharing a house, a dog, a dream for the future. But Sally had come to India alone, and I thought that meant she was available. I didn’t consciously set out to break up their relationship, I just thought that we had chemistry. I didn’t realize then that other men were always her way out. What was she running from? Why had she left her boyfriend so readily? Was it because I was special, or was it because that was what I wanted to tell myself?
DJ made a move. It was a bad one. He’d unwittingly exposed one of his rotini, making it easy to capture with my penne. I pretended to study the board, knowing that if I snapped up the noodle, the odds would be heavily slanted in my favor. But we’d only been playing for ten minutes, and if the game ended we’d be back to the same predicament, waiting in agony for the arriving storm.
I considered the rotini, but then I pushed one of my shells instead.
DJ took a drag. He didn’t appear to see the rotini. As I watched him, I could feel the tension gripping my chest. When Sally and I met, I was in India with a contract to do some travel research. I had been hired to visit five-star hotels and write up pithy reviews about the views over the slums or the comfort of the silver-plated bathtub. It was a plum job; it was an excuse to spend yet another six months wandering around India, my third extended trip since the end of my long-term relationship and the start of my self-declared Quarter Life Crisis. Then, there was a major terrorist attack. Ten Islamist terrorists stormed Bombay, killing scores and holding hostages in India’s finest hotel. I was supposed to arrive in Bombay the following day, and I was overwhelmed with emotion from my totally minimal near brush with terror. The night I met Sally, I set out with the express purpose of finding some girl I could proposition to join me on my tour of luxury hotels and distract me. I was running, she was running, we were running together, she was taken but made herself available. Not a very romantic start to a relationship, but still the romance of it all charmed me. We spent a week galavanting between five-star hotels, and at the end of it all I told Sally that I was in love with her. She flew home, broke up with her boyfriend, and a few weeks later was back with me in India again. The relationship was fucked from the beginning.
DJ made another move. This blunder was even worse than the last. Now his queen was out in the open, easily captured by my rotini. If I could have done it all again, would I be so naive? I thought. Not after the way it ended.
This time, I didn’t hesitate. I used the rotini to snap up the quarter.
DJ’s jaw nearly hit the picnic table. “No!” he protested. He pointed to my rotini. “I didn’t see that this one was a black piece.”
I looked down at the offending noodle. It was clearly marked with Sharpie. “Do you want me to let you take it back?” I asked flatly.
“Do you want to win by being a cheater?”
I winced. The barb cut too close to home.
“Look, DJ, why don’t we play another game?” DJ had already turned away from me, he was already rolling another cigarette. I looked up. The clouds were pale and gusting quickly over the lakeshore. The big storm was taking its sweet time. When I glanced at DJ again, I saw that he’d pulled a hash pipe from his jacket pocket and already had it at his lips. I shuddered when I caught a whiff of the sweet smoke.
When I’d left Vancouver after everything, I told myself that I was going on a pilgrimage. I thought I needed to redeem myself, I needed to repent. I promised myself that walking would be hard work. It wouldn’t be fun, I was going to make myself suffer, and I promised myself that I would stay completely sober until I touched the Mexican border fence. That meant no alcohol—which was easy for me, I wasn’t a drinker. No pot—way harder—and no porn—hardest of all. I felt that promise run through my bloodstream as I eyed up DJ’s pipe. But I could also sense the storm was coming.
“Give me some of that.”
DJ’s eyes went wide. “You want some of this? But I thought lil’ Momma’s Boy was supposed to be sober.”
“I’m no Momma’s Boy.” I snatched the pipe from his hands. “And I make the Rules.”
In an instant, my sobriety went up in smoke.
DJ and I left Tahkenitch Lake together the next morning, though we were in a panic. The air pressure was dropping precipitously; finally, the long-awaited storm was about to start. Less than a mile from the campground, the highway climbed uphill steeply, and DJ started to lag behind. “Slow down,” he whined over the sound of highway traffic. “Our legs are hurting.” I was so angry that I couldn’t look at him.
“I got to hurry!” I yelled back. “You can catch a ride. I can’t.”
“No! It’s like I always say…”
“Sorry, DJ. Maybe I’ll see you in Reedsport.”
I turned and put my Ferrari into sixth again. By the time I reached the top of the hill, DJ and Ace were gone. I barely hesitated as I sped down the other side. I needed to get to Reedsport, I needed to get as far away from what had happened.
The rain started when I was outside a Mexican restaurant in Reedsport. Great sheets of water came tumbling over the awning. Half-heartedly, I tried to play You Are My Sunshine on my harmonica, but whatever magic had once existed appeared to have been lost. I sat there for a long time, watching the rain, feeling furious with myself that I had broken nearly fifty days of sobriety. I’d let myself down. I kept letting myself down, I’d been letting myself down for much longer than I wanted to admit. Why had I tried to sleep with Sally? She had a boyfriend. Why had I stayed with her, why had I gotten myself into all of this? Why, why, why, why, why was the real reason I was walking alone from Canada to Mexico, because if I was setting out to be a hero, I certainly wasn’t acting like it. Why did I let myself get stoned?
I tried to let all that go, so I could focus on much more urgent problems. Where was I going to sleep? The next campground wasn’t until Winchester Bay, and Winchester Bay was four miles away through a cold, driving deluge. That felt like a distance that was unwalkable. Could I meet a Good Samaritan in Reedsport? The problem was that Reedsport was a dump. Picking up an open wifi, I searched through the handful of cafés in town until I found one that looked Good Samaritan-ish. It was a mile from the Mexican restaurant, and by the time I got there I was already soaked to the bone. Inside, I sat by the fire and made earnest, overeager eye contact with every arriving patron. Will you take me home? Will you? Hardly anyone would even look at me. I waited more than an hour until the café closed without any good options. Now it was late, and I was running out of light.
I pulled on my raingear and stood outside watching the downpour. Where was DJ? Was he alright? “FUCK!” I shouted. Why did I still feel so much responsibility for him? I didn’t even like him!
There were a pair of churches across the street, and both had their pastor’s phone numbers printed on the sign. I dialed both numbers and left a pair of desperate phone messages, but neither one of them called me back. So much for pilgrimage. I was running out of options, so I spontaneously decided that I would make a break for Winchester Bay. It was just over three miles, if I walked quickly I could make it there in a little less than an hour. As I walked on the highway shoulder, I dodged the great peacock tails of water splashing out behind the passing vehicles. The rain was coming down so hard that I could barely see two hundred yards in front of me. “You’re having fun,” I said to myself as I shivered. “You’re walking to Mexico. This is fun.” After the first mile, I was pretty clearly not having fun. I was freezing, I was overwhelmed by emotion. I just wanted things to be straightforward and easy.
Then, midway through the second mile, I had an idea that was so obvious that it literally made me laugh out loud.
“A motel. Of course.”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it earlier. A motel would cost me fifty dollars—surely I could justify spending fifty bucks to escape a Biblical rainstorm. Immediately, I picked up the pace.
“Come on, Jordan,” I encouraged myself. “Fifteen more minutes and you’ll be in a hot shower. Come on. You can do it.”
In my imagination, I was already at the motel. My clothes were drying on the radiator, I was luxuriating in a long shower, I was safe from DJ behind a locked door. Fuck it, I thought. I had already broken my sobriety. Maybe it was time to enjoy myself. I pictured myself loading up my favorite porn site. I pictured myself working into a frenzy. I pictured giving myself everything that I thought that I wanted.
Faster, faster. I was almost there. Up ahead, I could faintly make out the road sign that said WINCHESTER BAY. 1 MILE.
Then, I saw something that made my heart stop. Up ahead, there was a tall, lanky figure limping towards me on the side of the highway. I couldn’t believe it. DJ.
DJ wouldn’t make eye contact when we reached one another. “Found us a hunker down!” he shouted over highway traffic. He explained that, up ahead, there was an RV Park, and he’d talked the manager into letting the two of us sleep in the storage shed.
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. DJ turned around and began limping the opposite direction along the highway. I moped after him until we reached the driveway that led into the RV Park. I hesitated. I could see a motel just a quarter-mile away. Then I slumped my shoulders and moped after him.
The storage shed was exactly as imagined: cold, damp, and half full with desk and office chairs. “If you move some of them around,” said the manager, “you could make enough room for the two of you to lay out your sleeping bags.”
I imagined how DJ’s ugly cough would echo in the concrete shed. The manager wanted five bucks from each of us to sleep there. The two men looked at me expectantly. I sighed heavily and handed over a sopping fiver from my drenched wallet.
The manager went away satisfied. DJ was pleased. “What’d I tell you, you trust ol’ DJ. DJ always comes through in the end!” It was the first time I saw him exuberant, and it made me feel even worse.
I slumped into a leather office chair and began to take off my shoes. Beneath my soaked socks, my skin was white. DJ disappeared to go to the restroom. The moment he was gone, I let my head fall into my hands.
“FUCK!” My voice echoed in the concrete shed, and the sound made Ace bark. “What the fuck am I doing?“
Suddenly, I heard a voice in my head whisper: “you’re afraid to hurt him.” It was so obvious, but still it illuminated me like a ray of light. That was exactly right. I didn’t want to hurt him.
Why do I care if I hurt him? He’s just some stranger that I met at a hiker-biker. I don’t owe him anything, it’s not like he’s my father. Quickly, I grabbed for my wet socks and pulled them over my blanched feet. Ace raised his head quizzically as I hurried to tie up my shoes. I wanted to get out of there before DJ returned from the restroom. “Take care of him,” I said. “There’s a nice guy in there somewhere.”
I stood up and turned towards the glass sliding door. Through the condensation, I could see DJ’s silhouette on the other side.
When he opened the door, DJ’s jaw quivered in shock. But he appeared to try to settle himself. “Where you goin’?”
I looked at my shoes. “DJ… I’m sorry… I’ve got to…”
“Leaving? In this rainstorm? No, no, no. You’ve got to be crazy. Why don’t you just hunker down tonight, you can always leave in the morning.”
“I’m in a bit of a hurry…”
“But it’s like I always say. If I was in a hurry, I wouldn’t be travelin’.”
I hesitated and made a show of looking around the cramped storage shed. Then, the voice in my head said, “tell him the truth.”
I looked DJ in the eyes. “DJ, I’m leaving.”
He grimaced. “But where are you gonna find another hunker down. It’s late. You’re gonna die out there.”
“I’m going to get a motel room.” I regretted saying that immediately.
The vein in DJ’s forehead began to throb. His face started to turn red. “A motel? A motel. You’re gonna go sleep in a motel and leave me and Ace here in this damn… in this damn shed. After all we’ve done for you.” He took a step forward. His body filled the threshold of the doorway, and he towered at least a head taller than me. “Let me tell you something, you… you prick! Me and Ace, we ain’t letting you go nowhere.”
My heart was racing. I was ready for fight or flight. My voice went very, very low. “DJ, I’m going.”
“Like hell you are.”
“Get out of my way.”
“You’re gonna have to fight your way out of here. You ain’t going nowhere.” I could hear his voice tremble.
I took a deep breath and squeezed Paul’s crystal tightly. “DJ,” I said, looking him in the eye, “I’m really sorry you’re so lonely.”
His green eyes flashed with rage. “Fuck you. You don’t know me.” His voice cracked. “You ain’t leavin’ ol’ DJ. You’re just like the rest of ’em.”
“Goodbye, DJ.” I took a step toward him, and he shifted his body just enough that I could slip through the threshold.
“FUCK YOU!” he screamed. “YOU PUSSY! YOU MOMMA’S BOY! YOU FUCK!”
I didn’t look back until I was safely behind the locked door of a Winchester Bay motel. And I never saw DJ again.