E06: Death by Selfie

Day 80. 1,120 MI. TO GO

17 min read
Looking south toward the Redwood National Park.

I could see trouble brewing. From high up the hillside, I had a sweeping view over the coastline. To the south, I could see into the Redwood National Park—a 139,000 acre protected wilderness that was home to nearly half of the world’s remaining old-growth coast redwood trees. That’s where I was heading.

To the west, I could see the sun shimmering on the Pacific. Big waves were rolling in towards the wild coast. High above the surf, there was an immense storm cloud, as purple as a bruise against the otherwise pale sky. It was drifting slowly toward me.

I knew that there was no shelter ahead. No matter what I did, I was going to get hit.

Resigned to my fate, I headed toward the redwoods.


I stopped for lunch and watched the cloud move in steadily. The contrast was stunning—there was sunshine just beyond the edge of the rain. Here and there, golden rays burst through the thick clouds, dancing on the turquoise water. They reminded me of the waterfall of pure light that I had seen in my hallucination.

I took long swigs from my water bottle. Then, I played You Are My Sunshine on my harmonica, even though I didn’t think it was going to work. The cloud puttered toward me the way a shark might circle a wounded seal. There was no drama; the end was inevitable.

Still, I continued along the coastal road high on the hillside, marveling at the overgrown foliage, the remarkable shades of green. Around 2:00 pm, I reached the trail that descended six hundred feet to the beach. I was midway down the switchbacking trail when raindrops began plummeting through the canopy, drumming on the fir needles under my feet.

I stopped, set my bag next to a downed log, and quickly pulled on my protective jacket, pants, and bag cover. More than 80 inches of rain can fall on the redwoods in a wet year; nearly twice the annual rainfall of Seattle. I wasn’t fazed—rain had been my constant companion for going on three weeks since my birthday. Perched on the downed log, I sat still, smelling the mulch, feeling the heavy air, listening to the sound of the rain.

This was nothing remarkable; this had simply become my life.

The approaching storm cloud.

The beach started right at the foot of the steep, densely forested hillside. When I burst out of the woods, I let out a joyful cry—the scenery was spectacular. Just to my right, there were sheer cliffs that protected the beach from the rest of the world. Scattered offshore were jagged boulders and sea stacks that were being besieged by the crashing waves. To my left, the dark beach continued to the horizon, completely untracked besides the seagulls and shorebirds. There wasn’t an unnatural structure in view; I couldn’t see a single boat or airplane. If I blurred my eyes, I could have imagined that I had entered into an entirely different time. When I looked up, it seemed just as likely that I would see a 747 or a pterodactyl.

The stunning light heightened everything. The contrasts seemed innumerable—the rain and the sun, the light and the dark, the sand and the surf, the Pacific and the redwoods…

I thought to myself, I’ve got to take a selfie.

A small creek tumbled out of the forest, meandering down the beach to reach the pounding surf. Though it was hardly six inches deep, I was still wearing the running shoes I bought back in Vancouver—and I had long ago realized that “water-resistant” did not mean the same thing as “waterproof.” Dry, clean socks were at a premium—it had been three days since I last did my laundry—so I sat in the sand and stripped off socks and shoes so I could wade through the cold water. Then, I hurried to put my socks and shoes back on so I could get down to the surf, all the while plotting out the best location for my selfie.

The northern end of Gold Bluffs Beach.

Suddenly, a sunbeam cracked through the dark storm cloud. I was illuminated in brilliant light. Ecstatically, I fumbled for my camera and tried to assume an expression that appeared beatific. Holding the big SLR outstretched, I snapped a frame, then hurried to chimp at the image. It wasn’t quite right—the camera’s autofocus had centered on my outstretched hand, rather than my face.

I held the camera out again, resuming a similar expression. I had been in California for about a week by then, and I felt closer than ever to my catharsis. The past three weeks since my birthday had been great. I felt like I could measure my maturing on a logarithmic scale. That person, that version of me that had stumbled into this trip seemed to have receded into my rearview mirror. I was no longer him, but who was I now?

Click. I checked the image. This one also wasn’t quite right. This time, the focus was correct, but the composition didn’t do a great job of capturing the stunning beauty of the beach. Besides, I thought my expression was a little smug.

Click. Fuck!

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Something wasn’t quite right. I needed a wider perspective.

I decided that a better option would be to set the camera’s self-timer; that way, I could step back from the lens and situate myself in the jaw-dropping landscape. But I couldn’t put the camera on the sand—too low.

There! Up ahead, there was a big boulder a safe distance from the tideline. The jet black rock was about the size of a big SUV and shimmering wet from the rain. Peering over my shoulder at the sunbeam, I pleaded with the heavens to hold out for another few minutes until I got my shot. Big raindrops fell on the controls as I tried to stabilize the camera atop the slanted rock. It was an anxious struggle before I finally got the camera to sit still.

Clicking the shutter, I ran backward a few steps and spontaneously assumed a position that vaguely resembled the famous Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro. The Bald Rapunzel, actualizing his bliss, attaining his healing!

Click.

I rushed back to the rock to assess the results. This self-portrait was better, but… I didn’t like how far back I was in the frame. And the horizon line ran right through the center of the photo.

I made a quick adjustment to the settings before pressing the shutter button again. Darting backward, I resumed the same beatific pose. Click.

Click.

Click.

Click.

I had been trying to take a picture of myself for going on ten minutes. By now, I had shot off eighteen different frames, and not one of them felt perfect. Frustrated, certain that I was about to lose the sunlight, I decided to slightly alter the composition; I didn’t like all the footprints at the bottom of the image, I thought it gave away how obsessive compulsively vain I was being. I didn’t like how it looked.

Back at the boulder, I began trying to find a new position for my camera. I was circling the big rock, perching on its edge, trying to get the camera to sit still, when I suddenly heard a bone-chilling sound behind me. Immediately, I realized what I had done. I had sandwiched myself between the boulder and the ocean; I had broken the oldest rule in the book.

When I looked over my shoulder, I saw that a big wave was rushing up the beach. It was already nipping at my heels. There was no hope of escape—the boulder was too wide and too steep for me to climb.

I leaped forward and dug my fingernails into the rock.

Immediately, the Pacific swallowed my feet and my ankles. I could feel the force of the ocean tugging me backward as my knees disappeared. Instantly, I reasoned that I was fucked. With fifty pounds strapped to my back, I would struggle to swim. Even if I survived, everything I owned would be drenched. How would I survive a cold November night in a wet sleeping bag? Would I need to call for emergency help? Was this the end of my life?

As the water rose toward the bottom of my backpack, I tried to say something that would serve as my eulogy, but the only sound I could summon was a terrified little “eep.”

The waterline crested just an inch beneath my backpack, then swiftly reversed directions. Suddenly, there were my knees, ankles, feet again. My drenched shoes were filled with sand. Grabbing for my camera, I stumbled to safety, gasping for air, returned to life.



The storm passed within ten minutes, leaving blue skies in its wake. I trudged down the beach about a quarter of a mile, until I reached a brackish lagoon a hundred yards from the surf. Right beside the lagoon, there was a collection of imposing boulders that shimmered in the calm water.

I stripped off my clothes and lay them over a driftwood log, trying to squeeze out whatever warmth was left in the late afternoon sun.

Then, I perched on the log and sat there, gazing out to sea.

I almost died for a selfie.

The Ossagon Rocks

I couldn’t stay there very long. The clocks had already changed; the sunset was before 5:00 pm. As the sun dropped toward the horizon, I put on a new pair of dry socks and slipped my feet into my wet shoes.

Nearby, there was a backcountry campground at the foot of the hill, surrounded by dense forest. A wooden bridge was overwhelmed by a swollen creek. I took off wet shoes and somewhat dry socks, wading through the icy water to reach the campground.

There were hardly any facilities—a couple metal fire rings, a couple picnic tables, a metal food cache. Otherwise, the campground was empty. I put my food bag in the metal cache, then hurried to set up my tent before the sun disappeared. I inflated my foam mattress, laid out my sleeping bag, and changed into the driest clothes I had left. I was wearing everything and I was still freezing. Then, I gathered some water from the creek and set it on my stove to boil. I made a cup of tea, then filled my water bottle. Then, I went back to my sleeping bag and curled up in the fetal position around the hot water. There was no hope of making a fire, all the wood nearby was drenched. I knew there was a long night ahead.

Lying there on my side with the tent door open, I watched the sun drop into the Pacific. The colors were spectacular—an orchestra of neon pinks, purples, and periwinkles—but I couldn’t enjoy them. I felt terrorized by the voices in my head.

A selfie…a fucking selfie!

As darkness crept over the forest, my inner world started to slip into the shadows. I was no longer feeling blissful and beatific; I was feeling self-pitying and taking out my anxiety on myself.

Why hadn’t I died there? Did I even deserve to live after what I did to Sally?

I tossed and turned as the first crisp stars emerged against the periwinkle sky.

My tent tucked into the edge of the forest.

Clutching my garnet crystal, I yearned for Paul. I needed Paul to say something that would shelter me from the torrent of voices in my head. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw scenes from the end of my relationship playing out in my imagination. The things I’d done, the things I’d said… An hour or two earlier, I had been convinced that all that was behind me, but here it was, rearing its ugly head again.

How much further do I have to go? How many more miles do I have to walk?

Why can’t I forget about her?

My stomach was growling. I hadn’t eaten anything since my lunch, and I was feeling famished. But as the last light leaked from the sky, the forest sounds around me seemed more foreboding. What was that crack? What was that screech? Was it a bear? Was it a sleuth of murderous bears? Did the world spare me from death by sea only so I could die in a bear attack hours later? I felt silly, naive, and unprepared. A selfie!…A fucking selfie! I tossed and turned, trying to will my hunger away.

Finally, I decided to brave the wild beyond my micrometers-thin protective shelter. I got out of my sleeping bag and sprinted to the metal food cache, but I didn’t dare make my nightly stew—it would take too long, and wouldn’t all those Indian spices attract the bears? Instead, I ate a half a brick of cheese, inhaled two pita breads, then ran back to my sleeping bag.

Now, the only distraction from the menacing voices in my head was my loud, pungent farts.

I tossed and turned for hours. Finally, exhausted by my panic, I drifted into a merciful sleep.


Then, in the middle of the night, I was shaken awake by another tremendous sound. Rain had begun again; a Biblical deluge was rat-a-tat-ing just a few inches from my head. Inside the shelter, the echoing rain was deafening. It sounded like the sky was shooting machine guns at my tent. Fortunately, my shelter was secure.

Everywhere around me, though, there was the sound of water. There was rain drumming on the fabric, then slithering down the outside of the tent. There was rain dropping from the canopy and binging on the metal fire ring. There was rain passing between the sword ferns like secrets. With the water rushing in the creek and the big waves detonating in the distance, I felt like I was being treated to a spectacular performance—an orchestra, a symphony of water was all around me.

Rolling onto my back, I lay in the pitch darkness. My turbulent thoughts had stilled.

A face appeared in the darkness. It was Colin’s face. Colin was a young man that I had met, a few days earlier, in the small town of Crescent City, California—just twenty miles from the Oregon State Line. A fortunate series of circumstances led me to Colin’s front door; his parents offered to take me in for a couple days. When I arrived, they were hosting a small party in their small, well-worn kitchen. Colin had recently returned from a year in Los Angeles. I took one look at Colin’s messy blond hair, tattoos, and nose piercings and assumed he was the lead singer in an emo band. “What were you doing down there?” I asked. “Trying to get into Hollywood?”

“No,” he replied matter-of-factly. “I was in rehab for my heroin addiction.”

I ended up spending three days with Colin and his parents. They were great, welcoming hosts—but I was particularly taken by Colin. I wanted to know what makes someone an addict; I wanted to know what makes someone well again. I was still clinging to my own binaries about how the inner world worked; I still thought of the world as divided into “healthy” people and addicts like Colin, into “bad” people and good people like Paul, into “normal” people and mentally ill people like Sally. I needed these definitions because without them I couldn’t justify my constant need to beat myself up. How could I be good after how I treated Sally? How could I be healthy? I had started smoking weed again, I had fallen off the wagon. How much more would I have to endure until I could just be normal again?

Colin didn’t give me any of these answers. He mostly talked abstractly about what he’d experienced in rehab in LA—he’d spent a year living in a Christian facility on Skid Row; no TV, no music, no distractions, once a week phone calls home. He was only nineteen. It was a huge change from the life he was used to. But he didn’t need to say the answers because I could feel them. Colin carried himself in a way that suggested that he knew exactly who he was. I had met many people like that when I was traveling in India, but hardly any in North America—everyone I knew, including myself, was always posing for their next selfie. And here was this kid, this heroin addict who could straightforwardly tell his most sordid secret to a complete stranger.

As I lay in the darkness, listening to the rain, I started to feel jealous. I wanted to carry myself and be as honest with strangers as Colin.

Colin*

All around me, the symphony of rain. A second memory arrived in the darkness. The previous day had been my Dad’s fifty-fifth birthday. We’d spoken in the previous evening when I was at an RV Park just north of the Redwood National Park; I had sheltered from the driving rain in the concrete bathroom. My Dad was in a very good mood. Just about a year earlier, he’d been blindsided by a heart attack; he didn’t smoke, he barely drank, he ate smartly, he was in pretty good shape, he didn’t have any of the risk factors except for massive amounts of stress. The experience had terrified him—and me too—and in the aftermath, he had completely changed his life. He’d lost fifteen pounds, he changed his diet, and in the process, our relationship had changed as well. I grew up referring to my Dad as “The Prick,” but even I had to admit begrudgingly that he was becoming different—and by most accounts, better.

At the campground, our conversation had stayed mostly positive. My Dad was careful not to overstep and ask too much about my trip. I was careful not to share too much about what I had been going through recently—Jack the Chicken Man, Mushroom Sam, DJ, Colin. Just getting through the conversation without a fight would have been a success.

Then, just as the conversation was ending, my Dad dropped the bomb. He had booked his first vacation since the heart attack—he was going to join a guided cycling tour down near Santa Barbara. “I was thinking,” he had said tentatively, “that afterward, I could come up there and we could spend some time together.”

Every cell in my body screamed NOOOO! at once, but I heard myself saying, “yesthatsoundsgreat” for reasons I still couldn’t completely understand.

Afterward, I had felt the butterflies in my gut all the way until the selfie that almost killed me.

Lying in the darkness, I replayed this conversation in my mind. Conversations with Colin, Jack, DJ, Sally spliced through my memories.

How much longer was I going to let this go on? How much longer was I going to sacrifice myself to avoid telling the truth, to avoid making other people uncomfortable?

The weight of that question felt overwhelming. I literally couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be Colin, to live in a world so unafraid of telling people the truth.

I lay there in the darkness, listening to the symphony of water.


The next morning, the rain had slowed from Biblical deluge to a run-of-the-mill coastal downpour. I put on my final pair of dry socks and wolfed down my morning oatmeal. My mind was blank; I couldn’t process everything that was happening inside of me—everything I thought, everything I felt. I needed to get somewhere—anywhere—quickly. But where could I go? I was in the middle of a massive coastal wilderness. There seemed like nothing else to do besides putting one foot in front of the other, and keep walking.

Breakfast finished, I packed up my gear and prepared to break camp. I took a few steps down the coastal trail before I immediately reached the creek that was even more swollen than the previous night. Once again, shoes and socks off, through the icy water, then dryish socks into still wet shoes again.

It felt so good to finally be moving. I hoped I was leaving my ghosts behind me.

The coastal trail leading away from the backcountry campground.

The muddy trail followed the base of the steep, forested hill. To my left, the sheer cliffs were wallpapered in greenery—uncountable mosses, lichens, and ferns. In places, the bare rock was exposed by tiny rivulets of water that cascaded down from the forest above. I followed this rock feature for several miles, dodging in and out of the woods, serenaded by birdsong. The rain waned; the sense of profound peace was palpable. Stopping for a break, I marveled at the contrast in my emotional experience. Twelve hours ago, I was panicked; now I was in bliss. Did that mean I was moving forward? Was the Long Dark Night of My Soul finally behind me? I needed to know that I was doing it right.

My hands and toes were freezing. I urged myself to imagine a roaring bonfire in a futile attempt to stay warm.

Finally, I reached one of the most remarkable spots in the redwood forest: Fern Canyon.

The name couldn’t have been more apt. Here, the same rock feature I had been following for a few miles turned ninety degrees, opening up into a narrow chasm between a pair of fifty-foot-tall walls. The dense greenery affixed to the walls was literally prehistoric; some of the species had roots that stretched back hundreds of millions of years. The canyon was littered with tree trunks that had tumbled from the forest above; in the fairy tale atmosphere, I imagined them as bits of broken toothpicks lodged between a giant’s teeth.

My delight for the otherworldly landscape distracted me from my frigid extremities for a while.

There was something else that delighted me too. Just as I arrived at Fern Canyon, another young man appeared from the opposite direction. His name was Mark, and he was originally from New Zealand, though he was now living in San Diego, but taking a few months off work to travel through Northern California in his van.

I remarked that it was appropriate that I should meet a Kiwi at a place called Fern Canyon. Mark peered at me. “Your eyes are exceptionally clear,” he said.

“That’s strange,” I said. “I’ve never felt more lost in my entire life.”

Mark in Fern Canyon

We stood at the mouth of the canyon and chit-chatted casually, marveling at the remarkable features of the rainforest. Mark explained that he had been working for a biotech start-up in San Diego when—he looked shiftily over his shoulders—”some big shit went down.” I realized very quickly that he was a conspiracy theorist—he began to talk about the Bushes and the Saudis, about 9/11, about his skepticism around Obama’s platform of hope.

I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with him, I only knew that I didn’t want the conversation to end. I was so grateful to be talking to someone real, someone who existed beyond the machinations in my own head. I couldn’t believe I was still alive—I had escaped death by selfie and the sneaker wave, I had escaped the murderous bears, but now I felt overmatched by my own demons, my regrets, my ghosts. I felt intensely vulnerable and intensely broken.

It was a relief to be talking about the Republicans and the Tea Party. Politics seemed simple compared to what was going on inside of my head.

Eventually, Mark suggested exploring into Fern Canyon. I left my backpack lying at the mouth of the chasm and followed him inside. A bubbling creek spanned most of the width between the two sheer walls. Mark navigated the cold water easily in his rubber boots; I tried to avoid stepping in the water by leaping from rocky bank to rock bank. However, eventually the creek swelled to fill the breadth of the canyon, and I had no choice but to walk through the water. My shoes were already tattered beyond repair, and my last pair of socks were sopping.

A few hundred yards in, the rain suddenly returned with force. Mark and I continued our conversation as we stood there in the downpour, until finally we realized that we were at risk from a flash flood. We hurried back to the mouth of the canyon, where I saw that the quickly widening creek was just a few feet away from my backpack. I scooped it up and prepared to say goodbye to Mark. My intent was to turn inland and walk five miles through the old-growth to get to a Visitor Center near the highway.

Mark looked down at my feet. “Can I give you a bit of money to buy yourself a new pair of shoes?” I turned down his offer politely. “Mate, at least let me give you a dry pair of socks. My van’s parked a few hundred meters away.”

I didn’t feel like I could refuse this offer, so I dropped my bag on high ground and followed Mark down the wide, flat path to the parking lot.

It had been a downpour under the cover of the trees. But when we burst out of the forest onto the meadows at the end of the beach, I could see that we were actually in a deluge again. The rain was so thick that I couldn’t see the sea, just a few hundred yards away. The parking lot was quickly becoming a pond. Mark’s GMC van was the only vehicle in the lot, and we trudged through the water to reach the side door. When he flung it open, revealing his clothes scattered across the bd, I immediately caught a whiff of pot. Suddenly, I knew I needed to get high. Not wanted. Needed. Normally, I would have been very reluctant to ask someone directly for weed—I was the type who would just saddle up to a smoker whenever I spotted a lit joint. But my need was overwhelming.

“Sure, mate,” Mark said. “Hop in.”

I got into the passenger seat. Mark got behind the wheel. The rain cascading down the windshield made it feel like we were in a car wash. He turned on the vehicle, and immediately cold air came blasting out of the vents. My fingers were freezing, but they could hardly suffer the intensity of the cold. It took a few unbearable moments before the engine finally warmed and the vents turned hot. Mark rifled through the vehicle, searching for his supplies. He was still talking about conspiracies, but for me he was fading into the background—he was just a vehicle, a supplier. I picked at my fingernails nervously and tried to slow my breathing as I anticipated getting stoned.

What was I running from? What was I trying to control? Everything! It felt like the whole structure of my life was in jeopardy, though in ways I still couldn’t understand. I didn’t want to understand. I didn’t want to think about any of this shit. I just wanted to get high, be a shell, be done with it. I just wanted to escape from my personal meoldrama, so I could be a normal, good human being again.

Finally, Mark located his pipe. It was made from a corn cob. He packed some weed into the cob, then offered it to me. As soon as I felt the smoke at the back of my throat, I sighed. Finally, I had what I needed.

Immediately, the harsh edges blurred. I handed the pipe to Mark and watched vacantly at the water cascading down the windshield. Distantly, I could hear the waves detonating on the beach. Distantly, I could hear the forest beckoning to me. A selfie…a fucking selfie…we could spend some time together…rehabbing my heroin addiction…a selfie! My whole world felt like it was fraying at the edges, and I was trying my best to stay calm, stay present, stay in a normal-seeming conversation with the normal-seeming human being in the driver’s seat beside me. At the same time, I tried to fight through the fog in my head, so I could strategize what to do next. My wool gloves were soaked. The Visitor Center was just five miles. But was I really going to go back out there in this rainstorm?

A selfie…a selfie. Then, I heard another voice break through the river of spiraling thoughts. It addressed me by name. “Jordan. Keep walking.”

Instantly, I knew what I needed to do.

“You’re going back out there? Mate, are you munted?” Mark said incredulously. “It’s a hurricane. Come on, mate. Just let me drive you to a motel. You can always come back here tomorrrow.”Keep walking…keep walking. I knew that what I was feeling didn’t make any sense, but I also knew I needed to follow it anyway.

“Sorry, man,” I said, reaching for the door handle. “Thanks for the socks.”

I ran back through the rain to Fern Canyon.


Leaving Fern Canyon, heading toward the old-growth redwood forest.