Somewhere in the Nevada desert, there is a Temple: a temple that only existed once, a temple that never really existed at all. I have seen it, I can see it. I am walking towards it now…
Look at it. (No, not with your eyes.) It is astonishing. Rising from a cloud of swirling dust are six wooden towers, the tallest one soaring one hundred-twenty feet above the desert floor. With their tall, narrow windows and onion-domed roofs, the towers look like they could be in Istanbul or Samarkand, in Delhi or in Babylon. Look at how the tower glows in the setting sun, as stark and arid as the jagged black mountains on the horizon.
Something is pulling me there. I am walking towards a Temple in the desert, and I am carrying a backpack heavily laden with Stories.
Can you feel it? The sweat on your brow; The hard packed ground beneath your feet. Fellow traveler. Let us sit here for a while and enjoy the majesty of the sunset. Lay out a blanket. There is no rush. That Temple has been there fornever, and it will remain there fornevermore. Sit, sit. Let us rest our weary legs. Let us share intimately with each other, like lovers.
Let us sit together in the shadow of a Temple in the desert. A temple that only existed once, a temple that never really existed at all.
I was there. I have seen it, and I will never be able to unsee it again.
Here are my Stories, fellow traveler. What are yours?
near Astoria, Oregon
day 23. 1,615 mi. to go
It was like the heavens had cranked up the volume on the amps to eleven and let rip on a powerchord. The skies had opened; rain fell so hard that it was bouncing off the asphalt and hitting me underneath my chin. I needed shelter, but where? The Columbia River was to my left—immense river waves exploding on the riprap next to the road—and to the right was the thick, coniferous forest of the Pacific Northwest. There wasn’t a shelter in sight.
There was no time to think, so I darted into the trees.
Quickly, I dropped my fifty-pound backpack next to a downed log and hurried to pull on my raingear. I perched on the log. I looked up at the sky. Raindrops were hurtling down through the trees. Though it had already been a wet September, this was still a remarkable downpour. I shivered, watching the water bead up on my Gore-Tex. There was nothing to do but wait.
I was frustrated. For days, I had been anticipating this moment. I was four miles shy of a four-and-a-half mile-long bridge that spans the mouth of the Columbia River, the westernmost crossing between Washington and Oregon. When I left Vancouver, Canada, back on the 1st of September, I hadn’t imagined that it would be possible to walk all the way to Oregon; I thought it was more likely that I would get robbed or shot or maimed by a passing vehicle. I thought—most likely of all—that I would probably quit, and set off on yet another hare-brained scheme to try to lure back Sally, my ex-girlfriend. So long as Sally didn’t suddenly and unexpectedly appear first.
Sally hadn’t appeared. I had resisted my hare brain. And I had walked, one foot in front of the other—left, right, left, right—more than two hundred miles to the Columbia River.
I was four miles shy of a four-and-a-half-mile crossing before I could brag to everyone I knew that I had actually made it all the way from Vancouver, Canada to Oregon.
But I didn’t have my bragging rights. Yet. There were still four miles to go and four-and-a-half miles across, and I was stuck in the godforsaken rain peering anxiously at my watch. It was getting past four. I only had a few hours of light left, and I was still scared to ignore one of those plentiful NO TRESPASSING signs and risk tempting fate.
I had heard stories; this was America after all. A part of America that had earned a reputation: the Graveyard of the Pacific.
Rain streamed down through the canopy. There was nothing to do but wait.
Sally. My ex-girlfriend. I won’t bore you with the…
OK, here’s the thing to know about Sally: the most amazing, the most perfect girl. Definitely perfect. As long as you ignore the infidelities. The mental health stuff. The panic attacks.
OK, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea. But she was perfect for me.
Until she left me for another man. With a note on our kitchen table.
I know. Can you believe it? Who leaves a note, what kind of integrity does that…
My best friend, Paul, says I got off lucky. I’m inclined to believe him, because I believe everything that Paul says.
Now there’s a man with a capital-S Story.
Enough about the Beatles. Enough about Paul. There will never be enough of Sally, but for the time being, I felt free of the dark cloud that had been following me around for months. The Columbia River! I’d almost walked all the way to Oregon.
It felt like something worth celebrating, despite the downpour.
I unzipped the pocket at the top of my backpack. Past my journal, beyond the tangle of wires—an iPhone without a data plan, because I didn’t want to waste my evenings masturbating to porn in my tent; a cheap, pay-as-you-go flip phone from Wal-Mart, because I couldn’t figure out how to get a phone connection to the iPhone without the data—I felt around until I found the cool metal of my harmonica. I pulled it out and brought it to my wet lips. I knew just two tunes by heart, and one of them—Mary Has A Little Lamb—didn’t seem particularly relevant to my situation. But the other song was You Are My Sunshine.
Tentatively, I began to play.
The sounds that came out of the instrument didn’t exactly qualify as “music”. It reminded me more of the bleating of a dying goat, with blood spurting from its neck. But I made it all the way through the verse.
When I got to the end, I looked up at the sky. The rain seemed to have become even heavier.
“HEY!” I screamed. “HAVEN’T I SUFFERED ENOUGH? CAN’T YOU CUT ME A BREAK?”
Rain splattered directly in my eye.
I shook my head and wiped the moisture off my face. My wool gloves weren’t doing much. My “water-resistant” running shoes were turning out to be not much more than a marketing slogan. I shook my head and snorted. “For fuck’s sake, Jordan,” I said, addressing myself out loud. My favorite pastime was self-flagellation. “Look at you: playing nursery rhymes by the side of the road, in the middle of a rainstorm. You’re almost thirty. You don’t have a job. You’re single. And you’re walking from Canada to Mexico, which was your ex-girlfriend’s idea, by yourself. Which you never wanted to do in the first place. While she’s galavanting with her new boyfriend in India.” I snorted again. “If you’re wondering what rock bottom looks like, guess what: you just found it.”
It was true: it was hard to imagine how my annus horribilis could possibly get worse. Still, I tried—getting maimed by a tree branch, getting mauled by a bear, finding out that Sally was pregnant, finding out that Sally had gotten dumped by that Other Man. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I began to chuckle. Then, I was giggling. Then, I was full out laughing.
“This is it,” I warned myself. “Day Twenty-Three of Walking to Mexico and you’ve gone full-on mad.”
But I was laughing too heartily.
I brought the harmonica back to my lips. The second rendition of You Are My Sunshine was twice as bad as the first. When I reached the end, I leaped up to my feet and drove straight into a third verse. Then, a fourth one. Then, a fifth one. I was dancing around in the forest grove, blowing into the harmonica with so much verve that whatever sounds I was creating hardly qualified as music.
Everything was coming out. A sixth verse, a seventh verse. By the eighth verse, I was practically in tears. I’ve almost done it! I’ve almost walked all the way to Oregon! By myself! I can’t wait to brag to my friends, I can’t wait to post it on Facebook!
I played a ninth, a tenth, an eleventh rendition of You Are My Sunshine. Then, midway through the twelfth verse, I suddenly noticed that something sounded different. The background vocals had changed.
I looked up. Then, I darted out of the trees, back to the highway. The rain had stopped! The storm cloud had blown upriver. Across the Columbia, I could see the electric green fields of Oregon, four-and-a-half miles in the distance. I could see container ships heading inland, towards Portland. In the distance, I could see Astoria—the oldest American settlement in the Pacific Northwest.
And rising from Astoria, I could see the handsome Art Deco bridge. It beckoned me like a finish line.
“WAHOOOOOOOO!” I screamed. “I HAVE A MAGIC HARMONICA!”
I raced back in the woods, gathered my backpack, and headed towards the bridge as quickly as my little legs could carry me.
The sign accosted me with the same authority as those NO TRESPASSING signs by the side of the road. Only this one said, PEDESTRIANS PROHIBITED.
It wasn’t hard to see why. There was no sidewalk on the bridge, and Astoria was a long way off. Anyway, the bridge was built to withstand 150 mph gale force winds. Not anyone’s idea of a stroll in the park.
As if to warn me off, just as I was considering my options—there weren’t any—a Washington State Patrol cruiser turned at the intersection.
I flashed the cop a peace sign.
The Graveyard of the Pacific. Look it up: more than 2,000 shipwrecks in the area of the treacherous and shifting Columbia Bar. Unlike other major rivers, the current is focused “like a fire hose” without the benefit of a river delta. Rocky Mountain water pours into the open Pacific.
The moment the cop disappeared, I didn’t hesitate, because I knew if I thought about it, I’d talk myself out of it.
It took me about five minutes to realize that what I was doing was incredibly stupid. There was no place to hide—if another police cruiser passed by in the next four-and-a-half miles, I could get fined; as a Canadian, I might even get deported. If I got deported, Walking to Mexico was over.
Even if I didn’t get deported, this crossing was treacherous. It was dusk. I was dressed entirely in dark clothing, walking on the wrong side of the road, resting one hand on the railing as I walked the balance beam of an eighteen-inch wide shoulder. The vehicles heading my way were large: pickup trucks, RVs, logging tractor-trailers. What if one of those drivers lost control? What if they got an inopportune text? I could get pinned to the railing. I could get tossed into the cold Columbia. If anything went wrong, my trip—my life—could be finished.
But in a way, my life was already over. Besides, I had a magic harmonica.
There was no way I could run with fifty pounds strapped to my back. The best I could do was go quickly and steadily, one step at a time—left, right, left, right. Before I knew it, I was already halfway across the Columbia. No cops. No wayward text messages. Still here. Still alive.
It was one of the stupidest things I’d done in my life, but I was doing it. I was almost there.
I was overwhelmed by a strange sense of calm.
About midway across, the roadway began to incline sharply. I climbed steeply up above the Columbia until I was nearly two hundred feet up—high enough for the container ships to pass through on their way to Portland. From the top, I could look straight down into Astoria, Oregon—I could see the old wooden warehouses on the riverfront, I could see the Victorian homes at the foot of the green hills, if I squinted I could probably have seen the house where they shot The Goonies.
The light was fading, and I didn’t have time to dawdle. But something compelled me to stop still. Sticking my hand into my pocket, I fished out a gift that my best friend Paul had given me, right before I left home. It was a crystal about the size of a small marble. A garnet, he’d explained. A grounding stone.
I’d rolled my eyes—Paul was way too New Age for me, but you don’t get to pick your mentors.
“If you’re ever in trouble,” he’d said, “hold this stone, take three long breaths, then ask yourself what you would do if you were coming from love. Whatever that is, do that.”
At the top of the bridge, I held the stone and took three long breaths, just like Paul had told me.
Please, I thought. Whoever you are, whatever you are, whether or not you exist. Keep me safe. Keep me strong. Keep me focused on my goal. What was my goal? To get over her. To forget about her. To find someone much better to replace her. To become the kind of man who is always in control of his emotions, so I never hit another partner again.
When I opened my eyes, I felt the strangest flutter in the center of my chest.
From the top, the roadway corkscrewed tightly as it descended towards the Oregonian shore. My destination was in sight. Then, suddenly, I spotted a police cruiser descending from the apex of the bridge behind me.
The light was fading; I leaped over the concrete barrier and went tumbling into the blackberry bramble. I lay there, clutching Paul’s crystal, chest heaving. It was just my luck to yank defeat from the jaws of victory. I craned my ears, waiting to hear the car stop, the doors open and shut. I craned my ears further, but I heard nothing.
“I don’t believe it,” I said out loud, “I did it.”
I climbed out of the bramble and hurried the rest of the way down the bridge, where a highway sign read, WELCOME TO OREGON.