E2: The Graveyard of the Pacific

17 min read

(This is Season 1, Episode 2 of Momentum. The content deals with adult themes.)

DAY 23
September 23.
Naselle, Washington.

1,615 miles to Mexico.

The hobo starter package

When Jordan opened his eyes, the sun was blazing through the thin material of his tent. His first reaction was panic. Shooting out of his sleeping bag, he lunged for the pair of zippers that secluded him inside of his tiny, one-man shelter. It felt like he had overslept for an exam, even though his Google Calendar was barren to infinity. But as soon as he opened the tent fly, he realized his mistake.

It was the middle of the night. What he thought was the sun was just an outside light on the farmhouse next door. And steady rain was pelting the muddy fields.

He fell backward and lay listening to the rain four feet above his head.

His extra gear was balled up at the foot of his sleeping bag. There wasn’t much of it: a couple extra layers, a couple extra pairs of underwear and socks. His whole life had been simplified to the fifty pounds that he’d stuffed into the fifty-litre backpack: a tent, a stove, a mattress, and a sleeping bag, all bought new from a camping store in Vancouver, five days before he left town. A book and a journal. A digital camera. A regulation-sized Ultimate Frisbee and a harmonica.

It was the hobo starter package. It was now his life.

Switching on his headlamp, he cast a spotlight on the beads of moisture that were slithering down the outer skin of his tent. Sally’s napkin was tucked in the top pocket of his backpack, as always. He pulled it out and read it over again:

Goal: Tell A Story About the Universal Similarities Between People

1. Travel somewhere interesting
2. Collect people’s stories.
3. Travel somewhere else. Share the first people’s stories with these new people.
4. Collect new stories.
5. Repeat.

He sighed out loud, feeling deeply sorry for himself. The next two hours passed in near-constant masturbation.

When he opened his eyes again, he really had overslept; it was past nine. His host—a local farmer introduced by a friend of a friend—was hurrying to the market in Astoria, Oregon, twelve miles south, across the Columbia River. “You want to stay another night?” The farmer’s eyes went wide, then he averted his eyes. “I have guests that are… You know what, do what you want.”

The farmer streamed past and hopped into his pickup. Jordan was left standing in the rain on the porch, trying to figure out just what he wanted.

He hung around the farmer’s house until twelve. By then, he still didn’t know what he wanted, but he was pretty sure what the farmer wanted him to do. Besides, the insistent rain had slowed enough to justify hitting the road, and the farmer’s other guests—a couple from Atlanta in their seventies—offered to give him a ride back into Naselle. He decided that he had to keep walking.

When they got to the Naselle grocery store, the Georgians handed him a twenty. “For good luck.”

Jordan took it without hesitation. He wasn’t in the habit of taking rides. He thought it was against the rules. He took the money because he felt guilty either way. The trouble was that he didn’t know what he wanted.


Naselle, Washington.

Graceland

There wasn’t much to Naselle beside an old grocery store and a newly built public library. Leaving his backpack beneath the grocery store awning, Jordan wandered the aisles, killing time.

The rack of postcards gave him a history lesson about the region. He learned that Naselle had one of the highest populations of Finnish people in America. (Early settlers were loggers and fishermen attracted to the familiar ecosystem.) He learned that the mouth of the Columbia River had been nicknamed the Graveyard of the Pacific. (More than 700 people had died while trying to pass the treacherous sandbar.) And he learned that the four-mile bridge connecting Washington and Oregon was the longest continuous truss bridge in North America. (When it was constructed in the mid-Sixties, the bridge was an engineering marvel, built to withstand hurricane-force winds and rushing river currents.)

He bought an energy bar and a chocolate milk, then sat out by his backpack, watching the rain splatter in the puddles.

Once he finished loading his body with sugar, he pulled out his harmonica and played a pained rendition of Mary Has a Little Lamb. He was brand new to the instrument, and he was still struggling to wrap his lips properly around the harmonica’s mouth holes. The melody sounded something like a dying goat.

After Mary, he played Baa, Baa, Black Sheep twice. The rain wasn’t going anywhere.

His body felt tired, but it also felt accomplished. The day before, he’d walked twenty-five miles—longer than any other day of his trip. He’d been powered by clear skies, but also by the memory of Kelly the Astrologer. Kelly’s words were still ringing in Jordan’s head: transforming the grief into joy. Slaying the dragon. Jordan couldn’t contain his weak, impotent smile as he considered the road ahead. In a matter of miles, he would catch his first view of the Columbia River. The moment he crossed that long bridge, he would be able to say goodbye to Washington State. Twenty-two days earlier, when he left Vancouver, he couldn’t fathom the idea of walking all the way across Washington. But now he’d done it.

Well, almost.

For the first time in months, Jordan felt the stirrings of hope. Actually, they might have been the stirrings of delusion.

He tucked his harmonica into his chest pocket, strapped on his backpack, and walked out to the shoulder of the highway.

He listened to music as he walked, tucking his phone into the space between his neck and his backpack so he could hear the music over the traffic noise. He didn’t want to wear headphones—too vulnerable. Even the decision to bring a phone had been agonizing—he didn’t want to waste hours alone on his tent on Facebook or porn, and he knew that if he brought his phone, he would. Ultimately, he decided to compromise by bringing a phone but not signing up for a data plan. (He could only go online when he found an open wifi.)

It was the right choice, but he was still second-guessing himself. As he walked, he listened to the music he’d saved on his phone. Today, it was Paul Simon’s Graceland:

And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Well, everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
Ooh, ooh, ooh
In Graceland, in Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland

A logging truck flew by, and he had to hold onto his hat to keep it from getting sucked off in the truck’s cedar-scented wake.

He thought about Sally. He’d been thinking about Sally almost constantly since she left her note, three months ago—thinking the same spinning thoughts, caught perpetually in the same cognitive whirlpools. He’d analyzed every detail of their relationship, placing every single memory under a microscope, trying to find an easy answer that simply wouldn’t appear.

Why did she leave me? And how the fuck did I end up here?

At least the second question was easy to answer. He could still remember the night when he heard Sally say, “let’s walk to Mexico” for the first time. They went to see a film festival in Vancouver. It was early December—just a few weeks after they’d arrived in the city. One of the films told the story of a young British man who had traveled from northernmost Alaska to southernmost Argentina on a two-seated, tandem bicycle. Why a tandem? So he could invite the strangers he met along the way to be part of the journey.

“We should do something like that!” Sally exclaimed outside the theatre.

For reasons that Jordan was still struggling to understand, the idea stuck.

And I could say Oo oo oo
As if everybody here would know what I was talking about
I mean everybody here would know exactly what I was talking about
Talking about diamonds

People say I’m crazy
I got diamonds on the soles of my shoes
Well that’s one way to lose these walking blues
Diamonds on the soles of my shoes

The rain waxed and then waned. After a couple of hours, the precipitation had devolved to misty clouds that hung around the tops of the deeply forested hills. The road began to climb. Jordan knew that it would just be a matter of time before he caught his first view of Oregon, and the anticipation gave an extra pep to his steps. As he walked, he thought about how he’d laughed that first night that Sally had suggested the walk, how abstract the whole thing had seemed, at first, until it suddenly wasn’t abstract at all—it was suddenly life and death. He’d never heard of anyone walking from Canada to Mexico. He’d never imagined that walking from Canada to Mexico was a thing that people did. But now it was the thing he was doing. Alone. Without her. And he’d almost walked all the way across Washington State.

Finally, the road seemed to be topping out. Jordan was practically running as he approached a clearing that looked south towards…

“WAHOOOOOOOO!” he screamed. “THE FUCKING COLUMBIA RIVER!”

The fucking Columbia River was sprawled below him—five, maybe six miles of dark water separating Washington from Oregon. Though dark rain clouds hung over the hills on the Washington side, over in Oregon, sunbeams had burst through, casting spotlights on the verdant fields and forests. Beneath the golden sun, the landscape glowed with iridescent, nearly neon shades of green.

Jordan sat on the highway barrier and took a satisfied swig from his water bottle.

From his perspective, Oregon seemed like Graceland.

His eyes traced the riverbank to the southwest. In the distance, he could faintly make out Astoria, on the far side of the four-mile-long bridge. He could see the bridge rising out of the small riverside town, the longest continuous truss in North America looming impressively even from afar.

A swell of emotion fluttered in Jordan’s chest. Was it delusion? Was it hope?

“No matter what,” he said out loud, “I am going to walk across that bridge.”

A stiff gust of wind trembled the branches of the coniferous trees by the roadside.


The Washington shore of the Columbia River.

Swallowed

The highway swept along the hillside as it curved down towards the riverbank. As he walked along the down shoulder, Jordan thought about the hundreds of conversations that he and Sally had about walking to Mexico over the previous year. The daydreams. The fights. The arguments over camping gear. It had all been so intense. It had all been so delusional.

But now it’s not delusional. Now it’s real. I’ve actually walked all the way across Washington.

Well. Almost.

He was thinking about what it would be like for Sally to find out that he was still walking, without her, when he glanced southwest toward Astoria. The four-mile-long bridge had suddenly disappeared. No, it wasn’t a magic trick. The immense structure had been swallowed by a thick white squall that had gusted in off the Pacific. Astoria had also fallen behind the thick wall of white.

The air pressure was dropping. Jordan zipped up his rain jacket and picked up the pace. He was still four miles from the mouth of the long bridge, and with another four across, he knew that he might not make it to Astoria by sundown. Where am I going to sleep? And does that bridge even have a sidewalk? Whitecaps dotted the surface of the Columbia as the squall sped toward him.

Then, suddenly. Jordan was also consumed. The fog was thick and moist. He couldn’t see more than ten yards in any direction. The whole outer world had been swallowed. At that very same moment, passing traffic on the highway had come to a lull. There were no engine noise, just the subtle sounds of the wind in the trees, the waves on the rocks, his footsteps on the asphalt.

Suddenly, everything felt peaceful and still.

He stopped dead. Out of nowhere, he was struck a strange and beautiful thought. It’s like the whole universe is revolving around me. It’s like the world is doing the moving and I’m the one standing still.

Was this narcissistic? Insightful? Delusional?

There was no time to think about it. In the very next moment, the rain began.

What a downpour! It was like the clouds had cranked the volume to eleven and laid down a power chord. Rain was coming from every direction; rain struck the asphalt so hard that it bounced up and caught him underneath the chin. He needed shelter. But where? The highway was right along the riverbank; to his left was open water. There were no houses or other structures in sight. The only option was the forest on the other side of the road.

Running into the woods trees, he plopped himself on a downed log and quickly wrapped his backpack in rain-proof polyester. The tall trees provided some shelter but heavy raindrops were still dive_bombing through the canopy, plopping in the muck, slipping down the sword ferns, nourishing the mushrooms.

He looked at his watch anxiously. I don’t have time for this. I want to walk across that bridge, and if there’s no sidewalk, I need to do it by nightfall.

But he knew that you can’t negotiate with the weather.

Or can you?

He reached into his chest pocket and pulled out his harmonica.


When the storm hit, Jordan hid for shelter in those woods.

The monarch butterfly

As he sat in the trees and fumbled the melody to Old MacDonald Had a Farm, Jordan thought about the day he bought the harmonica he was holding in his hands. It had been in Toronto, two weeks before he started walking, on the same day as the monarch butterfly.

The one thing to know about Jordan was that he was very, very proud of his logical abilities. He grew up in a world where he was surrounded by people who assured him that he was very, very smart—and that when he became an adult, he would live in a world surrounded by other very, very smart people. The other thing to know about Jordan was that, beneath that logical, business school veneer, there was a gooey, emotional center. After his parents divorced, when he was eleven, Jordan became their confidante and go-between—a part-time wife and part-time husband. He knew that one of these identities carried more social caché than the others; he’d experienced firsthand how straight guys who show too much emotion get called gay.

But Cancer rising or not, Jordan had been a therapist since he was an adolescent.

He hated this part of himself, hating that emotional problems didn’t have simple, logical solutions. After Sally left her note, he decided that he was going to try and solve an emotional problem with a simple logical solution: he was going to do whatever he could to win her back.

He knew that he only had one point of leverage: their plan to walk from Canada to Mexico. So, as a child of the Eighties, raised on romantic comedies, he decided to try his own Say Anything moment. He was going to do one huge romantic gesture to get Sally back.

Jordan turned to a website called Kickstarter, which had just recently introduced crowdfunding to the Internet. In those days, Kickstarter projects were obligated to have some kind of creative or artistic ambition. Jordan filmed a video that outlined his vision of a project called An Experiment in Cross-Cultural Communication.

His plan could be summarized like this: Tell A Story About the Universal Similarities Between Human Beings.

Money started to roll in as soon as he posted the video. Ten dollars from a friend. Twenty dollars. Fifty dollars. An old co-worker pitched in a hundred. Jordan had set his fundraising goal at an impossible-seeming $5,000. He didn’t expect to raise that much money. He only wanted for Sally to see the video, so she could appreciate his love and devotion. But on the fourth day after launching his project, Kickstarter put him front-and-center on its homepage. Contributions sped up. The green thermometer was speeding forward. On the ninth days, Jordan had his $5,000—and the money was still coming in.

That day, he sent an impassioned email to Sally, who he knew was living with her new boyfriend. When she agreed to meet him for lunch, his hopes skyrocketed. But the moment he saw her, he knew that he was delusional. She was glowing. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life,” she told him.

Crushed, he decided to follow through with the desperate appeal anyway. He told her that he’d raised the money they needed to follow through on the plan that she’d been lobbying for months.

“I’ll think about it,” Sally replied stiffly. Jordan hung on to those words for weeks. He’d promised his financial backers that he’d leave at the beginning of September. By mid-August, he had raised $8,061 from 138 people who were excited to see him off on a journey that he had absolutely no interest in doing by himself.

It was one hell of a dilemma. Jordan couldn’t find a way out of it.

When he went back to Toronto in the middle of August, he was hopeful that his parents would have something insightful to share. But that, too, turned out to be delusional. His mother was direct. “She’s not worth it,” she said. “Give the money back and get a job.” His father was more cryptic. “Ninety-nine percent of life’s decisions can be taken back.” Jordan was left wondering whether this decision was in the ninety-nine or in the one.

He was hardly sleeping. There were just days before he returned to Vancouver and started—or didn’t start—walking. He wondered if he could flee to India and hide out on a beach in Goa for the rest of his life.

One morning, he woke up in his mother’s basement with the desperate urge to be someone else. Climbing the stairs to his youngest brother’s bedroom on the top floor, Jordan opened the closet, revealing a stack of t-shirts that had been neatly folded by his mother’s. He pulled a green one from the pile because green was Sally’s favorite color and unfurled it in front of the mirror. The t-shirt had a dark-colored graphic on the front. On one side of the shirt, a figure in a hooded sweatshirt held up a spray paint can. Arcing across the rest of the shirt was a cloud of silhouetted butterflies.

Pulling the t-shirt over his head, Jordan grabbed his skateboard and headed out into the city.

Later that afternoon, he found himself in a busy pedestrian market when it suddenly felt like he was choking on the dread. What am I going to do? Do I give the money back? Do I start walking? Do I make another huge romantic gesture to try and change Sally‘s mind? Trying to calm himself, he hopped up onto a newspaper box and tipped his sunglasses onto his forehead, closing his eyes, feeling the sun on his face. The same old questions were rattling endlessly, and no matter where he looked, he couldn’t find any good answers.

He opened his eyes. There was a flutter of movement in his peripheral vision. He looked down. There, on the cotton of his green t-shirt, right over his heart, was a real-life monarch butterfly. The butterfly was perched directly atop the cloud of its silhouetted brethren.

Jordan was so depressed that he could barely summon a snicker. He looked up, hoping to see someone with a camera; he thought that this coincidence might make a nice profile photo. But he couldn’t see any cameras about, and he didn’t want to move and disturb the butterfly.

With a long, sad sigh, Jordan realized that this moment was just for him.

He looked down. The butterfly was positioned so that he looked directly into its compound eyes. Its proboscis was exploring the green cotton. Its orange and black wings were pressed back behind its black and white speckled body. The butterfly didn’t appear to be any hurry. It was lingering there, almost embracing him.

Jordan could sense that he was about to cry. But he was in public, so he squeezed his eyes shut to try and block out the shame.

It didn’t work. Behind his closed eyes, his inner world was a whirlpool. He was spinning frantically, searching for a way out, when suddenly he heard a simple thought break through:

I’m really, really scared. I have no idea what I’m going to do.

For a beat, he sat in this vacuum. It felt disorienting and wildly out of control. But a beat later, he heard a second voice. This second voice was much different than his familiar self-pitying monologue. It was calm and confident. Jordan even felt like he could hear it smiling.

The voice said: “You’re going to do it. You’re going to make it all the way to Mexico.”

Jordan froze. Who the fuck are you? What are you doing in my head? Are you God? Do I think I’m talking to God? Holy shit, what the fuck is wrong with me? I’ve gone fucking goddamn insane.

“I’m not God. Who I am is… not important right now. Just know that I’m here with you. Just know that, no matter what happens, just keep walking.”

When he opened his eyes, he saw that the monarch butterfly was still right on his chest. But how do I know I can trust you? The butterfly lingered for a few seconds before taking off, heading south.

He’d found his solution. It felt like magic.


You Are My Sunshine

Bringing the harmonica to his lips, Jordan started into the melody of You Are My Sunshine. He played the verse slowly, trying to stay in control, but it didn’t work. The sound was horrible. Even the trees plugged their ears. (Mushrooms don’t have ears so they didn’t need to plug anything.) When he finished the song, he shook his head and snorted at his own pathos.

“Look at you,” he said out loud. (Jordan loved to scold himself. Self-punishment was his favorite form of motivation.) “Sitting in some forest by the side of the highway in the middle of a rainstorm. While walking from Canada to Mexico. Which you never wanted to do in the first place.” He shook his head again and picked up steam. “Your girlfriend is in India with some other guy. You’ve got no career and no plan for your life. You’re single, and you’re almost thirty. Your friends are at home working good jobs, building careers, starting families, and you’re out here playing nursery rhymes on a harmonica.” He let out a loud snort. His snort triggered a chuckle. “If you’re wondering what rock bottom looks like, guess what: you just found it.”

Jordan snorted again. His snort triggered a chuckle. He was totally right. For someone like him, someone for whom the world was expected, this was rock bottom. He’d been cuckolded and humiliated. Then he’d gone on to humiliate himself. And now he was sitting in the pouring rain, playing nursery rhymes, and this was only the start. Mexico was still a long, long, long way away.

But now his chuckling had picked up steam. And soon the momentum had rolled into laughter. Pretty soon, Jordan was doubled over in laughter, laughing harder than he’d laughed in months. The laughter had been triggered by a deliciously subversive thought:

I’m glad she’s not here. Now I get to do it by myself.

It was the closest Jordan had ever been to identifying Kelly’s dragon.

Bringing the harmonica back to his lips, he started into a second verse of You Are My Sunshine, which flowed directly into a third, and then a fourth. By the fifth verse, he was up on his feet, blowing his little heart into the instrument. The sounds he was making no longer qualified as music. But he was giving it his everything. His heart, even his soul. If this were elementary school, he would have had a clean sweep of all the participation ribbons. A sixth, a seventh, an eighth, a ninth. A tenth and eleventh rendition of You Are My Sunshine.

Midway through the twelfth verse, he suddenly noticed that something had changed. Dropping the melody, he an out of the forest and returned to the highway. The squall was gone. The rain had stopped.

“I DON’T BELIEVE IT! I’VE GOT A MAGIC HARMONICA! WAHOOOOOOOOOOO!”

His scream scattered the cormorants out on the Columbia.

Dashing back into the forest, Jordan grabbed his backpack and took off down the shoulder of the highway. Astoria and the long bridge were both visible again. The clouds were parting. There was blue overhead. Jordan was walking as fast as his feet could carry him, though in truth, it wasn’t his feet that were carrying him at all. As he walked, he screamed out things he’d never said out loud to the wide river.

“I DON’T NEED HER.”

“I’M HAPPIER WITHOUT HER.”

“I’M GOING TO MAKE IT ALL THE WAY TO MEXICO.”

“I TRUST THE MONARCH BUTTERFLY.”

Before long, the bridge loomed in front of him. From the Washington shore, the bridge began as a low causeway that passed through a short truss as it went out over the open Columbia. Midway across the river, the roadway began to climb into the long continuous through truss, reaching its peak just shy of the Oregonian shore. As he approached, he could see that the bridge was narrow, and that it didn’t have a sidewalk. The sign at the mouth of the bridge made the message explicit: PEDESTRIANS PROHIBITED.

But Jordan had left logic back behind in the roadside forest. And who’s to say whether it was destiny or delusion?

Without pausing to take a second thought—because he knew he’d think himself out of it— Jordan hurried past the sign and onto the bridge.



The Graveyard of the Pacific

It took him about five minutes to realize that his choice was idiotic. The roadway was narrow and exposed to the open river mouth, where wind gusts could whip over 100 mph. Another storm could arrive suddenly. A police cruiser could roll past. A distracted driver could pin him to the railing or force him to leap into the icy waters of the Columbia River. He had chosen disaster. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, his trip would be over. But Jordan wasn’t going for the ninety-nine.

He put his head down. He concentrated on his footsteps.

Before he knew it, he was halfway across the Columbia.

The roadway began to climb. In the distance, he could see the breakers on the sandbar. As he got higher and higher, Jordan thought about what it meant to dash across the Graveyard of the Pacific. The Oregon shore was directly below him: he could see the pedestrians on the riverbank, the Victorian homes in the green hills, the sea lions barking down at the pier.

He had almost done it.

When he reached the apex of the bridge, nearly two hundred feet above the Columbia, he paused to take a picture of his accomplishment. Then, after snapping the shutter, he closed his eyes tightly and did something that felt completely unfamiliar. He prayed.

Help me. Whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are. Keep me safe. Keep me motivated. Help me repair the parts of me that have been broken. More than anything else, help me become the kind of man who is always in control of his emotions, so I never, ever, ever have to experience hurt, humiliation, or anger ever again.

He paused. He had to bite his lip to fight back the tears. He was anxious to keep moving, to get down to the Oregon shore. But there was one more thing that he really, really wanted:

On its way down, the roadway corkscrewed tightly, spiraling three-hundred-and-sixty degrees as it dropped to the Oregon shore. The light was fading, and Jordan was nearly at the bottom when his heart suddenly hit the floor.

There was a police cruiser accelerating as it climbed up the ramp.

He acted without thinking, leaping over the concrete barrier and tumbling into the blackberry bramble on the other side. Putting his hands over his head, he lay there, frozen, waiting to hear the sounds that told him that his journey was dead: the police cruiser’s brakes, the officer’s footsteps. But the cruiser sped past.

Jordan lay there for thirty more seconds before he finally realized that he was safe. Rising to his feet, he hurried down the final hundred yards of roadway, reaching the intersection where a sign said, WELCOME TO OREGON. Downtown Astoria was to the east—but before he went into town and tried to find a place to sleep, Jordan knew there was something he needed to do first.

He unzipped the pocket of his backpack and pulled out the carefully folded napkin. He read its five steps for the final time. He brought the napkin to his nose, thinking about the night of the tandem bicycle when he and Sally had conceived this dream together.

Goal: Tell A Story About the Universal Similarities Between People.

Then he flicked his lighter and set it on fire.

I’m going to Graceland. For reasons I cannot explain, there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland.

Jordan turned from the ashes of the napkin and headed into Astoria.