I Look Up

Rambling purposefully along the narrow ridge trail leading back to my campsite, I look down upon the Straight of Juan de Fuca, getting darker and more reflective by the minute. There’s a bench, so I sit—tapping my fingers on the flat, smooth cover of Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus.

Fighter jets from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island screech across the sky. Their high, intimidating rumble has never been noise to me. And every time they pass overhead, I look up.

In her book, Montgomery describes the time she and an aquarium keeper in New England realized, simultaneously, that the electric eel they’d been watching flicker at the bottom of her tank was not only sound asleep—but dreaming. And this, for whatever reason, feels to me like invaluable information.

“Do you think that the amoeba ever dreamed that it would evolve into the frog? Of course it didn’t,” the English actor David Thewlis once said. “And when that first frog shimmied out of the water and employed its vocal chords in order to attract a mate or to retard a predator, do you think that that frog ever imagined that that incipient croak would evolve into all the languages of the world, into all the literature of the world? Of course it fucking didn’t. And just as that froggy could never possibly have conceived of Shakespeare, so we can never possibly imagine our destiny.”

Everyone is so damn sure of everything these days. There seems to be no space left for imagination, nuance, or civil disagreement. “It is impossible for you to learn what you think you already know,” Epictetus wrote (nearly two thousand years before Twitter).

They can’t all be saviors or monsters. Because then—what does that make us?

Watercolor pinks and oranges spread across the western horizon over British Columbia. While in the east, a vivid, unnatural purple glows up from the dark ground. I look up, for the last time tonight, and the sky above me is still a brilliant blue.

One coming up, the other going down, the full moon and setting sun hover on the same plane above opposing horizons. The sight is… surprising. Like halting mid-stride after walking into the wrong room—then suddenly realizing you didn’t. Unexpected, but good.

When the ferry arrives at Lopez Island, I bump down the ramp and plunge further into the San Juan Islands archipelago. On my last road trip, I wasn’t traveling nearly as light. Carrying less, though, somehow makes me feel better prepared.

Lopez Island is fifteen miles long and has just 2,500 permanent residents. Behind the wheel of my ’93 Cherokee XJ—Bodhi, winding around sun-drenched farms and through acres of dense forest, I see only a handful of people. But they all wave like they were expecting me.

Before long, my mind wanders from the road, and I find myself wrestling with an emerging personal dilemma. In back, with the rest of my food stores, I’ve got a softball-size avocado—that I have no idea what to do with. Guacamole? You idiot. You don’t even have any chips!

Realizing this, I can’t help but be amused. By the triviality, for one, but also by my innate ability to turn trivial matters into pressing concerns.

“When we obsess about the objects we fear—insects, identity theft, rejection, terrorism, speaking in public—we avoid contact with the emotion itself,” Frank Ostaseski wrote in The Five Invitations. “Like the monsters in the closet, the thing we fear may not even exist, but all of our attention to it turns the illusion into reality.”

Out of the Jeep and leaning against the rail, I get my first glimpse of Friday Harbor. The quaint, colorful buildings make me wonder: When this place was built, was life here really as harmonious and simple as it appears to’ve been?

Climbing back in the driver’s seat, waiting to debark once again, I remind myself it’s the people that make a place—and the ones here won’t be any less human than I am.

These days, more and more, I’ve come to prefer my illusions—the stories I tell myself about who I am and how the world works. So after a quick stop for stove fuel and water, I head back to the woods. Arriving at San Juan County Park, I set up camp, then read until there’s only enough light left to cook and eat my dinner.

Now full dark, I make a splendid fire. But with the moon behind the trees, I can’t see anything past the other side of the flames. It’d be nearly silent, too, if it wasn’t for the owls.

Chatting with my neighbor in the morning, I’m just about to hit the road when someone mentions orcas, and, like magic, a pod appears behind us in the Haro Straight. We run, along with everyone else, to the shore of Smallpox Bay for a better look. I’ve never seen killer whales before.

The largest of the San Juan Islands, and just ten miles from the Canadian Border, Orcas Island is vast, cold, mountainous, and green. At Moran State Park, I find a beautiful spot, right on the edge of Mountain Lake. (The person who had the foresight to reserve it, thankfully, never shows up.)

The next day, I don’t have to go home—but I can’t stay there. Without asking them, directly, the rangers decide to open up a whole ‘nother campground—and I get first dibs.

I’ve never been a fan of reservations, especially when I’m camping. Life is already rife with unnecessary expectations. I’d rather be surprised, get lucky, or just make do.

Pulling up to the ranger station at Deception Pass State Park, now back on Whidbey Island, I haven’t spoken to anyone in about 24 hours—and it takes me a second to get used to the sound of my own voice again.

Low, thick clouds come rolling in and stay, followed by a light rain. No stars tonight. And soup for dinner. But a short break in the rain allows for a small fire, so I sit by it—glad for the company.

The sun up but the ground still wet, I hit the road early, intent on catching the next ferry to Port Townsend. I didn’t buy a ticket in advance—nor do I bother checking the schedule; approaching the dock, however, I barely have to pause in line before my lane starts rolling on. And, to my surprise, rides back to the Quimper Peninsula are free.

Get lucky—or make do.

Surrounded on three sides by 19,100 feet of saltwater shoreline, Fort Flagler State Park—a former United States Army fort at the northern end of Marrowstone Island, Washington—is an hour’s drive in the wrong direction. But I’m feeling just nostalgic enough to detour.

The week I spent here, in the 6th grade, was an emotional roller-coaster, but I learned something important about human nature: Kids have a tremendous capacity for both callousness and clemency. They can be recklessly terrible to one another, but rarely are they deliberately hurtful. They are also eager to forgive when slighted themselves.

Adults, however, are more purposefully cruel. We absolutely know better—yet hurt each other anyway. We are also far more hesitant to vindicate others, or ourselves, of just about anything.

Empathy, though, can neutralize our wickedness and make forgiveness an afterthought. But empathy isn’t some passive emotion; understanding and sharing the feelings of others is an ability—a skill to be cultivated. Lucky for us, it can be applied to any situation in which human beings are present. And to perfect it, we simply have to use it.

Likely trespassing on government land, I move away from the sagging barracks where I once stayed. They look like they haven’t been painted in two decades; but beige is one of those colors that makes it hard to tell.

Across the road, beneath a small stand of trees, I cut my finger slicing apples for a group of increasingly brazen deer. And I take it as my cue to move on.

Rounding the Olympic Peninsula, I make a hard left off the 101 and drive for fifteen miles—straight into the heart of the Olympic National Forest. With an ecosystem that’s gone relatively unchanged for thousands of years, the Hoh Rainforest is currently the most carefully preserved rain forest in the northern hemisphere.

For two days, I hike self-consciously among giants: Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock, some nearly three hundred feet tall and seven feet in diameter, most draped with ferns and hanging moss—small ecosystems in themselves. Occasionally, I come across a sprawling Bigleaf Maple, branches bare, every one of its golden leaves strewn across the forest floor. I feel like a visitor to another planet.

Just a few more hours on the road, and I’ll be back in the world I know. Strangely, though, I feel less prepared than when I left. “Love everyone and tell the truth,” said Ram Dass (aka Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert). So I guess I’ll start with that.

But just as Alpert did, when he was given this same advice, I have questions: How can we love everyone if we treat forgiveness like a gift to be given, not a philosophy to live by? And how can we possibly live honestly—if we cannot empathize?

When an exasperated Alpert finally expressed his concerns about this philosophy to his teacher, the slight, Indian man looked at him quizzically, but intently, then said, “Love everyone—and tell the truth.”

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