(A story about contentment)
Lying on a beach log propping up a broken ankle, covered in mud from ankle to hip, watching the sun go down and the tide come up while waiting for rescue to arrive. It’s hard to imagine being content in a moment like this, but as I’ve discovered, the way an experience goes down emotionally has so much more to do with the people you end up with than the events themselves.
My friend Aaron has been in my life since fall 2002 when we met at a gathering of anarchist techies in Seattle, Washington. You know those people you just hit it off with? He’s one of mine. The first time we met we sat up all night on the steps of the Emma Goldman Finishing School (a commune in Beacon Hill), drank beers, and compared our histories in cultish communist organizations. I won’t go into all the particulars of how we became actual friends despite the distance (he lived in Washington, DC and I lived in Vancouver, BC at the time) because it’s not really important to this story – except that we did and still are.
One of the things we share is a love of backpacking and camping, something I only got into in the late nineties but Aaron has been pursuing his whole life. Given this, it wasn’t long before we decided on a camping trip in my corner of the northwest – particularly since Aaron had never been to BC and the coastal terrain here is nothing short of amazing. Tall cedars, sand and boulder beaches, the scrag and bluff of previously cut forests overlooking a sea stretched out to Japan: that’s the west coast of Vancouver Island at its most enticing. From the trail options we chose the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail from Jordan River to Port Renfrew which clocks in at 50 kilometres over five days. For those of you who don’t hike, this is a perfectly reasonable distance to cover in a day without overdoing it, even over rough terrain. It means lots of time for breaks, swimming, eating and chilling out – which as far as I’m concerned are the main reasons for doing a camping trip in the first place. (The hiking is just a means to an end.)
So we set out on this trip as planned – our first three days spent hiking on boulders, up and down the switchbacked forest trails, eating starchy camping food and sleeping on beaches. Of those days, the second day was the hardest – a full 12 kilometres of nothing but switchbacks and stairs, but the third day was an easy seven to Sombrio Beach where we swam and slept in the warm sand of an August afternoon. That night we watched the sun set and moon rise adjacent to each other in a perfect arc and built a pathetic fire to talk beside until the night was fully black.
On the fourth morning we decided that rather than hike to the Parkinson Creek campsite, we would push a couple of kilometres further to Payzant Creek. This meant a shorter hike to Botanical Beach on the last day, and given the fact that the weather was threatening rain, it made sense to get the most kilometres in on a “good” day. After the beautiful and strenuous two days prior, the hike between Sombrio and Parkinson was pretty unexciting; a great deal of it winds through heavily logged areas that are taking their time to regenerate. We ate a late lunch about an hour before stumbling on the Parkinson parking lot (which connects up to logging roads and then the highway) and then followed the trail down to the creek where we rested again. It really was one of those unexceptional hiking days for both Aaron and myself as we counted down the kilometres to dinner and pitching the tent again.
To get from Parkinson to Payzant Creek, there is a kilometre of beach-hiking and then the trail turns back up into the forest for another short jog. It was at the intersection of beach and forest leaving Parkinson that our trip took a decided turn for disaster. Aaron was slightly ahead of me, stepping from rock ledge to log and then to beach boulder. All short steps, nothing except balance required, and I prepared to follow him. Before I could take a step however, Aaron turned around and asked me if I was sure we were going the right way, and so I stopped there on the rock ledge and looked up from my feet to give him an answer. Really, what comes next is a jumble until I’m clinging to a log propping myself off the weight of my leg and telling Aaron that “something is really fucking wrong”. What I pieced together shortly afterwards is that the moss on which I was standing slipped under my feet from a slight mud river running beneath it, and when I came down it was with my foot wedged between rock ledge and log. With my foot caught hard, all my weight plus a 30 pound backpack came down on it and in the confused moment of the accident itself something wet sounding had snapped somewhere deep inside my body.
Even Aaron watching the whole thing had a hard time explaining what happened – it was so quick – and I wasn’t moving in a way that should have made me trip or fall. But as I held myself off my ankle, my body now wedged where my ankle had been just seconds before, he could see the colour drain from my face as I told him I was badly hurt. He came behind me and removed my pack which allowed me to breathe again, and without communicating anything to him – I plotted to move myself under rather than over the log. I couldn’t stand the idea of being lifted up for some reason, and so as he turned to put my pack back on the ledge I swung myself down and through a tiny space between the log and the beach – hollering at full volume the whole time. Truly one of the most painful moments of my life, and I ended up on the other side covered in black mud and crying.
To this day I’m not sure if I was crying because I was hurt or because I was muddy. Moments of trauma are like that, a confusion between the essential and the merely annoying. I had managed to get myself into a sitting position on a large log with my injured ankle (right) propped up in front of me and when Aaron came around the first thing I showed him was my muddy hands which he promptly washed with his water bottle. And here is a tip about first aid that I learned in that moment: unless someone is actively dying and it’s all you can do to save them right now, attending to little comforts go a long way in making an injured person feel better. As soon as my hands were clean I started feeling much more in control and asked Aaron for my sweater, some Advil, my water bottle and a cigarette from my pack. I knew my body was going into mild shock and I would get cold, and I also knew that taking an anti-inflammatory before doing anything else would help keep the pain at bay until we got me…. somewhere…. So we got sorted with meeting my immediate needs which involved taking off my hiking boot so I could examine the swelling.
We had a cel phone, but no reception on the beach, and at first there was some confusion about who to call until we realized that 911 was probably our best bet even if they had to send search and rescue services as opposed to just an ambulance. At this point I was well situated with a sleeping bag, my favourite sweater, water and some padding behind my head so I could just lie back while Aaron ran to the top of the bluff where there was reception for the phone. Again, there was some confusion on the part of the operator, but in the end she said that since we were only 1 or 2 km from the Parkinson Creek parking lot they would send an ambulance instead of an airlift. (On the West Coast trail the only way out is airlift). By this point it was about six in the evening and the sun was starting its slow summer descent.
So we settled in to wait, Aaron and I – his first reaction after having finished with the logistics being to bury his face in my sweater and have a bit of a cry himself on my behalf. I was dreadfully apologetic about the whole thing and how I’d ruined our camping trip, and he was reassuring – and then instead of dwelling on the situation we were actually in we started to talk about other things. Smoking cigarettes and watching the sunset from the beach, it was as though we were simply winding down from a regular day of hiking. I was cozy in my sweater and sleeping bag with my friend leaning against me, slightly high from the endorphins and emotionally more connected to Aaron than I had been to anybody in a long time. We told each other stories from our lives for almost two hours and when the paramedics showed up (one of whom I knew) I was laughing at something Aaron had just said and felt a palpable disappointment in being rescued at all. It’s not that I wanted to spend the night out in the forest with broken bones, but I also never wanted that moment of perfect bonding and friendship to end either.
Even now, years later, I can dwell there where the evening sun warmed us on a solitary west coast beach and we hung onto each other in the trauma of that moment and others, giving way through our sharing to the comfort of bonding. Of friendship. And it’s golden still, that my state of mind could so far overtake my wrecked physical self – that my friend could share with me those hours in between one state and another. It seemed to me prefect then and still does, those two hours between accident and rescue, as though there was no place I could ever be than right there.
Of course there is a story that follows this, or rescue and hospital and surgery – and perhaps those are the tradeoff for the idyll which Aaron and I found in each other – but I won’t tell it here, for I’ve reached the point at which I want to end.