Art by Meaghan Hackinen and Lindsey Tyne.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
WHERE THE TIDE
by Meaghan Hackinen
In Port Angeles there's a mist like chiffon that could be mistaken for fog, but I know it well enough. I've learned to recognize a rain cloud. From growing up in the Fraser Valley, I can sense the change in atmosphere, the rush of enveloping warmth before the sky opens. I roll my bicycle, all of it laden with touring panniers, off the ferry from Victoria and orient myself to the streets of this saltwater town. I see brick buildings with washed-out business names, and souvenir shops in primary colours.
I need groceries and a map. An older man at the visitor centre, his cheekbones veined purple from sun damage, sells me a road map and tells me of the Safeway on Third Street. He asks more about where I'm headed. I tell him I'm cycling the Olympic Peninsula — making a counter-clockwise loop on the Pacific Coast Highway, around the mountain range dominated by snow-capped Mount Olympus.
“But where are you headed tonight?” he asks.
“I'm not sure. Toward Cape Flattery.” The Cape is the most northwestern point of the USA, aside from Alaska.
“Not much on that road.”
I note his warning and fold the map into my handlebar bag.
Outside, the mist has gathered into heavy droplets, falling hard. After I buy groceries and jigsaw my instant noodles, apples, and granola into panniers, I change to full rain apparel: a Gore-Tex jacket, pants, booties, and hood. My gloves aren't waterproof but they'll keep my fingers insulated for a little while.
On the hill out of town I pedal past tidy homes with firewood stashed under tin roofs, and potted flowers whose petals are almost like butterfly wings, translucent in the rain. This cloudburst shows no sign of abating. I try not to think about my father struggling through another week with cancer. My mind concentrates on the tang of pine air, and the burn working up my calves with every downstroke.
Two months before setting out on this trip, my father told me over the phone: “So, I've got cancer.” I had called him during my break at work and he said it without affliction, the same tone he would probably use to convey news that he'd finally gotten around to selling his trailer, or found a guy in the Valley unloading cheap firewood.
For me, it took a couple of weeks before his illness fully sank in, though I had long forecast our family overdue for misfortune. I assumed it would be me, skin cancer, all those childhood sunburns to blame; or perhaps my mother, emphysema, from her chain-smoking years before she discovered Ashtanga yoga and rooibos tea. But never my father. He played hockey three times a week and lived by the golden rule of moderation. In every vacation photo he is tanned and shirtless, six-pack abs paired with a grin. I couldn't imagine him in chemo, radiation, or undergoing the colostomy procedure in the fall.
I picked so many flowers on the day I heard. The garden of the Vancouver house I shared with my sister and my boyfriend, Toby, had been engulfed in a whirlwind of colour. Phlox, black-eyed Susans, Shasta daisies, fuchsia foxglove and fireweed, handfuls of forget-me-nots the shade of a blue robin's egg, and fragrant lavender. We had done nothing to encourage the rampant perennial growth, except water once or twice during the hottest weeks of July. I bundled flowers in the trunk of the car, stems wrapped in wet paper towels dripping pools on the carpet. As many as I could wrap my arms around.
Fistfuls of rain strike harder now. It's barely lunchtime. I wonder if I'm crazy; why did I want to do this again? I had been seeking an escape, a chance to clear my mind. But fighting it out in a downpour, as pick-up trucks barrel past, is not the kind of change I had hoped for. The two-lane road plummets like a breakneck gull into every ravine only to shoot back uphill, plateauing not quite long enough for me to catch my breath, then plunging into another turn.
I pull over in Joyce, a blip-on-the-map town carved into the vast woodland. At a cluttered general store selling everything from live bait to frozen pie, I fill my travel mug with drip coffee and top it off with hot chocolate and cream. Locals in mucked work boots pay for their gas and return to their rust-mottled pick-ups carrying jerky and cigarettes. No one speaks to me. I wish Toby was here to make petty jokes about bad bumper stickers.
In the weeks following my father’s diagnosis, a rift opened between Toby and me, although the only time we argued was in bed.
“You put me last,” he said. The two of us were stick figures on top of blankets, straight-limbed and expressionless on a humid August night.
“My dad has cancer. He's in chemo.”
“It's not just that. It's all your priorities — your dad, roller derby.”
“And work,” I reminded him. I was putting him last, but to me it didn't feel like a choice. I gave ten-hour days to a licensed marijuana grow facility in the Valley, where I worked as a trimmer. Meanwhile, my roller derby team was gearing up for a divisional tournament in Richmond, Virginia, and I needed to earn my spot on the roster. I made the forty-five-minute commute to my parents' place in Surrey twice a week, stayed there overnight, and drove to work the next morning. All I ever wanted was sleep.
“So I'm not even on your list, that's what you're telling me?”
“What do you expect me to do? Stay home from work, not visit my father?”
I turned my back to him and folded inward. He said nothing but I could feel his heat, even over the silent furnace of that torched summer. I got up to pour a cold-water bath that I didn't take, instead sinking into tears between the tub and the cool ceramic of the toilet bowl.
I stop for the night at a place called Twin Rivers. Along its pebbled shore there are footprints, but no people. Waves tumble under a cheesecloth sky, and I imagine Vancouver Island, beyond that misty horizon. My father and I were on the island two years ago, cycling the Galloping Goose trail for 25 miles from Victoria to Sooke Potholes.
I wipe the grunge off my chain and then cook a pot of Ramen on my ultralight camp stove. I’m waiting for it to creep dark enough so that I can secretly pitch my tent amid beach grass and shipworm-tunnelled driftwood. The aim in stealth camping is not to be seen: set up after dark, leave before sunrise.
That night, despite being spent, sleep won't come. My core temperature has dropped from hours of damp cold. I’m double-socked and zipped to the chin inside my sleeping bag. Between lulls in the surging waves I think I hear approaching footsteps, and then a bottle breaking against rocks on the beach. I sleep with pepper spray beside my pillow. I try to check the time on my phone but the battery is dead.
I broke my father's fingers once, sparring in the backyard when I was still in elementary school. I was preparing to level up in Tae Kwon Do, a move from green belt to blue belt, or maybe from blue to red. What I remember clearly is the crack of cartilage and bone. He bound his instantly-swollen joints into a zombie claw with hockey tape, and went for x-rays a few days later. At many of the Christmas dinners that followed, he boasted his story, which usually began with: “My daughter broke my fingers.”
What do you say to that? My father had always wanted my sister and me to be self-sufficient, to be able to fix our own flats and assemble IKEA bookshelves, even if the instruction manual and half the screws had walked off. By his way of thinking, a kid who could break someone's fingers would be better equipped for life. Perhaps he imagined us karate-chopping stick-up thugs in rough-and-tumble alleys.
After Twin Rivers I continue west. It's a couple more hours along the narrow, twisting highway to Neah Bay, which is on the Makah Indian Reservation. One of the places I looked forward to visiting was the coastal archaeological site of Ozette, directly south of Neah Bay. Ozette had been a Makah village, but around the year 1560 a mudslide buried and preserved it. Excavation commenced after tidal-erosion from a winter storm unearthed wood and bone.
When I get to Neah Bay, I see cliffs plunging into the ocean like a wall falling off the edge of a flat world. I can't imagine inhabiting someplace so isolated, but nonetheless I notice something in me is shifting as I journey farther from the Lower Mainland. My cells have begun to reconfigure. I'm learning how to open up, lift off, and expand into the cloud-streamer atmosphere.
In an instance of unlucky timing, the site of Ozette, which is within a National Park, is closed due to a strike. I try to make the best of it. The name Makah is Salish for “people generous with food” and I decide to test this out for myself. I stop for fish and fried bread at one of the restaurants along the reservation's main drag. Lunch is substantial and delicious, everything battered, hot, and crispy. Across the street from the restaurant, sawdust floats above two men who are taking chainsaws to cedar beams.
At the gas station, I ask for directions and a man tells me there's only one way in and out of Neah Bay. “And when the snow piles up, they close it.” As he rings through my iced tea, he mentions being held up by a mudslide that happened a few years ago, after his wife went into labour. “Thought she was going to have the baby right there in the car.”
The campground is nearly empty and I stake my tent alongside a stand of side-swept shrubs. I hike over dunes as the horizon melts from cherry blossom pink to lava flow red, and surfers catch their final waves of the day.
The following morning, I ride to Cape Flattery and hike the boardwalk trail to where the Juan de Fuca smashes against the Pacific. Slippery, dark seals dive beneath the turbulent blue, bobbing between rocky islands topped with Sitka spruce blown off-kilter. I unwrap a granola bar and take in the sight of Cape Flattery Lighthouse, toy-sized on distant Tatoosh Island.
After my father's diagnosis, I continued to lose traction with my life. I drove home from the grocery store sobbing into the steering wheel, or ended up confessing to my sister that I had not been able to talk to anyone that afternoon at the grow facility because I was afraid I'd slip and tell them about my father. It wasn't that his cancer was a secret; I just needed to keep areas of my life distinct.
Skate practice became a thrice-weekly test. With the divisional tournament on the way, training was stressful enough, and we had a team policy about keeping drama off the track. Yet when things weren't going well — if I blundered a drill too many times or forgot to signal a play — my thoughts would leap from my own inadequacy to my father's sickness and manifest with a tightness in my chest. From there, all it took was one reprimand from the coach, a single criticism from a teammate, and I'd crack.
Someone would always come to my side. A handful of paper towel soaked in cool water and a shoulder rub. I didn't ever have to explain. I'd slip back into drills, resolved to keep it together and be self-sufficient. Concentrate on the task at hand.
It's morning not far from Quinault Lake, and I wake up to perfect weather. Since Neah Bay the sky had been alternating sun and showers, but today rain is not in the forecast. I had camped in a picnic area, alongside a smattering of half-collapsed tables, a pond edged with cattails, and maples with trunks like Coliseum pillars.
It was so quiet and calm last night that this morning the sound of leaves crunching under my own tires startles me. When the path leading back to the Pacific Coast Highway nears asphalt, I dismount to wrestle my bicycle over the lip. I thought I was alone.
“Morning,” says a man's voice.
I spin round to see him. The man rocks back and forth on the balls of his boots, attempting to light a half-burnt cigarette. He's about forty, wearing dusky brown work pants and a jacket the colour of moss. I swallow and gauge the distance between us.
“I didn't know anyone else was staying around here,” he says to me, while trying again with the lighter. “I've been camped back there a couple of weeks now.”
“You have?” I look toward the maples expecting to see his campsite. I imagine duct-taped kitchen chairs and a line of damp clothes under a blue tarp.
“Mm hmm. Picking mushrooms. Chanterelles, bolitas, lobster mushrooms — you know those?” The flame jumps from his lighter to the smoke. “Red shell, white inside. Like slicing into lobster.”
The man moves a few steps closer and then resumes rocking. “This is the time of year for picking. Guys in town buy them for two bucks a pound.”
“Neat,” I say. His baseball cap reads Alaska; I wonder if that's where he's from.
“You want to learn how to pick?” He lurches forward. A scar through his right eyebrow is puckered and purple. “I've got a good patch that I’ll share. You could make some cash.” For some reason, his cigarette is still out.
“I've got to be going,” I shift one sneaker to a pedal.
“You want to see my knife?”
Blood pumps past my throat, into the back of my jaw.
Metal glistens on his blade like the back of a wet shark. “Got to have a sharp edge for cutting the stumps,” he says, flicking the tip with his finger.
I kick my other foot into the pedal and without lifting my eyes from him, carve an arc around the man.
“You're just like everyone else!” he calls after me.
I exhale as he grows small in my mirror. He doesn't move. He's now stopped rocking. Just stands there, arms loose like rags.
My father had talked about the things he wanted to do before surgery, but instead of traipsing to the far-flung reaches of the globe, he spent every free moment on online medical forums, posting questions and compulsively mapping the trajectory of his sickness. He built a hyperbaric chamber with parts he brought across the Peace Arch border (after he read that oxygen under increased pressure could destroy cancer cells). He started juicing to increase his nutrient uptake and using so-called honey oil — hash, really — because he'd heard cannabinoids inhibited tumour growth. His idea was to shrink the tumour so that a surgeon could remove it and leave his digestive system intact. During all this, I watched like someone on the sidelines of a sports game, commentating the play-by-play to my sister and boyfriend, offering my father encouragement. I listened, as well, to my father's diatribes on doctors and cancer research, unable to respond.
I continue down the Pacific Coast Highway at my own pace, camping beside different bodies of water and keeping mostly to myself. My sunset ritual now involves lighting a Djarum. I call my parents from gas station pay phones. They’re always relieved to hear from me. I phone Toby too, and tell him about one-room diners, grills stacked high with breakfast meat. I’ve been listening to his iPod, a mix of California surf rock and experimental electronica.
From Ocean City I follow a two-lane road around Grays Harbour, tracing the outskirts of Hoquiam and Aberdeen before hugging the shoreline back to the coast. Here the beach goes on for miles, rolled out like a tan carpet between forest and surf from Westport to Tokeland. A lone figure flies a kite, their back and shoulders rigid in opposition to the sail surfing on an invisible breeze. Continuing south, I stop again and again along the same unending stretch of beach.
In late afternoon, I relax outside a drive-through espresso stand, on a bench that flakes chips of red paint onto my spandex. It would be warm here if the wind eased off.
Before I leave, the woman who owns the stand invites me to stay the night in their RV, which is parked out back. I've known this person for less than an hour but already I feel I can trust her. Photos of college-aged kids adorn the otherwise bare wall behind the window, and her need to proffer care at every opportunity reminds me of my own mother.
A night indoors would be nice, so she hands me the keys and invites me to help myself to fruit cups and tuna snacks.
“My husband and I lived in here when we first bought the shop,” she says, fiddling with a hole in the mesh on the screen door. “Now we rent a place in town. And even that’s got pretty tight with the dogs.”
I nod, noticing slivers of dog hair knit into seat-cushions.
After she leaves I ransack her DVD collection and decide to watch The Bucket List, only to turn it off after the previews because I'm afraid I'll be reminded me too much of home.
I came home from the divisional roller derby tournament to both the start of an off-season, and a layoff notice from work. Suddenly, I had the entire month of September full of unstructured days. I wasn't looking forward to finding another job, and figured I would spend time with my father.
For a week I came by to my parent's house each morning. My father was scheduled for surgery in October, and it seemed important to me to be with him. Drained from the last cycle of chemo, he slept at minimum of sixteen hours a day. When he wasn't napping, he slunk around the house bundled in sweaters and quilts. He was never comfortable because of therapy-related blisters and a hypersensitivity that he'd developed to cold. Together, we'd walk the dog for fifteen minutes, and then he'd slouch back into the sofa. If my mother was home she would drape another blanket over him before taking me for vegetarian thali with roti and dal at a neighbourhood Indian place. We'd bring takeout for my father (which he didn't eat) and at night I'd drive home to Vancouver, tightness winching my ribcage.
I think it was Toby who suggested I take the trip. He could see I was miserable.
“Two weeks, and you can be home by Thanksgiving.”
I called my father the night before I left.
“I'd trade a limb for them not to do this to me,” he said, his voice groggy over the phone.
I reminded him that, according to Dr. Long, he would have a very, very good chance of living a normal post-operative life.
“Define normal,” he spat. “I'll never play hockey again.”
After the night in the RV, I backtrack north to Aberdeen and weave through pot-holed side roads east. For much of the time I can't place myself on the map — its patterns of red and grey lines fail to illustrate when the pavement disintegrates into muck track or panhandle driveways. I'm in no hurry though, even if it is eerie, being this alone.
I remember my encounter with the mushroom picker, and wonder if I am as competent as I like to think. Without totally realizing it, I've been keeping my own knife close at hand, tucked in the pouch of my bag where I can access it with one fist still wrapped around the handlebars. I return to the highway and spend a night in a friendly woman's storage shed.
The next day, I converse with a pair of motorcyclists who suggest I visit Deception Pass State Park — a campground castled within rugged old growth, near the bridge that joins Whidbey and Fidalgo Island.
“When you get there, it's just past the gas station at the crest of the hill,” one says, tucking dark feathers of hair under the rim of his helmet. I should arrive at the park tomorrow.
The road today is easy. I'm able to shift my eyes away from it, to try and find bushy deer tails poking above fern fronds. Eventually I stop for espresso and the richest chocolate torte I've ever tasted while waiting for a ferry in Port Townsend.
As the vessel makes its slow haul toward the dock I scan the events section of a local paper, pretending that I live here, taking note of the Weekend Farmer's Market on Lawrence Street and planning to stop by the bookstore for a poetry workshop next Thursday. There's something oddly comforting about make-believing I'm home, but all the while knowing that in just a few minutes I'll be whisked away.
Shadows slink long and my hamstrings are tight like elastic bands. I’ll be back home in two days.
I stop and buy a tallboy of beer plus a package of fuzzy peaches at a gas station, on top of the same hill that the motorcyclist had talked about. Deception Pass State Park can't be far now. I decide to call Toby from a payphone. He doesn't pick up so I sing a few riffs of The Beach Boys' “Surfing U.S.A.” to his voicemail:
We'll all be gone for the summer
We're on surfari to stay
Tell the teacher we're surfin'
The descent from the hill is smooth and fast and steep. The last few miles of each day are always my favourite. A canopy of conifers — western hemlock and lodgepole pine — arches over the camp service road like the ceiling of a cathedral. I veer toward an almost totally overgrown path. I follow it to a clearing with a picnic table and just enough space to set up my tent.
Deception Pass State Park rubs up against the ocean, but it also encompasses a smallish lake – the two bodies of water are separated by sand dunes. On a perch of smooth rock near the lakeshore I settle down to watch the sunset; marsh grass shimmers saffron in slanted light beneath my sneakers. Families wheel by on bicycles, couples push stroller-bound babies. The ensemble of voices swell and pale in the breeze.
Alone but not lonely, I sip my beer. I had set out on this trip to escape my father's sickness, and while my thoughts have turned to him again and again, the winching in my chest has eased during those countless hours in control, in the saddle. In this domain of massive and ancient timbers, and underpopulated lumber towns, I've found room to breathe, space to unravel my thoughts. I feel tiny but free.
Past the lake and its sandbank is the ocean — the same Pacific my parents see from their kitchen window in Surrey. I try to determine what words I'll use to describe this whole trip to my father, and suddenly am aware that I haven't cried for days.
We are separate entities, my father and I, despite what we share: memories and feelings, connections to places. While I'm able to offer a shoulder of support, there will forever be a hollow that I cannot cross. As hard as it is to accept, I cannot fight his battle for him.
Tomorrow, I'll walk to the point where the tide rushes between two islands.
Meaghan Hackinen is a Vancouver-born bicycle enthusiast whose two-wheeled adventures have taken her from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Currently enrolled in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan, Meaghan's prose explores relationships, experiences on the road, and encounters with wild places. Her work has appeared in The Fieldstone Review and untethered.