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Monday
Jul202015

Lost Coast

Lost Coast

by Sam Kaufman-Martin

 

There’s something about the ocean.  Something about those waves.  Something about standing on the bluffs and watching waves beat against sand and rocks, again and again and again.

            I always think of the ocean as it is in northern California: deep, unknowable, powerful, relentlessly beating dark rocks into gray pebbles and dark sand.  It’s as if when I’m in front of it I can feel myself being eroded, each wave rushing into my heart and trying to tug it back out to sea.  I can feel myself being beaten back, like the trees whose branches have been molded backwards by the wind, like the cloaks of hunched journeymen, beaten by wave after wave until I can hardly stand the immensity of being.  I felt this many times while I was alone in the Lost Coast one November.  I longed to be released from my longing.

            Often, I have felt as if a wave could pound the center of my chest and break it in two, like one of those rocks being pounded day after day.  Then the heaviness and tension gripping my chest would be released, and I would be open, spacious, and free.  Sometimes I have pictured golden light breaking out of my chest.  “Chest”…which reminds me of what Rumi said about treasure: “Wherever there is a ruin, there is hope for treasure—why do you not seek the treasure of God in the wasted heart?” 

            And yet—or maybe “also”—that ocean is where I feel at home.  It has felt like home to me for as long as I can remember.  Hearing the waves, seeing them, smelling them, feeling their breeze (when it’s not too strong) is one of the most soothing things I can imagine.  The ocean’s unknowable darkness and extent is reassuring.  The tug of the waves on my heart is like love.  When they are gentle, it’s like rocking a cradle.  When they are wind-whipped forceful, they invigorate me.  In and out, in and out, as if the world were breathing, and has always been breathing, and always will. 

***

            Since when is an ocean not just an ocean?  Why can’t I just be at home where I am?  Three Septembers ago I set out from my house in a peeling-paint car without much of a plan for the next three months.  My only aim was “north;” I wanted to wander through the Pacific Northwest, maybe driving gradually up to Washington and back.  At the time of this solo journey I was very much desiring the experience of a “sacred other” that would give me a revelation about how to live my life in a meaningful way.  I started developing, as I traveled, a sense of looking for an ideal place of wilderness in whose presence I would become whole, and I would know it when I was there. 

            The idea of the Lost Coast deepened this longing for my “perfect place.”  I had heard about it from a friend, and fairly soon I decided to make it the culmination of my trip when I returned south.  The Lost Coast is one of the biggest stretches of wild coastline in the Lower 48, if not the only such significant stretch.  There is no highway along this part of the coast because, being at a junction between three tectonic plates, its terrain is too tumultuous and earthquake-bound to build one.  The King’s Range mountains slope steeply right down to the sea.  Thank goodness there are still some places that are untamable.  The Bureau of Land Management owns the 25-mile stretch of uninhabited coastline with a hiking trail along its length.  How amazing is that: uninhabited, unpaved coastline.  As far as I know, that’s essentially unheard of in the United States (apart from Alaska).  So I imagined that there in the Lost Coast I would find the place where I would at last be free, free of the asphalt ugliness of civilization that marred all the other coastlines, free to be alone and in unobstructed communion with my true love, the ocean; furthermore, I imagined that it would be just like Sea Ranch, the lovely cypress-strewn meadows of my childhood vacations farther south along the coast, except without roads or houses.  In other words, I was going to visit the most ideal wilderness landscape I could imagine.  I was looking for a “magical other” to make me whole, as so many people do in their romantic aspirations, except that my “magical other” was to be a wild landscape.  Not just any wild landscape—the Grand Canyon wouldn’t do—but an ocean coastline with my favorite kinds of trees and topography and other familiar elements.  I was going to feel finally, perfectly at home in the wilderness. 

            The Lost Coast was not “Sea Ranch without roads.”  The forested ridges of the winding drive kept the shore out of sight until I was upon it.  No gentle cypress meadows here—steep pine-covered slopes abutted the narrow, tide-soaked strip of black sand and fist-sized rocks.  Between these austere mountains and the tall, dark waves, there wasn’t much room for a human to camp.  The rain gusted for days and nights, the wind wet and cold.  It was not a place to settle.  I sat on my bear canister under a makeshift shelter.  I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, wrote in my journal, and ate my meals.  I huddled watching the loud, relentless waves. 

            The Lost Coast was its own place.  Beautiful, no question, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, but not the “home” I had imagined.  Were all my feelings about some landscapes being more “home” than others anything more than vain pining for a “magical other”?  Is it foolish to search for wholeness outside of myself?  Is anywhere “home”?

            Not the “home” I had imagined, but maybe something else.  The ocean was very much an “other,” a dark and cold and unknowable other whose unrelenting rhythm seems to erode me still.  I long so much to be at-home in the world—break me open and release me like grains of sand so the space of the world can fill me!  Once I was in the Lost Coast, those steep slopes kept me right on the edge between land and water, right next to those waves.  Every day I was beaten by the unknown, but in some strange way, I didn’t have to worry about what anything would be, because it was the way it was. 

            I wanted the Lost Coast to be home.  I wanted it to be the place where I could stop looking for my place, a fitting end to my journey.  I wanted to settle, to be settled.  I wanted to get there and say, “Ah.  Whew.  It’s all gonna be okay.  I’m on the right track now.  I can rest now.  This land will take care of me now,” or something like that.  That didn’t happen.  And yet—or maybe “also”—I find myself wanting to go back.  Once you’re there, once you’re living on its shore with only five pounds of tent between you and everything else, the Lost Coast isn’t going to be something that it’s not.  And I think that’s important.  I think I needed a place like that.