She left me a note on the kitchen table. Double sided. The size of a paperback book. It was short and to the point:
My girlfriend of a year and a half was moving out of my apartment, and moving in with another man.
I spent the next two days lying around in my underwear, getting high and scheming up ways to lure her back. On the third day, I went outside for the very first time and found my landlord working the garden in the backyard. My landlord was one of those prototypical hippies you’d find all over the neighbourhood where I lived in East Vancouver: slender, long grey hair in a ponytail, a part time job as a yoga teacher, a history growing dope up in the mountains. He listened to me drag out every detail of my breakup story as he tended to the arugula and the strawberries.
“You know what you should do?,” he said, when I was done. “You should go to Wreck Beach.” Wreck Beach was the nudist beach out by the university. I had heard of it by reputation, but I’d never gone. “Wreck Beach is exactly what you need right now. Take a book, take a blanket, take a joint.” He wiped his gardening gloves on his jeans. “You won’t need the book. Go out there and enjoy yourself.”
The next day, I packed a backpack with a book, a blanket and a joint and rode my bike across the city, headed towards the university. It was a gorgeous day for riding. Vancouver was at its very best. I rode down residential streets, past houses fronted by bursting gardens, then climbed a steep hill with killer views out over the harbour, with the glass towers downtown and the mountains in the distance. It was beautiful, but my mind was elsewhere. It was with my girlfriend, and her new boyfriend.
To get to Wreck Beach, you need to descend a long, twisting staircase through a dense northwestern forest of fir trees and ferns to get down to the Pacific. I locked my bike at the top of the stairs and took the first few steps with trepidation. What would I find at the bottom? The idea of a nudist beach felt very taboo to me; I associated it with things like drug use and kinky sex, and I worried what I would do if that was what I found.
Other people were headed up the stairs — beachgoers in sandals and tanktops and bikinis. I smiled at them nervously. None smiled back.
Though Vancouver is a city of beautiful beaches, this one was particularly gorgeous. Facing west, hemmed off from the city by a bluffside of trees, all I could see were distant islands, and the calm surface of the Pacific lapping against the sand. Overhead, a bald eagle circled majestically before alighting on the crown of a cedar tree. A tanker ship full of oil cruised steadily west, headed towards Asia.
I lay my blanket on a piece of sand carefully calculated to be close but not too close to a lone woman lying naked in the sun. As I slipped off my shirt, she glanced over at me, cupping her eyes over her sunglasses, then looking away again. I didn’t want to stare, but I looked a second time, and then a third. It was hard not to compare her body with that of my departed girlfriend.
I sighed heavily, feeling sorry for myself. The past few months has been hard. We’d fought, made up, clung harder to each other, then pushed each other away again. But through it all, I had held firm to my steadfast belief that we had something stronger than our petty disagreements. Something stronger than infidelity. Love.
That love wasn’t enough shocked me.
I dug into my backpack for the book and the joint, and a sandwich that I had bought along the way. As I ate the sandwich, I took in the beach scene. There were a hundred or so people there that day, sunbathing, leaning against the immense driftwood logs that lay on the sand, and throwing frisbees down by the edge of the surf. The atmosphere was subdued — nothing like the sexualized-charged ideas that I had imagined. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
The woman near me rolled from her back onto her front. My eyes ran the length of her side, from head to toe. I sighed again heavily.
What would I do to bring her back? I was 29, and everything I had learned about relationships through my twenties had told me that the force of love was enough to overcome all obstacles. Could all those romantic comedies have been lying? Sitting there on the beach, I figured that the real problem was that I hadn’t been expressive enough with my love. My girlfriend hadn’t known how deeply I loved her, so she had naturally strayed to someone else.
If I was going to win her back, I knew I needed to do something big, something dramatic, that would prove my love to her, and win her love for the rest of my life.
There was just one option: Walking to Mexico. I couldn’t believe it either. But as I sat there on Wreck Beach, it seemed totally clear that committing to Walking to Mexico was the only thing I could do to win my girlfriend back.
Walking to Mexico had been her idea. Six months earlier, we’d gone to see this documentary about a guy who rode his two-seated, tandem bicycle all the way from Alaska to Argentina. Why a tandem? So he could pick up the strangers he met and invite them onto his trip!
After the movie, my girlfriend said that we should do something like he had done, and that that thing should be walking to Mexico.
I struggled to follow her logic. But I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to do it either. We were unattached, underemployed and relatively free. Spending a year walking was something we could do, if we really wanted to. We started doing some research. Over the winter, we bickered over things like tents and hiking shoes and pot sets and guidebooks the way that other couples fight over the toilet seat. Walking to Mexico grew from being this far out idea to something that we were going to do, whether I liked it or not.
My opinion on the trip was conflicted. On one hand, I thought that spending all that time out in the world would be a great source of creative inspiration. At the time, I dreamed of becoming a photographer. A few years earlier, I’d quit my white-collar job in hopes of finding a career that gave me more meaning and purpose. I packed my backpack and spent the next three years in India, travelling, volunteering and working. That’s where I’d met my girlfriend. I figured that walking to Mexico was an extension of the path I’d already begun.
But on the other hand, I was scared by the idea of walking across America. Even though President Obama had just taken office, and the chants of Yes, We Can were still ringing in my head, I couldn’t shake my idea of America that had come to light over the Bush Administration. To me, America was violent, divisive, consumerist and imperialistic — all values that contradicted the vegetarian, peace-loving, Gandhi-reading version of myself that I had constructed in India. I worried how strangers would react to meeting the two of us — would they laugh at us? Would they shoot us? I suggested travelling somewhere different, but my girlfriend was insistent. It was either America or nothing.
There was a second reason why walking scared me. Over the winter, I’d spent endless hours supporting my girlfriend’s fight with mental illness. Though I’d had some downtimes in my twenties myself, by the time the two of us met, I was on the upswing, and when she told me about her depression, at first, I thought I’d be able to help her get over it. But the scope of her depression and the force of her panic attacks terrified me. I dreaded the idea of spending months of just the two of us, on our own. I also dreaded the idea of telling her that I was quitting.
Sitting there on the beach, I glanced over at the naked woman near to me again. It felt so tempting to go out and start something new, with someone else who didn’t have the same problems. But where would I find someone who I loved more? And where would I find someone who loved me? Questions like this filled my head. Should I walk to Mexico? Shouldn’t I? Can I do it? Do I want to do it? Can I not do it? How could I swallow the hit to my dignity when I told all my friends that I’d been left for another man?
By this point, my sandwich had disappeared. As I sat there on the blanket, gazing distantly at the naked woman lying near me, I caught her eye, and watched as she glanced down at my shorts, then rolled onto her side, turning away from me, disgusted. I looked down too and caught a perspective on myself. There I was trying to hang onto my dignity. But who was I kidding? My dignity had disappeared. I’d been humiliated and heartbroken, and doing something dramatic, something bold, was my only choice.
Before I knew it, I had risen to my feet. My hands descended to my belt buckle. For a moment, my thoughts drifted away and an image came clear to my mind. It was a fork in the road, marked by a pair of road signs. One fork said STAY THE SAME. The other one said TRANSFORM.
I looped my thumbs into my underwear and tugged down my shorts. As they fell, I fell with them, arriving prone on my blanket, gazing up at the sky, like a caterpillar, naked.