As I biked home, along Vancouver’s harbour, I had no idea that I was about to start the strangest year of my life. My concern was much nearer term: I wondered whether my girlfriend would be waiting for me at home, or whether she’d have packed her things and moved out.
It had been a tumultuous few months since we’d moved to Vancouver. We had one of those relationships full of wild, crazy dreams, but lacking the chutzpah to bring any of our dreams to life. I was an aspiring storyteller, moonlighting as an occasional consultant. She was a Cambridge grad with dreams of being a writer, but without the discipline to hold down a retail job for more than a few months. We’d been living off savings — savings and a regular dose of pot. Not exactly the recipe for a healthy relationship. Over the last few weeks, our relationship had been yo-yoing between love and hate.
The sunset was long and slow, the last traces of the day leaking behind the mountains and disappearing into the Pacific. It was June 21, 2010 — the longest day of the year. The cloudless sky deepened through the dusk and into the the twilight.
I made my way home heavily. The night before, we’d fought as bitterly as ever. When I came home, from a weekend spent away with friends, I found her in our bed, fully clothed, with the covers pulled up to her chin. I felt a sinking feeling in my chest.
That’s when she admitted what I’d long suspected: that guy who she said was “just a friend” actually wasn’t.
I stopped for dinner, wolfing down a simple vegetarian meal of lentils and rice. No matter what I encountered at home, I wanted to face it on a full stomach. Finally, reluctantly, I rode my bike to the garden level condo we’d been subletting for the past two months — our sixth home in nine months in Vancouver. I stood up on my pedals and peeked over the garden wall. What I saw gave me no hope. All the house lights were off.
Her note was waiting for me there on the kitchen table. Picking it up, I regarded it distantly, like it was addressed to someone other than me. Instead, I focused on the details: its size (notepaper, bigger than a post it, smaller than a full sheet); its placement (atop a road map of the Pacific Northwest that I’d deliberately unfold before leaving the house, and she’d deliberately folded up again); and the salutation — or lack of it — above her signed name.
The message was clear. There was no love left. The drawers to her wardrobe had been left open; her closet was empty.
I crushed the note into a ball and threw it directly into the trash.
For the next two days, I moped around the apartment, scheming out ways to win her back. Our relationship had been dramatic from the beginning, and in the last few weeks, it felt like we’d entered into some kind of emotional cold war that was destined for some kind of mutually assured destruction.
Still in denial, I let myself believe that this abrupt exit was due some bigger response, some climactic next act.
There seemed to be just one clear point of leverage. Eight months earlier, not long after we’d arrived in Vancouver, we went to the movie theatre to see a documentary about a man who’d taken a two-seated, tandem bicycle to the very top of Alaska and proceeded to ride all the way south, through the Americas, to the very tip of Argentina, inviting the people he met to join him on his bike. It was a wonderful movie, and it touched us both with its humanity. Outside the theatre, my girlfriend suggested that we should do something like that.
“Let’s walk to Mexico!,” she said. Just like that, this flippant, off-the-cuff idea became a part of our life.
At first, I took it as a joke. But through the long, wet winter, we argued over things like routes and tents, sleeping bags and shoes the way that other couples argue over the toilet seat. By the time the spring arrived, in bright white cherry blossoms and bursting pink magnolias, walking to Mexico had become more than a vacation. It had become a referendum on my commitment to her and our relationship.
By her judgement, I was failing the test.
I had been conflicted from the beginning. On one hand, the idea of walking across the country like two lovestruck pilgrims sounded heavenly. Ever since the start of my quarter life crisis, three years earlier, there was no higher priorities in my life than adventure, exploration and love. I’d spent much of the last three years travelling in India, where I had given myself the moniker “lovewallah” to describe my Gandhian ambition of healing the world through acceptance and non-violence. I’d become vegetarian, transitioned away from my old friends and dreamed myself to be destined for a career as an artist, separated from the compromises of capitalism, unfettered by the problems of adult life.
On the other hand, I could feel the pressures of my age building on me. Just a few months shy of my 30th birthday, I had begun considering marriage, children and my future with a new perspective, urged on my by my professional parents. Each time I spoke with them, the subtext was obvious: when will I get a job and grow up? I had moved across the country from Toronto to escape them, but as my girlfriend and I shuffled between temporary homes, the question of our future became more and more abstract.
Plus there were practical concerns. We didn’t have much money, and neither of us had much experience in the wilderness. We were vastly underprepared. I consistently failed to raise these conversations, assuming, cowardly, that if I passed over the conversation long enough, it would simply disappear.
But now that she left, the idea of walking was no longer a joke. I was scared. I didn’t want to make a decision. And then she left, and my hand got forced.
On the third day after the breakup, I was sitting out in the garden in front of a pile of ashes — the remains of an expletive-filled letter I’d just written to my ex. The garden gate swung open, and in walked my landlord, James, a slender man in his fifties who was a total stereotype of East Vancouver: a pot-smoking yoga teacher with a slow drawl and a long grey pony tail.
James was the first person I’d spoken to since I found my girlfriend’s note. As he weeded the garden, I poured out the sordid details of my breakup, oversharing behind measure, begging of him for advice on what I needed to do to lure her back.
Finally, James interrupted me in the middle of one of my rants. He clapped his gloved hands together, cleaning off the dirt, and bent down to pluck a strawberry from the vine. “You know what you should do?,” he said. “You should go to Wreck Beach.”
Wreck Beach? The suggestion stopped me in my tracks. I’d heard of the beach, but only through reputation. It was the famous nudist beach out by the University of British Columbia. James was an old hippy. He described a free, accepting place where everyone could feel comfortable being themselves. “It’s just what you need right now,” he said. “Take a book, take a blanket, take a joint. You won’t need the book. Just go out there and have a good time. Enjoy yourself. And try to relax.”
As soon as he left, I went inside and began furious spurt of Googling. Who needs freedom and acceptance? I had far more interesting questions to ask the computer about Wreck Beach. Was there public sex? Could a single man go there by himself? Was it going to be a bunch of old dudes with saggy balls?
Was my girlfriend there, right now, relaxing on the beach, naked, with her new, more confident boyfriend?
I packed my backpack: a book, a blanket, a joint. Grabbing my bike, I rode west, through Vancouver towards where the university sits perched on a hilltop, overlooking the Georgia Strait. Summer had taken over the city. Sailing boats were cruising in the harbour. The mountainsides were lush and green. Sunshine dazzled off the glass buildings downtown.
I was drenched in sweat by the time I reached the trail leading to Wreck Beach. Locking up my bikes, I approached a long staircase that led through the forest towards the sand far below. There must have been 500 steps. As I descended, I felt a clear sense that I was crossing some important threshold.
It wasn’t that I was a total square. I’d done some wild things before. When I was 18, I bungee jumped out of a gondola in the Swiss Alps. In my 20s, before my quarter life crisis, I had travelled constantly, exploring Australia, studying abroad in Hong Kong, backpacking through Southeast Asia, Europe, Guatemala. In India, on some remote island in the Andaman Sea, I’d tried LSD for the first time, and the insights had been profound. That experience had catalyzed a search inside of myself, a way to discover a way of maintaining the serenity of mind that I had momentarily found.
But public nudity was still far beyond my self-image. It wasn’t however, beyond the self-image of the people I found at the bottom of the stairs. There were bodies everywhere. Two hundred, maybe three hundred people on that weekday afternoon. Tits, butts, dicks wiggled and waggled in the hot summer sun. It was complete sensory overload, and I hurried down to the water, where I could lay out my blanket and sit, to properly arrive.
I took off my shirt. I paused but stuck with my shorts. Digging into my backpack, I fished out the joint.
We’d already developed the foundations of a plan. We’d even given it a title: To Tell the Story About the Universal Similarities Between People.
A few days after we saw the documentary, we went out for dinner and jotted down that title along the top of a paper napkin.
The plan was to use our creative talents to connect people together around their commonalities, much in the same way that the tandem cyclist had done in the film. It was something we’d spent many hours talking about, as we travelled in India, where we had met a year before moving to Vancouver. I would take pictures. She would write the stories. We’d share those stories widely with the world.
Back then, it was early in the Internets, before the launch of Instagram. We still thought it was novel to be a pair of travelling storytellers, wandering around the world.
In order to do it, I needed money. Fortunately, I had an idea. Just a year earlier, there had been a new idea on the Internet: a website called Kickstarter had launched, and a few courageous artists were using it to fund their creative projects. I thought that this might be the kind of project that could have legs. But raising the money would mean sending out a call to friends, family and strangers, asking them to put their hard earned dollars into what could very well seem like an extended vacation.
Had I been a well-defined artist, then I suppose this kind of request for patronage might have been comprehensible to the outside. But my friends didn’t know me as creative. They knew me as studious and intelligent, but also white-collared. I had attended business school, and my dream for my future had at one time included a top-tier MBA. I’d quit my job, hit the reset button on life, gone to India and came back a vegetarian. Announcing that I was now an artist might have been a little hard to take.
But inside, I felt like an artist. And earlier that year, I’d set out to prove it. I’d launched a strange photography exhibition on board of a public streetcar, featuring some of the pictures I’d taken while travelling in India, that had received front page coverage in one of the country’s biggest newspapers. Did my success qualify me as an artist? I longed to take a more confident step down that career path, but I was afraid what the world would think.
I was missing something. Courage. The courage to follow my dreams and act.
Should I become an artist? Should I walk to Mexico? Should I commit myself to winning my girlfriend back? As I sat there, clothed on the naked beach, I began to see how all these questions overlapped.
The problem was courage. The solution would take courage. If I was serious about what I wanted, I had to stop talking about it. I needed to act.
This logic seemed totally sound, as I sat there, stoned on the beach. Nearby, something caught my eye. It was a young woman, lying on her beach blanket, fully naked. As I glanced over, she was slowly pulling herself to her feet. I watched her rise with mouth agape. She was stunning — voluptuous, deeply tanned and carrying herself with a sense of confidence and grace. I looked away quickly, not wanting to stare so obviously. But as she leaned down, grabbing a sheer blue beach shawl, which she wrapped around her beautiful, naked torso, I found my attention pulled to her again and again.
A small, niggling voice spoke from within me. Do I really want my girlfriend back?, it said. Could I ever trust her again? After all, I had known from the beginning that leaving one man for another had been her pattern throughout her life.
Could there be someone better, waiting for me out there?
How could I be sure that what had happened to me would never happen again?
Courage. I needed to be courageous. If I was going to win my girlfriend back, I need to be courageous. If I was going to walk to Mexico, I needed to be courageous. If I was going to win the heart of a woman as beautiful and graceful as this naked woman on the beach, I surely couldn’t sit here, on the sidelines, too timid to take my own shorts off.
A sudden rush of self-confidence brought me to my feet. Glancing briefly at the naked woman, I lowered my hands to my waist.
I closed my eyes and begged for courage. Then I unbuttoned my shorts and I yanked.