(Continued from Part 1)
I was on the verge of crossing the Columbia River. I could see the Bridge to Astoria in the distance. Until… I couldn’t.
The four mile long, enormous green bridge had disappeared behind a cloud of white that had suddenly gusted in off the Pacific.
By the roadside, the branches of the trees trembled. Whitecaps pounded into the riverbanks.
In a moment, Oregon was gone too, caught behind a veil of grey that seemed to close in on me from all sides. Just when I reached the riverbank, it started to rain, hard.
There was no shelter within sight. Instinctively, I dashed for the trees just off the highway, pulling on my rain gear, and the cover for my backpack. The trees were no shelter; rain poured down from the canopy, two or three hundred feet up, rattling on fallen logs and drenching the sword ferns. There was no hope of making progress. I sat down on a tree stump and wondered whether I’d be marooned by the roadside for the rest of the night. I checked my watch. It wasn’t long until sundown. But there was nothing I could do besides sit there and wait.
My first instinct, when I noticed the monarch butterfly landing on my chest, that afternoon in late August, was that it would make a great photo op. There I was, wearing a t-shirt covered in butterflies, and here was a real life butterfly perched right on top. Was the butterfly attracted by the graphic on the t-shirt? Is that even a thing? Whatever the explanation, it was one hell of a coincidence.
The market was busy with passerby. I scanned the street, hoping to see someone I recognized, who could come over and take a picture. But I didn’t see anyone, and I didn’t want to move, for fear of disturbing the butterfly. After a moment’s hopeful glance, I sighed loudly, disappointed to realize that this moment was just for me.
The butterfly seemed in no hurry. It rode my chest up as I inhaled and down again as I sighed out, the size of my breath growing each time. It was just a coincidence — what else could it be besides a coincidence? — but as I sat there and breathed, I felt emotion welling up inside. I didn’t want to cry in public, so I squeezed my eyes shut, and breathed heavily to hold myself still. Inside, my mind, I could hear voices — literal, screaming voices, screaming out things like “I can’t do it. Someone get me out of this! I need help!”
Suddenly, the noise was broken by a voice as calm and controlled as a foghorn. That voice said to me: “you’re going to make it. Don’t worry. Just keep walking.”
This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. A few years earlier, I had been riding a scooter in India, down a highway in the desert, when two stray dogs darted out of the brush to the side of the road. They passed so close to my front wheel that I was sure I was going to hit them. I squeezed both hand brakes, the wheels seized, and I went sliding on the asphalt.
I was bloodied and scraped. Luckily, nothing was broken. Overcome by adrenaline, I leapt to my feet and staggered off the road. Slumping down on the shoulder, I dropped my head in my hands and couldn’t even summon the strength to wheel my bike out of the middle of the land. Five or six minutes went by, before a passing car came to a stop. Three Indian men burst out and began investigating the accident scene. We didn’t share a common language, but I understood dok-tor, and the men urged me into the back of the car. As soon as I got there, I burst into tears. My mind was full of self-hating thoughts, until I heard that same foghorn voice.
Back in Toronto, with the butterfly on my chest, I began asking inquiring questions of this deep voice. “Who are you?” “What are you doing inside of me?” “Am I not just heartbroken, but also psychotic?” Throughout this interrogation, the voice maintained a surprising good humour.
“Trust me,” it said. “I’ll be there for you. Whatever happens, just keep walking.”
As I sat in the rainstorm, recalling this experience again, I couldn’t suppress a smile. The whole thing was totally bizarre, and I literally spoke what was happening to myself out loud. I said something like, “so, Jordan, you’ve really gotten yourself into it this time. You’re sitting alone, in the trees by the side of the road, in the middle of a Biblical rainstorm, in the middle of walking from Canada to Mexico. Walking.” I started laughing to myself. “I’m fucking walking to Mexico. I’m really fucking doing it.”
It was a perfect moment for a selfie, but I didn’t want to get my camera wet. As I sat there, though, I felt in impossibly good spirits, given my situation. I was happy. There I was, sitting in the forest, on my way to walk to Mexico, by myself, and somehow, I was happy. It’s hard for me to understate how unthinkable this was, only a few days before. But ever since meeting Kelly the Astrologer and hearing his suggestion that there might be something bigger to my walk, my attitude had changed almost completely.
Did I believe that there was magic in the stars? Did I think that there was more to the butterfly than mere coincidence? Of course not. I just thought it was all… I don’t know. Convenient. We all need to believe convenient stories, sometimes, when real life doesn’t make sense. So for a moment, I let myself believe that I was on to something. And a sensation of happiness started swelling in my chest.
I glanced up at the sky — no sign of the rainstorm abating — and then dug into my top pocket of my backpack, pulling out the harmonica I’d stored there. I’d bought the harmonica just a few weeks earlier, on the verge of leaving, feeling like the instrument went well with my whole hobo-chic. I’d never played it before, and in the past three weeks, I’d learned the melody to just a few songs. One of those songs, Mary Has a Little Lamb, had absolutely no relevance to my situation. But the other song was You Are My Sunshine. I raised the cold harmonica to my wet lips and began to play.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, in times of grey.
These first notes came bleeting inexpertly out of my instrument; I sounded very much like Mary’s lamb. I cringed at the harshness of the sound. Still, I struggled through the rest of the verse. When I got to the end, I looked up to the sky. Heavy rain was still pouring down from the tree tops.
“Come on!,” I shouted, playfully. “Can’t you give me a little break?!?.”
I started again, playing the verse through a second time. This time through, I played with a little more tempo, not minding that I was so clearly struggling to hold the tune. As soon as I finished, I began again, a third time, and by the fourth time, I was up on my feet, dancing around the little copse of trees, while I played You Are My Sunshine again and again. I made it a fifth time through, then a sixth, then a seventh and eighth, and with each new rendition, I felt like my spirits were rising higher and higher. There I was, a complete maniac, gone crazy in a rainstorm in the trees by the side of the road — alone. I didn’t care, and that was remarkable. It was as free as I had ever felt.
Nine, ten, eleven. The twelfth time through, I heard something change in the background noise.
I looked up to the sky incredulously. The downpour had stopped.
I burst out of those woods like there were wings on my feet. It was a miracle! The rain had stopped! I had done it! My harmonica had done it!
I had a magic harmonica!
Yes, a magic harmonica. As I returned to the highway, it was like all of my demons had been swept away, and there were clear skies on the horizon. The storm had blown upstream, and I could l clearly see Oregon again. There was the bridge, looming in front of me. I let out a whoop at the top of my lungs. “No matter what!,” I cried, “I’m walking across that bridge.”
The mouth of the bridge was still four miles off, but those four miles seemed to rocket by in no time at all. Before I knew it, I was standing at the highway junction, where I realized for the first time that this bridge that wasn’t designed for walking. There was no sidewalk, and the shoulder was barely a foot or two wide. A prominently posted highway sign said “Pedestrians Prohibited.”
But I had a magic harmonica, I reasoned. I was not bound by any earthly laws.
Before I could reconsider, I hurried into the mouth of the bridge, walking the narrow shoulder towards oncoming traffic. For the first 500 yards, the bridge passed beneath a low, cantilevered truss, before becoming a causeway open to the sky. In those 500 yards, I realized that what I was doing was borderline suicidal. The light was already fading, and I was dressed in dark colours, with nothing reflective on my body. The vehicles travelling towards me were large pickups and bus-sized RV, steered by weak-sighted, retired drivers. And if another squall blew in off the Pacific? Or if a highway patroller spotted me as he drove past? I could be finished. My trip could be finished.
For the first time in 23 days, I finally realized that there was no turning back.
I called on the spirits of the harmonica. As I walked across the causeway, I began whispering a sing-songy tune under my breath. “Be good to me,” I said to the oncoming drivers. “Please. Be good.” Soon, I was more than halfway across. The bridge inclined steeply, climbing a long section high enough up and over the Columbia for the cargo ships to pass through on their way to port. Astoria was getting closer; I could hear the sea lions, see the people strolling on the riverwalk. It was happening. I was really doing it. I was almost there.
I had wanted a sign, and I had finally gotten one. It said: Welcome to Oregon.