The night after the festival, I slept in Debi’s doublewide trailer, just up the Willapa River on the outskirts of Raymond. It was the first time I’d slept in a bed for nearly two weeks.
James was there, too. There was bad blood in the air. The night before, after he’d come back to find me seething mad in the passenger seat of his truck, he reluctantly agreed to leave the afterparty and go home. The thing was, he was drunk, but even though he was slurring his words, he insisted that he was sober enough to drive the three of us home. I was too angry to be polite. We argued briefly until Debi intervened, and I ended up behind the driver’s wheel as he criticized my driving.
Debi cooked dinner while James and I watched the football game, not saying much to each other. Debi made the same meal in two pots — one pot with meat for the two of them, another without for me. I felt sensitive; I was still stinging from the comment the woman made at the party, that I needed to learn how to treat a woman right.
All it took was one sneer about vegetarians from James to put my masculinity on life support.
I overslept my alarm. By the time I woke up, it was past 9 and the trailer was empty. On the kitchen table, there was a note from Debi, telling me that I should help myself to anything I wanted to breakfast. To one side of the note was my laundry, neatly folded. To the other, there were thirteen one dollar bills, piled on top of one another.
“I wish I could have given you more,” she had written, “even though I don’t really understand what you’re trying to do. I hope you use it to make your wishes come true.”
There was a bike trail that led alongside the river back towards Highway 101. The tide was high, but not high enough to obscure the rotted pilings of some ancient pier for some ancient fishing trawlers that no longer plied this river. In every town I had visited in Southwestern Washington, I had heard the same story of economic downturn, exacerbated by corporate greed. Once, this was one of the world’s most productive forests. Now, towns were competing with each other for the ignominious title of who had the biggest problem with meth. I reached the junction and turned left, towards South Bend, a few miles away. Low clouds were hanging over the hills, and I could tell that the rain was coming soon.
It started pouring just outside of South Bend. I didn’t see anywhere to take shelter; even if I had, I don’t think I would have stopped. The wad of bills weighed heavily in my pocket. Even though my outburst of anger had felt good — it was the first time I’d really let myself express any emotion since sadness since my girlfriend left me — the moment clarity had only made me realize how pathetic my situation seemed. There I was, out in the pouring rain, walking, and compelled to keep walking, only because I’d told everyone in my life that I would and I didn’t want to deal with the consequences of letting them down.
I was neither here nor there. I was nowhere. If I could have found an out, I would have taken it.
Instead, I just kept walking toward town.
In South Bend, I sat in a coffee shop waiting for the rain to pass. Out the window, fishing trawlers sailed in from big Willapa Bay. I knew that the Pacific was close, and that notion gave me a fleeting sense of achievement. When the sky cleared, I returned to the highway shoulder. A half mile out of town, it started raining again.
Today, it’s hard for me to comprehend the extent to which my ex-girlfriend occupied my thoughts those first few weeks of walking. It had been nearly four months since the breakup, and yet I could barely make it a few moments without thinking or talking about her. I was totally stuck.
Most of my friends and some of the people I met along the highway shoulder insisted that the way to get unstuck was to express my anger — an idea I found both irrational and woowoo. (When Birgit, who I met at the Hoodsport IGA, suggested that she was a “bitch” for leaving me with a note, I was horrified.) But getting angry had shifted things enough to imagine that the worst had passed. Walking the side of the highway as it followed the flat floodplain alongside the river, I believed that, by virtue of that one emotional outburst, I had forgiven her sufficiently, and I was now ready to welcome her back into my life.
Not just believed. I was totally convinced. Walking alongside the highway, I began imagining that I could communicate with her telepathically, and that the messages she was sending were full of encouragement and love. I felt a rush of glee. Just then, I heard a noise behind me.
I turned and looked back. In the distance, there was a cyclist, riding a heavily laden bike, heading steadily towards me. Instantly, I became overcome with the notion that this was her — my ex-girlfriend — at last — reuniting with me.
This was a totally delusional idea. But as this cyclist steadily approached, I prepared myself for what I assumed would be my ex-girlfriend’s apology. I prepared myself to apologize to her too, and to invite her back into my life and onto the trip, which we would complete in total happiness with each other. It sounds totally insane, but there you go.
As this cyclist approached me, I puffed out my chest and sucked in my stomach.
The cyclist was a woman. From 100 yards, she was unrecognizable behind a big pair of sunglasses. It’s her. It’s not her. It’s her. It’s not her. Besides she and me, the highway was totally empty. I glanced back again. The sound of her pedals increased. I felt discomfort in the pit of my gut.
Only when she neared me did I realize that this wasn’t my ex-girlfriend. It was, however, another young woman, and for a moment I sniffed potential.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” she said. She biked right by me without changing her cadence.
This deep and meaningful conversation consumed me for the next four miles. Caught in what I can only describe as a state of mania, my mind spun with the potential of this conversation: how this strange woman had interpreted it, what she thought of me and my looks, whether she was still thinking about me, miles down the road.
I imagined imagined her at some fast approaching campground, dressed in lingerie, her sleeping mat laid out, waiting for me to arrive. This image quickened my pace and aroused me beyond mention.
Trouble was, my road map showed two campgrounds down the highway — one a little closer, the second a stretch for me to make before sundown. I pushed myself as hard as I could, walking at double pace, even running for a few yards, before being buried beneath the immense weight of my pack. As I neared the first campground, I analyzed the likelihood that this woman had decided to stop here, rather than continue on down the road.
Analyze is an understatement. I stood at the entrance to the campground and agonized for fifteen minutes, worrying that stopping here would mean giving up and relinquishing the sex that was surely waiting down the road.
Even when I finally gave up hope and trudged up the gravel road into the campground, I hoped that by giving up hope I would find hope waiting there for me in a slinky bra and panties.
Of course, the campground was empty — a wide open field, surrounded by forest, overlooking the Willapa Bay far below. I chose a campsite, pitched my tent and slipped out of my walking shoes and into my foam Crocs. Just then, I heard a bicycle crank. I felt a surge of excitement — had I manifested her?! — but there at the campground entrance was a man, a middle aged man from Denver. Don. An accountant. Biking around the Pacific Northwest on a two week holiday.
We made small talk for a few minutes, then I left him feeling despondent as I followed a walking trail down the hillside to the bayshore.
It was the lowest moment I’d had yet. Since I’d reached Washington, I’d been tending the delusion that I would only meet good, helpful people; that the sky would stay clear and that I’d have no problem finding a place to stay; that, any moment now, my ex-girlfriend would show up. But after a stretch of clear skies, my luck seemed to have turned.
Could I really make it all the way to Mexico? I was sure the answer was no.
By the time I reached the bayshore, there were clear skies to the west. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds, illuminating the wild grasses in that golden, late afternoon glow. I moped as I watched the crabs scurrying in the little pools left in the mud by the receding tide. A pair of monarch butterflies flittered on the grasses beside me.
I felt angry. Angry and hopeless. Angry, hopeless and without a shred of self-confidence.
I moped my way back up to the walking trail back up to the campground. That’s where I met Kelly.
Kelly’s tent was pitched not far from Don’s. In his late 30s, with silver hair and wire frame glasses, Kelly was sitting at the nearby picnic table, cutting vegetables. A bicycle was leaned on the ground by his tent, right next to a second bike. With him was a young boy with tight curls not long out of puberty: Kelly’s son, Arian.
I went over to introduce myself and was immediately swept up in fascinating conversation. Kelly was a character, to say the least. Enthusiastically,he began telling me the fantastic story of how he and Arian had ended up at this campground. It’s a good one, so I’m going to tell it to you:
Kelly, Arian and his then wife, Christina, had been living in Asheville, North Carolina, when they had been invited to star on the reality TV series Wife Swap. If you don’t know the show, the conceit is that two couples are matched up, and the wives exchange houses, partners and lives for a period of two weeks, which are full of the regular reality show hijinx. Kelly and Christina were matched up with a couple from Texas. Arrangements were made. Christina left Kelly at home, where he set up the guest room for the Texan woman.
The set-up was that the Texans were uber-conservatives — the Texan husband was a world-class rodeo cowboy — and Kelly and Christina were the liberals. That’s understating it significantly. Kelly and Christina weren’t just liberals; they were world-class hippies. Kelly’s full-time profession was astrologist; he made his money giving astrological readings over Skype, and from whatever revenue stream was still trickling in from sales of his first novel, a sci-fi fantasy, which starred a character named Arian, written a few years before his son, Arian, was born. (As Kelly put it to me, “I dreamed him into being!”). As a massage therapist, Christina was a touch more mainstream, but only a touch. Her temporary Texan family couldn’t get over that she talked to the houseplants.
The episode itself was unremarkable. But behind the scenes, some real human drama escaped the view of the cameras.
When Christina came home, as Kelly put it, “we both had the same realization. Our work together was over.”
What does an astrologer do? Kelly’s first wife — Arian’s mom — was living in Boulder, so Kelly returned to Colorado and moved in with his mom, hoping that Christina would reconsider. Several months passed. One day, Christina called with bad news. She was ready to file for a separation.
Kelly was despondent. Seeking answers, he remembered a woman he’d met once, at an astrology conference, and looked her up online. The two astrologers began talking on Skype. Eventually, they consulted their stars and decided that the time for a meeting was propitious.
There was just one problem: the woman lived up in the Canadian Rockies, 1,500 miles away. Kelly decided he would travel there on his bike.
Arrangement were made. Kelly packed his things into a storage locker and left Arian with his first wife. He bestowed the name Magellan on his bicycle and set off from Boulder, heading north.
Unlike most travelling cyclists, who carry their gear in saddlebags balanced on either side of their bike, Kelly rode upright, with his backpack on his back. He described his arduous climb over the Teton Pass, in Wyoming, as the “Long Dark Night of My Soul”.
Kelly made it to Canada. The night he arrived, he camped in the town campground and waited eagerly for the woman to arrive. The two of them made love in his tent beneath a lightening storm. But by the time two weeks passed, the relationship had fizzled. Kelly, properly homeless, decided to continue on.
As he made his way West, towards Seattle, he re-envisioned the purpose of his trip. He had always dreamed of living a life of creative freedom. Hadn’t he discovered it? He took what he called an “Aquarian” perspective, deciding that his trip gave him an opportunity to prove to the world that there were new, different ways of being. (This was 2010, and the gig economy was in its infancy.) Kelly began turning his attention to the grand book he’d write, called The Tao of Astrology. Kelly had been blogging about his trip for months; he’d begun calling his trip a “Journey of Location Independence.” His blog was called the Return of the Magi, so naturally this book would be his magi opus.
Kelly called up his first wife and explained his grand plan. He told her that something was missing: their son, Arian. Incredibly, his first wife agreed to pull Arian out of school, so he could live like a hobo with his travelling dad.
Arian flew to Seattle, where Kelly liquidated his bank account to buy the essentials: a bike, an iPad and saddlebags.
Father and son were just a week out of Seattle, headed towards California, when I met them at the campground. Understandably, Kelly was in good spirits. He was bright and upbeat and had the tendency to punctuate most sentences with an exclamation. As a brilliant sunset sank towards the horizon, Kelly regaled me with stories of history and mythology. At the time, I wasn’t the type to attend astrologers, but I loved storytelling, and Kelly was a great one.
Later that evening, after another small group of cyclists arrived at the campground, all of us huddled around the campfire as Kelly told stories about the Gods and the heavenly bodies, gesticulating to the sky.
I slept as well that night as I had in weeks; I needed the companionship much, much more than I realized. When I woke to clear skies the following morning, it felt symbolic. Most of the other cyclists were on their way, but Kelly and Arian lingered over breakfast. I joined them, nursing the tea that had become my breakfast staple, decorating my oatmeal with plump blackberries collected from the bramble.
Kelly never strayed far from the topic of astrology. Somewhere in the midst of our conversation, he asked me about my own astrological chart. Of course, I told him that, besides knowing my zodiac sign — Scorpio — I knew nothing else. Kelly insisted that he give me a complimentary reading. Immediately, Arian went to fetch the iPad from his saddlebags, and Kelly laid it on the picnic table in front of him, entering into an app the data of my birth. My chart appeared on the screen: a circle divided into 12 triangular slices, scattered with dots representing the planets and certain stars.
Kelly explained that I was looking at a precise map of the sky as it had appeared over my mother’s head the moment I entered the world.
Kelly began explaining the symbolic meanings suggested by the relationships between the planets and their positions in the sky. Being business educated and urbane, I let myself be entertained, though I listened with healthy skepticism. Truthfully, this was the second time I’d ever sat with an astrologer. The first time had been in a temple in India, with a Tamil palmist who spoke no English, and a strange man who was acting as his translator who spoke next to no English, but kept repeating “two wives. Very lucky!” and slapping me on the back.
As Kelly got deeper into his reading, though, I felt my attitude change. Looking back on it, I understand why: I was lonely and desperate and still borderline delusional. But I was also busted wide open and in search of connections.
And Kelly’s job was to illuminate those connections. What were they? Some must have been obvious from even cursory observation, like the notion that my Mars in the fire sign, Sagittarius, was evidence of my overactive sex drive. (Obviously he’d seen me eying up one of the other cyclists around last night’s campfire?) But some hit closer to home.
Kelly pointed out that I was what he called a “triple water sign”, meaning that I had three important astrological elements in the zodiac signs of Scorpio and Cancer, making me naturally empathetic and intuitive. “With all that water, your PhD in life is compassion through unconditional love,” said Kelly. I thought back to high school, and all the times I was ribbed for being too soft or too weak, and of yet another emasculation of my latest girlfriend leaving for another man.
I began to tear up, but laughed nervously to dissipate the energy. me tear up. But the real emotions nearly started to flow a few months later, when Kelly turned his attention to the planet Saturn.
You’ve got Saturn at 3 degrees Libra and right now, in the sky, right now, Saturn is at 3 degrees Libra. Do you know what that means?” Of course I didn’t. “You’re having your Saturn return! Welcome to your Saturn return!”
Kelly slapped me on the back with congratulations. He must have seen my confusion, because he began explaining the basic gist of what he meant.
Here’s what I got: Saturn, the ringed planet, takes about 29 1/2 Earth years to complete one orbit of the sun. In any of our lives, Saturn will make perhaps three full solar orbits. According to astrologers, when Saturn “returns” to the position it was in, at the time of our birth, it portends a time of major change.
“Relationship changes, relocations, job changes, children coming into the nest, children leaving the nest,” Kelly explained. “All of these outer changes are really inner. They’re outer reflections of an inner state of maturity that’s shifting inside of you that says ‘these old responsibilities ain’t working anymore. It’s time for a new slate.'”
“And look,” he continued, tapping the screen again. “It’s happening down here at the bottom of the chart. The bottom. That’s the root, the family energy. When Saturn returns in the bottom of the chart, it says, ‘it’s time to slay the dragon! It’s time to go down into the heart with discipline and courage and get rid of all your emotional distractions and irrational fears that are blocking you. It’s time to go deep into all of it and slay the dragon.”
When he said this to me, I felt something click inside of me, like I had suddenly come to understand a deeper meaning to what was going on. For months, I’d been dreading even starting the walk, because starting the walk meant walking away from my ex-girlfriend, and eventually grieving the end of our relationship. I had no desire to mourn the relationship, because I hoped it wasn’t over. But hearing Kelly frame it like this affected me deeply. This was bigger than mourning a breakup. This was a major personal transformation. A Saturn return? Maybe that was what I really needed!
Framing it in this light filled me with an emotion I’d forgotten I could experience: hope.
Slaying the dragon? I asked Kelly what that might mean.
“It might be the work you need to be doing right now,” he said. “It might be dealing with old family patterns, like relationships with authority figures in your family and father energy that maybe put too much pressure and weight on you, and now you’re like I don’t need to be controlled by that crap anymore. I’m my own authority now.”
“You know,” he said. “Your own inner teaching probably precipitated this journey, because Jupiter is the planet of journeys, and Saturn’s like ‘there’s a serious journey you need to go on.’ And it’s got a melancholy tone to it. But if you follow it, it will help you go through the grief and find joy out of the grief. You’re going to run the grief into joy, day-by-day, step-by step.”
Kelly started quoting a poem by heart, by a poet he called his favourite: David Whyte. It’s called The Well of Grief.
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface of the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink
the secret water, cold and clear
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.
“Most people throw the coin in the well and say ‘I need a new relationship. Or a new car!’,” he said. “Who throws the coin and says ‘I need a deep relationship with the eternal being that crafted the universe despite the pain I have to go through!’. That’s the coin you’re throwing. I’m throwing the same coin, man. You and me, we’re like, ‘we want something deep!’”
Listen to what Kelly told me about genius & creativity.