I felt high as I walked the highway towards Naselle, a small town not far from the Columbia River, in Southwestern Washington. Just the day before, I’d bumped into an astrologer at a county campground, who had given me a reading of what lay hidden in my stars.
The reading was encouraging; the astrologer had predicted a time of transition, urging me to “slay the dragon” and take ownership of a greater level of maturity that was arriving in my life. As I walked the highway shoulder, I felt emboldened, even if I couldn’t be precisely sure just what he meant.
It was a stunning day for walking. The road wound along the eastern flank of the Willapa Bay, crossing over numerous rivers and creeks, where I spotted great blue herons fishing in the still water and red tailed hawks perched in the tall trees. The sun was blazing. Drivers honked as they passed, waving through the windshield. I stopped and picked blackberries from the bramble, feeling like I was in the flow.
There were plenty of more tangible reasons to be optimistic. For one I knew where I’d sleep that night. A friend I’d stayed with up near Port Angeles had introduced me to an organic farmer who lived just outside of Naselle, who had offered to be my host. There was no reason to worry about whether I’d reach the next campground, many miles away. I anticipated a shower, some good conversation and, hopefully, a day of rest.
There was something else I was anticipating, too. Beyond Naselle, it was just 13 miles before I’d reach the long bridge that stretched over the Columbia River. When I crossed that bridge and reached Astoria, the small Oregonian town on the opposite riverbank, I’d be able to say something that had been unthinkable just a few weeks back: I had walked all the way across Washington State. Compared to the distance to cross Oregon — and, beyond it, California, — walking across Washington was just a small accomplishment. But I was hungry for any kind of accomplishment.
As I neared Naselle, I tried not to get ahead of myself, focusing on the only thing I could control: my immediate progress. Right. Left.
That night, camped beneath the willow tree out front of the farmhouse, I had a very strange dream. It was about my ex-girlfriend. The two of us were together in a soccer field that been hewed out of a dense jungle — a jungle so thick that it covered the hillsides to the horizon. We were sitting in the middle of this field, facing each other head on. My ex-girlfriend was telling me how happy she was in her new relationship. Hearing this news was making me sick to my stomach.
Surrounding us were many dozen butterflies, in an extraordinary variety of shapes and sizes.
Suddenly, far above us, there was an enormous spaceship, circular in shape, like a massive frisbee. The ship seemed to be a mile or more in diameter, but it moved in a strange fashion, like a falling leaf, swooping and arcing as it fell. As we sat in the soccer field, I watched this ship, at first with a kind of distant fascination. Soon, however, I started to feel afraid, as it was becoming clear that the ship was coming towards us.
The ship landed in the field, almost beside us. It was enormous. Slowly, it opened its hold, lowering a ramp to the grass. Just then, I woke up in a cold sweat.
The fear I had felt in the dream spilled over into my waking life. I felt consumed by intense urgency to get out of my tent, and I lurched out of my sleeping bag, grabbing for my clothes, pulling them on as quickly as I could. A bright light shone through the tent fabric, and I assumed that the light was the sun; seeing the light so high in the sky gave me that feeling that I had rudely overslept. I grabbed for the zipper, nearly ripping it off my tent as I tried to escape.
But when I opened the tent fly, I found pitch black darkness. It was still the middle of the night. What I thought was the sun was just the porch light.
Shocked and still exhausted, I shut the tent and stripped down again, returning myself to the cocoon of my sleeping bag. My body was in extreme pain: my feet pounded; my legs ached. Tossing and turning, I tried to get comfortable on top of my thin foam mattress long enough so I could fall back asleep. But more than an hour passed, and the sky had started lightening, and still I lay there, wide awake.
Lying there on my back, sleepless and frustrated, I thought again about the astrologer’s prophecy — this time, skeptically. Travelling astrologer?, I thought. Seriously? The guy was another heartbroken nut, just like me, not some prophet of the gods. And claiming that I was on some kind of transformational journey… I mean, who isn’t on a journey like that, in times like these?
A more rational me would have written him off as a kook. But I wasn’t exactly rational, for reasons that have now become clear. Plus there was something else — something strange that had happened, a month earlier, when I had flown home to Toronto to say goodbye to my family before I left on my walk. That had been an emotional return. My mother told me she thought my ex-girlfriend wasn’t worth it. My father warned me against making a decision I’d regret. My grandfather offered me $1000 cash if I would just quit. I worried that I was a martyr, going off on some heroically meaningless battle, and that I’d never see the people I loved again.
One morning, I woke up wishing that I could dress up in someone else’s skin. I climbed from my bedroom in the basement of my mother’s house up the stairs to the bedroom that belonged to the younger of my two brothers and flung open his dresser. Inside, I found several large stack of neatly folded t-shirts: the detritus that comes with being the youngest of three boys. Reaching into the stack at random, I pulled out one t-shirt and unfurled it before the mirror.
It was a t-shirt I’d never seen before. On the front, there was a simple graphic, entirely in black, of a man holding up a spray paint can. A cloud of what should have been paint was being emitted from the can. But it wasn’t paint. It was a few dozen black, silhouetted butterflies. I pulled the shirt over my head and left the house, headed downtown.
Later that day, I was in Kensington Market, a bohemian neighbourhood of bars, fruit stalls and vegetarian restaurants, sitting on a bench, watching the people go by. Sitting there, I started thinking about my upcoming trip. For weeks since my breakup, I had held out hope that, out of the blue, my ex-girlfriend would write me to say that she had changed her mind; she was leaving the man she’d left me for, because she’d decided to walk. But just a few days before, I’d written her, breaking a month of silence, and invited her once again to join me on the trip. When her response came, it was curt. Of course she wasn’t coming. The relationship was over. She wished me luck.
There on the bench, it felt like the first time that I had seriously considered what it is I was setting out to do. I wasn’t an inexperienced traveller, but I’d never taken on something like this — something where I could expect being so obviously alone for longer than I knew. Sitting there, I wondered where I could actually accomplish it.
What other choice was there? I had raised money from more than a hundred people. I had advertised the trip widely to all my family and friends. Even if I could find some excuse not to do it, how would I ever find a way to live down this embarrassment? On the other hand, was avoiding being embarrassed worth enduring months of loneliness? I was stuck, and as that reality began sinking in, I felt myself start to panic. Out on a busy street, I squeezed my eyes shut, so that I wouldn’t have to cry in public.
In my most intimate space, I felt full of blame. There were so many people worth blaming: my ex-girlfriend, of course, and her new boyfriend, but also the other people who’d led me to this moment: my parents, for not teaching me what a good relationship should look like, my friends for not getting me out of this quicker, and ultimately, myself. I thought about a moment, early on in our relationship, when I had had the clear premonition that when we broke up, it was going to be bad.
I had ignored my instincts. Why had I ignored my instincts? I sighed heavily, dreading what I knew I would eventually have to face.
Throughout all of this, there had been a heavy weight sitting directly in the center of my chest. But suddenly, that weight shifted. I opened my eyes, and when I did, I noticed a flutter of movement in my peripheral vision. I looked down. There was something there in the center of my chest.
Directly atop the graphic on my t-shirt was a real life monarch butterfly.
After my sleepless night, I didn’t set out from the farmhouse until nearly noon, when the heavy rain slowed just enough to make walking feasible. The highway was slick, and the passing logging trucks splashed sprays of cedar scented water in their wake. I put my head down, trying to make up as much distance as I could, knowing that daylight was already running out.
I had uncertainty in front of me. Beyond Naselle, it was 8 miles until I reached the Columbia Riverbank, and a further 4 miles along the riverbank before I reached the 4 mile long bridge. How I’d cross the bridge was a mystery — I wasn’t sure that I’d find a sidewalk, and if I didn’t, I worried about whether I’d be able to hitchhike across after sundown. Directly on the southern side of the bridge was Astoria, the oldest town in the Pacific Northwest. There was no nearby campground, meaning I’d have to meet a kind stranger in order to find some place to sleep.
Pushing these thoughts from my mind, I focused on what I could control: my footsteps. Right. Left. I walked for an hour, before dodging into the roadside trees to eat a granola bar and take a rest. Most of the terrain I’d crossed over the last hundred miles had been recently logged timberland — a wasteland of clear cuts. Here, though, the forests were nearing the end of their 75 year cull cycle: the trees were tall and wide, and the understory was full of downed logs, thick with salal and swordferns, and dressed in dangling iridescent moss. Though traffic whizzed by just fifty yards away, I was surprised by how calm and hidden I felt, secluded in the woods. After just a few minutes, I felt strangely energized, ready to return to the shoulder of the road.
The highway climbed up a ridge of low hills topped by dense fog. When I reached the pass, I was rewarded with a spectacular view: spread out before me was the wide Columbia River and, beyond it, Oregon. Though heavy clouds hung over Washington, bright sunspots illuminated the fields on the opposite side, making Oregon seem crusted in emerald. I was overjoyed at the sight. After three weeks walking, Oregon seemed somehow like the promised land.
The bridge was clearly visible to the west. Four miles long, the bridge began as a causeway, low to the water, before it climbed steeply beneath a truss of faded, oxidized green, before descending towards Astoria on the opposite side. From my vantage point, I could see Astoria tucked between the river and the hills, and its distinct Victorian houses. I checked my watch. There wasn’t much time to get there.
Looking back towards Astoria, I said out loud: “No matter what, I’m going to walk over that bridge.”
Continued in Part Two