I turned to leave the small grocery store with a tightly wrapped bundle of chopped and dried firewood under my arm. During the five minutes I had been inside, the last remnants of the sunset had been extinguished by the impenetrable black void that only comes from ocean storm clouds. I had strategically picked the dates for my trip, watching the forecasts closely for weeks, getting familiar with the patterns during the Northern California coastal rainy season. There was a window of about three days that were supposed to be a brief respite from a consistent downpour up and down the coast. I had chosen a destination just outside Bodega Bay to avoid as much of the rain as possible. But the forecast was wrong.
As I fumbled in the dark fastening the wood to the rear portion of the saddle on my motorcycle, what had been a drizzle started to slowly gain momentum. The brand new elastic straps were foreign to my fingers and the light from the store’s nearby sign dissipated entirely before it could reach me. Strapped to the back of my newly repaired sportbike, the small bundle of wood, which I had blindly wrapped in a blue tarp, appeared enormous. With a few tugs, it seemed secure and stable enough, so I quickly put on my helmet and gloves, started the bike and turned back onto highway 1.
The light from my single headlight cut only a short distance into the darkness but revealed the intensifying rain as slashes of silver needling through the air. Thirty miles an hour felt and looked like what I imagine traveling at the speed of light is like. I slowly felt my way five miles north and somehow managed to not miss the turn-off to the campground. The constant rain over the past few weeks had washed out some smaller roads in the area and even eroded portions of the main highways, so I crept my way down the gravelly towards the ocean scanning for breaks and potholes. With the sound of rain tapping on my helmet, it was only a few hundred yards before I finally made it to the campground.
The silver lining to making this trip during the rainy winter months was supposed to be that no one else would possibly be doing the same thing. Campgrounds and beaches heavily trafficked during the warmer months would be virtually empty. If not entirely deserted. But what I hadn’t counted on was a small army of retired couples occupying gargantuan recreational vehicles. I circled the campground loop in hopes of finding the prime camping spot right on the edge of the beach that I had imagined on my drive. Every space on the loop was claimed with a little porch and lawn chairs carefully folded and placed out of the rain. Some had a patch of astro turf at the bottom of the steps that led into the RVs which emitted a warm incandescent glow from behind drawn blinds. A chorus of generators hummed a low mechanical harmony. A wooden sign that read “The Andersons” with a winding road painted on it hung next to a screen door and gently tapped against the wall of the RV as the wind from the ocean pushed past.
After a brief search, I found a camp site in another loop further from the ocean that was completely vacant. I pulled into space that I figured would be the best sheltered and least visible and turned off the engine. The roar of the motor was replaced by the quick pat pat pat of rain hitting leaves and the hiss of water hitting the hot motorcycle exhaust pipes and evaporating instantly in a tiny white puffs of steam. I carefully unmounted and began to unpack. Packing for a motorcycle trip is an exercise in trade-offs. Tent, sleeping bag, wool sweater, change of socks and underwear are the minimum things you’ll need to keep warm and dry. It’s also about the maximum that you can really bring. In addition to that you must somehow also bring some basic tools in case the bike breaks down, a length of parachute cord for utility, a folding knife for cutting the parachute cord, a lighter to melt the ends of the parachute cord after you cut it with the knife, a battery flashlight, a real bound book for company, a sketchbook and pencils for recording, blank postcards for friends, a phone for security, a battery pack to make sure the phone has power, a blanket to sit on or roll into a pillow, sundry toiletries, and all the food and water you’ll need for at least a day. One can learn a lot about one’s self by going through the process of whittling down possessions to the bare minimum and seeing what justifications and bargaining results in adding more.
Despite it being the first time erecting the two-man tent, I was able to do it alone by the flickering light of a MagLight with surprising ease. I removed my motorcycle leathers and draped them over my bike and covered it all with a tarp and tied it down with the orange parachute cord. The rain, which was heavy and steady, made my recent purchase of firewood seem like folly. It would be unlikely, even with my skills learned as an Eagle Scout, that I’d be able to stoke a fire in a wet fire pit unsheltered from the wind. Even if I could, it wouldn’t be very enjoyable. It meant that I wouldn’t eat my carefully prepared tin foil dinner of hamburger, potatoes, and salt that night.
The sound of the rainfly zipper, the soft rustle of the nylon sleeping bag, uncomfortable shifting on hard, uneven ground. Then stillness, and for a moment your breathing is loud only to be replaced by the three-dimensional sound of rain hitting the tent. I turned off the flashlight and lay there looking up. I felt a dull pang of hunger but accepted that I wouldn’t eat until at least morning. My bones were tired, I was trapped by rain, my dinner left raw, and an inky blackness covered everything. I was out of things to do. So I laid down to go to sleep in hopes that the rain clouds would break before morning. I checked the clock for the first time all day and it read: 6:30pm.
The hypnotic rhythm of the rain put me to sleep quickly. I only had one dream that night that involved me fighting off a scavenging raccoon who was trying to get at my food. I woke up, groped around to verify that I still had my uncooked packets of food, and fell back asleep immediately.
The rain had stopped sometime during the night but water still dripped from the trees. Soft morning light permeated the tent tinted by the tent’s colored panels of nylon. The untested tent had kept the rain water out, and everything except for things already wet, were dry. I rose slowly, peeling away the sleeping bag, and opened first the mesh screen and then the rain fly. The heavy smell of damp earth greeted me as I laced up my wettish boots over fresh, dry wool socks. Standing up, I could hear the rhythmic crashing waves for the first time. My spine forgot the boulder that bruised it during the night.
I quickly closed up the tent behind me and started towards the beach. The sun hadn’t yet risen above the emerald hills to the east, but I knew it wouldn’t be long. The sky to the west was a deep portland gray with distant, fast moving clouds that hugged the ocean like freight liners. I emerged from the grove of trees that had protected me during the storm and walked past the dark RVs. Once over a small dune, the ocean revealed itself and the sounds of the sea took over. The soft beach sand was smooth and undisturbed. It betrayed no other visitors. The small cove opened up on either side, bounded by rocky cliffs and a roiling current. Not far off the beach a large rock — still jagged after thousands of years of waves constantly wearing at it — sat proudly but dormant, as it had become a small aerie, white-capped from countless generations of birds.
I walked a short distance to a slight rise in the sand created by what was once a tree but had become large piece of smooth driftwood that had found its way there before me. I sat on the driftwood and watched the waves roll in. Tiny sand pipers rested nervously in small depressions in the pebbly sand near me. I’d like to say that I thought of something profound as I was absorbed in sounds and smells of the ocean that morning, but the truth is I don’t remember thinking about much of anything. I watched the sea birds on the big rock move around, jostle and trade spots. Too early to look for food, they were still lethargic and never went far. The Pacific Ocean with it’s dangerous rip tides, lethal rocks and freezing water didn’t seem to to concern them. They had been there since forever.
In an instant, as I was watching, the very top of the rock began to glow as if from within. The sun rose from behind the hills and a single ray of light — the very first of the day — cast itself on the rock, illuminating it like a flaming beacon in the grays of early morning. A bird stretched its wings.