Traveling through Central America and Mexico was one of greatest highs of my life to date. But upon returning to California, I came down. Hard.
Approaching the border at Tijuana, I gazed across the ocean at the shore of San Diego, imagining what it would be like to swim that cold distance in the dark of night like my Mexican friends had done, many times, as described in River Gem. On the side of the highway, a cruel wall fanged with barbed wire divided Mexico from the United States. It felt more like a prison fence than a border, and the country beyond it more like an adversary than my home.
Crossing into California, the transition was immediate and depressing. The wording on the signs changed from playful Spanish banter to insistent English: Buy, Be, Better. The freeway gleamed steely and polished as cars glided by like spaceships from some futuristic society. The buildings grew taller and more aloof, shadowed in the storm cloud of my gloom.
The silver lining was reuniting with friends and family. Shannon and I stayed with Heathyr and Dominic the first night, good friends who had recently gotten married. Their warm welcome and newlywed happiness radiated a golden glow on my gray mood. The next day, Heathyr dropped me at the train station so that I could visit my grandparents in Pasadena.
“Donde puedo comprar la boleta?” I thought to myself, “Where can I buy a ticket?” And then I remembered I wasn’t in Mexico anymore. Accustomed to speaking, and even thinking, in Spanish, the thought of speaking English again was bleak.
My grandparents made me forget my melancholy, for a brief flash. Happiness swelled inside me at the sight of them, and I could tell they felt the same way. My grandfather had constructed a massive map on a piece of foam board, with a pin carefully pressed into each stop I had made on my trip. The pins were color coded to show where I had stayed overnight, and where I had simply passed through. I was touched. He presented me with the map to take back to Santa Cruz, but I was worried about what I would do with it. I had no place to put it, no home. I would be staying with friends and living out of my car until I got on my feet.
“We’ll hold onto it for you,” my grandfather offered. “Once you get a place, we’ll send it along. You can put it up on the wall.”
Panic knotted in my stomach. The thought of re-establishing myself in Santa Cruz was overwhelming. I had given up the beautiful three-bedroom house that I’d rented with my ex-boyfriend, the garden that I’d dug and built and planted, the spacious kitchen with all of the appliances that I’d collected over the years.
Over the course of the trip, I had found myself. But it felt like I had lost everything else. I forced a tight smile and met my grandpa’s eyes.
“Thank you. That sounds great,” I said.
During the following days, I reconnected my cell phone and car insurance, made plans to meet with friends, and started the process of piecing together the life I had left behind.
Back in Santa Cruz, I sorted through my possessions, which I had stored at a friend’s house. Limited to only a backpack and surfboard bag for six months, even my car and few boxes of things were overwhelming. I had whittled what I carried with me down to bare necessities, and though everything that had survived the trip was filthy and trashed, it was hard to imagine letting it go. I unpacked and repacked for hours in the driveway.
I holed up at a friend’s house like an animal in a cave. Any negative interactions or small rejections wounded me deeply, bringing on bouts of sobbing and anxiety. Without a home or a job to fall back on, I felt vulnerable and alone. Though I’d lived in Santa Cruz for ten years, it no longer felt like home. I was genuinely happy to see my friends. But my old routes and routines depressed me. Everything looked the same, but it was different somehow, empty.
Sometimes it feels like I’m drowning in the real world. Pressure, expectations, tension, and anxiety all swirl together into a cloistering sludge that fills my throat and my nostrils, my eyes and ears, seeps into every pore like sticky, suffocating sap. I feel myself shrinking, becoming smaller and smaller within the shell of my body, until it feels like a vessel underwater. I stare at the world through the porthole of my eyes. It plays out in slow motion, flat and one-dimensional like an old black and white movie projected on a shapeless screen. Sounds are muted. Voices take a long time to reach me, a long time to process, even longer to respond to. The effort is exhausting. I wish that I could will myself to disappear. I think that this must be depression.
The difficult thing about depression is that it’s not a math problem that can be solved. It’s hard to work on because it’s rarely just one thing; you can never quite get a hold of it. Depression is like a thick fog. You can feel it all around you, but you can’t trap it or fight it or defeat it. You can try to shut it out, but it creeps in through the windows and the vents, gets into the bud of your soul, suffocates it, rots it from the very core.
Sometimes it helps to change the playing field; fight depression on different turf. I like physical challenges because they are tangible and winnable. The path to victory is crystal clear.
In this case, I decided to go backpacking in Point Reyes. There’s something empowering about carrying everything you need to survive. And something blissfully simple about putting one foot in front of the other, painful as it may be.
Though I love backpacking, my feet are not cut out for it. I’ve tried every high-end hiking boot that REI has to offer. I’ve read online forums, bought moleskin, bandages, liners and toe socks. Before a long hike, I tape up my pinky toes. But I always get blisters. Bad ones. Bad enough that my skin gets infected and my toenails fall off. Somehow, I find physical pain a lot easier to deal with than emotional pain. At least there’s a reason. Something that you can point to and say, this is why I hurt.
As I walked down the trail and looked around at the open space and natural beauty, I felt like I could finally breathe again. I was back on the surface, participating in life rather than just viewing it. And my mission was straightforward: walk. I kept walking until I reached Wildcat Camp, though my blisters flared in agony. Along the way, I came across an actual wildcat, crawling with maggots on the side of the trail. Stopping to stare, I rolled the marvel of its death around in my mind.
When I arrived at the campground, two worried girls stood by the broken water tap, considering whether they should hike back to the ranger station. A quick look at the map showed that there was a waterfall down the beach, and I had an emergency supply of iodine pills that I offered to share with them. Together, we hiked the mile down to the waterfall and filled a litany of containers, then returned to set up camp and toast our resourcefulness. The next morning, we battled a plague of gnats while we broke down camp, had breakfast, and said our goodbyes. Then I continued on to Sky Camp.
For kicks, I took a side trail to the summit of Mount Wittenburg, the highest peak in Point Reyes National Seashore. The summit itself was unimpressive, just a small round plaque stamped into the dirt, hidden among the ground cover. Though summiting a 1407 ft peak is hardly an accomplishment, somewhere along the way my invisible enemy transformed into something substantial that I could draw out and attack in the stark light of day. The source of my pain became the broken water tap, the blisters on my feet, the awful gnats; things that I could see and touch, meaningfully overcome. And happiness, too, became something that I could taste and hold. After a backpacking trip, it’s as simple as a good meal and a hot shower.
When the swell bumped up, I ventured farther north, hoping to surf a wave that I’d hiked to last year on my birthday. In an exciting twist of events, I ended up running into my friend Michelle, and the two of us scored a boat ride to the spot. It was a magical day. As we motored out of the harbor, the conditions were questionable. But just as we arrived, the wind calmed down and the sets began to push through the low tide. We had clean, overhead waves all to ourselves. My happiness was so unexpected and overwhelming, it didn’t seem real.
“The only way I know this isn’t a dream is that my dreams are never this good,” I said to Michelle.
After surfing my brains out, I caught a wave into the beach and walked to the place where I had camped on my birthday. In that very spot, almost a year ago to the day, I had summoned the courage to change my life. I met Matt Hannon, who was living his dream of riding a motorcycle from Alaska to Patagonia, and later read his blog post about our experience camping and surfing together. He was an important catalyst for my trip, embodying many things that I was striving to find within myself. I dusted off my dream of traveling through Central America, held it up to the light, and wondered, why not?
A year ago, I never could have imagined what the future held for me. Little did I know, the magic that lay ahead in the coming year exceeded even my wildest dreams. At the time, the knowledge of what I wanted was only just beginning to come together. It was messy and shapeless as cake batter. But all the right ingredients were mixing together, beginning to rise under the bright pulsing heat of hope and inspiration. And it turned out to be the sweetest thing I ever tasted.
Bringing my hands together as if in prayer, I did a few sun salutations in acknowledgment and gratitude. My arms swept high and wide as I arched back and turned my face skyward, bowed down and touched the earth, then unfolded and circled my hands back together in front of my heart.
As I stood there at the campsite looking out at the beautiful waves, I realized that everything can change in an instant. A year ago, I never could have guessed what would come to pass. And just that morning, I hadn’t known what a cascade of magic the day had in store for me.
Though I might not have a home in the traditional sense – a house or a town where I’ve lived and grown up, a place that I can always come back to – I’ll always have the ocean. No matter where I am in the world, the ocean feels like home. It gives me what I need, just when I need it most. Joy. It’s that simple.