I could outline for you the shapes that make up the coast of Maine. I could outline for you the sharp and jagged inlets that cut into Seattle, down to Oregon. I could tell you how many miles across California’s Santa Catalina Island is; or how long you would be able to drive with ocean surrounding you on both sides of the car as you traveled through Sebastian Inlet and Avalon State Parks on the eastern shoreline of Florida – not because I’ve been to these places, but because I spent 6 months sleeping on top of a road atlas in a valley between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.
What brought me to this valley was the need to escape. I was living in a crowded and dirty city on the eastern coast. There were too many people and we were all gasping for the same air and there just wasn’t enough of it. I needed to be alive in open spaces where my thoughts didn’t shuffle on sidewalks, but instead floated above acres of unclaimed land. I made the decision to leave, and within weeks I got a job offer. I started driving west without a date to return.
I woke to the sounds of crickets, still clicking like they were when my head hit the pillow the night before. The ground was always dry, and most mornings were generously brought in by a yellow blanket that filled my room and warmed anything cold that was still left inside of my lungs.
I spent my days covered in tall, dancing grass and flowers that smelt like lavender, like my mother. I spent my days breathing in golden fields, where blocking my view of Idaho’s state line was a 9 million year old giant with a gentle face and blue arms that reached for me daily in that warm sun. At his tallest, he stood at 13,770 feet; taller than anything that had stood over me before.
I spent my evenings under that legendary big sky that I swore expanded at night; like all day the sun had been radiating its voltage on the skin of those surrounding walls, and at dusk it was time to glow.
And after the glowing, came the darkness. Tiny holes that were poked into the cloth sheet of that darkness’ body were the only fragments of existence that were allowed to make themselves known under its black embrace; and for the first time, I could think. And when I slept, I could dream.
I realized that I was suffocating in those landlocked plains, so I dreamt of water.
In my dreams I was a fisherman, spending my days on a dock in a harbor town. In my dreams I was the captain of a ship in the shape of those Grand Tetons, and I was always steering its wooden peaks away from land. My companion was cold, navy and choppy, and I could see myself when I looked him in his salty eyes. In my dreams I was exploring the caves that burrowed their way into the Northwest’s seaboard; getting lost beside a monster that could swallow you whole with a single swell.
I woke up and I needed to get to the ocean.
I began passing my time arched over a worn paper map of the United States of America, absorbing the lines that separated green from blue; my pencil tracing its curves and nicks. I memorized distances and coordinates and I started planning my drive home, its route grasping the coastline for as long as it could. I began counting down the days for that summer to end. I even contemplated leaving everything right then and there, in that sleepy, golden valley so that I could search the dense, humid forests of the west for the first view of the sea. This feeling electrocuted my bones. And even at over 1,000 miles away, I swear that I could smell the sea at night just because I knew it was there.
Then that day came in early October when I carefully pulled around the bend on a curvy Oregon back road surrounded by towering thick evergreen, and suddenly in front of me was the Pacific in all of her glory. I stopped the car. I got out. I stood there in humble silence. Water filled my lungs again, and I could breathe.