Sneaker Waves

The search for personal enlightenment was his girlfriend’s idea, but he discovered so much more than he expected.


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Diana rises from the kitchen table and picks up her cereal bowl. “What you need, Steven, is to get in touch with the water.”

“Then fetch me a dose of it,” I say, “nestled under a blanket of Christian Brothers.”

“You know I’m right.” She reaches for my plate. I stay her hand long enough to dredge my last bite of toast through a medallion of congealed egg yolk.

Diana takes my plate and heads toward the sink. Although she makes the same barefooted table-to-sink stroll every morning, the sight of her generous hips executing a metronomic to-and-fro beneath her peasant skirt still overwhelms me with a flush of gratitude.

As a couple, we’re the definition of incompatibility. Diana, my latter-day flower child’s 25 years fall shy of my vintage by more than a full generation, yet she possesses wisdom beyond my years. And, while she’s all things macrobiotic and organic — except for her nightly Butterfinger — saturated fat and empty carbs compose the mortar and foundation of my nutritional pyramid.

I tolerate — with minimal grumbling — her incense and the intrusive clarity of her New Age CDs. She accepts the scratchy, deficient fidelity of my 78s and the olfactory smudge my occasional cigar deposits on the living room drapes.

Diana samples a smorgasbord of gurus from Ram Das to the Dalai Lama. I devour Bukowski and Kafka. We disagree even regarding Hesse, our only patch of literary common ground. She celebrates the enlightenment in Siddhartha; I embrace the reassuring defeatism of Beneath the Wheel. Despite our dissimilarities, we mesh better than I had with any of my three previous mates-for-life — thanks mainly to Diana’s efforts.

After depositing our dishes in the sink, she fills the kettle and sets it on a burner. Diana believes microwaves destroy the spirit of water. “Hans offered me the use of his cottage at the coast while he’s in Nepal.”

“Your buddy Haiku Hans, the past-life Patagonian pimp?”

“A prince.” Her cobalt eyes flash a warning. Reincarnation is a sacred cow in this household. “And he was Babylonian.”

Transitioning from Middle Eastern royalty to a self-satisfied jingle master hardly seems a reincarnation upgrade. I’ll keep that opinion to myself.

Diana begins digging through our junk drawer. I walk up behind my young earth mother, encompass her substantial equator with my arms, and inhale her scent — a fusion of cinnamon and clove. She continues rummaging through the mess, excavating utility knives, candle stubs, an aggregation of Phillips head screwdrivers.

I’m beginning to regret confessing that I don’t yet feel at home in Oregon. “Why go so far for a little water therapy?” I say. “I can hop into the tub.”

Diana drops a corroded AA battery onto the counter. “You’re feeling ungrounded.”

“I’ll take a toaster into the tub.”

“Funny boy.” She extricates a skeleton key with an amethyst-crystal keychain from a rat’s nest of thread. “Go wade in the ocean. Connect with its spirit.” She gives a warm smile. “Then the Pacific Northwest will become home.”

“I’d need to pack clothes. “

“Already in the car.” She nudges me toward the back door. “One more thing.”

“Do I need to dance naked in the moonlight, too?”

“Promise me you’ll say yes to any new experience the Goddess offers you this weekend.”

“What if this goddess offers me a nubile, 18-year-old nymphomaniac?”

“No chance of that.” Her tone is playfully acerbic. “She wouldn’t give you more than you can handle.”

* * *

The cold front pummeling this dune is relentless. My old Madras windbreaker lives up to its name, breaking the wind — shattering it, in fact, into chilling shards that pierce the thin cotton weave. There is an upside to the miserable conditions. The beach is relatively deserted, and I’m not in the mood for any human interaction, no matter how brief or superficial.

My breakfast of Excedrin and tomato juice has barely dulled the jagged throb above my eye sockets. Last evening’s plan had been simple; visit the Waterfront Tap for a beer and burger, then make it an early night. I hadn’t planned on being recruited by the tavern regulars to judge what ratio of whiskey or brandy to bitters makes the best old fashioned. How could I decline when the Goddess was offering me a new experience? This morning’s hangover is on her.

The heavy overcast suits my mood. Although I grumble about Diana crowding me in bed, two desolate nights on Hans’s futon have underscored how much I miss her body conforming to mine.

This is my first close look at the Pacific since arriving — unless the mural behind the bar of Waterfront Tap qualifies. A maelstrom of pastel pink and aqua swirls, it looked like a color-blind toddler’s stab at impressionism. “My daughter Mariah painted it,” George, the bartender, said. “She’s an art major at Oregon State.”

“It’s so realistic; I think I hear the surf.”

“No, that’s the range hood. It’s on the fritz again.” George is less attuned to sarcasm than Diana.

Contrary to Mariah’s magnum opus, the Pacific’s great expanse appears to claim no color of its own, instead simply reflecting the unbroken sheet of primer-gray clouds overhead.

Blowing off Diana’s suggestion and lying to her seems an increasingly appealing strategy. “Hell yes, honey child. I waded for so long my ass cheeks resembled bookmatched prunes.” A college friend once claimed I was genetically predisposed to gently deforming the truth.

Sand sifts over the rims of my sneakers as I slide down the dune. I regret not putting on socks this morning. But my head jackhammered simply bending down to tie my sneakers.

Down on the beach proper, I’m confronted with a decision. Head north or south. Each route is an unexceptional, sandy strip bordered by a grassy dune and the Pacific. Ultimately my decision boils down to one fact: the Waterfront Tap lies to the south.

Barely into my journey, that old feeling wells up. Although I joke about suffering from selective agoraphobia, environments that are more firmament than terra firma have always made me uncomfortable.

A salvo of unintelligible chatter alerts me to half a dozen people heading my way. I adjust my course inland to give them a wide berth, then give them an obligatory nod as they pass. An athletic-looking blond fellow in the group calls out, “Hello, sir.”

I pretend not to hear him and walk faster. He jogs up behind me and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Good morning, sir,” he says with a Scandinavian accent. “Please make us a picture?”

I shrug an apology. “Sorry, I’m camera illiterate.”

“No problem.” He thrusts the camera into my hand. “Just point and shoot.”

My subjects wade a few yards offshore, lock arms and kick up their legs like a chorus line of cancan dancers. After I snap off a volley of photos, we exchange a round of handshakes and small talk. Where are they from? Stavanger, Norway, they answer in near unison. They’re attending Oregon State for a year. Do I live here on the coast? No. But I come here every chance I get.

As we part company, one of them begins crooning the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. Moments later, others join him in different keys.

Twenty minutes later, “Gilligan, the skipper too, the millionaire and his vife” still clashes with my tinnitus, and vintage sitcoms have surpassed military weapons on my list of most insidious U.S. exports.

A long-stemmed shorebird scurries after a receding wave. It performs a skittering dance as though enticing the ocean to return. Before the next wave reaches it, the bird turns tail and flees. I can empathize with the little critter’s ambivalence.

An elderly man approaches accompanied by a gray-muzzled black lab, its torso thick with middle age. I fish around in my jacket pocket for a Milk Bone. Diana repeatedly admonishes me for still carrying dog biscuits two years after my pup Sam’s passing. “It’s a symbol of your grief,” she says. “Let him go for the good of your soul and his.”

I kneel and hold out the treat. The old critter lopes past me so closely that I catch the musty scent of wet fur. He stops alongside a driftwood log. After nosing its entire length, the dog stiffly raises a hind leg. Wobbling like a defective tripod, he squirts an abbreviated autograph onto the weathered canine guest book.

My only souvenir of the encounter is a damp, sandy circle on the right knee of my khakis. I slide the biscuit back into my pocket. The dog’s lack of interest leaves a small wound. I readily welcome indifference from people, cats, even Chihuahuas. However, dismissal by a real dog hurts.

The sand inside my sneakers is abrading my toes like 80-grit garnet paper. I settle onto the log, pull off my shoes, and floss the clinging grains from between my toes with my handkerchief. Clean-toed and reshod, I continue my hike.

A whiff of rot and the bickering of gulls in the distance alert me to a dead fish ahead. The birds fall silent but don’t abandon their meal as I approach. The carcass is too decomposed to identify its species. Its corpse rolls back and forth with each wave as though the Pacific can’t decide whether or not it wants to reclaim it. I’m barely past the scene before the gulls resume squabbling over their prize.

I continue my trek until a small stream bisects the beach. It’s a pathetic little slip of runoff. During my track days, I could have easily cleared it. Of course, over the years, mass from my thighs and upper body has migrated to my middle.

While I consider my options, which include abandoning this entire venture, a young woman jogs past. She springs across the stream in stride and gracefully touches down on the opposite bank. I’ve never believed in supernatural intervention, either divine or demonic. But obviously, some malicious, middle-management deity has thrown down the gauntlet.

I back up a few paces and begin my approach. The closer I come to the stream, the wider it grows. My takeoff is more horizontal than vertical; my landing is no better. I belly-flop half onto the sand and half into the water. I drag myself out of the stream and sit on the bank. Halfway through my inventory of profanities, I hear giggling. I look back into the face of a young boy. A rivulet of grape Popsicle flows from his chin and onto his Spiderman sweatshirt. The lad seems considerably more amused than his parents. I try to think of a witty apology. The best I manage is a hoarse, “Oops. Sorry.”

Half-soaked now, I have no valid argument against honoring Diana’s advice. How a saltwater stroll will make me feel at home in Oregon is a mystery. However, Diana has a good track record. Whenever I suffer anything from a funk to the flu, she divines a flower essence, herbal tea, or some metaphysical counterweight to help steer my unbalanced yin and yang back onto an even keel. Her cures help more often than I admit.

I check to ensure no one’s within earshot, then initiate a dialogue with the water god. “Howdy, Neptune, Poseidon — whatever you go by these days, how are they hanging?” Unless the slap of breaking waves is a form of communication, I’m talking to myself.

With my wallet tucked into a shirt pocket, I start into the Pacific. I shuffle my feet along the bottom, feeling for potential obstacles in the translucent water. There are potential dangers: sneaker waves, submerged logs, riptides. Ten yards out, a crotch-level swell momentarily snatches my breath. I press on cautiously until the waves crest just beneath my rib cage, an adequate depth for an epiphany, I’d say.

When this spiritual cure inevitably fails, Diana doesn’t need to know. I can fabricate some schmaltzy, poetic fiction to convince her how inspiring the experience was — maybe compose the rhythm of the waves and din of the surf into a symphonic metaphor. After all, I am a writer — well, at least a journalist.

But other thoughts, disturbing ones, jostle for my attention. What is Diana doing at this moment back in Portland? What will happen when I become too much of a geriatric case for her? When she hits fifty, still vibrant and vital, I’ll be flirting with eighty. Even discounting our age difference, how long can she tolerate a man with such a crappy demeanor? Would it be better for both of us if I made the break?

The numbing creep has risen from my feet into my thighs. My teeth are clacking like porcelain castanets. The odds are I’ll attain hypothermia sooner than satori.

The water offered little resistance when I waded out. But struggling back toward shore feels like a slog through mud. The push-pull wave action threatens my balance. When the beach grows mercifully close, I hoist a middle finger and call over my shoulder, “Screw you, Neptune, and the seahorse you rode in on.” Almost immediately, a wave batters me from behind. I lurch forward, my mouth filling with grit and salt water. I crawl to the beach, assuring myself, It’s only a coincidence.

Simply standing is a chore. The surrounding landscape grows dull and slightly out of focus. The scrubby, wind-bent evergreens and beach grass appear muted, as though the sky leached away their color. Thoughts transition to my potential obituary. To the south, a plume of smoke gives me hope. But my struggle up the dune proves an agonizing trudge.

I finally crest the dune, kitten weak and shivering. Maybe 50 yards distant, a man is tending a fire near a weathered cottage. A Rottweiler lying beside him looks in my direction.  I reach into my pocket; the saturated Milk Bone oozes between my fingers. The beast leaps up and gallops toward me. I turn to run and topple backward onto the sand. The dog accosts me with sloppy kisses. Within moments the stranger swings me over a shoulder like I was a down pillow. “You called an Uber?” he says. “I’m Rick, your driver. That’s my copilot Jack.”

I force out a hoarse “thank you,” but Rick shushes me. “Don’t thank me yet. If you don’t make it, you’ll be Jack’s dinner.”

* * *

I can’t recall feeling more at peace than right now, lounging in this Adirondack chair, cocooned in an outsized sweat suit, courtesy of my host Rick. The feeling has returned to my lower half. My vision has cleared. The jackhammering chills have faded to a subcutaneous murmur. This driftwood and conifer fire has infused me with a serene fatigue.

The Rottweiler’s head has been resting on my right thigh since I sat down. Each time I quit stroking his muzzle, he issues a plaintive grumble. His massive head feels heavier than Sisyphus’s pet rock. The slight discomfort is a small price for his unsolicited affection.

Rick emerges from his cottage toting a six-pack of cans branded with a familiar red, white, and blue logo. He walks past the fire, keeping the drift of smoke to his leeward side, and hands me a can of Pabst. I raise my can. “To non-designer beer.”

He replies with a Midwestern “Prost.”

We clink, or rather, thud our cans together. I lift the tab and hear that refreshing “cush,” then take a long swallow. The paradox of flooding my insides with a cold beverage after barely escaping the Pacific’s hypothermic clutches isn’t lost on me. I’ve been on a first-name basis with irony since my teens.

Rick settles into an adjacent chair. He’s an ambulatory monolith, a good six-foot-five, pushing two-fifty. His biceps are putting severe strain on the sleeves of his black Harley tee. A tangle of auburn whiskers runs non-stop up into his thatch of hair. With only two small patches of wind-burned cheek, a pug nose, and a pair of kind, green eyes visible, estimating his age is difficult. The ease with which he carries himself and kneels to tend the fire, I estimate he’s on the shy side of 40.

I take another pull off the can. “Nice to taste a blue-collar Midwestern beer. The straightforward taste of malt, hops, and a hint of aluminum.”

Rick chuckles. “Designer microbrews do have one thing in their favor. Now a beer drinker can be as big a snob as a wine connoisseur.”

Our repartee so far has been cordial and non-invasive. But it seems time to launch the obligatory information exchange ritual that happens when strangers meet. I envy dogs. A perfunctory crotch sniff, and they have each other’s autobiography.

I take the lead with a benign opener. “So, your pup is named Jack.”


“Short for The Ripper?”

He shakes his head. “Kerouac.”

“A Rottweiler named for a beat poet? They’re usually tagged with more sinister handles. Diablo, Satan — or Kissinger.”

“Rotts get enough bad press as it is.”

Despite the age difference, our conversation has the casual tenor of contemporaries. We continue working through the requisite “getting to know you” info. Rick is 31, a former high school star jock. He’s a biologist with NOAA and a fellow member of the Badger state diaspora, specifically Milwaukee.

“Milwaukee. That explains why you’re a Harley guy.”

“The T-shirt was a gag gift from my girlfriend,” he says. “Back in Portland, I ride a ’64 Vespa Allstate.”

We sit quietly for a bit, the occasional exploding pitch pocket punctuating the monotonous hiss of the surf. Before the prolonged silence grows uncomfortable, I ask, “Do you like it here in the Pac Northwest?”

“I love it.”

“You don’t miss home?”

He gives a little shrug. “I miss the fall. Those crisp mornings, bright blue sky. And leaves changing color.”

Finally, kindred, homesick spirit. I’m about to run with that topic when he says, “But those damn Wisconsin winters.”

Memory can be a master revisionist. How did I forget those desolate, soul-chilling days when it takes nearly as long to bundle up for an outing as it does to reach the destination? When jumper cables and tire chains become as much a necessity as milk. And those interminable months when a sunny day is as rare as a liberal at a tractor pull.

Rick tosses a couple of branches onto the fire. “And summer? The heat, humidity. Mosquitos, ticks?” He raises a hedgerow eyebrow as if to say, “Tell me I’m wrong.”

He’s spot on. I recall lying awake on those sweltering August nights listening to the high drone of a lone mosquito, only to slap myself halfway to a concussion when it invariably landed on my face. But I can’t surrender easily. “The Pacific still doesn’t hold a candle to Wisconsin rivers. Well, let me tell you … ”

I’ve never seen someone’s eyes actually glaze over. But I’m well-acquainted with the oblique stare and mask of polite boredom on Rick’s face. Friends have worn the same expression when I’ve waxed rhapsodic or egocentric ad nauseam. I wrap up my monolog with a feeble “Anyway.”

Rick drums the chair’s arms with his fingertips and pulls in a slow, audible breath. “Rivers versus oceans — just a variation of Chevy versus Ford. Purely a judgment call, man. Rivers, oceans, I loved them both.” He stands and heads toward the cottage. “Be back in a minute.”

A rustle in the beach grass catches Jack the Rott’s attention. He jogs toward the disturbance, leaving behind a set of jowl-shaped parentheses on the leg of my sweatpants.

I pop the top on another can. The eddying breeze wraps me in a stinging scarf of smoke. By the time my vision clears, Rick is back in his chair. He hands me a map drawn on a brown grocery bag. “This place is pretty special to me. It’s about a fifteen-minute drive up into the coast range.”

What the map lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in a diversity of colors. Robin’s egg, aqua, and lavender tributaries intersect a cobalt-blue river. He’s drawn several clusters of stylized conifers in various shades of green. He’s scrawled the directions in red and laid out distances in paces.

“So, you’re a journeyman map maker. Very — colorful.”

“My girlfriend keeps crayons here for her niece’s visits. And, hell.” The flash of a smile breaks through his tangled beard. “Sometimes a guy’s got to embrace his inner child.”

* * *

I soak my burning left hand at the edge of a broad pool, wishing Rick had focused less on his map’s color palette and more on instructions like, “Watch out for frigging nettles.”

Forensic evidence cluttering the bank — empty bait containers, nests of discarded monofilament, an aggregation of cigarette butts — confirms this as a popular fishing hole. A small fir across the river, adorned with spinners, spoons, and broken fishing line, looks like a Cabela’s-inspired Christmas tree. Obviously, not everyone who stops here is a master angler. I imagine opening day, nimrod hordes tromping the riverside path into a slurry, punishing the river’s surface with cast after impatient cast.

My arthritic knees threaten to mutiny, but an intriguing little break in the undergrowth downriver beckons.

Said break borders a lively little tributary that etches a defiant little eddy where it folds into the river current. Unlike the muddy pedestrian freeway that parallels the river, the creek-side path is hardly more than a crease in the underbrush.

While I contemplate exploring this appealing little tributary, an angler approaches from downriver. He pauses alongside a stretch of flat water. In deference to the forested bank, he lays down a delicate roll cast. Watching his command of rod and fly is a treat, but I’m not in the mood for potential small talk. Best to take the road less trampled.

A chubby garter snake could have blazed a more substantial trail than the one that parallels the feeder stream. But the underbrush appears nettle-free, and the burble of rushing water provides a pleasant soundtrack to my trek.

A respectable tramp upstream, the forest gives way to a tiny clearing covered by a resilient carpet of fir needles. The cool air smells of evergreen, earth, and the faint must of decayed wood. Sunlight filtered through the forest canopy lends a soft twilight aspect to the scene. A small cascade tumbles into a pool at the edge of the clearing. A small trout materializes from beneath the undercut bank and noses a passing bit of flotsam. The white leading edge of its ventral fins identifies it as a brookie — another transplant from east of the Rockies. But one that appears more at home in the Pac NW than I do.

Whatever lies at the destination on Rich’s map can’t be more appealing than this. I settle onto a log on the bank and lob a nearby fir cone toward the base of the falls.

* * *

According to my old Timex, I’ve been tossing sticks, fir cones, and a few mushroom caps at the foot of the tiny waterfall for nearly two hours. Each has followed the same route, circulating in the aerated reversal before gliding through the pool, bouncing along the riffles’ cobbled surface, and finally disappearing downstream.

During my second or third sophomore year in college, I pursued enlightenment through various disciplines: Buddhism, TM, and Taoism. But every resultant inspiration had the lifespan of a ripe avocado. Rather than some flash of enlightenment, today’s revelation is a smattering of small realizations. Of course, they need to survive until I reach my notebook in the car. This is an ideal opportunity to test my brother’s Me, Myself, and I memory aid. Me talks — Myself replies — I listen.

What’s on your mind, Steven?

You’re a miserable bastard, Stevie boy.

Well, it takes one to know one.

You were a bastard back in Wisconsin.

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

What did you do when you got so miserable you couldn’t even tolerate yourself?

“Get the hell outta Dodge. Or rather Green Bay.”


“The Pike, the Peshtigo, or some little trout stream to decompress.”

Time to start doing it again.

“I’ll still be a bastard.

But a relaxed and nicer one.

My colander of a memory won’t retain all that for more than a few paces. Perhaps I can distill the experience to its essence — like, “Chill at the falls as needed. And try being less of a dick.” And there it is, a simple solution for a self-proclaimed complex man. I throw a final fir cone toward the falls, then ease down the bank.

* * *

A chilling mist has tucked in around Hans’s cottage. I pull a fifth of Christian Brothers from the arsenal of bottles in a kitchen cabinet. Who would have dreamed a haiku master would own such an impressive stash of liquor? I had him pegged for a chamomile kind of guy, maybe Earl Grey if he felt adventurous.

After splashing a few fingers of brandy into a glass, I settle onto a chair in the breakfast nook. I peel off my wet socks, then savor the low smolder of that inaugural sip of brandy. Before long, peripheral capillaries should dilate and send freshets of warming blood into my toes. Considering today’s revelation, it only followed that I at least dunk my feet in the stream. I only wish I had removed my shoes and socks beforehand.

I would be halfway back to Portland by now. However, I welcome the prospect of another night alone in the company of this new, nearly jovial Steven. And I can use the extra time to polish one of three replies to Diana’s inevitable, albeit gentle, interrogation that I’ve already considered.

I could be brutally honest: The only thing I received from my dip in the Pacific was a pair of elevated testicles.

I could be diplomatically honest: I finally feel more at home here — thanks to a little coast range stream.

Of course, gently reshaping the truth is an attractive and familiar alternative: Honey child, you were right. The Pacific has made me feel at home.

Technically option three is true. After all, the water molecules that flowed across my feet this afternoon are well on their way downriver to ultimately meld with the ocean. So the Pacific did initiate me into the fellowship of the Pacific Northwest in a bass-ackwards way.

Before I can summon up the enthusiasm to open a can of Hans’s SpaghettiOs with Meatballs for dinner, the kitchen phone rings. Landlines, liquor, and a taste for beefy junk pasta; closet-omnivore Hans and I have more in common than I imagined. I bet a cursory search of the premises would turn up a stash of Butterfingers, Twinkies, and beef jerky.

I lift the receiver. “Thank you for calling the Babylon Hilton. Hammurabi speaking.” My accent is more Bombay than Babylonian.

I hear Diana’s truncated giggle. “Have you missed me?”

“Who is this?”

“Just connect me to the geriatric suite.” This magnificent woman is never without a comeback.

We share a quiet moment before the inevitable. “Well?”

Her open-ended question begs a specific answer. I lean back against the kitchen counter. “Funny you should ask.”

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