The first time I left Maryland to live someplace else was also the first time I left Chestertown, where the river is the first who ever spoke to me its shhhh shh river talk tinkling over my skin breezing breath of fragmite and sea grasses up the back of my neck underneath my hair, river talk meandering along the brick-made streets of that downtown there, Chestertown-yellow light of late leaf fall, Chestertown if spoken right with long breath a word itself sounding like river talk, Chestertown, the upper-central heart of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
This was in 2004. I’d been by that point living in Chestertown for six years, taking four of those years to finish what shoulda been two and a half years of college because I dropped out twice due to drinking and drugs.
I was four years clean and sober in 2004 when we went off to live in the forest after a calling to worship only the earth and her natural rhythms. Worship used here by me to mean to live by.
Me and my then partner, a Chester-townie, did that for five months. Lived by, according to, the earth, on her. In her national forests across the United States and in parts of southern Canada, and in her coastal hills on Baja, Mexico, too. Later, also we lived her in a city way, how the earth will rubble and struggle and speak concrete up into your feet through concrete streets.
It’d been three months and we’d made it to Brookings, Oregon. We were camping a few days on the banks of the Chetco river. The Chetco banks aren’t up to ya knees stuck in mud thwuck like the rivers on the eastern shore but instead are made entirely of river stones and you drive your vehicle right on to them. Where stone becomes roots into moist earth along the Chetko the forest is sitka spruce and western hemlock, cedars and douglas firs. The kind of blue green lines of pines and conifer breath that make you certain it’s the tree bows conducting the breezy river song.
Brookings is a coastal town and it was a holiday weekend and we had stopped for fish and chips and a cop pulled us over for failure to stop before a right turn. It can be hard getting stopped when you’re out of towners in a small town and look like hippies and act like hippies and in the come down off that somehow it hit us, it was time to get practical. We’d been on the road three months and had enough money left between us to get an apartment and nothing more. So before we even got back to our home, our tent planted on the Chetco stones, we grabbed up a free circular and started looking, as you still did back then, in the back of the paper for places to live.
We were on my brown sign road trip. The one I’d been saying I would take since the first time I’d hit the road in 1997, when me and my best friend Mandy and Mike-rest-in-peace-Shue (no really he’s one of them souls you always tack that Rip part on to bc funny as he fuckn was and as always down to ride, his body while he was still here was never not home to a tortured inside,) rode an 11,000 mile circle around the States. There are brown signs alllll around this land, America, this place so peopled with personality and conflict, passion and emotion, history and love. Brown signs that tell us a little about the history of what was here in specific spots, what happened before we ever thought of the place to begin with. Memories in the land that’ll be here long after we pass on by.
So I’d been saying I’d follow that no path but those brown and cast iron signs to more signs ever since 1997 with Mandy and Mike. And now here we were, in Oregon, where they’d been leading us since northern California up the 101. It was the next day and we left the Chetco and its little town and little newspaper and scary local cops, certain it wasn’t the place we were supposed to stay. About a hundred or so miles up the coast we followed another historic sign. It led us to the Heceta Head lighthouse.
Over my years of interest in soul and spirituality, and specifically depth development, lighthouses have become metaphoric. A momentary light, a seconds long misty and nascent glimpse of your own inner journey. The fleetingness of security, but security all the same, in your own footing, when you get just a flash of clarity on your own path and of your next step when you honestly can’t see where you’re going.
On the central Oregon coast specifically, fog is a primary weather forecast and the Heceta Head lighthouse dates back to the turn of the 19th century. It’s on ground considered sacred, a place with living story specific to the details of the region for the Native American tribes that sustained on its shores. It also holds legends of hauntings and folk tales related to the settlers that replaced those tribes. I remember still the whole-bodied reverence that made me feel complete in my skin standing there, peering up from the beach at the bridge with the 101 behind and above me, the light house on the cliffside up and to my right.
We explored the shores and structures of Heceta Head a while, then to soothe my anxiety about our “what next” given the dwindling funds, my partner and roadie made a call to a distant family member he’d met only once who lived north of the lighthouse by less than an hour. We were twenty somethings, it was 2004, we were accustomed to oodles of noodles and didn’t think twice about skipping heat in the winter in our long johns. We could live in some forests for $5 a week.
By the end of that call we’d been offered a place to live. Rent would be several hundred less than what we’d planned to spend, so we stretched the little bit of travel cash we had left to make it north to Seattle, where my homey Larry let us crash on his floor for six more weeks in Belltown. We lived simple in the woods for three months, then wore our chords and hiking boots to walk the city streets and take pictures, or stop to write or read, in a place that every so often will land a lighthouse day and shine the majesty of Mt. Rainier back from the far horizon. But is just as equally clouds and grey.
In Seattle we walked. Everyday. To the famous waterfront market there or to Chinatown, to old town and Pioneer Square or else all the way to Queen Anne which wasn’t all the way rich yet, just for the adventure or a sometimes couple dollar meal. We lived for six more weeks on our buddy’s floor, and flew home to Maryland for a visit and family wedding, all for under a thousand dollars. It was pre-internet and a novelty for us even to use a debit card or think of owning a credit card.
When we did, finally, move to our new place on the central Oregon coast, it was into a trailer where the Alsea River mouth becomes the Alsea Bay. We had no money at all, sometimes not even food, and couldn’t find jobs the first two months we were there. But in our canoe on that river the ocean dolphins would sometimes break the water next to us, traveling in smooth silver lines, the whole way around the bay. Up the river just three miles the Alsea Highway led us right into the heart of a national forest, and we learned to forage chanterelle mushrooms and cook meal after brand new meal using them as our main ingredient.
I was so stressed those first two months my memory is stuck on crying myself to sleep more than once, and a sick, crazy feeling in my guts, and soaked corduroys and rain dripping off the hood of my rain jacket onto my glasses. I beseeched the Great Love, or whatever it was that I believed in and felt and followed from my bones the whole time we lived in the forests and on the road, weeping and promising swearing to It that I’d ask the first sober female I encountered in the nearby recovery club to be my mentor. Believing that I could bargain my way back to the reward feeling that everything would be ok.
Faith, as I have since learned by living, isn’t actually about trusting that the outcome will work out in your favor. It is actually about how you walk when you have no idea the outcome that’s in store. Walking through my real life with a willingness to believe that I’ll be taken care of, no matter what.
Gretchen is the name of the woman who’d become my mentor, and she was in fact the first female I encountered at the club three times. I was a full on kinda crazy when I met her, and she became the one person in my life who for a decade and a half–years and years in fact after I’d up and leave the Oregon coast and continue traveling–to always, no matter what, remind me every time to be true to my self.
She was a lighthouse, of sorts. Always leading me back home, within.
And there’s a relationship, I’m realizing, of that sort of consistent, if only momentary re-commitment of clarity and light within, to faith. Similar to how the words always lead me, not knowing how I’ll get there, but if I trust the process of laying each one down how I do always get there, soundly, to peace.
Faith is not so much about the steps you are taking as much as it is, maybe, about how graceful we are in not resisting having to take steps forward, anyway. Even when we can’t fully see.