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Our scout troop has sold Christmas trees at a church parking lot every year for about the last 75 years.
I last wrote about it here. One of the things that we prided ourselves on was getting the best looking trees available, and a few years ago I drove a big truck down to several of the tree farms to get a fresh load of them. As I recall, at the end of that day, we ended up bringing home 435 trees. Over the course of the trip home, the trees settled a bit on the rough roads, and I remember checking the side mirrors once and was surprised to see that the sides of the truck were literally bulging. I wish I’d taken a picture of it that day, but the day was long, by that time it was dark, and many, many pictures weren’t taken.
One of the pictures that I not only didn’t take, but didn’t see, was taken by the scout dad in the troop named Dan who’s a forest geneticist, which is the best kind of guy to have as a resource when you’re trying to sell small forests of Christmas trees.
Dan would go out to the tree farm in August and hand pick the 1500 or so trees we’d be selling that year, and in doing so, he saw some things that most of us don’t see. He took the picture below, that looks pretty much like a picture of a wooded foresty place (that’s the Olympic mountain range in the background), but there’s a couple of white spots in the picture that don’t really make sense until you look move closer.
If you look at the third and fourth tree in from the left, you’ll see a small white dot on each of them. As Dan got closer, he took a picture of what those white dots really were, and you can see that in the picture below:
You see, the tree was perfect in every way, it’s just that the top, the part that can make or break the sale of a tree, was crooked, and so the grower, realizing that he had some time on his hands, tied a rock to a branch to help straighten the tree out.
So for years, the tree carried this burden. Day and night, through good weather and bad, through heavy rain and parching drought, the tree carried this weight.
The thing is, not all trees got this treatment. Some trees were pruned, all were fertilized, and some were found to be almost perfect but for this one flaw, so they were given this rock, this burden, to carry.
And over the years, the rock changed the tree. The tree got strong enough to carry the rock, but when the rock was put in the right place, the tree was both stronger and straighter. It had shown that it could indeed carry this burden, and carry it well.
And in the end, when the tree was done growing and it was time to harvest, the burden was lifted, the weight was removed, and the tree was straight and beautiful as ever.
And I saw something interesting in that. It made me wonder about the burdens we carry, and why. It made me wonder about burdens, being there just long enough for us to learn lessons, to grow straight, being lifted. And then I wondered about burdens that are there longer, that people carry, day in, day out, sometimes for years.
In fact, in the last year, I’ve learned of friends losing their jobs, and the financial hardship that comes from that.
I’ve learned of friends who were suddenly transferred to another part of the country, and the uproar that can cause in a family.
I’ve learned of friends who are losing or have lost loved ones.
And you can almost hear the branches of their trees creaking as they strain under the burden.
And I don’t understand why it seems that some folks are given burdens when others aren’t.
There are times when I don’t know if the burden they carry is one they can carry alone. In fact, there were times when the burden we as a family had to carry was more than we could handle, and I know personally that in situations like this, those struggling under those heavy burdens need support until they can stand on their own.
I thought back to that tree there in the picture. It could handle good sized rocks, and over time get strong enough to carry them and stand straight. Trying to hold up a 100 pound rock with that little branch would be another story. It’s not strong enough to handle that, and it would break.
I’ve seen this in other trees over in Eastern Washington, where instead of rocks, they were carrying such an amazing amount of fruit that their branches weren’t strong enough for that burden. The farmers growing that fruit helped brace the branches with large poles, sticks, or, for lack of a better term, crutches, until harvest time, at which point the weight is removed, and the tree is relieved of the weight, or what might be perceived as a hardship.
Without the constant care of the farmers, those trees would have had branches broken by burdens they were not strong enough to carry. Un-braced branches were damaged, or had broken off and fallen down, breaking other branches on the way and peeling the bark with them as they went.
It’s not pretty, and parts of the tree die when that happens.
I’ve also seen people break under burdens they weren’t strong enough to carry. Lives are damaged, people can break down and fall, causing damage to themselves or others as they go.
It’s not pretty, and parts of who that person is die when that happens too.
Understand, this doesn’t mean these people were weak. It means that as strong as they were, they weren’t strong enough for that burden, or those burdens.
There is a difference.
And it got me thinking, about trees, and support, and strength.
See, some of the trees, the evergreens, have burdens over time, for a reason.
And those trees, over the years, like the ones in the photos, develop inside support. They develop a stronger core with each passing year they are forced to carry their burden.
By the time these trees are ready for harvest, they stand straight and tall, even though what made them that way was a heavy burden.
And some of the trees, the fruit trees have burdens that come in waves, for a season (or many seasons).
Their roots will hold them up, but to keep from breaking, they need outside support to help shoulder their burden, like the fruit trees I mentioned earlier.
Those trees, over the years, develop scars and are gnarled from the burdens they’ve carried and from the crutches supporting them, but they are strong, and have produced good fruit.
And then there’s a third type of tree, and support, and it’s not just for a reason, or a season, but a lifetime.
I’ve heard that the Redwood trees in Northern California have very shallow root systems, so any strong wind could knock a single one of them over, but because they’re in groves of trees, their roots intertwine, and they support each other. They do this without crutches to hold branches up, and they do it without rocks to hold branches down.
They curl their toes together. No, really… It’s interesting, thinking about that. Those trees, they become a community. They support each other, and when one is threatened, all the interwoven roots (the toes) are all tangled, and they hold each other up, together.
There’s a chance you, or someone like you, will spend part of your life as any one of these trees, and who knows, you might have experience with more than one type in different parts of your life.
Whether you’re an evergreen, carrying small burdens over your entire life, or fruit trees, carrying huge burdens seasonally, or whether you’re a redwood tree, reaching for the skies, but curling your toes along with those near you, help each other.
Support each other.
Be there for each other.
Forgive each other.
Take care out there, take your strength from wherever you can get it, and enjoy the blessings of the Christmas season.
After close to 30 years with Ballard’s Troop 100, Scoutmaster Paul is hanging up his hat, and I started thinking of the one thing about Paul that stood out.
There are so many wonderful things I could say about Paul, but there was indeed one thing that stood out above all else, and it seemed to encompass all those other things. It was The Paul Mile.
See, when we were in the troop, the phrase we often heard the phrase, “Oh, it’s a Paul Mile.”
We didn’t know where that came from until our trip to Norwegian – where we had to drive for about 5 hours before hiking in to one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.
Paul had said, simply, that it was a mile from where we parked our cars to where we were camping, so – well, a mile’s a mile, right?
I looked at it on the map, measured it with dividers…
It was a mile.
But what we didn’t take into account was that the mile was “as the crow (or seagull, or mightily thrown rock) flies,” not as a scout walks.
Not as a scout, distracted by every bug and stick and rock walks.
Not as a scout, who’s wearing a pack for the first time, walks.
Not as a scout, who’s seeing the miracles of the outdoors for the first time, walks.
On the way, scouts learned how to build fires.
And how to camp in the rain.
And the mud.
And the snow.
Scouts learned about responsibility, and being prepared.
And they learned about being just a little more than prepared and to help those who were still learning.
Lessons were passed on from Paul to scout, and then from older scout to younger scout.
On the way, scouts conquered their own fears.
They climbed mountains and crossed valleys.
And some traveled to countries they’d only read about.
They grew more than their faraway parents could possibly imagine.
Some learned how to cook.
Some learned how to cook well.
And as they grew up and grew older, they ate better than they expected.
And told jokes.
And lived stories they would recount years later.
They waded in the Pacific
They floated down rivers, and showered in waterfalls,
They swam in lakes cold enough to – well, they were cold.
They made friends.
And they grew from Tigers all over…
To cubs in the pack…
To Scouts, in Troop 100.
And while some of the steps were longer than expected.
And some were steeper than expected.
And, living in Washington, a lot were wetter than expected,
Looking back, they were all better than expected.
And on one cold, clear night, shivering on a Pacific beach at the end of the most memorable of all Paul miles, some saw stars in the heavens they’d never seen, before, or since.
See what scouts didn’t know is that a Paul Mile, like life itself, isn’t about the destination.
It’s about the journey…
Take care, Paul, may your Journey continue.
The Roush family, including Michael, Eagle # 128
Six years ago last weekend, my son Michael and I had a new word enter our vocabulary.
Just one word…
It’s a word that brings back memories that are still filled with wonder, laughter, awe, and not an insubstantial amount of reverence. It was the first hike for me after a long time of recovery, and was kind of a celebration of sorts, to prove that we could go out and do something more than just ‘recover’. By way of introduction, Michael was a Boy Scout at the time, and, it turned out, this was a traditional camping trip that our Scoutmaster, Paul, did on President’s day weekend.
You might be thinking, “But President’s Day weekend is in February!”
The Norwegian Memorial was a 5 hour drive to get to from Seattle.
It was out west of Forks, Washington, long before any TV show brought attention to it, and after you got there, there was a hike in. I had to work Friday and couldn’t get away, and it was a hike not recommended to do in the dark.
Note: What happens in this story (note: all of it is true) is what caused us to go out the next year – the adventures of which you can read in the Shi Shi beach story. It’s in that story we learned about hiking in the dark – and if you read that, you might get a better picture of why this doesn’t happen often.
So Michael and I headed west, in the Saab (1968 Saab 96 Deluxe, with the V-4 Engine). He navigated, I drove. At one point we were bombing down a gravel logging road, and having watched bits and pieces of the Paris-Dakar Rally on TV some time earlier, he’d commented that that would be fun to do, and it didn’t take me long to realize that we were doing just that.
We were doing about – oh, 30 or so, which on a road that had simply been bulldozed through the forest actually felt pretty quick. I yelled at him over the roar of the engine, the tires sliding sideways every now and then just enough to throw gravel up against the bottom of the car, “Hey Michael! you know what we’re doing?”
And the thing was, we kind of were…
I took a picture (hey, it’s me, what would you expect?)
We had a rough set of instructions that would get us into the right neck of the woods, so to speak, but we didn’t have any more detail than that… There were areas we had to travel slowly and carefully on, but there were some parts, the straight and gently curved stretches of the gravel road that we traveled down just fast enough to make it fun and exciting, without being so fast that we’d damage the car or ourselves if we got ourselves stuck. And there was the fact that this was the kind of road I’d learned to drive on (and it was a Saab I’d learned in.) So I knew the limitations of the car from a few decades of driving experience.
It was, to put it mildly, fun. (in fact, I’m still smiling about it as I write this)
Not on the map was our primary goal, which was, “Find Paul’s truck”, because if we found that, we’d find the trailhead, so that’s what we did. By the time we got there, it was 3:00, so we didn’t have too much daylight left. We’d been told it was a mile to get in, but Paul had developed this reputation that meant we had to convert “Paul Miles” into “Standard Miles” so we figured it might be a bit longer than a standard mile, and so we scarfed some snacks and started hiking in. The trail was barely distinguishable from the surrounding forest, but we figured if we kept heading west, eventually we’d hit this big patch of water called the Pacific, and we’d be able to find things from there. After some time, we took a break and sat down on a log to rest for a little bit. By this time, we’d learned two things about the trail:
- If it was muddy and you got stuck in it, chances are you were on the trail.
- If it was impassable, chances are, you were off the trail, and had to get back to the mud.
It was nice to have things clear and simple like that.
We got up and hiked for another half hour or so with Michael leading the way, and somewhere in there I realized the brand new tent I’d been focusing on, the one that was tied to his backpack, wasn’t there anymore.
Sun going down in the west, nothing but trees and the beginning traces of darkness, and maybe a tent to the east.
Thing is, we still had light, we just didn’t know how far (and thus how long) we had to walk, so we didn’t know how much time we had to go look for a lost tent.
We decided he’d go back for no more than 10 minute to look for it, and it’s good we had radios with us to communicate, otherwise the trees absorbed ALL sound. It was truly eerie how loud he could yell from just a few feet away and it just didn’t penetrate the trees.
Later I took a picture at that place, because it was suddenly so easy to understand how someone might get totally lost and never come out…
We were glad we’d each brought a tent of our own. It gave us a spare.
We kept walking, and eventually the trail started going sideways downhill toward the beach and we could hear the surf in the distance. We found where a tree had fallen and blocked the trail. It was too big to climb over, too low to the ground to crawl under as we were, and since we were on a hillside, we couldn’t really go around. So we took our packs off and crawled under, then kind of lobbed the packs over the top of the trunk laying there and put them on when we’d gotten to the other side. It was nice that we succeeded in that, it meant not having to climb into the tree to get our backpacks back down. After that, the trail was pretty clear. In fact, when we got to the bottom of the trail, it was next to impossible to miss…
This part of the trail could actually be hiked in pitch black darkness. Here – take a look…
I also took this one looking back on the way out but this is roughly what we saw on the way in.
Some of the scouts saw us and were both surprised and delighted that we’d made it. One took my pack off my shoulders for the last few feet, and of course when that happens, you just feel like you’re floating, so I floated over to the campsite (just left of center in the picture above, and it was right…
It was amazing.
When we finally got there, there was a small fire on the beach (okay, small, relative to the size of the beach) –
There was only rule about the fire, and that was that if it could burn, and you could lug it to the fire, it got burned. As you can see, they were stoking the fire with a couple of small sticks as we walked up.
The fire was worth its weight in gold for all the time spent just staring into it, focusing on everything, and nothing…
There was time to walk on the beach, and just be alone with your thoughts, whatever they were,
and even though the weather was so cold, there was a chance to sleep in a warm sleeping bag, in the same old tent that we’d slept in at Fort Ebey years ago when Michael was a Webelos Scout. We did see evidence of some strange wildlife out there, causing us to wonder where genetic engineering had gone drastically wrong.
It was a wonderful place…
There was time for pondering, and reflection…
There was time to etch your autograph anyplace you could find to put it.
There was always a pot of water on…
… for hot chocolate or coffee…
We had some guests for dinner, and found all sorts of things on the beach…
We never had any problem with food spoiling that weekend. Of course, the fact that it didn’t get much above 27 degrees in the daytime might have helped that particular issue out just a bit. It wasn’t windy, wasn’t rainy, just clear and bracingly cold.
There was an abandoned silver mine south of Norwegian by a couple of miles. We hiked down there with the rest of the scouts who’d gone and stopped to see some of the decaying machinery, where what had once been a boiler of steel able to harness the power of steam had been scoured by the salt air for so long that the steel could be peeled away with your fingernails.
Since we’d gotten there late, Michael and I took a hike up north, to the actual Norwegian Memorial, hidden away off the beach, a memorial to the sailors who died in a shipwreck many years ago.
On our way to see the memorial, we saw many downed trees, and this one…
…was truly a Goliath among them, making all of the others look positively tiny in comparison.
We kept walking, not really knowing where exactly what we were looking for, but eventually we found it, nestled deep in the trees, away from the beach, in a place you could easily miss.
Our Scoutmaster, Paul, had been keeping it tidy once a year…
…for the last thirty years or so as part of being with the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association in Ballard, where we live.
The mussels we had for dinner one night simply covered a huge rock. It was impossible to walk anywhere without stepping on them. And it didn’t take long at all to gather enough for dinner.
Once we got back to the campfire, we had what was again, amazing food. We learned that you can make something called Cioppino in a dutch oven, and since I’d spent a few years playing with cameras, we decided we’d take a picture of it. Of course, trying to take a picture of a dutch oven over a fire likely wouldn’t win any awards, and since we didn’t have any studio lighting, we just used the campfire for light and I think a couple of flashlights. We waved them around until we thought we might have something, and who knew that you could come up with a picture like this with just a couple of flashlights and a campfire?
Come to think of it, who knew mussels made pearls?
And, Pop Quiz:
When you’re eating them, how do you know the difference between the sand in them and those pearls?
If it’s sand, your teeth crunch it…
If it’s pearls, it’s the other way around…
(That particular lesson only takes one time to actually sink in…)
The temperature was cold, but no wind and so that evening a huge cargo net served as a wonderful hammock for two to relax and watch the sun set,
and watch the fire burn to embers.
But the most incredible part of it all was something not in any photographs.
As I said, it was 27 degrees in the daytime. After dark, it got colder still. One night, we went out onto the wide, wide beach for a walk. The beach was mostly flat, so we walked and walked, and as we got further away from the light of the campfire, and our eyes got adjusted to the dark (there was no moon that night) we found that we could see, literally, in the dark. It’s because the stars were brighter than we’d ever seen, and even Orion, huge in Seattle, was small in comparison to all the other stars now visible.
We kept walking, our eyes in the heavens, as wide as children seeing those stars for the very first time.
It was only when the sand we were walking on became a little slippery, and a little soft, like crème brulée, crunchy on the top, soft underneath, that we slowed and stopped. It took about three steps or so, and we all looked down…
…and found ourselves in a world that words cannot adequately describe.
The salt water had frozen as the tide went out, and the beach we’d been on had been transformed into ice that extended as far as we could see in front of us, and far enough left and right to feel like it went to the horizon.
As I looked back up, I noticed that I could see Orion again, not once, but twice. Once upside down below the horizon, once right side up above.
Wait a minute…
I looked left and right, up and down, and still saw stars.
I kind of skootched my feet around a little to be sure I wouldn’t fall and realized we were not standing under the stars, we were standing among the stars. We were standing on a mirror, stars visible above us, below us, and all around us.
As our eyes registered it all, and our brains struggled to comprehend the magnitude of what we were seeing, the sound of the waves to our right faded away with the tide. We were quite literally in awe.
We stood there for a few minutes, in silent reverence for the creation before us and around us.
We weren’t standing on ice, on a beach, we’d been transported into the heavens.
We were standing in the stars.
It was Amazing.
It was Magical.
A little background on this story first…
What you see below started out as a note to my friend Greg who asked how our weekend was. People have learned, over time that asking me questions like this often ends up with – um well – stories. This was no exception. The weekend in question this time was President’s Day weekend, 2007, and the story had so much in it that it became one of my longer stories.
The previous year we’d gone out to a place called “Norwegian Memorial” over President’s day weekend. The weather on *that* weekend was stunning, cold (27 degrees in the daytime), but clear, very little wind (a wonderful story, but for another time), so when we found out the troop was heading out to the Olympic Peninsula again, we were all over it.
We wanted to relive that incredible adventure.
However – the adventure we lived, while incredible, was very different, as you’ll see.
Also – over time, I realized there was another, related story, or maybe series of stories – or lessons, tucked inside this one – those lessons will follow – but for now – this is a trip to Shi-Shi beach with the scout troop (Ballard’s BSA Troop 100) Michael and I had been a part of for years. Shi-Shi beach is out on the Pacific Ocean, near – well, it’s not near anything. But if you remember those Native Americans (the Makah tribe) who wanted to go whaling to keep their culture alive a few years back – this is just south of them.
Normally I take tons of pictures on trips like this. This trip was different. There are SO many pictures that weren’t taken on this trip. You’ll see why as we go.
The original plan was to leave for Neah Bay around 5:30 Saturday morning to try to catch up to the troop who’d left the night before. However, I had unplanned work that didn’t get finished until 1:30 that morning – which messed up my 5:30 plans for leaving just a touch. In fact, I didn’t wake up till 8:30.
After some last minute packing and the like, we headed out the door to drive up to the ferry terminal for the first leg of the trip. I thought we were making pretty good time – but as we were sitting in the ferry line, it became clear that the reason we were making such good time was that my watch had slowed down before actually stopping. So we’d not only missed the one we’d hoped to catch, but we’d missed the one after that… and the one after that, and… well heck, we were at plan C or D by this point.
The weather was clear blue sky, just like we’d found the previous year at Norwegian Memorial, but by the time we got out to Neah Bay around 4:00, it was absolutely raining sideways. We’d been told to stop at this thing like a lean-to to pull our gear out of the car and transfer it to the truck of our contact there to get out to the trail head, but it was raining so hard, and coming from anywhere but up, that the little roof we were under did nothing to keep us dry. As we left in his truck to go to the trail head, he pointed out the “lean-to” we were supposed to be at. That one was roughly 100 feet long. Yeah, would have been nice to see that one in time…
We got to, then left the trail head at 4:35, and before we left, we have this little prayer we say whenever we go out. It’s something I learned in Germany when I was growing up, and it’s become not only a habit, but a good one:
Alle Schritt, und alle Tritt,
Geh’ du Lieber Heiland mit.
Gehe mit mir ein und aus,
Fuehre Du mich selbst nach Haus.
Wo ich bin, und was ich tu’
Sie’ mir Gott, mein Vater zu.
— which roughly translated, equals
Every pace, and every step
Lord come along beside me
Go with me in and out
Lead me safely back home.
Where I am, and what I do,
Watch over me, Lord.
This had far more importance than we knew at the time.
Given what time it was, we started walking fast. After about 2 miles over a little gravel, some boardwalks and occasional mud, we found a turn, and it was like walking down a stream-bed with an inch of water coming down it. No problem, it was hard pan, we didn’t sink into it and it was easy to walk on. When we got to the bottom, all the water that we had been walking downhill with kind of stopped. It had been bringing all sorts of organic matter down with it, which gathered into one honking big mud hole.
With no other options, we pressed on, and the mud started out only ankle deep in most places, but was calf deep in others. Stepping carefully, we were able to avoid the places where it was obviously knee deep. Some of the foot prints we saw made it clear others had learned that the hard way.
There were about 30 spots like that, ranging from the size of a typical kitchen to twice the size of a city bus. It was hard to walk around them most times because the surrounding area was worse in many ways.
The sections of mud were so deep in places that one of our scouts literally got stuck in one of them on the way back out. We’ll come back to him, well, on the way out.
We felt, at the time, like we had no options but to go on. Camping where we were was far too wet. We were on the only trail out there, so we didn’t feel like we were in danger of getting lost, but still, with our ride back gone, the fact that we were the only ones on the trail at that time of gave us very little room for error.
Honestly, I don’t think I could embellish the story right now to make it any worse than it was, and it’s not that it was so horrible, it’s just that we’d gone from bright sunshine that morning to raining sideways that afternoon to hiking out toward a beach in mud up to our calves, and we were only about an hour into the hike.
After a while, we’d learned that walking in mud is fairly challenging, especially with my right leg running short on hamstrings, and carrying the loads we were carrying.
We also learned that if you are walking in mud that deep, anything shorter than hip waders is going to mean that your feet will very definitely get wet.
And we learned the benefits of wool socks (you aren’t really sure when your feet are wet – because the wool insulates so well).
Eventually, we got through all that, the path curved to the left (south) and we saw we were on a fairly dry path along the top of a ridge, the ocean to our right. At that point, we saw a sign, not a celestial one, but a bunch of boards nailed to a couple of hunks of wood shoved into the ground. The sign indicated that the trail stopped there, and if we wanted to continue, we had to hang a right, down the hill.
It was still light when we got to that point, but because of the trees, just barely. Michael and I headed down what looked like it might be a trail, but it was REALLY hard to make out – especially since it was under more trees, and it was that time of day when it’s too dark to see, and not dark enough for flashlights to make much difference. In addition to our backpacks, we were carrying a 5 gallon bucket with our portion of food for the troop in it because we needed to have stuff in hard sided containers to keep the raccoons away.
(Little did we know that the raccoons wouldn’t be caught dead in this weather).
The trail was steep enough in places that we were using tree roots as steps. I’d go about 10 feet, then light the way for Michael, then he’d come follow me. I slipped once and lost my water bottle. I could see it down the hill and off the trail, but seeing it and getting it were two different things. It stayed there. I’m sure some raccoon appreciated it later.
Michael did an amazing, amazing job, I am so proud of him – and told him so, but I don’t think he really, truly understands how much he did.
We made it a little further, about halfway down the hillside, which bore a bit more of a resemblance to a cliff than a gentle hillside, it turns out, and then saw a couple of flashlights on the beach as we were looking down through the trees.
Oh, wow, salvation!
We yelled, “HELLLOOOOOOOO!!!!! IT’S TOM AND MICHAEL!!!!”
We waved and yelled again, and again, and again, waving our hands, our flashlights, anything, but got zero response.
Finally, the lights came toward us, and we called out again, and added,
“WHO ARE YOU?”
We’d made the assumption that it was only OUR troop that would be crazy enough to go camping in a rainstorm.
“Right, but who are YOU?”
“We’re scouts from Troop 4435 on Whidbey.”
Our troop WASN’T the only one crazy enough to go camping in a rainstorm.
They graciously gave us a little guidance down the rest of the hillside, which made it much easier for us to keep going. Then we asked them if they’d seen anyone else recently, and they said they’d seen two other people with purple pack covers (like what we had on our packs) walk by at some point – they were camping just south of Petroleum Creek – which was “two or three creeks down” the beach.
They led us through their campsite, and out onto the beach, where, in the absence of any other directions, we hung a left and started walking.
We set up a pretty good pace because, honestly, we didn’t know exactly how far we had to go. Also, if it’s not clear yet by the writing, it was dark by this time. There were no stars at this beach, nothing but clouds, occasional rain, lots of wind, no light, and the roar of the Pacific Ocean 50 feet from our right ears.
The one thing we didn’t know – or have a true sense of because it was dark, was the tide – and the fact that it was out. The beach sand we were walking on was hard and level. We found out later that that was the only reason we were able to walk anywhere.
So that’s what we did…
We walked – and walked, and walked.
It must have been at least twenty minutes before we saw them – but there they were, three lights in the distance. Of course, they could have been 20 miles away, we absolutely couldn’t tell from where we were, but we kept walking – and found a creek – and crossed it.
And found another creek, and crossed it.
And a third one…
We figured we were home free.
Those lights in the distance hadn’t changed. Michael and I were walking fairly closely together – to the point where we’d occasionally bump into each other, and were using one flashlight to light our way since we were on the beach and there was no reason to use both of them.
In fact, we felt like we were in a bubble of light in the darkness – there was no real way to tell we were making any progress of any kind, no landmarks passing by, nothing.
At one point, Michael, without slowing down, smacked his flashlight and said, with a surprising amount of conviction, “Never again…”
His light had been giving him trouble, and was flickering a little bit, and the whole ‘adventure’ bit of this was wearing just a little thin.
“Never will we do a hike like this again,” he said, gesturing to the cold, the dark, the wet.
“…but boy, will I have stories to tell my grandkids…”
His ability to look at things with a perspective most kids his age don’t – and the ability to see the good in a bad situation, while going through the bad situation, is one he’s become very good at.
We kept walking.
Speaking of flashlights, that trip was indeed the last time we used them. They’d looked effective when we got them, but it was very, very clear that if you wanted a good light, you definitely needed to spend the money and buy a good light. A little later we were to find out what that term meant.
We kept walking, and eventually, were able to tell a difference in color on some of those lights we’d been seeing, and it was clear that one of them was a campfire, because it was yellow and flickering, the others were lights like Coleman lanterns, a little blue tinge to them, and less flickering.
We walked on.
At one point, it looked like someone had poured gas onto the fire, as it flared up pretty brightly. We figured that just had to be our scouts, so we were encouraged by that.
We’d been told by those first scouts that it was 3 creeks down the beach. By this time we’d gone past at least six, and not passed any of our own scouts, so we weren’t really sure what to think.
We came to a campsite short of the one we’d just seen with the lights, and could see lights and fire there, and we yelled, “HELLOOOOOO!!!” Someone came out with the mother of all flashlights with a beam you could walk on (clearly this was a good light) to see who was out on the beach at this time of night, and we found they weren’t scouts, either… The fellow with the light offered us some water (we were pretty tired by then, and my water bottle was gone) – and we must have looked like crap. The fellow told us the scouts were the second campsite down from theirs. He also mentioned that the next creek, Petroleum creek, was a little deeper than the other ones, about six inches, and that we should be careful.
As for the campsites, remembering our little experience with counting creeks, we figured we’d check every campsite, not just the second one, and so, at the next one, we called into the darkness, “HELLOOOOO!” – and no one even got up – it was just “WRONG GROUP!”
We looked at each other for a moment, shook our heads, and walked on.
By this time, those lights weren’t any bigger, but it was clear we were getting closer, and this cheered us greatly.
We walked on.
…and slowly, gently, almost imperceptibly, another sound came to our ears, which was a different, much harder to describe sound than the roar of the ocean that had been in our right ears the whole way. This was more the sound of a high frequency hissing/splashing combined with a much lower frequency rumble.
That sound didn’t make any sense until the source of it came into the front of that bubble of light we were walking in.
It was Petroleum creek.
And with all the rain, it was fast.
The rumble was rocks the size of grapefruits and cantaloupes rolling down the streambed, being pushed along by the water.
Where we were it was about 25 feet wide at least.
Michael and I stood there for a moment and just stared: “What should we do? What could we do?”
The troop’s campsite was clearly on the other side of that mass of moving water. Behind us we had all the distance we’d traveled and not found the group. To our left, we had logs that had been piled by the tide at the base of a cliff. And to the right, in the roaring darkness, we had approximately 5,000 miles of ocean and tide before there was any thought of land.
And that tide was starting to come in.
Suddenly the 25 feet of rumbling, splashing water in front of us didn’t seem like such a big concern, our options were clearly narrowed down to forge ahead, and forge ahead we did, right through the water.
If our feet hadn’t been wet by that time, by golly, they were wet now.
There is something about walking in very fast moving water that’s pretty amazing, and at the same time, terrifying.
If you’ve not experienced this, the water is alive. It is trying to push you over, and it doesn’t care. It doesn’t care whether you’re tired, or whether you’re sore, or whether you’ve got people waiting for you. It doesn’t care what you have planned.
It just is.
The rocks that weren’t moving when we stepped on them rolled under our feet. Those we didn’t step on rolled into our ankles. We had to be on our toes, so to speak, the whole time.
But we made it through…
…and we walked on.
And eventually we got to the campsite, where we saw we had to cross at least forty feet of wet, slippery logs just to get off the beach. One of the scouts came down (I couldn’t tell who at the time) and took the 5 gallon bucket from us. Michael got up there first, and it took me a while to get across the logs, I was quite concerned about getting across, with my right leg the way it is, being so tired, and the fact that the logs were wet and slippery and all. It would have been very, very easy to slip and break something important. Paul (the scoutmaster) came over and took my pack, told us we were just in time for dinner, and aimed us toward the “kitchen” – where there was a lot of food (spaghetti, salad, etc). It was 7:35. We’d been walking as fast as we could for three hours straight.
They’d almost given up on us – but then they saw Michael’s light coming down the beach, and they watched as we got closer, and they helped us get off the beach when it was clear it was us.
We stood and ate. There wasn’t much room, really, to sit down. People were talking and glad to see us – I couldn’t see them because of all the salt and water on my glasses, the sweat in my eyes, and the smoke from the campfire and oh, and they were all wearing headlamps – which meant that when they looked at me, all I saw was this smoky star pattern of lights, and I couldn’t see who was looking at me at all. I could mainly tell by altitude.
The voice coming from above me had to be Kim.
The one from a little lower had to be Dan.
The one that sounded like a Georgia peach cobbler had to be Ken.
The lower (both in altitude and timbre) voice sounding like a mixture of camp coffee and gravel sounded like Paul.
Past that, I couldn’t tell.
The wind hadn’t died down, but we were in a bit of shelter, so that was good. It was clear that right after eating, the only smart thing to do was to put the tent up, hunker down in the sleeping bags, and go to sleep.
Dan asked about our tent situation, and I told him that both Michael and I each had a tent, and that we could each set up our own, but it seemed more logical to just set one up quickly and go with that. Dan asked if I had my little orange pup tent (I did) and he suggested that I would be dryer if I were in a newer tent (my pup tent was 20 years old, and well used). Paul had suggested the only flat spot was right there on the trail – but that wasn’t wide enough for any tent, but when we went to get the tent, our packs were on a flat spot under a tarp, so we just set the tent up there – first time ever, in the dark, in the wind, in the rain… Got it up in about 10 minutes, though now that we know, we can do it faster. It took us a while to get everything settled, but once we lied down, we were – well, laying down never felt so good.
As I lay there, slowly letting go of the tension of the last day, just beginning to allow myself to rest, and realizing that we’d accomplished what we’d set out to accomplish, I started to see these strange animals – kind of holographic, iridescent dragons – it was very, very strange… I told Michael I was starting to dream before I was asleep, and Michael said, “Pop, you’re really out of it, you’re hallucinating.”
We said our prayers, grateful that we’d made it in safely, and were instantly, profoundly asleep.
The trip out is another story.
The trip out…
I’d been up in the middle of the night. I’d been dreaming that the tide was coming in, and as is the case in many such dreams, reality and mother nature strongly urged me to get outside and take care of another tide wanting to go out. I did – and saw, at the edge of the flashlight’s beam that the tide, all 5,000 miles of it, was very definitely in, and it was right on the other side of all those logs – there was no beach visible at all – it was more than a little unsettling, making me realize how close we’d come to not making it on the way in.
In fact, the waves got pretty loud there for a while – with the splashing of the waves being in the higher frequencies of sound, and again, an occasional low frequency rumbling accompanied the splashing. This time it was a little softer, and far, far lower than the rumbling of the rocks in Petroleum Creek. This rumbling I could easily feel through the ground I was standing on. At the time, however, I was awake enough only to notice it, but not awake enough to try to figure out what it was. I went back to the tent, crawled into the sleeping bag, and closed my eyes, only to be awakened seemingly seconds later by the yells of one of the adults, “Get up, get packing, we’re moving out in three hours!”
We’d just gotten here…
In fact, at that time, it had been less than 12 hours of “gotten here”…
The wind hadn’t died down, and we had rain squalls coming in off the ocean one after another.
Paul, the scoutmaster, had looked southwest when it was light enough and saw a rather large, ominous looking dark cloud, and given the state of some of the scouts (some having done poor, inexperienced packing, etc.) it was clear that if we were to stay another night, we’d be dealing with things far worse than just being wet, like hypothermia; and those things would only get worse if we were to try to hike out with the scouts in that condition to start with. The decision was made to leave, immediately.
In fact, the clock was very definitely ticking from that moment. The tide charts said that high tide was at 12:53 and that it would be a plus 9.3 (or 9.1, don’t remember which) high tide, which for those of you who understand these things, means it was way freaking high. The highest of the month.
Understand, we had about 10 scouts and 11 adults to get packed (think herding cats), out of the campsite, over the logs, across a stream, and up about a mile or two of what was now very steep beach, and rocks, and logs, and whatever the ocean decided to spew out before that tide came in.
I found out later that it was exactly at this time, when we were walking out, that my mom, 150 miles away, felt the very strong urge to pray for us. She didn’t know why, figuring that, “The boys are just on a campout.”
She prayed anyway.
It’s one of the reasons I appreciate my mom. She’s got enough experience to pay attention and to listen when God pokes them and tells her to pray.
Back at Shi Shi, on the way out…
There was this little matter of a rock that jutted out into the water at high tide that we hadn’t seen in the dark on the way in. This meant, if we weren’t past it by the time the tide came in, we were going to be there on the wrong side of the rock until that tide went back out. That might be a rather uncomfortable place to be for a few hours, I mean, imagine having your back to a cliff, wind and spray in your face, and the surf grinding huge logs into mush right in front of you (this was what I’d felt through my feet the previous night). Clearly getting caught between any of those logs was well past unacceptable. Had we gotten stuck on the wrong side of that rock, even getting back to the campsite might not have been an option, we didn’t know – and didn’t bother to think about anything remotely close to that.
The important thing was to get off the beach,and get off it fast.
Michael and I left a few minutes before the rest of the troop because we figured that because of my leg, we’d be slower than the others. We got packed up very quickly (heck, we’d barely had time to unpack), and got moving.
First thing we did?
Cross those logs – and it turned out that the low rumbling I’d heard during the night was the waves thrashing those logs we’d crossed around like toothpicks.
It made me think quite a bit – given that we’d walked in on a low tide and had made it just in time. The waves didn’t move the logs around gently. It was a seismic event, and I realized that it was that that I’d been feeling through my feet the night before. Being caught out on that beach would have been – well, in a word, fatal. We would have been backed up against a cliff, with logs grinding themselves and anything in between them into mush right in front of us, with that ocean on the other side. It would not have been a good night.
Next thing we had to do was cross Petroleum “creek”.
Since our shoes and feet were already completely soaked, we didn’t even slow down, we had that race with the tide to get the almost two miles up the beach before there was no beach left. A couple of wet feet in wool socks was nothing.
I’d look back every now and then to see who was coming – and recognized Kim’s bright yellow/green coat and figured that because of my leg, they’d gain on us and pass us (the whole point of leaving early was based on that assumption).
Much to my surprise, they didn’t.
On the way in, Michael had occasionally asked, “Want me to drop it down a little?” (referring to the pace we were walking) – and I would usually say “No” because I was using him to pace myself.
If he was going to go fast, I was going to go fast, and keep up with him.
On the way out, Michael’s only comment was, “Keep up, old man! I am NOT dropping the pace.” I was behind, but I did manage to stay with him.
With that tide already on its way in, all that flat, hard sand was under water, so we had to walk on the steeper part of the beach. That part was filled with rocks, logs, and occasionally somewhat dry sand – so that meant all our walking was either on that dry stuff that just sucks the energy right out of you, or on the slippery rocks, or threading our way in between.
It was about this time that Michael, having seen one of the “Top 10 most Beautiful Beaches” in the world, mentioned, through the wind, the waves, the sand and gritted teeth, that he thought the reason the beach was called “Shi Shi” was because there was no ‘t’ in the Makah language.
I was not, at the time, in a position to disagree with him.
Now the last time we’d walked down this beach, we didn’t know how far we had to go, because
a) it was dark, and
b) we’d never been there, and
c) we had no idea how far we needed to go, and
d) all we knew was that we had to hit the beach and head “left”.
One thing we actually saw this time that we didn’t see the night we hiked in was that big rock you had to get around before the tide came in.
And the tide was definitely coming in.
When we got to the rock, we finally understood what “Sea Foam Green” was. The waves had deposited this line of foam about 2 – 3 feet high right at the base of that rock, and we stumbled through it before the waves came any higher.
We later heard that those coming behind us actually had to time their walks around this rock as the water had already come that far.
We got past it, and found this fellow we’d run into at the trail head the day before. He wasn’t American, didn’t speak English very well, and while we were trudging up the beach with all our big packs, he was tootling along with a little day pack. We were doing everything we could to get north, OFF the beach, and he was just getting onto it. And heading south. Toward the dead end that was that rock. No idea what his plans were, but it was strange. Michael asked him how far to the trail head, “Oh (gesturing back over his shoulder, with a thick eastern European accent), one thousand miles?” (We’re thinking, “Alaska?”) We figured he might mean 1000 meters, and kept walking. Somewhere along the way I found a stick, which I found I was depending on quite a bit.
We kept going. Problem is, we didn’t have much in the way of landmarks when we came in (since it was dark when we’d done it), so knowing where to get off the beach was getting to be more and more important.
Eventually, Michael was very sure he’d found where we got onto the beach, and he was right. We climbed up there, waded through a pretty deep puddle, and just stood there for a bit, catching our breath and waiting to wave to the next group that came by so they could quickly get off the beach. Turns out that Kim had been following us, and said, “Man, you guys were really moving!” – That was a nice compliment from someone who’s 6’5″ and has two tremendously long legs.
We all rested for a bit, then the folks who could, dropped their packs and go out and help the remaining little scouts who were having trouble, and there were a few.
Michael dropped his pack, and since he was hot from hiking so fast, dropped his jacket and headed out there and brought the packs of several of the little ‘scoutlets’ back in. He was on his way out again when I looked and saw how big the waves were getting.
That’s when the hail started.
This wasn’t just piddly hail, but hail that came crashing through the trees, ripping leaves off as it came down hail.
Being under the trees, I have no idea what it was like out on the beach where Michael was helping the other scouts.
They came back with some packs and things, and went out again to help the little ones.
Eventually everyone got back, and we ate anything we could find. We had packed for another day, so there was no shortage of food.
We rested for a bit longer, this crisis over, since we were off the beach, and braced ourselves for the rest of the hike, which was that slog through the mud I wrote about earlier.
Also, remember that hill we climbed down? We had to climb up it this time. But it was (relatively speaking) dry, and there was light – so we could actually see what we were doing. While we were resting, some of the older scouts came and ferried packs up that hill – that was very nice, and made the hike up a whole lot easier. Seeing it in the daytime made me think twice about the trip we’d taken down the thing at in the dark, loaded with packs, in the rain.
I didn’t bother to try to find my water bottle.
We took a little break at the top, and marched on – always trying to stay at the edges of the mud holes – I tried to count them again, but lost count at 30-ish of them… again.
Of course, our feet were soaked from the moment we’d hit that creek a couple of miles back, so worrying about mud just wasn’t worth it, but there was this stability thing we were concerned about – namely making sure we didn’t fall down while we were walking through all that mud. I had to make it clear to one scout that his shoes (and the plastic bags he had his feet in) needed to be tied securely because if they weren’t, he could easily end up face planted in 6 inches of mud, with his backpack on top of him. I didn’t have to explain to him that breathing, in that position, would be a touch on the difficult side.
He got it.
And he tied his shoes.
At least one scout did end up getting stuck, and was sitting/laying there when we came up to him. Ed (his uncle) picked him up and got him out, but we had to make sure the number of boots coming out of the mud matched the number of feet coming out. (one boot got stuck, and we had to fish around in there to get it out).
One scout was just exhausted – he kept sitting down on the side of the trail, but we got him going, it takes more energy to put the pack on and get up again than it does to keep walking – but (we later found out) that this was his very first hike ever, so he had no idea what to expect, and that much walking, with that much stress, was a little beyond him. I helped him get up once and get his pack on. In doing so, I also reached down to pick his pack up so he could get up, and just about threw it into the next county. It weighed less than 20 pounds. Mine was 70 with all the wet clothes and food in it and all. (I’ll have to work on that).
The hike out, once we got going again, was really uneventful. Mud. Trail. Mud. More trail. Mud, more mud. Gravel. Then boardwalk (split hunks of wood spiked onto 6 x 6’s) – eventually, we got to the trailhead, where Mark had thoughtfully already brought the bus. Again, food was brought out, disbursed, and eaten. We found ourselves wondering at the number of calories expended on this trip, as that first part wasn’t just “hiking” – it was moving as fast as we could go to make sure we weren’t stuck. That would have been exquisitely bad.
Eventually, things were packed, the bus was loaded, and we were off to go get the Saab, and start the 5 hour trip back to Seattle, and civilization.
It was scary at times, but I do have to tell you, it beat the heck out of a weekend of wasted time in front of the TV any day.
Now like I said, there’s another story in all of this, and it came to me as a series of lessons, or things I learned over the months that followed this one.
I don’t have all the words together yet, but I’m going to do something a little different this time – I’m going to give you a ‘rough draft’. And I’m going to ask you to do something a little different. When you’re done seeing what I learned – if something stuck with you about this story – let me know in the comments, maybe we can all learn something together
That story is about the lessons of Shi Shi beach.
- Each of us – as we travel this road of life, will have times when the road is easy, and the burden is light.
- However, there will also be times when we will face challenges, where the outcome is unclear, where the challenges themselves seem to be insurmountable, and where there is real danger, and yet, for whatever reason, we must press on.
- I’ve learned that when you are in those situations, when you are in over your head, and you need help, people you’ve never seen before, will appear out of nowhere, and give you help and direction when you need it, and you will never see them again.
- I’ve learned that sometimes, the road can be oppressing, that you can feel completely surrounded by danger, and it can be very, very frightening.
- I’ve learned that a little light goes a long way, and as long as you have a light to guide you, you can go far.
- I’ve learned that having someone alongside you to encourage you, by either matching your speed, or encouraging you to match theirs, can make you go farther than you thought you could by yourself.
- I’ve learned that there is no better friend than one who will do just that.
- I’ve learned that there will be times when you want to just stop, and rest, and quit, that you simply can’t, you must go on.
- I’ve learned that there will be times when you want to keep going, but the smartest thing to do is to stop and rest.
- I’ve learned that knowing the difference between these two is not always as clear cut as one might think.
- I’ve learned that while moving forward is dangerous, not moving at all is even more so, and you must go on.
- I’ve learned that going on can mean doing things you’re not used to doing, and going on can be more difficult in the short run than just staying put.
- But I’ve also learned that time doesn’t stand still. Life goes on, and in some ways, life, just like Petroleum Creek in the story – doesn’t really care how you feel, or whether you’re tired, or scared, or lonely, or unsure of yourself. Time, and life, marches on.
- Just like with Petroleum Creek, when we had a cliff to our left, 5,000 miles of open ocean to our right, and nothing we needed at our backs, there are times when you have no option but to plunge ahead and push relentlessly forward into the unknown, no matter how tired or scared you are, to achieve your goal.
- I’ve learned that whether you know it or not – people are watching you. The way you deal with the struggles you’re facing may be the only inspiration people have.
- I’ve learned that some of those people watching you will be ready to drop what they’re doing and help you out at the drop of a hat.
- I’ve also learned that some of those people watching you will not help at all, and the best thing you can do when you encounter people like that is to simply keep walking.
- I’ve learned that when you are absolutely exhausted, and have done all you can, and can do no more, to not be too proud to let someone else take the load off your back.
- I’ve learned that no matter how hard you think things are, they can, and sometimes do, get harder.
- I’ve learned that when you can see clearly, and when you have the opportunity to see things in the light – that they can be far, far scarier than they ever were in the dark, because now you can see just how close you were to the edge, or to simply not making it at all.
- I’ve learned that prayer is important, critical, and we never know how much the prayer of someone many miles away affected us. Conversely – I’ve learned that if I’ve got this weird feeling that I should pray for someone, given what I’ve seen, I pray for them, and pray right then.
- I’ve learned that communication is so vital, and it has to work on both ends. Messages sent but not received are the same as messages not sent. It was only after we got back that we found two messages on my cell phone from one of the leaders, both telling us of the weather and the dangers, and that we shouldn’t come. The messages had been successfully sent, but I was not in a position to receive them. That one has some implications that are a little deeper than I can wrap my mind around right now.
- I’m sure there are more. But as I thought of how Paul had gently taken the heavy pack off my shoulders when we finally got to the campsite, and how I had to restrain myself from throwing that 20 pound pack into the next county when I picked it up – I learned one more thing: Things that are easy to one person may be almost impossible for others, either because of their condition or because of the load they’re carrying. A burden that is heavy for one, may be easily lifted by another. And when we’re in the position of being able to lift the load for another person who simply can’t go on, it is our responsibility to do so.