Life, as we all know it, never seems to stop. A bottomless list of tasks and obligations consume our days to the point that it all starts looking the same; it starts to feel like a drag and a continuous fight for survival.
Rarely though, do we pump the brakes, pull over and get out of our lives, if only for a moment; and in that moment do we realize just how hard, and how long, we’ve had our foot on the gas pedal.
After week and weeks of sorrow, anger and negativity pooling in my mind, I finally made the call. I pushed everything aside: the worries, the bills, the frustrations, the shattered goals, all of it. I then packed a few snacks, some water and tea, got in my car and headed westward out of Victoria.
Like a bemused time traveler watching from afar, the aftermath of the morning rush was still evident all around me; school buses scurrying quickly out of school driveways, coffee-crazed motorists spinning their wheels in intersections trying to get to work and cyclists weaving in and out of traffic without fear to get to their destination. For years, I faced the same chaos, reprising my role over and over again as the time-conscious employee trying to get to work on time. The cold rain and darkness of the morning put a damp chill down my spine, though I became less and less anxious as urban sprawl shrank in my rear-view mirror.
On my way down West Coast Road (Highway 14), I passed through the small town of Sooke, my former home of two years. As always, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia and memories of my time as the local reporter here. Despite those feelings, I carried on, heading further and further west.
My destination was Jordan River, about 30 kilometers out of Sooke. Abandoned in the 60s, the former mining/logging town once had a populace in excess of 3,000 people. Today, it is nothing but a ghost town, with only a few houses and structures standing near a still-active logging sort. Many times I used this spot as a place of meditation; of letting my spirit heal in the vast openness of the sea while overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Soon after leaving Sooke, Vancouver Island’s west coast nature became immediately present, throwing thick fog and drizzling at me rain in full force. Its natural state of being made driving conditions tricky, particularly on a serpentine-happy road such as Highway 14, where sudden tight curves, quick descents and rapid climbs are the norm. Just before descending down the hill towards Jordan River, I was overcome with a sense of relief that I can finally stretch my legs, breathe in the refreshing ocean air and start taking in the desolation of nature.
Needless to say, my expectations were a bit off. When I pulled into the first spot in Jordan River, I noticed it was filled with vehicles. I stepped out of my car and noticed the giant waves in the distance was dotted with surfers and kayakers, basking in the Pacific’s fury. I can honestly say, this the west coast’s biggest charm; to be able to enjoy nature around the year. If anything, winter is the most extraordinary, given the thick fog, winter storms and thundering ocean waves. I stood on the shore for a while, chuckling as I watched these brave rebels attempt to ride wave after wave, no matter how hard the ocean slapped them off their boards. At this point I also started to feel bad again, as all my worries and fears and tasks crept slowly back into my throat. I know I needed to go further. Much further.
As I ventured deeper into the bush, human activity and civilization thinned out more and more, to the point that all I could see was the wet road, thick fog and sprawling rainforest all around. It was just me and my machine, alone against mighty Mother Nature.
After another hour of driving, I could feel my body in need of a break, but couldn’t decide where to pull over. It was also by this point I noticed snow on the ground, having lost sight of where it actually began entire kilometers ago. I eventually decided to pull over in an old lot at the bottom of a steep hill, where loggers used to turn around or even service their trucks before continuing.
Out of sight and off the road, I stepped onto the slushy and icy gravel, grabbed an apple and just took it all in. All I could hear was the roaring water passing through Loss Creek right across the highway, along with the rain drenching the forest all around me. The serenity was nice, but I felt my adventure needed more… adventure.
I left Loss Creek behind and kept driving a bit further up Highway 14, where I turned onto a gravel road leading to Sombrio Beach, a place I last visited two summers ago. The road was as rough as I remembered it, filled with potholes, occasional rock slides, big bumps and blind, steep curves all the way down to the beach. It didn’t matter much this time though, because the Outback took the horrible terrain as a means to play; as such, it was a comfortable, capable and anxiety-free drive, something that, in most other cars, would be a stressful ordeal.
Slowly approaching the Sombrio Beach parking lot, I began feeling a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. “I might be the only one here,” I reluctantly thought, recalling my brief but terrifying encounter with a black bear in this region years prior. Still, I parked, comforted slightly by the presence of two SUVs in the lot. The meticulously-manicured beach entrance and parking lot was an inviting sign of human civilization, but the impression was a false sense of security, one I knew I couldn’t depend on. This was still far, far away from any human settlement, and home to many cougars and bears, among other creatures of the forest. As I got out of the car, I grabbed the only poky thing I could find in my car, a letter opener knife with a blade no longer than 2 inches in length. “Yeah… that’s gonna stop a bear or cougar,” I sarcastically laughed in my head. I breathed in deeply and headed down the trail towards the beach near the bottom of the hill.
Given the rain and fog, there wasn’t much daylight in the first place, and the thick canopy of trees around the trail just made things even darker and sinister. Following a speedy and nervous pace through the forest, I finally reached Sombrio Beach and all its epic glory.
Six-foot waves pounded rocks and other parts of the beach in the distance, meanwhile the thundering roar of an angry Pacific Ocean, along with the thick fog and the rain absorbed my soul entirely. A sense of serenity and strange peace encompassed me as my boots sank deeper into Sombrio’s fine-grain sand. With each wave, each stream of rain washing off my jacket, all my worries, fears, frustrations, they seemed to just dissolve into an abyss of nothingness, into the infinite ocean and far, far beyond the rainforest. For the first time in months, I felt at peace.
After a good hour of absorbing both the scenery and the rain, I trekked back to the car, numbed and humbled by the experience Mother Nature had just given me. Despite feeling a little light-headed, and already over an hour away from Victoria, I still wasn’t ready to go home. Like a strange calling, I pointed my hood towards Port Renfrew and gunned it.
More than a year passed since I last visited Port Renfrew, the place I called “the edge of the world” when I first ventured up there more than five years ago. Geographically, it certainly feels like it. For those who haven’t been that far out, Port Renfrew, formerly known as Port San Juan, sits right at the mouth of the San Juan River. Highway 14 ends (quite abruptly) near the Pacheedaht First Nation reserve, where it then begins again northeast towards Lake Cowichan as the Pacific Marine Road; beyond Port Renfrew, there is absolutely nothing but old logging trails and pure unsettled wilderness for miles and miles until you reach the town of Ucluelet on the far north-western side.
Keeping with tradition, I stopped at the Port Renfrew Hotel, located right by Government Dock. It is here, nearly a century ago, when thousands of passengers (mostly fishermen, loggers and miners) would embark and disembark on ferries that took them back and forth to Victoria and other West Coast locales. As I read the historical plaques, located in the hotel’s central hallway, I pictured arriving for the first time in this cold, wild and rainy place to start logging and going deep into the earth, for months and months at a time, away from family or anything familiar. Grueling it may sound today, but back then, it was a way of life. Funny enough, Port Renfrew was, in the 1940s, pushing nearly 6,000 people, as the logging industry was booming in the area. Today, it is a settlement just shy of 400 people, most of whom fish, run small local businesses or simply enjoy their last days of retirement in natural tranquility. I should also mention, there is no phone signal in Port Renfrew, even in 2020.
As I munched on my delicious bacon-n-blue-cheese burger, I reminisced on my day-long adventure through the West Coast wilderness. I felt detached from all the things that clouded my mind that morning, as if they were so far away I could no longer see them. Yet nothing had changed; my problems, my worries, they were all still there, waiting patiently for my return. My headspace changed, however; those things were no longer right on my shore, no longer threatening.
Driving back onto Highway 14 heading home, I left Port Renfrew behind with a sense of resolve; a pleasant terminus to a journey of my own making. With each passing mile, with every house, as I got closer to Victoria, so did my old demons I had left behind the very same day. Only this time, they could no longer touch me. I was content with myself, my world. It served as a reminder that we don’t need to always endure our world through counselling, medication or other means to help us tolerate life’s trials.
Sometimes, we just need to step out of our world, if even for a minute, and see what lies just beyond that fog and that rainforest.
It may, after all, just be the peace we seek.