I have always believed that the proper way to heal is to leave home. On my way to the Oregon Coast with my boyfriend Aaron and his mother Carol, I stopped at the Bridge of the Gods, a steel-bracketed crossing connecting Oregon and Washington State. It was the final destination on writer Cheryl Strayed’s transformative hike up the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Her subsequent memoir and film of the same name, Wild, are both personal favorites. But gazing out at the Columbia River, I felt nothing except the urge to return to the car and keep going.
Unlike Strayed, I had not lost my mother, had never known a grief so intense that I detached myself from the world, pushing life away to ping pong through a string of self-destructive acts. In fact, I was celebrating. The more I got to know Carol, the more I had to refrain from whispering my nickname for her aloud: “Mom Two.”
With Carol there is an innate comfort, a lack of judgment and the openness that only comes when you are in the early stages of getting to know someone. We were on an eight-hour road trip from Aaron’s native Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to Cannon Beach, eighty miles west of Portland. I had hoped the long trip would heal me.
At the Bridge of the Gods I’d been determined to have a life-altering insight, to force a profound realization. I’d wanted the beauty of the wilderness to uplift me, to revitalize and empower me like it had for Strayed. I thought the Bridge of the Gods would work like a tonic, as if a mountain view was the only way to achieve strength, like yoga or meditation, religion or even love.
All I felt was a fresh burst of fervor to reach the end of our journey: a miles-long stretch of beach cupping the Pacific. A beach lined with “sea stacks”–steep columns of coastal rock formed by wave erosion–the mightiest of which was Haystack Rock, a 235-foot monolith reminiscent of Stonehenge. I chose to visit Cannon Beach over Glacier National Park and Yellowstone after savoring pictures of its rocky shoreline.
When we finally arrived, an hour before dusk, I was rejuvenated. With Aaron by my side, I walked the chilled, sun-washed beach. Standing ankle-deep in the frigid waves forming yoga-like poses, I was seized by the commanding force of the present.
That was the reason for this trip, I reminded myself: to forget my moods, to escape, to overcome obstacles and focus on remaining present. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that my preoccupation with my moods was often more damaging than the moods themselves. As a result, I often half-lived, a free-ish spirit trapped in a web of insecurities, of self-absorption masquerading as caution. That was why road trips were so new: I’d been too scared to experience them.
The next morning, Carol and I braved the misty rain to explore the dozens of shops downtown. At one gallery I bought Carol colorful cat-shaped earrings. In the next boutique we spotted a wooden arrow emblazoned with the words, “Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.” With a knowing grin, Carol offered to buy it for me. Gleefully, I accepted.
A few days later in Coeur d’Alene, we decided to continue our adventure and drive the three hours to Kootenai Falls in Libby, Montana. I was weary. It was my last day before flying back alone to New York. Aaron was staying an extra week to spend time with his mother and visit a college friend, a decision I understood but fretted over. Terrified to travel solo for the first time in years, I default-worried, half-joking I’d have a panic attack and cause the plane to divert. At a rest stop three miles outside Kootenai Falls, I was too nervous to breathe.
I didn’t want to continue, wanted to go back to the scraps of towns forty miles away, to a place of reliable cell service, somewhere less remote and therefore pacifying. Instead we inched along a curve and then another, creeping closer to Kootenai Falls. Silence was heavy in the car.
Pulling up to the falls’ wooded entrance, Aaron smiled at me. “You can do this,” he said.
“We’ll go slow,” Carol added.
We walked with small, deliberate steps toward the rapids, passing families with puppies. If a puppy and a seven-year-old can do this, I thought, I could too.
About five minutes into our walk, the pavement gave way to soft earth. We stopped at a towering steel staircase. Aaron went first, Carol and me a few steps behind. Fifteen minutes ago I could hardly breathe; now I was creeping up 64 grated steps.
For the first time, Carol looked worried. “Are you scared of heights?”
“Believe it or not, no,” I said, uneasy all the same.
We made our way up the staircase and paused to rest.
Aaron jogged ahead to see how far away the falls were. He reappeared within seconds. “Just three more minutes,” he puffed.
We drew closer; for the first I could hear the surging rapids just beyond a canopy of trees.
At last the forest opened up to a clearing of pure rock. Past that, screaming floods of blue-green water crashed against layers of boulder. Though magnificent, I felt only relief that I had made it. I had done this.
There were no high-fives, no hugs rejoicing that I had made it. I had been expected to make it.
Carol was watching me with that same Buddha-like expression she’d shown in the shop at Cannon Beach before buying the Don’t Look Back sign. “You have to be uncomfortable to grow,” she said.
The next day’s flight back to New York was uneventful. I did not heal at Kootenai Falls, I realized. I had always been safe.
Larissa Lytwyn is a New York City-based writer whose work has appeared in national publications Antique Trader and Goldmine, a music publication. She enjoys contemporary literature, travel, and music. Follow her at larissalytwyn.