When I have visitors, I like to take them on mountain hikes because that’s my favorite thing to do, and so I’m pretty sure it’s their favorite thing too, even if they don’t realize it at first. These are five-star humdinger hikes, with meadows and hummingbirds and paisley drifts of wildflowers in every color and vistas of volcanoes on the horizon and a scatter of beeping pikas and, theoretically, maybe even a fat furry marmot: every component, in other words, of true happiness. And the hikes are mostly flat, too, except for being inclined at a sharp angle. Remarkably, several decades’-worth of visitors have–independently of each other–referred to my hikes as “death marches.” I’m sure it’s meant affectionately.
When Linda and Walter came for a vacation actually devoted to hiking, I made sure to front-load the event with my very favorites, figuring they would be left breathless by, probably, the beauty. And then we went to hike on the coast, where a surprising portion of the beauty is at sea level.
Everyone loves the ocean. People in the personal ads always say they like long walks along the beach. No one ever mentions death marches. Walter and Linda were thrilled. The waves roll in and out and people stand before them mesmerized, as though they are watching infinity in a frame, and are somehow comforted by that.
I’m not. It creeps me out. The ocean is just fine from a distance, like a hundred miles, but up close it’s all drowny. There’s nothing but water out there and most of it is over my head. There’s teeth and tentacles and stingers and slithering and darkness and death. It reminds me of the very dwindlety of life, crushed under time, the waves inexorable, doom, doom, doom, and some day one of them is going to take me out. Somewhere out there is my wave, getting a suggestion from the moon and a spin from the rearing continental shelf and beginning to crank my way. I can’t look.
But there are distractions. The cliffs are a frozen snapshot of lava hitting the sea. Birds coat the sea stacks. Every tidal puddle is its own neighborhood. We tread the sand for hours and nobody gets even close to dead. I begin to relax.
“What’s that?” Walter asks, pointing at the shoreline.
I raise my binoculars. It’s a murre, and it’s all wrong. Murres shouldn’t be standing at the shoreline all by themselves. Murres should be diving for fishes and flying in bunches and jamming the tops of sea stacks and pooping on rocks. Murres definitely shouldn’t be shuffling their feet and letting me walk up close enough to take a picture.
My murre is dragging a wing and has a major gash on her breast. My murre is going to die soon. I long to wrap her up in a fleece and drive her all the way back to the mountain and leave her in the custody of a kindly marmot with a well-stocked larder and a dab of mercurochrome. But I turn to leave. I got the message, friend murre. It’s all teeth and tentacles and darkness and doom out there.