While camping along the Northern California coast, I stroll with my wife and two children into a grey hinterland of dusk and ocean mist. On our long walk, I meet with a fleeting sensation of forever.

We pitched our tent at MacKerecher State Park outside of Fort Bragg, about four-fifths of the way up the California coast. The weekend had already been going well, though not necessarily in the ways we had planned. We had arrived from Sacramento too late on Friday night to snatch a campsite in the state park. The corporate KOA campground was an option, but the armada of RVs and ATCs violated our outdoor ethos. (There are only two kinds of campers, after all: those who shop at REI, and those who shop at Cabella’s. The two are known to intermingle splendidly, but we didn’t have the energy to spare that night.) Instead, in a wanton display of capitulation, I capitalized on the opportunity to watch the start of the winter Olympics, and we ended up in an overpriced, $110 hotel about a mile from the beach: the Dolphin Inn.

As sort of a dare, we cooked our Hamburger Helper camp dinner with our Coleman stove in the hotel room. It’s the kind of idea usually reserved for those who would take a nap in a running car parked in a closed garage, but we prevailed. As we ate slouched over our plastic origami camping plates, we watched the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics unfold live, some 600 miles away along the same coast.

The themes of rugged individualism and Big Sky pitted in stark contrast against predecessor-Beijing’s celebration of rigid community and inexorable progress captivated me. Here we were, on the Pacific’s doorstep, as far west as four born-and-bred westerners could go, camping in a cozy hotel room, alone but compartmentalized, our car full of pricy camping gear more fit for astronauts than pioneers, stuck somewhere in the middle of a clash of societies and centuries. During those riveting moments, I may have received my first hint of that hinterland that would, the very next day, suck me forever and for only a moment out of time and space.

Saturday was Valentine’s Day. Couples at MacKerecher were scattered along the beach like flotsam and jetsam and then some. Our stroll in the evening had had a purpose (who really “strolls” aimlessly anymore?). We went tide-pooling with the kids, marveling at orange starfish and green anemones, climbing wet rocks draped with slippery seaweed.

Clare and I debate the description of the ocean. She says it’s a “grim ocean.” She says an angry ocean is like in that famous photo of the water breaking against the lighthouse. I say this is an angry ocean. Okay, maybe it’s just a bit miffed.

We’re lost in the wonderfulness of our evening, our lives. I want to capture the moment.  Naturally, I pull out the iPhone and open up Facebook. I’m thinking about how to encapsulate the evening in a status update. Something like:

“Camping. Perfect weather. Angry ocean. Box of cheap wine. Tide-pooling at dusk. Sea anemones, hermit crabs, starfish, sponges. A high school sweetheart wife I’ve loved for 16 yrs.  2 kids that more than prove it. 1st Feb 14 w/ our complete family. Best Valentines Day Ever.”

Dusklands. Hinterland. Look, all the colors are gone, I marvel. Everything’s gray and vague.  Ariel points out that she can still see the green of the baby’s Bjorn and the red of my shorts and the pink of her sweater. I say, “Thanks, Ariel, you really know how to complete a moment, you know?”

We climb a small hill to take the old road back to the campground. Up on the hill, the serenity of my surroundings converges with the perfectness of my life, and I am slapped by the certainty that this cannot last forever. Maybe in heaven. But not here.

I put the phone away.

We stop, each of us sensing it. “Close your eyes,” I say to my wife. Her father is dying of cancer.  He’ll be the lucky one—the one to leave his soulmate behind. He’s still vibrant and strong, but sometimes sad—or just—distant. Maybe it’s just the pain. Maybe he knows about this place already.

“Imagine that you’re 80 and alone,” I say. “Imagine that, for three minutes, you’ve been given the opportunity to go back in time to this very moment.

“Now open your eyes. Live it.”

My wife. My daughter. My son. Frog song and wave sound, and, with the baby’s protest, an occasional exclamation.

Ariel says, “Why are you crying, Dad?”

I don’t answer. But I know that I’m crying with joy in the way we might one day be seized with grief. And I realize there is no gift that remotely compares.

And now Ariel suddenly needs to pee. She and Clare and Everest continue down the path while I stand back. Their images dissolve into the darkness and the mist, there is the light of a distant car diffusing against the mist in the far distance, the light of the horizon, and I am left alone, not rugged but ragged, feeling as if I’m 80 and my three minutes of perfect recall are over.

But it’s not over. I’m not 80. I’m here, now, and my family still surrounds me with their real sights and sounds and textures and smells and unpredictable nexts and it will go on and on like this for a while. I do not have to imagine the past yet.

As fleeting as it will one day prove to be, I am here with all of my perfect valentines for real.


One Response to “Twilightenment”

  1. Wonderful images, and a wonderful narrative. Thanks, Austin–this is good work…

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