Here’s a moody moment from my trek around the world that didn’t make it into my memoir, “They Only Eat Their Husbands.” It’s a reminder that solo travel is sometimes romantic, often lonely, but always stirring. This one takes place in America. It is a story of sand and solitude, though it didn’t start out that way.
Tim and I discovered we were both driving the same direction, down the Oregon coast to the next hostel in Bandon. Excited at the prospect of company, we agreed to meet at the Oregon Sand Dunes and watch the sunset together. For a long stretch of road his white Jeep remained framed in my rearview mirror, lending me the comforting illusion that I wasn’t traveling alone.
We’d met at the hostel in Seaside, Oregon, where I learned he was recently laid off from an engineering job in New Hampshire, largely by choice — as in, “take my job… please!” He was taking a few months off to see the U.S. before looking for another job. I admired his audacity, his willingness to take the risk of taking off, as I had done. Thrilled to meet someone who sounded normal and responsible, yet at the same time daring and adventuresome, I needed only the encouragement of catching him looking at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. He smiled at my tongue-tripping enthusiasm for my journey. His blue eyes didn’t have the wounded look that usually attracts me, or the distant look that often intrigues me. They were friendly eyes, steady eyes, you-can-count-on-me eyes.
But by late afternoon, while my mind wandered, the Jeep disappeared. We never found each other at the dunes. Alone, I watched the sun set over the sand. Although it was lovely, as Pacific coast sunsets invariably are, I was distracted by disappointment.
We never found each other at the dunes.
I shrugged it off, figuring I’d see Tim at the hostel. But he wasn’t there when I arrived. Two hours later, when the night turned black, just as I was beginning to worry that something had happened to my new friend, he finally showed up. He explained that, after the sunset, he’d gotten lost on the dunes: “Those dunes just go on and on. It got dark fast, and all the dunes looked the same. I got completely disoriented. I was lost for over an hour.” We shared a laugh over this familiar traveler’s tale of the unfamiliar.
But the tenuous connection I’d sensed between us also seemed to have been lost on the dunes. He was tired and ready for bed, while I wanted to sit up and talk with some other hostel guests I’d met. Tim said goodnight, and this morning, while I slept, he moved on to Crater Lake. I lingered to explore the sand dunes by day.
When I arrived, the vast, empty Umpqua Dunes were as smooth and unmarked as a baby’s skin, and at first I was reluctant to pockmark the surface with footprints. But to live is to be scarred, and to live well is to leave traces of one’s passage — with that thought I bounded down the first steep slope. I couldn’t keep up that pace in the shoe-sucking sand, however. It was two-and-a-half miles to the ocean, and I trudged for at least an hour to get there.
When I arrived at the shoreline, I was the sole human for miles in any direction. I could hear the air stir as a seagull flapped its wings overhead. Behind me, the sand rolled away in inexhaustible, undulating hills, calling to mind the lonely look of the Sahara, except for the few scattered evergreens. Before me, the Pacific rolled away in gentle blue sheets more endless than the sand. I sat down against a grassy ridge and opened my journal. There, I traced my melancholy with a pen, until the mild fall sun and the roaring whisper of the ocean lulled me to sleep.
When I jolted awake, the sun was sinking low in the sky. I immediately started back, anxious to return before dark. When I’d first come across the sand, I’d tried to memorize the shape of each hillock, but heading back — Tim was right — they all looked the same. I felt a momentary panic, until I reminded myself that if I kept heading away from the ocean I would eventually hit the road. Then I lucked upon my earlier tracks. Relieved, I followed my footprints back to the start.
On the last dune, I sat down to watch the sun’s final fiery caress turn the sand a dusky rose. Light and shadow played across the sultry curves of the dunes, turning them into mirages of the people I have known. In my desolation, I spotted not one oasis among them.
(I’ve disguised Tim’s identity to protect his privacy.)