by Rachel Shipps
I wake up at six with prickling worry up and down my body. It’s still dim and the window is a dark gray square, but I can hear the rush of surf outside, muffled by the humming space heater. It’s my 36th birthday. My mind runs on long and narrowing channels with a grainy sense to them, and I want to check my work email but do not. Presently I get up as the window brightens. I begin to get texts, many expected, some unexpected and from very far-flung locations, and they all make me smile.
A dark silvery switchback of river bends away toward the beach, and loud birds land and take off, socialize. I can see rough waves breaking in between dunes that were much taller when I was a child. Downstairs, I read Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire after opening all the blinds that I can. I try reading on the wooden chairs outside, which is even better, but cold, and tiny raindrops begin to fall.
My partner comes down and sits on the couch with me. I’m slightly worried, since someone else sat here yesterday, but I don’t do anything about it. He reads Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, which I just finished. Our other two friends, who’ve been sleeping in the other room, come downstairs, and we make coffee and Bengal Spice tea, my partner makes eggs with salmon while wearing gloves and we sprinkle capers on it. Our friend toasts bread.
More friends come and all six of us walk the short sandy road to the beach, one of us on crutches. Cold wind blows straight in from the coast but the sky is unexpectedly bright and blue. Up and down the beach only a few people are scattered here and there, but large driftwood structures rise up from the beach near the dunes. We sit and stand near one of them, wearing layers, taking pictures, and laughing with the wind blowing over us, and soon go back to meet my parents.
I’m frightened that my medically minded parents are coming despite their serious worries about the virus, and have given them every opportunity to cancel. “We wouldn’t being doing this in two weeks,” my mom has said, and to my relief, doesn’t want to come close enough to tough elbows. We meet my mom outside since my dad has mysteriously decided to come separately, and set off to Bodega Head from the cabin, with the thrill of walking somewhere that you thought was only attainable via roadways. Our friend using crutches is staying at the cabin.
We walk on the flat, sunny expanse behind the dunes, which is flattened by last night’s rain at first, crawling with lush, invasive ice plants tinged with red and the occasional patch of coast cypress. The path is meandering and possibly disappearing, but we follow it or something like it back and forth, eventually reaching a parking lot. Some mild disagreements about bladder mechanics take place as people use the bathroom there.
As we set off again, the dunes deepen and begin to ascend. It takes some effort to continue moving quickly. We’ve moved into a region of silvery, needlelike beach grass. The tips spike into your legs and fingers upon contact. My mom, who told us about this trail, begins to remember getting lost during past years at this part. We end up at a fork in the recognizable path, which has two signs with thick posts both broken in half, pointing nowhere in particular. We’re going south towards the Bodega Bay Marine Lab and Bodega Head, and we can see the bay side to our left, but tall dunes rise before us and to our right. We pick a path to the right and keep going.
Our friend who is pregnant is tired, and the rolling dunes thicken with grass. We’re up high enough to see the full ocean to our right. Now no path is visible, or the small paths we had have diminished, but the way back is the wrong direction. One intrepid hiker climbs to the top of the dunes to look for a way forward, and the rest of us sit on the warm sand and eat snacks, pouring them carefully into hands. Ranch dressing chips fall on the sand and are rendered inedible.
We call a friend who is meeting us at Bodega Head and my dad, who has hiked around the area to try and figure out a way to get a ride back. There’s no emergency but we are stuck in the middle of recognizable places. The intrepid hiking friend comes back with the news that the best way forward is through the lab preserve – we’ll hit their paved road and walk to a gate for an easy pickup.
We cut through lab land and through more open grasses back to the road. The lab seems quiet, though two cars pass us as we walk along the pavement. As we cross the trail we meant to have taken, my dad emerges from it, unconcerned and waving. Some of us decide go with him up over a last hill, and others take my friend’s car, which waits at the gate to the lab road.
Back on a real dirt trail, we hike quickly through constant switchbacks which make the tall rolling hill gentle, and over the top we can see the flashing sea and all the way down to the Bodega Head parking lot, which is glinting with cars. Perhaps not as many as on a typical sunny weekend, but many. On the way up and down we speak about gray whales and ice plants, passing a few other people until we’ve reached the lower point where Bodega Head tumbles into low sandstone cliffs and a small beach at the water’s edge. We walk to the smoothly worn point, where nobody is touching, but a number of people are standing, and take in the silhouettes of seagulls and what I learn are black oystercatchers. Up the coast, a point of something like Gualala is visible, and a blunt greenish drop off of Point Reyes in the far south. Clouds are visible out at sea but the coast is brilliant with mid-afternoon light.
Back at the cabin, we cook and I climb the stairs to try and separate out a bit. My friends from childhood and college and my partner’s family are here, but two friends are either sick or at risk and have not come. I toast everyone individually for my birthday, and everyone toasts me. Some people have empty glasses and most are drinking water, but I think that it counts. I put 18 candles onto one piece of cake and blow them out before the evening is over and everyone goes home. As my parents leave last, the stars are brightly visible in the coastal sky.