On the Rocks

We took our mugs of coffee out to the patio table and only drank a few sips before Grace lowered the boom.

“You know Dennis Widstrand – he’s got a house in the woods near Port Townsend,” she began. She leaned in and stared me in the eye over her white-rimmed glasses. “We can camp in his front yard and go to a beach on Hood Canal from there. I’ve already called him.”

There it was: Grace didn’t want to go to the ocean, to Toleak Point. I hadn’t seen this coming, but I wasn’t surprised. Grace is such a mercurial, hard-headed artiste. How else could she have turned part of a derelick old building into a bed-and-breakfast with her own two hands?

I had spent the morning digging through drawers and pulling down boxes so we could try out my backpacks, tent, camp stove, and the new water-filter bag I bought to camp in the wilds of Washington’s preserved beaches. The gear covered every inch of my kitchen table, counters, and floor like some backpacker had exploded. And I was about to.

“Have you ever been to a beach on Hood Canal, Grace? They’re not sandy – they’re jagged little stones that hurt your bare feet to walk on.”

“I just want an easy beach getaway,” she said. Her eyes flashed the expectation that I would relent.

“No offense to Dennis Widstrand,” I said, “but I didn’t take time off work to pitch a tent in his front yard. It’s not the same thing.”

All ninety pounds of Grace bolted back in her seat. “I just can’t afford to get injured,” she said.

I saw her problem. Grace’s family divorced her many years ago. She has only her wits and her art for support.

“You won’t get injured,” I said. “It’s only a mile and a half downhill from the trailhead to Third Beach. We can camp there and day-hike to Toleak Point.”

We went back into the kitchen and tried to light my tiny camp stove to see if it still worked. But, without knowing it, I had already given Grace all the ammunition she needed to shoot down the trip. I had told her that morning about the travails of getting to Toleak Point and how it had torn Kelly and I apart.


Toleak Point is only a small hill with a few scrappy pines on top, but it is the last passage to a place I consider holy: a wide sandbar of white that faces a towering wall of rock out in the surf. Eons of crashing waves have cut a portal in the rock. I came to call it the Hole in the O for its miraculous effect on me: When I stared into the hole long enough, it sucked the daily snivels of my life into the mists of an eternity where they became comic.

Kelly and I were together the first time we saw the hole in the stack. We became best friends after college on a backpacking trip to Lake Ilswoot, a pond of glacier melt high in the Cascade Mountains. She brought fresh potatoes and carrots, and we made a vat of lentil stew that seemed bigger each time we lifted the lid to look. We couldn’t finish it, and we didn’t want the stink on us for the rest of the trip. We finally put on our headlamps, dug a hole far from camp, and buried the stew in fits of laughter.

We gave ourselves backpacking nicknames. Kelly was the Guru of Preparedness. She bought all the latest hiking gear and left nothing to chance. I was the Goddess of Chronic Detail, the one who packed the small binoculars that revealed Toleak Point was alive with seals – scores of seals sunning themselves on the rocks. One slid down into the water. Another hopped back up. Nervous new mothers popped their heads up like periscopes. Out in the shimmering water, a lone seal seemed to float tummy up on a rock hidden just below the surf. Each gentle wave that rolled in splashed her with spray, and she shimmied with delight.

We went to the beach in the late spring when the seal pups were out. But it isn’t easy to reach or camp at the exact spot on the beach where the O looms largest. It requires hauling a backpack for hours through brush, mud, and rocks. It demands climbing up and down “sand ladders” of rope and board anchored to the sides of steep hills. It was a slog for us even in our twenties, but I was thin and nimble then. I held the guide rope and walked up and down the sand ladders like they were stairs. Kelly was round and heavy. She climbed the sand ladders one rung at a time with her hands and feet. She dragged her pack up behind her on a rope.

At the start of our last trip, Kelly’s car caught a rock in the brakes. The screeching turned us back to her house on Whidbey Island. We sat silent in her yard for some time that Friday night staring into our glasses of wine while the light faded in the woods around us. For her, the trip was over, but I wasn’t giving up.

“We still have a whole three-day weekend ahead of us,” I said. “We can still make it.”

“There are some nice cabins at Crescent Lake we could rent,” Kelly said. “We don’t always have to go to the beach.”

She meant the Hole in the O. Kelly was heavier now and had injured her back. I realized the rock in her brakes was an excuse. I chose my next words carefully.

“Kell, we’re only in 30s,” I said. “We can’t let the Hole in the O slip into the lore of our youth. We’re too young.”

Bugs began to swarm us in the dusk. We went inside the house. Our packs lay on the floor where we had unloaded them from the car. I took a new tack.

“If we’re only going for three days instead of four,” I said, “we can dump a day’s food and lighten the load.”

No way to get there, Kelly said. But that wasn’t true: My Barracuda was parked in her driveway. The car was a beater, but we had driven it to the coast once before. We had folded down the back seat at the trailhead and slept with the stars shining through ’Cuda’s long back windshield.

“We can take my car,” I said.

“The Barracuda isn’t safe,” Kelly countered.

“I keep my car in good running order. I just had the brakes done.”

“We can’t take your car,” she shot back. “We have to have insurance.”

Excuse me? My best friend in the world had just declared me a reckless idiot.

“What makes you think I don’t carry insurance?” I asked. “Of course I have insurance. It’s the law. You think I drive around illegal?”

We fell silent, but Kelly had run out of objections. She sat down in the floor after dinner and opened her pack. The first things she pulled out were four of the largest russet potatoes I had ever seen.

“Holy cow,” I said. “That’s six pounds right there.”

The Barracuda made it to the coast that year. We tromped down to bleached logs of Third Beach and slogged our way past Toleak Point. But Kelly and I grew apart after that. She told me on the trip that she had decided not to go to graduate school because being away for so long might ruin her marriage. Practicality played no role in my pursuit of writing, other than making sure I had a paycheck to feed me and buy beer. An unspoken tension began to grow in our talks and get-togethers until there were no talks and no get-togethers at all.


On the day of our gear check, Grace left my house angry. Her last straw was the backpack I had offered to loan her. She had tried it on, but it was too small. She had tried on my pack for size, and it fit her perfectly.

She called me a few days later while I was shopping at Value Village. This time, she was ferocious.

“You really freak me out, Cyd. You really freak me out,” she said. “I’m not walking to an emotional trap. You’re not putting this on me.”

My heart started pounding. I realized Grace was talking about Kelly. She had seized upon the story I had told her the same way Kelly had seized upon the Barracuda: She was backing out by making me the reason we couldn’t go to the beach. And I made the same mistake. I tried to save the trip. I cajoled her.

“That was a long time ago. It was a completely different situation,” I said in a hush. My hand shook as I shuffled the hangers of T-shirts on the rack in front of me. “Kelly has nothing to do with us.”

Grace railed that she wasn’t getting caught in some psychological drama. I eased her out of this fear and her renewed protest that she could be injured.

“We can stay at Third Beach,” I said. “We don’t have to go to the Hole in the O. We don’t have to climb any sand ladders.”

She softened. We even laughed. We agreed to meet at her studio the next night and hit the road the following morning. I got off the phone flushed with déjà vu: In my quest to commune with the ethereal, I was sandbagging another friendship. How could this be?

Grace called me the next day with an ultimatum. She had borrowed a tube pack that was out of the question for her to carry. If I didn’t loan her my backpack, the trip was off. I drove to her studio with my pack, bounded up the stairs, and saw the problem. The tube pack hulked over her tiny frame with a leftward tilt that was ominous.

We hefted it off her onto a bed in her rental loft and opened it to see what she could dump. There it was again: the scourge of fresh, heavy food – rolls of sausage and rounds of cheese.

I was too cheap to buy us freeze-dried food, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. Grace declared it was simply beyond our ability to get to the beach.

“I have the ability – I’ve been there,” I said with a huff. “But that idea’s off the table. We’re only going to Third Beach.”

Grace hit the roof. “Who decided that?” she yelled.

We fought for an hour. Grace just couldn’t come out and say that she didn’t want to go.
And I couldn’t admit to myself that I wasn’t taking no for answer. I took her empty tube pack, told her to call me in the morning when she was ready, and went home.

She never called. I spent the day packing and repacking the tube duffle in a daze of angry delusion that I was still going, that I would camp on the beach by myself. It was a bad idea, but my adrenalin was surging. I needed someone to talk me down, someone who understood the dangers of a wild beach.

I picked up my phone and started crying. I hadn’t spoken to Kelly in years. When she answered, I poured out the whole debacle with Grace.

“It’s all my fault,” I sobbed. “I pushed Grace go to the Hole in the O the same way I pushed you. I wasn’t listening to you, and it drove us apart.”

“Oh, Cyd, I had a great time on that trip. I’m glad you pushed me,” Kelly said. “Let that go.”

Let that go. I had longed to hear those words. They absolved me of twenty years of guilt. They gave me back my best friend. I had cast myself on the rocks for the Hole in the O, and it had rescued me from myself.

It took some time, but Grace and I are speaking again. And Kelly and I are making up for lost time: We camped last summer in Long Beach at a sort of hippie resort that rents out campsites and restored Airstream trailers. The walk to the beach was short and flat, and we came back to plumbing and the cushy cots that Kelly brought with her tent.

Next year, I’m on board with going whole hog: Kelly and I are going to rent one of the Airstream trailers with actual beds and a private bath.  If I want to lose myself in a void, I can stare out the trailer’s portal window.

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