The Time We Carry

By Michael Kew

Photo: Kew.

YOU WALKED IN JULY. You carried something—phone? purse? plane ticket?

I carried a white single-fin. From my shoulders hung a black 28-liter wet/dry bag. Patagonia calls it their Jalama Pack. Of zippers and recycled polyester, it is a sound tool for bipedal surf-search. Fitted with tick-blocking pants and day-hikers, 7’0” underarm, I’d stepped through a shady hall of maple, alder, blackberry, salal, thistle, poison oak, ferns, and wind-sheared spruce down to this gap in the coast. Rocky, reefy. Google Earth porn.

You don’t surf here. Except today. Elements agreed for the first time in perhaps two years. Perhaps two decades. Perhaps never; perhaps never again.

Calm, warm Sunday. Inland forest-fire haze smudges the afternoon sun, soft-focus pastels blurring cirrus into the psychedelic sea, an orange mirror of summer. Dreamtime. Look: gulls and seals and a spouting whale. Bobbing bull kelp lazing in the drift, swaying with the surge, laced with white ribbons of foam—sea plasma. The water color, a coldly fragrant-fresh deep jade, matches the hillside groves. The air smells of salt and soot. Offshore sit seastacks and tortured rocks, relics of a coast a billion years old.

It took my feet—and 60,000 years of human pollination—to reach this beach. It remains raw, a primordial panorama: beige strip of heavily driftwooded sand, course like cracked pepper, concealed by woods and seacliffs . By you I am unseen. Publicly private. Ephemeral refuge. A naturalist zen. Church of the open sky.

I could be elsewhere.

Since Middle Paleolithic Homo sapiens left the Horn of Africa, we’ve walked. We’ve carried things. Our first portable sheath was a pelt quiver for arrows, freeing our hands to hunt and gather. About 45,000 years into the migration, Alaska was reached and the East Asian pilgrims scattered, launching today’s diaspora of Native Americans from Barrow to Ushuaia. They carried things.

Jalama Pack things: steel water bottle, energy bar, hooded five-mil, booties, towel, keys, phone. This modern zippered style of backpack can glean roots of 130 years, but in 1991, two German hikers found Ötzi the Iceman in an Italian Alps gully. Veins split by a foe’s flint-tipped arrow, he died 5,300 years prior, deer-hide quiver and wood frame beside him. Bits of hide and hair suggest a hide sack was stuck to the frame. Stone Age backpacking, you might say.

I ponder Paul Salopek, a stranger whose dream I trace. Today he too is backpacking. Carrying things. Things to capture and share his global trek. “Walking is falling forward,” he told National Geographic in 2013, when the writer first faced hot wind and dust at Herto Bouri. There he launched his multi-year, 21,000-mile Out of Eden Walk—“a journey that belongs to all of us”—leaving Ethiopia, threading the Middle East and ancient Silk Road kingdoms; eventually he will ford the Bering Sea and descend the Americas to Tierra del Fuego, man’s—and Salopek’s—omega.

“(Out of Eden) is a recreation of a journey all of us have made if you just go far back enough in our family trees,” he said. “It’s going to press the boundaries of communicating in a world where there’s too much information and not enough meaning. I’m going to swim upstream against the flow of information and try to slow people down, to have them absorb stories at a human pace.”

Slow journalism.

Salopek inspires. Nearing four years of the Walk, he’s ambling across Central Asian steppes to overwinter in China, then Siberia, last stop before the New World. Today’s world. Hung from his 53-year-old shoulders is his communications kit (laptop, camera, notebook, cell/sat phone) so he can “fling open digital infinitudes our nomadic forebears could scarcely imagine…We’ve been wired by natural selection to absorb meaning from our days at the loose-limbed gait of three miles an hour.”

Four-p.m. summer sun balms my face. Slouched forward, spent from surfing, I watch the creep of tide, the diurnal teaser, the surf session-killer. The sandbar is dead. Fleeting, like us. Estimates claim 93 percent of all humanity to ever live—more than 100 billion—is gone. Soul vapor. Bone dust. Atomic reincarnation?

Five ospreys squeak and twirl overhead—fish too will die. The ancient circle. Wheel of life.

I stand and shoulder the Jalama Pack. Grip the single-fin. Slowly, from this beach, I will step toward my car, up through the foyer of forest, discovering it again. Supplanting memory. Carrying things from one Eden to the next.