Less than five seconds after I embrace adventure for the first time, I realize that I’ve made a terrible mistake.
“I wish,” I say to myself as I breathe in salt water and flap my arms like a particularly incompetent baby, “that I had come to this epiphany sooner.” Even five minutes earlier would have been fine. Even two! Why did I decide to force myself into a kayak after 32 years of avoiding any activity that might result in an open water drowning?
My reverie — “Who will feed my guinea pigs if I drown?” — doesn’t last long. Behind me, a woman is laughing. The sort of laughter that masks annoyance.
“What did you do, Mark?” She asks. “Why did you do that?”
My journey into exploring the world outside my front door began a week before I actually overturned a watercraft. After going through two major eye surgeries in less than six months, without taking any breaks to actually think about them, my husband insisted that I take a weekend off to reflect and do something nice for myself.
“And, no,” he said before I could offer up any ideas, “spending an entire weekend in bed isn’t an option.” So when I got invited to try a new hotel in Carmel — a place which I had only visited as a child and always meant to return to as an adult, once I could properly appreciate quaint seaside towns that once boasted Clint Eastwood as mayor — there was no question of whether we were going.
“I don’t care what’s on TV,” my husband said as he packed our Subaru, “we’re going to spend a nice quiet weekend enjoying the outdoors and looking at art we can’t afford. Now download that new Scientology tell-all so we can listen to it on the way.”
Two hours later, we’d traded the San Francisco fog that usually envelops our neighborhood for bright sunlight and a comfortable warmth that made me wish I’d chosen to wear shorts instead of jeans and a sweater. Around us, people wandered through downtown Carmel as we passed hotel after adorable hotel with names like Briarwood and L’Auberge. Close to The Hideaway, the newly-renovated inn where we’d be spending the night, was a house that looked like it had sprouted right out of middle earth. Featuring both an arched castle door and a turret, the only thing that gave away the fact that we were still in 2016 was a modern garage.
After checking in at the Hideaway — which boasts incredibly comfortable beds, showers bigger than most studio apartments, and, most importantly, a champagne breakfast every morning — we wandered through Carmel’s downtown, stopping in at stores that trafficked in everything from European confections to linen sprays imported directly from France. We had lunch at a restaurant called The Treehouse — located right next to a store specializing in freshly made pasta. It was there that we made a startling discovery: everyone was paying attention to their dining companions and not their cellphones.
“I could live here,” I told my husband as I guzzled my third glass of Diet Coke, my enthusiasm bolstered by both the caffeine and the relaxed atmosphere. As a life-long city-dweller, I’m not used to endless beaches, the absence of car sounds, and houses that require no mapping — “just take a turn at the yellow house on the corner and walk past the toy store,” a local had told us after recommending where to eat lunch. At a table next to us, a couple was debating whether to spend their afternoon hiking or just going back home and taking a nap in the hammock.
It was, I loudly proclaimed to no one in particular, paradise.
The “this is paradise” sentiment lasted me the rest of the day. I said it again as we walked through an outdoor mall, repeated it once more as I took a forty-minute shower (something I’d never be allowed to do at home, due to the fact that the hot water lasts all of five minutes in our apartment), and proclaimed that I’d died and gone to heaven after I’d eaten chocolate cake at a restaurant called Casanova, a labyrinthine Italian eatery with a decorative bike out front (something that I would have found twee and pretentious before three glasses of wine, but decided was special and charming after).
That night, I fell asleep delighted that I’d finally agreed to leave the house, happily drifting off as people in the hotel’s courtyard raved about their own dinners and debated where the best place to see Reese Witherspoon — who was shooting a movie in town — might be.
And then, the next morning, I almost drowned a stranger.
Let me be clear that murdering someone — despite my many nervous jokes about it on the way to the ocean — was never my intention. I’d been offered two activities to choose from, and after really thinking about what I wanted to do as a celebration of the new and exciting me who leaves the house and doesn’t spend all his time in front of a TV screen, I finally settled on a 90 minute kayak adventure instead of a tour of Carmel’s most prominent galleries. And because I’d had two mimosas for breakfast (conveniently hidden in mugs reserved for coffee so no one would be the wiser), I was ready to make the most of what awaited.
Who knows, I thought to myself as I signed a waiver and grabbed an oar, maybe I’m meant to be one of those people who’s always on the water. Maybe I’ll find this experience so life-changing, I thought, that I’ll always be kayaking and everyone who has ever known me will be surprised and impressed with the changes I’ve made with my life. I imagined myself rowing a kayak across the ocean, tan and rugged and making friends with sea otters. For a split second, I considered looking up whether kayaking competitions were a thing, but decided that I’d better not get ahead of myself, especially because my daydreaming was interrupting my ability to pay attention to the kayaking instructor, a marine biologist whose main goal was making sure that everyone taking to the water in a hard plastic boat wouldn’t accidentally hit their kayak partner in the head with an oar or accidentally launch a friendly sea creature into the air if they weren’t looking where they were going.
“You want to twist your body,” the instructor said, and I tried to do just that, straining so hard to bend towards the left that I almost pulled a muscle in my torso. By the time we were ready to board, I was so confident that I decided to forego the kayaking pants and coat I was offered, and chose to keep my phone on my person so I’d be able to take pictures of myself enjoying the great outdoors.
The first second in the kayak was okay. My legs were a bit cramped, but I started twisting and rowing as soon as the oar was handed to me. “Am I a natural?” I asked the instructor, who was standing by to make sure our life vests were properly secured. I gently skimmed my oar across the sand to show him that I had gotten everything I could out of his lesson.
“Let’s see how you do when I launch you,” he said. And then we were floating, my kayak partner and I had left dry land and we were propelling ourselves towards the end of the pier above us, where our adventure would truly start. I rowed as hard as I could, feeling the rush of endorphins all through my body as I looked ahead at the horizon.
“I’m doing it,” I shouted, but the response from behind me was less than enthusiastic.
“Don’t tip us over,” the woman in the kayak with me said loudly. “What are you doing? WE’RE TIPP-” The last syllable was drowned out as we capsized, the kayak making a terrible splashing noise and ejecting both of us into the cold water. Embarrassed by my inability to maintain equilibrium for even a minute, I began the long swim of shame to shore where I apologized profusely to anyone who would listen — including a woman and her dog just passing by.
Secretly, though, I was elated. While it was obvious that kayaking wasn’t for me — and both the woman I was sharing the kayak with and the instructor made it clear that I should never get into any kind of manually propelled watercraft ever again — the dip in the cold water had felt like a minor rebirth. Sure, there was sand everywhere and my phone was ruined (I couldn’t even use it to get an uber back to the hotel), but now I had no choice but to sit down, relax, and be alone with my thoughts, at least for the next hour and a half while the competent kayakers took their tour.
As the group paddled toward the horizon, I crossed a rocky portion of beach and sat at a picnic table. My clothes clung to my body and my face stung from a combination of wind and the salt crystallizing in my beard. Yet, despite all this discomfort, I felt strangely calm. I had come to Carmel to have some time to myself, to process the last six months of my life and care for myself, and I’d gotten my wish. Perhaps not in the way that I’d imagined, but I’d gotten there in my own clumsy manner. Now I’d have to think. I’d given myself no other option. The rocks under the table dug into my bare feet and for a moment, I felt more present in my body than I had in months.
In ninety minutes, I knew the others would be back. They’d be laughing and talking about all the things that they’d seen. They’d probably all be best friends, connected by the shared experience of meeting an otter. Soon, I’d take a shower, then I’d have lunch with my husband. We’d get back in the car. I would take a nap on the way home. By tomorrow, I thought, this will be a fun story I’ll tell to others over dinner.
But for now, everything was quiet. A bird landed on the edge of my picnic table, staring at me. I closed my eyes and let the wind hit my face as water dripped down my chest and legs. I didn’t know when I’d return to Carmel — or if I ever would. And I’d probably be pretty angry if I ended up catching a cold from swimming in the ocean. But for the moment, there was no place I would have rather been.