She lies in her cot and takes in her surroundings. The mist and fog floating through the trees, the air pungent with pine, damp grass, fertile soil. She closes her eyes and is listening to the quiet when she hears her dad moving around inside the tent trailer. Remembering he was to get up early, walk down to the park office, and catch a ride to Florence where their station wagon is getting its transmission rebuilt, she feigns sleep. The tomboy in a family of girls, she is usually the one to take trips to hardware stores and such with her father. But she has no interest in going to the mechanics garage today, watching her father hang out, talk story, and generally make sure no one takes advantage of the vacationing family from LA, stuck for a week where they had planned to only spend two nights.
As much as she loves road trips, she sometimes wishes they could stay in a place long enough for her to get the feel of it. Honeyman State Park is one such place. They had blasted through last year on their family camping trip, staying only one night. Barely enough time to set up and break down camp. And although two nights would have given them a day here, she knows that day would have been planned and executed down to the last detail.
But the transmission has totally broken down, the smallish Oregon town did not have all the parts needed and had to send out for them, and here they are for a week. A week had meant walking upstream and morning fishing with her dad. Frying up fresh fish for breakfast. It meant idle card games with her younger sister and lying around reading books in the lazy afternoon. It meant relaxing into the natural rhythm that the park had to offer.
The campground was two miles from the ocean. Two miles of sand dunes. Each day she yearned for the trek, but could talk no one into going with her. However, she had convinced her family into renting horses at a nearby stable and riding through the dunes with other tourists and a guide. She and her sister, who both had horses they boarded back home, had enjoyed immensely being better riders than their parents. She couldn’t count the times she or her sister had galloped their rented steeds past their mother’s horse. Each time that their mom whooped with surprise and fear was better than a birthday party.
Their mom had begged their dad to make them stop. He’d look at them and say half-heartedly, “Girls, stop that now.” But both she and her sister saw that when their mom bobbed like a car dash bobble and grabbed the horn of the saddle, all the while their dad and his horse maintaining their composure, their dad would smile slightly. Whether it was from pride for himself, or amusement at their mother’s expense, Pseudo wasn’t quite sure.
A little before, but greatly since that ride, Pseudo had been craving to walk across the dunes to the beach. Her instinct told her she needed to walk it on her own, that the journey across the dunes offered something mystical and magical. Out of courtesy, she did go through the motions of inviting her mom and dad and sister. They all claimed she was crazy. Inwardly she was relieved because she wanted to go alone. She longed for the silence along with the adventure. She wanted to stain her feet with the heat from the sand, to fill her lungs with deep breaths of exertion, to christen herself with a rewarding plunge into the ocean at the end of the long journey.
It never occurs to her that two miles of isolated sand dunes might not be a great place for a thirteen year old girl to go alone. Home is an isolated mobile home park in Malibu across from a state campground. Her parents allow her to hike by herself in that campground all the time. Since she was eleven. For hours, whole days sometimes.
She keeps her eyes closed as her dad comes out of the tent trailer. She can feel him hesitate by her cot and she regulates her breathing to simulate sleep. After a few seconds she hears his footsteps walking away and she squints her eyes like slits to watch her father walk down the campground road, khaki pants and short-sleeved cotton shirt slowly becoming smaller as he nears the curve in the road and then disappears from sight.
She waits a few minutes longer, just in case he suddenly reappears, having forgotten something. Perhaps his wallet. Or a receipt. Maybe a juice for the ride. But when she feels it’s safe, she slides out of her sleeping bag, her heart already beating with the anticipation of her adventure. She jots down a quick note to her mom, “Hiking to the beach over the dunes, will be back by lunch or so.” She takes the lantern and uses it to weight down the note on the picnic table, and then she leaves while her mom and sister are sleeping. She figures it’s about 7 AM; her mom will probably not wake to see the note for at least two hours.
About an hour or two later and she’s having second thoughts. The soft mountains of sand suck at her feet like a clinging monster lives below and is trying to pull her down there with him. Each step is an effort of stinging lungs and hard won sweat. At each dune’s peak she expects to see a view of the ocean, but so far has been disappointed. The dunes go on and on endlessly. At one point, she wonders if it is possible to get turned around and that the reason it is taking so long is because she is actually walking parallel to the ocean.
But she’s got an excellent sense of direction and the sun overhead tells her that although she might not be walking a perfectly straight as the crow flies route, she is definitely headed west.
So she stops at the top of a large dune to catch her breath and regain her ambition.
Pseudo has always used walks and hikes to deal. At home in Malibu she hikes to get out of a house with a father who continually works late and is absent more and more often. To get away from a mother who is an emotional wreck and constantly threatening suicide; a mother who has attempted to kill herself twice already.
Lately, Pseudo misses her older sister. This is their first vacation without her and Pseudo still aches from the loss. Her sister was barely 17 when she left home; she still had one more year of high school left. Her parents blamed her rebellious older sister for the fighting in the marriage, but it actually got worse after her sister left.
It is more than the communing with nature that causes Pseudo to prefer sleeping outside the tent trailer.
Despite her second thoughts, she sticks with her plan and keeps heading across the dunes towards the ocean.
Eventually she is rewarded for her perseverance.
When she finally steps onto the beach, she takes a few minutes to absorb her surroundings. There are surfers in full wet suits catching waves. There are families scattered along the beach, having used four wheel drive vehicles to get there.
As she makes her way from the dunes towards the ocean, a State Park Ranger in a jeep drives along the shore in her direction. He’s tan and handsome and wearing mirror shades.
Is it her imagination or is he driving up to her? He’s looking right at her. He slows down and pulls up alongside her, stopping his jeep.
By the time he opens his mouth to speak to her, Pseudo has imagined every possible conversation that might take place. She wonders if perhaps she looks more like 16 or 17. The Ranger looks to be in his early 20’s….
“Hi,” she says shyly but thinking she is perhaps flirting.
“Hey. Is your name Pseudo Girl?”
Her brain cannot think fast enough to decipher this scenario. How is this possible?
“Yeah. That’s my name…”
“Your mom reported you missing. She’s got every available ranger out looking for you. Said you were probably lost in the sand dunes.”
Pseudo wonders how one can go from nearly grown up flirting to complete and utter embarrassment in three seconds.
“Do I look lost?” Pseudo asks sarcastically.
“I guess not. What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to go to the beach. I was about to go swimming.”
The ranger smiles. He’s so cute that Pseudo almost forgets that she is embarrassed.
“I’m supposed to take you back,” the ranger tells her. “But if you’re OK, I can call and just have someone tell your mom that you’re fine.”
On the one hand Pseudo is tempted. She wasn’t actually looking forward to the long haul back over the dunes, back over the suffocating heat. Plus, she would really love the ride back in the open jeep with the cute ranger and some cooling breezes.
But the way he handed the offer to her, it felt too much like calling uncle, like saying she’d bitten off more than she could handle.
If he’d insisted, told her she didn’t have a choice, that might have worked.
“I’m fine. I came all the way here and I’m not ready to go back. I’m hot and I want to go swimming.”
She stuck around a moment while the ranger called it in on his walkie talkie.
After he pulled away and flipped a U-turn in the sand, she peeled off her sweaty shorts and t-shirt. Thinking the ranger might be watching, she didn’t wade in slowly but showed off her southern California beach girl abilities by timing it so that she raced in and dove under a large breaker.
She should have noticed that the families on the beach all stayed up on the sand.
Or that the surfers all wore full body wet suits that included gloves and booties.
Because the water was so unbelievably icy cold that she thought it might stop her heart.
Or make her swallow her tongue.
And as she came running out of the surf, she could see the ranger parked in his jeep watching her.
Laughing his ass off.
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