I tore out of Seattle and drove six hours, half of them before dawn, and stopped when I saw the ocean, sickeningly white and churning with the sky. Sitka spruces braced themselves on the bluff, gnarled and forever flung back by the wind and rain that screamed over the swells smacking the edge of my country. It was high tide. It scared me.
The destination of today’s pilgrimage was off 101 on the far side of the Olympic Peninsula. Here I had heard of a certain Sitka that hovered high in the air, the earth beneath it long lost. It straddled a wide gap but most of its roots had nothing to hold and so they splayed out toward the horizon. It wasn’t dead so it was called the Tree of Life. Ten minutes ago I had bought a cup of convenience store coffee as an excuse to ask the cashier where it was, and he said it was right there on the beach. When I saw how dangerous the search might be, I took a white umbrella from my car and left it at the top of the path down so he’d know where to look for my body.
The first few times I stepped onto the beach, the ocean roared and I jumped back up the stairs with a gasp. But soon my panic dulled enough to inch along with a hand on the cliff, sprinting when the sea left and freezing with a terrified grin when it came. Entire fallen trees were shields but the water could have hurled them. I feared the undertow, the oneness of the elements, the lack of color. They could all kill me. I did not want to die but I had come from far away and I was curious so I needed to give it a good try.
I gave up. There was no tree. Maybe it was inaccessible at high tide. Maybe the store guy was wrong. Maybe it was actually just a little bush and I’d missed it. Maybe it fell off the cliff. I scrambled back to the car, white umbrella in trembling hand.
But beyond a dirty wet picnic table at the edge of the parking lot a faint trail curled through a thicket and I bumped my head on lots of low branches, but then the ground was gone, and I was standing over the tumult, not before, but in, the Tree of Life.
From its eroded foundation sprung moss and ferns and a waterfall. I climbed up and sat, safe from the expanse and the noise around me. I sat a long time.
Then I saw an old man in a crisp green Patagonia strolling the coast like it was no big deal. He did not run or gasp. He did stop to pick up a grimy Sprite bottle in the sand but otherwise he just walked in a straight line and didn’t die. He didn’t glance at the tree. I craned my neck at him over the sea until he disappeared.