The plan was to redeem myself. When I was a kid, 6 or 7 years old, I went camping with four other boys and the mother of two of them. Just north of Malibu, California, in Sycamore Canyon Campground in Point Mugu State Park, we pitched our tents, played tag and tossed around a football. Then, after dinner, and after the sun had long since disappeared,
someone decided it would be great fun to hike up the giant sand dune on the other side of the mountain — the landmark slope that we’d grown up driving past but never conquering. I thought the idea, considering that it was dark, was pretty idiotic, but since our adult leader immediately began herding us toward the Pacific Coast Highway, en route to our
battle with erosion’s handiwork, I said nothing and played along.
When we reached the dune, which stretches at a pretty steep angle for about 200 yards, the other boys started sprinting up it. I, not wanting any part of this night of passage, trudged up begrudgingly. The others slowed their pace after a couple dozen yards, but they soldiered on. I dragged and scuffed and cursed silently, then decided I’d had enough. Our responsibility-challenged leader prodded me onward, held my hand and half-pulled me up. But to no avail. By then I
may as well have been a sandbag, just dead weight. To my middling credit, I did not throw a fit or cry. I simply sat down, told my friends’ mother that I was not budging, then listened as the others eventually surmounted the summit, their shouts distant but definitely within earshot. I felt as small as a grain of sand. At least until I heard one of the boys scream, again and again. It turns out that as they all slid and tumbled down that fun-filled slope, a stick, unseen in the dark, pierced Franky’s hand.
I did not rejoice at his misfortune, but I felt a measure of vindication, even as the others teased me for quitting later that night. And again the next morning. Vindication, I’ve since learned, is not the same as redemption, and my sniveling display of cowardice-masquerading-as-caution has haunted me ever since. I’ve done many grueling, adventuresome — some would say foolhardy — things in the intervening years, proving, at least to me, that we can outgrow our childish fears. But since I’d never climbed that sandy slope, I figured it was time. I hitched up my trailer and set out up the California coast. I passed Leo Carrillo State Park Campground, where to my knowledge I’ve suffered no humiliations, then pulled into Sycamore Canyon.
The campground only had a handful of guests that afternoon, but the pyromaniac in the site next to mine was generous enough to give me some lumber when he saw that the logs I’d brought — still wet from a recent Los Angeles deluge — did little more than smoke. That he was willing to relinquish an armful of the flammable spoils from what previously must have been a rather large house — especially considering that the fire raging before him cast just enough light for the Space Station cosmonauts to read by — either said an awful lot about my fire-loving neighbor’s heart or that he’d had an awful lot to drink. My bet was the latter, since if he’d exhaled in the vicinity of the flames he’d have become a dragon. That night, I dreamed about belting a game-winning homerun, kissing the prom queen and hitting the exacta in the Kentucky Derby — all of which I’ve done.
What I didn’t dream about was reaching the top of that dune. After downing a cup of coffee and some oatmeal, I slathered myself in sunscreen, filled my water bottle, packed my camera in my fanny pack, then set out to erase my past. Many weekend warriors on mountain bikes on their way to Sycamore Canyon’s trails zipped by me as I walked along Pacific Coast Highway. When I reached the dune, I looked up to see a man at least 10 years my senior and a woman about the same age moving purposefully toward the top. Crossways behind her back the woman carried a snowboard without bindings attached. When she reached the top, she set the snowboard down, carefully set her feet together at the front
of it, then released the hold she had on the sand with her hands.
She slid all the way down without obvious delight. She stepped off the board, then headed back up. The man reached
the top of the dune, then jogged down in a bouncy, moon-walking gait, covering the expanse in what seemed like a few seconds. I began the climb, step after step, one up and half a step back. I trudged along in my heavy hiking boots, and as the man, barefoot, passed me, he asked me if I was training for anything special. Redemption, I thought, but answered,
“Nope. Just out to see if I can make it.” He nodded, then left me to my gasps. I stopped every 60 steps or so to catch my breath and looked at the hill in front of me — instead of over my shoulder at the ocean — so that I would get the full effect of the view when I finally reached the top.
We introduced ourselves to each other as the man, John, descended again. He told me about a firefighter who makes this climb 14 consecutive times with a 30-pound oxygen tank on his back. I reached the top, turned toward the stunning, endless expanse of the ocean and tried to smile while panting. I felt old and out of shape. But darned good. I bounded down, feeling almost weightless. After all, I’d removed a monkey from my back. It had taken a while, but I’d completed that aborted climb from my childhood. Then I climbed it again.