East of Heart

Shells and Currents

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The last time I wrote, I had been on Vancouver Island for just over a month. The summer of surfing and serving that unfolded was incredible, a success on every level. In October I left, confident that I could once again uproot, take my soul on the road and find the next ideal place to plant it. Two months later, I’m again in Toronto, glad to have a base but not so sure as to why I landed here.

My departure from paradise was more than a mere gamble on an ability to keep upgrading my geography. There was also a girl in Portland that I wanted to visit (remember the name of the blog you’re reading). With my seasonal work completed, I was driven to just get going south, ready to adapt to whatever happened. When the bottom fell out on my hopes of reconnecting with my friend though, my open-ended west coast trip began to look a little foolish. Nevertheless I moved ahead: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, again Portland, Seattle and finally Vancouver, one bus after the other. Though visiting these places taught me a lot, it also often felt like confused wandering.

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It wasn’t just the anticlimax it began with. I’m finally realizing that just because packing up and moving is easy, what I leave behind (and the severed parts I carry) deserves more care. Whether my metabolism is slowing down or my vagabonding has sensitized me, I’ve become better at enjoying the places I call home. Community and roots are beginning to acquire a well warranted importance in my life.

Tofino was especially unique though and stays with me as potent memories, which makes it all the more baffling that I left so readily. Full-moon surfs with fluorescent plankton in the water. The day porpoises came shooting under me on the first wave of a set. My mornings down at the dock watching offshore island residents arrive while listening to eagles announce the tide’s rising up the inlet. Wandering unmarked trails through jurassic forests with my dad in search of deserted beaches. Even just the constant pleasure of saying hello to everyone you cross throughout the day in a small town. I mention this all without for one second discounting the wonderful people I got to work with and call my friends over those three brief months.

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South of the border

The American cities I visited were very different from one another. The transition from Victoria in Canada to Seattle (first photo below) and Portland felt continuous (the so-called “Pacific Northwest”), whilst stepping off the night bus from Oregon to California, you realize that you’ve woken up to a very different part of the U.S.A.

San Francisco is the pearl at the end of the long road west, the ocean breeze swept port city you imagine from the postcards but as a relatively young urban centre, I expected it to feel less proper and more cohesive. Outside of the main commercial district and the tourist areas which tout the city’s grand, almost colonial character, you’re mostly stuck treading long lifeless streets of monotonous architecture and empty sidewalks.

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Los Angeles on the other hand really grew on me. You also go through huge expanses of nondescript street blocks with constant traffic at your side, but the distinct islands of local life you find in between expose a city that is knowingly fragmented and chaotically diverse. Downtown, with its art-deco towers, sprawling Latin-American influenced wholesale commercial districts, central market, parks, large-scale street art and repurposed buildings is particularly interesting. I also found it fascinating that I could take a detour through residential neighbourhoods of untouched 1970’s California architecture whenever I wanted to. Venice Beach to the Santa Monica Pier really is the amateur street photographer’s playground. Surrounded by mountains, oceanside cliffs and beaches with good waves, Los Angeles looks to offer a lot of options to those who know how they want to live and aren’t afraid of engaging their city to get it.

Travelling between Long Beach and central LA every day left me aware that this is also a city of huge disparities between cultures, and between the rich and the poor. Many people appear to lead anonymous lives of little means, isolated in their spread-out neighbourhoods in the periphery or in the enormous rundown empty areas of blank concrete and pavement just east of the centre (Skid Row amongst them). The city’s pitched social hierarchies and haphazard physical structure felt correlated, but it’s also what makes it so worthwhile to explore LA on foot.

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A lucky visit to the Port of LA (the busiest port in the US by container volume, 16th worldwide, or 6th worldwide when considered in combination with the adjoining Port of Long Beach) –

Portland? I ended up spending almost two weeks there and liked it. It’s much smaller and more homogeneous than the other two cities I’ve mentioned. It’s also less culturally diverse, but diversity abounds in its inhabitants’ lifestyles and left-leaning ideals. Hopping east and west across the Willamette River’s dozen bridges, and north and south along clear thoroughfares, it’s easy to explore the city’s four quarters and many pockets of local character.

Reinvention is a recurring theme here, from people’s clothing, to omnipresent well-crafted branding and the city’s constant self-referencing, to (more impressively), the region’s ambitious plans to fortify its resilience as a rurally-productive bioregion with a future in specialized manufacturing. The ocean is only an hour and a half away and when the always-changing sky clears, towering snowy peaks appear in every direction. A nice place (where I didn’t end up taking too many photos).

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Familiar ground

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I got to spend a few days in New York when I returned: as usual, it left me wide-eyed and excited to be back in the northeast. When restlessness and opportunity aligned, I opted to over-winter in Toronto but I miss being on the west coast. I felt like out there, wilderness remains a powerful counterbalance to people’s relatively new place in the landscape. There is more room to question how we are going to develop this presence and relationship into the future. In British Columbia, widespread and politically active aboriginal communities remind us that this dialogue begins with an examination of the already evolved ancestral human bonds with the land and sea. We navigate blind, unknowingly waiting for a raven to open the clam we use to hide from the wide world.

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The Raven and the First Men, sculpted by Bill Reid, University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology.

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Leaves by Australian Aboriginal painter Gloria Tamerr Petyarre at the Seattle Art Museum.

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On my way back up north I stopped in Santa Cruz to surf a well-known break called Steamer Lane. Fighting for a spot in a throng of forty big ego males of every age, in perfect waves, with super dense kelp forests tangling up my feet and sea lion packs leaping all around, I found myself pretty quickly overwhelmed in the water. Intense frustrations combined with an enormous elation of sensory overload. Not a wave was caught but I left smiling wide.

It’s rarely a problem to bite off more than you can chew; boundaries are pushed through experimentation and intuition is shaped by the reflections you commit to each experience. Maybe I’d have said a few things differently, maybe not even left Tofino, but my regrets would have been far greater had I not followed passion. My winter sleep box in Toronto is now an incubation tank for the next leap into the wind.