When Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for Governor of California a while back, it provided a large boon to my personal economy. His campaign headquarters took up several offices in the shabby building housing my lively cafe. There was a large staff always in need of food, plus we catered many meetings up the War Room.
We made a fair pile of money off the Governator, enough to close up the cafe for a couple of weeks and take the kids to Hawaii. It was one of the few vacations we could ever afford with the whole family and certainly the grandest destination up to that point.
And it was a family affair, since my husband’s parents also came along. They’d been to the islands many times already and let us take the lead in deciding what to do.
One Sunday, we decided to drive around the east coast of Oahu. It was an excruciating trip due to the lack of available food on Sundays and the ever present bad mood of the stepdaughter. I couldn’t get back to the hotel fast enough, I wanted to dump off those ingrate, spoiled children and ENJOY MYSELF IN HAWAII.
(FYI, both kids were in college at the time. Too old to be such brats and too old for babysitters. I felt not a whiff of guilt offloading them.)
By then, it was getting late in the day so my husband and I drove around to the west side of the island to watch the sun set. It was beautiful. We stopped at several beaches, drove slowly when no one was behind us and generally let the Aloha spirit settle into our pores.
There’s a large chunk of military land on the northwest side of Oahu. It’s why you can’t drive all the way around the island and why we stopped at the northernmost public beach. By then, the sun was getting close to the horizon and the tide was coming in. There was a large lava flow between the parking lot and the ocean, we picked our way over the pitted surface and stood at the very rim watching the waves pummel the lava.
My husband and I aren’t dumb, but we were inexperienced. We stood at the edge and those vicious waves were striking the base of the lava flow, at least 20 feet down. Seriously, it was a long way down. We didn’t even conceive of the notion we could be in great danger.
Far off in the distance, I saw a whale breaching. Husband and I watched with delight as we tracked the whale’s northward progress, watching the sunset make its expelled water dance like crystals in the air. We stopped looking at the waves crashing below us, we could hear them of course, but did I mention the whale?
Until that moment, the term “rogue wave” was only something I’d heard of on TV disaster shows.
All I remember is that one second we were oohing and aahing over a whale, the next moment a wave so high I had to crane my head up to see the top loomed over us. I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes, only my certain death. We were standing on the very edge of the lava, that wave was going to drag us over the side.
In that brief moment, I finally understood the raw and unpredictable power of nature. Every cell in my body understood the force of that wave, I felt its sheer strength through osmosis. The wave was a perfect machine, consuming all, excreting the leftovers and constantly powering forward.
I am not, by any means, a nimble mountain goat. Poise, grace and balance are things I must concentrate on to achieve. I have a proud tradition of falling on my ass for every vacation and/or day trip. I look forward to toppling over in more exotic locales in the future. Some people collect postcards, I collect bruises.
There wasn’t much time for thinking in that split second as the wave piled up over our heads but before it fell back into the sea. Our bodies are hardwired for a flight response and that’s what I did. The rapid, backwards hopping over the rutted lava must surely have been comical to the casual viewer, but I remember each footfall vividly. With each step in new flip flops, my internal voice was screaming, “DON’T FALL! DON’T FALL! DO NOT FALL!!!”
If I had lost my balance, even for a second, the wave would have won. My legs were soaked from the leading edge of the water as it chased us over the lava. Miraculously, I didn’t fall. I didn’t even wobble. Husband and I stopped about 10 feet back from the edge, gaping at the size of the unexpected wave and taking stock of how far inland it came.
Naturally, we both broke out in hysterical giggles. Both of our chests were heaving from the terror of near death and the giddiness of escape. As we stood there, giggling and gasping for breath, we didn’t retreat any further. Because, you know, what were the odds of that happening again?
It happened again, almost immediately. The next wave was bigger and I’m pretty sure it screamed out, “I’m gonna get you suckers!”
There was no hopping that time. Vaulting is more like it. We ran like thieves from a bank robbery, skimming over uneven lava like it was smooth grass. I have never before or since been so agile. It’s good to know it’s inside me somewhere.
Honestly, it was one of the most exhilarating days of my life. It’s my favorite memory of that vacation because I learned so much about myself in those few life-changing moments. Now I know to trust my body in times of danger, now I know I can fly if I have to. Now I know NOT to stand on the very rim of the world at high tide.
AND, I saw a whale