I have an interesting relationship with time, and Tofino.
This past spring break, our family visited the small town, nestled atop a peninsula on the westernmost end of Vancouver Island.
The 40 kilometres between Tofino and neighbouring Ucluelet include part of the Pacific Rim National Parks reserve, and an undisputed embarrassment of natural riches for hikers, surfers and beachcombers alike. Dense rainforests, filled with old-growth cedars, Douglas firs and Western hemlock, give way to more than 16 kilometres of driftwood-laden sandy beaches.
Our family spent five packed days exploring, scaling jagged rock formations and peering into tide pools. We navigated roots and ropes on vertical climbs, and trudged through mud deep enough to swallow our hiking boots whole. We climbed up cascading (and sometimes) leaning staircases and we paced countless steps on winding slick rainforest boardwalks.
And each time we would come to an expansive vista, monument or even a familiar food truck or surf shack, I would be hit with the same deja-vu-like feeling—the moment was both novel and familiar.
I felt as if I kept stepping into moments I had lived before. Because I had.
This was my third visit to the area. My partner and I camped near these same beaches nearly two decades ago when we were newly married. We returned again nearly eight years ago, with three young kids in tow. But of both trips, I have only the faintest of memories, orphaned images without connection or context.
My partner has no such difficulty remembering these moments. In jest, or to assist my memory, she uncovered photos from our initial visit long ago. It was the indisputable proof—there we were, the people we once were, hair longer and lighter (unkempt and frizzy in the rainforest humidity), no wrinkles on foreheads or any deep creases around the eyes and mouth. There we stood, posing on the exact same walkways, beaches and at the taco stands we would visit so many years later.
Frustration, even a bit of self-loathing, lurks at the door. What is the value of those experiences if we don’t remember? What is the value of a life, if so much of it is either forgettable or forgotten?
Excuses are there, if I want them. The passage of time takes its toll, as does sleep deprivation and the busyness of a household filled with young children. We’ve been fortunate to go on a lot of road trips, and to see many beaches in those nearly two decades. Certainly there is some overlap and errors in recording, muddying the mental timeline.
But even reasonable excuses won't protect me from the nagging suspicion I’m missing out. That regret will come not from making the wrong choices but from distractedly sleepwalking through this one wild and precious life, even in the most amazing of places.
Mid-trip, I began to wonder about time, and the memories I was making. There I was, staring out on that endless ocean, my chattering internal dialogue quieted by the constant, cyclical roar of the sea. I wanted to take it all in, the rocks, the sea, the salty air. I wanted to cling to it, stubbornly, the way all these barnacles clung to the rocks beneath my feet.
I unrolled time, both backwards and forwards. I imagined myself in another decade or two, reflecting on this moment, remembering each and every detail. What would that memory look like?
I recommitted myself to taking in all that I can, even as I am unsure how. I took fewer photos, knowing the collection of images is a poor substitute for memory. Instead, I fould myself taking mental snapshots, interrogating moments.
I watched my youngest make a collection of shells for a hermit crab he’s found, and notice behind him the glasslike reflection of the early morning sand. I saw the pride of my 13-year-old, holding trepidation in check as he climbs above the crashing waves of an outstretched rock.
I felt the thumping in my chest as I climbed vertically amongst mud and roots that serve as both step and obstacle. I watched the way my eldest’s hair danced in the wind as she scoured the horizon line of the sea for fin or blow. I stared at the unexpected head of a sea otter, surfacing in the immediate wake of our boat.
I took in more, such as the best salmon taco I’ve ever had, gelato ice cream so good we returned three days in a row. I took in the sounds of aggressive and hopeful crows that stood sentry at each and every food truck, stroking their beaks in hostile anticipation.
I also took in the inconvenient and unpleasant, the copious amount of smoke from waterlogged firewood, the inflation of every grocery item or side of fries, the feel of my feet as I stepped into my still damp shoes from the night before and the the toilet that threatened to overflow due to a temperamental septic system.
I took it all in, or at least I tried to. I kept taking it in, like an impossibly deep breath, filling my lungs with salty air until they were ready to burst. And then I held it. My lungs full of air for only a few moments. The memories, hopefully much longer.
Now, back home and few weeks later, I’m not sure how well I’ve done. Did I pay close enough attention? Will the vivid memory be the same in a year? In 10 years? In 20 years? Time will tell.
What I know of time is it is relentless, impersonal and linear, never stopping or even slowing down to make sure I’m paying attention. But I also know time has been incredibly generous. Time has given me enough of itself that I have both experienced, and forgotten, thousands of moments.
Despite being linear, time seems cyclical as well. Without ever stopping, it seems to invite me to pick up the plot, again and again. Time seems to repeatedly show me places, people, events and challenges and whispers “this moment is new... but doesn’t it look familiar?”
When it does and when I’m frustrated at the mistakes I’ve made, or the moments I’ve missed, time never seems vindictive or punitive. It simply asks over and over, “what would you like to pay closer attention to, this time?”
And I’m grateful for yet another chance to learn.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.