It was my first visit to the west coast, that summer of 1996, and – given my fragile health – I was determined to make it the trip of a lifetime. I would fly to Vancouver and then take the train across Canada to return home.
My purpose in being out there was to attend the XI International Conference on AIDS. As a “scholarship” recipient, with registration and basic expenses covered, I stayed with others on similarly limited budgets in the residences at the University of British Columbia. A more beautiful university campus I have not seen, built on a large, elevated point of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the city’s west end.
Campus maps clearly showed several beaches nearby. They did not, however, indicate changes in elevation. So it was that I set out to find Wreck Beach, a place of some considerable legend, in Canada anyway, that I knew to be “clothing optional”. I left my room, at the Gage Residence and Conference Centre, in the early morning of my first full day there, skipping breakfast – as was my habit back then – even though it was already close to noon by my jet-lagged body clock.
I took my time, walking around the campus to establish some landmarks in my mind, being admittedly wasteful of physical energy which was at a premium. I continued to recover from a serious AIDS-related illness, cryptosporidiosis, a parasite which gives understated meaning to the expression “feeling shitty”.
Crossing NW Marine Drive, loosely wrapping its way around the tip of the campus, I found myself in which, for what I mistook to be a more urban park, did not seem to have a lot of signs. Looking for a path to the ocean, which I could unmistakably hear through the sky-high Douglas fir trees, I came upon a trail I would only later discover had been created by nothing more than rain run-off. It seemed like a path to me. I could forgive the Parks Department for such a primitive trail, given the unspoiled nature evident everywhere the eye could see.
I began my hike downward, stepping over fallen branches, carefully walking around patches of mud, all the while trying to absorb the sheer beauty of the lush plant-life; the unfamiliar songs of the coastal birds. The terrain was becoming progressively steeper and this path I had found did not zigzag across the hillside the way I would have expected. It soon became necessary to grab hold of trees just to keep my footing. I was glad to be wearing comfortable sneakers, although hiking boots would not have been an overly cautious choice to have made. As the grade of the slope increased – calculating such things has never been my strong suit – I began to let myself slide from tree to tree, grabbing on for dear life. Then I fell – still upright, such was the steepness – and began a precipitous plunge. As alarmed as I was, and I cannot overstate my initial sense of panic, I kept my wits about me and watched for obstacles that might injure me. I don’t recall how long this took but I don’t think twenty or thirty seconds would be an exaggeration. Finally I felt my back brush lightly over a patch of rock and I landed in a thicket of ferns, small twigs, coming to a stop with sand kicking up between my legs and spraying my face. I lay there quickly doing a mental checklist of any injuries and, finding none, I stood up only to realize that – somewhere between standing upright and falling upright – I had let go of more than a few trees. To my horror my pants were, uh, soiled.
After quickly forgiving myself, given my health and the excitement of the last few moments, it seemed quite fitting that I should need to wash my clothes on this clothing optional beach even if my very first walk in to the Pacific was to do laundry! I cleaned myself up, using the clothes as I peeled them off, and then tip-toed in to the pounding surf, scrubbing as I went. Now, completely naked and with no dry clothes to wear, I claimed an isolated part of the beach and draped my jeans and shirt across a couple of large rocks. It would be a few more minutes before the sun would come from back behind the trees I had just fallen through. It would be some time more before my clothes were dry. That’s how I got one of the worst sunburns of my life, on parts of me which had not seen the sun for an extended period of time, and how I learned – later from another delegate to the conference (who did not get the whole story of my first day at Wreck Beach) – that vinegar works wonders on taking the sting out of a sunburn!
Much more could be written on the time travel-esque atmosphere created by some of the Wreck Beach regulars.