Our fourth day in Baja, and I am only beginning to recognize the richness of this desert. Our group is camped at the boundary between parched earth, sand, rock, dried weeds and the Sea of Cortez, a water paradise where porpoises play and whales call home. Today, blue sky stretches from horizon to horizon. The air is still except for a slight breath that refreshes my face and skin.
My husband, Dave, and I are on vacation with a group that travels here every year and spends a week on the beach about five miles north of Bahia de los Angeles, about 400 miles south of San Diego. Peter and Vicky bring the food and water and their knowledge of the country and the sea. We bring our sense of adventure and our willingness to camp in the desert with few accommodations.
Since we have been here, Dave and I have each learned to paddle a one-person kayak. They are not difficult once you get a feel for the rhythm and the angle of paddle and water. I also paddled in a two-person kayak with Vicky, one of our guides. Kayaking with Vicky was an easy sport. All it took was a little cooperation. One of us in front set the pace while the person in back rowed at exactly the same pace. Whoever was in back also chose the direction by dragging the paddle on one side of the boat or the other.
When Dave asks me to take a day trip to a nearby island, I immediately agree to go. Ready for fun and adventure, we pack our lunches, fill our water bottles, push our kayak into the water, and we are off.
Dave starts in back so he can steer. I row at a leisurely pace that suits my mood. The water and sky paint an all blue picture surrounded by shades of brown and gray desert. The waves rock our vessel gently as we slice through the water and head for the island.
“Speed up, we’re going too slow,” Dave directs me.
“Too slow for what?” I argue. “This is our vacation.”
Dave tries another strategy. He attempts to speed me up by rowing just a little faster than I am. The sound of his oar hitting the water just before my own is annoying, and I deliberately keep from increasing my pace not wanting to be manipulated into going faster without first deciding that is what I want to do. Every once in awhile, we are so far out of sync with each other that our oars crash, and I stop in exasperation. I think we must be some sight going across the water, and my face flushes not only with frustration but embarrassment as well.
“Let’s switch places,” I suggest when we reach the island.
“Maybe that will be better,” Dave agrees. We shove off and glide to a nearby cove. At first, it seems this will be an improvement. Dave sets a quicker pace, which I mirror perfectly. Our paddles are synchronized and stop clashing. It is almost hypnotic, the lovely sound of the paddles slicing through the water at exactly the same time. I forget to pay attention to how the kayak is changing direction and needs me to right it. I try to do better, but it seems I am always a little late in the correction. Our course looks like we are following the winding motion of a giant water snake. A brown pelican dreamily flies inches above the water before lighting on it. More or less, we are getting where we are going, and wherever we go, we are in a water utopia.
“You have to correct the direction when the kayak begins to go off course,” Dave admonishes. “I know.” I am trying, but this is becoming less and less fun.
When we finally get back to the island, I want a new partner in my kayak. At times like this, I wonder how Dave and I have remained married for so many years. We are such different people. He focuses on the goal; I enjoy the journey. It is a wonder that our differences have not made living together not only challenging, but intolerable.
On the shady side of a large rock, we eat our sandwiches, apples, and carrot sticks. The tide is coming in and the current getting stronger. We’ve been here long enough to know that smooth water can quickly change to waves that can threaten to sink a tiny craft. Getting back is going to be even more challenging than arriving, and cooperation is no longer just a good idea that would make our trip less stressful. At this moment, we have neither cooperation nor even a fondness for each other.
A while before the trip, we took a couple’s workshop and learned a listening skill. I don’t like doing it when I’m annoyed with Dave, and find it the hardest to do when I need to do it the most. But I am miserable enough to make some effort, however small, to try to improve things between us.
I tell Dave I am willing to listen if he wants to tell me about his frustrations. Dave tells me that when he has an objective, he wants to arrive at it with a minimum of effort. Goals are important to him, and even a pleasurable activity is not enjoyable if he is unable to move toward a clearly defined destination. I realize how difficult it must be for him to do this seemingly simple activity with me.
He then listens to my side. I tell him that it isn’t fun for me when he scrutinizes my rowing. This is our vacation, and it makes no sense to me to feel under pressure about some goal.
Dave offers, “I guess the solution is for me to keep my mouth shut.”
“That works for me, but what’s it going to be like for you if you say nothing, and I do whatever I feel like.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe we can work something out.”
I get in the back of the kayak, and we both start paddling. It is not clear how we are going to cooperate. What is different is that we like each other again. Everything is not possible just because you like someone; however, prospects of finding a solution certainly improve when you do. I am determined to stay on course and do better at correcting the direction, but this doesn’t come naturally to me, and we still are not on a steady course.
Finally, Dave has an idea. “How about if I count to ten, and then we will both stop rowing while you correct the direction.”
“Counting on my vacation feels like work. How about instead, you count silently to yourself and when you get to eight, you say O.K., and then we will both stop and I will correct the direction.”
“I’ve got it,” Dave announces. “I’ll say Do, Re, Mi … and when we get back to Do, I’ll stop and you correct the direction.
In this shared inspired moment, we head toward camp with the surf high and our hearts full. As Dave says, “Do, Re, Mi,…” I sing, “Doe a deer, a female deer …” Rodgers and Hammerstein would have been proud.
Once again, I feel hopeful that we will make it, not only across the water to our camp, but through the course of time as well. Dave and I have shared so much in the last eleven years, some good times and some times when we held onto one another just to provide comfort from the storms we have had to weather. These mutual experiences weave like threads into our souls and define who we are. With no other person do I share this common ground in just the way I do with Dave. In this moment I realize how blessed I am he is part of my life. Perhaps I will remember this next time we need to paddle together.
This was written in February 1997. Last June Dave and I celebrated our 28th anniversary. We still struggle sometimes, but somehow we have managed to work things out so that I can truly say that I am glad we are still together.