Counting Steps on the Cliff

The sun dances across my lap. The old Honda’s engine revs and releases around the curves of Lake Crescent. Turquoise waters on my right shimmer clearly against the evergreens next to its shore. I count the logs cast aside into the lake’s bottomless waters. Just past the upcoming campground we will take a hard right to our final destination—the Southern Ozette trail. 

I hear my husband’s concerned words in my mind, “Don’t risk your life. Be careful, Sweetie.”

Will I be reckless? If my past history of hiking the Pacific Northwest wilderness is any indication, then I’ll be without signal, without adequate water, pinned on a cliffside, not really pondering how I got here, but measuring the least likely deadly option for survival. My husband knows I wrestle in the wild with grit and belonging—the wisdom that comes from tasting life and death over the many stories of my past.

I’ve already told you about the first night with the bear sniffing about our tent, and this is a night past the first. 

As the tide starts to rise, we wade across the opening of the Ozette River, fully soaking our legs, hiking boots strapped to our packs. Once across, we sit by a collection of trees, populated by two bald eagles watching us. They turn their heads our way, then back out to the sea. I suppose they are keeping an eye on us while searching the waters for fish. 

This new afternoon means brewing extra cups of coffee. The three of us splurge as we recount our part in the story for the one sleeping member of our crew who managed to stay absolutely still and absolutely silent as a bear probed our tent. Certain death had knocked on my door that night; now, I giggle a bit more freely. We discuss peeing around our tent tonight. The urine supposedly wards off wild animals. 

We cross the annoying rock beach ahead and plant our tent. Taking turns, we turn our backs as each of us pees around the parameter of our tent. I won’t describe the smells inside of the tent but to say that the morning couldn’t come too soon.

After a brief water hunt, our bottles are filled with fresh creek water. Fresh prints of bears and cougars are stamped into the sand near the water’s edge. I’m not sure if the urinating helped keep them at a distance, or if those tracks are a part of their scouting mission. My own head’s knowledge bumps into walls out in the wilderness—places where I am certain I know far too little to pass these beaches. Sure, we have a permit to be here, but mother nature’s permit book is self-admittance, and the question of respecting her, listening to her, and provoking her are optional. 

We take a look at the tide charts. I try to hurry my companions. It seems that we are already up too late. The tide will be coming back in as we attempt to challenge the headlands between our current location and Shi Shi Beach. I know I’m annoying, but I press them to move!

With each wave crashing against the low-lying stones, we easily hop up on the first ones. I feel brave. I am an adventurer. The other two women move deftly up—scaling cliffs isn’t as hard as it looks.

It’s the moment when your body recognizes the heights and risks where fear sets in.

I know this. As we continue our scramble upward, the waves come in faster than anticipated. 

Voices carry to us from the sea. Within minutes three windblown men round the corner of the cliff, hopping onto the upper boulders, swinging on a well-worn rope. I stabilize my feet. The men bound toward us, yelling in our direction. I look behind me; the pile of boulders are slowly disappearing in the eager blue sea. Sweat beads on my forehead; my temple pulses. When closer, one of the gentlemen asks, “Are you really going around the headlands now?”

The bear whisperer among us replies, “Yes.” 

I look at her. Will we keep going? Her voice carries such calm and resolve. All three men keep moving past us. My friend continues scrambling up, and I catch the eyes of the one who sleeps through bear attacks. 

“Don’t risk your life. Be careful, Sweetie,” echoes in my mind.

“Stop!” I yell over the roar of the ocean. She angrily turns to face me. By now I can see the sea has swallowed entire stones below. This is our first headland crossing, and I cannot imagine gutting out the night pinned against this cliff. 

I turn to descend and quickly realize I cannot do it. The stones feel farther and farther apart. Dropping my pack off of my back, I throw it to one of the three men who had passed us. He catches my 45-pound pack. Concerned for our safety, they had turned around. 

Wisdom knows when to turn around.

To be continued….

Danielle S. Castillejo grew up in the swirl of a mixed identity, with a German father and a Mexican mother. With her four children in school full time, she applied to graduate school at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. Before her second year of graduate school, she was invited to explore her story through a Story Workshop at The Allender Center. She went on to complete Levels 1 and 2 of the Certificate in Narrative Focused Trauma Care and the Externship. Since our culture has experienced such an intense ripping and cultural identity crisis, Danielle addresses internalized racism and its effects personally, in her family, and in her community. She encourages other healing practitioners to do the same. Danielle began this process with her MA in Counseling Psychology and studies at The Allender Center. Danielle loves the anticipation of spring and summer in the Pacific Northwest, with the return of long days and sunlight absent in the dark winters. You can easily find Danielle out on a trail or working in her yard. You can also find her online at