The Search for Costa Rica

One of the many pleasures of long association is the shorthand that grows up around shared experiences.

The inside jokes, of course, but also the phrases that recall countless afternoons spent elaborating on the germ of a story and the invented toponyms that map out a personal geography. The shared histories, the things we choose to remember and those we choose to forget, all of these create the stuff of durable friendship.

Over the years we’ve been hiking with our friend David, we’ve created a world at once starker and more magical than the Whatcom and Skagit counties described on most maps. Sick Bay, Soggy Saddle, Primitive Point. A land where mythical coo-gars roam and razzers and their drivers negotiate an uneasy peace with hapless adventurers. Mysterious portals into other realms that open and suddenly close, stranding travelers, whose resulting stories recount hard, if slightly comic, choices.

Many a conversation starts with “Do you remember the time…?” and carries on into discussions of how, exactly, the event in question came to be creatively misremembered.

Even within this fantastical realm, though, the search for Costa Rica stands apart.

The legend came about one spring a few years ago, on one of those early June days when western Washington most recalls a tropical rainforest. During those lengthening days in late spring, all manner of flora pushes so eagerly skyward that the forests seem a foaming mass of green.

On a day such as this, the air soft, the sky quietly blue, the leaves unfurled, the explorers stumbled onto Costa Rica.

As they hiked in companionable silence, the place suddenly, definitively, revealed itself to them as Costa Rica. In each of them arose, unbidden, a memory of travels undertaken long before they’d known each other: a sense of shared deja vu, in which the private past became a collective present. Each of them turned to the other–at the same time–and said as much. Astonished, each acknowledged the inherent rightness of that fact. The place was Costa Rica.

Or so I’m told.

I wasn’t there that day, but I’ve heard the story enough times to know that the tale rings true.

Our most recent foray was a few weeks back, a damp and chilly day in late January that bore little resemblance to the climactic or psychic conditions that precipitated the original event. And yet we searched, tracing out the meandering footpaths and unofficial trails that would surely lead us back to Costa Rica. As we walked, we retraced the familiar contours of our friendship, talking about books and coin collecting and mutual friends, past weaving seamlessly into the present.

Two years ago in December, David retired after 20 years as a Spanish professor. Two years ago this month, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Since then, he has traversed the strange topography of the American health care system, with its cutting edge therapies and arcane insurance regulations, as well as the private pain of dealing with the particulars of this disease. He has, perhaps miraculously, survived, sense of humor and spirits intact. Whereas adventures with him were, before, a weekly treat to be savored, they are now a gift.

We did not, of course, find Costa Rica that January day a few weeks ago.

We reasoned that our continued failure was because, well, Costa Rica isn’t the sort of place that you can just find. It is the kind of place that one stumbles upon, delighting in the simultaneous recognition of a shared reality. You certainly can’t find it by looking for it.

This is true, but only partially.

When it comes down to it, our search for Costa Rica represents the best sort of fiction: the search for a connection borne of differences. For a shared reality. For the ability of words to shape alternate worlds in which to play out themes of love and loss, of struggle and futility and hope. For the ways in which we make meaning out of the things that happen to us.

And when you’re really lucky, of course, Costa Rica finds you.

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