Taking time to equalize

Not gonna lie – some panic is starting to seep in. My TODO list now spans two full columns of my Excel spreadsheet (NOTE: I started writing this blog post a few weeks ago, and the TODO list is now thankfully much smaller) and doesn’t seem to do anything but grow. And it’s not just TODOs. It’s fear of the unknown. Fear of wondering what the hell I’m getting myself into. When I’m dodging scammers at some border crossing am I going to wonder why I left my comfy couch, in my perfect weather city, with my life on auto-pilot? Maybe.

But I keep reminding myself if there wasn’t some fear it wouldn’t be an adventure. When I moved to the West Coast with all my belongings under a blue tarp in the back of my pickup, and $500 to my name – there was more than a bit of fear. But now I reminisce about that feeling. I look back on it as when I felt more alive than any other time in my life (other than falling off a roof). The fear of *not leaving* my dead-end job in KC at the time, and perennial cycle of Chiefs letdowns, was powerful enough to push me out the door. A similar thing is happening now. I was in a rut.

I still need a bike lock

Anyway since the last Preparations blog post, I’ve got my GPS set up, bought a GoPro for the road, found some military gas cans for my roof (above) – and finally gotten my PADI certification after two false starts 25+ years ago. Thanks to the people at Pacific Wilderness – who I am giving a completely unsolicited shout-out because they are the nicest, most fun people I have met in quite a while. 

However, the PADI certification was not without some turbulence. The first weekend in the pool went pretty well. I was one of the more experienced students and better swimmers, so I could tell the instructors were focusing their energies on some of the others who were struggling with some things. 

However – on the first dive in the deep end, I forgot to go down slowly. Instead I deflated my BCD and dropped like a stone. My ears suddenly started to hurt. I remembered to equalize, but I forgot how to breathe through my mouth only and didn’t reach into my mask far enough to hold my entire nose closed – and therefore didn’t really equalize right. So my nose filled with water, my mask partially filled with water, my lungs got some water, I started coughing. I was still sinking, and my ears still hurt because I didn’t equalize right. I had a little panic, but I just kept breathing and worked through it, coughed it out, and cleared my mask. The main thing is I remembered to go down slowly the next time, equalize early and often, and give myself time to adjust. I had no problems the rest of the time in the pool.

The next weekend we went to the ocean. This was my first dive in a wet suit, which felt so tight on land I could barely move. It was also my first dive in murky water, my first dive in cold water, and my first dive working out through the surf. On the way out, I timed one wave 100% wrong, and got absolutely hammered – it felt like getting hit by a car. The wave knocked off my mask, but luckily the wave knocked it down onto my neck. Another girl had hers knocked off her face and it sunk it in the surf.  I want someone to explain to me why masks don’t float. 

After the wave hit, I struggled mightily to get my fins on w/o pitching forward in the surf. That took a lot of effort and I kept eating water. Then we had to swim out to the buoy the instructor had previously set up. And after everything else that was exhausting too because I didn’t pace myself.

Not sure I could put my arms to my side if I wanted to

Once we all made it out to the buoy, and it was time to go down the rope – I volunteered to go first – because I am the experienced student and I got this. However I forgot to take my time, to sit a few inches under the water to get over the shock of the cold water on my face, to get used to breathing underwater. So as I was sinking I had the bad equalize problem again, sucking in water, mask half full of water, exhausted – and I panicked.

I had to grab the rope to keep from sinking further down. As I looked down the rope, there was no one in front of me – just a rope trailing off into the abyss. There was 10-15′ visibility, so 20′ down looked like 100′. It took everything I had not to shoot to the surface. The only thing stopping me was I knew people were above me, who were also waiting for me to go down. Also I knew I’d have to explain myself when I got up to the top. 

Embarrassment is a powerful damn motivator. So I sat there for a second breathing *almost* out of control. The assistant instructor came up and gave me the thumbs up query. I gave back thumbs up – even though I was definitely not thumbs up. 

Then slowly I found it in me to keep inching down the rope. I got a proper equalize – although my mask was still half full of water. Finally the bottom rope came into view – which we were supposed to hold on to and scoot down to the end to make room for everyone else coming down.

I made my way to the end. The whole time it was still pretty much all I could do to keep from going up. Every fiber of my brain wanted to shoot to the surface. I was trying to tell myself to calm down – but of course if the brain wants to have an anxiety attack – logic is mostly useless. All my brain knew is that it was exhausted, having trouble getting enough oxygen, and literally out of its element.

The beard crew

My ex used to have anxiety attacks. I feel bad now because I had no idea what she was going through. I have a lot more empathy now. That is no fun.

I slowly made it down to the end of the rope. I started trying to control my breathing, while I was getting tossed around a little by the current. I never felt so claustrophobic. The 20′ of water above me might as well have been a collapsed building crushing down on me, I still was basically as close as you could get to having to go up and mess up the whole class, w/o actually doing it. Stupid sports slogans were going through my mind like “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” and “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.” Thanks brain – that’s really what I need to be thinking about right now.

Then I started thinking about how we had 3 more of these dives and did I really want to see this through? Maybe I’m just too old for this shit now. The last time I dived I was 25 years younger and invincible. I get discombobulated now if I crash on someone else’s couch. Maybe it’s just too nerve-wracking for my 48-year-old crustiness. Sort of like how if you don’t learn to drive on snow and ice when you’re young, it’s really hard to get used to that feeling of being out of control when you’re older (or so I’ve been told). Again, thanks brain – this is really what I need to be thinking right now.

Eventually my breathing slowed – a little.  We started focusing on our skills that we need to demonstrate to the instructor – which thankfully were pretty easy for dive one. At one point the assistant instructor started messing around with a sand dollar and doing some underwater gymnastics. That was the only time I calmed down a little – when I forgot where I was and focused on him. Then I remembered where I was again and the anxiety kicked back in. 

One silver lining of all this anxiety is I was sucking so much oxygen that I knew we couldn’t stay down much longer anyway. They kept asking me for my air and I’m like – yep 1200 psi – gotta go up at 1000 – darnit I wish we could stay down here all day. So we finally went up – much to my relief. Looking in the eyes and talking to a few other students – I think some of them had a similar experience. That made me feel a little better.

So we got back, switched tanks, relaxed some. And long story short – a cool thing happened. I didn’t get knocked senseless by a wave this time. I had a much easier time putting on my fins in the water. I didn’t exhaust myself swimming out. I decided to let someone else go first on the rope. I remembered to go down a foot or so, then pause, to get used to the new environment. I remembered to equalize early and often and squeeze deep into my mask to keep the water out.

The whole dive went 10 times easier. I sucked about half as much oxygen, and actually enjoyed it a little.

The two dives the next day went even better. The 4th dive we went down to 45′ or so, and other than being very cold I had a great time. Our class really bonded too – we went out to eat together after each day. Such a fun group and contrary to general trends – we had zero attrition. We started with nine and ended with nine. They needed extra instructors to handle us. Also we had all kinds of volunteers from their local dive crew on the beach – constantly counting heads when we came up. I guess that’s a good thing but I got the sense they were just a bit worried about us. 

The whole crew and our amazing instructors

Oh yeah, remember that girl who lost her mask in the surf? We found it the next day, just chilling out on the bottom near where she lost it. Amazing. She’s a broke college student too – the smile on her face when they found her $80 mask could light up a room.

I had such a great time I was buzzing for weeks. To get outside my comfort zone and go from “maybe I’m too old for this shit” to realizing that “no, I am not too old” – was rewarding in ways I can’t even verbalize.

As you might be guessing by now – this whole scuba experience is sort of an “on the nose” metaphor for what I’m about to do with this big trip. The scariness. The “am I too old?” factor. Right down to my strategy for the first week or two. Should I drop down through Baja like a rock, or take some time to equalize a little way in? I was thinking maybe somewhere near Ensenada – my previous farthest drive into Mexico – still a day’s drive away. If I absolutely forget something, worst case scenario I can always drive back and get it.

Interestingly I posted on a Facebook group called Pan-American Travelers, asking for good camping spots in Baja to meet fellow overlanders, and got very similar advice – to take a few days to get acclimatized at a campground just south of Ensenada. Also a buddy of mine in Tijuana has offered to let me crash my first night. So that feels a lot better than just barreling headlong into the abyss.

So that’s the plan. And I found out there is a 10k’ mountain in mid-Baja that I plan to spend a lot of time hiking. I will post an updated itinerary in the next few days.

Whew. That may be my longest blog post. If you’re still reading this – thanks for hanging in there! See you on the trail.





  1. Hey Matt–

    Fantastic blog post–a harrowing but redemptive mini-epic! Keep ’em coming. No guts, no glory. I hope you’ll continue to tell it like it is–bravely, transparently, vulnerably, openly. So you’ll truly take us all along on your adventurous plunge into the unknown. Being a writer, I can see a prose and photo book coming out of this (if you survive it : ).

    “The dawn dares when it breaks. To attempt, to brave, persist and persevere, to be faithful to one’s self, to wrestle with destiny, to astound the catastrophe by the slight fear which it causes us…to hold firm and withstand–such is the example which people need and which electrifies them.” — Victor Hugo “Les Miserables”

    Rock on!

    — Dad

  2. I just text you the same thing but you are a good writer and and I am looking forward to all you post on your adventures! The blowhole is a good first stop (near la bufadora), and your scuba metaphor is a good one…take your time and relax…equalize often and stay safe.

  3. Finally got around to reading your blog posts and I can’t stop reading them! I want it to keep going – you’re an awesome writer too Matt!

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