Where the Universe Called
Updated: Jun 23
It had been months…months of me stopping my emotions around this immeasurable weight of grief. Months of me pretending to not be sad, then turning off my camera to cry after Zoom meetings. Months of me putting on a front like I was okay, so that I could show up for my people, handle business, and grow this dream that Nika helped me to manifest into a reality. The least I could do was take this trip and be all the way HERE.
Building up the courage to take this trip wasn’t easy. I knew I would have to face my fears and deal with a lot of emotions. But, this trip wasn’t just about “doing.” It was about learning to “Be.” Nika used to talk shit, and say “Marcel, how about you just ‘stop’ for one minute and do nothing? Maybe, just learn to ‘be.’” I didn’t even know before I left Grand Rapids, but I wouldn’t have a choice, BUT to ‘be’ once I would depart from Central Station in Chicago. There were no tourist traps, no money grabs, no shiny lights, or tools crafted by capitalism to distract you. Just me, and God or the universe (or whatever you believe in).
My destination was California. This was a trip Nika and I planned years ago. Unfortunately, we never got around to going together. Nika loved California. It was her place to go when life got difficult, so it only made sense for this to be the place for me to “send her off”.
Nika and I were always enamored with the idea of taking the train across the country since one of our dear friends Tammy told us about her experience. We loved road trips. Although we wanted to do this together, I figured the time was NOW to embark on this journey of healing, because if I am going to be anything that she is proud of, I am going to have to do a whole lot more “Doing what I want” and “Being happy”(IYKYK) and while many would say I have mastered the first, the second, not so much.
The plan was to take the Amtrak to Chicago then board the sleeper train, and take a 2.5 day train ride across the country (on some old timely movie cowboy shit) to Los Angeles. Then I would drive around California, admiring the scenery, and taking this journey of healing.
The first picture you will see is in the back yard of the AirBnB I stayed in in Los Angeles, I had no intention of spreading Nika’s ashes here, but on my last day in LA, after I packed up by bags, as I sat there that morning I could feel her everywhere. I thought it was ironic that the house we were staying in was a small black home, that reminded me of the West Coast version of our home, so before I headed to Joshua Tree, I found what felt like a perfect tree, a fruit tree (as she nourished so many) as the first place to spread her ashes long this adventure.
I started at Joshua Tree. The drive from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree isn’t bad at all. It’s a couple hours that honestly cruises by as you get lost in the vast California scenery. During the drive, it is almost effortless the way you get lost staring at the mountains, the endless hills, the way the architecture evolves, and then before you know it, gardens of wind turbines sprout like sunflowers in Michigan. The mountains turn from lush green bases to an endless sea of sand and the palms evolve into trees that look cut from a Dr. Seuss book.
But it wasn’t just the nature that let me know I had arrived at this very different, very unique new space; it was the architecture. Again, a wild collection of mid-century contemporary homes that leaned contemporary. Fences that screamed steam-punk made of rusted metal, iron, and stone. Ranch homes that looked like all of the “dream homes” I have saved in my Pinterest. It was unreal!
Between Two Mountains
The top of this formation was smooth, and uniquely weathered by nature. You could see where the water flattened the top of it, where it would pool and carve home into the rock over time and as I sat here, being drenched by the desert sun and baptized by the cool breeze, I knew this was the next spot. I pulled out the urn, and before I could even open it, I started to cry a deep, ugly, necessary cry.
This location felt different than the prior. This, again, was a world class view. As I opened the urn, it was like the wind lifted the ash out of it, and into the air. As I poured it, I could see the wind carrying her through the sky until I would lose sight of the dust that was her being.
Refugio State Beach
I reached a spot that was entirely away from the noise of people, that was drenched in the sound of the ocean, and that was private. It was there, I skipped the rocks. It was there, I watched the flakes tumble from the urn, and into the breeze sprinting across the ocean's surface. It was there I sat, as the sun warmed me, as saltwater streamed down my face, and misted from beneath me as the waves crashed against the rocks. It was perfect.
Avila Beach and Morro Bay
Avila Beach buzzed with so much joy, the same way that Nika did, and as I walked towards the water, although I felt happy, I couldn’t help but be overcome by grief as I knelt by the water. I danced with the tide as it came on shore, as I wore the wrong shoes, and was really concerned about my Yeezy’s getting wet. This skip, hop combination I started doing looked almost as awkward as I must have, as I joyously laughed in between crying, stopping just long enough as the waves retracted to sprinkle ashes in the sand, then watched the water pull them off the surface and into the depth. It was at this moment that I started to realize that although sad, difficult, and at times downright painful, this journey held so much joy.
End of the Line Beach
The name of this beach wasn’t the only thing that drew me in. It was the way the rock face felt like a mountain towering over the coastline. It appeared from out of nowhere due to the fog. It was there I spent the most time, shed the most tears, and hid in the fog as the joy that pulled me there became an amalgamation of sadness and fear of a “goodbye” that felt far too final.
It was early, so I was one of few people wandering this small beach town that surrounded the pier. As I walked closer to the pier, I noticed a skate park that brought me back to memories of Grand Haven as a child. The building to my right was surrounded with silver fencing, and was clearly getting a lot of work done, but for some reason, this space felt like me: a work in progress, a collection of random memories, yet had so much to revel in.
Elephant Seal Conservatory
After what felt like a mile long walk, I made it to a point where the rocks I saw in the distance were directly in front of me, a couple miles off of the shoreline. I was somewhere between the Piedras Blancas Light Station and The Elephant Seal Vista Point. I got as close as I could to where this bluff overhung the water, opened the urn, waited for the breeze to start dancing towards the water, and as it did, poured as I watched her spin into the air.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
When I sat at the stream, I started to picture myself old and for a moment started to cry. I thought to myself the same way I did in Joshua Tree, that if one day I did make it to being an elder, I wanted there to be a place where I could sit in the shade and think about the incredible human being I had the honor of calling my wife. Right when I started to cry, I thought again, laughing at how absolutely ridiculous it was that I was sitting under this tree. How ironic it was, this woman gave so much to me until the end. It's also at that point where I realized that I had a lot of work to do on myself around unlearning how I was taught to love and how much more growth I have to go through as a human being if I'm ever going to get to the point of properly loving another Nika.
This morning I stood above the ocean swells. I had walked over waterfalls that poured out into the waves and fog and heard the sounds, but I had never gotten to stand oceanside and actually see what created this roar at Garrapata Beach. That's where I was able to be close enough and stand toe to toe with these 12 foot waves that washed across the shore. It was there again that I was called to spread her ashes.
13. Bixby Bridge, 14. Carmel (Looking over Big Sur), 15. Big Sur Location #1
In Carmel, you're so high in altitude that you actually are standing over the fog. I was overcome by how absolutely beautiful it was at this point in elevation. It came off the water, like a blanket to the edge of the PCH. This had to have been one of the most beautiful sites I think I'd ever seen. It felt like a science experiment, like a wonder of nature, while also showing what I would soon be facing as I continue down this trip south across the oceanside, along this winding road with no barriers. So again, I sprinkled some of her ashes here.
Big Sur – Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Parks is an absolutely beautiful location in Big Sur. This was another location where I spread Nika’s ashes. It was one of the locations recommended to me by a local. The person who recommended it to me was a super kind gentleman who worked at one of the restaurants in Big Sur.
Big Sur – Julia Pfeiffer Burns Falls
When I got to the falls to this natural river way that trickled out into the ocean, I knew this would be the last spot along the PCH where I'd spread her ashes. It felt like a finish line, which is so odd to say because I didn't feel like the trip was done. But I felt that now I made it to the last point to be able to travel all of the PCH.
Henry Cowell Redwoods (Santa Cruz)
There is nothing like seeing your first redwood tree. This experience really showed me how small we are, how much of a fraction we really are in the grand scheme of things. I spent time in Santa Cruz, which was different than I expected, chilling in the hot tub, checking out the nightlife, and visiting dive bars.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Being at Calaveras was a huge change of scenery. All of a sudden, my surroundings changed to snow that was at least a couple feet tall, but it was only about 60-65 degrees. I got lost here, wandering the wilderness of the park. But although I was lost, I was surrounded by beautiful redwood trees. I saw trees that looked like they had been burned down. I ran through the snow and I realized how much fun I was having.
Battery Spencer at The Marin Headlands
I came to this location right before sunset, so I could close this chapter simultaneously as the sun strolled to the horizon. When I arrived, I reached a point where the sun was cresting the hilltop before setting completely. I got out of the car, sat on the fence overlooking the city, the bridge, the water, and took in the view Nika painted so perfectly. The feeling of static started to spread through my body, a loud hum of energy intertwining itself with emotions, and as the tears started to tumble down, I began to write a letter to my love.
I had broken through this barrier of grief that I didn't know existed. The first week was painful. It was sad, it was agonizing, and it hurt. Every merging of her remains to the universe felt like a “letting go,” and I didn’t want to “let go.” Even the thought of it filled my veins with guilt. How could I let go of the woman who shaped me? Who never gave up on me? Who showed me what love was in a world of conditional, transactional love that always showed me that it would leave?
I talked to Nika, telling her how much I missed her, telling her how I didn’t ever imagine taking this trip… not like this, but that one thing I knew she loved most about me, was how I would literally shout my love for her from the mountaintops. So that is what I did, and I thought to myself, “What if one day other people take this trip, people who want to heal, who need to heal, and don’t know where to begin?” So many aspects of Nika’s life lived longer than her, but what if this can be another thing that her existence does?
As I sat there, this is when I came to the realization that I was not “letting Nika go.” I would never let Nika go. She was and forever will be a part of me. The same way she is a part of the earth, the energy around me, and my story. What I am doing, why I am here, is to heal. To mourn, to feel every bit of all these emotions, to sit with each of them, hold them, and pay homage to them, and to do the work that it felt like WE were so good at doing together, alone. Sitting, talking though the hard stuff, encouraging each other that we could indeed make it suck less, and that somehow on the other side of it there might be light, less pain, understanding, or something worth reaching.
I remember thinking to myself, “This…this feels like a place where people would propose, where lovers go to talk as the sun rises or falls, where the sea lions come to do the same, away from the places popular to everyone else. This space feels like ours, as I am sure it does to others. At that moment, it was like our home, like the pictures from our wedding day with the golden hour being outshined by Nika’s radiance. It was that scene that was plastered in my mind here as I closed my eyes, her smile, that light skinned ass squint, the way she looked at me like I was the only one that existed in the world. Now here I am, feeling more alone than ever, but for the first time, not feeling scared about that. For the first time, feeling why she loved being here, and why I was worthy to be with, worthy of being looked at as that valuable.