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Left, the Great Barrier Reef; right, the author eating a mango on Whitehaven Beach (Photos: DKART/Getty; Remi Morawski)
Left, the Great Barrier Reef; right, the author eating a mango on Whitehaven Beach

We're Here to See the Great Doomed Thing

What do you do after surviving a near-death experience? Visit a dying natural wonder, of course. After his husband suffers a stroke at the age of 40, our writer plans the trip of a lifetime to the Great Barrier Reef—and discovers new meaning in the term "last-chance tourism."

It was early morning, the milk light of late dawn. My husband and I were lying in bed in his childhood home, in the suburbs of Sydney.

It was December 2019. The house was silent but nevertheless charged with a faint vibration of anticipation; everyone still sleeping, but lightly. Remi and I were planning to depart that morning for a trip to Queensland, where we would spend a few nights camping on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, and then dive the Great Barrier Reef. Though Remi had spent a large part of his childhood in Queensland, he’d never had a chance to visit the reef. It was a dream trip.

It was also a promise of escape. Normally, we spent most of our time in a cabin we owned in British Columbia. I wrote books; he ran a film-production network. We both worked from home, so we could live just about anywhere. In the winters, to escape the Cascadian gloom, we sometimes hid out with Remi’s parents on the underside of the planet. But that year the plan had backfired. For weeks wildfires had been burning in the nearby mountains and elsewhere, the worst fires in anyone’s memory, fires already burning their way into the pages of history. We had inadvertently traded one gloom for a darker, more ominous one. After weeks spent mostly indoors, hiding from the smoke, we were itching to head north, into humid jungle and sea wind. 

That morning, I had just woken up and spent ten or twenty or thirty minutes staring at my phone—who knows really, phone time being slippery—and was rising from the bed and glancing out the window when my husband abruptly sat up and looked out the window, too. He was staring at the waving branches of a eucalyptus tree, its bark peeling away in white shreds. We had a habit of doing this, waking up and looking out the window at the trees across the road, to judge how thick the smoke would be that day: faint trees meant bad air. 

The air that day was bad.

He turned to me, then he looked out the window again. His face was oddly slack, his lips drooping at the corners. 

I figured I had woken him abruptly, and that he was still groggy and half dreaming. “Go back to sleep,” I said.

He looked at me, at the window, back at me, squinting, mouth open, with an expression almost of curiosity, as if everything looked slightly unreal.

The gum trees waving in a silent, numb wind.

The spotted doves going roo, roo

Remi’s right hand was bent and held close to his body, like a little broken wing. He looked at it, then felt it with his left hand.

“Something’s not right,” he said. His eyes were childlike. “Something’s not ri-ight. I fee lilly meer.” The words melted on his tongue. He tried to rise from the bed, but found that he couldn’t stand on his right leg and toppled backwards. 

I felt a cool, distant wave of panic. I knew I needed to call an ambulance. But, as if in a nightmare, when I reached for my phone, I realized that I didn’t know the number for 911 here in Australia. 

I later learned that it’s 000, a number I will never forget: nothing nothing nothing, or void void void, or oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.

Remi on Whitehaven
Remi on Whitehaven (Photo: Robert Moor and Remi Morawski)
The author and Remi chilling underwater at Reefworld
The author and Remi chilling underwater at Reefworld (Photo: Robert Moor and Remi Morawski)
Gerald the goanna
Gerald the goanna (Photo: Robert Moor and Remi Morawski)

Remi was loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the emergency room, where test results revealed that he had suffered an ischemic stroke. A blood clot had somehow slipped through a (previously undetected) hole in his heart and up to the capillaries of his brain, venturing through ever smaller vessels until it got stuck, clogging up the pipes. While Remi slept, countless neurons, starved of fresh blood, had been dying off, never to return. 

Remi was not a typical stroke victim. He had just turned 40. We were avidly, some might say obsessively, active. Two days before the stroke, we went for an 18-mile trail run. The night before, we’d been at a climbing gym, where Remi sent a V6. He had a heart like a racehorse. In the hospital bed, his resting pulse was so low that it routinely dipped below 40 beats per minute, which would send the heart monitor beeping in alarm.

Now he was in shambles. The clot had lodged in the left hemisphere of his brain, which controls the right side of the body; Remi’s left side remained unaffected. When the doctor ran a pen down the bottom of Remi’s right foot, he felt nothing. His right shin: nothing. His right forearm: nothing. As he dozed in the hospital bed, waiting for test after test, he occasionally woke up in alarm because he felt a stranger’s hand brushing against his face, only to realize that it was his own.

The left hemisphere also contains the language center of the brain, which explained why, for Remi, words had suddenly become elusive, phantasmagoric. When a nurse asked him to say the alphabet, he said “A… B… W?” and then stopped, stumped. When asked what month it was, he said with total confidence, “Tomato.” He shook his head. “Domestic.” Shook his head. “Domestic. Do-mest-ic.” He shook his head again and tried to spell it out. “D-E-V…”

For much of that long and terrible morning, I rested my forehead against Remi’s and kept telling him to breathe, just breathe. In an effort to calm him, I told him to close his eyes and picture our regular six-mile trail run, step by step, turn by turn, but after a few seconds tears started lensing in his eyes. 

“What if?” he said, the words eluding him. “What if…?” 

I knew what he was thinking. The doctor had informed us that though he would likely recover some of his powers, there was no predicting how much, and the chances of a full recovery were relatively slim. (I later read, to my horror, that only 10 percent of stroke victims recover almost completely, and 40 percent are significantly, permanently impaired.) His panicked, inarticulable thoughts ran something like this: What if I can never do that run ever again? What if I can’t climb, or paddle, or swim, or trudge through a jungle, or sprint down a mountain trail whooping with joy? What if I—in the full sense of that tiny word—don’t survive this?

All that week, the bushfire haze pressed menacingly against the windows of the hospital. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the smoke was in some way responsible for Remi’s stroke. I asked the doctors about this, and they assured me that while bushfire smoke probably does increase the risk of stroke, normally it’s among the elderly. Normally, I thought. What is normal about any of this?

By now the bushfires had spread throughout the state and down the eastern, southern, and western rims of the continent.

The word people kept using was “apocalyptic.” All across Australia, people were arguing about it. There were those who believed that the bushfires were a result of climate change and a foreshadowing of carnage—and thus, in some ways, a comeuppance for decades of our laziness and profligacy and willful ignorance. And then there were those who believed this was all part of a natural cycle, worsened by “greenies”—an Aussie derogatory term for environmentalists—not allowing controlled burns on wild land. (This is largely false: in truth, the Australian Greens party, like other prominent environmental groups, explicitly supports prescribed burns.)

I thought often about all the carbon we had emitted flying to Australia, not just on this one trip but on all our trips, and wondered whether this wasn’t some kind of planetary karma. Our sins went up into the sky, warmed the air, and fueled the fires that killed billions of living things. Now we were choking on the smoke of their cremation, and it was killing us. It’s insidious but fitting: if climate change doesn’t cause your home to be consumed by flames or drowned in the sea, it will slip quietly into your lungs, then up into your brain, and poison you from within.

These are the kinds of darkly magical thoughts you have when you are trapped in a hospital, surrounded by the suffering and dying. 

For Remi, the reef had taken on a symbolic weight—that if he could complete the trip he intended to take on the day of his stroke, it meant that everything was just as before, that nothing had been lost.

The doctors said they would need to keep Remi there for a week, until further scans could be done on his heart and brain. At night we slept tightly spooned in the twin-size hospital bed. During the day, we lay next to one another, my hand cupped in his, staring at the ceiling, like two sea otters floating side by side. 

Matters improved. By the second day, to my enormous relief, Remi’s words began to return, and he was able to walk by himself down the hall. By day three, when I threw a ball to him, he was able to catch it with his right hand, though he couldn’t feel the ball. (“It’s so strange,” he said. “I feel like a marionette.”) The hospital’s physical therapist said that the key to recovering from a stroke is to keep using the damaged areas; the brain has the ability to reroute neural pathways to regain lost abilities. They call this neural plasticity. The key—and this cliché, in my raw state, struck me as profound—was to use it or lose it.

After his release, Remi’s recovery continued at an incredible pace. After a week, he was back in the climbing gym, scaling the walls with his half-numb hand. But strange new symptoms emerged, including vicious whirlpools of fatigue and swells of anxiety. On one particularly bad night back at his parents’ house, he lay awake for hours, beset by panic attacks, convinced that if he fell asleep, his brain would forget how to breathe.

The subtlest but perhaps most frightening side effect of the stroke was one that none of the doctors warned us about. Remi began to report that he had lost the ability to feel bliss, or what he called the fullness of his spirit. He explained to me that enjoyable things still felt enjoyable, but the enjoyment felt thinner, as if some of the wires in his brain had been severed, so less electricity was flowing through his neural circuitry. It didn’t help that we were trapped at his parents’ in Sydney, socked in by smoke and a never-ending blizzard of ashes, the ashes of millions of animals and trees and homes. It truly felt like the end of the world, or at least a glimpse of it. 

But we knew that up north, half a continent away, lay tropical blue skies, unsullied by wildfire. Remi began talking, tentatively at first and then resolutely, about once again booking a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Great swathes of this natural wonder were dying off due to climate change. Now he was afraid that either he or the reef would be dead before he got the chance to see it. I suspect that for Remi, the reef had taken on a symbolic weight—that if he could complete the trip he intended to take on the day of his stroke, it meant that everything was just as before, that nothing had been lost.

So I began replanning our trip. I designed what I thought was the perfect rehabilitative program: four days camping on the beach, followed by three days relaxing at a high-end eco-resort, followed by two days on the reef itself, including a night spent in a brand-new, ludicrously expensive underwater hotel. Travel as medicine: the trip was meant to rekindle his sense of bliss and patch together his frayed neurons. It felt good, for once, to put the hedonism of vacation (which, for me, had always been tinged with a sort of Calvinist guilt) to good use.

Whitehaven viewed from a nearby hike
Whitehaven viewed from a nearby hike (Photo: Robert Moor and Remi Morawski)

In January, less than a month after the stroke, Remi and I flew to the town of Proserpine and hired a boat to take us to Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island, part of an archipelago of 74 islands off the coast of Queensland. It was dawn down at the docks, cold light on cold water. We boarded alongside a glowingly tan young Italian couple. The boat roared out across the sea, thumping hard over the waves, between islands decorated with minimalist hotels and mini mansions. After about an hour we pulled around the arm of a forested island, and there it was: a perfect sickle-moon of white sand four miles long.

“Welcome to Whitehaven,” Tim, our boat driver, said. “What do you think?” 

The entire island, along with 31 others in the archipelago, was part of one big national park. There wasn’t a single building anywhere in sight. The campsite cost $7 Australian per night. 

“It’s paradise,” Remi said. 

The boat rammed into the shore and dropped its ramp, and we unloaded our gear onto the powdery sand. Remi and I set up camp among the trees above the beach, where cicadas the size of cockroaches emitted a dizzying electric roar. A goanna—a grumpy-looking black lizard with a constellation of bright yellow dots on its back—leaned drunkenly against a tree. An islandly lassitude clung to everything like dew. 

We wandered back onto the silent beach. The sand squeaked underfoot. It was magical stuff. I had read somewhere that it was composed of 98 percent silica, which meant it reflected the sun and therefore didn’t burn your feet. Its consistency was somewhere between sugar and baking soda. We sat at the water’s edge and played with it, letting it swirl smokily between our fingers and marveling like acid-stoned teenagers.

We did this for about two hours—who knows, no-phone time being slippery—in the warm morning light. Occasionally, we dove into the ocean, which was calm, lukewarm, and somewhere between mouthwash green and mouthwash blue. A shovel-nosed ray swam in the shallows, its sharklike fin slicing up through the water. 

The beach appeared empty. As soon as we’d arrived, the Italians had packed a picnic and hiked off to the far end of it, miles away. We greedily relished the feeling of having a vast, beautiful place all to ourselves. 

Then a long, white ship hoved ominously into view. The writing on its hull identified it as a tour boat. The ship landed on the beach, lowered a walkway, and disgorged an impossibly large number of tourists. Then another arrived, and another, and another. By 11 o’clock, the shoreline was covered with people scrambling for places to lay their towels. Remi and I watched in amazement: hundreds of humans, all of them taking photos or posing for photos while trying desperately to crop out the other people taking photos.

Adults and children alike wore thin, black, hooded wetsuits, pushed on them by the local tour providers to prevent jellyfish stings. It looked as if the beach had been invaded by a clan of the world’s least dangerous ninjas. The sole exception were three gay dudes with ice-tray abs and matching red Speedos who took turns posing, wobbling wildly, atop a stand-up paddleboard for exactly the length of time necessary to capture a photo. 

At one point, an older tourist sitting with her kids a few yards down the beach walked up to us and, seeing our camping gear, offered us a bagful of fresh lychees grown on her farm back home. My misanthropy melted as I sat peeling the alien purple hides and chewing on the slippery, translucent, ovumlike fruit. I decided to regard these people’s photo mania as a way of appreciating—fixing, preserving—a magnificent and otherworldly place. From what I could tell, their sense of wonder was genuine. At one point a young girl stepped off the boat, looked down at her bare feet, and shrieked in amazement, “It’s like snow! Warm snow!”

By midafternoon the day-trippers had all departed, and we had the beach to ourselves once again. We dove naked into the sea and lay on the warm sand. As uncanny as this place was for me, it was doubly so for Remi, who was experiencing it through the ever shifting, faintly warping lenses of a healing brain. Remi said, “This is real, right? I keep thinking that maybe I died and this is the afterlife. Or I’m in a coma and this is all a dream.” 

“It’s real,” I said.

He lay back in the sand, smiling.

By our fourth and last day on Whitehaven Beach, paradise had begun to lose its shimmer. We had walked every mile of the beach, hiked to all the nearby lookouts. The white sand, lovely as it was, clung to and infiltrated everything, even our sleeping bags, even the lunar surfaces of our molars. Clouds of biting sand flies passed through like thunderstorms. Our resident goanna, who Remi had named Gerald, began digging in the sand on the beach and unearthed a plastic bag full of foil-wrapped kebabs someone had buried there. He dragged his spoils to a stretch of trees between our tent and the beach, an elephant graveyard of plastic and foil wrappers that gave off a smell like rotten shrimp. My breaking point came when I watched Gerald choke down a wadded-up plastic bag that he had apparently mistaken for an egg.

It rained hard our last night, drenching our tent and giving the atmosphere a sticky, airless quality. Fortunately, Tim arrived the following morning and whisked us away to our next destination: the Elysian Retreat, a luxury eco-resort. To reach it, we had to transfer our bags from Tim’s boat to a small yellow skiff, which puttered over the shallow reef. “First time I’ve done this,” the employee piloting the boat told us. “Normally, the guests arrive by helicopter.” 

The resort comprised ten simple bungalows, a mineral-water swimming pool, a common area, a small spa located within a hut, and a wet, flat beach. There was nothing much to do, which was exactly the point. For the next three days, we read, we lay in hammocks, we floated in the pool, we paddled the paddleboard, we showered in the outdoor shower. At night Remi slept hard, having been a bit sleep-deprived from our camping experience; but one night he couldn’t sleep at all, beset by waves of what he called “dread of dying.” Each morning we performed a little test: Remi closed his eyes, and I tapped on each of the fingers of his numb right hand one at a time. At first he couldn’t tell his pinkie finger from his ring finger or his ring finger from his middle, but each day it gradually improved.

We all will need to sacrifice some of the luxuries we love most to preserve this living planet. But part of the reason why I care about this planet is that I'd like to see it—and in seeing it, I kill it. It's like some kind of cruel trick, a mythic curse.

The resort was exactly as advertised: nice and chill. Overall, this was my kind of luxury—it had a tannic hint of ethical restraint, which mitigated the overbuttered queasiness that true luxury hotels can induce. The food, which was all-inclusive, was mostly local fish and vegetables and grains. Signs urged us to conserve our water use, and all the bath products declared their eco bona fides. The electricity came entirely from solar panels (except when there wasn’t enough sun; then it was produced by a diesel generator). 

But as I stared at the helicopters arriving and departing twice a day, I grew increasingly skeptical. One night I struck up a conversation with the hotel’s manager, a long-haired South African named Charlton. I asked about the helicopters. “Isn’t it a bit absurd,” I asked, “to emit all that carbon just to fly people to an eco resort?” 

He shrugged. “You emitted a lot more carbon than that flying to Australia on a plane,” he said. 

“Yes, but…,” I said, trailing off. 

Once Charlton left, I said to Remi for the hundredth time that we really should cut back on flying so much. Remi disagreed, as he always does. The act of traveling is sinewed into his being. The son of Polish émigrés, he holds two passports, a permanent residence in a third country, and a work visa in a fourth. His speech is an accent soup. A world map in our bedroom bristles with pushpins, one for each nation we’ve visited.

To Remi, travel is an inherent good, a tonic against nationalism and small-mindedness, perhaps even an antidote to war. As for the environment, he believes that the shame placed on travelers is a trick played by those who hold real power—wealthy industrialists, shipping magnates, oil and coal barons, agribusinessmen, tech bros—who want us to squabble over lifestyle choices while they pillage the planet and their companies pump out the vast majority of carbon emissions. He believes that the solution is more efficient planes, not less plane travel. And we will only get more efficient planes, he argues, by demanding them (politically) and providing demand for them (economically), not by staying home and watching Planet Earth on Netflix. 

But then, of course, he would say that. He loves to travel; he needs it. The logic is self-serving. I start to say this, but then my mind gets locked in a dialectical trap. Unlike Remi, I believe that we all will need to sacrifice some of the luxuries we love most to preserve this living planet. But part of the reason why I care about this planet is that I’d like to see it—and in seeing it, I kill it. It’s like some kind of cruel trick, a mythic curse. 

We sit a moment in silence. And in that moment, I realize that we are both on this island, sipping bottles of beer imported from Mexico. The only difference is that he was truly savoring it—this beer, this place—while I did so with a knot of guilt in my gut and an eye on the darkening horizon.

The author writing in his journal on the beach
The author writing in his journal on the beach (Photo: Remi Morawski)

For the last leg of our trip, we caught a water taxi, then a ferry, to a place called Reefworld, a pontoon that was anchored off the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. When it opened last December, it was billed as Australia’s first underwater hotel. It contained two bars and multiple sun decks, as well as long racks holding scuba and snorkeling gear. The vast majority of guests stay for the day: they arrive, snorkel, and leave. A smaller number spend the night in two rows of spacious tents on the top deck. And a lucky few stay in the two underwater suites, which have glass walls looking directly into the ocean. I had booked us one of those fancy suboceanic rooms. Even with the weak Australian dollar, it cost more than I care to admit. We couldn’t really afford it, but Remi’s brush with death had given us a new, YOLO-ish looseness with money. 

We and a few hundred of our fellow tourists poured from the boat onto Reefworld. The staff urged us to rest; once the others left, we would have the reef to ourselves. So we spent most of the afternoon sitting on beanbag chairs on the pontoon’s deck, watching the snorkelers flail about in a roped-off area while dressed in their black stinger suits. At one point, I asked an employee on the pontoon whether they required visitors to wear reef-friendly sunscreen. “No,” she said, apologetically. “It’s a nice thing to do, but we can’t well demand that 300 people wear a certain kind of sunscreen, can we?” (This seemed to me an absurd answer, considering that they were able to persuade 300 people to dress like Lube Man.) 

The day-trippers finally left around 3 P.M., and a sonic vacuum opened pleasantly around us. Now it was just Remi and me, a handful of other overnight guests and employees, and hundreds of miles of imbricated ocean. Our hostess grabbed our bags and showed us to our room. We entered via a door marked private, which led down a secret stairwell. 

Then she opened another door and we stepped into a cobalt glow. The light in the room was unlike any I have ever seen; it was so blue it was almost solid. On one wall was a row of huge, thick windows, and on the other side of the glass was the very ocean itself. Ingeniously, the bathroom also had a glass wall, so the whole unit was awash in that same cool, vibrant light. It was surreal to see everyday objects—a bed, a lamp, a toilet—painted the color of the sea. A kind of pressured calm suffused the room, like when a masseuse pushes her palms gently against your eyes with soft, jasmine-scented hands.

I was afraid this underwater hotel room would be a gimmick. But it was indeed a wonder, an astonishment. The hostess left and, a few minutes later, ushered an Irish couple into the room next door. The wall between our rooms was exceedingly thin, and I heard the woman exclaim, “Ho-ly hell. Wouldja look at that?”

Remi and I spent hours sitting upright in bed, staring out the glass, hypnotized, oohing. Millions of silver-scaled hardyheads drifted in front of the window in loose synchrony. Giant trevallies lurked around the edges and occasionally made diving lunges into the bending, geometric clouds of hardyheads; at times they would all change directions at once in such a way that the flashing of their mirrory scales filled the room with white light. 

Most of that afternoon and into the night—except for dinner and a couple of brief snorkeling forays—we stared out the window. It was lined with blue LEDs, so the fish were still visible once it got dark. The hostess said the light switch could even activate a strobe effect, but she warned us not to use it. “The fish fucking hate it.” (Note: Cruise Whitsundays officially denies the existence of any fish-enraging strobe light.) Bigger fish emerged in the evening, including a giant grouper, a true monster looming up from the blackness. I fell asleep on my belly, head resting on my hands, staring out like a dreamy schoolgirl.

In the morning, we arranged for a guided snorkel trip, which allowed us to travel to a distant corner of the reef, far beyond the roped-off area where the other tourists get corralled. We were the only two people on the tour. We took a boat to the edge of the nearest reef, then stepped awkwardly into the water, which was bluer and deeper than the water near the pontoon. With our guide, Jerôme, we slowly swam back to the resort, moving with the current. 

I will admit: I have seen better coral, clearer water, and more fish elsewhere. But the grandeur of the reef—a living ecosystem the size of Italy!—brightened my perception of it. Below us were shelves, balconies, whole cliffsides of coral: faint hues of pink, purple, bright green. There were vast thickets of (aptly named) staghorn coral, and some of the horns had bright blue, glowing tips. 

Back home I had read that what we perceive as coral is in fact a symbiotic partnership between two or more species. The coral itself—fleshy, flowery animals called polyps—secrete skeletons of stone around themselves, which are then colonized by tiny algae called dinoflagellates. The coral give the dinoflagellates carbon dioxide, and in return dinoflagellates give the coral oxygen and carbohydrates, along with their vibrant color. This highly efficient partnership allow corals to dominate the shallow seas. But when the water temperature becomes too high, as was happening due to climate change, the coral eject the colorful dinoflagellates and, in many cases, slowly starve to death, leaving behind only their bone-white skeletal remains. Scientists call this process coral bleaching; the remains, evocatively, are sometimes called ghost reefs

Ghosting, ghosting, I thought as I floated along. 

Travel has lost its levity. It has become gilded, or leaded, with meaning and consequence. Travel is heavy. Perhaps it always will be. And that is a good, if hard, thing—for us and for the earth.

I had read that roughly half the reef had been killed off by bleaching in recent years, and I knew that this past year, the hottest on record in Australia, things were certain to have only gotten worse. I mentioned this to Jerôme, and he responded, to my surprise, that so far the impact wasn’t too bad right here. The great dead patches we saw were most likely wreckage from a recent cyclone, not bleaching. He said this as if it was good news, cyclones being a freak occurrence rather than a constant, systemic threat. But research has shown that cyclones, too, are being intensified by climate change

On our swim back to the pontoon, Jerôme showed us a giant clam (which looked big enough to swallow my head), its obscenely fleshy lips flecked with neon speckles, and a great, undulant eagle ray, its black back painted with white circles and squiggles. At one point he pointed frantically. “Turtles! Two of them!” he shouted. We ducked down, swiveled our heads. Beneath us swam two green turtles, waving their winged arms, their back legs dangling limply. We swam above them for a few seconds, moving in tandem. Then the turtles, with paradoxically slow strokes, slipped past us and sped into the deep. 

Jerôme told us that this population of turtles is considered vulnerable (due to threats like climate change and plastic pollution, as we’d later learn). I would be lying if I said that this fact did not intensify my appreciation of seeing them. And that same feeling, I now realize, extended to the reef itself. Katrina Fischer Kuh, a professor of environmental law, calls this urge to see rare ecosystems—or endangered species, or glaciers before they’re destroyed—“eco-necro-tourism.” It is perverse, but we seem to only really cherish things when they are under threat of being no more. Despite its ghostly decline—or perhaps because of it—huge numbers of tourists continue to visit the reef each year.

The author on Whitehaven Beach
The author on Whitehaven Beach (Photo: Remi Morawski)

I write this in August, back in my cabin in Canada, from within the weird doldrums of a global pandemic. Remi is healing, though in the downward cycles he still experiences waves of dread and dullness, as well as a feeling that he might be dreaming or dead. (Admittedly, as it was during that smoke-choked summer, it is sometimes hard to disentangle the external dread from the internal.) He has begun gardening, somewhat obsessively, exploring the minute and proximal rather than the grand and distant. He thinks a lot about roots, fungal networks, and his own ripped-up neural branches. He is still trying, each day, to rekindle his “fullness of spirit”—using it so he doesn’t lose it. 

In the public imagination, the wildfires of last December are all but forgotten; on the news now, all we see is plague and political upheaval and, of late, a new round of apocalyptic wildfires, this time across the American West. For many months, it feels like the whole world has been holding its breath. In this regard, as in many others, Remi and I are lucky. His parents didn’t lose their home in the bushfires. The plague has not yet reached the peninsula where we live. We are economically stable. Our adopted home has a rational, compassionate health care system and a functioning federal government. Last week we went for an 18-mile run. We swam in lakes and climbed rocks and sprinted down a mountain trail, whooping with joy.

In short: We’re fine. We simply can’t travel. We haven’t gone on a trip since returning home from Australia, and we aren’t certain when we will travel again. But I know that when we do, we will do so with intentionality, with care. Travel has lost its levity. It has become gilded, or leaded, with meaning and consequence. Travel is heavy. Perhaps it always will be. And that is a good, if hard, thing—for us and for the earth.

There is one memory I keep returning to from our trip to the reef. During our snorkeling tour, Remi said that he wanted to dive down, way down, but was nervous to do so. He had taken a course in freediving in Thailand years earlier, so he knew how, but he was afraid that his fragile brain wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure of the depths. After a few moments of consideration, he concluded that it was worth the risk. (To not even try, he later explained, felt like condemning himself to a perpetual state of half-living.) Floating on his back, he slowed his breathing and relaxed his body. Then he took in a large breath, tipped his feet over his head like a duck, and dove down. I did the same. Pinching our noses to clear the pressure from our ears, feeling the crush of water above us, we kicked deeper. At about 30 or 40 feet down, we paused to admire the coral architecture from below. It looked like a row of impossibly surreal buildings. Then, as our lungs began to burn, we arced back upward toward the light. The surface of the sea, viewed from beneath, was slicked with mercury. A duning, heaving sky. 

Mescaline-eyed, we rose. The water warmed, thinned. The sky gathered us to itself.

Then we burst back into the atmosphere, spouting water from our snorkels. We had been under for only a minute or two—who knows, underwater time, like all time, being slippery—but we savored each new gulp of air like some vital but forgotten thing.

Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.

Lead Photos: DKART/Getty; Remi Morawski

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