Popham Beach, Maine
These feet mapped in silver. My weight displacing stars.
We are chasing the tide even before we begin, trying to outrun the sea. The sun follows us, staying at our backs for five miles across moonscape and dune. Wind has carved ridges like Atlantis exposed.
Here is where my friend comes now. Every week, a pilgrimage of sorts. She has recast herself a collector of sand dollars, displaying them in gleaming mason jars around her house. She’s brought me along this time and I don’t have questions at first. Now, the stretch of land and water before us is framed by a giant question mark. “Where is it we are going?” It must be the third time I’ve asked, and we’re barely out of the parking lot. She gestures vaguely forward. At the end of a dark ridge, the shore curves then disappears around black tip of land. It is forever away.
She’s checked the tidal charts. She sets a brisk pace.
My eyes struggle to make sense of this terrain. In my familiar wild places, thousands of boot-clad feet wear furrows in the earth. Here, every path washes away. “Where, exactly?” I ask yet again. With her hand, my friend traces the horizon for me to indicate a summer home next to a kind of colony deep in the trees. I’ll have to believe her. Without my glasses, all that is evident from this remove is sea, sand, and a far-off swipe of deep green falling off into the sky. The divergence from familiar methods of orientation has rattled me. No GPS coordinates, no published travel times. No street signs, mile markers, or trail blazes. Check that: no trail.
We walk with the ocean to our left, more or less. But that fact too is unfixed. Seawater seeps in from every side, tide pools and rivulets shifting course, color, temperature, depth. And even though our location is East Coast, United States, a left-side ocean is no indication that we are heading south. Fingers of shoreline splay out from the Maine map in every direction. As we walk, the sun never seems to change position. It stays just above and behind our shoulders, even after covering miles and hours. Even after turning entirely around.
I ask again what we are aiming for. She gives me an odd look, indicates once more the narrow tip of that disappearing peninsula, and keeps going.
Between us, we carry just two gritty Ziploc baggies and a single pouch for phone and key. No shoes, no water, no extra sunscreen. My friend has worn long shorts and a tank top. Before we left, I donned a two-piece swimsuit with far too much skin exposed, failing to comprehend that “beach” in Maine does not signify the same thing as it does in South Carolina. This is a rough place. The area covered twice daily by the tide stretches for nearly a quarter mile in some places. When the ocean recedes, it leaves bleached and shattered branches jutting up like fallen swords. The carcasses of crabs lay gutted by gulls. Small circles trace the sand where the foam clung before the sun drew it back up just enough to linger low and close. Both mist and wind remain a constant presence even as a relentless sun burns the shoulders.
We come upon The River.
The River has given shape to our day. It has demanded that we wear little and carry even less. It has determined when we would begin and how quick our clip. Its stream of seawater flows, clear as glass, along a broad trench through the sand. It runs roughly perpendicular to the surf and almost all the way up to the far-off dunes that edge the forest.
We stand at its edge and consider our options for crossing. Blue-tipped ripples move in angled rows, catching sun and distorting shadows. My friend says maybe try for the light spots and avoid the dark ones. The plunge is icy to my unaccustomed bones. At places, the floor reaches up and drags a leg in, up past the ankle, up to the shin. We slorp and teeter as we make our way across. The current tries to tug us in the direction of the ocean. “The tide is still going out,” she says.
I glance ahead at that far dark point on the horizon. We have to get all the way out there and all the way back, crossing this rapidly shifting shoreline on only the efforts of our exposed bodies. When the current starts to move the other way, this trench will grow. Now it is only 30 feet wide. In an hour, maybe 50? Well before dusk, The River will disappear altogether. This entire expanse will simply be The Ocean.
Our meager waterproofed belongings, our bare feet, my wind-whipped skin. It clicks into place now. If something slows our progress, we will have to swim back. Carry in, carry out. Along the way, any of these picked bones or split limbs could pierce a wayward foot. That would make for a long, uncomfortable, and very wet trip to the parking lot. A parking lot that now seems half a galaxy away.
When we emerge onto the firmer sand on the other side, I step more carefully. We keep a pace just short of a stride. As a seasoned hiker, I am almost smug in my confidence when on dry land. This unpredictable footing keeps me off balance, quite literally. I hold my gaze forward and down, which is a rather dizzying experience. A few times I lose a sense of which way things are moving. The water, my body, the land itself. It all swirls under and around me, and I have to look up to get a fix, to steer myself back on course.
My friend and I discuss weighty matters. Family, no doubt. Purpose, forgiveness, regret. All of it achingly important but none of it sticks. Conversations drift unfinished as salt spray and crash carry our words away. We weave into the foaming surf then back out to the soft but solid sand. The shore is vast and ends only out there somewhere in shadow. In bramble. Anything that does not belong to the sea is a dark blur from this distance.
One man wades alone a bit further out. He moves without haste and we leave him behind. Further on, we pass a couple with a gleeful, unleashed dog who leans his soggy girth into my knees.
My friend scans the ground for sand dollars so I do too. The small white circles reflect a muted light. After a few false starts, my vision learns to differentiate the moon-gray disks from clamshell and foam. I pick up only four in the end, each a marvel, each a fossilized star. A tiny hole on its underside serves as mouth and door. The thin, brittle coins are discarded home and cadaver all at once. Everyone’s destiny, I suppose.
Again and again, surf and grit coat our feet then scrub them clean. Blue-black waves swell and approach, crash and withdraw. Two men fishing, their poles pressed into tubes in the ground. Windbreakers and knee-length shorts. Hats with chin straps to keep them fixed in place.
We have to wade again, this time around a jutting rock furred with seaweed and pocked with barnacles sharp as knives. Dripping, we walk on in the scouring silence of constant noise. Despite our adherence to the tidal clock, the glimmering ground enthralls me, slows me to a stop. Glitter at my feet, glitter as far as the eye can see. Golden spectral skin like the moulted fins of mermaids. Every step generates a small gilded wave. I bend for handfuls of it. Liquid gems, prisms of moonlight. I hold it up to my friend. “This,” I tell her, “is where unicorns and drag queens come to spawn.” She gives me that look again. We walk on.
The, without warning, we are there, wherever “there” is. At this final point, the flat expanse of sand gives way to a more unforgiving terrain. Rock rises now from Beowulf’s ocean. Low tide, and the ground swells like a dragon’s back. Now it dries its gnarled shoulders in the sun but by dinnertime it will be submerged again but. There it collects its crust of clams and striped mussels. Its broken teeth of lobster traps. Its mane of green and orange weeds. It rattles in its shallows heaps of loose black whorls, those acorns of the sea cast free from an underwater branch of our distant evolutionary tree.
The variation on the rock jars me. In the hours since we stepped from the car, my eyes have grown accustomed to a palate of blues and browns. Now here is a cacophony of color. I climb like a flatland fool, barefoot in my strips of a swimsuit that’s no match for the whip and tumult of this place. Conchs with their transparent threads of legs scuttle across the low, gritty pools. I bend to pick up an oyster shell but it does not pry free. The critter may be in there still, alive and hunkered down in its pocket of brine. Or it may be fusing with this rough and porous rock, on its way to becoming its own beginnings. It far more than its fastened armor and certainly no souvenir. I stop poking around. I leave the rest be.
Under me, I feel dull blades of stone and shell grating into my soles. This is not some pile of ocean debris. It is a neighborhood. A living thing. I am an intruder here. Within hours, the sea will swallow it back down so its inhabitants can spill open, can drink deep. If I am here, if I am not. It doesn’t care about my lack of gills. It will take me too.
My friend unrolls her phone from its pouch and takes one photo of me then a selfie of the pair of us. We don’t linger. The tide is returning. We walk again now, retracing the full four kilometers over thick ridges of sand, past the damp, discarded spines. Not the same four kilometers, though. Already, the sand has shifted. It’s filling in. We wade through a river that now surges back towards land in the opposite direction, rows of blue-tipped swells widening, spreading the reach of the ocean, reclaiming its own.
Image: NY Harbor Nature