After 35 years in California, my amphibious companion carries a constant coastal hunger. He’s made a valiant effort to downplay the oceanic pull during this first year in his newly adopted Virginia. He’s not fooling anyone. When we traveled to the Bay Area and south to Big Sur in June, proximity to the water awakened something primal in him. In near total solitude along a stretch of beach by Garrapata State Park on the Monterey coast, he frolicked like an adolescent sea otter.
In the past year, he’s tried to accustom himself to the brown channels of the central east. We have hiked stretches of Bull Run, bushwacked along Wolf Trap Creek, meandered along Difficult Run. We have found the bigger water too. We joined friends on a summertime white water tubing adventure along the Shenandoah River. He lives just around the corner from where the Potomac surges over Great Falls, and he’s found every good side-trail for quiet conversations with the river. Every so often, something calls him, and he leaves before sunrise to go visit the water.
A fall day trip south to Point Lookout State Park at the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River happened to coincide with some odd climatic events far off shore. The entire park flooded and we hiked in water up to our knees on near deserted trails. While I tried not to think about what might be seeping up from the submerged asphalt, he rolled up his pants and splashed joyously on.
He’s never visited the Gulf Coast before. The closest he’s come to any ocean in the southeast is that stretch of the Bay encroaching the narrow peninsula of Point Lookout. We sat on craggy rocks with tiny waves lapping at our feet. He closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun, his breath deepening, slowing.
This winter holiday, we set our sites on dance, music, and civil rights. Also, of course, the road trip itself: all the podcasts, all the detours, all the meandering conversations about everything we encountered along the way. Yes, ALL the conversations. And then discussing the conversations. Which included discussions of conversations about us as we make our way to the one-year point of a relationship that’s weathered a whole lot of death and upheaval. So between country line dancing and Rosa Parks, we also had the utmost pleasure of exploring how we said the thing about the thing, and how one of us felt about the thing that was said as well as the thing itself.
The morning we were to leave New Orleans was not the highest point of our trip, and we considered making a northeast beeline for home rather than traveling east along the third coast. Somehow we rallied, taking turns talking each other into a semblance of enthusiasm for the beach excursion we had so excitedly worked into our initial travel plans.
It was never going to be Santa Cruz surfing. But neither is New Orleans like New York, and thank heavens for that. We made our way to Perdido Key, not too far from the Naval Air Station in Pensacola where my grandfather had trained as a Navy pilot. In late December, most of the visitors on this stretch of beach wore fleece. We arrived at the rough public access close to 4:30pm The sun was starting to slip through a gauze of clouds towards the horizon and a few screeching kids rode the last bearable waves in. We kicked off our shoes and walked through the sand. Two giant cranes stood sentinel near the row of fishing rods fixed at the edge of the water.
As the foam kissed his feet, some kind of current passed through my companion, easing and grounding and lifting him all at once. He braved the December chill and gave his spirit a salt scrub in the choppy waves. After my requisite half-immersion, I backed out to the sand to watch. He waded in, bracing himself for each collision with the brisk waves. Then he went for it. Diving under, popping up, diving under again. Further out into the foam and churn he ventured, flipping over and coursing along the crests of unpredictable swells.
The sun sliding lower, lower, sending an purple-orange wash of light across the low sky. He returned to dry land, dripping, grinning, heart pumping. Breathing deep, watching the evening come to meet us on the sand.