Glowing Fields and Shimmering Seas

The boy winced at the sound of the breaking waves and glanced up at his father.  “It sounds like someone’s clapping,” he said.

“Does the ocean scare you?” his father asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s because you’ve never seen it before.”

The father and son stood side by side, two hundred feet from the crashing waves, where the white sand of the beach gave way to rolling dunes and the tall, swaying grasses that anchored them in place against the ravages of the ocean.  Each wore dirt-stained blue jeans.  The father wore a white T-shirt smudged with grease.  The boy wore a white button-up shirt with yellow sweat stains around the collar.   Father and son wore tennis shoes whose soles were cleaving off.  The boy, who rose to just below his father’s shoulder, squinted at the sun hanging overhead in the clear blue sky, then at the ocean rumbling toward the shore.

“It reminds me of home,” the boy said to his father.

“Of North Dakota?”

“Yeah.  The way the waves rise and fall, the way the wind sends shivers through the water—it’s like the wheat fields at home, how they sway back and forth and they go on forever to the edge of the earth.  The wind screams there, too.”

The boy looked toward the sky.  A seagull hovered overhead.  He looked left and right and saw all around him seagulls gliding, landing, waddling across the sand and trailing webbed footprints behind them.  Some fought over fish carcasses.  Others pecked at their grey and white feathers.  Their calls cut through the roar of the ocean.  “It sounds like they’re telling us to leave.  They’re saying, ‘Go!  Go!’” the boy said.

“You think they don’t want us here?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe they don’t care.”

The father glanced at his son and nodded toward the ocean.  His son shrugged, and together they shuffled forward through the sand.  The ocean grew louder.  The gulls grew more insistent: “Go!  Go!” they called.

Now a gust of wind heaved the salty air at the boy and his father.  The boy lost his balance and nearly toppled over.  He stumbled backward and caught himself.  The father nodded toward the ocean again, and again the two of them edged closer.

“Another hundred feet,” the father said to his son and gazed at the sea.  The sun had sunk closer to the horizon and the ocean shimmered.  It roared louder and the fine spray of the breaking waves lingered in the air.

A moment passed and the boy said, “Actually, it’s like home, but it’s also different.”

“It’s angrier than home.”

“Yeah, and the sun is different.  At home it pours out light and the wheat fields drink it in.  When the sun sets, the fields glow golden and they give back some of the light they drank in.  And the fields smell like summer.”

“And what happens here?”

“Here the sea doesn’t drink in the light.  It spits it right back up at the sky.  But some of the light pools on the water and even forms little streams.  And here it smells like dying things, but it’s a good smell.”

“The pools of light are just reflections,” the father said.

“I know.”

“You’re right.  It does smell good.”

The father stood on his left leg and took off his right shoe and sock, then stood on his right leg and took off his left shoe and sock.  The boy leaned on his father and did the same.  He dug his feet into the sand and felt its heat flow into him.  He dug in another inch and now felt a chill pass through him from the cool, moist sand beneath the surface.

His father smiled at him, winked, and took his son’s hand.  Together they dragged their bare feet through the sand, closer to where the ocean pounded the beach.  Finally they stepped into the edge of a retreating wave.  The boy jumped, then laughed.  He pulled his father onward, until the the father was wading up to his knees and the boy up to his waste in the surging waves.

They bobbed up and down, and the boy said, “It’s like it’s playing with us.  It’s not angry.”

“You’re right.  But it could break us so easily.”

The man and the boy held hands and let the waves rock them while they watched the sun sink into the ocean.  “Now I get it,” the boy said.  “The ocean swallows the sun whole every evening and frees it every morning so that it can shine down on the fields of wheat at home.”

“That sounds right.”

The boy and his father waded back to shore, and, not pausing to dry off, put on their socks and shoes and turned their backs on the darkening ocean.

Father and Baby Son On the Edge (of a Cliff…)

Two Saturdays ago I walked by a man and his baby boy sitting on the edge of a cliff that drops four hundred feet to a lake below.  Here is what happened.  Early that morning I made my way to the Loop 360 bridge that spans Lake Austin, a dammed up section of the Colorado River.  The lake is about as wide as the river that once flowed freely through this part of the green Texas Hill Country.  The 360 bridge explodes from a blasted-out wedge of limestone on the north side of the lake.  It shoots from a vertical wall of white cliffs toward the flat south shore, four hundred feet below and a quarter of a mile across.  The bridge hangs from a series of cables suspended from two steel support arches, both red with rust.  On its north side, before flying over Lake Austin, the bridge cuts a five hundred foot gouge through bleached limestone, so that three hundred foot cliffs line both the north and the southbound sides of the four-lane highway as it approaches the lake and the bridge. 

I’ve crossed this bridge hundreds of times in my life.  I always assumed that the cliffs to either side of it were off limits.  But on this day, two weeks ago, I hiked up to the ledge above the southbound side of the highway and found neither signs nor fences barring my way.  Below, cars shot down the bridge, over the lake, and continued south where the hills swallowed them up.  I stumbled upon a black and grey tent set fifteen feet back from the cliff’s edge.  Gusts of wind pounded the cliff and shook a lone sinewy cedar tree that clung to cracks in the limestone cliff face.  Its branches creaked in the wind.  Twigs snapped, flew at me, and bounced off of the tent.  The tent flattened, then sprang upright at regular intervals.  

Loop 360 Bridge

I guessed that a climber or backpacker slept inside, but within moments of my arrival a dark-skinned, muscular man in his thirties emerged, wearing only blue jeans.  In his right hand he held a baby carrier, and in the baby carrier slept a baby boy of ten months.  In his left hand the man carried a lawn chair and a blocky 70s era radio.  He walked to the edge of the cliff, set the radio below the cedar tree, unfolded the lawn chair with one hand, and placed the baby carrier to the right of the chair.  He fell into the chair and turned the radio to a contemporary pop music station.  Man, baby, and radio all sat within two feet of the cliff’s edge. 

The man leaned back and turned his head from left to right, taking in the panorama laid out before him.  To the east, far downriver, downtown Austin rose grey from the plains that flow out of the Texas Hill Country.  Below, the 360 Bridge flew over Lake Austin and poured traffic in a straight line south to the edge of the horizon.  To the west, the lake curved southward around a bend at the base of the limestone cliffs that rise from its banks.  Beyond and above the cliffs, hills grown thick with cedars and oak trees rose and fell in swells of light and dark greens.  Houses bobbed on the crests of some swells and larger buildings plied through the troughs in between them.

Father and Son on the Edge

The lake, the hills, and the clouds gliding overhead all took on liquid qualities.  Cars flowed along Loop 360 toward a dot that vanished on the horizon.  Music oozed like liquid sound from the old blocky radio, and the tent and the trees swayed like seaweed in time with the currents of the humming wind. 

It occurred to me that every hour some five thousand cars passed below this strange man, seated on a cliff ledge beside his baby boy, fighting the gusting wind that threatened to whisk his son and his tent away.  Every hour five thousand drivers passed below him, and not one of them knew of his existence.  Not one knew that he had camped here the night before with his son; that he had slept above the intersection of two rivers, one of water, the other of flesh, metal, and asphalt.  Not one knew that father and son had watched the sun set over the western hills that tumbled into the distance like the lingering ripples of some divine thought propagating itself through the tissue of the earth.