Hawaii, Big Island

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Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

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.

Tuesday Photos: Oceans Soothe the Soul; Giant Iguana Attacks Caribbean Bathers

As much as the visual aesthetic of the water itself, the sound of breaking waves soothes the soul.  The ocean does two things that are paradoxical.  Like the grandeur of the mountains, it reminds us of our insignificance.  In spite of this depressing truth–or rather, because of it– the ocean in its vastness fills the heart with hope and wonder.  I see again and confirm again the existence of eternity and infinity and recall the unlimited possibilities that saturate the universe.  Yes, infinity reveals itself in all things, but for my primitive human mind, few natural phenomena convey the infinite like the ocean.

Maybe it’s best that I don’t live near the ocean and can only view it for days at a time when I travel.  If I walked along it every day, maybe I would forget to fear it and I would only love it.  Then again, maybe the ocean is too immense and too erratic to forget that in the end it thwarts even our best efforts to hold it in our minds, to understand it and to tame it.

On a serious note: Please beware giant man eating iguanas.  (Read the previous sentence however you like. 😉 )

Iguana scampering among the Maya ruins of Tulúm, Yucatán, México; also snacking on unsuspecting Caribbean bathers?

Western shore of Cozumel, México.

My favorite stretch of coastline: Big Sur, California.

Pacific City, Oregon Coast (my other favorite stretch of coastline!)

Cannon Beach, Oregon Coast. The beach is so flat that as the tide recedes it leaves a thin film of standing water that turns the beach into a mirror, so that you feel like you're walking on top of another plane of reality that is an inverted version of our own.

Cannon Beach, Oregon, at night. Note he Big Dipper in the sky!

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.

The above picture was included in a post I published in April titled, “The Many Worlds Theory of Travel: A Week in Costa Rica”.

Mendocino, California, where I saw my first huge waves (~20 ft.) when I was younger.

Seattle as seen from a ferry docking at Bainbridge Island, across the sound from Seattle.

Arctic Ocean, Barrow, Alaska. Sooner or later I'll write a post about the eccentricities and beauty of Alaska. It still dazzles me that in July of 2006 the ocean near the coast remained frozen.

The Ocean as Sculptor: The Old Forts of Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico

On most coasts the ocean batters and tears down rock indiscriminately, so that along an extended coastline like that of the Western United States sea stacks jut out of the water here, eight-hundred foot cliffs tower over the Pacific there, while elsewhere, in coves hidden in the shadows beneath precipices and along gentle shorelines that attract bathers by the millions, the ocean laps at sandy beaches, some white, some brown, some black and grey and striated with purple or strewn with smooth pebbles.  But here, on the north shore of Old San Juan, in Puerto Rico, atop cliffs overlooking the Atlantic ocean, there meander a series of walls eighteen feet thick, connecting two of the largest old Spanish forts in the Western Hemisphere: El Castillo del Morro and el Castillo de San Cristobal. 

Watch Tower near el Castillo del Morro

It would be easy to imagine that human minds dreamed up these forts and that human hands quarried their rocks, shaped them, and fit them into place with an eye toward repelling invaders.  But although this of course explains the presence of these massive fortifications on a lonely island in the Caribbean, the ramparts and towers of Old San Juan are so massive that we might as easily imagine that the ocean itself chose to direct its erosive energies to sculpting a work of art rather than to pulverizing an island; that it hurled so many crashing waves here, sprinkled so much salty spray there, and through patience and care crafted watch-towers and cannon niches, erected walls and dug out tunnels.  No lonely fins of stone rise out of these waters; random outcroppings of rock do not line these shores.  Only order reigns.  The Atlantic whittles away at its project to this day, showing off its delicate touch, its million white hands that now caress, now pound, now pull back from their creation so that the ocean that guides them may admire its elegant work.

More to come about Puerto Rico.  I hope everyone is having a good weekend!

El Castillo del Morro

 

View of Catholic cemetery from el Castillo del Morro

 

Watch Tower at el Castillo del Morro

View down the coast from el Castillo de San Cristobal

The Many Worlds Theory of Travel: A Week in Costa Rica

 

In March of 2011 I traveled to Costa Rica to escape the chaos of Dallas and swim in the warm, green waters of the Pacific Ocean, peer into steaming volcanoes and immerse myself in one of the friendliest cultures in all of the Americas.   I planned to travel alone, but what began as a solo trip quickly morphed into a social adventure.   Saturday morning, during a layover at Miami International Airport, I met a Harvard MBA student named Faith who, like me, was traveling alone to Costa Rica.  We agreed to visit a volcano together the next day, and Faith invited me to join her and the rest of her friends when they arrived later in the week. 

Manuel Antonio

Meeting Faith set in motion a chain of events that introduced me to a platoon of boisterous Harvard MBA students, occasioned a whitewater rafting trip on the Chirripó River in the Costa Rican rainforest, and made possible an overnight stay in Manuel Antonio, a small town on the Pacific coast where the rainforest stands tall and Capuchin monkeys leap about high in the canopy before swinging to the ground eager to observe people observing them.  Here, in Manuel Antonio, cliffs loom high over the Pacific, rocks thrust out of the green water like fins of ancient sea monsters frozen in time, and waves crash against the rocks and cliffs in their perennial quest to prove the dictum that nature is both patient and persistent in its pursuits, and that nothing, not even the hardest stone, outlasts eternity. 

Manuel Antonio, Pacific Ocean

 

I enjoyed the three days I spent with the Harvard crew.  Their numbers included six men and three women.  Seven came originally from India; one, Faith, from the Philippines; and one from St. Louis.  I laughed with them.  I joined in conversation about health care, auto insurance, education, love, power, fame, and ambition.  With Gaurav, paddling on the Chirripó River, I felt like I forged the sort of bond that only shared physical exertion affords.  I’ve never been around such raucous laughter and fluid conversation, in which some set of unspoken rules governs the group’s collective behavior.  Everyone gets a hearing.  Everyone understands that most, though not all, of the topics of conversation fall in the category of banter and so merit a degree of lightness and jocularity befitting banter. 

El Volcán Arenal

Yet at times I felt like the outsider I in fact was.  I’m a school teacher, not a Harvard MBA, by which I don’t mean to signal any sort of elitism on the part of my companions.  They were kind people, and they graciously included me in their group.  They simply exist in a different world.  They strive after different goals.  Drive and discipline as much as intelligence explain the trajectory of their lives.  As a group they share circumstances and experiences that only members of their group would understand. 

Manuel Antonio

When the loner in me took over, I left the group and wandered the beach at sunset.  I talked with local restaurant owners and beach bums.  Enrique, an extreme biking aficionado who bore all over his body the scars of his pastime, compared relationships to “la guerra” and marveled at the power women have over men.  Late in the evening, still in Manuel Antonio, I sat alone on the beach and sipped a bottle of Imperial beer.  I breathed in the heavy salt air and stared at the surf rolling in.  The whites of the breaking waves glowed phosphorescent in the moonlight.  Palm trees cast shadows across the white moonlit sand and boats winked their lights at me from the sea. 

The Central Highlands Near San José

In Costa Rica I wove in and out of different worlds: physical worlds, social worlds, internal and external worlds.  In a span of three days I was a loner wandering aimlessly in a foreign country; I was a school teacher laughing and singing American rock classics with Harvard MBA students; I was a foreigner talking in Spanish with a local about the travails of relationships, or with a restaurant owner about his road trip seventeen years ago through the western United States.  I was also a nobody sitting on a moonlit beach with eyes closed, listening to the ocean whose roar cancels out everything else in existence and becomes the one true thing in this world.

The Harvard Crew

In case there was any danger of my remaining in the trance I had fallen into on the Rich Coast, soon after I returned to DFW reality served up a dose of the harsh truths that govern our day-to-day lives, the truths that society determines and perpetuates.  At school on the Monday after my trip, in the course of a conversation about careers and goals, one of my most thoughtful and perceptive students asked, “What profession could be lower than teaching?”  The ocean may roar in Costa Rica, but whatever truth it contains remains hidden from view here in the big city.  It’s around here somewhere, but you have to look pretty hard to find it. 

San José

Central Highlands, near San JoséSerene park inside the ruins of the the cathedralBird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal

Ruins of a Cathedral in Cartago, near San José

Serene park inside the ruins of the the cathedral

Bird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal