Short Stories

A Walk on the Beach

My beach is clean again. Almost virgin, just like it was before, with misty salt spray air and drying seaweed raked in neat little tide line rows along its sandy, shell-strewn shore. I love my beach here in Humboldt Bay along King Salmon Point. It’s ‘my beach’ because I walk daily along its sandy shore listening to the gentle breaking waves and screeching gulls. The muted roar of pounding ocean waves on the north spit two miles away is a perfect audio frame for the crunching sand under my low-cut shoes and the scurrying beeping sandpipers.

Sometimes guests share my beach, depending on what time I get there and which day of the week. Many bring their dogs as I do, but some come by to search for seashells and others only to be with the sandpipers and snowy plovers or merely let the sea breeze ruffle their hair. Since it is an easy exit off Highway 101, I also see strangers from time to time who wants to see the ocean and experience salty sea air. It doesn’t matter why they come; they are all welcome. I greet each one I pass with a smile or a friendly wave. Shoot, most of them probably don’t even know that it’s my beach.

A heart attack in ninety-eight killed about thirty-five percent of my heart muscles, and the doc tells me to exercise every day, so I walk my beach: rain or shine. Goa couple of pound dogs, Snickers, and Fletcher, to keep me company, and we have a regular beach patrol route starting on a vague overgrown trail near the PG&E power plant. We park on the road and walk this winding sandy snake grass trail through ice-plant until we reach the beach. Although I’ve been coming here every day for years, I still get a thrill after following the path between ten-foot-high sand dunes.   When I turn a corner in the sand dunes, the thrill happens when the track opens to reveal the beach and breaking waves. My first sight and long drawn-in breath of sea-air lifts me dispelling the demons of age. I’m young again and on my beach.

I follow the sandy shell-strewn beach south about a mile, admiring the work of nature, looking at weathered beach wood, the thousands of different seashells, drying seaweed piled in rows by the tide, and hundreds of birds. I get a kick out of watching Snickers try to catch a snowy plover or seagull. She’ll see a bird on the beach about ten feet ahead and break into a run, hoping to grab a little snack. The bird casually flits thirty feet away and resumes its search for lunch. They know they’re safe from this lumbering land creature and seem almost to be taunting the poor girl. I tell Snickers that she’s wasting her time, but she still keeps trying even after all these years. Fletcher is content to spend his time alternating between trotting in the surf and exploring the dunes. I just stroll along, taking in everything possible.

There are always a few boats on the bay, and occasionally we’ll see a large ship guided by tug boats enter the channel, bringing in logs or coming to load up with chips. Once, we saw this vast Japanese freighter with five tug boats pulling, pushing, and guiding it through the channel to a dock at Fields Landing. Even though the ship was over a half-mile away, it was so large even the bay seemed small. Standing on my beach, I felt like a child with one of those three-foot remote-controlled boats in a bathtub. It was incredible.

This then was my beach, and these were the daily experiences that the Snick, Fletch, and I enjoyed. We did the mile along the coast before cutting back inland about half a mile to a housing development road that took us back to our vehicle—all-in-all, about a two-and-a-half-mile adventure, lasting nearly an hour.

The beach is often strewn with driftwood, especially after a big storm, mostly branches, logs, and tree trunks dumped in the ocean from one of the many rivers in our area.   But planks from somebody’s pier or splinters from a wrecked boat are not uncommon, and we even occasionally find a pier post. This debris doesn’t stay on the beach very long. Scavengers pick through it early on, taking away the pieces with any commercial value, and beach partyers burn the rest. I have even taken a few pieces that decorate my yard, although my wife thinks it’s all just pieces of wood. Anyway, within a few days, the beach is clean again and looks fresh as ever.

After one exceedingly terrible storm, a ten-foot-long creosote-soaked pier-post washed ashore. This big black post was visible from over a half-mile away and made up an eyesore. It looked heavy and probably was as it stayed on the beach for several weeks, causing me no end of annoyance. This big, black, ugly post was on my beach, and nobody did anything about it. It got so that every time I walked along the beach, this ghastly monstrosity grated on my nerves. It was an annoyance that became a sore spot, resulting in a significant aggravation. Life was out of balance.

Then one day, something amazing happened. Somebody buried this soaked creosote log in the beach so that half of it was sticking up about five feet in the air. It looked like a big black post for anchoring boats, except that there was no pier, and it was too far from the water to anchor any boat. This black post was visible from over a mile away, and now this ugly refuse disturbed my entire walk. I couldn’t ignore the black post. It was on my beach, and it stuck out like a microwave tower on the Salt Lake salt flats. But it was there.

Every day I passed this post and cussed, and when Fletcher finally anointed it in typical dog fashion, I grinned. At least somebody was treating it right. After a while, I looked at my watch when passing the post and discovered that it was almost precisely halfway along my walk. It then became a beacon or marker. I got, so I used it as a reference, and without even realizing it, the post became my friend. One day I stopped and leaned on the post, only to discover someone had firmly planted it in the sand. Whoever had buried this post did a good job. From then on, I stopped at the post every day and began to notice its charms. Several old rusty nails had probably held planks against the post at one time and plenty of gashes along its sides, showing a rough existence, kind of like my own.

This old post became ‘my marker,’ and over the months, I depended on it to help monitor my walk. I always stopped now and said hello. It had a lot of character reminding me that although life was tough, we could still survive. No longer was it an eyesore, but a welcome buddy. Something I could depend on and look forward to seeing.

Nearly a year went by like this, and then one day on my walk, I could see from far off that something had happened. As I got closer, it became clear that someone had laid a fire around the post and burned it nearly halfway through on one side, creating a three-foot crescent. Naturally, I was incensed that someone could be so thoughtless as to damage this old friend. Anger bubbled inside for several weeks, but gradually I accepted this fresh look, and after a while, that just became part of its charm. The cut-out moon looked kind of picturesque, giving the post even more character. My old friend was standing tall, continuing to serve as my sentinel. Fletcher readily accepted the new look and daily properly anointed the pillar. Life was good.

Several more months went by before they set another fire, which burned the other side of the post, giving it a mushroom look—vandalism.   Somebody was desecrating my beach and destroying property. This post was a sentinel. How could anybody be so thoughtless? It was like painting graffiti on the Sistine Chapel. “Stop destroying property and damaging my marker,” I yelled silently at the universe. I was angry again and scowled at visitors on my beach. Perhaps one of them had taken part in burning my old friend.

Time passed as it always does, and in a few more months, I grew to accept this new mushroom look. The old post was still standing, and it continued to serve as a reference guide. This fresh look was kind of different. The anger subsided, and before long, it was just as though this was the way it had always been. I paused in my walk to admire the old post’s character while looking out over the bay and watch the Snowy Plovers do their beautiful waltz. I fantasized about taking a video of their graceful sweeping moves and setting it to a Strauss waltz. Life was beautiful once again.

And then tragedy struck. I went walking early one morning while the embers were still glowing. Someone had set another fire at the post’s base and burned it entirely down. My old friend was gone. Nothing but a pile of smoldering ashes remained. I felt angry, hurt, and a little lost. Who would do such a terrible thing? I could guess why.

High tide came last night, removing all fire evidence, and today the beach looks pristine and pure again. The seaweed is raked in neat rows by the waves, and shells are glistening in the brilliant sunlight. Sand is sneaking into my low-cut shoes as usual, and the birds are shrieking as they hunt for food. The snowy plovers are doing their waltz, and Fletcher is trotting in the surf. The cool ocean breeze has a tangy salt-air aroma tickling my nose.   Snickers is tagging along behind, watching for a bird to chase. The world and my beach are beautiful once again, fresh as the first robin in spring. Still and all, I miss my old friend.

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