It was late evening by the time I left the hotel room and ventured back to the beach. Small, gray clouds floated lazily across the horizon above a dark blue ocean. The clouds were tinged on the edges with the same deep orange that slowly invaded the once cerulean skies. It was a picture show that had played itself out millions of times before, and, although my moments on this beach number far less, I can’t imagine that the view has ever ceased to amaze.
I come to the ocean because it draws me back to it. And maybe this is true with all of us. If we did, indeed, originate and evolve from the briny depths, wouldn’t that make every trip to the beach a sort of homecoming? A primordial urge to return to our place of origin?
I brought a book with me. No blanket – just one book about a 67 year-old woman who hiked the entire 2.050 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Three times. Her name was Emma Gatewood. Grandma Gatewood hiked other trails, too, and she walked places where trails didn’t even exist. From her original hike along the AT until the time she died seventeen years later, Grandma Gatewood clocked in over 14,000 miles – more than half the distance around the earth. And even to this day, though she is gone, hikers report seeing the ghost of Grandma Gatewood along the Appalachian Trail, still walking, walking, walking. Perhaps she’s trying to find her way back to her home in Ohio, or maybe somewhere else.
I read until the orange sky turned a deeper blue, and then indigo, and the ocean faded into a dark slate-gray. I placed my book in the sand and stared out at the ocean as small breakers cascaded into one another as they made their way up the beach, making hushed crashing sounds as if they wanted us to hear of their arrival without disturbing the small fish swimming in the shallows. I sat and waited, I don’t know what for, as twilight eased into dusk and dusk into night. The stars came out in full force, and the waves continued to sweep the beach like so many wet brooms. It was on this dark and windless night that I first saw it on the edge of the surf.
At first I thought it was a huge rock, dark and covered with barnacles and sea weed. But it moved. Rocks aren’t supposed to move.
When I saw her long, wide flippers digging into the sand, I realized that a loggerhead sea turtle was crawling up onto the beach, most likely to lay a clutch of eggs. She strained mightily as she slowly dragged herself along the wet sand, and continued up to the dry beach almost to the banyan trees. I stared, fascinated, as she dug a large hole in the sand and backed into it.
I watched as she peered out at the ocean as she deposited one egg at a time into the freshly dug nest. When she was through, she used her flippers to push the loose sand back over the hole, camouflaging it and protecting her eggs. Then she crawled back toward the ocean, a little slower this time, and disappeared into the surf.
I remember once reading that loggerheads would travel thousands of miles to lay their eggs along the same beach where they, too, had broken out of their shells, crawled up through the coarse sand, and, emerging into the black of night, waddled into the raging surf. Their cycle of birth to rebirth was also a sort of homecoming, but they didn’t come back to experience beginnings; they returned to create them.
I didn’t want to go back to my room just yet, so I packed up my book and walked along the wet sand. My beginning. Our beginning. The wind blew softly from every direction as I walked along the beach that night, silently traversing the fine line between land and sea. I walked until the darkness was so pervasive that everything was just sound and shadows under the faint, penetrating light of the stars above me. I decided to turn back and try to find my way back to the hotel.
As I made an about-face to walk back, I noticed a vague form from the corner of my eye. I turned back to see who or what it was. She walked slowly and evenly, placing her walking stick in front of herself with every step. Her eyes sparkled in the darkness. The old lady stopped walking and smiled at me, ever so briefly. And then she was gone.
The ghost of Grandma Gatewood. Finally going home.