If there is a theme to the places we go, it’s water. Lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, creeks. We find them. Even out west, far from any large body of water, “the desire of water is scribed across the desert like graffiti.”1
While I like almost all places with water—the bigger the better, which is why we spend so much time by the sea. The sea is life. It is the blood in our veins. It always feels like coming home to me. It’s only been six months since we last saw it, but that feels like too long now that we’re back.
I tried to read a book once about why it is that many, if not most, people feel most at home near the shore. I like the premise, but it turned out to be a book full of studies, with lots of evidence of the sea doing this and that for people, and I couldn’t help thinking of Conrad, who spent a good deal more time at sea than most: “For all that has been said of the love that certain natures (on shore) have professed to feel for it, for all the celebrations it had been the object of in prose and song, the sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.”
I tossed the book of studies in a free book bin months ago. I realized I didn’t care. I know why I feel at home by the shore and that’s enough. I also know that part of why I love the sea is that like Conrad writes, it doesn’t seem to much care about humanity, certainly not for our individual lives. My impression is not that it dislikes us, rather that it is far too old, too immense, too complex to even notice that we exist. I find this heartening, this reminder that there are forces far above and beyond me, that I can’t begin to fathom. The world is large, we are small. We forget that at our peril.
I don’t think, for instance, that the sea really cared that I came down with a head cold the day after we arrived. It might have been the pace we’ve been keeping for the last couple months. You get a rush of energy from moving quickly through things, but it feeds on itself, you burn through it eventually, and when you finally stop there’s a tendency to crash. Or it could have been allergies. The campground at the National Seashore in Assateague is covered in ragweed. It was virtually the only plant around.
Still, if you have to pick a place to crash (or succumb to ragweed), the sea is the place to do it. I usually cure myself of illness by swimming. I know few will believe me, but it works for me.
Assateague (and Chinoteague to the south) is a barrier island somewhat like the Outer Banks, but less windy. That might make it sound more appealing, but it doesn’t work out that way in practice. The magic of barrier island is, I think, in that windswept character that is inescapable in the Outer Banks. In the Outer Banks, life becomes about wind. You notice when it changes directions, you notice when it picks up, dies down, and most of all you notice when it stops because it so rarely does. There was none of that in our time at Assateague.
Instead there are semi-wild horses, which people really seem to love. Including my kids. They certainly make themselves at home in the national park.
We spent a few days in the National Seashore portion of the island, and then migrated over to the Maryland State Park portion, which is much nicer. No ragweed and right on the beach. My head cold cleared up. Storms rolled in. The sea didn’t seem to care. It was good to be back by the shore.