Life is funny. You think you’ve got it all worked out, and then something changes and you have to start all over. It’s like building sandcastles on the beach. You’re good so long as the tide doesn’t come in – or someone’s unruly dog doesn’t jump on your masterpiece. But, you’ve still built on the sand, and well, what did you expect?
I’ve just spent a week at the ocean – my very favorite place in the world to be. This year we went earlier than we are used to going. Labor Day weekend was our time. For years. Everyone would pack up and go fishing the last weekend of August – Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – everyone. We had some good times, too.
When my grandfather was alive, things sometimes would get a little dicey. One time we were all kicked out of the motel we were staying at because of him. Another time my dad returned from being out on the water – white-faced and silent. My family fished out of Illwaco – right there on the mouth of the Columbia River, which separates Washington from Oregon. It’s where Louis and Clarke camped out (a little further south, but still in the neighborhood).
It’s called Cape Disappointment because of all of the shipwrecks that have happened there over time. When the tides change, the water gets rough, like welcome-to-hell rough. Well, it was one of those times, and Grandpa, hazy with prescription pills, turned the little fishing boat parallel to the 30 foot wave coming straight at them.
They were all going to die.
My dad grabbed the wheel and redirected the boat up the wave – perpendicular – and managed to salvage the situation. No one confronted Grandpa about the mishap, about how he nearly killed them all, but no one would go on the boat with him again.
Up the beach from Illwaco there is a gorgeous stretch of sand that beckons visitors to surf and swim. But there is an undertow there that is responsible for the deaths of many visitors who think Long Beach on the Washington coast is safe. Every year we would watch the Coast Guard head out looking for those who were lost. A week prior to our visit, an eleven year-old girl was taken by the water. It’s a dangerous place.
The business people tell me they work hard all summer to make all of their money for the year to help them eek out a living during the winter. It reminds me of Lewis and Clarke and the rest of the Corps of Discovery, arriving in November, the worst possible time of the year to show up on the coast in the Pacific Northwest. If it wasn’t for the indigenous people in that area, the entire Corps would have starved. I think how it must have been for them, so tenuous, so dire. I imagine what it must have been like to never be dry – of living in smoky, damp cabins, smelling rotting elk meat hanging in the next room, of dysentery caused by the conditions and too much fatty salmon.
I think of the first week of August, when the weather is supposed to be sunny and warm, but somehow, at this beach, it was stuck in overcast and mid 60’s, the Gray Ghost spinning down the street like cotton candy, coating everything in mist, and how it made us so cold we couldn’t get warm. But it wasn’t all like that. This year there were fires on the beach, hot dogs. This year there was Pokemon Go and time for conversation. This year was about family and rebuilding of sand castles, even though only five of 20 made the trip.
But this year no one was kicked out of the hotel room.