A Walk On The Beach
by Clark Viehweg
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” by virtue of daily walks along its sandy shore as I listen 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 sand pipers.
I sometimes have guests that 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 just to search for sea shells and others only to be with the sand pipers and snowy plovers, or simply let the sea breeze ruffle their hair. Since it is an easy exit off highway 101, I also get a stranger from time to time who just 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 sincere smile or 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. Got a couple of pound dogs, Snickers and Fletcher, to keep me company and we have a regular beach patrol starting out 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 trail between ten foot high sand dunes which then abruptly opens to reveal the beach and breaking waves. My first sight and long drawn-in breath of sea-air lifts me up and dispels 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 kinds of shells, 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 sea gull. She’ll see a bird on the beach about ten feet ahead and break into a run hoping to catch 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 to almost be taunting the poor girl. I tell Snickers that she’s wasting her time, but even after all these years she still keeps trying. Fletcher is content to spend his time alternating between trotting in the surf and exploring the sand dunes. I just walk 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 huge 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 it looked and felt a little as I imagine it might be like as a child with one of those three foot remote controlled boats in a bathtub. It was truly awesome.
This was my beach, and these were the daily experiences that the Snick, Fletch and I enjoyed. We did the mile along our beach 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 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 by 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 flotsam doesn’t stay on the beach very long. Scavengers pick through it early-on taking away the pieces with any commercial value and beach partiers 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 particularly bad storm, a large ten-foot long creosote soaked pier-post washed ashore. This big black post was visible from over a half-mile away and constituted an eyesore. It looked especially 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 the beach this ghastly monstrosity grated on my nerves. It was an annoyance that became a sore spot, resulting in a major aggravation. Life was out of balance.
Then one day something happened. Somebody buried this creosote soaked 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 my entire walk was disturbed by this ugly refuse. I couldn’t ignore the black post. It was on my beach and it stuck out like a microwave tower on the 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 got so that I looked at my watch when passing the post and discovered that it was almost precisely half way along my walk. It then became sort of a beacon or marker. I got so that I used it as a reference and without even realizing it the post kind of became my friend. One day I stopped and leaned on the post only to discover that it was very firmly planted 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. There were several old rusty nails that had probably held planks against the post at one time and plenty of gashes along its sides indicating a rough existence-kind of like my own.
This old post became “my marker” and over the months I got so that 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. Someone 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 evident that a fire had been laid around the post and burned nearly half way 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 began to accept this new look and after a while that just became part of its charm. The cut-out moon actually looked kind of picturesque giving the post even more character. My old friend was standing tall, still continuing to serve as my sentinel. Fletcher readily accepted the new look and daily anointed the post in appropriate fashion. Life was good.
Several more months went by before another fire was set which burned the other side of the post giving it kind of a mushroom look. Vandalism, pure and simple. 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 participated 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 after all, and it continued to serve as a reference guide. In fact this new 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 completely down. My old friend was gone, nothing but a pile of smoldering ashes. I felt angry, hurt and a little lost. Who would do such a terrible thing? I could guess the why.
A high tide came in last night removing all evidence of the fire and today the beach looks pristine and pure again. The seaweed is raked in neat rows by the tides 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, clean and fresh as the first robin in spring. Still and all though, I do miss my old friend.