Though my response to the question “beach or mountains?” has invariably been “mountains” since I can remember, (sand is my nemesis – it has no respect for personal space) I must admit that spending several days at Figure Eight Island in North Carolina recently was a much-needed break from the dry, thin air of the Mountain West.
I live for the moment when, exiting the airport, two automatic sliding glass doors swish out of your way like curtains, parting to deliver you to the realm of humid, hazy summer air. Most travelers at the Raleigh-Durham airport were either walking very quickly to their intended destinations or waiting inside, getting all chummy with baggage claim, while I stood outside on the sidewalk, dreaming of a Cook Out milkshake.
Last year I went to the North Carolina coast to remember my Oma, my grandmother. Her four sons – my dad and three uncles – and my Opa spread her ashes in the ocean. It has been over a year since she passed away. She never met my cousin, who would’ve been her newest grandchild, baby Maxime, who is not yet a year old. We think she bears a strong resemblance to Oma.
A house filled to the brim with seventeen family members, all salt-crusted, tanned and sandy and sunscreened, sucking on sweaty soda cans, is a joy.
Figure Eight Island doesn’t have any public access beaches, so the strand stays relatively empty, dotted by the occasional sand castle, umbrella, swimmer, or fisher. On a few days, I went for walks barefoot in that small strip of land close enough to the tide that the sand stays compact, and footprints wash away behind you.
After a few minutes of step after step, I realized how empty the beach truly was. Once I turned around to head back, the wind threw itself at the front of my wide-brimmed straw hat. If I lifted my chin, the wind would catch the brim and toss the whole hat clear off my head and toward the dunes. If I tucked my chin down, the wind pushed up against the brim, pressing it into my nose and almost entirely obscuring my vision. It was like this when I realized I could simply walk forward with my eyes closed for minutes at a time. I can’t think of any other setting in the world in which this would be possible.
Occasionally I’d step on a shattered shell or a larger wave would catch my ankles by cold surprise, but mostly it was full minutes of waves, ocean rush, wind, sand beneath my feet, and nothing else. How peaceful to walk, completely trusting in the landscape and the strength of my legs, no background noise but breeze and sea. One dark step after another, the inner ear pulsing with breath and heartbeat, a walking meditation.
I admire our planet’s ability to hold a singular space for destruction and messy life alongside such transcendent calm- a flat, clean emptiness.