Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Old Men and the Sea

"I’d rather be the ship that sails
And rides the billows wild and free;
Than to be the ship that always fails
To leave its port and go to sea"

            In all my 11 years, I had not seen anything as thrilling as the Atlantic Ocean. The journey from Toronto to New Brunswick while on vacation had revealed many things, but nothing compared to Kouchibouguac National Park, and what seemed like endless beach and ocean. You could almost see forever out beyond the waves. My family, huddled in our red Volkswagen van, followed the St. Lawrence Seaway from Kingston  into the vastness of central Quebec, then down to the hills outside Rexton, north of Moncton. We had witnessed whales swimming toward the ocean, saw mountains grand and we even managed to avoid the chaos of the 1976 Olympic Games held at that time in Montreal. Every road was an adventure. Every sight something to remember. For me, nothing built more anticipation than the idea of swimming out to sea.
            My parents had remained behind while our host's wife, Carol, took us kids up to the seashore. The mountainous range above Rexton was riddled with dirt roads and dense forest, prime real estate for bootleggers and the like. My folks’ friends, the Gaynors, had led us here, as we travelled together from Ontario. We were surprised to learn that we would be staying with people who made a living on the running of booze. As a pre-teen, I am not sure if I even knew what that meant at the time, but it mattered little to me. I was here for the ocean, not for beer or fresh-made moonshine. In the end, none of that meant anything. We had a wonderful vacation and made friends that remain in the back of my mind, even after almost 40 years. I learnt quickly that people are not defined by their method of income or the location where they live.
            I remember feeling breathless as my siblings, a few children from up in the hills and myself were all taken to the shore. Kouchibouguac Park was dark and seemed impenetrable from the vantage point of our transportation. When the trees finally faded and the road ended, the Atlantic Ocean faintly whispered to me, calling me on into the surf. From one side to the other, the beach line seemed to go on forever and a day, unimpeded by anything but blue. We all settled in for a few hours of sun and swimming. It felt like we were shipwrecked, with no other people as far as the eye could see. The mid-morning breeze brought the smell of seaweed and salt and the sunshine reflected off what seemed to be large translucent bubbles scattered up and down the coastline. I had never seen a jellyfish before, not in person at any rate. 
            The waves crashed around me and the sun sat out over the sea. The sand shimmered mere feet away and I stood up to my knees in the deep. The water was rather cold, even for a hot August morning, and I found myself intimidated by not only the darkness out before me but the temperature beneath me. Eventually, I got used to the water. The day went by but seemed unending, like it usually does for a child in the waves. In the distance, you could see large freighters heading across the horizon, their destination unknown to a stranger visiting this foreign land. Seagulls danced around the picnic that lay spread out on the area near the truck that we came in, while fellow swimmers and sun worshippers started to mingle about with the coming hour. After lunch, I begged to walk along the shoreline, down to the point that led out to eternity. Granted my fondest wish of the moment, and instructed to stay on this side of the sight line, I put on my shirt and walked along the Atlantic. Halfway down, I grabbed a long piece of driftwood and started poking the jellyfish which had washed up on the shore. Even though I had never been here before, slowly I began to feel like I was at home.
            As I approached the bend in the beach, an old man walked from the wooded area and down towards the water. In his hands, he carried an oversized silver jar. I wondered if the ships out in the distance had been calling him or if he intended to free a fish from its previous incarceration. I wasn't sure what to think, but instantly the elderly fellow grabbed my attention. He wore sandals, and long shorts and a hooded jacket which seemed beaded by colour. His grey hair matched his beard. I stopped myself from advancing, with a combination of fear and respect for his privacy. I wondered why he was alone and what he brought with him down to the sea. I sat in the sand, stroking my stick along the glassy soil, scribbling my name then trying to spy without being seen. The man walked across the beachfront and down into the water, never stopping until his shirt touched the foam. In one motion, he undid the lid, tossed it back to the sand, and began to pour out what appeared to be dirt. Some of it flew away with the wind that came off the water. The rest looked as if it just floated away. For a moment, he whispered something to himself while turning back towards the beach. He picked up the lid, wiped off the sand before he reattached it to the jar, and slowly walked up towards the woods. For a second, it looked like he was crying.

"I’d rather feel the sting of strife,
Where gales are born and tempests roar;
Than to settle down to useless life
And rot in dry dock on the shore."

             My friend James was right. Big Sur was absolutely breathtaking. From the giant trees, the cliffscapes, right down to the pristine beach I was directed to, I had never seen anything like the place. While exploring it, I often felt as if I was the very first person to come across this grand area of nature. I had been sitting on the beach for over an hour and the only signs of life were a few gulls and the ants playing with my empty Coca-Cola bottle.  Having arranged to meet here later in the afternoon, I came early looking for time to myself. I always had an appreciation of the California lifestyle and Big Sur held great appeal because of its splendour and laidback reputation. The Pacific Ocean stretched out before me, shimmering in the not too hot glare of the sun. I had been warned at the entrance not to swim out very far because of the riptide and currents, but I did regardless of the consequence. My body heaved for air against the warm summer and I fell into the earth to dry. The fare at the gate to the park was worth every penny.
            The southern end of Big Sur is approximately 394 km (245 miles) northwest of Los Angeles. The northern end is about 190 km (120 miles) south of San Francisco. Big Sur is a sparsely populated region of the Central Coast, along California State Route 1 between San Simeon and Carmel.  Nestled where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise from the Pacific Ocean, Cone Peak is the highest coastal mountain in the continental United States, looming nearly a mile above sea level and only three miles from the ocean. The mountain acts like a computer background, always somewhere in one's sight. Great bluffs follow along the coast, majestic and humbling in their magnitude. Part of the beach area looked like that scene at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, with sand leading to jagged cliffs, hanging from the edge of the earth itself. Dense forest covers most of the area, and the famous California Redwoods tower over the almost endless jungle. During this visit in 1992, the population was around 750. Little has changed for this natural retreat, as approximately 1,000 people now reside there year-round.
            James and his then-partner decided to take Doug into town to discover the hobby store which sold rare baseball cards and paraphernalia. I chose to be dropped off at the main gate to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and walk down to Pfeiffer Beach for some time alone in heaven. The two mile walk took forever, not because it was far but because every turn was awe inspiring, every vision stopped me dead in my tracks. I had to remind myself that I had enough time to explore, but I had to hit the beach well before my entourage would come to find me, as we had arranged.  Slowly but surely, the waves started to cry out in the distance. The closer I got, the more raging the sound. As a boy, when I was in New Brunswick, the waves, they called to me; here, they roared out for me, daring me to join in their fury. The water was as blue as any blue could be. It literally took my breath away. In Southern California, the ocean is brown and well used, but here the water was pristine. It almost looked like it had never been touched, reflecting into the sky in all its glory. Someone once said to me, "The ocean blue is the colour of God's eyes." This day, as I slipped into the azure tide, I started to believe it.
            I stood in the Pacific, listening to the breakers crash against the rocks and shore behind me. With not a soul in sight, I dove into the oncoming waves, reaching deeper into the plunge I had committed to. I scoured the bottom, looking for something to cherish which would remind me of these moments once I got home. I lingered in the flow of it, dancing like a sea lion trying to catch his dinner. Beneath the waves was a complete surprise for me. Having been trained to swim in the murky stew of the Great Lakes, the clear water made me think I was on another planet, unspoiled by the ways of the human race. Rising to the surface, the hard cold waves pushed against me, driving me back towards the beach and that sand. No one had mentioned the sand to me. At first it seemed a mix of tan and brown, but it freckled down the way until it turned violet. I couldn't believe my eyes, these lavender ripples, as if stolen from a rainbow, seemed endless once you looked north towards the bluffs. I could not believe I was witness to such unique beauty. I have never forgotten the moment that I discovered this color of purple.
            The sunlight had almost dried me off and the ants found their way deep into my soda pop. I just lay there, basking in the warmth of a California day. Suddenly, I could hear chatter coming from the hillside leading to the parking lot behind me. I heard voices and laughing, people were coming, so I sat straight up and put on my shirt. I checked my watch for the time, but I had plenty of time before I would have to greet my friends. The three old men looked jolly enough, each one with his surfboard under an arm and a gym bag in the other. They were elderly for sure; grey hair and wrinkles gave them all away. One was tall and dignified in his manner. I guessed he was around 75 years old. The other man was shorter, with a balding head and a bit of a beer gut under his shirt. He was no more than 65 years old. The third seemed quieter, as he walked softly just a few feet behind his friends. I would hazard to guess he was 70ish. You could tell from their determination, outfits, and accessories that each one meant to tame the surf and the sea. They stopped on the beach about fifty feet from me, one nodded in my direction, recognizing that someone else was on the sand. Suddenly, they began to strip. They didn't just ditch their shirts and hats, they took everything off for an audience of only me to see. I had completely forgotten that on Pfeiffer Beach clothing was optional.
            Things dangled where there had not been dangling before. I thought to myself that this was how the California Raisins got started. The chubby one seemed to almost dance with the same anticipation that had possessed me earlier in the day when I approached the beach. They picked up their surfboards and proceeded to stroll directly into the ocean. I was not convinced there was room for anything else to shrivel up, but I am sure something reacted to that cold water. For a moment, I considered leaving, unfamiliar with the etiquette of public nudity. As all three men paddled out into the surf, I decided to watch and experience the lifestyle of old men going naked in the sea. When my friends called to me from the pathway, I rushed to tell them of my candid experience. Doug laughed and mocked me, but the view from my little sanctuary in the sand found him bedazzled and ill at ease. James brought the cooler, his partner Paul brought the hibachi and we settled in, waiting for the sunset, not anticipating the occasional moon. Before the horizon devoured the sun and the red and orange flickers of twilight began to streak across the sky, each old guy left the water, grabbed his stuff and headed to their jeep.     
            The dramatic coastline, the crashing waves and the mountains off in the distance had befriended me all afternoon but words cannot express the beauty that came with the setting sun. In all my years, nothing else in nature has touched me so spiritually, as the shimmers off the ocean blended with the deep purple shades of the sand. I've never seen anything like it since then. I have always wanted to return to that spot, perhaps when I have aged into a golden boy I will make the effort. If those old guys could return to the ocean, then surely I stand the chance. I will, however, keep my shorts on. 

"I’d rather fight some mighty wave
With honour in supreme command;
And fill at last a well-earned grave,
Than die in ease upon the sand."

             In my mind's eye, I am one with age and the water. I can smell the breeze as it carries away these tales of old men and the sea. My body is worn by time, and travel, and by the course sailed during my days out on the ocean. I am sitting on the sand on an unnamed beach, waiting for the tide to come and carry me away. I picture the moment that we anticipate all our lives, my imagined grey turning to dust, then blending with all the other dust sent out on the waves. I take to the ride, unimpeded by any sense that my condition might limit the speed to my destination. I am dignified in it. I am thrilled to go that way. It is a quiet journey, but I meet the wet regardless of any lingering voices calling to me from where I have been. It is only make believe, a dream within this dream, but for the tiniest moment I understand.
            Although it may not seem like it from shore, there are countless ships passing in the distance. You may not be able to see them, and you certainly cannot hear their funnel stacks, but they are there nonetheless. Mere glimpses of them appear now and then, some clearer than others against the horizon you see. Some ships head into harbour, broken from the journeys they have made, never again to leave port. Some ships sail the ocean blue, never allowing time or age to deter them. They carry on travelling, giving it all until they can give no more. In the end, even ashes surf the waves.
            We know that we will face rough waters, but we take to them, unencumbered by the humanity that we have always known. It is not only the ships that pass which leave foam on the ocean. Dust in the wind will melt like wishes, tossed into the rough, tumbling, mixing with salt and sand, finding us part of some purple that cannot go unnoticed. We are drawn to the sea. More often than not, we sail it. Occasionally, someone goes for a swim.  

"I’d rather drive where sea storms blow,
And be the ship that always failed
To make the ports where it would go,
Than be the ship that never sailed."




The Ship that Sails, Author Unknown