Last night Kate and I got back from an eight day camping trip on the beach at Assateague Island. This is one of my favorite places on earth (of those places that I have seen!), and it was my fifth trip down there. The campground is simple, primitive and spare. The beach is pristine and wide and absolutely full of life. In the past, I’ve been there as part of a big family group, and each trip involved a lot of packing, planning, cooking, dishwashing and organizing. This time it was different. The trip was my daughter’s idea, and the two of us approached it as a real chance to be low key and low effort. Our meals were simple, mostly cold, and eaten whenever we got hungry. We walked, we slept, we swam, we read a huge bag of books and then went out to buy some more. We didn’t plan or scheme or even talk very much. We rested.
Unlike past camping adventures, this week gave me the unexpected gift of hours of time to myself. At first I was restless, but by the end of the second day, I realized that the repetitive sound of the waves served to mask the usual monologue in my head, soothing and drowning out the “shoulds” and “have to’s” in a supremely satisfying way. By the third day, I had learned to enjoy the lack of coherent thought, and to simply soak up the sun and wind and salty spray. If there is a Heaven out there, it will surely feel a lot like that beach!
One particularly beautiful mid afternoon, I was sitting by myself on the sand just at the edge of the surf. Ever mindful of the power of the sun, I was slathered in SPF 85, covered with a shirt, and wearing a big straw hat. I sat leaning with my hands splayed out behind me, my feet stretched toward the foamy waves. I looked straight out from under my hat brim, taking in the golden sparkles of the waves, the wheeling gulls, the purplish horizon line meeting the clean blue sky. The world before me was framed by the arc of my hat, and was as clear and defined as a photo. I swung my gaze to the left: limitless blue ocean as far as I could see. I shifted my head slowly to the right: nothing but blue and gold shimmering on into infinity. I was filled with happiness, as buoyant as one of the birds that I could see bobbing on the waves. I sat for a minute, tasting and holding that pleasure inside, until I began to ask myself its source.
And I realized something about myself in that moment, something that doesn’t make me very proud, but something that I will hold and treasure nonetheless. My exquisite joy in that beautiful setting came from the fact that I was completely surrounded by life on that beach, from birds, to fish and crabs and clams and mussels. I was surrounded by millions of creatures who were living and thriving and eating and breathing all around me, but not one of those living beings was human. It was the absence of other people that made that moment so sweet.
I don’t think that I would want to be all alone for long, or that I am truly misanthropic. But it was a wonderful, powerful, beautiful few moments when I felt like the only human on that beach!