It is my profound wish to live next to either a lake or the ocean. I have in my head a very specific view of glittering water seen between the trunks of many large trees, their canopy of green leaves swaying overhead in the same cool breeze that ruffles the waves. It looks a lot like this picture I found of Lake Owen, in Wisconsin (and which I use as the wallpaper on my PC desktop):
I want to see this view from the window while I’m working at my computer or preparing food at the kitchen counter, or when I’m relaxing on the deck.
Part of this desire comes from childhood experience — which, like many such experiences, I didn’t appreciate until I was grown. My maternal grandparents lived in Wonewoc, Wisconsin; the year I was born, the state began construction on the manmade Lake Redstone. When the lake was completed, in about 1967, they and their best friends bought lots next to each other. I remember driving on dusty gravel roads through the hilly Wisconsin countryside, stopping at a little store that was more like a shack to buy a cardboard cup full of black dirt and red earthworms, and finally pulling off at the top of the steep hill that led down to the water. We walked (scrambled is more like it) down the wooded hillside, holding on to trunks and branches, until we reached the shoreline. There, my grandfather and I would sit on a huge rock. He would patiently bait my fishhook, I’d toss the line into the water, and together we’d watch for the bobber to suddenly disappear beneath the surface, signalling that another bluegill would soon be ready for my grandmother to clean.
My grandfather died when I was in sixth grade, and he left the lake property to me. But with junior high, high school, and college came more things to do, little appreciation for sitting on rocks by lakes, and a need for money. At some point during my college years my family sold the Redstone lot for a few thousand dollars; I didn’t give it a second thought.
Today I would kill to have that acre of land, where we could build a little house and have our own summer retreat. (Similar property now sells for around $200,000, and lots with houses range from the almost affordable [for tiny cabins] to the completely ridiculous [for beautiful contemporary homes with extensive decks].)
I don’t know whether I’ll achieve my fondest wish of living next to water full time. However, I do spend one week a year within hearing of surf and within sight of a sandy beach; for spring break we go to Sanibel Island and stay in a beachfront condominium at Pointe Santo de Sanibel:
We leave the sliding-glass door open from the living room to the screened-in porch all day and night, so the sound of the waves is constantly in the background. From the porch, about 20 steps takes you across the thick tropical grass and under the palm trees to the edge of the white sand; and from there it’s about 100 feet to the Gulf of Mexico, depending on the tide.
During our annual vacation we kayak through the mangrove jungle at the island’s nature preserve, we rent bikes and pedal for miles on the bike paths that adjoin all the major roads, and we eat far too much wonderful food at places like the Bubble Room and Cheeburger Cheeburger. But I’m happiest when I’m walking in the water at low tide, just beyond the point where the waves break, in water about knee deep, scanning the beach for shells. My very favorite is the cat’s eye (also called a shark’s eye):
They’re relatively rare on Sanibel. Some years I don’t find any. Sometimes I find heartbreaking partial shells that speak of a whole that must have been nearly as big as my fist. This year I found six, including one that the sea washed up directly at my feet.
The waves gave me another interesting gift this year. I was strolling in the water, and saw a flash of white. I thought, “That looked sort of like money — but that’s ridiculous.” I took another couple of steps, felt a brush of paper in the water against my leg, and put my foot down quickly to catch whatever it was. When I reached down into the cloudy water, I pulled up a fairly new $20 bill. It speaks highly of the sturdiness of American currency that despite having been rolled in sandy waves that routinely break shells and rocks into bits, the bill was intact and in pristine condition. It dried in a couple of hours and bought us breakfast on the way home.
But this year’s greatest gift came in the form of unusually low tides. On several occasions, the water receded so far that we could walk more than 100 feet from shore and never get wet past our ankles.The two lowest tides came at night, so we roamed the newly revealed sea floor with flashlights. The vast stretches of shallow water revealed smooth sand and sea life that we had never seen before, including startling numbers of pale pink sea anemones. These creatures have tube-like bodies about six inches long; they burrow into the sand, leaving only a flower-like array of soft tentacles on the surface. If you touch the anemone lightly with a finger or toe, the tentacles close inward in a flash. Poking sea anemones (or “squishies,” as my son preferred to call them) became a game for my children. (Disclaimer: No sea anemones were hurt in the enjoyment of this vacation.) Touching them on purpose is fun; stepping on one accidentally is extremely startling, because the soft, sticky tentacles immediately grab your toe or the bottom of your foot. Thus our night explorations of the tidal flats were punctuated by my little involuntary shrieks of surprise.
In addition to the anemones, we saw at least five species of crabs, whose shells had widely varying colors and spot patterns; innumerable shore and wading birds, and the small, ghostly white fish they were hunting (they reminded me of cave fish); and many very large, very alive cockle shells, conchs, and welks, the bivalve or univalve gastropods reaching out to investigate the sea floor or inquire as to why they had been picked up for examination.
All this evidence of beauty and life, usually hidden by waves, was exhilarating, especially when viewed by flashlight under the deep black of a sky spangled with bright stars, tiny bright boat lights in the distance, the shore far away across an expanse of night-dark shallows. I could happily walk for hours every night during such a low tide, enjoying the warm ripples on my feet, the breeze, and the new surprises underfoot. I’m never ready to leave at the end of our annual vacation, but this year I wanted more than ever to stay — to claim the low tide as my own special domain, a gift given to me by the sea.
This desire makes me hope more than ever that some day I’ll have my home by the water. I don’t need a $1.5 million condo by the Gulf; any little house will do, as long as I can look out on a vista of trees and lake or ocean, and hear the sound of wind and waves. This is a gift that I hope life will give me.