We had four days to get from Columbia, South Carolina—where my son had just graduated from Army basic training—to Charlotte, North Carolina, where we were scheduled to fly home again. Without any plan in particular, we took off to explore the coast, driving from Columbia to Charleston the first day. I hoped to walk on the beach and wade in the Atlantic every day until we had to cut back cross-country again.
We found the shore to be very well guarded, however, by miles and miles of habitations and private property. People seemed to live on every square inch of seaside, even the marshy bits, and we became discouraged. I tried to remember that people had been settling the East Coast since the 1600s and that every mile, every acre must be closely accounted for by now. Arizona had only been part of the United States for a hundred years; why was I so surprised at the lack of breathing room here? But I was, and I resented it. It seemed somehow selfish. What about people that just wanted to look at the ocean, and walk in the surf? Any time we ventured down a road or lane or dirt path toward the sea, signs and gates blocked us access, and it began to seem that the sea, too, was private property unless one was willing to pay a premium.
The smell of the sea was our only clue, aside from the GPS that insisted the ocean was nearby. That, and the frequency of sea-food restaurants that promised—and delivered—dining heaven. But miles of trees and what we’d come to call the “tree tunnel” blocked our view, except for the occasional bridge that took us over estuaries and rivers. Beaches here were different here than the rocky pacific northwest, the sandy miles of west coast, and even the Gulf of Mexico’s placid waters. Perhaps we had been spoiled by the open vistas in the west; the south-east coast was turning out to be a claustrophobic place.
We found a public beach our third day on the coast; Myrtle Beach, of course. I was dying to sink my toes in the sand of the Atlantic for the first time. We parked in a paid public lot, almost full at 10:00 a.m. A few people in wetsuits were already finished with their day and were loading their car. Did I imagine an air of superiority cast our way? The sense that we were latecomers and they had already partaken of the best part of the beach, that we tourists were getting their leftovers. I didn’t care. They could be superior if they wished. I was going to the beach at long last.
We walked, I led, following the occasional sign, and we found a break in the eternal run of vacation homes that led to the beach. The sand sifted over the cement, and I pulled harder on my patient husband’s hand, needing my salt water and needing it now. There was a sign that said young turtles were protected. I thrilled at the thought that baby sea-turtles hatched here. I removed my shoes and hung them on the fence, hoping nobody would bother them and we could later find our way back to the car using them as landmarks. Girl Scout orienteering, to the rescue again!
We walked along the water for miles, gathering shells and stones and sea glass. This beach was different from all the other beaches I’d known, it had its own flavor. Yet it was still the sea and I was comforted. The sounds were similar: sea birds and surf and people murmuring and children shrieking and dogs barking and the sough of the wind. The scents, too, were familiar, and the feel of sand clinging to my wet toes. I could taste the salt, as I had for days, but now I could let my senses drink all of it in and it was good.
We found a half-drowned honey-bee struggling in the surf. I picked it up with a piece of driftwood and carried it along as we wandered back to my pink shoes. I left the bee on a blooming bit of shrubbery, hoping it would find nourishment and wend its way home again. Fed by the beauty and the salt air, we made our way home, too.