The motel key was attached to a light blue, tetragonal pendant with room #24 stenciled on one side. I stepped out, locked the room, placed it into the front pocket pouch of my hoodie, and headed to the beach to walk the shore of southern Washington State. A long, thin, multi-mile peninsula from north to south separates the coast from the mainland, creating a vast sand causeway for walking, running, driving, and wandering.
I left shortly after breakfast and two strong espresso-built coffees, turned south, planting each step firmly upon the recently receded waterline that succumbed to the moon’s pull into low tide. The wind was coming from the east, off the shore and into the ocean towards the west, bringing with it warmth from the heated and protected inland. This warm wind pushed the sounds of the crashing waves out to sea, muting the incessant drone of continuous breaking into shallow and peaceful rolls. The sun was on my left, rising gently upward into an unobstructed, cloudless, limitless blue sky. The footpath between the motel and the beach meandered through dune grass and sandwort that created the foothold for scotch broom, shore pine and bay laurel. Without fixtures or landmarks of any kind, a return to this same spot would be unrecognizable if not impossible, so I dropped a digital pin on my coordinates
I canvassed my mind, I scanned my body, I sought my soul as I usually do on my walks and my momentum forward. Usually I look at and identify – no, I label – what I see and the label will determine how I feel; I might pass the same tree every day on a walk yet recognize in me a different feeling once I see and mentally measure it. It bounces my energy back to me in a decipherable code. Out here I couldn’t find any sounding boards. The sky absorbed me, stretching from horizon to horizon in all four directions, permeating a 360-degree space that bisected all four geometric planes. Without a cloud in the sky, promising at least a transient if not fixed location from which depth of field could be discerned, the stark, blue space tricked orientation into vertigo, where suddenly up seemed down, and bearings weren’t as easily held onto, physically nor mentally. Returning my gaze to the horizon in front of me, I experienced a dizzying feeling, and floating away into the vastness became suddenly palpable without any fixed, familiar landmarks that I could name and rely on. What creatures of habit we are. To my right the vast blue ocean, its churning and rolling starting from far out and from far away, its spent energy storming the beach in exhaustive fury, pulling my breath back out to sea with each flattened roll. The returning wave left a shimmer of water on the flat packed sand, reflecting likenesses from above like a sheet of glass or a silver plated mirror. Peering closer into this mirror, the millennia and the universe reveal themselves. Fossils of plant and animal life etched into stones and sand dollars, spiral shells reflecting the cosmos. The soft landing of sand in varying shades of brown, resting in the indistinct and irregular patterns formed by wind and tide each carry the gravity of their own story. These minuscule granules lifted and whipped their way into and around my face and hair.
I walked on, humbled by my surroundings and entertaining once again the direction I’m going in – and how similar to this nondescript, empty beach is that of a new beginning – without beacons, lighthouses, banners, flags, signs or sails, just an emptiness into which I trust to a vast, wide-open clean slate. I can go in any direction and now be anything. My options are as vast and open as the beach is wide and the shore is long, as the sky is deep and the water is fluid. And yet as beautiful and sublime as it was, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat antsy. Where were the familiar landmarks to confirm my movement? A tall, sturdy, reliable tree, a steady, strong boulder, an emerging, tough tree root from a worn down, foot-treaded path were nowhere to be found. Without a basis to measure momentum, it was suspect that I was going anywhere at all. Why has the idea of an anywhere become so important? Am I going in the right direction – or is there any right direction? When will I know to stop, to turn, to keep going, if I’ve arrived? Suddenly, the very rules of walking and the purpose of walking that we stick to on familiar roads became less important. I walked further on and remembered my breath. I began to use it as a measure with my footsteps, five steps on the inhale, eight steps on the exhale. I found a far off drishti that kept my head straight and my focus sharp. Soon I felt a serene reverie take over, a peace that was not only soft but also strong, a guide that wasn’t external but internal. Although my feet were planted, my mind was free. I was nothing and I was everything. An indecipherable euphoria swept through me and I gasped in glee as I felt it rush through me like the waves to the shore.
What followed was a peace that settled over and in me. What thought I stumbled upon to make it so was unknowable; which unspoken resolve offering a solution unrecognizable. Then at some point, after a wave pushed its water further onto the shore, creating a small estuary of sorts, I noticed the tide returning on its journey inland. From the short rolls dragging themselves to the ocean, the water stream pulled sediment with it, reshaping the sandy edges and ridges. If this small wave has such a force, the ocean body itself is reshaping the entire landmass that surrounds it. The brackish wind reshapes and reforms anything in its path. Landmarks change. They disappear then appear into something else. This mutable movement punctuates our lives without us being totally aware of it. We’re surrounded by far less permeable structures in which we live, work and travel, and become inured to a false sense of stability. From a plane’s window at 30,000 feet above a coast, the waves appear as standstill lines, never reaching the shore. But down here, right next to them, the water, the sand and the air move, and they move things in their path and in their wake with deliberate, steady movement. A place is an arbitrary, liquid fixture, trusted to move randomly and indiscriminately.
I felt the same resolve as the tide to return. I turned, yet faced the same mystifying emptiness this time heading north. The sun was now stronger. A man passed with a dog. A family got their feet wet. My mind became empty. A visual meditation, this is: a big sky, big water, big sand orb. At one point, I felt for the motel key. Since the beginning of my walk this was a deliberate practice, to feel for the key and its physical presence, the only reminder that I came from someplace stationary. Yet when I reached to feel it, it was gone. It wasn’t in my pocket. At first I felt the panic that comes with a loss of something important, although in that second the ramifications of that loss were not immediately clear. I looked around my feet and then around a ten-foot circumference of a neat and easy accidental drop. But all I saw was bare, smoothly packed dark sand. I’m reminded of a recipe. A half cup of firmly packed, dark brown sugar. I always enjoyed that part. Don’t just pack it. Firmly pack it. Get as much moist sweetness as possible into the measuring cup.
I needed to retrace my steps, all the way back to the estuary, where I felt my peace. There was no choice: the ramifications became clear, or at least became hazy. I was remembering a lost key fee – $5? $10? $20? I will have to pay it regardless. Then I wondered if it was even safe to stay in a motel room with a key by now in someone else’s possession. What was written on the pendant besides the room number? The hotel name? The phone number? A WiFi code, I remember now. I walked on, convinced I would find it. It had to have fallen out when I reached for the camera to take a picture of a shell or the sand or the waves or the sky or the silver mirror of a reflective tide pool. And yet no key appeared. In fact, my footsteps that I followed back were quickly disappearing. Were these even mine? Did I walk by that heap of seaweed before and not notice it? The sand, the waves, the shore itself were all unrecognizable because they all looked the same to my untrained eye, yet I couldn’t be absolutely sure I had passed this far down. The changes that occurred were slight in scope but large enough to transfigure the entire landscape.
My heart sank. I arrived at the peaceful place and found no key. Every step backward was a retreat into a past that no longer was as I remembered. Each wind current shifted the sand slightly more, rolled the waves differently. Each minute the sun climbed and the Earth pulled brought a new dance to the elements that left their imprint for a few moments only. And like this shifting shore, so our shifting presence. Our absence from a place shifts things around differently just as our presence in a place will do. We can’t go back to how things were, any more than I can walk back along this shore and recognize it. Elements and our own energies are constantly reshaping the environment.
I was disappointed in myself for losing the key when I had so deliberately and purposefully attempted to keep aware of it. Somewhere along the way, my awareness shifted to the intangible. At some point my awareness shifted, like the landscape I was traveling through, from the key to my internal focus and breath. The key’s disappearance must have happened when I let go of the need for stationary objects that normally mark my way, like a motel door along a road. I couldn’t help but recognize the loss as something trivial yet important – not because I needed to get back into the room and return to civilization – but because I had perhaps lost the need to do so; that this key not only unlocked the door to the motel but also locked me out from a freedom I needed in order to see clearly and into the next steps of my life.
I turned back once again, accepting the new freedom, resolved to let the past go, embracing the joy I felt that had been whipped up somewhere between sand shaping and wind scaping. I dropped the key in a past that was not there when I returned. It stayed somewhere in the past.
Half way home, two men approached me.
“Are you looking for a key?” One of them asked.
“Yes!” I called out, my voice lifting away into yesterday.
“We found it.”
“How did you know it was mine?” I asked.
“The way your head was down, moving from side to side. We figured you were looking for something. There’s not much to see down there but sand.”
Oh, but there is, I thought.
I thanked him and held the key in my hand. It was back in my possession, but I didn’t find it by going back. It was given to me when I was ready to let go of it.
Later that afternoon I sat comfortably with a book on a fold-out chair nestled in the firm sand. I drove the car out to the shore, onto that firmly packed dark brown sugar, and used it as a wind block. The book tried to hold my attention, but really it was the ocean that drew my gaze back, again and again. The seagulls floated and careened, preened and waited.
I noticed the black sedan off to my left, caught in a patch of light sand that must have fooled the driver. It sunk into its deceptive malleable jaws, left dry and loose, out of by the tide’s reach. The car sat, back tires spinning, trying its best to do what it always does, at the mercy of fine, granulated sand. If the tide comes in, the car will be lifted away, as light as a seagull’s feather that spins and swirls in the air.
I felt compelled to help him as best I could, unable to sit idle without offering something, even a sense of compassion. I had very little in way of makeshift towing ropes or chains. He seemed grateful that someone recognized his dilemma, and together we dug out the sand that piled around his back wheels, formed by his frenzied depression of the accelerator that only dug him in deeper. An effort at the impossible, he couldn’t gain traction or get himself out. Greater physical help would be necessary to release him back on his way. Soon enough another friendly soul came by, extracted a yellow cable-towing strap, hooked it to the car’s front end and pulled the sedan out in seconds. I felt his release, his joy, his relief. He may have felt a similar extraction from the earth as I had when walking on the shore just that morning, looking up into the vast blue – seeped deep in whorls of wind and freed from a menacing, tethering key.