Monday, September 22, 2008

Breathing space

It was my second trip to the lakefront in under six hours. The first was a lunch-hour dash to the nearby harbor, slipping into the “emergency sneakers” I keep under my desk for just such occasions. I combined it with a trip to the gas station and a "drive through" at the post office with a quick hike along the breakwater, dodging patches of wet seaweed and fresh puddles for some exercise and a couple of stretches before heading into court for the afternoon. One of the many reasons I love where I work...but still, just a cruelly short taste of the magic of the shore.

On the way home, though, a phone call from my son about a violin lesson made me realize that he wouldn’t expect warmed up spaghetti leftovers until at least eight. And so, as the exit to the state park on Lake Michigan loomed near, I recognized that the evening was warm and it was yet daylight and I had still had the chance to go barefoot at the beach and not get frostbite. Carpe diem. Who knew when I’d have another opportunity as effortless and spontaneous as this one?

I put on the turn signal and exited stage right, leaving the interstate behind in favor of a two lane country road to heaven. It’s that time of year again. Squirrels and chipmunks busily gather and store nuts for winter, guys who love engines start tuning them up and getting them ready to face the cold weather, and I just try to stockpile as many glorious days in the waning sunlight as I can to tide me through the coming months of short, dark, snow-filled winter. Bah humbug!

I paid my five dollar entrance fee for an hour-long pass to the state park. Judging by the fact I still had my annual 2007 park sticker on the windshield, a full year had gone by since I’d been here last. The past year's been a pretty wild ride. A handful of bikers and hikers were just leaving as I pulled into the closet parking stall at the beach. I peeled out of my shoes, grabbed a blanket from the back seat, and left the cell phone in the car.
It was just me and the seagulls. The soft, white sand was crisscrossed by hundreds of their webby footprints. The gulls gathered at the edge of the water, facing into the wind with a rank-and-file military precision. Now that Labor Day has come and gone, humans are scarce on the beach these days. I set the blanket down in the lee of a stand of beach grass, and dug my toes into the cool sand. The water was a shimmering, iridescent blue taffeta with silvery grey undertones. White waves and cross currents broke in airy froth that caught the setting sun. The horizon was broken only by a small sailboat in the distance. I still had a half-cup of coffee from Starbucks left, and the warmth I felt on my insides as I swallowed made for a nice balance with the cool breeze off the water. The seagulls watched me but kept their distance, apparently able to discern that a coffee cup alone without a picnic basket beside it would yield no prizes worth taking flight or scrapping over.

I sat, hypnotized as usual, by the rise and fall of the waves and the low, constant roar of their crashing. Like listening to the world breathe. No easier way that I know of to let your mind break free from the worries and burdens that usually dog every routine step. I think growing up in Chicago has a lot to do with it. When your fondest childhood memories involve sand and waves and sunlight and the smell of Coppertone, I don't think you ever lose that primordial hunger for the nearness of endless water and a horizon without limits.

The shadows from the woods behind me eventually lengthened and overcame the shore, and the whitecaps no longer gleamed brightly in the sun. I didn't need a watch to know it was finally time to go. I drained the last of my coffee, shook off the blanket and made my back to my car. It was still the only vehicle in the lot, looking like a shiny bright blue toy in an acre of striped asphalt.

As I left, I picked up a few white seagull feathers to take home to the cat. I’m sure he would have preferred a live mouse…but at least this would smell like some real prey. Then I nosed the car out of the park and back toward civilization, smiling all the way home.

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