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A Walk on the Great Beach
John Hay
September 11, 1961
I lay in a hollow back of the shore, listening to the heave and splash of low waves. The sinking sun, like a colossal red balloon filled with water, swelled, flattened and, with a final rapidity, disappeared into the sea, leaving a foaming, fiery band behind it. I heard the trembling cry of a loon behind me, and then saw it fly over, heading north, it had been a hot day, the light shining on metallic, glittering, slow waters and sharp-pointed beach grasses clicking together in the faint wind. Now, with the dusk, the wind grew cool.
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September 11, 1961

A Walk On The Great Beach

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I passed several wrecks during the day, a reminder of the dangers that still face ships along this coast, with its shifting winds and treacherous offshore bars. The sands often reveal the timbers of old ships. One day you see ribs, sodden and dark and barnacled, reaching up out of oblivion, and not long after that the water reburies them in the sand.

I spent my second night not far north of Nauset Light. I started to bed down on the sand just above the high tide line, remembering, a little nervously, that this was the general area where a fishing boat had been wrecked two years before, and two men drowned. The sun had become my enemy during the day, and I suddenly felt the sea was no less implacable. A vague thought of being engulfed began to invade me, so I took up my pack and sleeping bag and found a way to the top of the cliff, where I spent the night in another hollow.

The dawn woke me up again, and its first light started the birds singing in all the thickets and heath around me with a sweet, high, shrill intensity as though they had all been summoned to worship at once. The land lay quiet except for the birds, ready for its next new morning.

As I saw it, from the top of the high cliff, the sea was relatively calm and the sun started to send light running across it in great distances ahead. It was a vast blue table, showing slicks here and there. I thought of other days when I had seen it mounting with extreme ferocity, almost boiling up, while the roaring wind took sand and flung it with a violence too much for human flesh to endure, or when the green marbled surfaces of waves born of distant storms reared up and attacked the shore. This Great Beach is a headland of great hostility and great peace.

Those who have tried it probably agree with me that a two-day hike on the sand is nothing to recommend to the casual visitor who wants to enjoy himself. You end up with aching limbs and a feeling that a turtle, if slower than you, is at least surer in its locomotion. I climbed up the bank with the idea of seeking shade and water wherever I could find it. The sun's heat, the vast drawing presence Of the sea beside me and the mere idea of going a few miles farther—and I had not gone more than about 10 to 12 that day—were weights on my skull. Though two days were enough at one time, still I recognized that there is no better way of knowing such a place than subjecting yourself to it. The great and constant realities of nature become apparent. Even at a distance, I think—now that I have retreated to Cape Cod Bay—I can also give credit to this great area for the rhythmic forces in it still untouched and perhaps not entirely understood by man. A major part of the American heritage, of which the establishment of this new park is a recognition, might be defined in terms of wildness, space, undefined reaches still ahead. Even in our numbers we still remember this, migrating from one age toward another.

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