On either side of
the land, which rose barely above water level, the ocean heaved and swelled.
The spit seemed to undulate upon it. Running more or less down the middle of
this ribbon of sand was a road of sorts—a track about as permanent as the wake
of a boat. Ruts made in it by previous vehicles lasted little longer than a
trail in water, buried within minutes in drifts, dunes, waves of sand. You had
to cut your own path through them. No caution could be observed, for to pause
was to sink, so we went at breakneck speed—I know of no stretch of road
anywhere that restores that tired expression to more vivid life. As in a small
boat at sea, we pitched, we tossed, we yawed, almost plunging into the water on
one side and the next moment into that on the other side. We rolled, we
crested, we bottomed. We were jolted in all directions, now against the roof
and now against the doors and now against the dashboard and now against each
other. His pipe removed from his mouth for safety, Al clung to the wheel. I
clung, when I could, to my door handle.
trip took 20 minutes; it seemed longer. After about the first mile of it I
began to laugh. I was laughing at my own madness in going to such lengths in
pursuit of fish. After that, I laughed because I didn't know what else to do.
Then I laughed to keep myself from crying. Finally, I laughed because I was
enjoying myself. So was my friend. There comes a time in life when, because you
are on an adventure, even an uncomfortable one, you enjoy yourself. It is not
the old routine, whatever it may be, and there is no knowing how many more
chances life will bring you to do something madcap. Living over just such
experiences as you try to fall asleep at the end of yet another day, you are
reassured that you have lived.
It was just over
a year earlier, shortly before his death, that the world-renowned fisherman
Charles Ritz had said to me, "Our kind of fishing, yours and mine,
fly-fishing for trout and salmon, is coming to an end. The habitat of these
fastidious fish has been tampered with too much. Their range has shrunk
steadily and, despite the efforts of a few concerned people, will continue to
shrink. The future of sport fishing is in the ocean. Only it—up to now—has been
big and mighty enough to withstand man's mistreatment of it." His
prediction was being realized faster than he had foreseen, if my experience the
past couple of seasons was indicative. So, late in life, I had faced about and
gone to encounter the ocean.
To get here I had
come a long way—not in distance so much as in attitude, orientation—and I had
arrived as ignorant as an immigrant. Born and brought up on the prairies, I had
remained a landlubber. Oh, I had crossed the Atlantic more times than I could
remember, both by boat and by plane, but once safely on either of its shores I
had headed inland instinctively. No beachcomber, I. That was not my element. So
much water seemed too much for me. Now, a latecomer to the ocean, I felt as
though I were the first, as though I had discovered it. From this desolate
outpost, in the nacreous light just breaking, it looked as though the ocean
were being seen for the first time, just emerging from the primal void.
A fierce wind was
blowing—just how fierce we would learn when, battered and bruised from our wild
ride, we stepped out into it. From off the Point it blew to sea laden with
sand, a veritable sandstorm, making the waves look like windswept desert dunes.
Arrested upon the wind, hundreds of gulls and terns hung low over the water,
screaming incessantly. The waters off the Point—treacherous waters where many a
shipwreck lies—matched the wind in their convulsions. Heaving and seething,
hissing loudly, the waves dashed against the spit, each lapping higher than the
last on the rising tide, each undertow capturing and carrying back with it more
of the shrinking shoreline. They seemed at war among themselves, wave rearing
and crashing against wave, roller chasing roller.
I was, of course,
far from the first ever to see it. From this very island, so changed since his
time, Herman Melville once looked to sea, and it appeared the same to him as it
does now to us—about the only thing that does. Arresting thought! We have
polluted it, depleted it, we have all but exterminated the leviathans Melville
fished for in it, yet it endures, outwardly unchanged. Of little on land can it
be said that we see it now as it has always been seen. The ocean withstands our
imposition. In its ceaseless motion lies its permanence.
No wonder we
invest it with prodigies, with sea serpents and monsters, for not even its real
and observable wonders, its whales and its great sharks, its giant squid and
octopuses, seem commensurate with its vastness, the mysteries of its depths,
its tremendous pressures, its titanic moods. No wonder we fancy it to contain a
Bermuda Triangle into which all who venture disappear, with a lost Atlantis,
with legends such as that of the Flying Dutchman doomed to wander eternally
over its wastes. The imagination is unmoored by it and drifts without landmarks
on its limitless expanses, over its fathomless profundities.
hereabouts, on Nantucket, perhaps, that Melville first had his thought:
Meditation and water are wedded forever?
At first the
doors of the Scout could not be opened. They were unlocked, yet they could not
be opened. When finally one was, the wind took it, wrenched it half off its
hinges, slammed it against the front fender and sprung it so it could not be
closed again until after a visit to a body shop.
could not see your feet; they were lost in the driven sand. It seemed that the
entire spit was being blown away; we wondered whether by the time we were ready
to leave we would be able to get back overland. There was no looking into the
wind—no facing it, even. Wherever you were exposed to it, your skin smarted and
stung, even the palms of your hands. It was a moving wall. It doubled you over,
knocked out your breath, rocked you on your heels. It threatened momentarily to
blow just a puff harder and pick you up and hurl you out to sea. The sand
filling it was coarse, all finer stuff having long since been winnowed out;
rated as shotgun pellets, it would have been about No. 9, the size for quail.
With that blast you could have frosted glass, removed house paint, scoured
brick buildings, engraved—or effaced—tombstones. Luckily for us the wind was at
our backs as we faced the water; otherwise we could not have fished. Had we had
to cast into the wind, it would have flung our big, heavy lures, treble hooks
and all, right back at us.