Unfolding the Map
This is the farthest east on land that we will travel - we still have to get on the water a little - but after this Ghost Dancing will be pointed south and east and we'll begin the last phase of the Blue Highways journey. But for now, we'll sit on the bluff over small cove with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and reflect on the ocean and how it is a balm for the soul. To reach the end of our eastern journey, point your finger toward the water on the map.
"...I bought two pounds of steamed quahogs (also called 'littlenecks' and 'cherrystones' when small), walked to Bradbury Brothers grocery for a stick of butter and two bottles of Molson Ale. I packed up my dented aluminum pot and Swedish stove and headed down through the sumac and wild beach roses to a rocky coign of vantage just above a tidal cove Vikings likely saw. While the tide went out, I melted the butter and warmed the clam broth, dipped the steamers into the broth and hot butter, and ate, sitting against the granite, drinking the Molson's, watching the water.
"....A westerly had blown in strong, and the little Cape Porpoise fleet was returning early, each boat carrying into the pier an attendant flapdoodle of gulls circling as sternmen gutted the catch, then swooping the water for the pitched entrails."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 2
Cape Porpoise, Maine
I know I'm not alone in this, but the ocean is one of my happy places. In about three weeks I'll be heading home for a long overdue visit to see my mom and to attend my 30th high school reunion. During my ten days or so on the coast of Northern California, you can bet that I will be spending a lot of time by the ocean. I probably won't get as ambitious as LHM and cook seafood on the bluffs, but I will walk the cliffs, scamper in and out of the coves, check out the tidepools, visit the seal colony north of town, and soak in the sight, sound and smells of the Pacific Ocean.
Being born and raised by the ocean, sometimes it's hard to believe that I now live in a desert, where water is scarce and the air is dry. The ocean's character, changeable and moody, translates to the weather which itself displays many moods. On the other hand, the desert presents one with the same face most of the time. Where I live, in Albuquerque, the sun shines on average 320 days per year. When I lived near the ocean, I valued sunny days. Fog and clouds were often the oppressive norm on the coast. Now, when I talk with my sister and mother and they complain about the clouds and fog, I secretly wish that I were there, soaking in the moisture through my skin and feeling the sea spray and the rain upon my face. I never thought that sunshine could be oppressive until I lived in the desert.
The ocean always did more for me, however, than just provide character to my environment. Each night, when I went to sleep, I could hear the waves crashing on shore a mile away. I could hear the warning buoys anchored offshore, mourning their low sounds with the movements of the waves, and occasionally the bells attached to them. The sound was background noise to lull me to sleep in the cold and damp night air.
As a kid, I didn't appreciate this aspect of the ocean, though sometimes I would find myself in contemplation of the ocean as we drove next to it on our way to someplace or another. Now as an adult who lives away from it, I find myself drawn to it in a way that I never was when I lived next to it. The ocean has become a temple that I don't often get to visit. It has become my equivalent of a mountain Buddhist retreat. My trips to see my home are my version of a pilgrimage to a saint's final resting place, or to the Holy Land. It is my undertaking of the Haj. It is not that I worship the ocean...it is not my god though like a god it is filled with moods, mysteries, and is something to be celebrated as well as feared. But the ocean also provides me with emotional, physical and psychological nourishment and sustenance. I cannot be anything but contemplative when I visit the ocean. It puts me in that sort of way. The sounds of the waves lapping against the shore on a calm day, or the roar of the waves on a stormy day, is a symphony to my ears. The various forms of light from the sun as it makes it's way across the sky, or the colors that ocean turns, from the deepest blues to the grayest grays and everything in between, is the best mood lighting that has ever been devised.
If standing on the ocean shore, or along the bluffs that overlook it, has a balm-like quality to my soul, then I often wondered what I'd find out there on it. I'll get into more of that in the next post, but I would sometimes watch the fishing fleet go out of the harbor. As the boats filed out through the jetty and into the small cove, sometimes a fisherman would wave from the prow. If it were a foggy day, they would then vanish one by one into the mist, slowly fading from boat to outline to mere suggestion until they were gone. I used to wonder where they went. I fantasized what the fishermen might see out there on the gray water beyond the horizon. I speculated if they would be perpetually stuck in the fog, close in around them, with only a small circle of water that they could see while the rest of the world was gray. Or, I wondered if they would come out of the fog into bright sunlight, so that our world and our reality was revealed as gray and while out there the real world was bright and sunny and filled with blue water. My thoughts populated that ocean, just beyond the horizon, with small islands that only the fishermen knew about - little worlds of their own beyond my sight but not beyond my imagination.
Of course, the fleet would eventually come in and, on good days, with their holds brimming with their catch. My uncles were part of that fleet, and when they had plenty they would share with us - a salmon here, a halibut there, sometimes a couple of crab which my mom would make me clean. I would stare at the dead crab, its size often about as big as a large manhole cover, and crack it open with my fingers and remove as much meat as I could get out of it. I imagined that not too long previously it had been wandering about on the sea floor and that only chance and bad luck had led it to the crab cage that my uncle had left on the bottom. Then, I would take the crab into my mom and would enjoy crab meat on my salad and somewhere in my mind I would be thankful I lived near the ocean, and thankful that I had fishermen uncles who shared some of their catch with us. As night fell and then settled, I would fall asleep in my room again to the gentle roar of the ocean, a mile west of where I lay, singing me to sleep again with its soft lullaby and the mourning of the buoys.
Since Cape Porpoise is a seafaring village, with a fishing fleet, and is closer to Newfoundland than anyplace else in Blue Highways, I decided to throw in something from the band Great Big Sea. I remember first hearing this "Newfie" group about 10 years ago, and loved them. Here they sing about Lukey, and his boat, accompanied by the Celtic supergroup The Chieftains.
And how about a triple shot? There are a lot of Italians in my hometown, and many of them were fishermen. Combine Italian musicians with an Irish tune about the sea, and you almost have perfection! This is the Modena City Ramblers, with their Canzone della Fine del Mondo.
If you want to know more about Cape Porpoise
Next up: Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean