This is a longform post in response to the Discover: Memory challenge.
I spent my girlhood riding in the bow of a motorboat, through labyrinths of spartina grass, pulling wet hair from my eyes, licking salt from my lips, gathering sunlight on my freckled skin. My playgrounds were the brown rivers, the salt marshes, the barrier islands of Georgia.
When I was eight, my family moved away from the neighborhood I knew to a house on a too-small-to-name tidal creek near Tybee Island, Georgia. Out our new windows, I watched waterspouts drop into the Atlantic Ocean then pull back into the clouds; I watched the fat orange moon rise over the Back River, over palm fronds and live oaks.
Out those big windows, I gauged the tides against the six-foot tall marsh grass. The rivers dropped so much at low tide, the sticky mud beneath the marshy meadows glistened, exposed. As the tide rose, brown water climbed the grass, immersing it until only green tips poked above the surface. With tides, unlike the school yard with its cemented-down swing sets, the world was different every time I looked at it.
Our creek was only about 15 feet wide. Twice a day, at low tide, it was nothing but a trickle, and our white center console boat leaned, stranded in mucky brown mud. Black periwinkle snails speckled the gooey creek bed when the water receded, and yellow-green grass lined its banks like thick mats of tall turf grass. At low tide, our world smelled like marsh mud – like wet earth and dried water and boiled eggs; sulfuric, thick, warm. An atmospheric security blanket.
On walks down our planked dock, I watched fiddler crabs in the higher marsh flats; they dug holes and built pyramids of tiny mud balls at the entrances to their homes. When I paused to observe them, they stopped and raised steroid claws, protecting their territory. At high tide, the waters would wash over their excavated holes, submerge them, and sweep their little pyramids away. Next low tide the fiddlers would start all over again, grooming their turf.
I lived by the tides. We could take out the boat when there was enough water to float it, which in our creek was any time but the four-hour windows that straddled low tide each day. In summer, boating was what mattered. Boating meant freedom. It meant traveling without roads, without street signs and buildings. Just the natural world that was exposed to the elements, with sands that shifted with storms and tides, and plants and animals that had adapted to a life of salt and water. Boating meant getting out into the wild world, where people didn’t live.
The summer I was eight years old, I learned the tide tables. There were two highs and two lows each day, and by studying the tables, I could predict when the boat would lift off the mud, how long we could stay out, and when we needed to return home before the water dropped too low to reenter the creek. There was a particular tide cycle that happened only twice a month: when the tide was dead low at noon. On those days, we had to get out early or we wouldn’t be able to go at all. On those days, the tide required we stay out all day.
I remember the first time our family escaped for a full day on the water, that summer when I was eight. We left at nine in the morning on an outgoing tide. The fiddler crabs began their pyramids as the water retreated, releasing their homes. The boat rode low in the water, spartina grass waved above our heads, and my dad marked our course for Williamson Island.
I relished that hour-long ride to Williamson. We puttered out of our too-small-to-name creek, Dad opened up the engine, and we escaped into the wet wilderness.
Clad in a green little girl bikini dotted with tiny white daisies, I loved the warmth of the sun not just on my face, but on all of my skin. I perched in the bow the entire ride, marsh grass rushing by on the distant banks. I looked straight into the wind and my eyes crinkled from squinting into it til tears streamed from their corners. Water rattled against the hull of the boat, the motor vibrated in the warm deck beneath me, and I could have ridden like that forever. There were no pathways that had to be followed, no white lines painted down the middle of the river, no hierarchy to navigate to slide down the playground slide. Our barriers were natural ones: sandbars and oyster beds, mud banks and marsh grass.
The drone of the motor changed pitch as Dad pulled back on the throttle, lowering from a whine to a hum, and we turned from the Back River into a hidden creek, whose name I do not know. The air stilled and became close with the marsh grass creeping in on us, and we began what our family later called the Jungle Ride.
The boat rode low, at eye-level with the spartina so that we could not see over the tall grass to get our bearings. We were all alone out there. Not another boat for miles. It was just us, the summer blue sky, the tea-colored water, some grey oysters, and the neon green spartina grass, so close at times that I could reach out and touch it as our motor puttered steadily on.
I baked on the bow deck, scorched by the sun now because the small creeks required near idle speeds. I watched for alligators, or turtles, for jumping mullet. The air was heavy, thick with heat and mud. We skirted exposed oyster beds in the shallow water. We moved slowly enough that we could hear the oysters snap and pop. Fiddler crabs eyed us suspiciously as we rippled the water in front of their homes. Mosquitos buzzed.
Eventually the glassy creek opened up, and the maze emptied us into a wide waterway. And then, we saw the tan sands of Williamson. Dad nosed the boat slowly toward the island, to an area where marsh transitioned to beach. We felt the soft nudge of hull on sand, heard the chuff of contact. I ran up to the bow and saw the Atlantic Ocean, sparkling sapphire across the island.
Williamson was a wild island, with two miles of unspoiled beach: no beer cans, boom boxes, or pink plastic buckets. The island was unbridged, uninhabited by humans, and inaccessible except by boat. It instantly became my favorite place on earth.
On the eastern shore of Williamson, waves lapped the beach, and the Atlantic stretched to the horizon. I walked on wet packed sand, letting ripples wash over my naked toes, and I found treasures. I found moon and olive snail shells, shiny and beautiful on the outside, hard and impenetrable for retreat. I found egg casings from sting rays, and whelks, and skates; desicated horseshoe crab shells like rusted shovel heads; drift wood bleached by the sun and weathered smooth by salt and sand. I liked the thought of drifting, of bobbing in sunlight. I found a man-of-war washed up on the beach. I poked the jellyfish with my toe, avoiding its stinging tentacles.
I walked forever along that deserted shore, sometimes splashing in warm pools the receding tide left behind, sometimes entering them quietly and standing still to watch them come to life, to watch hermit crabs scurry across with borrowed snail shells on their backs. I marveled at the ridges in the sand that matched the ripples in the cirrus clouds. I ran my tongue along the roof of my mouth, delighted that I too had a pattern that matched. A pattern that told me I belonged.
The sun burned my skin as it inched across the sky. I walked till Tybee Island came into view, way off in the distance, through heat waves shimmering on the sand. I felt a shift in the tide. An onshore breeze indicated it had turned, and I decided I should turn around, too. On the long walk back, I watched the tide creep up the beach, louder now, its waves building with the force of an ocean behind them, washing up into the tide pools. Nothing could ever stop the tide. Nothing ever would. The tide was big and I was small, and I felt its changes, and I was a part of its world, like the moon snails and drift wood and the hermits and the ridges.
As I neared our boat, I wandered up to the high, white beach, where tides never reached. The superfine sand there was blown into dunes by the wind, and was so long untouched by salt water that sea oats and dune daisies had colonized it. The sand felt dry and soft between my toes, like warm pillows after the hard, tide-soaked sand lower on the beach.
Poking around in the dunes I found bleached versions of tokens I had found at the ocean’s edge. Bone white angel wing shells, sun-bleached sand dollars. But the treasure that surprised me, that made me stop in wonder, were three brown speckled eggs lying together in a hollowed out bowl of sand in the lee of a dune. There were no twigs, no leaves, no nest other than the indentation in the sugary sand, and the eggs seemed so delicate, so exposed. The way I felt in the human world. They were intact, and unlike the washed-up treasures I’d found, these eggs were alive. I looked around and saw no mother bird. I felt reverence for these vulnerable things, filled with the potential for life, and I dared not touch them for fear I would damage them. I just watched them, lying in the warm sand, in the bright sun, and I envied them their birthplace.
The water rose rapidly now; waves crased hard on the sea side of the island. We packed the boat and left Williamson, unpeopled again after our departure. The boat deck was warm beneath me on the trip home after that long day. The warmth of the deck and the drone of the engine and the vibration of the hull lulled me in my fatigued beach-day state. I lay down on the bow on a beach towel, my ear pressed against the anchor hatch, and the hollow chamber beneath amplified the sounds of engine hum and water rattling the hull. I fell into a deep, contented sleep.
I awoke when the engine pitch raised from a hum to a roar, and I sat up, pulled sun-streaked hair from my eyes, and turned my face to the wind on the Back River. We returned to our creek late in the day, when the tide brought us in under a sinking sun. We rode high in the water, the tips of the spartina grass below us, on the same level as the hull of the boat. The bully fiddlers would be submerged again. The breeze chilled my hot, sunburned skin, and when I looked into the sky, streaked pink and blazing orange, I saw a flock of birds flying inland in a V.
I licked my cracked lips and thought about those eggs at Williamson, how they would hatch into a wild world, full of sand and salt, how they would gather sunlight on their wings, how they would fly free, with no roads or street signs, no cemented down playgrounds to confine them. Like me when I perched in the bow of our boat. Like me, out here, where I was outside, but I was not an outsider.