My dad likes to tell the story of how he saved our childhood. As he neared the end of his last quarter at Oregon State University, his job search took him to Chicago. A successful interview set our family of six, which included three boys under the age of twelve and a toddler girl, on the track of a comfortable life in the flat suburbs that stretched west and north of that mighty stone and steel city.

He had all but signed the contract, when he agreed to one last interview at a remote marine sciences laboratory on the Olympic Peninsula. He drove the long miles from our home in Corvallis to a bend of a road that overlooks a bay that feeds into a sea, which kisses Canada before spilling into the Pacific Ocean.

I was twenty-three before I visited Chicago for the first time.

An Olympic Peninsula beach

I have a pair of olfactory memories that frame my childhood. First is scent of rain. Rain on pavement, rain on soil, rain on roof tar softened by summer warmth, rain on freshly-mown grass, rain on the fur of the neighbor’s black Lab, rain on pages of library books, releasing musty secrets, rain, rain, rain that sluices off the Siuslaw Hills into the Willamette Valley and puddles in sweet, earnest Corvallis.

The Salish Sea, Olympic Peninsula

 

The second is the sharp, sweaty odor of the beaches of Dungeness Bay, which are strewn with ankle-twisting stones, rotting kelp and pock-marked driftwood.

And from the coast rise other memories that I inhale when the wind is right. There is the stone-fruit headiness that bursts forth when a carpet of coastal sand verbena is crushed under the toe of a blue salt-water sandal. The flirty, green spritzes of common vetch as its ropy stems and delicate purple flowers dry in meadows succumbing to an August sun. The forests of Douglas fir, which pitch out wafts of medicinal, masculine resin, beckoning you into their cool shadows.


Although I grew up on the anvil-shaped Olympic Peninsula, under a mountain rainshadow that allows tourist brochures to claim it as the driest Pacific coast community north of Los Angeles, I don’t do sea things. I fight a bilious belly if the thirty-minute ferry ride from Edmonds to Kingston rolls a little too much in the winter swells. I’ve been sailing…twice? I love to swim, but I prefer the tidy confines of the lanes at my local aquatic center to the slimy, cold depths of local bays. My idea of a vacation in hell is a cruise, trapped on a floating city of carbohydrate-laden breakfast buffets and spray-tanned bachelorettes.

But I am as spiritually attached to the open water as I am to writing, to running, to cooking — activities I can exist without doing or being a part of, but if I am kept from any for too long, my soul begins to shrivel. Living by a bay, a sound, a sea, an ocean is as much an action as it is a state of being. It gives me a sense of forward motion and the perspective of possibility.

How fortunate I am to have lived in Colorado’s Western Slope, where in winter the Rocky Mountains unleash oceans of snow by night and the Grand Mesa kicks up the waves of sun by day. And in Appalachian woodlands lush with humidity that rises from the storied waters of the Ohio River. Or in central Illinois, where once a sea of tall grass prairie reached to the horizon; it now pulses green with waves of cornstalks and rows of soybean. And in the arid valleys of central Washington state, whose sub-Alpine hillsides taught me how to hike, whose friendly country towns sheltered me through a bitter adolescence to my soaring university years and ushered me into marriage. These unique and precious regions bade welcome and I called them home for many years. But they are, each is, miles, hours, days from open water. And being close to water — water that shifts with tides, that is briny with salt and gastropods — is now a non-negotiable for me.

Oregon’s rain seeped into my skin as my first memories formed. Rain is as soothing to me as Big Bird’s simple joy and Mister Roger’s sky-blue cardigans. But the sea sinewed my heart and nourished my imagination with minerals and bacteria and protein.

Gore Bay, Canterbury Coast, New Zealand

I am working now on a series of connected stories that I hope to mold into something greater, someday, when the stories are ready to be pulled into one. The sea is becoming a character in her own right. My challenge is to turn my back on this character and write her as much a villain as a beloved. Although the sea represents endless possibility, her unforgiving, unfathomable depths make her the epitome of impossible.

*The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch. One of my favorite descriptions of the sea is the book’s opening paragraph:

“The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is a luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent. We are in the north, and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. The cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon which it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains towards the zenith and vibrates there. But the sky looks cold, even the sun looks cold.”