By Shelley Thomas
The San Francisco Bay is home to some pretty gnarly things. It’s home to Alcatraz Prison and the habitat of eleven different species of shark, including the great white. Its bone-chilling temperatures are known to induce hypothermia, and it possesses a current that forms a 300-foot-wide wall of water when shot through the underwater canyon beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. If that weren’t enough, multiple fault lines run alongside the Bay, ready to slide the place into oblivion at any time.
Those who live here know the Bay is also home to skylines of poetry, wildflower blooms in every color, sea otters, and starfish, cloud rivers, and hypnotic sunsets. It’s a goodie bag of treasure for anyone willing to plunge a hand into mud or scrape a knee on a sheer crag of splintered rock. Vestiges of intrigue and machination are flecked in shores and sediment like mineral deposits. If you know where to look, you may just find a craggy bit of coastline rich with the tales of the of people who’ve called this place home, some for over 5,000 years.
I’m a big believer in what many combers call “The Spirit of Aloha,” a philosophy of community and love steeped in an ethos of fellowship. I’ve encountered strangers on beaches worldwide who’ve shared their secret spots and given gems. Often the better find of the day is the friendship made. Every shared experience contributes to the burgeoning litany of artifacts and locations, adding to the collective consciousness of combers around the globe, and transforms the world into a series of treasure maps stitched together like a community quilt. Die-hard combers can detect with precision locations, simply by looking at a specimen of sea glass posted online. The “find” itself is the “X” that marks the spot. “That’s a Davenport. That’s a Seaham multi. That’s Shippersea Dragon Glass.”
I also believe everyone needs their own bit of wilderness. “A room of one’s own” as Virginia Woolf put it all those years ago, a literal and figurative place where one can slip away from the bombardment and demands of others. A secret place where you are free to be lost and resurface at will, in order to connect with the part of yourself that hides whilst in the “peopled” world. We need our secret spots in order to be our secret selves and have our secret thoughts. We need our secret beaches, even if just for a while.
It’s the stuff that sets a scurvy heart pounding: thrill of first footprints in sand, fresh expanse of shining stone, an anonymous grotto or inlet, and the anticipation of what waits resurrecting from the surf.
I have been a custodian to three secret beaches, each at different times in my life. Tending to the flotsam and jetsam that wash up on a pebbled island in the New England Atlantic, cleaning a reedy stretch of beach on the shore of Lake Ontario, and most recently scouring a slippery strand of coastline in the San Francisco Bay.
For the past year, this has been my secret beach, my hidey-hole. I named her “Stopper Row” for every visit yielded at least two bottle stoppers, always different from ones found before. Aqua, lilac, sage, brown, and white; some weighty, others light as thimbles. Some in shapes which are themselves hallmarks, such as the pair of 1940s penny stoppers, while the identities of others remain riddles yet to be solved. It’s not a pretty beach by conventional standards. Rocks are caked in sundried ocean scum, and often the acrid smell of rot will smart my nose. Thorny branches lie in wait to trip up careless feet, and clumps of rusted wire spike from the bank like spines of a prehistoric sea urchin. Still, it’s my patch of solitude in an otherwise crowded life. Quiet protest. Resolve against. Act of resistance.
Although, “Stopper Row” isn’t an entirely accurate moniker, for on this crust of coastline, all category of treasure can be found in the jumble of seaweed, sludge and rock. Sea foam green Coca Cola bottles rest in heaps like bones in an elephant graveyard. Edges softened, surfaces frosted by years of scraping and tumbling along the bottom of the ocean. I’ve found antique bottles with queer markings, pottery shards, chunks of insulator glass, candy dish lids, and bottle kick ups. I’ve collected silver spoons and forks; knives scabbed in years of ocean crud which, after a good scrub, revealed possible telltales of World War II with letters “USN” and “USN MD” stamped on handles. Once, as I skittered off the path and onto the beach, I was startled to find a man carrying a Tupperware container before him as though it were an idol. He called me over to inspect. It contained an octopus the color of rust found “stranded at the wrack line.” He was in the process of returning the little being back to its ocean. Other than this one passing, I can’t recall encountering another human soul on this ragged stretch of shoreline.
More important than the glass stoppers and trinkets from yesteryear, treasure of another sort surface, too. My thoughts are free to bubble up, uninterrupted; my voice unbridles and I am often surprised to find I’ve been singing unaware. I’m writing future chapters and unspooling lines that won’t come when I’m stuck staring at the blinking cursor on a computer screen. On the beach I’m solving problems. I’m creating and collecting. Sorting what to pick up and put down, what to keep and what to throw away along the shoreline of my life. This is the best kind of comb. And for me, it occurs when I’m alone. Just me and the beach. My secret place. My secret self.
My husband and I have since moved from California and have returned to our home country of Canada where I’ve started the hunt for a new secret beach where I can be lost and found in the wilderness of myself. I still think about “Stopper Row” every day and all the other secret beaches that have shaped my life’s edges, just as time and surf have shaped theirs. Inspired by the “Spirit of Aloha,” I’ve given the coordinates of “Stopper Row” to a fellow comber who’s also a treasured friend. We met three years ago, when I was a stranger on “her beach,” unfamiliar with the tides and hoping to find the elusive glass gold that rolled in the Californian surf. Moved by “Aloha,” she welcomed me into her fold. Now, she combs the strand of “Stopper Row” adding a new location to her personal coastal litany. It fills me with joy to imagine her cleaning and tending to that shoreline and marveling at the gifts surfacing from within along with the gifts she winkles free from the murk.
In the grand scheme of things, we’re only custodians and curators existing in and passing through these spaces for a short while. May we all find a “beach of our own” and experience the mindfulness and gratitude that come from communion with such a place. And when the inevitable tide rises on the shorelines of all lives, may we find we had treasure enough.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.
Thoroughly enjoyed reading the article. Well written. Thanks, and Aloha.