By Rob Paden
Over all my years upon this spinning blue ball, I have lived in many, many places. But no matter where I live, for as long as I can remember (and even further back, I am told), I have always loved to walk the beach early in the morning and at day’s end.
When I lived on the wild coast of South Carolina, my house was a three-minute walk through a small dirt path to the beach. Memories of my time there—my toes sinking in the sand, salt blowing against my skin, the morning sun on my back—have always brought me great joy.
Each morning, as the sunlight first streamed into my window, I’d make a mug of coffee and take the dirt sand path, careful to avoid sandburs. The path was well worn by thousands of travelers, mostly as summer vacationers. In the winter, however, there were only a few dedicated individuals that would keep the grass trampled down.
I never wore shoes to the beach and the three-minute walk always felt like ten. Despite the slight chill in the air in the colder months, I would almost always wear a t-shirt and shorts, knowing the morning sun would soon peak over the horizon.
The end of the path took a sharp incline over a white sand dune covered in sea oats, swaying endlessly in the coastal breeze. Passing over the last dune to the coast always felt like reaching the end of the world—or maybe the beginning
I did not stop very often to observe these grass-covered dunes. When I went to this beach, I was on a mission. In the dark before dawn, the tide would bring in amazing gifts from the ocean—including many empty shells, which I loved to collect. The anticipation of what incredible things I’d find on the beach made each morning feel like Christmas as a small child.
I would walk with my head down, time slowing to a crawl as I marveled at the millions of crustacean houses deposited during the night. I’d try to walk just to the side of the shell line so I wouldn’t disturb or crush the delicate discarded homes. I never knew what I would find nor did I know what I was looking for until I saw it. Each day there were usually only a couple of shells that spoke to me. Some were chosen for their beautiful colors, others for their intricate patterns or unique shape, but all were collected because of some mysterious connection.
But I also loved to reach down to pick up a shell, admire it in the ever-changing light, and then put it back, knowing that one day it would turn to sand and join the vast and endless beach. I could never quite figure out why I kept some shells and discarded others.
During my morning walks, there were others on the beach. Some were doing the very thing that I was, some were exercising, and others were simply there with loved ones, taking in the salt air and watching the sun rise up over the horizon.
At the end of my slow walk, as the sun continued to rise, I would down one cold mouthful of bitter coffee and fling the rest of the cup into the lapping waves. I’d then look out at the sea, and think about the possibilities of the day, the promises of adventures, and hopes for the future. Almost every day, as I looked to the open ocean, I could see the curved backs and gray dorsal fins of dolphins. I often wondered what they were thinking. Were they playing, hunting, or just traveling from one place to the next? Were they the same dolphins I saw yesterday, last week or last month? I’d admire their grace and beauty until they disappeared into the distant waves.
Once home, I’d wash my newfound treasures and place them carefully on window shelves, so the sunlight could catch their brilliant colors or show off their unique shape, and so I could think back to why they had caught my eye. In the light, some have faded and turned gray, but I still cherish them. Others have become even more uniquely beautiful as time has passed. There are some shells in my collection that have lost their meaning to me or been cracked or broken, which I would eventually discard. I do not cull a shell from my collection lightly though, and I always try to remember why I had cherished this particular shell at one time before I return it to the beach from whence it came.
I look at my shells and think about them all the time, but there is only one shell, the rarest of finds, and it sits on the desk in my study. I spend my days writing there, and I think of its beauty every hour of every day.
Now, sitting a thousand miles away watching the snowfall, I realize that both the distant and vivid memories these shells bring me are perfect representations of the people I’ve met in my life. Some people that used to be important parts of my life are now fading memories, others have only come and gone in brief moments, and the small few that are still part of my life today I value deeply. But just like my shell collection, there is only one person that I cherish above all else, someone that I know every detail of.
I’ll always remember the day I found her by the great wide open ocean. The morning started like so many others—I can still smell the salt, taste the bitter coffee, feel my hair tossed in the gentle morning breeze. I almost passed her by, like we do so many others in life, but she caught my eye, and I realized in an instant that she was what I had been searching for all my life. She’s the adventure, the promise, the hope and my future, the rarest of finds and the most loved of all my discoveries.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2021 issue.
Learn more about seashells
Learn more about identifying shells, the history of seashell collecting, great shelling beaches, and the lives of the animals who make the shells we find on the beach. Articles ›
No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.