An Island Point of View Nantucket Essays

Biking through the Mists of Memory

essay by Robert P. Barsanti

I follow a boy to the beach. He pedals a brown 12-speed Univega with red panniers hanging off the rear rack, as if he were pedaling across the country and needed to bring everything he would ever need. The boy is bent over the racing handlebars, with his hands resting on the lower handles and his butt raised by a fraction of an inch off the seat. He wears a Campagnolo bicycling cap, although his bike has no rat traps for his feet nor is he wearing a helmet.

He is alone, but for me.

He does not ride with care or caution. He swoops across the line of traffic without the benefit of a crosswalk, ignores the stop signs, and, in the fandango of youth, he slaloms down an empty road. He glides as if he were the phantom of a swift. The chains chuckles through the derailleur.

At the beach will be his book, an inflatable mattress that someone else will sleep on tonight, and a kite decorated like a seagull.

There will be time. There will be time for a cookout and for a nap and for a long walk down to Nobadeer and, if the waves are right and the tide is low, there will be a time to body surf all the way up the sand.

I follow him to the beach every June. After he locks his bike to the rack, he disappears down the stairs and into the friendly mists of memory. After the first swim, there is no other.

I have followed him every year. I have driven ten different cars in my time, I have travelled with a hundred others onto dozens of beaches, but he remains the great original to whom all swimmers must pay homage.

We always wind up at the sea.

For some of us, we come over the bridge, past the last Market Basket, and into the hurly burly of Hyannis and the Steamship Sometimes Authority, before driving down the ramp and returning. It has been months, it has been years, it may have been half a lifetime. For the rest of us, we are stuck on Old South Road, in between angry clients and a plumbing supply truck. It’s time to back out of all this too much with us.

The years cling. They collect in remittances, invoices, and birthdays. So many of the years are spent sitting and waiting. You wait for the parts to arrive, you wait for payday, you wait for the weekend. Out here, November stretches for six months without even a snow day. You wait for the summer, while the joints stiffen and the breaths grow short.

The boy stands with the bike between his legs, waiting.

This evening, I followed him into the fogless dark. Fisherman’s Beach has become one of my favorite South Shore beaches. On this night, the Strawberry moon cast the glowing moon-shadow across the Atlantic, the rolling surf, and the sand. Out on the water, the line of squid boats paced the night horizon. Another fisherman, on shore, had pointed his headlights into the surf and cast to the edge of the light. He stood alone and minuscule in the blue oceanic dark.

The night washed up over the sand, then climbed leafy dunes, and claimed the early summer homes. The renters had not come down yet, nor had the owners. Instead, the houses waited in their ocean view.

The waves kept an astronomical waltz time. In the moon-glare, a few constellations danced the tune. A southwest wind hummed through the beach grass and flung the sand like confetti.

The boy stood at the base of the stairs. Then he turned and ran.

I did not follow the phantom into the sea that night. Over the years, I have developed a fine reverence for the dark, the cold, and the wet. The years that slipped away in the first dive, would return with a vengeance as the tide pulled westward. In spite of years of laps in pools, I would slip undetected into the dark, but not unappreciated by scuttling claws or snapping jaws. There would be time enough for that, as well.

Nantucket has been a well-loved island for thousands of years. The Wampanoag stood here and stared at the sea. They waited for whales, or birds, or fish. But they waited and watched and measured the horizon.

The settlers, tending sheep, walked here. The shore whalers too, with their stands, their boats, and their tryworks, stood and watched. Later, there was a train, real estate speculators, and even a hotel, all called to the watery horizon and the rolling surf. The coast guard rescuers—who watched and walked this beach in search of the foundering, the floating, and the drowned—walked sand long since carried out to the deadly shoals.

Where they stood is hundreds of yards out to sea. The beach that copies itself, day to day, tide to tide, year to year, on a receding shore. What seems stable, slips away by the handful.

But not to the ungraspable phantom on the Univega. The beach remains what it was when he first saw it, eternal, electric, and ecstatic. To follow him to the beach is to drop the years like so many dirty tshirts and plunge into the waves. The cold remains, the waves remain, even the ribbed bottom remains. And you remain. There will be time for summer to return. There will be time for stripers and beach books and footballs thrown into the hands of a curving wave. Only the years slip away. The summer remains. Swim and be whole again.

Articles by Date from 2012