Shipwreck! Like a bold-font heading from the more excitable history books, full of swashbuckle, flashing swords, hook hands and bandanas, my friend Brian spoke the words. “A shipwreck in our own neighborhood, did you know?” His voice – adventurous, mischievous, pirate-like – made me reconsider the location for my usual afternoon walk. Instead of heading out to our nearby beach, I’d start-up the car and drive four miles north to the Estero Bluffs. Along the cliffside, I might walk into a fantastical relic of history. For it was there, several days past that a fishing boat went astray.
The long trail from the parking lot off Highway 1 to the bluffs has changed since my last visit. I remember sunshine, tall sparkling yarrow, cow’s parsnip and stout reeds of grass. Today’s view takes in a flattened and stick-filled landscape, surprisingly dry with the ocean so close.
Thin, empty reeds stretch up from the grasses, now brown and appearing as if Mother Nature has brought out a brush and combed the strands of pale ash blonde against the earth. The ocean hides. Even the sound of the waves lurks behind the stingy landscape. Today’s sun casts its warmth onto the unseen tops of the cloud cover. Gray sludge fills the sky. I strain toward the promise of warmth through the clouds, but there is little feeling at all. I walk in the absence of heat and of coolness. It’s almost a sense of suspended weather: not hot, not cold, not breezy, not still.
I walk the dry path, avoiding the long and deep crack of moisture-deprived soil and dodging the millions of snake holes. Where are the snakes? With so many holes, there has to be a population of snakes that this flattened grass and thin tall reeds cannot hide. In the earlier lush of spring, when creatures that wanted to hide were given their heart’s desire, I had stopped to watch a long, fat, dappled snake worm into its hole. But today, with an unaccommodating landscape, I see nothing that moves. Neither snakes, nor the friendlier ground squirrels, nor even any insects.
And then, suddenly, there is a boom from incoming ocean fronting an off-shore rock, the crash and crash again riff of the tide, and I step to the edge of the bluffs. The drop-off to the water is immediate, thirty feet or more. The earth gives way here and there, and I step back, remembering that me and quick drop-offs do not peacefully co-exist. There is a trail close to the edge and another a safe ten feet away. I choose the safer route, even with the possible companionship of snakes.
To the south, over the crest of a bluff, I see the very top of a fishing boat mast rocking in the tide. I have seen fishing boats before from this path, but to the west, plying their trade in the deep water, miniatures along the horizon. But this one leans against the cliff, bumping into land with each incoming wave. Too close. It shouldn’t be here and doesn’t belong. But there it is – the wrecked ship.
For twenty minutes I walk toward the site. I am losing Brian’s cheerfulness, and wish he was here to remind me why this was a good idea. Along the way, I pass a small feeding frenzy. Pelicans and cormorants and sea gulls lunch on the usual menu. A seal raises its head from a nap, looking sweet and innocent. And well-fed.
There are two people standing near the shipwreck, looking, but not approaching. For the entire time I walk toward the tragedy, they stand paying their respects. For, suddenly, that is how I see the whole situation. Not an event from long ago, nor a paragraph in a history text. But a tragedy in a neighbor’s life. I remember a simple texted comment made by someone after the newspaper article: How did this boat get where it is? And another comment in response: Poor Piloting. As sudden as the boom of wave against rock, I remember that life isn’t about simple answers. Too often even the best pilots are lost.
Against a backdrop of unruly fun and whimsy, I am brought back to simple rules. We all walk the plank of life. I feel I should erase the exclamation point I put on the end of someone else’s tragedy. Shipwreck.