The mountains are one kind of beauty and the beach and ocean another kind of beauty and I have been privileged to call them both home.
I am a Flat Lander, a Beach Girl and an immigrant in a state full of mountains, forests and farmlands. There are mountains in Massachusetts, but my whole life until I moved away was in a beach town and occasional sea ports.
I have lived in other states, including Washington State and Florida, Virginia and Maryland. But I have lived in the state of Pennsylvania longer than I have lived anywhere else. Thirty-four years, and counting.
In truth, I was so caught up in the needs and responsibilities of my early life, and single parent years, to notice whether I thought a state was pretty, or anything else, until I woke up re-married and living in south central Pennsylvania, just north of the “Maryland Line.”
I quickly grew to love my new state with its hills, mountains and farmlands. And I loved showing it off to my mother, who was living in Baltimore at the time. Although we were from different states, she too was a “flatlander” and a “city girl.” When she came to visit sometimes I would take her for rides or we would go to York shopping and she never tired of the beauty of the hills and the farmlands. And I never tired of showing it off.
I was struck that first year of the corn harvest, how one could drive all over the local towns in Southern York County, and see cornfields, ripe for the picking, at almost any turn. In an odd way it put me in mind of how at home, in Onset, almost anywhere you turned, you could see the blue of water, or if you were lucky, the maroon velvet of local cranberry bogs; similar, but different.
I had lived in York County for ten years, when we moved to Towanda, Pennsylvania, in Bradford County, nestled in the Endless Mountains. I learned there, that the mountains of York County that I had so admired were hills, in comparison.
My first mountain ever though, was Mount Ranier, in Washington State. I had gone to Tacoma to visit my brother and his family for two weeks in 1969, and stayed for almost a year. I had been in Tacoma for two weeks before I caught sight of Mt. Ranier, which I quickly dubbed, “My Mountain.” Arrogant, but ah youth. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, snow capped, and distant, but visible for miles around, and when I saw it for the first time, I said I never wanted to leave. To learn more about Mt. Ranier National Park, check here: https://www.nps.gov/mora/index.htm
I returned to Onset in November, 1969 and got married the following summer and moved away. In those days, I did not notice the beach. As I said, caught up in my life, starting out, getting married, leaving home, and not really looking back. No forwarding address, no goodbyes. All about me.
In my defense though, when you live some place that draws tourists, whether it is the ocean or the mountains, it can be easy to build up an unintentional immunity of sorts. Or, you are too busy making a living to look up and take it all in. Busy living my teenage life in the bar in the 1960’s, I didn’t notice either.
I returned for a few short visits, my father’s funeral in 1971, which broke my heart. I was one of those girls who thought that their daddy was indestructible. My mother moved back to her hometown of Baltimore two years later and when she passed away in 1994, we took her home to be buried next to my dad, those were my only visits to Onset.
Sometimes though, it takes a tourist, or a newcomer, to notice the beauty that the locals have simply come to take for granted. I traveled to Tioga County, Pennsylvania for orientation at Mansfield University two weeks before our official move and spent the night with a friend and colleague who lived in Potter County. She had moved there in June, but my appointment did not start until September 1st
Folks up there consider it “God’s Country” The Mountains were so huge, and they were everywhere. All I could say was “Oh! Wow!” Then, in wanting to share how beautiful we both found the mountains there, we kept saying we were awed, but felt compelled to spell it (a-w-e-d) to differentiate from being o-d-d. Maybe we were less than convincing, my friend and I.
I still had not gotten over my sense of awe and inspiration when I began to serve the churches I was assigned to serve, a mere two weeks later.
Liberty Corners is the crossroads of a farming community in Bradford County. It sits high up on a mountain. It is a steady climb, to get from the flats up to the church. Some mornings the hilltop would be wrapped in fog, only to come out of the fog or experience the fog lifting. It put me in mind alternately of Brigadoon, or Mt. Horeb, the site of the giving of the Ten Commandments.
As if there wasn’t enough simple beauty in all that, on reaching the top of the hill, with the church sitting perpendicular to the road, one could see through the windows of the church to the mountain that stood on the opposite shore of the Susquehanna River.
Living in Bradford County, and other places I had long ago assumed that a return to my hometown was not in the cards or the realm of possibility. So I did engage in some pretending. After all, just because the ocean or beach does not come near Central Pennsylvania, does not mean there are not waterways. There are lakes, rivers, streams and “cricks” as the locals call them.
Occasionaly when we would visit lakes for fishing and picnics, I would pretend that the wake created by a motor boat was really waves. The lakes I am referring to only allow small electric motors, so, we are talking small waves.
Traveling North of Harrisburg along the Susquehanna River, there was a section that seemed so even, with a gentle curve, that I could pretend that I was on the road by the Cape Cod Canal. I was willing to settle for pretending and acceptance.
That said, no one was more surprised than I, at the tremendous pull the beach and the canal had on me during my return visit in 2018 and subsequent visit in 2019. Some of it, to be sure, was simply reconnecting with home, memories of my parents and growing up there. But it seemed there was something more than memory, sentiment and emotion.
Onset Beach, the beach at Point Independence, Buzzards Bay (the town and the bay) the Cape Cod Canal were so much a part of my early life, but I had pushed them back to the far reaches of my memory. But I continue to feel the compelling tug, the combination of an intense yearning and longing for home that sweeps over me.
I have tried to figure out why that is; is it only emotion and memory, or is it something more? I realize that this may sound like too much introspection and navel-gazing for some. But recently two high-school classmates in different social media posts or conversations said something that struck a chord. They spoke about living far from home in earlier years, and being land-locked. They both spoke of a need to be near the water, and especially after long weeks of lockdown and stay at home orders. I could relate.
A month ago a friend sent me a video of Mayflower II leaving the Massachusetts Maritime Academy dock in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, traveling through the Cape Cod Canal, on it’s journey to Plymouth. It brought unexpected tears to my eyes. Mayflower II is powered by wind and sail. Moving through the Canal, it was powered by tug boat.
It was impressive watching the sailors climbing the rigging and preparing the sails. There was something about the expansiveness of the Bay, the sight of the ship in full sails that made it seem as though I had been holding my breath for fifty years and didn’t have to hold it anymore.
It is about homesickness, memory, emotion, longing and so much more. It is about identity and a complex understanding of home. In essence though, something about being near the beach, the Bay and the Canal feeds my soul.
This poem is one of several I had to memorize in seventh grade. It too, speaks to that sense of longing and need.
Sea Fever by John Masefield*
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide, Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying. And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover. And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the lock trek’s over.
Mayflower II, photo by Ryan Smith Photography
The mountains are one kind of beauty and the beach and the ocean are another kind of beauty and I have been privileged to call them both home. But I must go down to the sea again. I must.
Not holding back the tide,
Sea Fever, by John Masefield, from Salt-water Poems and Ballads by John Masefield, published by the Maximillan Co., NY 1913, p. 55. The Poem was first published in Salt Water Ballads 1902 Public Domain.
Copyright 2020 Michele Somerville, The Beach Girl Chronicles and https://msomervillesite.WordPress.com