On one of the last days of my summer, I rode out to Great Point with Al Sylvia, in a big Trustees of Reservations four wheel drive van. Like most of the days this summer, the sky burned blue and clear; we could see the centuries for miles all around.
You don’t have to go far on this island to see how tenuous island life is. Everything we saw on that drive clung ferociously to the sand. Some of it, like the Rosa Rugosa, were recent arrivals who took to the island and its waters. Others, like the scrub oak forest in Coskata, found a good place to settle in, put down roots and have been there for hundreds of years. The mosquitoes swarmed to meet us and perched themselves on the windows. They waited for the big bags of blood inside to move into range, but we never did. Instead, we kept ourselves in the air-conditioned moving bubble and waited until the wind at the Galls blew them out to sea.
We saw plenty of birds and seals, but the fiddler crabs stole the show. Just inside Coskata, we came across an old puddle punctuated with small piles of sand. As the van drew close, the little crabs emerged en masse, brandished their massive claw, and withdrew into the beach grass. Al, being the sport that he is, ventured into the cloud of mosquitoes, to pluck two of the crustaceans from the ground. He pointed all of the neat refinements evolution had brought to those animals over the last several thousand years, before he dropped them back into the sand.
The van passed within sight of oyster catchers, plovers, osprey, seals, and deer. We disturbed them for a moment before they returned to the hard life of survival that nature lays out for them. Our little van wasn’t worth a glance away from a hungry stomach.
After Coskata, we ducked to the inside of the Galls and a two foot high berm of blackened eel grass, then we crossed back to the main road to the lighthouse. After the pristine emptiness of Coskata, the four lane sand highway comes as a bit of a shock. Girls in rental jeeps blew past us at thirty miles an hour, bouncing and heaving through the heavy sand. Other cars parked along the side of the road, near the water. A few men cast out into the still Atlantic. More sat in beach chairs and watched kids. Very few were in the water, and those that were stood within a few yards of the beach. Today, the waves barely stirred.
Sooner or later, the Atlantic would rouse itself and wipe all of these tire tracks away. On that day, the Wranglers, the Explorers, the Pathfinders, and even the Suburbans will be in warmer, drier parking slots while their tracks will be wiped clean from the sand. The gulls, seals, and the mosquitoes will be hunkered down somewhere else for that storm as well. They will return more quickly and stay longer.
Great Point Light will succumb to another storm, just like the various houses, sheds, and tire tracks that we have decorated that spit of land with. Standing atop the lighthouse, you don’t feel the great strength of a cement pillar. Instead, you feel the temporary blip of time that it rests in. All of the reinforced concrete in the world means nothing against the time and fury of an ocean. The fiddler crabs will be on island longer than that lighthouse.
From the top of Great Point Lighthouse, the island wrote that same geologic truth in the sand. The multi-billion dollar enterprise of Nantucket is a lost comma in the midst of an oceanic rant. The great swells of the Atlantic paused for a split second for the island to exist. So many random events had to conspire to create our sand spit, with all its freshwater ponds and its protective shoals, that its very existence seems an error that the ocean will soon correct with its next breath.
A day later, I rode the refurbished Nantucket away from the island. The boat eased out of the slip, rounded Brant Point, let loose a novena of pennies, and headed up the channel. Behind us, the evening lights had started to come on. The remaining sailboats from the Opera House Cup towered over the island’s skyline. The lights of the Hulbert Avenue mansions had also come on, as did the lights of Monomoy, Pocomo, and points east.
I threw my penny; I want to return to the island. My prayer, though, is that I want to return to the same island I was now leaving. I want there to still be bakeries with butterscotch brownies, golf courses with forgiving greens, surfing beaches cluttered with kids, and friends who wave on the street. Spare Nantucket not only the waves of the Atlantic, but also the waves of time.
As we steamed up the channel, cabin cruisers with a thick foliage of rods loped past us and back into port. Sailboats also headed back in, easing forward in the light southwesterly. One daredevil, with a green jetski and a blue children’s ball trailed us out to the channel markers. He zigzagged the channel, leaping the wake in one direction, than cutting across and leaping it the other way. When forced to stay to one side, he would drop the ball in the water and circle it, as a puppy circles his tail. He celebrated the luck of his life. He lived in a time where he could be rich enough to afford the toy, have the time to play with it, be in good enough shape to do it, and believe that nothing ill would happen to him in the summertime Atlantic.
We cleared the jetties, past the cormorants and seals and into Nantucket Sound. The jetski spun about and headed back to town. Within minutes, most of my fellow passengers had retreated to the warmth and wi-fi of the renovated steamer. I stayed outside in the gloaming and watched the flash of Great Point. In a time of satellites, the flash of the light house doesn’t guide anyone. It serves about as much purpose as the ball did for the Jetski hero; it amuses us. We celebrate our luck at living in this breath of time.
And it does more. If we toss our pennies in the hope we will return, the flash of the light reassures us that Nantucket is still here for us. The brown and blue storms have left the sand alone for another year. When we cross the sound once more, and we see that familiar flash on the horizon, we know that our luck has held. That brief comma of time that protects all of my scenes and sidekicks has stretched out for another year. There still will be time for waves, fish, dinner, and a morning bike ride for muffins. It is still your time, it flashes, it is still your time.