Dear Useless Bay,
My name is Alexandra Elise and I have loved you since the day I first splashed in your gentle waters. For 18 years you have nourished my spirit and been a salve to my aching body. From the days of naked baby wanderings and shrimp digs to the topless yesterday on paddle boards, it has been a wild journey.
Although I know this trip isn’t my last, I know I won’t be seeing you every year like I have the past 18. That scares me. But I know I have built a home with you, and I also know that humans have a tendency to return to their starting point of life. Even if I wasn’t born here… a large part of who I am today was. And I will never ever forget that.
In 1792, Captain George Vancouver anchored his boat in a harmless bay on the side of a mysterious island off the coast of what would later be known as the state of Washington. He and his men, in typical white savior complex fashion, left the ship to explore the fifty-five mile stretch of land and the natives that inhabited it. When they returned, they found that the water had receded and the boat was on its side– later warranting an angry journal rant by Vancouver stating that the bay was “useless.”
The name stuck, and the two mile stretch of beach ruled continuously by the changing tide became known as Useless Bay.
Useless Bay is located on Whidbey Island roughly 30 miles north of Seattle, Washington. It forms a crevice on the south side of the island, situated perfectly so that during the day one can see the snowy peak of Mt. Rainier hovering protectively over the glistening Puget Sound while during the night the twinkling lights of Seattle show those who are truly sleepless.
Everything is dependent on the tide schedules. Some days the water will be up to the boardwalks (or for the more affluent residents, the perfectly manicured lawns). Some days the water will reveal miles of tide flats perfect for wandering and beach combing. Some days will bring both. All days bring the invaluable realization of the insignificance of time.
Houses line the crest of the bay stretching from the sandy slant of Double Bluff to the summer friendly Dave Mackie Park. Situated somewhere a little to the right toward Double Bluff there sits a little brown cabin, unassuming and austere.
Newlyweds and looking for a cheap family vacation, Susan “Sue” and Auren “Ed” Stanford stumbled on the quaint building sometime around the year of ‘75. They knew they had found something special. Little did they know that for the next fifty (give or take) summers, three generations of Stanfords would enjoy the savory home-cooked meals, crackling bonfires, lively conversations, and loving relationships the bungalow would bring.
The layout of the cabin is simple, yet effective. The main structure holds a foyer, a living room, three bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining area, and a single bathroom. To the back there is a one-room sleeping porch that contains a washer, dryer, sink, mirror, double bed, and pair of bunk beds. The floors are unfinished and the walls are bare, but no one really cares about that. There are a few rules laid down by the owners of the house (my family rents it). These include: only flushing toilet paper down the pipes, keeping the door to the bathroom unlocked while showering, washing sand off before coming inside, and never sitting with a wet bathing suit on the furniture. While some of these can be mildly inconvenient at times, we soon fall into a rhythm of routine and learn to work with and around each other.
To give you a sense of the significance of this specific beach/cabin let me paint you a series of vivid moments (or for you photographers, assemble a collage of snapshots) that have taken place here.
First, there are the mornings. It is often cloudy, especially around sunrise, and the tide is often so far out that it blends into the mist. Sipping coffee while watching the clouds dissipate and give way to miles of empty beach and glistening tide pools is an excellent way to start the day. Mid morning brings the public beach goers and long beach walks before a lazy brunch. Some mornings we convene on the boardwalk to witness the Eagle Lady throwing raw turkey legs to her beloved Bald Eagles. Other mornings bring a trip to Langley, the tiny tourist town fifteen minutes away. Langley means big salads at The Braeburn, lattes and chocolates at Sweet Mona’s, rugs and exotic jewelry at Music For The Eyes, new scarves and shoes at In the Country, the “new” Nancy Drew at The Moonraker, and yet another guitar pick and LP at Joe’s Island Music.
Back from Langley for the hot afternoons. Some of us grab tubes and float listlessly on the waves. Sometimes there are friends’ paddle boards or boats to use, or crab traps to check. These afternoons are meant for chicken salad sandwiches, philosophical novels, beach forts made out of driftwood, and suntanning. They are also meant for climbing Double Bluff to catch the greatest view, digging for clams and shrimp, flying kites, launching model rockets, napping on the couch, collecting shells and sand dollars, constructing castles of the highest quality, and dancing to the music of the tides (or my iPod).
Then there are the evenings. The wind-down of the long day, this is when our sweatshirts are dug out and we start to shiver. My grandmother and aunt stay busy grilling vegetables, tossing salads, roasting potatoes, and baking seafood. I write, my brother and dad build the fire pit, my sister jumps between the waves, and beach dogs scurry around. Friends start arriving, the food is eaten, the fire grows, and thus, night has begun.
Everything starts with the raging campfire of which my father (often deeming himself “Fire Master”) is so proud. Of course there are S’mores of the original variety, but there are also Reese’s s’mores, Peeps s’mores, and extra-big-marshmallow s’mores. We reminisce of secret nighttime beach walks, much-anticipated kisses, and moonlit proposals; old rock ‘n roll and Seattle grunge is played and critiqued. On our bravest nights, we sprint into the dark forty-degree Puget, diving headfirst so the cold stings all at once. This tradition was started by Ed, my Papa, who was known to shed his clothes and sprint into the water as soon as he had pulled the car into the drive.
Then there are warm showers and sleepy goodnights. And when I am sure everyone is asleep, walk the boardwalk to sit at the water’s edge.
By this time the inky night has spread its blanket of stars and the beach from left to right is wholly deserted. I swallow the crisp air, feel it seeping into my core, and dig my toes into the rocky sand. I hear the waves lap gently; I look on the city I know I belong in. I wonder about messages in bottles, stories I’ve heard my whole life, of drownings and sea monsters, of sailors and their wives. I listen to “World” by Five for Fighting and I think about what it means to be me and in this world.
In my head I knew the little brown cabin couldn’t last forever. My family and I waved goodbye to it for the last time this July, and at this moment it is probably in the process of being demolished. In its place will stand a four-story, air-conditioned American Dream House. Its inhabitants will probably each have their own bathrooms, and they’ll probably have more than five channels on the TV and working internet. They won’t know what it’s like to shower in an outside shower or fight for space in bed beside a kicking sister.
Such is the American way.
Dear Little Brown Cabin & Useless Bay, my name is Alexandra Elise Stanford, and I’ll carry the lessons you gave me until the day I am dust on your shore.
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