When I was a kid my parents would drive to Atlantic City, and I’d be in the back of our blue Nash on one of the two jump seats, looking out the open window. We knew we were getting close when we could smell the marshes, which we could do even before we could see them. The good stuff was on the other side. Even now when I should know better, it still often seems that the good stuff is always on the other side.
On the other side of what? Of whatever seems to be in my way between here and where I want to be — or, more accurately, where I want to go.
Lately I’ve wanted to see what lies at the end of little roads that run toward the water. Some of the roads stop well short of the river. Those aren’t as frustrating as roads that go all the way to the shore but allow no parking from the first turn off the highway down to where there’s sure to be a splendid view. Signs that say, “No Parking,” “No Stopping,” “Private Road,” “Beware of Dog,” or even, “Dog Bites” have kept me from exploring further.
Law abiding though I may be, “Dog Bites” has more teeth than “No Parking.” Sharper teeth and longer.
In the late ’70s I was walking with a friend in Poughkeepsie, New York when, by chance, we came across the gateway to Locust Grove, the estate of Samuel Morse. Although a sign said that the home was closed, we thought the grounds would be open and might yield a view of both the house and the Hudson River. No sooner had we stepped into the estate’s driveway than two huge Dobermans, barking and snarling, hurtled towards us.
All four of us stopped. I tried to remember whether I was supposed to look the dogs in the eye or look away. We must have chosen the right thing because the dogs didn’t rip out our throats. My friend and I backed up while the dogs growled and held their ground. From the corner of my eye I could see them, ready to spring on us. Slowly we turned and walked away. How far would we get before the dogs attacked? Why hadn’t anyone posted a sign that said, “Beware of Dogs”?
Once was enough.
Joe and I drove to the end of the road, glimpsed the sun’s glint on the blue water that ran through the tall marsh grasses, and turned the car around without stopping.
Finally we found a road that wasn’t posted, which led to — and apparently through — the marsh. The paved section of the road ended, and the orange dirt road ran through Phragmites australis — a tall, plumed grass — and Spartina. Elsewhere, at a designated viewing spot, the Coastal Heritage folks had put up a sign identifying local flora and fauna. Salt hay and cord grass — both species of Spartina — make up the bulk of the marshes. Joe, who had once cut quill pens from Phragmites for his artwork, pointed out that the sign depicted greenhead flies to be about the same size as muskrats. (Actually, greenheads are only about an inch long, but I’ve never been bitten by a muskrat.)
Just past a clearing where we could park, dirt was heaped all the way across the road. This was no mere speed bump — it was more than a foot high. Time to get out and walk. In the road ahead large puddles reflected the blue sky.
And butterflies! A few monarchs and dozens of buckeyes fluttered around and settled on a tree by the side of the road. I sidled up to the tree to take a closer look. I stood still so I wouldn’t frighten them away. I’d never seen so many Buckeyes in one place.
Joe had gone ahead on the road that stretched into the marsh and turned so that it vanished in the tall grasses. Skirting the puddles, making sure I didn’t slip on the mud, I made my way to where he waited.
Water flowed from a channel on the right side of the road to a corresponding channel on the left. It was too wide to step over. It didn’t look deep — just over my ankle, I calculated.
“Do you think the water’s clean?”
“Sure. The marsh purifies it,” he said, adding, “You can’t drink it.”
“It’s probably brackish,” I said, wondering just how salty it would be. I was tempted to taste it.
The road curved ahead, leading, perhaps, to open water. Once more, the good stuff was on the other side. Maybe I could wade — I wore sandals thick-soled like tire treads. They’d be fine. I eyed Joe’s sneakers. He balanced on a flat rock someone must have placed as a steppingstone. The rock wobbled. The school of tiny fish (maybe silversides) had darted away. The crabs scuttled to imagined safety. If crabs imagine.
Joe stepped back on land and the schools of fish returned. A blue crab edged into view. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, translates the blue crab’s full scientific name—“Callinectes (Greek for beautiful swimmer) and sapidus (Latin meaning tasty or savory.)” Tasty? The baby crab was safe from us.
The ground was wet for about eighteen inches on either side of the flowing water. These are tidal marshes, so the water on the road would either get deeper or disappear. A smart phone with tide tables would have been handy.
I wanted to lie down, elbows on that damp orange margin, chin in hands so I could get a better look at the tiny silver fishes and nervous crabs. My white skirt would get filthy, perhaps stained. My T-shirt would, too.
The silence of the salt marsh wasn’t really but an almost inaudible susurrus of grasses stirring in the wind, an occasional bird cry (I hoped for but did not hear the familiar red wing blackbird.), the splash of something landing in the water. Was that a leaping fish or a diamondback terrapin? We saw only the widening circle on the water’s surface.
The longer I watched, the more I saw; the more I saw, the more I wanted to see. I had just reminded myself that we were on a road when I heard the approaching roar of an ATV. The ATV raced through the puddles, and, as we stepped aside to let it pass, through the flowing water. The noisy interlopers sped down the road, heading towards the very place I had wanted to go.
For a few moments the water was opaque.
The fish would have darted away — had the crabs escaped being crushed? The sediment settled back to what I now saw as the bed of a creek rather than water moving across a flooded road.
The little fish and crab returned. I promised myself that the next time I read J. Alfred Prufrock’s lament that he “should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” I’ll think of this small blue-clawed “beautiful swimmer.”
This time the good stuff wasn’t on the other side, after all. It was right there. Maybe sometimes we’re meant to go no further. Maybe what at first seems like an impediment is, instead, what we’re meant to experience.
Sometimes right here — wherever that is — is where we ought to be. Sometimes. Not always.
Sometimes you find a sign that says “Dog Bites,” and sometimes you find yourself face to face with the dog. • 13 October 2010