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Stuck in the mud

muck wet sand
Susan Green
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When I was a kid, my friend Jimmy and I would go to the Saturday morning matinee at the local movie theater. The main feature, usually a Western, was preceded by a short chapter from an adventure serial. Usually, each chapter would end on a cliff-hanger, sometimes a literal one, and we would have to wait to the following week to learn the fate of the hero.

My most vivid, and fraught, memory of those cliff-hangers involved quicksand. Quicksand is a colloid, or a suspension of sand, silt, or clay that may appear solid, but when force (say, a footstep) is applied to it, it can suddenly turn into a thick, liquefied soil. In popular culture, such as those serial films of my youth, people are sometimes shown as being trapped in quicksand and slowly sinking until they drown. For some reason, fear of quicksand stuck in my childhood memory as one of the most frightening of fates.

Shortly before Christmas, my daughter Katy and I went shellfishing to gather oysters for our holiday dinner. I drove us to one of the less-frequented town landings, figuring that the main non-commercial areas had been pretty much picked over. We were the only ones there. We put on our boots and set out for an exposed bar a couple of hundred feet offshore that appeared covered with oysters. The tidal flats looked fairly firm, but, as I led the way, my foot suddenly sank several inches into the mud. I was not alarmed, but when I tried to pull one of my feet out of the mud, it felt like it was glued into the muck. Moreover, the effort made my other foot sink even deeper. I had been here several weeks earlier and had no trouble reaching the bar, but recent storms must have rearranged the deposits of silt.

Before I could think rationally about it, that deep childhood fear of dreaded quicksand flooded me with panic. The molasses-like muck was only a half-foot deep, so I knew I wouldn’t sink further. On the other hand, I realized that the tide had turned and was starting to rise.

I tried not to show my panic to Katy, and I guess it worked. She smiled at my predicament and said, “Papa, is this going to be one of your patented adventure essays?” Still, I was not pleased with the alternatives. I might end up having to lose my boots and crawling to shore through the muck on my hands and knees. At worst, we could always call 911 and summon rescuers.

Fortunately, I always carry a long-handled quahog rake when I go out on the flats. Using the rake as a third leg, I pushed it down to the firm substrate and, applying pressure to it, I was able to very slowly lift one foot out of the mud, place it one step towards shore, and then do the same with the other foot, repeating this until I reached firmer ground. I saved my boots, but my dignity was nowhere to be found.

Later in the day I stopped to see my friend Annie and told her of my morning’s adventure. “Wait a minute,” she said. “I’ve got something for you.” She reached up to her bookshelf and handed me a copy of THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO SURVIVAL HANDBOOK,” in which the first entry is “How to Escape from Quicksand.”

“Thanks, Annie,” I said. “Where were you when I needed this?”

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.