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Dreaming of dune shack summers on Nantucket

Nantucket beach
Mary Bergman

I hadn’t been out to the South Shore since last December, when weeks of high wind revealed the bones of an ancient shipwreck. A humpback whale washed ashore along this very stretch of beach, my first winter on the island. I remember its huge mouth, pleated like an accordion. That first winter, I didn’t know anybody. Most nights, I ate dinner too early and fell asleep listening to the wind rattling old windows. My mother’s advice for living alone on an island: buy coffee downtown every morning, it’ll make you get out of the house. But in those days, I hated the taste of coffee.

The last time I walked this stretch of beach, I wasn’t alone. You were with me, bundled against the elements like a Victorian woman. We navigated the uneven terrain—I was surefooted then. The path ran thin in some places, but we could still make it along the jagged dunetops. Your black coat billowed in the wind, and out of the corner of my eye, it already looked as though you had wings.

This has been a winter of recuperating. I fractured my ankle on the first day of the year, and hadn’t walked over soft sand since. That was my goal in physical therapy—to walk along the beach. I dreamed of dune shack summers, walking barefoot until the pink skin between my toes blistered.

On this visit, I walked alone. The old jeep trail, once wide enough for a teenager to drive his father’s borrowed pick-up, had dwindled down to nothing. Hard to imagine the blue ocean had ripped away even more of the dunes in a few short months. I was a tightrope walker, heel-toe, heel-toe, along a path where three had walked just a season before.

I had almost forgotten that every spring, the island is blanketed in fog. The gray helps to soften the world, to mute the colors, to diffuse the light. Some mornings, it doesn’t lift. Already, the state road is lined with yellow daffodils. The other morning, a man in a Range Rover with Texas plates asked me where the Stop and Shop was. Winter is over — even if we are not ready for it to be spring.

The shipwreck, the old ribs that had been untouched by human hands for decades, is all but buried again. Only a few beams stick up above the sand. It is the sort of thing I wouldn’t believe was there, if hadn’t already seen it.

I have not been in swimming yet, the ankle brace made it too difficult to maneuver. This winter was the first in a long time without any bracing dips into the brilliant, cold sea. Truthfully, there were whole stretches where I did not even see the ocean. Now the place where the new bone is growing aches when it is cold and wet. And on this island, it is almost always cold and wet.

It’ll be summer soon. They are here, my friends say, like daffodils, coming back year after year, whether you cultivate them or not. I cannot tend to a garden, but I try to tend to my friends. I have leaned on them, literally, these last four months.

I don’t know what will happen to the path in the dunes. When I first began walking out there, seven years ago, I had known it would erode, but I thought there was more time. Eventually, it will all be ripped away. I hope it will last through this summer.

In July, people will get out of their cars and schlep their beach gear across the hot parking lot, the one the gulls huddle together in on windy days. They will reach the narrow path, the bright green dune grass reaching for their ankles. They will kick off their shoes at the base of the dune, their feet sugared in hot sand. Pairs of leather sandals, plastic flip-flops, and white tennis shoes, all left behind. It will look almost as though they, too, have all ascended.