This piece is a contribution to the STSC Symposium, a monthly set-theme collaboration between STSC writers. The topic for this upcoming issue is The Beach.
When I was around five or six, my mom often took my brother and me to the beach. Living on a peninsula, the beach is never too far. I loved those days. We woke up early to slather ourselves in sunscreen, fill the cooler, and pack all our gear into my mom's Toyota 4Runner. But I was still a kid, and the twenty-minute drive contained a terrifying obstacle—the drawbridge.
Pinellas County beaches are barrier islands, so you must drive over a bridge or take a ferry to see them. Visiting Clearwater Beach (our main haunt) meant traversing the Clearwater Memorial Causeway. Back in the day, the causeway had a drawbridge at its apex. Being so young, I didn't know how it worked. When I asked my mom about it, she told me the bridge's center opened up to let boats pass. She did not tell me that an actual person controlled the bridge or that traffic would be stopped before opening it. In my young mind, the grated section could rise without a moment's notice. Safety was never assured.
The beach itself was my reward for braving the uncertainty of the journey. We paid some locals a few bucks to park in their driveway, which was cheaper than feeding the meter at the official lot. Then we unloaded the trunk and hauled everything to the water. We spent hours lounging and playing under the sun. My mom taught my brother and me to do the stingray shuffle. As we entered the water, we scuffed our feet through the sand, hoping to scare off any stingrays so as not to step on one. I remember seeing the shoreline during the mating season once. The usual transition from shore to sea became a carpet of rays. They swam over one another, weaving a living tapestry of dull greys, greens, and blues.
Beach days with my mom were marathons. We spent forever in the heat. My mom would bury my brother and me in the sand from the neck down and shape mermaid tails for us. We created giant sandcastles and dug protective moats. My brother and I splashed in the salty waves, always keeping our mom within sight. Nothing mattered at the beach. Only the waves kept time as they came in and out, over and over.
But every trip was bookended by that dreaded drive. My stomach twisted in knots as we drove onto the bridge. Anxiety mounted until I finally saw the grating that signaled we'd entered the danger zone. I scanned the nearby waters for approaching boats, calculating if we had enough time to make it. The grate bounced beneath us, and I held my breath until I could feel concrete under the car again.
When I was eight or nine, the city began construction on a new causeway. They opened it four years later, one year behind schedule. Construction issues set them back, which didn't make me feel like this new bridge would be much safer. The concern that the Gulf would open beneath me turned to fear that the entire bridge would collapse. The warning grating was gone. The water could swallow me up at any time.
As the years passed, my fear of the causeway waned. It became part of the landscape, one of Pinellas County's many liminal pathways from one shore to the next. Now a different fear sits in my gut. Hurricane Ian is bearing down on us, and the coast is vulnerable. Thousands have evacuated, but I'm far enough from the water to ride out the storm at home. My fear is primal yet tempered from a lifetime in this place. We've prepared, and now we play the waiting game.
Soon the rain and wind will come, and the electricity will go. Right now, though, we haven't reached the grated portion of the bridge. We're inching silently forward, listening for the metal to clack rhythmically beneath us. I'm afraid, but I'm home. This small peninsula is a part of me, and I am a part of it. I grew up with these storms, and in a way, they comfort me. Riding out a hurricane is a skill, one you only learn through experience.
Five years ago, Hurricane Irma sucked the water out of Tampa Bay. Now, Ian is doing the same. The winds create a reverse storm surge, gathering the tides before slamming them back into the shore. To see the sea laid bare feels intrusive, like catching someone in a moment of undress. We shouldn’t look, but we do. Some even dare to walk on this ground normally hidden from us. Seaweeds blanket the sandy floor left behind, brought down by a gravity they're unused to feeling. We know the water will return, but even the ocean seems small at this moment, left to the mercy of invading winds.
Those winds are picking up a bit now. The lights have flickered several times, but they remain on. A light but steady rain falls outside. Whatever happens next is out of our control. The only thing left in our hands is how we pull ourselves back together when this is over. Either way, the sunset is sure to be stunning.
I similarly had the "Wait, but what stops the bridge from opening randomly?" feeling when crossing drawbridges as a kid.
Bridges are a topic unto themselves -- proof that human beings will exert great influence over land, resources, and technology to build things that if you think about it, are absolutely insane. Rational, but insane. Awe-inspiring, but insane.
This was very beautiful, such a sweet collection of images, scenes from the landscape of your memory leading to a brilliant causeway to the present, and a poignant transition to "I'm afraid but I'm home." I'm glad to see you and yours are safe but I am moved by a quiet resolve at the end of these wonderful words.