This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.
All I long for I have found by its waters.
The journey of my life maps to every curve of its thirteen miles, created 11,000 years ago by the melting of a continental glacier and curving gently out into the deep blue expanse of Lake Erie. From its multipurpose recreation trail, to each of its eleven sandy brown beaches, to its inlets and ponds, its stately trees and weathered monument I can find pieces of myself.
Visitors know Presque Isle – so named by the French in the 1700s and meaning “almost an island” – as a 3200-acre sandy peninsula that is a National Natural Landmark and much-treasured state park run and cared for by Pennsylvania. But if you grew up in Erie, as I did, you know it as, simply, “the peninsula” or “the beach”. No matter where I travel in the world or where I choose to live, I can close my eyes and in a moment I’m sitting on the warm brown sands of Beach #10 as waves gently roll in and white sails dot the horizon. It’s the place my soul calls home and I carry it with me always.
My father placed me on his hand in these salt-less blue waters at the age of two, teaching me the front crawl until, like a small, round, chubby fish, I swam away from him and on into the waves on my own – frightened, exhilarated, one with the water. As I grew older, my brothers and I came to the beach with our parents, with our cousins, with our friends to swim and warm ourselves after the long, cold winter. We came in cool, dusky mornings before dawn for sunrise breakfasts on the beach, inhaling the smell of frying bacon, eggs and potatoes with the scent of pine and water, as we watched the sun’s orange and yellow tentacles emerge and rise slowly into the sky. We came on hot August afternoons when the air hung heavy and thick with humidity, our bodies coated in sweat, ready to jump the waves then dive deep below the water’s surface to cool ourselves. What relief there was to be had on those torpid, long days was only available by walking out into the lake itself.
Long before it was cool to be green, we learned to respect the environment at our beach. We learned to love the preservation the state provided by making it a protected area and to realize that it wasn’t always bad to pay taxes when the money kept our beach intact and our lake pollution free. We scorned the “visitors” who came from out of town and littered their trash on our beaches without feeling or thought. It was our beach, our treasure, and we expected everyone to show as much consideration for it as we felt ourselves. And as we got older, we came out to the peninsula for our high school biology class to wade through the lagoons and low lying marshes, collecting specimens and finding out that our beach was a haven for many plant and animal species, some rare and protected, just as it was for us. We learned to share the land and admire the balance of all things.
The minute I received my first 10-speed bike I was on the hunt for friends with bikes to ride to the beach with me. I wasn’t old enough to drive but, finally, I had a regular means of transportation if I could manage the nearly hour-long trek to get there. I baked in the sun in my first bikini, sat on driftwood and wrote my first poems, and kissed my first boyfriend on those beaches, looking up at softly moving clouds or facing some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world.
Eventually, I left home for college and horizons beyond the small city I’d grown up in. Yet, whenever I found myself landlocked, I longed for my peninsula – for the waters of my soul. I would gravitate to the nearest ocean or lake – even a river might do – to quench the need inside me.
In the early 1990s, I came home for what I thought would be a year and stayed for twelve. Every winter, after the first snowfall, I’d drive around the peninsula slowly, savoring the hush and the pristine whiteness not yet marred by automobile exhaust and road salt. The stately trees, heavy laden with snow, arched forward overhead to give the sense of driving through an ancient cathedral; it’s only visitors the random deer or rabbit peeking out to watch me pass. Waves halted, frozen in mid-stride along the way while the water lay still beneath a coat of ice.
In the summers, I learned every inch of the multi-purpose trails on my roller blades, my bike, or sometimes just hiking it on foot. And I learned the beauty of sitting on a boat out on the lake, surveying the beach from afar, watching the Flagship Niagara go by, laughing with friends, marveling at the carpet of stars overhead by night and the stretch of blue above and below by day. With great joy, I took my nephews to the beach to skip stones when they came for a visit.
I spent the winter of 1998-1999 battling cancer, and when I emerged in the spring, cancer free but exhausted, my friends were there to take me out in their boats, to let me sleep to the gently rocking motion of the waves and heal.
Erie is a tough place to live, with brutal winters and, for me, limited career possibilities. Ironically, I find myself living in the desert now, waiting anxiously for the yearly monsoons, grabbing any opportunity to travel to the Pacific coast.
But I carry the waters of Lake Erie in my DNA and the sands of my peninsula in my heart and soul like a prayer wherever I go.