Forty years ago, when I was heartbroke, uprooted, unemployed and deep in depression, I would regularly ride the ferry across Puget Sound from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. It was a cheap ride for a pedestrian and I could go both ways for one fare. There was breakfast to be had onboard and the early morning light, often through mizzle and mist, was the perfect visualization of my inner state.
Sometimes I would get off on the island and hike through woods just north of Winslow, the town with the ferry slip. I saw goldeneyes and grebes, cormorants and wigeons, mergansers and coots. The Northwest is mostly made up of Douglas fir and western redcedar, but Bainbridge Island had a great stand of maples. Wildflowers bordered the roads.
I was alone on the crowded ferry, with the constant churn of the motor under the deck, staring out the rain-spattered window at the expanse of water. There is something about water, and about moving across its surface that I found soothing in my loneliness. A band of sunlight would blast the waves and quickly disappear again.
I have ridden many ferries over the years. The first I remember was the Yonkers ferry from Alpine, N.J., across the Hudson just north of Manhattan. I went with my uncle to visit his in-laws. I remember very little of the trip — the ferry was discontinued in 1956, so I had to have been less than 8 years old; more likely I was about 5 or 6 — but I do remember the river, the waves, the expanse from one shore to the other and the low skyline of our destination. I have absolutely no recollection of the in-laws.
It is the flatness of the water, disturbed by the wind into a disruption of skitter that sticks in my mind each time I take the boat. It is both calm and nervous at the same time. The Hindu idea of māyā is immediate: an ideal world brought to motion by the wind on its reflection. The early lines of Genesis also comes to me: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Breath of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” In some Native American mythologies, the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, is manifest as wind, which animates the prairie grasses very like sea waves.
Perhaps in times of distress, the ferry ride puts me on that sea and I can breath the same moving air that animates the waters. It can calm or at least give me the sense of being part of something bigger than myself. All of which sounds mighty grandiose when you are considering a boat made of iron and grease that rattles across the Sound so that commuters can get to their jobs.
At any rate, ferries give me a kind of mythic jolt. Which is why when I was coming home from a visit to my brother at the beach, where he lives at the head of the Outer Banks, I opted to take the Knotts Island ferry across Currituck Sound. The Sound separates the barrier islands from the low-lying and swampy mainland. It is about a five mile trip across the water from slip to slip. It takes about three-quarters of an hour on the water.
Unlike the huge Puget Sound ferries, the boat across Currituck Sound is puny: It has room for only about a dozen cars. Its main purpose seems to be to carry a schoolbus from Knotts Island to schools on terra firma.
Knotts Island, for the sake of honesty, isn’t really an island, but a peninsula that hangs down from Virginia into North Carolina, through the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is half water, and full of waterfowl, reeds and water lilies. The island is mostly in North Carolina, but its top bit is still in Virginia.
In years past, when I taught in Virginia Beach, I would take my photography students down to Mackay Island. There was everything to photograph. I went there on my own many times, sometimes just to soak in the brackish air and watch the stretch of water. There is a yearly “Peach Festival” on Knotts Island, and my wife and I and several of our friends went to the orchards to pick bushels of fruit. We spent days processing the peaches into jams and chutneys.
So, I have history on the island. And now that my wife is gone, the trip back across the island to take the ferry brings up a whole life, its aftermath, its redolence, its meaning.
Unlike the Seattle ferry trips, this one is sunny. The waters are calm, shivered by only a small breeze, although that is enough to provide the flat waters with texture. The channel markers are home for bird nests. There is an osprey on one, and cormorants spread their wings to dry on others. The ferry chugs past them, some to the right, some to the left.
The water is wide enough that the far shores are a horizon line, and toward the south, and the spread of water around the curve of the earth, there is no far shore to be seen. The flatness of the day erases the line between water and sky, between life and death, between now and then. You can still make it out, but barely. Waters are deep, and so is the sky. In revery, like Ishmael hypnotized by the sea, I fall into fascination with the obscurity of horizon, of border, of things that have names, but whose names are merely tags to hide the essential sameness, the unity.
There is a startling beauty to this state, I gaze at the line, horizontal, that seems to exist, then doesn’t, then exists only because I know it’s there. Am I inventing it? Māyā.
The sky circles the top half of heaven, the water, the bottom. It is a circuit. The sun arcs from east to west then continues west to east underneath our feet, underneath the boat. I am laughing at myself for my seriousness. But I am put in mind of circles and spend the rest of the trip finding circles everywhere on the boat. Can a circle be the primary form of the cosmos? Can it be the crown of a hat? The ridiculous and the mythic are comically the same, same as the sky and bay, water and air.
Well, I am an idiot. I am alive, still, and what does any of this mean other than I can breathe, inhale and exhale and feel the swelling of my lungs and the beat of my heart: “Close on its wave soothes the wave behind.”
All is lost; nothing is lost. The breath of the gods moves upon the waters. They shiver.