Isaias formed as a tropical wave off Africa’s west coast in the final days of July, traveled westward across the water, shape-shifted from tropical storm to hurricane, made first landfall in the Bahamas, then careened its way up the East Coast of the United States, heading for us. The second hurricane of an extremely active 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, Isaias was downgraded to a tropical storm before it hit the Delaware coast on August 4, where our extended Condie clan had gathered—grandparents with their three adult children and spouses, as well as the grandchildren—12 of us in a rental house for our annual week at the shore, a pilgrimage we’d made for over 15 years, a streak we didn’t want to break, even if a global pandemic seemed to demand it.
Maybe you didn’t realize that the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season broke records? Surely, though, you’re aware of the records set and broken by the novel coronavirus during this same year, the way it moved invisibly across the globe with frightening speed, bloomed from the bud of “outbreak” into the full blossom of “pandemic,” setting records for infections and deaths at a pace so rapid it became mind-numbing. In April 2020, the U.S. set a record for the highest number of coronavirus-linked deaths reported in a single day (2,752), and by mid-December we had snapped that record several times. Other countries leapfrogged each other almost daily in setting total death records. Vaccines appeared on the horizon, but not before the virus began transmogrifying and surfacing in mutated forms, virus as invisible and shifty shape-shifter. (Scientists would label the variants with terms such as B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and on into more difficult-to-remember numbers, until they wised up and called them by catchier names, like the Delta Variant.)
Climbing case counts, stay-at-home orders, restrictions on crossing state lines, and dire warnings to isolate or die nearly stopped us from traveling. As we slid into July and toward our customary family beach week, the pandemic’s first wave had seemingly passed, but we wondered about a second wave, wondered if we’d feel safe coming together from different parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania to live together in one house in Lewes, Delaware. We reshuffled the room assignments so immuno-compromised family members had their own bathroom. My dad bought a gallon of hand sanitizer with a pump on top (that would sit in the foyer at the center of the house for the week, barely touched).
The day Isaias landed on the Delaware coast was my father’s 80th birthday, a day he instructed us to let pass with little fanfare (a wish we mostly granted, except for congregating at dinner for singing and stories, candles and cake, a few presents). At 4:51 am on that Tuesday, August 4, an alarm on our phones and iPads had awakened me and my husband, bleating out a tornado warning for our area, so by the time daylight arrived, we were edgy from rising in the dark to an unsettled and uncertain day. As night lifted, we drank coffee with my dad and brother on the top floor of the three-story beach house near the Delaware Bay, watching raindrops bejewel all of the considerable windowpanes and sliding glass doors around us. Beyond the glass, the long-limbed pines, the navy and azure blue Lewes and Delaware flags, all waved erratically in the wind. Under grim skies, the bay appeared gunmetal gray.
The storm approached Cape Henlopen in the morning with sideways rain and winds that flickered and shut off the power a few times. Other places along the coast would suffer lengthy power outages and flooding; seventeen people would ultimately die from the storm’s effects. We could tell the force of the wind by how it tossed the deck chairs and rugs around, how it flew the flags straight out and bent the aluminum flagpole, the way it whipped up whitecaps out on the bay.
We watched the TV meteorologists stumble to pronounce the storm’s name—Isaias—struggle to fit in all its syllables, and we tried out our own variations: is it “EYE-say-ee-iss” or “ees-ah-EE-ahs”? Syllables slipped around on our tongues like hail pellets. By 11 am, though, our version of Isaias seemed to have passed. Radar showed the rain and hurricane remnants now heading up to Philly. A friend from home in Central PA, whose family was vacationing in Cape May Point across the Delaware Bay, texted me a video of high winds and surf her oceanographer husband had filmed on the NJ ocean beach. Well, I thought, if he has already been up to the water exploring, I can do the same, to document things from my southern side of the bay. I put on my raincoat, invited others, all of whom declined (certainly understandable, especially for my sister and her family, who had lived in New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina chased them out of town, submerged and destroyed their house, and uprooted their lives entirely). They all sent me off alone but with warnings—about such dangers as thunder and lightning, fallen trees, downed electrical wires.
Along the beach access boardwalk, a few guys sauntered ahead of me toward the pier, pulling a wagon full of fishing supplies, rods poking out like thin reeds. Life seemed to be getting back to normal on the coast quickly. I walked along the bay’s shoreline, hoping to make it up near the tip of the Cape to peek at the ocean. As I crossed into the state park, a few people streamed toward the beach, where the water had calmed to mere chop. I snapped some photos with my phone, anchored my eyes on the stubby reddish lighthouse far out in the harbor.
Halfway up the crescent of beach leading to the Cape, I came upon a sailboat, sail hidden, tall mast poking at the moody sky. A rope tethered the dirty white hull to the sand at the surf’s edge. A boat on this public beach was something I’d never seen before, so I snapped a photo of it, and just as I did, a guy–white, youngish, ruffled sandy hair–poked his head up from the rear of the boat. “Did you just take a picture of my boat?” Offended, angry tone.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m happy to delete it.”
“This is my house! You just took a picture of my house?”
“I’ll delete it. I didn’t know anyone was in it.”
“I’m just here for a while to ride out the storm. I’ll head back out as soon as this is all over.”
“Okay, I hope you’re okay. You okay? Need anything? Food?”
He softened. “No, I’m fine. I’ll be leaving soon.”
“I’ll delete the photo,” I repeated.
“That’s okay, just don’t spread it around, post it anywhere.”
I nodded. “I won’t. I’ll delete it.” And I walked on, not daring to look back to see if he was watching me. What was he worried about, I wondered? Was he breaking some rule about bringing a houseboat onto a state park beach? Just possessive of his space, defensive about his floating home?
The wind picked up, began stinging the exposed skin on the backs of my calves. I zipped up my gray raincoat, cinched the hood, and trudged on. To my left, the water formed rippling peaks of white frosting that slid out into smudges; to my right, the dune grasses bent and whipped. Intrepid explorer, I filmed the scene, trying to channel John Muir who a century ago, on the other coast, climbed high into a tall Douglas Spruce in a windstorm, just to feel what the tree felt, experience and document it. The expedition felt daring until the wind got so harsh and strong, the sand so stinging, the waves crashing on the shore so wild, that it began to feel scary. I realized I wouldn’t make it near the tip of the Cape, where a path just shy of the protected piping plover nesting grounds led inland, away from the wind. And if I walked back into the wind, the sand would blast my face, so I sat down, hunched in the dunes, hoping the low grasses would absorb the wind. Grass straps tapped my back, then something hard and hollow smacked my hooded head—the brown brittle shell of a horseshoe crab, which went wheeling ahead of me, then stuck trembling in the grasses at my feet. The wind frothed the water more and more, did not seem to be letting up. No rain.
I saw a couple heading toward me from the tip of Cape Henlopen, the woman wearing a cream-colored sling over her shoulder. Was she toting baby in this storm? As she neared, I saw what was poking out–the head of a little copper-colored dog. The woman screamed over the wind’s howl, her words barely reaching me: “You okay?” I nodded. “You just have to keep walking!” I got up and marched with them, body tilted into the wind’s force almost at a 45-degree angle, jacket and hood puffing out behind me. A few times I thought—I’m going to take off, like a hang glider, like the kite surfers we saw on the ocean, levitating and skidding above the water.
“We need to get inland!” I shouted to the woman, and I could almost see my words confettied and blown between us. After that, I left the couple behind. I didn’t look back. I don’t know what happened to them. I passed the beached boat, battered in the surf but still held to shore by a rope. The guy was hidden now.
Along the path at the state park pier, the wind abated as I moved inland, and yet I still saw people parking to go see the storm from the pier. I didn’t tell them about the wind. They would find out for themselves. All of a sudden, I saw the boat guy, coming toward me, away from a black car with NY plates. “Hey, you’re the boat guy!” I said. We exchanged pleasantries. My mind scrambled to compute the situation, but I was anxious to get home, so I wished him luck and walked back to the house on the path strewn with green and copper pinecones and needles, climbed the stairs, told the tale. As I showed my family the sailboat photo, I saw that the guy’s head was already popping out when I snapped it, a righteously angry prairie dog in a rumpled white dress shirt.
Later that afternoon, my husband Ted and I walked up to the now-calm bay beach and sat beside the sun-gilded water. The extreme low tide, a reverse storm surge, had revealed a small army of conchs scattered across the glistening sand—spiny and sleek shells in muted colors, cream tinged with pink, grey with blue streaks. Some shells featured barnacles, others a smear of green moss. I picked up one after another, hoping to find an empty one to take home with me as a souvenir, but all still contained muscular bodies suctioning themselves to the sand, so that each time I picked one up, it wriggled its peachy, Silly Putty body in protest, shut away its squishy self by retracting and closing the opening with a hard layer that looks like a huge fingernail. I tapped at the door to one to see what would happen, then felt guilty, placed it back on the wet sand.
I texted the others to come see the strange marvels, and everyone migrated up (all except one introverted inside-dweller, who preferred staying on a couch with a computer screen to marveling at live sea creatures). While we first called them conchs, we later learned they were knobbed whelks, a type of sea snail that spends winter months in deep depths, warmer months in shallow water. What a treat for us, I thought, that the storm’s topsy-turvy effect had revealed them.
Once the others returned to the house, I walked up the beach, alone again, toward the point. Lots of folks were out, sitting, clamming, exploring. As I came near the sailboat, now beached in the extreme low tide, tilting a bit, so far from the water it seemed he’d never get back out to sea, I planned a wide arc around it. But a family of five coming from the other direction was drawn to it like a magnet, walked close to inspect but didn’t touch, came around to the side I was approaching, chatting among themselves, marveling at its unusual location, the way its underside was uncharacteristically exposed. The boat guy popped out. A stout, beer-bellied dad at the head of the exploration party said, “Hey, guy.”
And the boat guy said, “Are you touching my boat? This is my house.” The outrage again.
“No, we’re just looking,” said the dad.
“She touched it.” Boat Guy pointed at a little girl.
“I don’t think she did,” said the dad.
“Listen, I don’t mean to be a dick,” he said. “But this is my house. How would you like it if I went and fingered your keyhole?”
Up to the time we all met at the beach house, the pandemic summer of 2020 had kept us mostly housebound. When my husband and I weren’t escaping to camp, hike, bike, and kayak in the woods of Pennsylvania, I spent much of my spare time inside ferociously sewing masks. Our dining room table held my sewing machine, which I left set up and plugged in for months (a timeframe when we couldn’t invite anyone to eat indoors in our dining room, anyway). Beside the machine: a fluffy mountain of fabrics, a rainbow tangle of thread remnants, with an ironing board and iron at attention nearby. Starting in May, I had tried out different patterns, the first tailored like a muzzle, with triple-layered fabric. Then I decided I needed nose wires to keep glasses unfogged, so I watched one video repeatedly, made a pattern, used pipe cleaners for the wires, tailored masks to various face sizes. Early on, I collected up a bunch of fabric from the basement to pass along to a group trying to make enough for all local elementary school students, for health care workers who couldn’t get their hands on enough N95s. All of a sudden, no one could find elastic for ear straps. I dug some up from a bin in the basement, kept some for myself, gave away the rest for the common good.
I made masks out of Eddie Bauer dress shirts my husband had worn through at the elbows. I make masks out of tie-dye T-shirts. I made masks out of fabric I’d bought on a long-ago trip to Zimbabwe, a checkerboard of wine, green, and gold, featuring flying fish. I made masks out of gingham and madras and floral quilt fabric. On the beach trip, I brought enough hand-made masks to let everyone choose their favorite, along with a box of sewing supplies so I could customize each to the wearer’s face. I told my mom and dad I’d make and distribute 80 masks in 2020 to honor their 80th birthdays (but in the end I fell short by about 40).
2020 was the summer of mask-making and the summer of state parks. It was the summer we bought inflatable stand-up paddleboards, pumped them up and floated out into the middle of lakes where it seemed the virus could not chase us. Memorial Day weekend, we drove to Ricketts Glen State Park to climb the slick steep paths along waterfalls, and we wore triple-layered masks we could barely breathe through, so unaccustomed were we to having nose and mouth covered. The parking lots overflowed with people who by that point were clamoring to get outside. The rush was like when you turn over a rock and the bugs scramble, exposed.
On the Delaware beaches in August, no one wore masks. We kept our distance from strangers and let the sand, sea breeze, and saltwater scour and sanitize us. The fact that restaurants weren’t open except for outdoor seating didn’t bother us much; we usually ate in anyway, sharing meal prep, and other than a grocery trip or two, we could easily confine ourselves to house, beach, and bike rides.
The day after the hurricane and my dad’s birthday cake—Wednesday—I again walked along the bay beach, in part to check on my boat dude. After carefully examining his image in my not-yet-deleted photo, my four nieces and son had debated what his name might be, batted around a bunch of candidates, finally settled on calling him “Randy.” He was out on the beach, still alone, using a garden shovel to dig a huge trench around the bow of the boat, which was still sand-stranded, while the back end floated in the mild waves. Hunched over, shirtless and sweating, his only clothing rumpled khaki shorts, Randy threw sand off to the sides in a frantic and seemingly futile attempt to unbeach the boat. I thought of ghost crabs who fling sand in a circle around their holes then scramble in, how exposed they must feel while they are digging and before they can hide. Randy kept his head down, ignoring nosy beach walkers, willing his body to become translucent and nearly invisible like a ghost crab.
Two days after the hurricane—Thursday—I headed up to the site of the stranded boat once again and found an empty beach. Randy had managed to get his boat off the sand, sailed it out into the harbor near the breakwater, and was now moored to the left of the squat red lighthouse.
On our final full day—Friday—after my brother made his traditional early morning trip to Dunkin Donuts, and the teenagers along with a few adults swarmed the boxes, Ted and I took the paddleboards up to the beach mid-morning and went out for a long paddle up and down the bay’s coastline. Just short of the Lewes-Cape May ferry terminal, beyond the tip of a fishing pier, a pod of dolphins surprised us, quietly breaching the water’s surface on all sides, some as close as five feet away, singles, pairs, and some trios slicing arcs through the air and disappearing again. Stunned, we sat down on our boards, leaned our paddles across our knees, and watched their glistening gray skin and dorsal fins slide past, listened to the soft and magical poof of air from their blowholes.
Once they passed, we stood and paddled back toward the breakwater and lighthouse, where Randy now lived, his the sole sailboat in the harbor. More dolphins drew me near the boat, but Ted hung back, floating far from me. I could not see anyone on deck, only plastic bins, hampers, tubs, and trash cans bungeed to the boat’s bow pulpit.
Making sure not to drift too close, I sat down on my board, once again amid the dolphins, and I thought about Randy and his isolation. Where was Randy’s pod? Did he want one? Was that car in the lot with the NY license plates his, and did he have a home on land elsewhere? What was his story? I thought about his desperate scramble to return to the water, return to a life where he could see the shore, yet stay out of view in his cabin beneath the surface, with no one walking by to inspect him or his home. Like the dolphins, he could stay underwater most of the time, only rarely coming up for air, but unlike the dolphins, he seemed to float alone. I paddled away, back to shore and my family, leaving Randy his peace.
Dolphins are social mammals that swim together, protect each other, and hunt for food as a team. Pod life helps dolphins defend against predators such as sharks. It turns out that during extremely challenging times, dolphins can also form “super pods” that usually only last for short periods of time. During our year of pandemic isolation and social distancing, people used the term “pods” to describe the groups they formed to keep each other safe from COVID during this dangerous time. Families with young children who needed tending during the school day while parents worked, or needed the group for entertainment or interaction, especially needed the support of a pod, who would commit see only each other and isolate from those beyond the pod.
No doubt about it: I’m of the Dolphin tribe. I like alone time but am not a loner. I’m the kind of person who gets antsy if I have to stay in the house all day, and so during the pandemic, when we worked from home and ate at home and entertained ourselves at home, I’d pop to the grocery store just for human contact. I’ll strike up a conversation with almost anyone, to connect with them and try to peek into their lives (even though as a kid I was mortified by my mother talking with strangers in the check-out line, by my father whistling or singing out in public). So it was wonderful to live in a beach house for a week with my Condie “super pod,” eating together and playing cards in the evening, gathering on the beach to dive through waves, gab, paddleboard, explore, return to the group on the sand.
I struggle to come up with a sea creature symbolic of Randy’s natural inclination, his apparent preference to be a loner of the sea. Perhaps the whelks, which are rarely seen on land, who live underwater but were exposed by storm surge? Not the ghost crab, which is generally terrestrial and never truly lives at sea. A little searching leads me to the male loggerhead. The Sea Turtle Conservancy tells me: “Sea turtles are generally solitary creatures that remain submerged for much of the time they are at sea, which makes them extremely difficult to study. They rarely interact with one another outside of courtship and mating.” Even after courtship and mating, though, “only females come ashore to nest; males almost never return to land once they leave the sand of their natal beach.”
Quick online research can tell me this much. But there’s still so much I will never know about Randy, his life on land before this moment, his life at sea, his natal beach. So much I don’t know about all creatures of land and air and sea. I am still learning how to navigate a world where some humans hand us the keys to their homes and invite us in, while others stand vigil to shoo our hands away from the keyhole.
Here’s what I do know, what the still-unspooling time of pandemic and quarantine has taught me: that some creatures naturally gravitate toward others and languish if separated for too long. Some prefer isolation in a shell of their choosing. Some are team players, while others would rather engage in the game of life primarily alone, communing with others only when necessary, for copulation or protection or food. It’s a big ocean and a big planet, with lots of ways to live in it and on it, and lots to explore.
Maybe those who feel this tug between the social and the solitary most keenly are the naturalists and writers such as John Muir, whose mission it is to explore and explain our peculiar world, infinitely faceted and fascinating. Muir, father of the conservation movement, left his natal Scotland with his family as a boy, migrated across America, spent years as a vagabond, until he ultimately “settled” near his spiritual home and sanctuary in the Yosemite Valley. In San Francisco, he married, fathered two daughters, then for a time successfully managed his in-laws’ fruit ranch. Even though he lived a relatively conventional life in society for bursts of time, he had to escape regularly to the solitude and stimulation of the wild, an arrangement his wife Louie Strentzel Muir, herself a musician and a homebody, encouraged. Wise woman, she knew his nature.
Near the end of his life, when he lived in the Contra Costa Valley, between San Francisco and Yosemite, Muir said of the physical house in which he resided: “But this isn’t my home. My home is in the mountains and the wilds. I am here merely for the rest my body demands.”