slipped my feet into my running shoes and tied them with a double knot. Skutull knew what that meant—either he was going to be left home to guard the house or he was about to do something fun. He looked up at me with pitiful eyes and a wagging tail, hoping he could will the latter into fruition. To his relief, I opened the front door and signaled him out into the Oregon forest where we were greeted by a cloud of fir spores blowing from the trees. The scents of pine and melon danced up my nose.
It took us only a few minutes to walk to the beach. Along the way, we passed a tsunami warning sign on the side of the road. We’d been in Oregon for a few days and had noticed many similar signs in the area. To my surprise, Oregon’s location on Earth’s tectonic plates puts its coastline at high-risk for major tsunamis, similar to Japan or Indonesia.
There were no sidewalks, so we walked in the road, skirting along our neighbor’s chain link fence. Their two dogs charged us, snarling and barking with their hackles up. The fence was only just high enough to keep them from jumping over.
The dirt road we meandered up became rougher as we turned into the beach parking lot—we had to zigzag to avoid potholes and puddles. The parking lot was narrow and relatively flat, but stopped abruptly in the direction of the ocean where a thirty-foot cliff plummeted to the beach. There were no fences or guardrails, just a few large rocks here and there marking the edge.
Several layers of waves rolled toward the coast, one after another, as the Oregon seascape stretched into the hazy distance. Beyond the waves, large spires of rock rose from the ocean. It was just after sunrise and the sky still had an orange tint near the horizon. The beaming sun briefly poked its head through the clouds, illuminating the whitecaps of the crashing waves like banks of snow on a bluebird day.
Several old Ford and Chevy pickup trucks idled in the parking lot facing the ocean vista. Their beds were mostly empty aside from a bucket or ladder thrown in haphazardly. A few had decals glued to the front doors sporting the name of an electrician or a plumbing company. The driver’s seat of each vehicle was occupied by a graying man holding a steaming thermos of coffee in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other.
I briefly made eye contact with one of the men. He was sitting in a blue Chevy, cigarette hanging from his lips, when I felt his gaze upon me, but he whipped his head back toward the ocean as soon as I began raising my hand to wave.
Sunrise wasn't the only time these men congregated—at lunch and after work the same trucks would coast into the beach parking lot, their aging jockeys hanging their left arm out the driver-side window. I never saw any of them get out of their trucks.
Down on the beach, I broke into a jog. Skutull followed suit, then grabbed a piece of driftwood and took off, tucking his butt under into a full sprint. The beach was a graveyard of driftwood, some of which originated from root systems and resembled pieces of petrified coral. The sand was rocky, especially in some places. Seaweed, beached jellyfish, and rotting crab shells littered the sand where the ocean extended during high tide.
Giant waves roared and echoed off the seaside cliffs as they crashed into the packed sand of the beach. The terrain along the coast tilted dramatically toward the water; whenever a wave would pull back, I caught a glimpse of how quickly the ground dropped deeper just a few feet into the ocean. These factors joined forces to create a powerful rip current that pulled from the deserted Oregon beach toward the black depths of the ocean.
When we visited this beach for the first time earlier in the week, I took off my shoes and got close enough to the sea for the waves to rush up against my ankles. The frigid water sent goosebumps up my spine. After a particularly large wave crashed, the water line made it halfway up my shins, and when the rip current reversed back toward the ocean, the force was almost strong enough to knock me off balance. While I was researching tsunamis, I read that six inches of water moving at seven miles per hour is enough to knock a grown person to the ground. And that two feet moving at the same speed can easily wash away cars.
Skutull wanted to swim, but each time he veered toward the water, I’d frantically signal for him to come further up the beach. He eventually picked up on the fact that I didn’t want him in the water and chose instead to run along the edge of where the waves reached, biting at the lingering sea foam.
A middle-aged man on an ATV snuck up behind us, zoomed past, then stopped abruptly a hundred yards up the beach. I read once that an ordinary wave in rough seas breaks with enough force to snap bone, so it’s no wonder we didn’t hear the ATV's engine approaching over the noise of the massive waves crashing into the beach. The man hopped out and grabbed a metal detector bungeed onto the back of his vehicle. “What are you looking for?” I asked as we ran past. “Treasure,” he replied, avoiding eye contact.
I was born near Denver, Colorado, which is just about as far away from a large body of water as you can get. The sea is what drew me to Oregon. I wanted to get to know it. To connect with it. I’ve been to tropical beaches topped with imported sand from the Sahara Desert and crowded with colorful towels and umbrellas. To me, that’s “the beach”, which is enjoyable, but also contrived and engineered.
I met the sea for the first time when I traveled to Alaska as a kid. I remember our coastal train near Anchorage stopping abruptly to watch a mama grizzly bear and her cubs run across the mud flats exposed in low tide. I remember pieces of ice the size of buildings breaking off of glaciers and crashing into the ocean like grains of sand falling into a glass of water. I remember walking past a massive whale carcass in Barrow, then wading into the ice-spotted Arctic Ocean as I scanned the horizon for polar bears. Most of all, I remember how our tiny fishing boat climbed up and down fifteen foot waves as we exited the Homer harbor and journeyed into the open sea, hoping to catch halibut.
The beach invites relaxation. The sea demands respect.
I think that what draws me to the sea is how humbly it forces me to put myself into perspective.
The sea is vast, stretching more miles than I could swim in a lifetime.
The sea is powerful and could swallow any man-made structure like a hungry whale inhaling krill.
The sea is mysterious and could pull me into the depths of itself, where there is no light and marine snow falls around the clock, blanketing the ocean floor.
The sea absorbs the forces of the universe and always moves toward stillness.
The surface may become rough, but underneath, the sea is always calm.
The sea is raw.
The sea is persistent.
The sea is immortal.
I often think about the meaning of life. In our busy, chaotic world, we’re taught that a person’s purpose is defined by measurable recognition.
The amount of money a business person is worth; the technological or lifestyle change an entrepreneur introduces to the world; the societal or cultural evolution a politician/activist influences; or the scientific progress an academic achieves, to name a few.
Purpose in our culture has become the pursuit of an idyllic resume of achievements and the drive to cement your name in the history books. The sea makes me question if this is healthy.
Does the man who works manual labor and will never receive prestigious awards automatically lack purpose or meaning? How about the girl in rural Pakistan who will never be allowed to start a business and become wealthy? Or the boy in Guinea who works in a mine and will never have access to the education he’d need to contribute to the progress of science?
People across large parts of the world today live simple lives focused around family. If everyone needs Nobel Prizes, piles of money, advanced education, or influence over large numbers of people to have purpose, then the vast majority of people stand a slim chance at achieving it, not because of their ability, but because of their uncontrollable circumstances.
People alive today are just the tip of the iceberg. What of the cave man 10,000 years ago? Or the dog? Or the bird? Or the bear? What about every animal who has ever lived, including humans? Most of their lives would be graded poorly under Western culture’s modern rubric.
For thousands of years, humans used religious faith and family commitment to guide their life purpose. Under this framework, everyone can lead meaningful lives, and your success is independent of your neighbor’s. But that’s no longer the case.
Our culture today values scarcity above all else. The reason we attribute purpose to accomplishments is because they are scarce. If everyone won a Nobel Prize or had $1 billion in their bank account, it would be meaningless. By definition, even if everyone had the access and resources to strive for these types of prestigious accomplishments, only a small fraction could ever succeed.
At a time when the pool of people we must compare ourselves to is expanding (globalization), our culture is also shifting toward grading scarce accomplishments with a higher value. I can’t help but think that this route could lead us through choppy waters and into a storm. Surely meaning in life should be framed in a way so that all creatures may achieve it independently?
I read once in a Stoic philosophy book that the meaning of life for each creature is to be a true version of what it is. A dog’s purpose is to be a dog in the truest sense, the good and the bad. A human’s purpose is to be as human as possible. No checklist of accomplishments, no scarcity.
As I ran down the Oregon beach, Skutull trotting by my side, I felt like the sea was telling me:
“I am vast and powerful, yet I strive for nothing.”
According to Skutull
Like California, Skutull’s favorite part of Oregon was the beach. "Beach" has become an exciting word for Skutull, competing with the likes of “park,” but not quite as desired as “play.”
There was lots of wildlife around our house. Skutull enjoyed watching the deer and growling softly at them. He didn’t hate them, but he didn’t trust them, either.
We of course gave Skutull an Oregon name—Sku-nami (inspired by the surprising prevalence of tsunami risk in the area).