At the end of the day we usually head to the river to take pictures of the setting sun, but often that depends upon the sky. A “blank” sky usually means we won’t get any good shots. We’ll go anyway, to stand on the sandbar just off the rocks where we can look west well up river under the Lower Rappahannock River Bridge—the Norris Bridge—up toward Urbanna; but also we can turn around in our tracks and look straight out into the Chesapeake Bay and its twenty-mile span to the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
On that same spot we stand every Fourth of July to watch fireworks from a half dozen locales: someone in White Stone just across the river, someone near Hummel Airstrip, probably at Grey’s Campground, just up river at the foot of the bridge, someone across from there which must be the Tides Inn in Irvington, someone else in Deltaville, though those are harder to view as it is down river on our bank, and the houses are in the way, and finally someone across from the Stingray, out on Windmill Point, which just might be the best place for such celebrations for its isolation yet visibility.
From this same spot we stand, as we will this week, and face across Windmill Point to the northeast and look further across the bay, across where—if we could see it—sits Tangier Island, then further still, and out there somewhere we can watch the rocket launches at Wallops Island. They have done a few during the day but mostly at night, and we see a white flash that stays lit for a few moments out across the bay, and then a red spear of fire—not the rocket, the sky is too dark to see the rocket—but the burn we can see as it rises and pushes the payload into the night sky and heads southeast until it just disappears, gone, like someone turns it off, but instead it has left the earth’s atmosphere.
We went down once to watch a launch thinking it would be the two of us but a dozen or more people showed up with binoculars and chairs and we all talked about the weather and the water conditions and the sky and what planet that is and what star that might be, and it was all friendly, some of the people, like Michael, having lived here their entire lives, and others, like me, who have made it home but will always be a “come lately.” Eventually, someone started to count and while we reach zero often a few minutes before the control tower out on Wallops does, at some point they do, and the white blast and red beam of fire commences, rises, then disappears. And we all head home, quietly.
On this strip of sand we stand when the sun is still high or earlier, when it is low in the east, and while I take pictures of the break in the clouds which turn the rays yellow or streaks of blue, Michael finds strips of color on the water, like someone laid long peels of various colored material on the water, and they float, lifting and bending with the current and the wind, and he find just the right angle of light and depth of water and picks that moment to isolate for us forever, though that moment itself with those colors and textures is gone.
Sometimes I come alone and work things out. I stood here when I left my job of thirty years which coincided with other drastic changes in my life and I watched the same sky turn royal blue and then dark blue giving way to something like crimson, and only then was I okay. And when Dad died, and long before that, when I drove home from school that Tuesday afternoon that September 11th, I got home and walked to the river and noticed out across the bay which always has jets flying north or south so far up you can’t hear them but you can see the gleam, that day there were none, and it was obvious, and I wondered here on the sand as the September water swirled around my calves if we were under attack and I had spent the last of my afternoons I ever would at the river.
It would be romantic to say I come here to write, or at least work out something I’m working on, but I don’t, not usually. Sometimes a digression will cross my mind, but more often than not I’m thinking about some old friend who I don’t hear from nearly enough, or some relative who I’d love to spend time with.
I’m rarely alone. Blue herons and white egrets and countless osprey and eagles and kingfishers and cormorants and gulls live here. Geese pass through and indigo buntings. Dolphin have made their way up into this part of the river from the bay, and quite often stingrays, which gave this area its name for the legend that while swimming in these waters, John Smith in the early sixteen hundreds was stung by a stingray. A few have washed up on the beach, hit by a boat or tangled in plastic. And a few times loggerhead turtles show up, though that’s rare and more often on the sands at the bay than here on the river.
Like anywhere else, at night the river seems smaller, people across the mile and a half wide river seem like they’re next door, and I can almost hear their conversations as they sit on their Adirondack chairs on the bluffs looking over the Rappahannock and stare out to the bay. I can see lights of cars and trucks crossing the sky-blue bridge, but I can’t hear them, not at all. In the mornings the low rumbling of the diesel engines of fishing boats head out from Mill Creek and further up to fill their hold with a catch or check the traps for the famous and delicious Chesapeake blue crab. I see these men in 711 when I’m heading out for the day and I stop to get some coffee and they’re there in fishing boots and getting their coffee, coming home for the day. These are hardworking women and men, though mostly guys, and they smell like cigarettes and raw fish and coffee, and I wonder for a moment but then know for sure that I’ve never worked that hard in my life. When I was young I went to the docks at Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach and applied to be a deck hand on a fishing vessel but they only seemed to hire sons and sons of friends. That’s okay though, I still developed a taste for the crabs and bluefish.
Usually we stand on the sand here and just talk, my son and I, about the day, about projects we’re working on, places we’re thinking of going, but, interestingly, not often at all of places we’ve been unless it is relevant to what’s next. We’ve done okay staying in step with where we are and where we are going. We want to go back to Spain, or cross Canada, or back to St Petersburg, we talked about going to Mt Fuji with a friend and his son, and we talked about going to Brooklyn. We talk about what movies we might watch or what we read that day in the news. It is a good place to let the anxiety of life drift off with the bay breeze and just, well, just settle down a bit, let things be still for a little while, here on the river.
I’ve always lived near water. As a child it was the Connetquot River and the Great South Bay of Long Island, and in high school the Lynnhaven River and this very Chesapeake, about seventy-five nautical miles southeast. Even at college I spent most of my time walking along the Allegheny River or some weekends out at Lake Chautauqua. I know there’s science about the percentage of water we are as humans and the percentage of water on the planet and how much of it is potable and how much of it is wasted, but that’s research for someone else. I just like how it feels when it rolls past my calves. I’ve stood in rivers on four continents, and always it is the way the water pushes past my calves that I remember most, and the tug of the riverbed on the soles of my feet.
It does that, this river. It tugs at my soul.