If winter is about introspection then I’m off to a good start. My blog has been gathering dust as Nancy and I journeyed west for an extended holidays. Reuniting with loved ones and exploring new landscapes is a decent reason not to write.

We left cold Minnesota as the daylight was being smothered by a growing nighttime darkness. On the winter solstice, north of Fort Bragg, California,  I had to pick up my pace to hurry across a broad stretch of coastal sand dunes before the orbit put the sun to bed.

On this shortest day of the year, the air was chilly but pleasant enough to frequently pause to consider things like the scurrying tracks of previous travelers. One bore a loping gait, like a raccoon or member of the weasel family. Like me, it was heading west towards the sea. But all digit and claw details were lost in the dry sand. In this case it was enough to know that the mammalian track maker had a habit of loping.

In studying the tracks I couldn’t help but notice all the varied colors of sand grains. Even a red-green color blind Midwest boy could find beauty in the diversity. Sand grains, like people, come in different shapes and colors. I am grateful for that, as a world of sameness would be an utter bore. Hail differences!!

Below one steep-faced dune there was a small pond of water. Like an unblinking eye, it reflected the late afternoon sky that was losing its base of blue and heading towards tones of tangerine.


I walked up and down the undulations of the dunes. My quad muscles garnered a pleasant burn as I leaned into each rising, foot-swallowing ascent. Going down the backsides of the series of sand waves was delightful as I leaped with boyhood enthusiasm to see how far I could carry in my series of bounds.

Finally I chased the sun to the western edge of the continent.  I stopped in the wet sand and watched the ocean pull the gilded sun from the sky. I listened to the cadence of waves beating their tireless drumming like a pagan celebration.

Theological historians believe that Western Christians initiated the celebration Christmas on December 25 in the year 336 after Roman Emperor Contantine pronounced Chrisianity as the empire’s religion. Even though most researchers believe Jesus Christ was likely born in the spring, the winter solstice was likely chosen for the birthday party to co-opt popular pagan festivals. It was a brilliant marketing strategy. And it’s more than coincidental that Jesus has often been labelled “the prince of light.”

I spotted a wheeling flock of a tightly grouped shorebirds stitch back and forth along the ocean’s edge as if mending the sea to the land. And in an instant they simultaneously set down a short distance away. I could see by their size and light color that they were sanderlings. They lit on the water-washed sand and as a group ran in hurried short steps towards the receding wave. They moved like children who chase waves back and forth through the surf. The sanderlings chased the wave seaward frantically picking through the wash and sand for small invertebrates. When the next wave approached, they turned and in a skewed line, all hurried towards shore as the next wave chased them. And once more the sanderlings would quickly do an about face and chase the water back to the ocean. Like clockwork they moved back and forth from beach to water. From beach to water.

These small birds, like me, are only visitors here. They nest in the high arctic, thousands of miles north of here. With the change of seasons they must migrate south in search of sustenance. While this group of two dozen or so sanderlings hurried to find calories in the sand, I had the luxury to watch them knowing full well that I would not have to resort to frenzied feeding before dark.

As they ran back and forth, skirting the foaming wash of the waves, I wondered if they even notice the awe of the solstice sunset? Their sun- driven biological clocks will eventually arouse their need for leaving this quiet landscape of dunes and shadows. And then they will lift off and turn around, again heading northward chasing a spring solstice.

There are times when I pine for such elemental motivations. For now I will sit on the dune and feel the evening chill move in as the sun sinks.

Hail the light!