Agate Hunting

By Marc Gilson

You’re about to read an article from my series, “A Vintage Upbringing.” These pieces are stories distilled from my own experiences growing up in Portland, Oregon with my rather unconventional but loving family, including my mom, grandmother, grandfather, and a half-dozen cats and dogs. In the case of this particular essay, it’s taken from a collection of stories (and revised) about my family that I originally wrote for some friends and family members. So I guess you could say this is a much more personal and intimate insight into my childhood than most of my essays. It’s dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Chet Lafe. 

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Nobody has ever had to twist my arm when it comes to going to the beach. I think I got the beach bug from spending many great family vacations on the Central Oregon Coast during the summers of the 1970’s and early 80’s. The beach was always a magical place for me, and still is. Looking back on it now, I recognize that a part of that magic was the way in which my family was drawn together during those vacations. It always seemed that arriving at the beach meant leaving worries behind. The adults relaxed and I got to indulge in kite-flying, digging moon-crater-sized holes in the sand, and visits to the candy store. As I’ve gotten older, I receive other gifts from visiting the beach – clarity, inspiration, contentment. When I’m there, I feel like I can really breathe.

I feel like me.

The sea has that power; it inspires a deep sense of reflection and connection in me. I guess that’s why I’m still attracted to the hiss and crash of the surf and the cool, salty air. Herman Melville said that people find their souls in the sea, and although I’m not a sailor or deep sea diver, I am no exception to Melville’s proverb.

To this day, visiting the beach stirs up fond memories of my grandfather. He was a remarkable man and he loved the beach. He also loved dragging me along with him on his famous agate hunting hikes. I think my grandfather enjoyed those early morning excursions more than I did. But looking back, I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything else, and I would give a lot to walk the shoreline with Grampy one more time in search of those little translucent stones.

No rookie beachcomber was my grandfather. He was a pro. Determined and patient, he knew all the trade secrets of agate hunting. For example, he said that the best time to look for agates is soon after the morning tide has gone out so the agates haven’t already been snatched up by other eager hunters, and so they still glistened against the dark, wet sand in the morning light. If the sun’s up, walk so your shadow doesn’t obscure your view but also so that the sunlight doesn’t put a glare from the wet sand into your eyes. Also, rinse your agates off in the surf before stuffing them into your pockets. He said that agate hunting is usually best soon after spring begins, the late winter storms having loosened and transported agates from their rock beds in the shallow pebble-strewn ribbon a mile or so off the coastline to the sandy shore. But even in the late summer, handfuls of agates can be found by the observant beachcomber.

Grampy always insisted on getting down to the shoreline in time for the first low tide of daybreak. Sometimes this meant getting up early. And by early, I mean before any living thing has even contemplated rising. If you were to go agate hunting with my grandfather, you’d be the only other creature awake, except for a few crows and seagulls, perhaps. Hunters and fishermen are notoriously early risers. But you can add agate hunters to that short list.

So, for me, mornings at our beach house did not include that most glorious of vacation traditions: sleeping-in. Nope. Instead, I woke to Grampy jostling me from fathoms of sleep, “Hey, wake up! Let’s go get some agates before everybody gets up!” Indeed, everyone else in the beach house was still enjoying their snooze. Meanwhile, I was pulling on some clothes and dragging myself, still half-asleep, out into the sharp, cold morning air for what…rocks? When did I agree to this?

Sometimes we brought along a bucket for the agates. But more often we simply filled our pockets. I always wore a thick coat with a hood, and Grampy would sometimes make me stick some cotton in my ears to protect them from the wind. I hated the cotton, but that wind was no joke, and talk about a wake-up call. Who needs coffee to wake up when you’re walking headlong into a 20 mph northerly pacific coast wind at six in the morning? I guarantee you, it’ll rouse your senses completely, although I speak from experience when I say it can also make certain young boys crabby.

Anyhow, as Mom, Gram and my cousins slumbered away (as did the rest of the populace of the Pacific time zone), Grampy and I quietly let ourselves outside at the back of the house and trampled through the dewy grass, me with pillow creases still on my face and getting out a few last-minute yawns. Mornings were almost invariably cold and gray, and yet also beautiful. If the winds were light enough, I could look back up at the hill behind the neighborhood and see a mist hugging the cedars, hiding in the shadows from the eastward rising sun. Crows and gulls would circle overhead or call each other names from the branches of pine and juniper trees. And the ever-present surf would be thundering away.

My grandfather, on the hunt for agates.

Grampy, oblivious to all else, on the hunt for agates.

Clomping our way down the old wooden steps toward the beach, I’d have to be careful not to get splinters in my hands from the rough railing. And since I can remember, I’ve always played a silly little mental game with myself when stepping onto beach sand. As my foot would hit the sand, I’d always pretend I was Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, and say to myself, “One small step for man…” I still do that. Of course Neil had an advantage when he made his better-known landing in that he wasn’t trying to keep up with my agate-hungry grandfather. Otherwise, he might have said, “One – yawn – small step…Hey! Wait up!” My grandfather was not a small man, especially to me at age 8 or 9. And while not known as a fast walker, his pace when heading to the shore for an agate hunt was expeditious, if not breakneck.

However, after getting winded trudging through the soft sand to the wetter, firmer sand closer to the surf, his pace shifted from that of a man in frantic search for a restroom, to that of someone step-stop-stepping down the aisle at a wedding.

Once we’d reached the shoreline, Grampy would assume his signature “agate-spotting-stance.” Here’s what it looked like: First, he usually aimed himself upwind and hunched his shoulders against the breeze. Then he’d lean over a bit at the waist, maybe 60 degrees, and cross his hands behind his back like he had been handcuffed and was being led off to jail. He would drop his head down, almost precariously, so as to provide himself with the best position from which to observe the sandy landscape. Sound awkward? It was. Don’t try this at home!

This posture was so well-known in my mind, that even if he were a half mile down the beach, in a mist, among a hundred other beachcombers, I could have identified him on stance alone. Once he had managed to get into the proper agate-spotting position, the agate hunting expedition could officially begin! What happened next was this: He would walk. S l o w l y. That’s it.

As for me, well, walking slowly isn’t something I did very well when I was a child unless it was to bed or to the dinner table. So I would trot in a circle around Grampy as he walked along, being careful not to trample over the patches of rocks he was scanning. I meandered while he moseyed. I dashed while he strolled. I would sometimes spy an interesting piece of driftwood or some object in the sand and would rush away to investigate. Other times, I’d just run on up the shore a bit and sit on a log, waiting for Grampy to catch up.

Watching him walk the shoreline in search of agates was like watching an ocean tanker traverse the length of the horizon. It happened slowly and predictably. So I would occupy myself by wandering a few yards ahead, or running over to look at a dead crab or something and then return to see what, if anything, he had discovered. If he had found some agates he thought were “keepers” he’d stop to show me. I probably should have been bored out of my mind, but I never was.

Like spotting them, there were also a few rules about actually choosing an agate to take home. First, don’t take every last agate you find. Leave some for other beachcombers, and for the sea to take back. Also, try to find unique looking agates; ones you will want to look at later. I remember mimicking Grampy and holding up agates up like he did, to see the sunlight through the translucent stones. Some agates which looked mundane on the sand could reveal intricate and striking designs when held to the sun. But even some of the better ones were returned to the sand. Grampy wasn’t out to collect every last agate on the Pacific coast. He was interested in quality over quantity. This concept intrigued me, and I suppose it was an early lesson for me in learning that more isn’t always better.

After Grampy was stricken with cancer and kidney failure, we still went agate hunting but I undertook more of the work of spotting them and fishing them out of the sand. He just couldn’t see them as well, and he certainly couldn’t do much bending down. So I’d spot them, stoop to pick them up, and hand them over.  Grampy would determine whether or not to keep them. On one occasion, as I’d become older and Grampy sicker, I noticed he kept every single one I handed him, even the little ones. And now I wonder if he thought I’d be hurt if he’d tossed one I had chosen back into the sea. I should have known then that it would be one of our last agate-hunting expeditions together.

I can still picture Grampy’s face in my mind when he was holding an agate up to the light. He would first hold the agate close to his eye like he was examining a diamond, then hold it out at arms length against the sun, squinting at it, as if getting perspective on a fine piece of art. Being a curious kid, I would be standing there at his side, squinting too, wondering whether it would meet Grampy’s standards for a keeper. Sometimes I would try to read his wrinkled face. He never scowled at an agate. Even the ones he tossed back into the water brought a little smile to his face. Although his body was failing, and I’d seen silent moments of pain cross his face many times during his illness, his blue-green eyes were always clear and lively when he was agate hunting.

I learned a lot of things from my grandfather. One of the best things I learned is to appreciate the subtle, natural beauty of something as simple as an agate. This sounds quaint, perhaps. But there has never been a piece of art devised by human hands that could inspire the same sense of satisfaction and awe I saw in Grampy when he was gazing at the simplest agate in the misty morning light. If you see agates like we saw them, you’ll understand what I mean.

They really are beautiful works of nature; silica resin by-products of ancient undersea volcanic activity. Some are fiery red, like hot coals from a fireplace. Others are amber, green, champagne, or brown in color. Some can even be multi-colored, orange with golden veins running through it, or aqua-blue with striations of snow-white icing. Grampy said that agates come in all the colors of the rainbow.

The agates I really prized were the ones that looked like they had frosting on them; a whitish coating, sometimes in splotches, that made them look like candy. In our beach town we found a candy store that specialized in salt water agates-21251195taffy. There, you could also find “rock candy” which comes in two forms. One is the crystallized type that actually grows on strings or little wooden sticks and is basically colored sugar in large crystalline form. The other kind are actually confections that are made to look just like natural stones. During each visit to the candy store someone would always buy me three or four of those little stone-like candies that reminded me of the agates I found on the beach. And, as you may have already guessed, I once made the mistake of pulling one from my pocket to chomp on, expecting a chewy sweet, and instead nearly cracking my teeth on a real agate. From then on, I always kept my agates and my candy in separate pockets.

Where agate-hunting was concerned, Grampy was nothing if not focused. The problem with being focused is that you’re not always aware of what else is happening around you. Your peripheral awareness narrows to a fine point at the exclusion of other events happening in the vicinity. In Grampy’s case, he could get so intent on following the path of stones looking for his agates that the surf would suddenly surprise him and pour over his feet, soaking the bottoms of his pant legs. Sometimes he would grumble a little. Of course if he noticed the surf approaching, he’d amble up a few paces to avoid it. But as he got older, he wasn’t quite so agile. So the surf would sometimes catch up to him, his shoes and socks would get pretty wet, and I’d have a grumpy old agate hunter on my hands.

On one of our last agate hunts together, after one of the many surgeries he endured, and only a few hard, short months before he’d be gone, I saw him do something I’d never seen him do before. Something that really shocked me and that I’ll never forget. As we were collecting our agates, he stopped, and without a word he took off his shoes and socks, handed them to me, rolled up his pant legs, and danced into the chasing tide waters. Rather than avoiding that cold morning surf, he just bounded right into it. I remember being struck by that, and thinking, “What in the heck is he doing?” It just wasn’t something I’d witnessed in him in a long time. Playfulness. In fact, I’m pretty sure the ocean itself was caught off-guard and I thought I saw the tide retreat in haste to ponder the change in attitude by this old man who used to run away.

After filling our pockets with agates, Grampy and I would head back to the house. The weight of those agates in our pockets as we hiked through the soft sand and up the stairs always gave me the sense of having returned from a successful hunt. I’m guessing my grandmother didn’t mind that our “catch” required no cleaning or cooking.

Our legs were tired, our noses were cold, and we’d have worked up a good appetite. So luckily, by the time we got back to the house, everyone else was usually up and had breakfast ready. If it was a particularly cold morning, Grampy would light a fire and we’d all sit and talk about the plans for our day ahead and pass around some of the beautiful agates just harvested from the seashore. If I could choose a moment from my childhood to relive anytime I wanted, it would be this one. The smells of charring wood, black coffee, bacon and lightly browning pancake batter, the salty perfume from our agate hunt still lingering on my clothes, the sharp crackling from the fireplace, and the overall gentleness of a vacation morning unfolding with those you love, but with no concern for what the clock says – these are a few of the priceless memories of my childhood.

Recently, I went to the beach by myself for a few days. I decided to revisit that same stretch of shoreline Grampy and I walked so many times in search of our agates. It was a warm, perfect day. As I scanned the glistening sands, it was as if he were walking with me; I hadn’t felt his presence quite so strongly since he died, 30 years ago now. I could clearly recall his voice as it blended with the waves crashing along the shore, “Let’s go get some agates!” “Look at this one!” “Oh boy, that’s a keeper.”

I went on up the shore to look at our old rental cabin from the beach. I had no trouble locating it, but it has changed. New roof and paint. The tall grass is gone now, replaced by a huge cedar deck with a jacuzzi. The stairs have been improved a bit. Looks like someone might be living there all the time now. Glad they’re taking good care of the place.

I headed on to the north, the way we used to go. In spite of a sunny day, I could see a persistent mist hovering toward the north end where the beach ends in rocky tidal pools and a cape juts out into the sea. I could see perhaps a hundred people dispersed over a mile or so up the beach. Kite flyers, kids and dogs, and a few beachcombers. One of them made me stop in my tracks. He was too far away for me to see much in the way of detail. His posture was the only thing discernible about him as he strolled along, close to the water: shoulders hunched against the breeze, slightly stooped, head down, hands behind his back, walking slowly, in search of little translucent stones.

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