It’s been six months since I took my last trip out of town– to the beach in late October. It was time to go again for my needed dose of the coast–the natural beauty that’s a healing balm.
Before the pandemic, my older sister gave me the gift of an overnight stay at Trinity Camp, Conference and Retreat Centea in Salter Path. The sixty-two acres that comprise the center were given to the Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina in 1949 by Alice Green Hoffman and her heirs. The land sits between the Atlantic Ocean and Bogue Sound and is part of the natural barrier island of the Crystal Coast of North Carolina. I was glad that the center welcomed folks of different faith backgrounds and provided a beautiful and safe place for me as a solo traveler.
Finally, I could safely stay at the center, cashing in my gift and adding a couple of nights for rest, relaxation, and writing.
If memory serves me correctly, the last time I was at Salter Path was forty-six years ago when I was almost twenty, a sophomore in college. I came with a Christian group for a winter retreat. I’m sure I was as happy to escape the campus and have fun with my friends as I was to leave Durham and drive to the coast, escaping the confinement that has been COVID-19.
When I arrived last Friday, I checked in with Chris, one of the center staff. I told her about my memory of coming there as a college coed in 1975.
“There was a smaller center on the beach side at that time. But in 1999 Hurricane Floyd damaged the building so badly it had to be destroyed.”
She must be talking about the building where we gathered, I thought. I only had a couple of photographs from that trip– back in a time when we didn’t have the easy access of cameras on our phones. I don’t remember the retreat theme, but I felt challenged by our leader who was a divinity student. He was a ‘younger’ adult and easier to relate to than most of the preacher-types that I’d known in my lifetime.
I remember that Saturday evening gathered around the room, our retreat leader sitting on the hearth. There was a feeling of well-being and that deep connection of faith. While we were separate in our academic pursuits, we were together in our search for meaning, our journey of faith.
The group provided a firm foundation while I tried to figure out college life– learning how to study, getting along with girls in the dorm, pursuing my next date. Faith was a constant in the ever-changing landscape of being a coed.
Some of those on the retreat were also part of our singing group. I have fond memories of that sophomore year practicing and performing, visiting various churches in the area near our college and also in the Tidewater area of Virginia.
The center has developed greatly since we were at Salter Path–not that college kids would have noticed, or cared.
Now there were clusters of cottages that had been built in the eighties to accommodate the trees of the maritime forrest on the sound side. My room was spacious with a tall ceiling and clerestory windows. It sort of felt like it was part of a treehouse network with different levels of decking, climbing up into the branches. Just a short walk down the road there was a small pond and a path that led to a marsh walk. The air was fragrant with the smell of Carolina jasmine, those bright yellow blooms that say spring. There were benches along the path where you could sit and look to the cross at the back of the pond. A fish was jumping in the water– a pleasant splashing sound and the delight of watching it making a path across the surface.
There was a path going through the forrest.
Then you arrived at a boardwalk that went through the marsh to the pier that stretched out into Bogue Sound. How much I loved walking there every morning, having my coffee and watching the birds at work. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, like I feel in a national park– all mine, free for me to enjoy in the easy rhythm that is nature uninterrupted.
Later that morning, I crossed through the tunnel that goes under the highway to the Atlantic side of the center. There were few people on the beach and the weather was perfect–not so hot like in summer. The ocean front of the retreat center is unspoiled by buildings and bordered by sand dunes protected with sea grasses and sea oats. The center had built a pavilion and I took shelter from the sun to write in my journal then later jogged by the water. What a generous gift Alice Hoffman had left the Diocese, had left me.
Walking down the beach, I listened to the surf and remembered back to our retreat.
Back in 1975 on that Saturday night after our evening gathering, a group decided to take a walk on the beach. Some wanted to stay back but I was never content to be inside when I had a chance to be outside– especially for a walk by the ocean.
It was so dark, with very little moonlight–as I recall, that it took a while for my vision to acclimate and be able to distinguish each person. We walked down the beach, laughing and talking. A new guy in our group, who’d just transferred that semester from another college, was among the walkers. I didn’t know him well but he’d been easy to talk with. He’d been dating one of the girls in the group since the beginning of the semester and she’d stayed back at the retreat house. Eventually, he walked alongside me.
I was surprised when he reached out and took my hand.
I don’t think he could see my confused expression in the darkness, but I didn’t pull my hand away. I don’t remember that he said anything, but when we returned to campus that Sunday evening, he broke up with the other girl and we started dating.
Now, walking on the same beach, I wondered what the future holds. Whose hand will I be holding? Will it be the surprise it was on that walk at Salter Path forty-six years ago?
Being there then, being there last week, reminded me of the constancy of my faith to help me through the journey of life. There were reminders of how being in nature restores my soul; it has during the long months of the pandemic, and it will through whatever trials will come in the future.
And I was also reminded how sometimes a weekend doesn’t turn out like you expect–and nor does the rest of your life. There are surprises along the path.