I am a child of the night, daughter of a third-shifter dad who had a penchant for 2 a.m. sky watching. The feel of night is different in unexplainable ways, more so in big cities, like where I grew up — block after block of hushed porches and weak nightlights painted to the tune of muted traffic, crickets and rustling trees.
My spouse also loves the dark and tonight we roam Clam Beach, starting at the south end. Over the years, we developed rules for night walking. First and foremost: Know the path well. Full dark is not the time to learn about that little twist in the trail with a big boulder embedded in the footpath. This was reinforced by seeing that a few boardwalk pieces were a bit out of alignment. Our flashlight made it passable but still, good to know in advance. Another requirement? Tide chart. Always, always, always know if it is low or high tide. We read all signs. It is posted if the beach is prone to sneaker waves or rip tides. Getting caught by incoming waves in pitch black can not only be terrifying, but deadly.
One spontaneous night stroll left us unable to find the path back. On any walk we both turn around to memorize landmarks for a safe return, a hard rule as beach fever can make it impossible to tear away to look back. Fog enveloped us, obscuring our trail markers. Although I am smitten by printed maps, a fully charged cell phone in watertight bag is now a rule. Its flashlight is a nice backup but an online tide chart and the map app that pins exactly where the path meets the beach are key. I still feel the slight thrill of that night's uncertainty when thick fog rolls in.
We aim to reach the beach just before the moment of sunset. This allows for the magic hour crowd to have their sway as we slip in at the end. During one pre-COVID walk, humanity itself was on display — a group of celebrants in orange and red as they threw driftwood tokens into the surf. One man cleansed himself with a mighty effort, heaving a long branch back to whence it came. Impromptu drum circles and arty driftwood lean-tos pop up every now and again. More often than not, a dog will burst from the foam, grinning and leaping to catch up with its humans.
The colors deepen in beauty as they fade into pinks, lavenders and soft grays. Reflected in pools and rippled by sand deposits, this rarefied light surrounds all. A horse and rider are barely discernable at the far end of the beach as twilight takes its soft hold.
By now we have the beach pretty much to ourselves. Most won't venture the boardwalk in the dark. An occasional jogger might ease by, or a lone wanderer of the dunes will flitter through our periphery, but none invade our bubble. We discuss the time of day in Tokyo, or how long it would take for flotsam to get from Point A to Point B. It makes us feel like stardust.
Darkness foregrounds my other senses. The song of wind and wave fills me as I admire their handiwork. I love the tamed chaos they create, weaving sands and sculpting scaled-down Saharan dunes. I sink into the dry dune, sliding down the diminutive escarpment. I step onto the firm dampness of an undulating deposit. We take care to stay between the surf and the high tide mark to avoid the nesting grounds of the endangered snowy plover. Nesting season runs from March through September, and a dark stumble onto a chick is a preventable tragedy.
Trinidad Head lighthouse flashes its comforting code to those at sea. Above, a Coast Guard helicopter makes a pass, its searchlight slicing through the dark. Assuming they're training, I wave not caring that they cannot see. My spouse helpfully points out they probably have infrared. I wave again.
Where Humboldt County's Clam Beach borders the section managed by the state of California, an interpretive sign highlights the plight of the plover. Its sudden appearance out of the shadows relieves my small anxiety. I like knowing where I am — the curse of growing up on an urban grid system. And yet that is why I love walking on the beach at night. Not knowing exactly where I am is thrilling.
Up the path to the locked north lot, we rest on a log, our closeness to the dunes bringing another level of delight. The scurrying of little feet through rustling undercover mixes with the whoosh of waves and the smell of dried grass and sea spray. I see hoofprints on the path, the evidence of a slow stroll to cool down after a canter through the surf. A far-off squeal signals the food chain is always in play.
We walk back along Clam Beach Drive after pausing to dump sand out of our shoes and refill water bottles. Headlights from U.S. Highway 101 and a veiled moon illuminate the road. A sweep of light bounces off a rising mist. We walk past dunes with swaying trees and bushes filled with unsettled birds. The lane marker glows pearlescent white as a truck rumbles past. For a moment there is no traffic. Just us again, alone, on a long stretch of misty California asphalt, happy in the darkness.
Meg Wall-Wild, freelance writer and photographer who loves her books, the dunes of Humboldt and her husband, not necessarily in that order. When not writing, she pursues adventure in her camper, Nellie Bly.