We used paper Starbucks cups to build castles in the sand.
As children my siblings and I were so proud of these already collapsing towers, knowing they’d be lapped up by the approaching tide hours after their creation. They were beautiful despite their transitory existence- maybe because of it.
We delighted in the ability of our own hands to create such precious things.
My dad would sip the last of his mocha, my sisters and I crowding his ankles, waiting to snatch the mermaid-emblazoned prize from his grasp. He’d eventually pass it down into our outstretched hands, an act that had us immediately flying towards the water, pigtails bouncing.
The cups grew weaker as we dashed to and from the edge of the waves, scooping up piles of grainy saltwater and pouring them into the ground, mashing the sea back into the sand until we could mold fortresses with our fingers.
We scoured tide pools for smooth pebbles and ragged, seaweed-covered driftwood to create flags or towers. Our fingernails grew dark and ragged as we dug moats and built bridges over them.
Sometimes we got lucky and found a perfect sand dollar, my sister’s favorite, or a piece of the milky emerald seaglass I was so fond of. These were the pieces we carried home and displayed on our bedroom shelves, a reminder throughout the winter that summer would return soon enough.
Eventually, we began to arrive on Alki with yellow plastic buckets. We were no longer so dirty after a day of building.
I preferred to hide under an umbrella with a book, hiding my frizzy hair and purple braces from view, than delve into the waves with my younger siblings. School and sports and friends took priority over the innocence of a summer’s day.
Sandcastles were forgotten- what middle school girl wants to be seen crafting one?-, and Alki became a place I knew intimately again only when I began to run.
We lived 2 miles from the edge of what I considered part of Alki, an easy jaunt to the smell of saltwater and the cry of seagulls battling over clams they’d dropped from the sky to crack against the pavement.
When I started running, my mother usually came along. She was part motivation, part safety net, as moms tend to be. Together we traversed the peninsula that is West Seattle, but the runs I remember most clearly began on that long downhill towards the water.
There’s a paved road along the water, a sidewalk adjacent, but when we could we’d drop off into the tiny dirt path that snaked in and out of existence, giving our feet a rest from pounding pavement. From our home to the sea we mostly passed houses and office buildings, trees and a variety of other green spaces.
There was one homeowner that kept a handful of goats, who a few times we were able to hear bleating before dawn. In the spring we sought out baby geese, watching them grow as the seasons changed until we could no longer differentiate them from their parents.
It was always a brilliant experience to turn the last corner out of the trees, to be greeted by the sight of downtown Seattle gleaming silver across the water.
Then there was the air, that salty tang of morning ocean water. You can’t always smell it- Puget Sound is too surrounded by civilization to be so free and wild as the ocean that touches the coast in Oregon or California.
But sometimes that scent danced into your senses, and it was never just your nose- if you got a whiff it was your nose, your lips, your tongue, your eyes. It surrounded you, and it was fresh and awful and delicious all at once.
Fishermen sat out in the early hours, quietly sipping coffee from styrofoam and watching the sun crest the horizon. Rain or shine (often, rain) they remained patient, peaceful.
If I happened to miss my morning run and was forced to run in the afternoon instead, the scenery changed drastically. Volleyball competitions took up half the beach, and the other was occupied by sunbathers and families with yellow plastic buckets of their own. Summer at Alki sounds to me like voices and splashing and Charli XCX, who I listened to every day I ran under that stunning sunshine, glittering light on the water.
There is a certain emotion that exists when you return to your roots, especially as a runner- in retracing your steps, literally.
When I returned to Seattle after a year in Singapore, one of the activities I prioritized was going for runs with my mom. We headed down to the beach, me finishing up the training cycle for my first marathon and her supporting.
After our run, we bought croissants and black coffee at Starbucks, walked outside and sat our butts on the cold concrete so we could sink our feet into the sand.
It feels strange to run there, now, no longer the girl I was.
I am overly nostalgic- the love I have for the beach of my memories doesn’t match up to what it is now. Trendy restaurants have replaced the battered cafes I grew up with. The vibe of Seattle, as a whole, has shifted. West Seattle is less offbeat, less weird- more yoga pants and gentrification. The bathhouse I used to take pottery lessons in has been graffitied and smells now of sweat and urine from the overflow of the adjacent bathrooms.
It’s funny, how the places we visit in our youth retain such importance, such significance. I think when you experience a place on foot, walking or running or just being, you develop more of a connection to it. When you are in motion you create the space to exist, to feel and think, and those thoughts, that mental play becomes associated with your environment.
Every time you return, those sights and smells transport you to a certain moment in time, a particular emotion, and it’s incredibly difficult to replace those sensory memories. There’s probably some research, some scientific study out there that explains this. It doesn’t matter so much to me though- the why isn’t important. The experience is.
For me, this is Alki. This is the beach I grew up on, the sun and the sand, the water and the waves. My city, Seattle, glittering despite the rain and concrete. Alki was my feet on the pavement, a place to cry when I needed no one to see, a place to sprint along, joy-fueled and euphoric.
Alki, once, was home.