Tree #146, an eastern red cedar, appears at first to be approaching death, but it’s not. Half uprooted on the edge of Marginal Way by some maniacal storm, it has continued growing, albeit horizontally. In its peculiar way, it’s thriving. On the water, out past the cedar’s exhumed roots and a neighboring basalt crag, a red-breasted merganser contends with the relentless surf in Oarweed Cove. It begins to fly, sputtering and bouncing over the swollen waves like a skipped stone.
Rain begins to patter onto Marginal Way and me, so I leave tree #146 and take shelter in a stand of junipers, next to an interpretive sign: ORIGIN OF THE ROCKS AND STRUCTURES OF THE MARGINAL WAY. My damp sneakers planted on the Kittery Formation, I scan the stone in front of me for slivers of ancient magma. For a moment, my mind wanders to an email I should have sent, then to the dinner I should start prepping. As my mental to-do list grows, I feel a tinge of guilt for prioritizing this downtime. Then, a small black arrow on the raindrop-speckled map reminds me: “You are here.”
The Marginal Way footpath is a Maine icon, and for good reason. The one-and-a-quarter-mile coastal walk between Ogunquit and Perkins Cove offers arresting vistas at every turn, endless vignettes of thrashing waves and toothy rock. For waterfowl, like the merganser, the churning seascape is formidable. But for land-bound pedestrians, Marginal Way is pure ease. The topography beneath the paved path is surprisingly gentle, as if it were asking, “Why should you have to struggle to be rewarded?” Marginal Way is a foil to Maine’s many steep climbs, those wooded ascents to solitary lookouts. Here, there is no destination and no striving. Hamstrings spared, one is cordially invited to slow down.
At any time of day, I find an opportunity to marvel. At dawn, the sun spills over Perkins Cove’s gray-shingled rooftops, bathing Marginal Way in a sense of possibility. At sunset, a creamsicle hue lingers on the horizon — stubborn, like the exotic bittersweet vines that flank each step of the walk. At the edge of the bluffs, beach-rose hips dangle from thorny, woody shrubs. Rosa rugosa, introduced from Japan in the mid-19th century, has become a quintessential emblem of the New England coast. Mainers of a certain age may remember their mothers making tea from the scraggly rose hips. As foreign as the bittersweet, as Maine as lobster.
After dark, the margin between land and sea is cold and nondescript. I fumble my way to a bench that sits on the edge of oblivion. At the edge of the cliff face, I can distinguish almost nothing. A pruned-back beach-rose bush might be a giant, belly-up tarantula. In the distance, the irregular blinking of buoys punctuates the horizon. To their left, the lights of Kennebunk glimmer. If I forget, for a moment, that I’m in Maine, the silhouette of a pitch pine against the sky behind me suggests a desert scene. The dankness of seaweed in my nose, however, is unmistakable.
I notice all this because I have resolved to. Mindfulness is not in my genes. Though I moved to Maine just a few months ago, I’ve walked Marginal Way since I was a toddler, often alongside — or slightly behind — my speed-walker mother. On our summer jaunts, the tan quartzite and magenta beach rose must have blurred in her periphery as she propelled her five-foot-one frame past each scenic vista. Stopping to rest at one of the 39 memorial benches might have been permitted if a herring gull had swooped in, untied her sneakers, and flung them into the Atlantic. Probably not even then.
My father’s energy was similarly hectic. At the end of our annual trips to Ogunquit, he often drove the seven hours back to Pennsylvania without stopping. On two occasions, he speedily unloaded the Ford Explorer and reopened our family pizzeria within an hour of our return. To make up for a week of Shirley Temples, trolley rides, and overflowing bags of gummy candy. To get back to the comfort of busy.
My first year as a resident Mainer is slower and more indulgent than those summers. I soak up Marginal Way during midday breaks and spontaneous nighttime visits. I take time to observe waterfowl long enough to learn more than just their names. Harlequin ducks, in particular, command my attention. Geometric collages of gray, white, and terra-cotta against the indigo high tide, Maine’s harlequins spend the warmer months in southeastern Canada. In October, instead of heading to Florida to sunbathe, they gather at the jagged edges of southern Maine, to spend the fall and winter. From my vantage on Marginal Way, I watch five-foot waves pummel their slick bodies, then whoosh into a milky froth. Beneath the ducks’ pantomime plumage is the resilience of ocean-battered bones.
One afternoon, I meet a woman who came to Marginal Way specifically in search of the harlequins. She’s seated on a bench at the path’s highest point, her mulberry puffer shielding her from the hefty winds. I approach her and work up the courage to ask her what she’s seen. “Harlequin ducks!” she exclaims. She’s been mesmerized, watching the subjects of her pilgrimage bob and dive through her new spotting scope. We drift together down Marginal Way, and she offers me a look at a crowd of purple sandpipers squatting on a seaweed-covered rock — a new bird for us both.
Like a looming wave, a sense of urgency builds in my mind when I remember I have a Zoom meeting at the top of the hour. I was raised by chronic doers, and my first instinct is to rush home. Instead, I make what feels like a brave choice and lean into this joyful conversation about shorebirds and our shared love for this place. Today, I will be a few minutes late.
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