There is No Life West of the Chesapeake Bay

by jeremyrmcmahan

Sun begins to set on the Chesapeake Bay.

How much they err, that think everyone which has been at Virginia understands or knows what Virginia is. – Capt. John Smith

On the drive down from New York City, the highlight for me is always crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.  Of course it signals that I’m almost done with my journey, but it is also an incredible feeling to cross that expanse of water, especially on the longest bridge in the world.  For those of you who don’t know, the Chesapeake Bay is the worlds largest estuary meaning that it’s where fresh water and salt water meet.  It’s a threshold essentially. The relatively low salinity compared to the ocean makes it a perfect place to harbor infant aquatic sea life.  Historically, the Bay became the entrance to the new world when Captain Christopher Newport, John Smith, and their crew sailed across the ocean and first landed on the shore of what would not only become my hometown of Virginia Beach, but these United States of America as well.

It electrifies me to think about that.  When I was in Nepal, I loved being able to see monuments and places that historically had religious significance.  For example, the cave on Nagarjun Hill where the great 2nd century Mahayana Buddhist philosopher saint Nagajuna meditated, or the caves of Pharping where Padmasambava and countless other meditated and continue to meditate today. They practice there because of the history of the place.  Pilgrims regularly visit these places to basically absorb their energy and gain good merit.  Certainly this is not exclusive to Buddhism; pretty much any religion you can think of has the motif of travelling to a holy place for spiritual benefits, but pilgrimage is something foreign to most Americans and not something our culture openly supports.  I think the main reason for this is due to the lack of historical holy places that exist in America, besides sites associated with Mormonism.  However, we have certainly done a good job in mythologizing the founding of our country. In the case of the mythology of America, the Chesapeake Bay feels just about as holy as it gets.  This is the place where  it all began, the Bodhgaya if you will of the United States.  Upon stumbling out of those ships and onto land for the first time in months, the crew must have felt incredible potential which Fitzgerald touches on at the end of Gatsby.

Its vanished trees…had once pandered in the whispers  to the last and greats of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Here they found a new land and a new life, here they found a New World.

I like to think that those first settlers’ feelings of endless possibility still reverberates in Virginia Beach, much like a Buddhist would say the energy of Padmasambava lives on in the caves where he meditated. I guess it can be hard to imagine Virginia Beach now as the settlers saw it.  Strip malls and shopping centers litter the main roads here, driven by a bland need to provide familiarities to the nomadic military and tourist populations, but the other day when I went to the Chesapeake Bay I felt like I touched what those first settlers felt.

My plan all along was to go to the Bay the first full day I was home, but I had gotten off to a late start.  I didn’t actually get to the Bay until around 5:00 p.m. and I had plans to meet up with some friends for dinner at Big Sam’s.  With such a short amount of time before our meal, I didn’t think it was going to be worth it to get myself completely soaked beforehand.  I decided that I would just wade into the water a bit instead.  At first the water felt cold and harsh as I began to walk in, but with the gentle waves lapping against my legs I soon found the Bay embracing me with the warmth of a mother.  After a few minutes of enjoying the sun, feel, and sight of the Bay,  I knew I couldn’t resist the urge to be completely submerged by this body of water, even if it was only for a little bit.  I ran to the beach, took off my shirt and ran back into the water.  Wading out farther than I had before, I held my nose as I dunked myself in for the first time.  Again, it was a shock at first but I soon couldn’t imagine anything more comforting.  I started to swim as fast as I could away from shore, away from everything, striving to reach the undifferentiated space held in the depths.  I soon exhausted myself and raised my head to look around.  With the sun setting to the west, I turned to float on my back. I tried to relax all my muscles and just let the water support my body.  My eyes closed with the sun on my face and all I could see, all I could feel was a warm glow as the Bay held me in her watery hands.

As I laid there embraced by the water, I felt free.  I had come home to the source of everything I ever knew and found at least briefly that feeling of eternal potential that John Smith saw in Virginia.  Here was a new beginning, a chance to fulfill all his wildest dreams and more.  It was all there, the raw materials; he just had to make it so.  But what for him marked an entrance has now so often been marked as an exit for me since, of course, I cross over the Chesapeake every time I head back to New York. The Bay for me then was an estuary.  Its beaches and waves had raised me just as it had raised countless other sentient beings, but I knew at that moment in the water  that like many of those beings, I would need to leave the calm waters of the Bay and enter the wide ocean to truly thrive and live.  I love being home, it can be such a comfort to be here.  However, I know I will probably have to leave Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay to accomplish what I want most in my life, whatever that may be.

As I headed back to the shore, feeling salty yet clean, I was reminded of a line from Terrence Malick’s The New World.  As John Smith (Colin Farrel) wanders through the marshes and forests just inland of the Chesapeake, his voice exclaims “There is only this – all else is unreal.”  I know John Smith probably didn’t actually say that, but I can believe he felt it. There is only this, there is only Virginia; there is only this, endless potential.  I just hope I remember that when I head back New York City.