For me, the treasure lies in the hunt

How easily was I willing to accept the commercialization of a pastime that up until then had been as much about the collecting as the collection?

When I step onto a beach, whether it's sandy or rocky, tropical or temperate, my head goes down and I enter a near trancelike state. A massive pod of orcas might breach 100 yards offshore, but unless someone tugs my arm or shouts my name I remain hopelessly and happily trapped in my beachcomber's amble.

I have searched for seaside treasures from the Caribbean to New England and out to the Pacific Northwest. In the Virgin Islands I found smoothed blue and white pottery shards on rocky shores below an old sugar plantation. In Maine the beaches offered up lavender and cobalt sea glass turned into jewels through decades of tidal alchemy.

On the Olympic Peninsula, thanks to a local tip, I found the mother lode of sea-worn bits and pieces. A tough 45-minute walk over a rocky, seaweed- covered beach and around a point passable only at low tide took me to the site of an old town dump. Aside from the rusted chassis of an antique jalopy half-buried in the sand, the only remaining evidence of trash were thousands of perfectly worn pieces of glass.

Within an hour I had a small bagful of the best the beach had to offer that day - reds, yellows, pinks, and cobalts in addition to the typically ever-present greens, aquas, and whites. Alongside the glass were rounded bits of equally colorful pottery. I even found a couple of marbles, presumably from old cans of spray paint.

But I felt I needed to curb the gluttonous urge to fill my backpack. Something about the scenario seemed too good to be true. In one fell swoop I could quadruple the size of a collection that represented years of travel and hours of hopeful seaside searching. So I walked away from the beach with my modest bagful, rewarding myself with the thought that I could come back some other time to see what yet another tide or storm might wash up.

Ten years later I still assume full search mode whenever I'm on a beach, and my collection continues to grow, albeit at a snail's pace. I have a family now and there doesn't seem to be as much time for extraneous travel. I have never returned to the mother-lode beach even though it is a short two-hour drive from where I live. I think about it once in a while and wonder if as much glass and pottery remains or if the word has spread to the beachcombing masses who have picked the beach clean of its tiny treasures.

As many treasure hunters do these days, I enjoy visiting online auction sites once in a while to see what my searches for the obscure and the sublime might yield. Just like combing a beach, there seems to be a certain amount of chance involved. With so much cyberterritory to cover, potential finds are quickly snatched up by the ubiquitous tide of bidders. A full cycle of goods might come and go without attracting much notice at all.

The other day, aware of the incongruity of it all, I decided to type in a search for beach glass. Almost 300 listings immediately popped up. Most of the listings were for mechanically tumbled glass and therefore of no interest to me. This type of glass lacks the organic quality and wonderful character of glass that has spent decades aging in pounding surf. But I did find several listings for the real deal.

The pictures showed colorful arrays of worn glass, worthy of any collection. My heart quickened just as it had when I'd rounded that distant point and first glimpsed the rainbow-spangled beach 10 years ago. There were pieces for sale that were once-in-a-lifetime finds for sporadic beachcombers like myself. Pink glass bottlenecks, patterned pieces, fragments with chance poetic words, an intact bottle stopper, all perfectly worn and lovely in their simple forms.

The prices seemed quite reasonable, too. But then doubtful thoughts crossed my mind. How would I integrate these pieces into my own collection? After all, each piece I have represents a specific time and place in my life. It wouldn't seem right to mingle the two. And what would I say when people commented on my collection or asked where I had collected it all? Would I be truthful and answer that I had bought part of it online? Was I willing to so easily accept the commercialization of a pastime that up until that point had been as much about the collecting as the collection?

I revisited the listings several times, trying to break through my nagging indecision. Finally, fed up with how much mental energy I was devoting to the dilemma, I placed a bid. There are still several days before bidding closes on my hoped-for item. Several days in which I will surely muse some more over the idea of Internet beachcombing. But in the meantime I sure hope I beat the tide this time. A bottle stopper could look really great next to the rest of my collection. Who knows? With time I might even let it mingle a little bit.

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