My uncle was nearly washed out to sea once.

Two different uncles, actually. One when he was only five and one when he was an adult. I spent a lot of time on the Oregon coast when I was growing up, and I’ve been told the stories enough times for the details to blur together. There were rescues, one involving someone jumping into the ocean fully clothed. There were sneaker waves, freak waves that don’t just crest and recede but rush way up onto the share and then suck backwards just as quickly. The stories were told as warnings, and they finished with the same phrase: “never turn your back on the ocean.”

To this day I can’t walk from the surf back to the shore without peering over my shoulder. I can still hear mother’s voice uttering that warning, “Never turn your back on the ocean.” Today that message means something else to me. It means remember where you came from. It means never stray too far from home.

That first morning on the coast I woke up in our Newport motel room at 5 a.m. I lay in bed for a while, trying to fall back asleep, before giving up and wandering down to the water. As I walked along the empty beach I thought about the last time I had seen my grandmother, and the last time I had seen the summer sun over the Pacific Ocean.

Before starting law school, I spent 10 days in Oceanside. Then I took a plane from Portland to Ottawa. Three years later, almost to the day, I had returned to the Oregon coast. Walking on that beach gave me the distinct sensation of coming full circle — law school completed, a new life waiting in Vancouver. I hadn’t expected any grand epiphanies on this trip and I didn’t get any, but that morning I was intensely aware of where I belonged in a way I have never been before. I felt it in my body in a way I can’t really explain — maybe because there is no way to explain the impossible markers of place — but I had the actual physical sensation of not being the same person that had woken up the morning before. There was an extra piece of myself that I had back.

I was home.

By Gavin Smith