Location: Bowman’s Beach, Sanibel Island, FL
The first thing I noticed was the sandbar.
On most beaches, the waves come right up to the shore; here, they went up to a thin strip of land that had emerged from the sea. Water that had collected behind it moved in currents. The sandbar ended at a thin peak and widened as you walked further along the beach, to the point where there was almost no water. That was when you could safely cross over without getting wet.
Entire families had set up camp on the sandbar, half of them combing the ground for seashells. Most of them had bags in tow. One teenage girl had dug a hole so deep in the sandbar that she was practically in it. Her bright yellow bag was filled to the brim with various shells she had collected.
My sister and I set up camp on the actual beach, close to the tip of the sandbar. She laid down to tan while I made a beeline for the shoal. This involved quite a bit of walking, since I hadn’t brought a bathing suit — I’d witnessed a man slightly taller than me wade into the current behind it and get submerged up to his waist.
I found the shallow point and stepped onto the sandbar. The roar of the waves got louder, matching the excitement I felt as I walked toward the other shell-hunters.
Everyone has a “thing” at beaches. My mom likes to bring a big umbrella and sit under it, enjoying the sound of the waves. My sister likes to tan or play volleyball on the sand. My dad likes to go swimming in the deeper ocean. One of my friends likes to make sandcastles; another likes to make mixed drinks; another brings a stack of novels and gets through half of them by the time we’re ready to go. My “thing” now is bringing my tripod and a few dresses, getting several photoshoots in, then running straight into the water when I’m too sweaty to continue. My “thing” as a kid, however, was to collect seashells, and I felt a familiar, long-buried giddiness come to life as I, too, began to scan the edges of the water for hidden treasures.
My first find was a thick clam shell that was slightly smaller than my hand. I rinsed it off in the water and continued to head for the tip of the sandbar. As I walked, I felt the ground beneath me shift from smooth sand into what felt like a thousand tiny little Legos, each sharp enough to pierce the bottoms of my newly weakened feet. 
I winced and looked down to see what was causing the pain. To my surprise, the sand had all but disappeared. Instead, I was walking on tiny, intact seashells. From what I could tell, the entire sandbar from here on out was made up entirely of shells.
“Whoa,” I breathed. Suddenly, I didn’t mind the discomfort as much.
I ventured all the way to the very tip of the sandbar (or was it shellbar?), noticing with delight that the shells made a jingling noise each time a wave washed over them. I looked on the ground, but kept my eyes peeled each time a wave pulled away, for I knew from my younger days that the best shells were the ones that were just out of reach. Sometimes, the water would deliver them to you like a special-order present; other times, you’d have to spot it and plunge your hand in as the water came rushing back, hoping for the best.
The waves receded, and all of a sudden, there was a flash of red amongst the gray sand. I snatched it up just as the water came back, saying a silent thanks to my quick reflexes.
Even I was surprised when I saw what I’d picked up: a fully intact conch shell, the kind that I used to dream about collecting.
It was whole, complete, and (almost) perfect.
I’d never found something like this before. Once, in the second grade, a classmate of mine had gone to Sanibel Island and brought back a bunch of beautiful seashells for the class. I’d received my own goody bag, and my favorite among everything in it had been a shell just like this one. I admired its shiny, burnt-orange interior and every whorl on the top, feeling all of eight years old again.
The addiction was back. I found another shell, and another, but none as pretty as that one conch that I’d picked up. I began wishing that I’d brought a bag — I’d heard that the shelling on Bowman’s Beach was good, but it had been years since I’d collected shells, and I hadn’t expected to recover a long-forgotten hobby. Finally, when my hands were full to the point that I couldn’t hold anything else, I made the long, painful trek back to my towel, dropped the shells off, and came right back.
This time, my attention was focused more on the others who were squatting along the water.  Most of them clearly knew what they were doing; their bags were filled with shells much bigger and grander than the conch I’d found. I studied their movements, wondering which parts of my strategy I could improve.
An old man stood at the very edge, eyes intent on something in the water. He was a serious sheller, decked out in a windbreaker, shorts, baseball cap to protect his face from the sun, and sneakers to protect his feet from the same shells that were cutting up my own. When he saw what he was looking for, he swiftly bent down, swiped it from the water, and turned to me.
“Here,” he said, handing me the strange object. “It don’t look so pretty right now, but a few days of sunlight and she’ll lighten right up.”
The thing in my hand was a thin, dark brown disk with a familiar flower pattern on the front — a sand dollar.
“Are you sure you don’t want to keep it?” I asked.
He smiled. “I would, but I’ve got hundreds of ‘em back home.”
I thanked him and decided to make my way back, handling the delicate object with care. I knew from experience that sand dollars could break and crumble with the slightest pressure.
I now had a pretty good collection of shells for someone who’d come without any intention of finding a single one. Even my sister, who is decidedly not into shelling, was impressed. I gifted her half of my collection and kept the other for myself (although I’m already bringing way too much stuff back to San Francisco with me, so I have no idea what I’ll actually be doing with these).
I couldn’t stop smiling as I drove us to our Airbnb. It was the first official day of our stay in the Fort Myers/Sanibel/Captiva area, and finally, it felt like vacation time had begun.
I’ll be back soon … this time, with my own bag for treasure. ♚
Note: This article is part of my January 2019 One Month Project, where I will be traveling around coastal Florida and publishing an essay a day about my experiences there. I’m excited to bring you along on this adventure!
 I’d had a lot of calluses from constantly wearing heels or walking barefoot in Florida; after months of flats- and sneaker-wearing in San Francisco, my feet had become soft again.
 The “Sanibel stoop” — the position that you take when hunting for shells — is a thing here, which I think is hilarious and really cool.