The Curious Case of Cumberland Island

Last week the hub and I drove to Georgia and took a ferry from St. Mary’s to Cumberland Island National Seashore.

We were greeted by a boulevard of trees.

hiking cumberland island national park


The island is mysterious and kind of dreamy with it’s gnarled oak trees and Spanish moss, mansion ruins, unspoiled beaches—and wild horses.

We stopped to take a few photos, others disappeared into the maritime forest in groups and pairs.

Except an older woman, setting off solo, down the boulevard of trees.

Something about this woman had me looking over my shoulder for the rest of her party. But I didn’t see anyone else. She lagged behind them, taking it all in, I supposed.

Cumberland island tree trail

We hiked the island. Trails led to ruins, wildlife.

The forest opened to marsh lands. Marsh turned to dunes, and then the unspoiled beach.

The ocean.

white horse Cumberland island

And there was the woman. Sitting on the beach. Alone. She had a book, or a journal. This time I noticed she looked to be about my mom’s age.

And again I was curious that she was by herself.

I wondered about her. And for a moment I considered myself in her shoes.

Because there are two familiar thoughts that I peck around at lately: freedom and need.

woodpecker cumberland island

Pileated Woodpecker on Cumberland Island

Right now I feel like I’m in the thick of the “empty nest” transition.

There’s a lot of freedom in my life right now. Great, yes, but also unnerving to go from so much mothering responsibility to so little.

And I’ll admit my first instinct was just to jump right in and fill those spaces.

birds in a row Cumberland seashore

But I’ve started to realize the freedom has more to do with figuring out my identity now and where I want to fit…

and that takes time

and exploration

but then there’s these wide open spaces of needing to be needed.

cumberland island horse tree swing

And yeah, I want to fill those too.

But well, time, and exploration.

Cumberland Island wild horse grazing

At the end of the day, after an exhausting, but exhilarating hike, I saw the woman again. At the ferry dock.

She was barefoot.

She got up and I overheard her ask someone about the bathrooms. When they didn’t know I pointed her in the direction. She then proceeded to carefully pick her way over the gravel and sticks.

It took her awhile and I wondered why she didn’t put her shoes on.

And I wasn’t the only curious one. Someone said something about her feet and the rocks, but I couldn’t hear the woman’s response. Only this from the other curious hiker:

“Well, sounds like there’s a story there!”

Curiouser and curiouser.

And here, my practical, yet need-to-make-you-smile-over-something-silly side, compels me to add that I also suddenly wondered how she got to the ferry dock without shoes. You only have to hike for 5 minutes to realize that the almost 200 wild horses on the island consider every footpath and sandy trail as not only their home but their bathroom.

Rocks and sticks aren’t the only landmines. Cumberland Island is very natural.


We got on the ferry and I only saw a glimpse of her after that: she

boarded the ferry barefoot, no shoes in hand.

I don’t know why I was so curious about this woman. I thought of my earlier emotions. Those conflicting feelings of freedom and need that came to mind when I considered a moment in her shoes.

Now her missing shoes.

And I came up with different stories. The first was imagining my heavy thoughts weighing her shoes down until she could no longer carry them.

Because I like to look for answers. And make things connect.

Or find meaning.

But some days I just like to take a hike and see wild horses in their element, and get a laugh out of hearing my husband yell, “Poop!” over his shoulder to warn me of another landmine as we walk.

Besides, maybe those shoes were in her bag

and she just wanted to be barefoot.

seagull cumberland island fly


Do you make up stories about strangers? What do you think happened to her shoes?





32 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Cumberland Island

  1. Maybe she went for a swim and lost her shoes… but yes, I’d definitely wonder!

    I totally can relate to the empty nest thing. I make do with furry and swimming “babies.”

    Cumberland Island is beautiful, as are your photos – adding it to my list of places to see!


  2. Gorgeous, creamy photos! Lucky you! And maybe she stepped in some ‘natural matter’ – and just didn’t want to continue walking in soiled shoes!


  3. You makes such lovely and poetic ruminations, Coleen! I do sometimes create stories around strangers, and it’s pretty fun, though I suspect their real stories are even better than what I can make up. Beautiful photos!


  4. Oh, I make up stories about strangers all the time. And people are indeed curious. I probably would have asked her how she managed to avoid stepping in poop. But that’s just me.

    Lovely pictures. Keep exploring my friend. It’ll keep you busy and young.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt


  5. As always, Coleen, I love your pics and your posts 🙂

    I had a few thoughts, actually:

    –she doesn’t have good footing in shoes
    –she prefers being barefoot
    –she can only wear her shoes so long before they begin hurting
    –she’d rather clean horse poop off her feet than a pair of shoes 😉

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful “boulevard of trees” and free roaming horses, the white one looking quite unicorn-ish 😀


  6. It’s fun to make up stories about strangers. It’s a good way to pass the time. But I don’t do it as much anymore. Probably because my phone is there to distract me. Sigh. Must improve on that.

    I didn’t get an alert for this post. Hmm, hopefully it was just a glitch.


    1. I just read about this app (forest?) that you turn on and as long as you don’t do anything else on your phone a seed, grows into a tree, and another, etc. It’s supposed to make you think twice about checking your phone. I think the tree doesn’t grow if you exit the app. I guess there will be more of these things in the near future!
      And thanks for letting me know about no alert. I see your email on the list of public
      subscribers. I’m wondering if maybe the posts got flagged as junk?? I also
      didn’t get a new subscriber email, which I think is because you’re still on
      the list. If you happen to see that it did go to junk, could you let me
      know? In the past I have had a hosting issue a couple of times with emails
      not going out, but no worries if you can’t check, I know you’re busy. All
      the best with your mom and travels, Carrie!


  7. Beautiful photos, Coleen. I’d love to visit Cumberland Island. My days of caring for the grandkids are winding down. Once this school year is over, she’ll work from home after that. Then I will feel like a real empty nester, but I’ll get to babysit regular grammy hours instead of long, crazy days. And I’ll start my new career as a health and wellness coach, so I’m looking forward to things to come. I’d like to know that woman’s story. A mysterious lady on a mysterious island…


  8. Awesome photography Coleen! There is something about visiting your post that gives me a feeling of serenity. Your view of the world gives us a peek at your personality as it bubbles forth on the page. And it’s quite lovely. Sounds like you and hubby had a wonderful trip. The empty nest thing just takes a little more time. 🙂


  9. I must go there! This place sounds right up my alley! I like being barefoot, but not in public places. Indeed she makes for an interesting story.

    I like how you laid out the content and the pics. This was a fun read.


  10. Coleen I would have been fascinated by this woman too. I often listen to conversations and people watch. Its habit I have had since traveling overseas. Beautiful images and powerful honest thought in this post. I often say when my kids are old enough I will jump for joy at my freedom. But having a child with special needs I guess I know I may never quite have the empty nest. Its never empty though they always come back and share their lives with you. You are a creative person and so your path is already there, do what you love. Life is too short.


  11. What a lovely post with gorgeous pictures. I’ve heard about Cumberland Island and the wild horses. Yes, I would have been very curious about the woman. I would have observed her like you did. Perhaps she was so wrapped up in nature and just being totally present with her surroundings. It was probably best to leave her to her peace and quiet. But, I sure would have wanted to find a way to casually talk to the woman — just to connect. She may not have wanted to connect with anyone. I guess, yes, I would have made up stories in my mind. Perhaps she was there to teach you something about yourself. Her presence certainly moved you and got you thinking. You are already walking your path. The first step is to be mindful — which you are doing.


    1. Thanks, Patricia! 🙂 Yeah, I think I might’ve tested out the connecting had I seen her on the ferry, but I also like how the curiosity moves me forward.


  12. Living in NYC I look at people and wonder all the time about them. Especially riding the subways. I also make up stories about them. It’s fun.


  13. I make up stories about people all the time:) loved this piece, and it was magical! Imagination went into overdrive and had the shoeless woman a ghost or spirit of some kind or maybe an angel. I write fiction by the way, poetry too lol. So enjoyed your writing and photographs:)


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