When I first saw the tiny shelter on the beach in Punta Arrena, Mexico, I was disappointed. I’d been exploring the emptiness of this fifty kilometer stretch of ocean, sand and jungle all morning and had barely seen a soul, so this ramshackle structure was an unwelcome reminder of civilization in an untamed place—the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in the South Yucatan. It was obvious the little surf shack was uninhabited—I could see right through its bamboo and palm frond frame to the ocean as I approached from the jungle. It only stood about four feet tall, so I had to crouch low to squeeze through what passed for a doorway—more of a gap in the tapestry of found, natural materials.

As I took up residence, watching the waves on the Gulf of Mexico roll softly in, my disappointment turned to affection. In the vastness of the reserve’s 780,000 acres, it was comforting to have a place I could call my own, if only for a few hours. It gave me a point of orientation along the endless line of the beach stretching out in both directions. And its dome suggested a vertical axis on the otherwise flat plane of beach, ocean and jungle. Sitting inside, I saw nothing but nature—the structure I was looking through being the only human-made object in sight. But my thoughts of how seldom I get to enjoy such a pristine view were suddenly interrupted by a lone figure emerging from the jungle. As he approached, I wondered if I was in his shelter. Was I trespassing? Would he be upset?

Peering into the hut, the man introduced himself, in Spanish, as Marco. He seemed pleased I was using it, and we chatted for as long as my high school Spanish allowed. The issue of whose hut it was never came up. I did wonder if I should invite him in, although inside and outside didn’t have much meaning for this bundle of sticks. Soon, Marco departed, and I watched his figure recede into the jungle, framed by the hut’s stick-built doorway. He disappeared into the jungle, leaving only a framed view of the beach and ocean. From outside, one could see perhaps twenty miles up and down the coast, but the framed view turned that panorama into a vertical format photo. It gave relief from the endlessness of the sea, the long horizontal lines of the beach, waves and horizon.

The shelter sat at about a 45-degree angle to the beach. When I first arrived, I wondered why it didn’t face straight out to sea. But after inhabiting the place for a while, I realized that would have let the hot Mexican sun shine directly in. The tilt gave much-needed shade. Inside was not only cooler, but after a half hour or so, I began to feel quite at home; much more than I would on the open beach. If Marco built it with his own hands, he probably felt even more at home there.

But why did he build it? Fishing? Everything here seemed to revolve around fishing. It would have made sense to create a shady spot on the beach to tend a line. But perhaps it wasn’t built for so practical a reason. Maybe Marco came here to meditate or write poems. Maybe he came here to sit beneath the stars. I envisioned the charicatured skeletons of the muertos that populate the gift shops of Mexico dancing across the night sky, stars glistening in their big, dark eye sockets. I laughed out loud at my romanticism, projecting surrealist clichés onto what was probably a simple fishing hut. But isn’t everyplace a place of dreams and spirits?

Back in the realm of the practical, I found myself wondering how long ago the little structure was built, and how long it would last. A hurricane would take it out in a flash. The park police might do the same. Or perhaps Marco was an unofficial ambassador of the place and had earned the right to occupy it in this minimal way. Could we all learn to inhabit this planet with so little impact and so much meaning? For all its impermanence and ramshackle character, this place gave me order and orientation in an unfamiliar landscape, and taught me valuable lessons in how to dwell on this planet we call home.