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Beach is a refuge in the storm

I like to go to the beach in the rain. I like to go to the beach when lightning bolts are crashing down like pitchforks thrown by Zeus from Mount Olympus. I like having to fight the wind to open the door to my truck, and feeling the sting of sand against my skin. Finally, I like the solitude of the beach, the utter loneliness of the beach. If you live in crowded coastal Florida, it is the only time you have the beach, and the wilderness the beach represents, to yourself.

Boom! That was close. I stay in my truck, windshield wipers keeping time with my beating heart. Australian pines bob and weave in the squall and evade no punches. Laughing gulls know enough to hunker in the dunes.

The weather this summer has been inconvenient for the sun worshipers among us, but perfect for those of us who have no use for the beach in the traditional manner. My years of sitting on a towel and basting for hours are behind me. I hate the hustle and bustle of finding a parking place, putting money in a meter and listening to loud music or intrusive conversation. Plus, I am tired of hearing my dermatologist cluck with disapproval as she whittles away strategic patches of a once handsome forehead.

As a beach consumer, I am looking for open spaces and room to think. Such beaches exist in the Florida Panhandle; a few months ago, as I hiked such a beach near Apalachicola on an overcast day, a family of deer traipsed across a vast sand dune. Here, don't count on seeing deer. But if you want the beach to yourself, go in the rain. Better yet, wait for a storm.

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Clogs of dead sea oats fly down the beach like tumbleweed. I wear glasses to protect my eyes against the blasts of sand. The rain beats down so hard the surf seems bruised and bleeding. But rain is rain and sea is sea; if the surf were King Kong, it would be beating its chest in triumph. As a teenager, I loved to surf in heavy weather. As a middle-aged adult, mortality no longer an abstract, I am less inclined to get my feet wet. I know if I tried to wade out in this surf, I'd be swept to my doom.

For some of us, perhaps that is the appeal of the beach in a storm. It's a wild place, a dangerous place, utterly indifferent to humanity. "The sea speaks a language polite people never repeat," wrote Carl Sandburg. Man, it can knock you for a loop.

In interior Florida, the great predators, Florida panthers and black bears and Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, are quickly vanishing as forests are laid bare. Dip your toe into the surf at even an urban beach and you've entered a wilderness ruled by sharks that will eat you if they are hungry enough. "The sea _ this truth must be confessed _ has no generosity," wrote Joseph Conrad.

The squall passes, the lightning calls a truce. In the lull I walk the deserted beach toward the jetty. When a flock of black skimmers whips by, I am the audience. Farther offshore a pair of dolphins reveal their dorsal fins. Closer in, a school of cownose rays flaps majestically past.

I prefer terra firma. A pitiful sailor, I can get seasick staring at a glass of water. Watching a roiled sea from the beach on a stormy day is like having a ringside seat at a prizefight. The excitement is not necessarily accompanied by a bloody nose. I take a moment to sit in the sand and read my worn copy of The Sea and the Jungle, H.M. Tomlinson's account of a voyage across the Atlantic to the Amazon in a tramp steamer in 1909.

"I had never seen so much lively water so close," he wrote of his trip aboard the Capella. "She wallowed, she plunged, she rolled, she sank heavily to its level. I looked out from the round window of the Chief's cabin, and when she inclined those green mounds of swell swinging under us and away were superior, in apparition, to my outlook."

Fighting mal de mer, and also concerned about the arrival of the latest squall, I retire to my pickup truck. Here comes the rain. Here comes a wind even more powerful than the wind before. As my truck rocks, as my truck rolls, I pretend I'm on the crew of the Capella or, even better, I am standing on the deck of the Pequod, with my harpoon-toting friend Queequeg, waiting for Ahab to issue the order to lower the boats. Call me Ishmael.