Growing up on the beaches of Northern California was wonderful. Many a July day was spent wrapped in a heavy green woolen army blanket, cheeks stinging, eyes tearing from the wind, while I watched my dad waist-deep in the surf. Dad would be covered from neck to foot in black neoprene, making him look like a big shiny seal the sharks like to eat as they swam around the Farallon Islands. I learned early you could get just as burnt in the fog as you can in bright yellow sunlight- ultraviolet rays are no respecter of overcast or cold. My dad was a long-pole surf fisherman, and when the Strippers weren’t running, he’d toss a Hawaiian throw-net in the surf. It’s a beautiful and elegant tool, and in Hawaii I’m sure it’s near idyllic. Off the coast of San Francisco on the edge of the Pacific drop-off where the undertow took at least one person a summer, it was brutal.
Until I moved east, this was the only kind of ocean I knew. Beaches are cold and rocky. Sand is course. July is cold. I still love it. So when I stepped off the peeling boardwalk in North Carolina onto the sugary soft sand, I gasped in surprise. The slope to the water was gentle and long, with fronds of beach grass and winding wire and drift-wood fences meandering across the gentle swelling dunes. The water laid low and deep sea-green across the horizon, and the clouds, on humid warm fronts from the calm ocean, watercolored and gentle. It was shocking to step in and have the water be warm- I hadn’t realized I was braced, per a lifetime of conditioning, for an icy intake of breath, until the waves lapped up to my ankles and I laughed. So this is why people like the beach! This is why people want to vacation there! I grew up in abject terror of turning my back on the violent waves of the north pacific- and the idea of letting a child play in the dangerous undertow was unthinkable. Here on this beach, children dug with plastic pails and shovels down by the water, playing and laughing in the gentle surf. Sandpipers chased tiny crabs. Driftwood and seashells scatters the sands. I sat there for hours, taking to friends, playing with kids, and marveling at what a difference a continental shelf and an ocean going current can make. And I got totally sunburnt. Some things don’t change.