I have been born with a deep and unwavering hunger for the ocean. I was born in a tiny town on the north Pacific coast. Cars and buildings, fences and people were caked in a fine film of salt and fog. Buoy’s tolled their bells in the night and the flash from the light house could be seen up and down the coast – day or night. I live in the mountains now, 2000 miles from the nearest body of saltwater, and I often fall into a seawater-deprived depression that can last for days. It usually starts when I receive my bi-monthly issue of Coastal Living, but also stems from recipes in cookbooks, conversations with my mother who describes her walks on the beach or picnic lunch at the headlands overlooking the crashing Pacific. My soul requires a regular dose of fresh seafood, salty breezes, and sandy skin.
My husband shares my love of the coast, but his appetite for salt and sand is less pronounced. He was born in the Appalachian mountains, but spent summers at the Atlantic coast. When we decided to get married, we knew it had to be at the beach and immediately decided on Charleston, SC., where he spent childhood summers and where he took me on our first trip together. We were married at the end of May on the sandy strip between the Atlantic ocean and the sea grass dunes on Isle of Palms, north of Charleston, with 20 guests in attendance. We planned our wedding so we could spend as much time at the beach as possible, and to allow our friends and family to experience what we love so much about Charleston. We rented a beach house that slept 16 and spent a glorious five days enjoying the beach and our guests. Our ceremony was in the morning, followed by an afternoon celebration and sea food boil at the house. This gave us several hours to ourselves in between. One of my two favorite memories was changing out of my wedding dress, donning a bathing suit, racing barefoot down to the waves to spending two glorious hours laying on the beach next to my husband before the party began. My other favorite memory was the following day when we escaped to the private and secluded upper deck at the house with a cooler full of ice and beer and watched the waves on the reclining deck chairs as the breeze cooled the salty sweat from the humidity and white caps danced at the shore.
I recently read an article titled “Why the Beach Makes Us Happy.” Scientists, psychiatrists, and neurologists were interviewed about their research on the calming and mood altering affects of the beach. From the sound of the waves to the memories we make, for the majority of the population, the beach is a vacation destination. It’s summers away from school as a child, sunbathing and first loves as a teenager, honeymoons, anniversaries. “Vacation” evokes images of waves and sand.
My beach memories from my childhood were not dotted with brightly striped sun umbrellas and bathing beauties in swimsuits. The north Pacific coast is notoriously chilly in the summer, with hot inland valleys drawing in a coastal fog that drips from the ancient redwood trees and necessitates windshield wipers most days in July. Temperatures hover around 55 degrees and only tourists brave the arctic current that sweeps down the coast from the Gulf of Alaska. Only in El Nino years does the ocean reach an appropriate swimming temperature. Bodies bundled in layers of jackets, dampened by the ever present fog, scurry up and down the streets of town and headlights burn in the summer fog. Beach strolls were brisk, with the wind biting at your cheeks and the salty spray and fog drying on your lips and glasses. My birthday is in July and sunshine on my birthday was a bit of a shock. I tried to have a few beach parties, but in most cases sand castles were abandoned to huddle around the bonfire and roast bratwurst and marshmallows while dancing from one side to the other, trying to avoid the thick, salty smoke produced by gathered driftwood. One beach party – whether or not it was a birthday, I don’t recall – the fog burned off late in the evening to reveal a massive full moon rise over the coastal mountains. Bonfires dotted the beach as the moon turned the sand the color of silver fish scales and mermaids called to us from the eddying and reflective waves where the mouth of the dark river met the churning and frothy sea.
Though my childhood memories are dominated by wave-crashed cliffs shrouded in fog where cormorants and gulls nest on offshore islands, my dreams of beach dwelling are inhabited by the oppressive southern heat and inter-coastal waterways of the South. Ancient live oaks line the streets and driveways of my future memories; Spanish moss creates natural draperies which frame the picture-perfect views of salt marshes; the explosive white of egrets against the dusty gray-green of the vegetation – flushed from their hunting grounds by old men in straw hats, paddling aluminum-bottomed boats filled with buckets of oysters as the tide begins to rise in the marshes. Plovers, turns, and oyster catchers take advantage of cool morning breezes and abundant shore life to feast before the human crowds dominate the surf; cicadas drone in the heat of the afternoon when nothing moves across the landscape; where glasses of ice-filled beverages sweat and drip across the bare legs of small-town residents sweltering in the shade on the porch. Hurricane battered buildings with peeling paint and salt-crusted shutters welcome visitors as old friends. Where the beach scenes are characterized by striped blue and white folding canvas chairs, brightly hued sun umbrellas, and children with red and yellow buckets scooping shells or building sand castles as the breeze lifts the curls off their damp foreheads.
I long to smell the familiar salt and sea-life clinging to the morning breezes. To open my windows to the sunshine and hear the distant rumble and hiss of waves shaping the sandy inlets and shores, while buoy’s drone their bells to the rhythmically bobbing waves. To visit the fish markets and select the freshest seafood money can buy, or go saltwater shore fishing as the tide changes. During the first trip my now husband and I took to Charleston, we spent an evening walking through Battery Park at the end of Meeting St., where the city meets the harbor. Christmas was a few days away and antebellum houses were decorated with magnolia wreaths and pine garlands, lights twinkling from fences and gas lamps bubbling and burning at every gate. He said to me; “Let’s retire here.” Yes, darling. Let’s.