22 November 2008

In Praise of Off Season

No two beach towns in America are exactly alike, but at the peak of the season, they seem so.

From Cape Cod to the Jersey shore, the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach, gulf towns and throughout the West Coast, beach communities come to life to serve the vacation traveler, seduced by sandy shorelines, sunny skies and perpetual hospitality. There are few differences beyond the eccentricities of their landscape and the length of the season.
They look alike, they sound alike. They share a gently frenzied ambiance. They all smell like commingled sun block, sweat and seared meats. When the weather cooperates, sunlight is ubiquitous and bright, but the streets so densely populated that hardly a shadow is cast, except by the occasional shade of tree line. Clouds drift by as if setting the pace, exhorting vacationers to slow down. Children run and splash and delight in their liberation from otherwise structured lives. Car doors and screen doors slam throughout the day. Engines whir and stall, thwarted by pedestrian traffic. Shops overflow with whimsical necessities – kites shaped like lobsters or parrots, primary colored plastic pails wrapped with shovels in white netting, striped beach umbrellas, film and lotions, post-cards stacked on racks and T-shirts blowing in the breeze. Sidewalk strollers ebb and flow like the surf. On the beach, shiny plastic beach balls roll in the wind, below the serrated fringes of kite tails flapping overhead. Small planes murmur now and then against skies of every possible shade of blue. Rock music competes with the calls of families, lovers and friends clustered together on the sand. Drum beats blare from car radios passing by and the constant din of chatter blankets all other sounds, like beach towels that punctuate the shoreline. Weekend walkers linger to watch impromptu games of volleyball or admire shapely bodies that drape the landscape.
The so-called quiet of vacation is a cacophony of sounds and scents and scenery that comfortably collide, much like waves that crash against the shore over and over again. The din subsides only late at night, long after the pink hues of sunset, when the last child collapses into peaceful dreams, the last glass of wine sipped, the last beach towels hung to dry, accompanied by the orchestral lullaby of katydids and grasshoppers crying through the stillness.
Beach town life is a spell that settles happily over inhabitants year after year. People thrive on it, long for it, and wait patiently for the season to return, because it is only in season when they permit themselves the freedom to explore, to abandon their responsibilities for a time, bond to their loved ones with neither obligation nor resignation nor rancor, and ignore the clock other than to prepare lunch or turn over on the sand. The vacation season, with its colors and music and singular scents, is the ultimate refuge from what might be seen as the colorless odorless monotony of daily living, even for those blessed with a satisfying life.
The very landscape jolts into ebullience as the season approaches, reaching its arms out to welcome the throng, then returning blissfully to hibernation in the off-season, because the landscape, as life in all forms, in the off-season exists only for itself. Craggy edges of shoreline spring back into view, no longer obfuscated by the crowd. Seagulls soar overhead, no need to share the sand. The surf surges with renewed vigor as if reclaiming its shore. A thin layer of sand blows about in chillier wind, unencumbered by the accoutrements of vacationers. The sun’s rays spread wide, diffusing shadows into abstracted muted images. Clouds drift closer to land. Long sunny days turn to short, warmth to chill. Runners breathe more deeply, walkers walk more slowly.
There is a collective sigh among the locals when their community is returned to them, because they know, rather than diminished by the quiet, their beach town is enhanced, strengthened from within like a delicate rose that’s been trimmed to its roots to restore vigor and balance, to bloom once again in the new season. It is the throng that most characterizes these towns in season – the throng of people on the streets, bodies on the beach. The throng of sound and scent. And it is the sheer absence of the throng that defines the off season, that time when a beach community is at its best: free of the frenzy, relinquished to residents and the occasional visitor to re-capture its true natural beauty, like an ancient succulent that blossoms only in the rain.
The off-season is more than a respite, it is a restoration, a haven of sorts, when the terrain is permitted to go wild, returning to a more organic state. The ocean is more gray than blue. The weather and the colors of the sky more volatile. Untamed and unobstructed, solemnity hovers over the town like an ancient church, deeply encrypted with mystical powers, where one might commune privately on a weekday morning, without parishioners or dictum, only the solace of silence and the wisdom of one’s inner voice.
Off-season was when I began my life in Laguna Beach and it is in the off-season that I am reminded most why I remain, its natural beauty best exposed to those of us that call this place home.

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