Reid State Park in Georgetown, Maine is my California, my Malibu, my Pacific Ocean. Probably because I’ll never get to any of those places anytime soon. I’ve only been to California once, to a hot springs in Sierraville. I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean. While nearby Popham Beach is Reid’s mellower, more refined cousin, Reid is all temptation and rough beauty. The surf is more violent. The water out past the break both more placid and menacing. The light is more intense, as if God, with his giant magnifying glass, is trying to burn us like ants. Even the sand seems prehistoric. If it weren’t for the bathhouse, little foot showers, and snack bar, you really could close your eyes and imagine yourself as the first human being, newly-formed from the clay, at the beginning of creation.
At a place like Reid, you really don’t need much. You don’t need to schlep a red plastic Radio Flyer full of multicolored plastic beach toys along with you, like I saw a poor, bedraggled father, with three toddlers and a wife in tow, do yesterday. I was at the beach, following my own advice, with my own children and two of their friends, and I watched as this young couple debated where to set up. They vacillated between the “beach” side, which is much rougher and I suppose more dangerous for toddlers, and the “lagoon” side, which is shallower and perfect for young families. I watched the dad haul his little red wagon full of toys over the dunes and back about three times before they finally settled on the lagoon side. Probably a better choice. But it called to mind both the allure and the repulsion we feel about the beach, and about water in general.
The Times just published an article about the importance of teaching children how to swim, even if parents are “afraid”of the water (something I’m glad my parents did when I was a kid and something we did with our two children from the time they were six months old. My daughter is a strong swimmer and fearless rope-swing user at our local swimming hole. My son is on the swim team at our local Y and has actually taught me a thing or two about my own flimsy freestyle stroke).
I’m also thinking about the passages in Leanne Shapton’s memoir Swimming Studies, where she, a pool swimmer and one-time Canadian Olympic hopeful, talks about how pool swimmers rarely, if ever, swim in the ocean, for fear of the “unknown.” Pool swimmers, she confesses, love the regimentation of the lane lines, the black stripe on the pool’s floor, the ability to see the bottom and to actually know what’s in front of and below you. There’s no mystery in pools, no fear of the Leviathan. (There’s also a wonderful passage where she writes about overcoming this fear of the ocean, jumping naked into the surf from a diving platform in Sweden).
The last association I made when I saw the dad pulling the wagon was from, I believe, Kon-Tiki, a book I read a few years ago when I was recovering from some minor surgery. (Actually it might not have been Kon-Tiki but instead from any number of other sea adventures I’ve read throughout the years from Melville, Conrad, etc.) It’s the notion that people who spend their time trying to wrest their living from the sea rarely, if ever, go to the beach on their day off. They know too much, have seen too much. The Polynesian fisherman that Heyerdahl describes have a healthy fear of the ocean. They don’t view it as a place of rest and rejuvenation like we Westerners do. They view at as a wild, sometimes deadly place that they venture out on only to get their food, nothing more. To them, the ocean is full of unseen hazards and murky enemies, ready to rise up and kill at any moment. As a resident of Maine for almost fifteen years, I can guarantee you that I’ve never seen any lobstermen enjoying a day off at the beach.
To be fair, I understand that father’s fear. I understand why he and his wife debated so long about where they were going to pitch their plastic, multicolored camp. The ocean is a dangerous place. Even if you don’t go in the water, the sun can burn you, as it did my son’s face yesterday (even though he swore he reapplied his sunscreen but I should have checked anyway but didn’t and now it’s my fault he has a sunburn, right?)
Sunburn, rogue waves, splinters, broken bottles buried in the sand, biting greenheads, random seagull droppings, heatstroke, dehydration, drowning: all these and more can happen on a simple trip to the beach. I’ve even watched as people had to be rescued by the sheriff’s boat at Popham when they hiked out to an island at low tide with just the clothes on their back, only to be marooned when the tide came in. We leave our cozy homes with idyllic thoughts in our head, and we come back scarred, or maybe we don’t come back at all. Once, when I was a senior in college, I left Syracuse for a short road trip down I-81 to Ithaca. Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance after getting t-boned by a K-Car on the Homer offramp. All for a cup of coffee. There are no guarantees in life, even in our so-called civilization. People in Maine have literally died because they left their house without a jacket and/or a box of matches in their pocket.
So, maybe we go to the beach not just to relax, but to test ourselves against our own fears. Most of us don’t have to hunt for our food, but that hunting instinct still survives, buried deep in our reptilian brains. We go to the beach now not with spears and seaworthy outrigger canoes hewn from single pieces of fallen timber, but instead with red plastic Radio Flyers, shod in weak-ass rubber flip-flops, endlessly circling our ancestor’s killing grounds, trying to find the perfect spot to keep our babies safe.
I still think all we need when we go to the beach (after we’ve eaten a big, hearty breakfast, of course) is a towel, a bottle of water, and some sunscreen.
But I understand.