With my jacket zipped and buttoned, my muffler tight around my neck and my hat’s ear flaps pulled low enough to block the wind, my wife and I put our feet on the hard, wet sand and followed the path through over the dunes on to the beach. Our dog–also bundled in a coat and scarf, sniffed the cold briny air, paused and charged ahead.
The path opened out on to a broad, flat stretch of soggy brown sand that, if this had been summer, would have had a pale, almost golden hue.
But, according to the calendar, and the brutal March wind, winter had not left. Aside from some tire tracks, the beach was free of any sign of human contact. The tide had gone out. The water lapped gently near our shoes. My wife picked up some seashells for souvenirs.
The sunlight broke through the clouds and water suddenly glistened. I stared out at that line where the dark blue water meets the lighter gray of the sky. I saw none of the sails that would intrude in summer. No airplane buzzed overhead. I heard nothing but the sound of water racing up, and then retreating, from the land.
The landscape before me was not infinite, but it might as well be. I felt that humbling sense of awe that you get when you’re in the mountains or the desert on a clear night and see all those stars arrayed against the silvery jumble of the Milky Way. I imagine people feel the same way when they confront the Grand Canyon: you forget who you are, the long hours in the car checking the map and hoping you made the right turn, and all the stuff you left back home.
It’s all suddenly wonderful.
A few hours earlier, my wife looked out on to an overcast, drearily cold morning, and said she needed to stand on a beach and look at the ocean. I immediately understood why. We live in suburban sprawl, near an airport. Pull the shades away from the window, and you see the neighbors houses and people in cars and trucks, going places, doing things.
The neighborhood is well landscaped, with paved trails that dip into forested areas where the developers couldn’t build. When I walk our dog I hear airplanes zooming overhead, the rumble of pick-up trucks (our region is the capital of the luxury pick-up truck market), and a barking dog that a guy in a big house lets stay out on his deck for too long. Once my wife and I stood on our deck and saw the flare from an evening rocket launch on distant Wallops Island. I thought I could hear the rocket, too.
When I breathe in on a winter day I occasionally smell the aroma of logs burning in a fireplace. When the wind is coming from the north, I can catch the aroma of sizzling beef from the McDonalds about a quarter mile away. When the wind shifts, the fumes from the chicken fryers at the Royal Farms tumble by. My dog pulls on the leash, then turns to me, her brown eyes begging: I’d really like a hamburger or some of that chicken. Follow me. The nose knows.
Most people who live here like it because the school system is good, crime is low, and you’re within a short drive of a dozen supermarkets, four Costcos, four Wal-Marts, four Targets, two Home Depots, three hospitals, ten gyms, a big mall where the anchor stores are closing, an outlet mall where smaller stores have already closed, a “town center” whose owner decided to charge for parking and thus reduced so much business that three major retail chains have left, ten movie theaters, and roads that will take you take you east to Washington, DC; north to Baltimore; south to Richmond and west to open areas where you can find wineries, farms, horse stables and other places that haven’t been torn down yet.
An extension of the Washington DC subway that was supposed to arrive four years ago is planned to open about two miles from where we live–soon. Until then, construction cranes tower above multi-story parking garages near the subway stops.
Our home owners association enforces covenants intended to make the place appear unchanging. But if you talk about changes, just about everyone has a story about how different things are since they moved here. My wife remembers times when there were dirt roads, narrow highways and fewer traffic lights, more stars and planets visible at night. I recall large areas of open woodland that have been chopped down for houses, schools, shopping areas, office buildings and low, long, windowless buildings where something mysterious goes on that has to do with computers.
Don’t get me wrong: we live in an easily enjoyable sprawl. The property values remain high. We are thrilled when a highway improvement project finishes and we drive our cars over wide, multi-lane black asphalt with sharply painted lines where previously potholes and backed-up traffic slowed progress. There’s always something new opening up that’s worth a visit. We know two places that make pizza that is close to how it tasted when we were kids in New Jersey. When we shop, we have choices.
But sometimes, you want more than a choice. Or less. You want to touch the infinite, or what might as well be.
Ocean City, Maryland was the closest beach town with a decent pet-friendly hotel. The rate for an overnight stay was a fraction of what it would cost in the summer. We’d never been there. We booked a room, packed our bags, grabbed the dog, gassed up the car, and went. For me, it was like going home.
When you’re born and raised in New Jersey, the shore is “a different place entirely.” I’d As an journalist and novelist, I learned more about the 110 mile stretch of barrier islands than just about anywhere else.
Though the Jersey shore was an hour and fifteen-minute car ride away, my parents favored Europe, Canada and Miami Beach (Florida, not Miami Beach, NJ, on the Delaware Bay) for family vacations. One reason was that my father didn’t wasting time stuck in weekend shore traffic. He’d fuss and fume at a single traffic light in some small town on the one road down. But I remember a few magic moments.
Such as an overnight in an old Lakewood hotel followed by a morning getting grit all over my clothes on Bradley Beach. Or a day trip to Atlantic City, where I spent the money I earned mowing the lawn on Matchbox cars purchased at Rappaport’s, a toy shop located right off the Boardwalk in the lobby of the magnificent Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel. My father bought a bag of roasted peanuts for the ride back.
Or a trip to Cape May with my girlfriend (now my wife). The brightly painted American Victorian hotels and bed-and-breakfasts along Beach Drive became a dignified backdrop to an adventure that showed us that we traveled well together.
Or a nervous drive down the Atlantic City Expressway. Two casino hotels had just opened. I was to see shows at each, then drive back and write a review for a southern New Jersey newspaper.
The city that had once seemed filled with toys and the aroma of peanuts, arose against the night sky like a tumbled down ruin. Construction cranes sprouted from what had been the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, soon to become Bally’s Park Place Hotel and Casino. I found a place to park. I hadn’t brought enough money to afford a meal in any restaurant, but one casino had an oyster bar that sold an inexpensive bowl of turtle soup. I had the soup, saw the shows, came back, wrote the review and never wanted to go to Atlantic City again.
But I did a pretty good job on the review, and, unlike journalists other newspapers had sent, I had no urge to gamble. I found the gambling culture imported from Las Vegas repellent, obnoxious, cruel and crass. This, and the fact that every time I went to the city (and many more, after I lived near it), I stopped to look out at the ocean and feel that sense of wonder, made it possible for me to spend 25 years of my life writing about Atlantic City and the New Jersey shore.
The experience of looking at the ocean and feeling the tug of the infinite, is a reference point, a place to return to a sense of wonder that, for all its commonality, and universality, is exceedingly rare.
We all need a little bit of infinity in our lives. More than that, we must know when we need it, and permit ourselves the time, energy, and discounted room rate, to pursue it.