Call me cold blooded, but I've never been a big fan of summer. I wasn't, that is, until I realized that the culprit¿the element that was turning me off a perfectly good season¿was the beach.
For the truly elite, "beach" implies an island getaway in the dead of winter (tucked between trips to Gstaad and Aspen). That is the beach fantasy, and I admit it's enticing. But for the rest of us, the beach reality is something we experience in the summer only, and it looks more like a scene from one of Chevy Chase's vacation movies.
My formative memories are of summer Sundays spent motoring in the station wagon to the sands of Santa Cruz. Usually we made the trip down Highway 24 hoping not to overheat in traffic, then spent half an hour trawling for a semi-legal parking spot. Uttering staccato yelps of pain we scampered across rough, scorching pavement (beach etiquette precludes any use of humane footwear), portaging our floatable plastic bounty to an open spot on the sand.
The hard part over, we were free to get pounded by the shore break for as long as we could tolerate the cold water. When hunger called, we delved into the cooler for sandwiches, heavy on sand, then proceeded to the boardwalk for frozen stuff on a stick and a few thrills. In the wilting evening, as we piloted our land yacht home, the daytime fear of an overheated radiator was replaced by cranky, tired whining and the discomfort of chafed, sunburnt skin on sandy vinyl.
I must mention that these are not bad memories. We had fun because it was all part of the accepted ritual that mountains are for the winter and beaches are for the summer. I'd wager that many people have similar recollections, and guess that summer at the beach with the family hasn't gotten much more civilized since then. But still, we are trained to proceed to the coast like lemmings once the thermometer soars upward.
Last summer, in our haste to find relief from the steaming city, my husband and I got sucked into the beach imperative and actually started looking for a seaside house. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but immediately there were clues that our would-be sanctuary would not be. First, thanks to traffic, it took forever to get there. Second, it was overrun by the very same people we were trying to escape. And third, it was expensive as hell because those who weren't with us on the road were beating us there in their jets and had already driven the prices through the stratosphere.
Not seeing the futility of the scenario, we spent a hot steamy summer chugging all over on our bicycles, partially to get exercise and partially to avoid the hated traffic. Early in our quest, we learned that the good property is limited to beachfront¿or at most is a stone's throw from it. Anything further away was hot as a roasting pit and had all the ambiance of suburbia. Upon looking at prices for even the shabbiest "carpenter's dream," we also came to accept that oceanfront was out of the question.
Then one weekend we took a break from the real estate search and went to the mountains. We had a great time biking in the dry air, barbecuing as the sun set and the evening cooled, and sleeping well when summer's heat evaporated into cool mountain air. Near the end of the drive back to the city, when we merged with the busy beach traffic, my husband offered an idea. "Why don't we look for a house in the mountains?" The silence between us translated to a simultaneous and resounding "Duh!"
Why did this take a revelation, and why was it so long in coming? I blame it on acute culturally induced mentalpause. As a society, we still hold the beach culture as the ultimate show of summer indulgence, the reward for a winter of suffering. We are tempted with ads of secluded beaches inhabited by gorgeously tanned and relaxed people who, in the evening, get barely dressed to sip fruity drinks and dance on torch-lit patios. It's saying to us: "Life doesn't get any better than this."Well, I think it does. I'll trade searing heat, sticky water, itchy little bugs and clingy clothes for cool, dry mountain air, clean fresh water, a few strong mosquitoes and a layer of fleece any day.
It's easy to like the beach, but downright liberating to hate it. I guess my biggest issue with the beach is figuring out what to do there. I suspect the beautiful people in the beach ads have that distant detached look because they have been wined, dined and bored into submission. Beach people have little choice but to congregate in inactivity, sitting and sweating together, whereas mountain people tend to disperse in activity.
The beach sport that once seriously tempted me was windsurfing. Like skiing, windsurfing is a social yet individual sport that puts wind in your face and allows you to be somewhat in control of nature's forces¿but ultimately at their mercy. The hitch is that you have to go to the ocean with its steady and predictable winds to get really good. So I gave the beach another whirl. After several outings, I somehow was intact, though my equipment had been pummeled and crushed to full-depreciation. Now I know that if I ever miss big-time windsurfing I can avoid all the hassles of equipment procurement, transport and assembly and simply go to the ocean and throw money directly into the frothy undertow.
The more I recognize my beach angst, the more I appreciate everything to do with the mountains in summer. Even a completely abandoned ski resort makes me happy. I make a point of uphill bonding with my favorite downhill peaks when they are bare. Hiking up them reminds me of snow's incredible metamorphic power¿a power that turns even rough rocky terrain into something that feels so gentle underfoot. I even take comfort in the clanking of wind-whipped flagpoles in an empty parking lot. It may not conjure up the misty emotions of waves crashing ashore, seagulls and foghorns, but it is a reminder that ski season is never far off.
We did find our house in the mountains, and may even live there permanently some day, but that's another story more suited for "This Old House." We do have to worry about frozen pipes and plowing the driveway. But I feel pretty confident that we won't be hit by a tidal wave and that nobody will be parking their land yacht in our driveway. Our existence may not be that exciting. But for us life is not, and never will be, a beach.