Off Hours on White Crest Beach

Aug 15, 2017

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August, 2000. The other evening, we drove out to White Crest Beach—well named with its high, bare, white shoulder of a dune cresting the hill, and several foot trails creased into its flanks leading down to the shore and the surf.

It is a mystery to me why there are not more people on the beach at this hour (in fact, most seem to be leaving just as we arrive). As far as I am concerned, this is the best time of the day to be here, for it is now that the human presence recedes and assumes its proper proportion. This is the time when the rounded contours of the bluff begin to throw their soft gray shadows across the baked sands like a benediction; when a few surfcasters appear and heave their heavy lures in steep arcs out beyond the breakers, the repeated, arching casts of the lines forming a human counterpoint to the rollers coming in endlessly upon themselves.

The beach still seems to ring, vibrate and tremble with the vanished energy and cacophony of the day. That, in fact, is part of its pleasure—the sense of noise and frantic activity recently dissipated, the peace of a classroom just emptied. The tide rises languorously toward its climax in soft, sand-saturated surges to smooth the wrinkled, foot-furrowed brow of the summer berm. The surges are dark-jade, marbled, miniature Alleghenies, ridge after ridge, sometimes breaking with a muffled crash, sometimes with a luscious, voluptuous seethe, thick with the grate of gravel. Sometimes the overlapping lines of breakers along the shore fall into a momentary alignment, their sine curves merge into phase, and there is a series of wonderful half-seconds of pure silence between the crashes.

It is this, probably more than anything, that defines this time of day: that the soft pulse of the surf has once again become the dominant sound and presence on the beach, the metronome to which everything, including us, sets its tempo. Terns sail like silvery origami sculptures offshore and suddenly plunge into the dark-green bulges of the sea for sand eels. Gulls rock indolently in small rafts offshore like sea ducks, or plant themselves in front of us, arrogantly demanding chicken bones, which I dutifully throw them, just to watch their naked greed and aggression. Flocks of shorebirds now reappear, re-inhabit this stretch of beach, from which they had been exiled all day by the press of human presence. A few dogs are allowed to run free, despite the regulations we all know, and no one complains. There is room for all of us now.

For us and for all of these people, this time of day allows us to reconnect ourselves to what is around us, to engage our senses, our bodies, our imaginations, our propensity to story, with this elemental seascape. It is now, right now, at this time of day, when the allure, the enduring mystery of the beach creeps and insinuates itself into our perceptions and our memory—when it makes our day, speaks to us in recollection, and when, because it is no longer exclusively ours, it becomes truly ours.