Today I was among tens of thousands of New Englanders who manically flocked to the beach in order to both celebrate and survive the first noticably hot Friday since Summer's inauspicious beginning.
Every year at the start of the season, I re-visit my fascination with the mystical allure of the ocean and the perplexing dichotomy that is our relentless reverence and exploitation of it. There's no denying that a swim in the sea on a hot day is refreshing. But so is a cold shower, air conditioning, or a dip in a clean suburban swimming pool. What is it about the beach and the tempestuous, primordial ocean that so enthralls us?
While shooting my last book Wild Horses, I was stationed in Ocean City, Maryland for a week. With it's legacy of unpretentious pastel motels, elaborate putt-putt courses, tacky souvenir shops and every fast food chain known to man represented on the same street, Ocean City is an intoxicating, sentimental masterpiece of Americana camp and capitalization. I found myself powerless to resist it's ironic sincerity and timeless appeal. The Pizza Hut there still has a salad bar.
Like any and all of America's seaside oddities, Ocean City's retro splendor was drawn there decades ago by one thing and one thing only: the American public's overwhelming need to journey to the ocean. Every square inch of coast is flanked by something and behind that something are several parallel rows of other somethings that weren't lucrative enough to deserve beachfront property.
Had I arrived in Ocean City two weeks later, I would have been trapped in what locals describe as "amateur month" when high school and college kids arrive en masse to drink, puke and blister in the sun. Fortunately I got to witness the calm before the storm. And what an eery calm it was. The beaches were barren, the few open restaurants empty, and the epic mini golf palaces and boardwalk still closed for repairs. The stillness and lack of people amidst so much tawdry infrastructure created a sweet, familiar lonliness for me. At dawn, before I spent the day chasing wild horses on the starkly contrasted pristine, unblemished shores of Assateague National Seashore, I wandered in somewhat of a trance through the aging, seasonally forsaken man-made spectacles of Ocean City.
That week I began what has become a long term project of documenting our complex and contradictory relationship to the ocean.
I will never live land-locked. Despite the inevitable crowds, traffic and stupidity, over the past few years I have continued to invent more and more excuses to be in or near the water almost every day. Whether any of the bikini teen queens, metal detecting septuagenarians, football tossing jocks or other predictable beach characters realize it, I believe we are all drawn to the ocean in a need to reconnect with the infinite. The question is, will there be anything worthwhile left to connect with in 50 years?