Do you know how difficult it is for most people to get to the beach?” I made pointed eye contact with my 10-year-old son in the rearview mirror. We were on our way to Cape May for a week. “Most people have to take a plane! Not only can we drive, we can get there before lunch!”
The first time my son saw the ocean, he was still in diapers. He was three when he built his first sandcastle, five when he was rolled by his first wave. Now 10, in Cape May, he dove in the surf for seashells, gaped at a pod of dolphins, and rescued a horseshoe crab, holding it up by its shell in order to marvel at its prehistoric underside before hefting it back into the waves. Going to the beach ranks among his top five favorite things, but I don’t know if he truly appreciates the ease with which he can feel sand under his feet and ocean breeze on his cheeks. But I certainly do.
I was 10, the same age he is now, before I ever laid eyes on the ocean. I was raised in Kansas, smack-dab in the middle of the country, landlocked to the extreme. It took my family 15 hours over two days of driving to reach a coast. As a kid prone to car sickness, I would spend the first 30 minutes of those trips absorbed in my Nancy Drew book, and the next 14 1/2 hours wracked with nausea, green faced and limp in the back seat. It was awful. But also, it was worth it.
My mother had briefed me on the magic of the ocean—toddlers with buckets and shovels, seagulls stealing snacks, young couples working on their tans (it was the ’80s!)—but no one could prepare me for the ocean’s unfathomable vastness and overwhelming beauty, a state of awe I only got to experience a handful of times before adulthood.
Now, I live an hour from the seaside. Since moving to New Jersey in 2015, we’ve explored the remote beaches in Island Beach State Park, eaten greasy fries and fed quarters into the arcade on the boardwalk in Point Pleasant, and lolled on Spring Lake’s pristine beaches and then gone for shellfish in Sea Girt. We’ve made the mistake of arriving at the beach in Ocean Grove before noon on a Sunday, when it opens. We’ve biked to the lighthouse in Cape May. I’ve even started saying “down the Shore.” (No. I’m lying. I don’t say that. But maybe someday!)
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Recently, on my son’s birthday, we responded to a random day off from school and a favorable forecast with a drive to Sandy Hook. It was the off-season, and the weather wasn’t nearly as nice as my iPhone app had predicted. The sun hid and the wind bit. We spent most of the afternoon lying face down on the sand where it was warmest, wrapped in our towels like burritos, the wind whipping our hair. My son got his feet wet, but kept his sweatshirt on the entire time. It was pretty much a bust.
But here’s the thing—it didn’t matter. It had only taken us an hour to drive there. If we wanted, we could have gone back the next weekend. And the one after that.
Katherine Dykstra is the author of What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood, now out in paperback.
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