THE LONELY SEA by John Watts
“They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.”
Robert Frost from poem “Desert Places”
“And I remember that we who move are moved by clouds that darken midnight.”
Delmore Schwartz from poem “At This Moment In Time”
I recall my first big post college trip to Ocean City, Maryland. Impossible expectations, replete with lots of desperate youth comingling on a mission to gloriously party after the school year, as many had graduated and saw it as a culmination to a precious era that would never come again.
And try as I might to adjust and savor every moment of liberation and youthful self-actualization on this trip—I was feeling mighty green around the gills and a bit displaced after just a few days with all the parties and combinations of high school peers to hang out with. Instead of staying locked on to the euphoria of an endless summer, I was already feeling the full stale effects of waking up to a post, all night party morning with nothing but a cotton mouth and the sight of endless cigarette butts floating in half drank beer from red solo cups.
And I remember as clear as day, the first time I had the chance to be alone and drive in my car late at night in Ocean City—feeling on my own without any allies or social cliques of friends driving madly to some rumored parties.
I had overloading my system and relished the chance to flee somewhere on my own.
So I had cruised BLOCK by BLOCK doing the adding and subtracting street math that big beach resort towns are known for. Between the boardwalk and the bayside of Ocean City I past all the enticing BEACH RESORT signs promising impossibly detailed accounts of attractive offers:
“Open 24 Hours!” “Lit pool with your free continental breakfast!”
“Home of the Original Bacon Waffle!” “Free high speed internet” “Free Para sailing done here with the purchase of one steak dinner!” “Forget about everything you knew about waffles!” “Come enjoy this vacation in your beach paradise!” ‘Best rates guaranteed!” “Best concert t-shirts in North America!” “Speed world Go Karts!” “Play 2 rounds of Mini Golf and get the 3rd round free!”
Then I noticed the darker flip side of the Beach Resort capitalist dream: “NO PARKING” “WE TOW FASTER THAN ANYONE!”
“LOITERERS WILL BE ARRESTED”
“NO THROWING TRASH IN OUR DUMPSTERS! “VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED!”
“Ah, yes,” I thought to myself, “every square foot of beach resort property is hotly contested during the summer season.”
So on and on I floated cautiously in the slow lane by myself—with my senses overloaded by one great billboard offer and “can’t miss” amenities sign after another. And the beach resort blocks kept unwinding by the numbers. I can’t remember if I was going UP or DOWN in the sequence now but I will guess down. I went past 31st street then 30th street then 29th street then 28th street—yadda yadda—each block revealing a similar small parking area and boardwalk access staircase–until I came to the point where there WAS only the starting point—lonely Number 1.
It was the kind of street mathematics remembered best by sore and tired adolescent bare feet worn out after walking from one end of the number system to the other.
And then something shocking happened. The flashing neon signs and the huge overhead flood lights of the resort city came to a screeching halt.
And there I was, engulfed in the inky blackness with my car forcing me forward on an alien causeway between the bay and the ocean.
No more commercialism and no more 30 story hotel buildings. Just me and my car with the sound of surf crashing in the darkness.
I was much too impressionable as an 18 year old for this kind of exposure to the elements. “Where were the t-shirt shops?” “Where was the loud rock music?”
This was the ocean I never thought about during all the sun tanning and trying to keep up to speed with all those agonizing peer gatherings meant to pass the time on the mid-day beaches.
This was the impassive ocean that waited out all the fashion. This too was the night time ocean that might conceivably swallow up my entire identity while driving alone if I didn’t concentrate better.
I just remember shuddering and gripping the wheel very hard as I drove.
It was a spiritual contrast that I never forgot. This wild, lonely face of the ocean that scared me out on that narrow causeway was completely impassive and reckless and seemingly unconcerned about my overall welfare. It also served to shake me out of my petty, fashionable time schedule.
And so it remains. The nighttime ocean, when undiluted and in its purest form, like the western sky constellations, continues to astound and confound us our entire lives by its inscrutable, compelling and primordial power. Words do it laughably little justice. It may at first cause us to flee back to the parties and the hotel service and the all night donut stores—but if we are wise, we shall remember such awakenings and journey back again when we are in less demand—past all the distracting lights and all their false promises—to gape once more at the lonely sea—until we start to see it as a true and constant friend offering comfort and solace.
No amusement park could ever fill up our senses like looking and listening and tasting and touching the wide open ocean!