The Unsalted Life

Ah, summertime at the beach. The stuff of fantasy for the landlocked, the city-imprisoned, the office-bound.

beach meme

What’s not to love about the beach? That first step onto the dry sand with your bare feet is like walking on warm, fluffy bunny fur. Wait, that sounds cruel. This is like fur that belongs to a gigantic rabbit who enjoys the sensation of your tiny human feet massaging the knotted-up muscles in his back from a long week of working slumped in front of a computer screen.

Once your eyes adjust to the brightness, you look around the beach and see bodies of every shape, size, age, shade, and hairiness level, 0.001% of which look like something out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. If you had anxiety about being seen in public in your bathing suit, it’s starting to dissipate. It’s hot out and you start to sweat, so you let go of your fear and get rid of your cover-up so that you can enjoy the ocean breeze and/or the water.

Then you forget the people and take in the ocean view. You are on the edge of the continent, endlessness stretched in front of you. If you live in the Eastern U.S., this is a rare chance to get that open, big sky experience they take for granted out West.

sunset kangaroo

I personally have little patience for “laying out” (not quite a revelation to those of you who’ve seen my paleness), so for me, swimming is the best part of the beach. The salt water makes you extra buoyant, the whitecaps left in the waves’ wake make the water fizz against your fingertips, and if you jump up at just the right moment when a wave is about to hit, it will lift you up high, and for one glorious moment, you will know what it feels like to be a breaching dolphin.

Swimming in the ocean isn’t like swimming in a pool or lake. The waves and undertow force you to stop fighting and to just let go, while the adrenaline of getting knocked down and pulled under by a wave, or of feeling something brush against your leg that definitely wasn’t seaweed and that could’ve been a wide variety of beautiful or terrifying creatures, reminds you that you’re glad to be alive and not ready to leave this life just yet.

ballet shark

By the end of the day, your hair is a complete mess. If you were silly enough to wear makeup, it’s long gone. You’ve been drenched in SPF and sweat, dredged in sand, and fried–hopefully, very gently and slightly–in the sun. Your scars and stretch marks and cellulite didn’t exactly get erased by the sunshine or tanned out of existence, but it feels that way because you stopped thinking about them hours ago. You have never felt more beautiful, relaxed, and free. You go home, shower, eat dinner, and sleep like a baby.

It’s the salt life. The stuff of legends and bumper stickers.

But before you go doing what that meme at the start of this entry commands, selling your inland home, telling your boss to shove it, packing up your bags and your boogie board and heading for the sea, I feel obligated to tell you something: Living at the beach is entirely different from vacationing at the beach.

I know, because I grew up in North Myrtle and Myrtle Beach, and as soon as I turned 18, I moved away from the beach. And I never looked back.

So go if you must, but do it with open eyes. Allow me take a moment to share a few not-so-wonderful things that come with the Salt Life:

  • Everything at the beach, from gas to rent to Taco Bell, costs more than it does inland.
  • Most jobs are related to or dependent on tourism, don’t pay as well as they should, and/or disappear in the off-season.
  • Because of those two things, unless you’re already loaded, you probably won’t be able to afford to live within safe walking distance of the beach. Why would someone rent you a place on a long-term basis for a reasonable rate when they could instead be renting it to tourists on a daily or weekly basis for a premium? If you’re in the position to buy a place and manage to find something close to the beach that you think you can afford, remember to take into account the exorbitant cost to insure it against hurricanes and flooding.
  • The traffic. As a local, you may want or need to occasionally leave your home during the peak season–maybe to enjoy the beach–but more often to get to work, the dentist, or the dry cleaner, and that will mean dealing with tourist drivers. Many of them don’t know where they’re going, and they apparently don’t decide which all-u-can eat buffet they’re headed to until they’re ten yards from the restaurant sign, which is invariably on the opposite side of the road from them, but cutting across three or four lanes of traffic without so much as a turn signal or wave and endangering the lives of a couple dozen people is a better option for them than, say, changing lanes when it’s safe and, heaven forbid, having to drive around the block and loop back if they miss their turn.
  • And the Number One con to living at the beach: You spend your life surrounded by people on vacation.

Some people on vacation are lovely, adventurous, interesting, polite people with quaint accents from whom you can learn about different cultures, locales, and lifestyles.

Others are not, and should either be avoided or approached with extreme caution.

Some people think vacation means not only taking a break from work, school, and their normal eating habits, but also from responsibility, courtesy, traffic laws, consequences for their actions, and common human decency. These are the wild, uninhibited partying subspecies of tourists, who drink way too much, leave their hotel room a wreck, and can’t bear to let any female cross Ocean Boulevard without catcalling and yelling lewd things, even those who happen to be very pregnant or prepubescent. (I learned that on a walk to the beach with my mom when I was 9 and she was 8 months pregnant with my little brother.)

Then there are tourist families. They’ve spent the last 51 weeks daydreaming about this one damn-well-better-be-perfect week, and they’re spending a small fortune on lodging, meals, beach gear, fireworks, souvenirs, and salt water taffy. The stakes are high and the pressure to have fun can be crushing. They are in a fragile, precarious state, just one rainy day, fussy/ungrateful kid, or burger with missing ketchup away from an End-of-Days-level meltdown.

If you’ve never tried to placate an irate tourist who thinks the fact that she’s on vacation entitles her to freedom from even the tiniest inconvenience or discomfort, count your blessings, for it is impossible.

owl server

But you know the very worst thing about tourists? They’re on vacation and you’re not.

Maybe you’re a better person than I am, and you can feel genuinely happy for them and focus on how hard they must work back home and how much they deserve this time off. As for me, every summer when I found myself surrounded by a mob of sun-kissed, coconut-scented, carefree tourists clogging up the roads on their way to the beach or the outlet malls or the strip club, when all I was trying to do was get to my minimum-wage job in a scratchy, ugly uniform, all I could think to myself was, I live ten blocks from the beach but haven’t laid eyes on the ocean in six months. When do I get a vacation?

beach raccoon

If you get a day off during peak season from your crappy beach job, it’s probably not a paid day off, and even if the weather happens to be beach-day-appropriate, you’re likely going to have to spend it doing laundry and housework and running errands.

When you still have to make your own bed, wash your own towels, cook your own food, and pay for every bit of electricity you use, it’s hard not to feel bitterly jealous and resentful of people vacationing in their fancy hotel rooms and condos and beach houses. It’s like someone whose beloved dumped them without warning on February 13 feeling thrilled twenty-four hours later about it being Valentine’s Day. It might be possible, but you’d have to be a saintly, selfless soul.

If you ask me, the wisest course is if you can’t beat em, join em. Become a tourist, they get the best treatment. Visit once or twice a year, walk on the beach, swim in the ocean, float in the lazy river, down some fresh-caught seafood with a single frozen girly drink to wash it down, get some good deals on clothes you don’t need at the outlet mall, take some selfies, and buy some tacky souvenirs.

Then go home, wash the sand off, unpack, go get yourself a 59 cent taco or two, make your reasonable mortgage payment, enjoy your predictable bankers’ working hours, and take a moment to appreciate the fact that you live somewhere that no one, for any reason, would ever choose to go on vacation.

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