"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well: Beaches II


When I was growing up in Connecticut, we always went to the beach for the summer, usually on Long Island Sound or Rhode Island; and later to those in southern Maine at Kennebunkport. When I lived in Newark, I went to the Jersey Shore, slathered up with Coppertone and baking on Bradley, Omaha, and Neptune beaches like the thousands of other Nicky Norks who summered there.  There was Coney Island, Jones Beach, and the exclusive enclaves of Southampton, and the miles of empty beaches at Island Beach State Park that I walked in the winter. 

I preferred these Atlantic Beaches – open ocean, waves, and surf – to the quieter waters of the Sound or the Bay, but after more than 30 years in Washington have come to like the Chesapeake Bay, and I am always amazed at how complex and intricate it is when I fly over it from New England to Baltimore – so many rivers, inlets, creeks, all like Mandlebrot diagrams from the air; and airy and open on the water.  We often go to the Tides Inn in Irvington, Virginia, at the farthest tip of the Northern Neck, on Carter’s Creek, which empties into the Rappahanock, which empties into the Bay. The Tides, until renovation about five years ago, was an old Southern Institution, drippy Southern accents, Hoppin’ John, cornbread, grits, roe cakes, old black waitresses who had the time of service listed on their name tags – 30 years, 25 years, 20 years.  It was a quiet, peaceful, place on a promontory overlooking Carter’s Creek which in the summer had sailboats, motorboats, launches, all heading out to open water.  I have always loved the Tides, especially because of the water.

I have never liked the mountains and always felt too closed in – no vistas, or valleys, or expanses of sky.  While my family climbed high into the old wood forests of the Crazies in Montana, I drove out into Paradise Valley.  Deep into the forests there were no mountains, just ascents and narrow paths.  The tree line is over 10,000 feet and the valley only 5000, and the wide panoramas at the highest crest was never worth the dark woods, the muskiness, and the impenetrable forest.  And, oh yes, the grizzlies.  We were told that while walking in the forest you should wear ankle bells, talk or sing, and make a lot of noise.  Even if I were one to seek the solitude and silence of the deep woods, acting like a clown at a bad circus would have scotched that.  Even with all this rattling and yelling, you still had to watch out at corners and switchbacks just in case a grizzly with her cubs were munching wild things.  So, clambering up the slope, with pots and pans and silverware banging like a 19th century itinerant tradesman, really didn’t do any good after all.   

I did like hiking in  the mountains around La Paz, however, over 14.000 ft. already above the tree line, and even a short climb from Cotacota, and the views were spectacular.  The lower rock faces and escarpments were red, russet, and dark gold, lined and striated from earth shifts millenia ago, the snowcaps were just above, and the city of La Paz, the bowl where it sat, and the high altiplano of El Alto were all visible.  The air was crystal clear, bone dry, the sky a deep blue, and the sun radiant.

One day we drove to the top of Mt. Chacaltaya at 19,000 ft. where there was a ski slope.  The lift was a simple winch which you attached to your belt at the bottom of the glacier.  It hauled you up the 60 degree slope, and it was up to you to unhitch it before you got minced in the gears of the industrial age engine.  The view down to the altiplano, 4000 feet below, was spectacular – pools of intense copper blue and green, narrow abutments on the sides of rockslides, and the mauves, pinks, and magentas of the valley far below.

The ocean in Lima was the real thing – the crashing surf that I remembered from my childhood.  Some of the best surfing in the world, I was told, because of “fetch”, 3000 miles of open Pacific without hitting more than an atoll, which allowed the wind and ocean currents to build power and force, hit the shallow shelf off the coast, and rise up to 30 ft. waves.   It was always grey and misty in Lima, however, and what would have been a gloriously bright ocean was always dull and dark.

My favorite beaches have always been tropical and Caribbean.  The turquoise color of the water, the bright, warm sunshine, a special gift in winter, the light breeze and regal palm trees on white sand are the perfect combination.  My favorite was on the Samana Peninsula of the Dominican Republic.  When we went there in the 80s, it was still a simple place with a few cabanas under the palms, open thatch roof bar by the water, prix fixe, all you could eat and drink including fresh lobster caught on the reefs just off shore, pina coladas, and grilled snapper.  The mountains were just behind us, and a few small villages; otherwise it was just ten cabanas, perfect weather, and that sense of pure sensuous pleasure I always get when the weather and water are warm, the sun is bright, and everything is beautiful.

Getting to this tropical idyll was another thing.  We decided on the first trip to fly to a small airport relatively near Samana, rent a car, and drive over the mountains.  What we were not told was that the tarred highway ends about 25 miles from the beach, there are only rutted tracks the rest of the way. “Are you sure you want to drive down there?”, asked one of the local people we met having made the ascent and were ready to angle down the mountain.  “Very dangerous”. 

The car was a reconditioned Toyota by way of Newark and Panmumjon.  The shocks were completely gone, and we had to unload the suitcases and get out of the car to make it out of the ruts.  The brakes hadn’t been reconditioned since the last chop-shop do in Jersey City 50,000 miles ago.  I actually aimed at the biggest ruts, craters, and potholes just to be sure we would not go hurtling down into the jungle on either side.   This drama had to be repeated on the way back; and the worst part was the steep decline on the tarmac – i.e. no craters, washboards, swales, or gullies to pitch into in case of emergency, just straight down.  I put my full weight on the brake pedal, smelled the burning pads, put the car in as low gear as possible (there was no first gear of course), and swerve from side to side to try to deflect the pure downward trajectory.

The closest I ever came to pitching over the side of a mountain road was on the road between Islamabad and Murrie.  The girl I was with assured me that it was only a 45 minute drive, we could have a civilized lunch at the famous British Hill Station, and be back easily for drinks and dinner.   All wrong.  The road was two lane with curves and switchbacks every 100 yards.  Everyone apparently thought that curves were the best places to pass because people slowed down, so you could see oncoming cars and pull back in line quickly; which caused traffic jams on the curves, horns, disengagement of cars, trucks, rickshaws only through scraping mirrors and banging front fenders, more yelling and screaming until the whole road was blocked.  Then it started to snow, and few of the Pakistanis on this benighted road had ever driven in the stuff, so if and when traffic began to move, cars coming down the mountain slipped and slid in all directions.  On our way down I quickly found out that my girlfriend was the worst driver ever.  Not only had she never driven in snow, she always had her driver drive her; but this time wanted us to be alone. 

Second closest was in Colombia in a public long distance bus between two mountain towns.  There were no guardrails, it was pouring rain, the driver was drunk, and about half way through the trip, the truck in front of us threw a rock and completely smashed the windshield.  The rest of the trip was yawing back and forth across the highway, the blinding rain pouring in, and the chickens all squawking.   The third was minor compared to the first two – same scenario, public bus, winding mountain road in Kashmir, drunk driver, no guardrails; but this time the windshield was intact and no rain.

So, by the time I had experienced this and many other forced mountain experiences, whenever I had a choice, it was always level.  I wanted to be able to see in all directions, go flat, go long, and see the horizon.

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