A Walk in the Park | Beach bums

Written by by LeMoyne Mercer. Posted in April

You have probably heard that the basic vacation question is “Mountains or beach?” If you posed the question to Shirley or me, the immediate answer would be “Mountains, of course!” Smokies, Blue Ridge, Adirondacks, Guadalupes, Rockies, Big Horns, Sawtooths, Sierra Nevada.


But give us a few minutes to think about it, and the answer could just as easily be “Beach, of course!” Assateague, Tybee Island, St. Augustine, Cumberland Island, Santa Rose Island, Padre Island, Key West, Pacific coast, Hawaii.

I got to thinking of this back in January when we spent the first week in Columbus babysitting the grandchildren when our daughter and her husband went to San Diego “on business.” (Fortunately, few of us get sent to Minneapolis in the winter “on business.”) We suggested that, while they were there, they should go out to Coronado. There is a marvelous powdery sand beach with the historic hotel in the background.

Some of you remember that first week of 2017 in Ohio. Lovely wasn’t it? If by “lovely” you mean temps barely above zero. So on Jan. 8 we headed south. Got as far as Birmingham, AL. Warm yet? Nope. Second day, reached Baton Rouge, LA. Warm yet? Nope. By noon on the third day, Padre Island, TX just off shore from Corpus Christi. Clear blue skies. Temps in the 70s.

But wait, there’s more. Shirley learned, in that mysterious way she finds out stuff, that some rescued sea turtles were to be released the next morning. We joined some other people behind a rope line on the beach. Park rangers and turtle rescue volunteers carried 70 turtles along the rope line so everyone could get a close look before the release back into the Gulf of Mexico. Small children went nose-to-nose with turtles rapidly flapping their flippers in anticipation. (The turtles, that is, though the kids were pretty animated too.)

Seventy rescued sea turtles were released one morning on Padre Island, TX.

The turtles had been rescued because the cold snap that struck the Great Frozen Tundra of Ohio had reached as far as south as Texas. Turtles and other reptiles adjust to the cold if it comes gradually. This year the Arctic blast swept down like a NASCAR driver coming out of the pits and the turtles did not have time to adjust. As a Midwesterner, you can undoubtedly sympathize with that.

There are other sea turtle rescues unrelated to weather. All five species in the Gulf are endangered. In the 1940s, there were up to 40,000 nests identified in a single day. By the 1980s, there were only about 800. Clutches of turtle eggs may be dug up by predators such as raccoons or crushed or pilfered by humans.

The Park Service solution, with the help of those volunteers, is to carefully collect eggs for artificial incubation. Three days after they hatch, young turtles are in a frenzy (that’s the technical term) to enter the water.

But there is much more to the beach than sea turtles. On Padre Island, we enjoy watching flocks of brown pelicans soaring just off shore like squadrons of WWII fighter pilots in V-formation. When fish are spotted, they peel off into their dives.

On the beach, right at the water line, plovers and sandpipers probe the sands for something to eat. Larger shorebirds include the godwit, whose long beak curves slightly up, and the curlew, whose beak curves down. Then there are the gulls and terns that show up by the hundreds. We particularly like the royal terns with their bright orange beaks and black caps that sweep back like the original D.A. haircut. (Ask your grandfather what a D.A. was.)

On our recent visit, there were also cobalt blue Portuguese man ’o wars washed up on the beach. They are always fascinating to see. Just don’t touch. Even a dead man ’o war can give you a painful sting.

If you watch closely, you may even spot little gray ghost crabs scurrying back to their holes in the sand. If you come between a crab and its hole, it may extemporize a temporary hiding place by tossing sand onto its back.

Back in the dunes, above the high-water mark, we saw some leaf cutter ants hard at work. Their steady anty traffic had worn a clearly defined highway resembling a bicycle track. There was about ten feet of track between their leaf harvesting site and their underground nest. We watched for a while to see if there was a division of labor between the lumberjack ants who cut leaves and grass and the teamster ants who transported the cuttings. Couldn’t tell for sure because all ants look alike to non-ants, but it looked like a you-cut-it, you-carry-it operation. Some had a hard time carrying when a breeze would turn their piece of leaf into a tiny green sail. Ants got tossed about quite a bit, but they persevered and quickly righted themselves.

The curious thing about cutting leaves is that the ants don’t eat their harvest. In the nest, they grow fungus on the decaying plant material and feast on the anty equivalent of gourmet mushrooms.

Wild ponies seem to enjoy the beach at Assateague at least as much as people do.

Some beach residents are much, much larger and always manage to attract the attention of visitors. At Assateague on the Delmarva Peninsula (shared by Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia) is a herd of wild ponies. One theory is that they descended from horses that swam ashore after the Spanish ships they were in were storm wrecked several centuries ago. Some claim they are just the offspring of farm animals that wandered off during colonial days. Either way, the ponies continue to reproduce enthusiastically. Stallions compete for herds by kicking and biting. These are wild ponies, not just pets on a beach vacation. Visitors are encouraged, one way or another, to maintain a safe distance. Even if there were no ponies, Delmarva has a wonderful wide, long beach for sunning, walking, or surfing. But, frankly, we would not have gone there just to see some sand.

Diagonally across the country in the northwest corner of Washington is a beach with no sand at all. Just rocks and gravel. And great piles of driftwood made up of huge old trees tossed ashore by Pacific storms. Picturesque sea stacks and other off-shore rocks dominate the rugged coastline. The gravelly beach is not quite as pleasant for romantic strolls as powdery sand. But there is recompense.

Shirley learned that the gravel contains pretty agates in numbers that justify the effort it takes to collect them. If you know what an agate is. And what to look for. A man and his daughter quickly taught her the rudiments of agate hunting.

Personally, I think there are more interesting gems to hunt for in tidal pools. Star fish. Limpets. Anemones. Sea urchins. That sort of thing.

Notice that, so far, people did not make the list of interesting things to see at the beach. Shirley and I prefer nice quiet walks on the beach to lying on blankets with 4,000 of our closest friends. Two other people no closer than a quarter mile away is about right. We might even go so far as to tolerate a dog or two chasing tennis balls in the surf. At St. Augustine, for example, they brag of “40 Miles of Beach—And the Rest is History.” Plenty of elbow room to really enjoy a sunrise or sunset.

As RVers, we are almost always able to get the level of privacy we prefer. But it is becoming more of a challenge. Ten years ago, we had no trouble getting a campsite at Anastasia State Park across the Bridge of Lions from St. Augustine. Now, weekends are impossible as are weekdays during Spring Break. Which used to come Easter Week. Now, Spring Break means just about any time between Groundhog Day and Memorial Day because schools randomize their schedules. And every year there are more Baby Boomers retiring and trying to compete with the hordes of drunken…I mean, enthusiastic young partiers. So, the availability of sites at Fort Pickens near Pensacola, FL and other warm and sunny destinations can be problematic. Come to think of it, when we arrived at Malaquite Campground on Padre Island, we got the last site. Fortunately, there is the option to find a place to camp right on the beach. Just don’t get stuck in the sand.

Most beachgoers don’t worry about that because they prefer the amenities of resort communities: seafood restaurants, “quaint” shops with nautical stuff, casinos. Often, you can choose between popular resorts and seclusion within a very short distance. Santa Rosa Island off Pensacola is almost equally divided between resorts on the east end and the seclusion of the National Seashore on the west end. Our choice is almost always in favor of seclusion.

Even in Hawaii you are not required to plop down on Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head off to your left and shoulder-to-shoulder hotels behind you. On Maui, we have stayed a couple times at a small hotel that is a whole block from the great banyan tree and the waterfront. A drive out the infamous narrow, twisty, turny cliff-side Road to Hana takes you to several quiet beaches and waterfalls. Some have black volcanic rock gradually being reduced to black volcanic sand by unceasing wave action. The pebbles get their rough edges worn down as they rattle back and forth in the surf.

Surf can hit the beach gently or it can come pounding in. Gidget and Moondoggie always looked forward to “Surf’s up!” conditions that result from storms that roar across several thousand miles of open water all the way from Alaska. Where, by the way, there are other examples of our favorite beaches. The Homer Spit is a narrow band of gravel that extends five miles into Kachemak Bay. We were there when the locals celebrated July 4 with noisy but invisible fireworks. Invisible because on July 4 it never gets really dark.

On the Spit is a marina for hundred of boats because Alaskans love their halibut and salmon. About a third of the Spit is shops and small restaurants for tourists. The rest is campground space where you can park your rig with the front wheels virtually in the water. The attraction is the spectacular view of snow-capped mountains that plunge right down into the water. Beautiful but not a prime spot for spreading your beach blanket.

You can have pretty much the same experience at Seward where, again, the RVs line up right on the water as if it were Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor. Also at Valdez. There may be some sort of Alaskan pattern emerging here.

Perhaps your next trip should be to a beach instead of the mountains. Whichever kind of beach experience suits your fancy. Miami Beach where the Great and Near Great gather in Gucci attire. Panama City, FL where families in one half the town compete with college spring breakers restricted to the other half of town. What the heck, you might even want to give Waikiki a shot. Put on your flip-flops, slather on some sunscreen, and make the beach of your choice just a walk in the park. ❦

Elizabeth Scott