My story about Assateague actually begins in Avalon, New Jersey, where we visited last year. Despite good trips to pleasant, family-oriented Ocean City as a teenager and a previous visit to Cape May, we hadn’t exactly been sold on the idea of a New Jersey beach. Blame it on the Sopranos and all those depressing post-industrial Springsteen songs.
New Jersey Turnpike
ridin’ on a wet night
‘neath the refinery’s glow,
out where the great black rivers flow….
Yech–I don’t even want to think about The Magic Rat and his sweet machine.
But we’d heard Avalon was quaint, we’d been tubing on the Delaware River, and were heading south to take a dolphin viewing boat ride in Cape May, then cross the bay on the ferry to Loews on our way to–you guessed it–Assateague.
All I can say about Avalon is: what a shame. Avalon is a funky little town on a pleasant scale, no high rises and lots of small businesses. The beaches are beautiful and wide, with wonderful dunes. It was easy to park, there wasn’t much traffic, even on a Saturday, I thought, at first: now this is the kind of place where I might actually invest in a rental home that would one day be my retirement home.
And then I stepped on to the beach: $24 for my family of four for a day stung a little bit, but it’s New Jersey and beach tags are a tradition–they’re just not satisfied with the billions of dollars that visitors spend at businesses and on rentals each summer. Still, it’s cheaper than a movie, and they do keep the beaches spotless, so it’s hard to complain.
What I will complain about is the authoritarian approach Avalon’s beach patrol takes to regulate and restrict behavior. On a crowded Saturday, swimming was restricted to a small areas, perhaps 120 feet, between pairs of lifeguard stands, each of which was staffed by a pair of young guards. Additionally, although the surf was rather weak and there was virtually no undertow, a third guard stalked back and forth about 40 feet off shore, menacing anyone who dared to wade past her in the waist deep water (I’m 6′ 3 and had to squat just to get my head into a wave and get wet).
It was shoulder to shoulder, literally too crowded to swim, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only visitor who gazed longingly at the vast expanses of forbidden surf outside the guarded zones–easily 90 percent of the beach is off-limits not just to swimming, but apparently even to touch. I repeatedly saw lifeguards whistling folks walking down the beach, when the water lapped up against their ankles. Who walks on the hot sand and doesn’t want to slap their feet in the surf where it rolls on shore?
Playing catch is also forbidden. Furious whistle blowing followed the appearance of any thrown object–I asked the young beach tag checker girl and she told me that “sometimes you can play catch in the soft sand near the dunes, but not today.” Several striking young women were, however, permitted to play bocce under the close surveillance of the young men in the lifeguard stands.
A teen with the family next to us on the beach was whistled when he jogged down towards the surf. “No running on the beach!”
What? I had to ask about that, so I wandered over to the lifeguard stand and asked. I was told “People can fall and get hurt, and they sometimes kick sand on other people,”
I laughed, couldn’t help it, and the young man said. “If you have a problem I can get my supervisor down here and we’ll see how funny that is. Let’s see your beach tag!”
I shrugged, walked back to my towel, and held the tag up for him to see–and he flipped me the middle finger. In a different world, I wait for the kid to end his work day and do a little amateur orthopedic work on that obviously malfunctioning finger. It wouldn’t be flopping around like that shoved up his….
I honestly don’t know why anyone goes to this beach, except that it seemed most of the folks didn’t even bother trying to swim. It was a sit on your butt and stare beach. It was even impossible to sleep, with near-constant whistling and some asshat ringing a freaking cowbell every half hour (it turns out this was a ice cream salesperson, but my Pavlovian responses didn’t get the signal–it was just irritating.)
I’ve tried to avoid the obvious metaphors here, but being herded into a tight space by arrogant, authoritarian young Aryan men (and women) elicited some rather gruesome comparisons. We strolled the pleasant shops in the quaint business district after our time on the beach, but were ultimately too resentful of our experience to put much backbone into shopping–before bidding not adieu, but goodbye, to Avalon, never to return again.
And what does this have to do with Assateague? Well, at the very same time we were suffocating in the oppression embrace of Avalon’s nanny state, the tides uncovered a substantial quantity of unexploded, World War 2 vintage ordnance, and the response was to send for come guys to blow it up. You know, just in case. That section of beach was closed for half a day, and when the work was done the authorities retreated and it was back to laid-back summer at the beach–kites flying, surfers surfing, fishers fishing, frisbees flying, soccer balls being kicked, and sand castles being built. You can build a sand castle at Avalon but it’s illegal to dig a hole someone might step into, and when you leave the beach you have to flatten your castle so no one trips over it.
In Assateague you swim and if you drown the National Park Service will eventually get someone over to assist in removing your cold, wet corpse–unless you happen to fall into a turtle nest, in which case you’ll have to wait until after the hatch. And rightly so. If a horse bites you, someone will be by to take your statement, and to chastize you for pissing off the horse.
In short, you get to be human, responsible, and free. It’s presumed that you’ll be smart enough to not drown, or step in a hole, or fall face first in a sand castle, and I like that a lot….