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The ballad of Beach 21

I’ve never thought of any beach before as my beach. Maybe that’s because all those other beaches already had names. I thought this beach was nameless, marked only by its “Emergency Beach Location 21” sign. The Town’s map calls it “Nobaside”—halfway between Surfside and Nobadeer, sounding a little like a pharmaceutical or maybe a lesser-known legal term. The Land Bank, who owns this beach, gives it the more poetic sounding name: “Footsteps.”

I was a little hesitant to tell you where my beach is. But, as one of the fancier hotels in town has already included it on their list of “Secret Beaches,” the secret is out. Besides, my car, which isn’t exactly inconspicuous on a small island, is parked there every day after work.

For years, I have observed the seasons from this spot. A short wooden staircases passes through low shrubs of bayberry and rosa rugosa. In early summer, beach peas bloom. An inland sea of beach grass ripples in the wind. Each year, the grass cycles through the same familiar colors: bright kelly green in spring and early summer, a softer celery green in late summer, pale yellow in fall, and dishwater blonde in winter. I have measured my shadow against this backdrop on many early mornings, as though I, too, have become part of the landscape.

Those who walk the beach observe its changes, the way the beach shrinks in winter and returns in the summer. But the December storms took their toll on Beach 21, and to see it now is to see an old friend who has become unrecognizably gaunt and frail. The south shore lost nearly sixty feet of beach before February began.

Gone is the gentle slope from the bottom of the stairs through the low dunes, where families wrestled with beach chairs, coolers, and umbrellas last summer. This used to be the sort of beach where you got to the bottom of the stairs and thought, god, that’s a long way to go over the hot sand. Now, there are two ropes installed in the bluff edge, and to get from the shore up to the road, you better have some upper body strength.

To give you an idea of how much sixty feet is, picture a bowling lane. Picture a semi-truck. Picture a sperm whale. Gone, gone, gone.

Last summer, when the beach was still broad and the air warm, I met up with a friend who was visiting his family. I have known Alex since we were young, our mothers have been friends since they were children. My mother remembers when there was nothing from Surfside to town, a stretch of scrub called the badlands. There’s no undesirable place anymore, even the badlands were subdivided into the Gladlands. I wonder how many feet of beach has been lost in the 37 years I have been alive.

Alex and his wife got married on the beach a few years ago, and have a little daughter now. The baby is happy and sweet, but trips back to the island with a little one require more planning. As soon as the baby went down for a nap, we met up at Beach 21 for a dip.

It must have been August, and there must have been a bit of a storm churning offshore then, too. I remember the waves were big, the kind we dove into without thought as teenagers. I stood on the shoreline and read the current before making my way into the murky water. I remembered a kid who’d been pulled out of the surf by lifeguards earlier in the week, the squeal of the ambulance as it hurtled down Surfside Road.

Suddenly afraid of snapping my spine, I got out of the water. Alex bobbed in the waves a little longer, before body surfing to shore. We talked about how when we were kids, we would have stayed in until our parents pulled us out. Our parents swim in the north shore now.

Someday, we will look at the waves and decide it is too rough for us to get in. Someday, Beach 21 will be another memory. But not quite yet.