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No Longer the Forgotten Season
Just after Labor Day, Ken McAlpine said good-bye to his family and began a drive up the East Coast, from Florida to Maine, on a one-man quest to capture the elusive “forgotten season” of beach towns shuttered until the return of warm weather. Off-Season is a moving portrait that brings to life the magic of the sea and shore in winter, the charm of beach towns emptied of summer crowds, and the warmth and eccentricities of year-round coastal residents who revel in small-town spirit.
McAlpine skipped the more popular destinations like Nags Head, Virginia Beach, Cape May, and the Hamptons, opting to visit lesser known locales like Sharpes, Florida; Tangier Island, Virginia; and Montauk, New York. There he found people who celebrated the departure of the tourists with the cautious hope they’d return next summer. He encountered fishermen struggling to make a living, a former playboy lifeguard now ministering to the elderly and ill, a marine policeman both reviled and respected, a lone kayaker paddling away his grief, a couple fighting to save the world’s coral reefs, divers searching for everything from false teeth to dead bodies in dark waters, and deserted snow-covered beaches more beautiful than anyone could describe.
More than a travelogue—and a whole new breed of beach read—Off-Season is a stroll off the beaten path and a look at the people and places in our country that keep the spirit of community alive.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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About the Author
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
No Barnacles in Heaven
It was the same bridge but a different memory, proving that everyone intersects with time differently, though few more differently than Erik Jersted. On this fiery October evening, Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Bridge arced steeply, as it always does, over the Intracoastal Waterway. It has to, or the bridge would be forever opening for the armada of sleek yachts that throb down from the North in the fall, ferrying their owners away from the season of brutish weather and nasty colds.
Twenty-one years ago, almost to this very day, I hired on to work for a winter as a lifeguard on Fort Lauderdale's beaches. For seven months I lived just across this bridge, riding a garage sale bicycle up and over to get to a job no one would rightly call work. Each morning when I pedaled to the apex of this bridge, the breeze brought the smell of the sea, cementing the promise of another idyllic day.
The ocean is like music. It resurrects memories, jumbling them ashore on a flood tide.
As Erik's pickup labored up the bridge, my mind gathered memories. I remembered how the Atlantic gave up its night face as dawn fired the horizon, morphing with ease, from darkness through lightening shades of blue to the palest green. The sun sent soft morning rays, soon to be replaced by a harsh, urgent light. The elements all gathered strength as the day progressed. The morning breeze, as warm and delicate as a baby's breath, by afternoon created a steady, white-capped beat. The sand that sifted between the toes, cool and fine at dawn, attained skillet heat by squinty-bright afternoon, so that inexperienced sunbathers started for the water with calculated ease and finished, mouth queerly puckered, with a knees-high sprint that would have done any track star proud. In the afternoon the squalls came off the ocean. The day's baking press seemed to crescendo in anticipation, and then came release, the air going cool, the first fat, warm drops and, without transition, rain running in sheets across the water and the beach, the tourists fleeing for the bars and hotel lobbies across Highway A1A. Many times I climbed down from the lifeguard stand and stood alone in the drumming rain. It was warm on my skin, and I liked the way the fat drops kicked up tiny coralline explosions and scrubbed the day clean. Looking back now, I realize I also liked the way the rain closed down time. There was no past and no future, only the moment's cocoon of salty-warm wet.
Everyone's memories are different, but the ocean remains the same. It is a happy gift.
I turned to Erik and smiled. "I remember riding across this bridge," I said.
"I remember jumping off this bridge on fire," he said.
Erik continued to look straight ahead, closely monitoring the surrounding traffic. These days he is a cautious driver, though that was not always the case.
I waited, but Erik offered nothing more. He doesn't see his own life as particularly interesting. He often needs prodding.
"You were on fire?" I asked.
"There were these clowns doing this exhibition in Fort Lauderdale, lighting themselves on fire, doing this diving thing," he said after a few beats. "My friend says to me, 'We can do that.' So we got some towels and doused them in gas and walked up on the bridge. We wrapped the towels around us and lit the towels on fire. He went first."
His companion's leap would have made the clowns proud, a flaming ball of linen and wild yowling summarily snuffed by the Intracoastal. Erik, on the other hand, experienced difficulties. Alarmed by the first human fireball, the bridge attendant was now sprinting up the bridge. Hanging over the side of the bridge, Erik applied a match to himself and flared brightly. The flame promptly went out.
Once motivated, Erik is not easily deterred. "I had to pull myself back up on the bridge and light myself again. The bridge attendant was running toward me, and I went up in this big ball of flame. Must have hit a wet spot on one of the towels."
Erik, I learned in the days I spent with him, has many unusual memories. When he talks about them, he speaks matter-of-factly, as if he's telling you how much soap to add to the laundry.
He is fifty-four and, for the moment, a professional lifeguard: three days a week in Lauderdale, two days a week up the coast in Pompano Beach. He is supremely capable: he can fix almost anything. He can save your life. He has plucked hapless swimmers from rips, jump-started stalled hearts, and tended to plane wrecks in the waters off his lifeguard stand and car accidents on A1A behind him. In Fort Lauderdale, where tropical heat and fruity mixed drinks turn vacationers toward self-destruction, lifeguarding extends far beyond developing a righteous tan. Erik has bellows for lungs, thickly muscled shoulders, and powerful hands. He twice rowed a dory from Bimini to Florida. The faster trip took fourteen and a half hours. He has spent his life in, on, and under the ocean--rowing, swimming, diving, surfing--and though the Fort Lauderdale Chamber won't tell you this, the ocean is a treacherous place. Erik once saw a man fall from a boat and disappear--as fast as you read this sentence--without a trace. Regarding water, Erik appears to fear nothing. He has fended off aggressive sharks, surfed enormous waves, and been dragged behind a fishing boat at night when one of the boat's trolling lines snagged his lobster bag, filled with a half-dozen plump lobsters.
"I wasn't about to let go of that bag," recalled Erik. "I don't know what that fisherman was doing, but it took him a while to notice he'd hooked a really big fish."
You would be lucky to walk down a dark alley with Erik. Yet he has the demeanor of a child. When he is thinking about something, he goes away. You speak to him, but he doesn't hear. Out of the blue spurt private thoughts, candid and unguarded. He is always losing the keys to his truck. He gives the last of whatever he has away. He used to bring homeless people home, until his wife Sharon finally requested an end to that.
Erik himself has not had an easy life. His father was in the merchant marine and rarely home. He and his brother ran wild. At twenty-four, with a wife and child, his brother simply disappeared. The accident report said he fell off a sailboat. Erik is not so sure. Erik is not school bright, but he is world wise. Anything he lacks in book smarts he makes up for in heart. He left the beach for twelve years and became a minister for a Baptist church in Fort Lauderdale. His official title was Minister to Senior Adults, but he also spent a lot of time ministering to dying AIDs victims. Fort Lauderdale has never been a bastion of chastity; few know this better than Erik. Some AIDs victims accepted the Lord in their last moments; others told God, and Erik, to fuck themselves. This Erik could handle. But then the church built itself a new and overly grand home and strayed away from ministering, focusing less on helping people and more on raising funds. Two months before I arrived, Erik left the church and came back to the beach. When he did so, he forfeited sixteen years of seniority and benefits. He returned to base pay--$12.75 an hour--and no benefits.
This isn't enough for Erik to live on, so he has to take odd jobs. One evening, the sun already low on the horizon, we were driving to a dock at Lighthouse Point, twenty minutes north, to scrape barnacles from the bottom of a ninety-foot yacht.
Through the windshield of Erik's Chevy pickup, ahead of the snaking lines of brakelights, the last pink light of day dissolved into the west.
Erik had been lost in thought, but now he suddenly perked up. "I don't know of any other boat-scrapers who work in the dark," he said brightly. "But you know what? It's beautiful down there. Serene. Real peaceful. I'll probably never own a boat like that. But to go underneath and clean the running gear, I really feel privileged."
The truck's air conditioning hummed. We turned into Lighthouse Point and drove past the sprawling, low-slung homes and well-tended yards of the wealthy.
"I don't make a lot of money, but it doesn't matter," said Erik. "When I was having a lot of stress at the church, I'd come out to the beach in the morning, and I'd go into work happy. I knew then it was time to come back. I was so unhappy at the church. I actually had so much stress, I went to the doctor and got on medication. I actually had a breakdown. I didn't have a balanced life. I went to the hospital and got treated for depression."
Inside the truck, sand on the floor, dive knife on the dash, it was almost dark. Ahead of us lay two hours of scraping in inky blackness under a stranger's yacht.
"I've realized that you have to make the most of your gifts. At fifty-four years old, I guess this is it. I wake up happy and go home happy."
I heard his words, soft, satisfied, and certain. And I knew both of us were doing the right thing.
I had planned on starting in Key West, a logical beginning for a south-to-north traipse up the eastern seaboard. But journeys, at least good ones, don't proceed with sequential logic, which was why one of my first stops was Fort Lauderdale.
I headed to Fort Lauderdale looking for Erik. When I arrived in Lauderdale in 1981 for my own brief stint of lifeguarding, Erik was already a legend. Even then he looked out for others. I came down there with six friends, and Erik found us a home, which happened to be right next door to his. Living next door to Erik proved exciting. He rode a motorcycle. Some nights he would dress entirely in black, slap duct tape over his license plate, and then roar through the town with the police in hot pursuit, an orgasm of adrenalin that ended with Erik booming into his driveway and hiding in his dark home with minutes to spare. On the beach his workouts were both feared and renowned. He paddled and rowed until everyone else was all screaming nerve endings, then he paddled and rowed some more. Like some powerful black hole, he absorbed us into his lifestyle. We swam, rowed, paddled, and ran, and at night we drank and got thrown out of bars, though we never came close to exhibiting Erik's wanton disregard for pain or prison. We knew him simply as the Master. Others might have seen him in a similar light. Women streamed in and out of his house, which emanated screams of pleasure.
Erik lived so large that even after I left Fort Lauderdale and moved to California, rumors reached me, each one more unbelievable than the next. Erik had been arrested after doing pull-ups from the end of a crane. Twenty stories up. Naked. Erik had gotten married. Erik had become a minister.
The Fort Lauderdale Beach Patrol operates out of a small office at the International Swimming Hall of Fame. I exited I-95 onto Sunrise Boulevard, heading east past seedy storefronts hawking "Cash 4 Boats," "Cheap Beer," and "East Coast's Best Body Piercing and Tattoos." Sunrise spat me out at the beach. The ocean was a lovely expanse of blue, with nothing immediately visible for sale. Then a plane buzzed by towing a banner: "Your Ad Here."
I walked into the beach patrol office, the same small but blessedly air-conditioned box of twenty-one years ago. I asked the guard behind the counter if he knew where Erik ministered.
"Actually, he's back on the beach," he said. "He was working at the morgue or something. I think it got to be too much for him."
He regarded me curiously, with perhaps a touch of trepidation.
"You a friend of his?"
Erik, I knew, had gone through some hard times. I had heard that he had taken to proselytizing with the same vigor he had once applied to sinning. People don't always respond well to those who wish to save them--possibly some thought Erik had a screw or two loose. But I remembered the man who had found us a place to live and taken us under his wing. I smiled.
"We're old friends," I said, though truth was I wasn't sure he'd even remember me.
The guard nodded noncommittally. "He's at the tower right up the street."
It was a slower-moving Erik Jersted who came stiffly down the wooden walkway of the city's spiffy new $40,000 lifeguard towers. He remembered me, or at least he said he did, though the hundreds of guards who had come and gone since we last met might have made this a white lie. He squinted at me in the white-bright sun, shook my hand, and gave me a warm smile. After twenty-one years he looked exactly the same--leathery, lean, and muscled, though gray had crept into his hair.
I told him he looked great, which was true.
He didn't smile. "I'm fifty-four," he said. "When you're fifty-four, everything aches."
His partner Al called down from the stand. "Hey, Erik. One of us needs to work the phones in the office. You want to go?"
The office was cool and air conditioned. Al obviously wanted to go, but Erik still commanded respect. Al looked to be half Erik's age.
"You go," said Erik. "I don't know how to work the phones, even though I've been here twenty-five years."
Al scurried off.
Erik nodded toward the tower. "Come on up," he said.
It is strange to confront my past suddenly, especially a past fat with happy memories. I worked for eight summers as a lifeguard in New Jersey, along with my brief Florida stint. At forty-three I still have dreams where I am back on the beach, dreams so vivid that I wake guiltily because I am sorry the dream is over.
For Erik, shuffling back up the walkway was just another trip. For me, it was nostalgia come to life. Imagine yourself thrust suddenly into the arms of an old lover, with nothing changed. You will have some idea how I felt.
We sat on plastic lawn chairs, cool wood beneath our bare feet. In my day the stand was a box with a bench just off the sand. This stand had sides with scalloped tiles and glass doors that opened to the water. It was far superior. Behind us A1A had experienced a face-lift, too. Where there had once been a string of raucous bars fronted by barfing collegians, there was now a squeaky-clean beach promenade with white serpentine walls and pretty flowers and no barf or collegians that I could see.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
No one can say, with absolute truth, what effect the ocean's shore has on the human soul. Too many souls are involved. But it has an effect, no doubt, and though I should be old enough to know better, I am certain it is a magical one. Others feel it. Our bodies, like our planet, are 71 percent salt water; our blood is precisely as salty as the sea. Take from that what you wish.
I have spent my own life at the ocean's edge. I was nearly born in the ocean, my mother, with the superb instincts of her sex, at the last minute reluctantly bypassing a beach outing for the hospital instead. My father instilled in me his own love of the ocean and taught me to bodysurf. I returned the favor by putting a good scare in him, working as an ocean lifeguard -- in New Jersey and Florida -- until I was nearly thirty. I fell in love with the woman of my dreams beside the ocean, asking for a first kiss on a moon-spackled jetty in Ocean City, New Jersey. Our two sons were born in a hospital that catches the Pacific Ocean breeze. We live two miles from the ocean now, farther than I'd like but as close as we can get, given the price of coastal real estate in California, or anywhere else for that matter. If a price tag can be affixed to magic, it has more zeros than reason can fathom. It doesn't matter. The ocean is free, and I still come to it several times a week, often just after dawn when no one is there, slipping into the cool Pacific to surf or kayak. For a few moments I slip away to a place beyond care or time. When the time comes, I want my two sons to scatter me across the water, beyond care and time forever.
The world, of course, is neither idyllic nor beyond care. At forty-three, I found my own outlook increasingly tainted. I woke, like the rest of the world, to days that couldn't be scrubbed clean. The world seemed to be sliding with exponential speed into a cesspool of trouble and inhumanity: terrorism, murder, corporate fraud, addict mothers, absent fathers, feral children with no ties and even less conscience. The woeful list is long and familiar to anyone who reads today's news.
I still believe most of the world isn't like this, only that the clamor and flash of mayhem and mistrust have drowned out the better behavior of the world at large. It is simplistic, but I believe it to be true. Harbors of upstanding conscience and intent still exist, vast anchorages actually, where people and communities are as good and right as people and communities can be, given our imperfections.
I wanted to see these places and meet these people, see the proof that the world still rested on a quiet foundation of hope and community. Led by my own bias, I went to the ocean's edge to look.
I went in winter, taking an off-season journey along the East Coast's beaches; over the course of five months, I drove hundreds of meandering miles from Key West, Florida, to Lubec, Maine. I chose winter for a reason. By traveling in the off-season, through hamlets like Ormond Beach, Florida, and Strathmere, New Jersey, I believed I would find people and their towns in their true form and best season, when life slows, and community and humanity reassert themselves. I hoped -- no, I fervently believed -- that I'd find a salty, small-town America, a place of substance with a unique stamp beyond the faceless suburbs and strip malls that are consuming this country, a place where people have time for themselves and their neighbors and possibly even a stranger. Tourists know these beach towns in summer. Often loud, garish, and overrun, these swirls of boardwalk, sand, and coconut-scented skin are spread beneath a happy dome of sunshine. It's a season of gentle, frothy waves, when hooting kids bounce to shore, when fumbling teens find first love in dark dunes, when sunburned families play Crazy Eights around the dining room table at night and old couples sit on porches, picking through their memories on the sea breeze.
It's magic, certainly. But when the summer crowds leave and the last Indian summer withers, the tone changes, and the magic begins its real reign. Those who live beside the Atlantic Ocean in its off-season -- the term, of course, is all wrong -- know this. It was their story I wanted. Shrimpers, crabbers, drunks, and university zoologists, newspaper editors, bartenders, painters, poets, and postal clerks, social misfits and social pillars, I wanted a glimpse of their lives -- funny, sad, selfless, petty, insular, enlightened -- warts and all.
In setting out on this adventure, I believed I would discover a common thread, a human bond, and quite possibly a reassuring lesson in these trying times. I am not so naïve as to believe we can all get along -- human beings are destined to clash. But for many the ocean is a link, and lives and people that at first glance seem impossibly distant -- what could you have in common with a Chesapeake Bay crabber? -- are really not so far apart after all. The ocean connects. Anyone who loves the water will recognize, in this journey and unspooling cast of characters, a piece of themselves.
Most Americans don't know winter's beaches. I now know this is both a blessing and a loss.
You won't discover anything until you go out and look. So in mid-October I left my home and family and drove to Florida in our Ford Windstar van. I had planned on starting earlier, but the actual leaving took longer than I expected. Preparing for a months-long road trip is no simple thing. For starters, there was the matter of winter clothing. Living in southern California, where cold-weather gear means a long-sleeved shirt and possibly a windbreaker, I owned none. Fortunately people in southern California ski, so I purchased several pairs of long johns and wool socks at a local sporting goods store. My in-laws, recent transplants to California from New Jersey, dug into their stock. My mother-in-law produced a down comforter to go with my sleeping bag. My father-in-law gave me his down jacket, unwittingly throwing in a plastic bag in the left pocket, a holdover from his last winter walk with his dog.
Another part of the preparation consisted of listening to plenty of advice. Almost everyone thought I should start in Maine and work my way south as fast as possible, so as to miss the worst of winter. No, I patiently explained, the worst of winter was a large part of the point. People who chose to live along the shores of February Maine must have a good reason for doing so. Right, mouthed my advisers, though their eyes regarded me sadly. One friend thought I was writing a travel guide to winter beaches, a sort of Lonely Planet triptik to beaches Jack London might enjoy. Old Orchard Beach is a well-kept secret in January. You'll be charmed at how nothing is open, the sand cracks underfoot, and the bitter wind drives sand between your teeth.
"Who is going to read a book about going to the beach in the winter?" he said testily, annoyed by my enthusiasm. "It's freezing cold, it's damp, and it's empty."
Precisely, I thought, and this trip will unveil these alluring enticements and others, glorious and unexpected.
I was traveling on a shoestring budget. A friend who had taken several long road trips advised me to sleep in my van to cut costs. Pull into a motel late at night, he said, and park in its lot. Chains work best. Private motel owners are apt to patrol their lots, but a sixteen-year-old making five dollars an hour at Motel 6 isn't likely to stray from watching Sex and the City. Peeing isn't problematic if you back up to a wooded area or a cement wall. Wake up early, he said, shower and shave at the nearest YMCA, and be on your sparkling way.
My friend showed me his pickup truck, the back cab rigged for the road. Mesh netting dangled neatly from the sides of his camper shell, storage for soft goods. Coolers held the perishables. Two padlocked strongboxes contained his valuables. The strongboxes weren't always effective. "The whole truck was stolen in Mexico," he said.
I went to a local business that specialized in outfitting campers. The owner was seated behind a desk littered with order forms. He was Japanese and emanated Zen calm. When I made my request, he folded his hands liquidly. "Certainly, we can put in a strongbox. What kind of truck do you want us to put it in?"
"It's a Windstar van."
His eyebrows arced, though only slightly. He said nothing.
"Have you ever put a strongbox in a van?" I asked.
"Noooo," he said slowly. "I don't believe we have. Most families keep their valuables in the house."
But he installed the box, or at least two of his employees did. It was white, about two feet deep and four feet long, and ran along one side of the van. I stuffed it with valuables -- notebooks, a laptop computer, the down jacket, and a folder with drawings from my two young sons -- and sent up a fervent prayer not to lose the thumbnail-sized key.
I realize it's odd to go out searching for trust toting a safe, but optimism and caution are not an odd couple. I believe in people, but even the most ardent social worker doesn't nuzzle Hannibal Lecter.
Crime was not something I hoped to find, though plenty of people thought it a distinct possibility. Several days before I left, my father-in-law presented me with a baseball bat.
"In case," he said.
I accepted the bat, in case I stumbled on a winter softball league. It was sawed in half, which would sorely hurt my average.
One piece of equipment I knew I wanted to bring was my kayak. Kayaks, as anyone who owns one knows, are great for poking around. From dry land you are limited in what you can see. Set out in a kayak, and an entirely different world unfolds before you. In a kayak I have come within arm's reach of porpoises, explored sea caves and empty islands, and once, in an unnerving but memorable surprise, watched a gray whale breach almost directly under me: all difficult circumstances to experience on dry land. Viewed from the water, even the land you just left looks different.
With hundreds of miles of coastline to explore, the kayak addressed a critical need. Plus at roughly eight feet, it fit perfectly in the last available space in the back of the van. I had removed all the seats, except the driver and front passenger seats, to make room for my supplies. All that happy space was now filled. By shuffling items about, and placing the kayak on top of the strongbox, I found I could make enough room to roll out my sleeping bag. If the kayak didn't slide off the strongbox and crush me, I could spend a comfortable, though coffinlike, night.
Once you're packed, it's time to go. I had been dreading this moment for weeks. My parting with my wife, Kathy, was thankfully short. She was late for work, and with one half of our income taking a flier on a book, it wouldn't pay for her to get fired. We hugged, and she began to cry. We separated awkwardly, and she told me to be safe, and when she pulled out of the driveway, she nearly backed over my foot.
I walked our two boys around the block to their school. We had talked about the trip for months. Cullen, at nine, grasped the scope of our separation.
"I love you, Dad," he said. "I'll take care of the fish."
Graham, like many seven-year-olds, doesn't peer very far into the future. He regarded me calmly.
"On Friday I'm going to Rachel's."
I walked home feeling lonelier than I ever thought possible.
I started up the van, backed out of the driveway, swallowed, and turned east.