Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Going Back from Whence We Came
In the end it’s all about the beach.
My father used to say there was nothing like that first dip in the ocean after the long, hot, sweaty haul to get there, but this never made sense to me. It was just another odd thing grown-ups said. Now I’m that grown-up.
Our long, sweaty haul started on a Friday at 9 p.m. in Seattle and lasted through a red-eye to Chicago, a 6 a.m. flight to D.C., a morning car trip over the Bay Bridge and through eastern Maryland and into Delaware, with a few wrong turns along the way, until we crawled, in the mid-afternoon heat, along Highway 1, with all of the other Saturday arrivals, before making that final, impatient, left-hand turn onto Rehoboth Avenue and into the offices of Jack Lingo Real Estate to collect the keys, and into the Lingo’s grocery store to collect the weekend necessities, and over to Mom’s place to drop off her stuff, and over to our place to drop off our stuff, and then the two-block trip back to Mom’s place to drop off her car—but not before being confronted by a cop who asked why I’d parked a quarter into someone’s driveway (there’d been a neighborly complaint), and I explained that it was temporary, that we were staying in that small cottage at the back of the driveway there, and this was my first time in Rehoboth in 25 years, and, hey, how old are you anyway?, which got him to smile and admit, “Twenty-one” and merely issue me, 26 years his senior, a warning—and after all that it was 5:00 and the sun was lowering in the sky, but I didn’t care and changed into swimsuit and flip-flops and grabbed a towel and walked the half block to the boardwalk and over the hot sand and through the departing crowds and dropped everything by the driest part of the high-tide mark and stepped into the cool, salty water, feeling the spray and hearing sizzle of the waves, and in past my calves and thighs and, oof, groin, until I dove into a wave and rose on the other side, and thought, as the ocean washed away the day of travel, the month of troubles, the year of work, “Dad was right.”
Why does it feel so good? Because it’s the water we emerged from? Because we ourselves are salt and water? It feels heavier than most water, cooler than most water, and the waves provide their own challenge. The ocean doesn’t automatically accept us, like other, more placid bodies of water. It’s trying to expel us even as it tries to pull us in further. It has mixed feelings. I floated on my back, watched my toes emerge, and felt lucky.
My sister, Karen, set up the vacation. Her husband, Eric, is a Muschler, and every year three of the Muschler boys and their families vacation somewhere for a week, which allows parents to get together and all of the various cousins to create havoc together, and this year Rehoboth was chosen because it’s where our family vacationed in the 1970s, and where Karen worked during high school and college summers in the 1980s. The Muschlers rented a big house on Stockley Avenue (pronounced Delawarean: “Stow-klee”), two and a half blocks from the beach; then she asked if Patricia and I wanted to come along. Normally we vacation in fairly exotic spots—Little Corn Island, Nicaragua; Hanoi, Vietnam—but I was in the mood for a less exotic spot. I wanted a place with cotton candy.
We rented our own cottage, also on Stockley Avenue, but a half block from the beach. The online photos were vague, which had me worried, but we found it charming enough: living room, small kitchen, separate bedroom, bath. There was even a back deck where we locked up the bikes that we rented for the week. The back deck was also where the Muschlers stored most of our beach gear—chairs and umbrellas—so they wouldn’t have to keep carting them the extra two blocks every morning. Or afternoon.
The Muschlers tend to be late risers—or, with so many kids, late goers—so we were rarely at the beach early. Sometimes we arrived around 11:00, which didn’t make much sense in the “danger danger danger” UV-ray world of 2010; other times we avoided the morning altogether and showed up around 2:00 and made an afternoon of it.
My nephew, Jordy, 9, took to the waves like a champ. Whenever he was at the beach, he was in the water: diving into the waves, riding the waves, wondering why the waves weren’t bigger. His brother, Ryan, 7, took to the sand like a champ. He wanted to bury and be buried. Who doesn’t want to be at the beach? One day, my mother, 80, put on a swimsuit and dipped her toes, too.
My favorite day was our last full day. On Thursday, Rehoboth was drenched with two big rainstorms: one in the early afternoon that cleared the boardwalk; one in the late evening as we sat, protected, at Ed’s Chicken & Crab joint in Dewey, and watched people run in breathless and soaked from the downpour and the flash-flooding in the streets. As a result, there was a freshness to everything Friday morning as Patricia and I took our coffee and went for an early-morning, barefoot stroll by the ocean. The waves were bigger than usual, but overall it seemed like a normal morning.
We’d decided on a bike ride that morning. Several days earlier, on a misty Monday morning, we’d scoped out the area north of Rehoboth—Henlopen Acres, where the rich folks lived, and Gordon Pond Wildlife Area, where the frogs lived—so Friday morning we headed south, past Silver Lake, but quickly got caught between small neighborhoods and Highway 1, as Delaware, a narrow state already, narrowed to a thin peninsula, and didn’t allow us much space. Eventually we doubled back. The bike rental place, Bike to Go, had given us a brochure that included, along with the oddest of quotes (“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” — President John F. Kennedy), the seven best rides in the area. We’d kind of done #s 1 and 2 already, and #4 was what we’d just avoided, but #5, the Junction & Breakwater Trail, had been recommended not only at the rental place but by our neighbor, a friendly, newbie lawyer from New England. He said the trail paralleled Hwy 1 but went through quiet woods and marshlands and neighborhoods and wound up in Lewes, the town north of Rehoboth.
Patricia before the crash.
Patricia and I have different paces, though—I bike all the time, she seldom—and four miles along on the wide trail, in the middle of sparse woods, I realized I was too far ahead and stopped and waited. And waited. Finally I doubled back to find Patricia standing sheepishly by her bike. She gestured impotently. I assumed a flat but it wasn’t a flat. She’d been biking along, close to a fence, then experienced that odd sensation of being pulled into the very thing she was trying to avoid. Crash. She scraped her arm, bent her back tire, and now the back tire wouldn’t turn. The best I could do was release the back brakes so the tire would at least turn and she and I could hobble back to Rehoboth. Initially I was bummed—all that way without Lewes—but it turned out for the best.
After refueling at a co-op on Delaware Alt 1, and returning our bikes to the bike rental shop (had I spent the $5 on insurance last Sunday...? I had! Ka-ching!), we walked over to Dolles on the boardwalk to buy salt water taffy for the folks back home.
And that’s when I noticed the waves.
They were huge. How huge? In our absence the waves had come up almost to the boardwalk, and there were warm, stagnant pools of water on the beach proper, where adults pulled small kids around on boogie boards. It felt like an event. I immediately called Karen.
Half an hour later, Eric Muschler, Jordy, and I, were all trying to find a way to navigate into the water. Foam slopped everywhere. Few people were in the water but the pull to be in the water was as strong as any undertow. This was where it was happening and I wanted to be in it as it was happening. But how? I’d get out knee deep and a wave that had broken 10 feet in front of me still rumbled with enough force that, even bending beneath it, it would still push me a few feet closer to shore. Then I’d trudge back out again. In this way we danced. One time the wave broke late, right in front of me, and, even diving beneath it didn’t help. I was yanked off my feet and pushed and somersaulted to shore, where an awestruck, soaked Jordy stood watching.
“Poseidon is angry today,” he said.
I needed 10 more feet of courage. Eric had it, and went out beyond the breaking waves and sometimes rode them in, like bucking broncos. But the ocean out there seemed so deep and roiling and chaotic that I didn’t have that extra 10 feet of courage.
Instead, for an hour, I stood in the midway point, in the worst place you could possibly stand, and engaged in a shoving match with the ocean that the ocean always won. It was glorious.
Eric Muschler, Jordy and I and the “No Swimming” warning flag on our last day at the beach.