“He did not know why, but he had suddenly an irresistible longing for the sea.” –W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
A twin dislike for heat and crowds are legitimate explanations for the attraction of the off-season, and probably the reason I have never tried to go to Bonnaroo, but there is more behind what has become a Fall beach obsession than that. Driving to the beach at this time of year may seem anachronistic to many, including myself the first couple of times we did it. It felt unnatural for a Fall-lover to be leaving home at a time when the season was in its full glory. It is like leaving one world to go to another, a world in which the Halloween and harvest decorations we see serve as emissaries of the world we leave behind. So Fall is still the setting, in a sense.
But why the beach? Why not the mountains, or any number of cities? A compelling argument is that I am drawn by the beauty of beaches. A sunset over the water rivals any breathtaking phenomena that may occur in nature. Sitting at the water’s edge at dusk, with eyes drifting up and down between the red setting sun and the steady waves washing onto the darkened sand, is a moment relished each time I am fortunate enough to be there while it is happening. It is a moment that insists on reflection—reflection on art, self, God, and the universe. It is a moment that tends to clear the mind and make you feel at once intensely alive yet fading into oblivion, like the sea will eventually claim your spirit if you sit there long enough, and it will be a transcendent thing, not a fearful thing. But if it was beauty alone that draws me to the beach, it could be argued that beauty alone draws me to the mountains, or to the desert, or to any number of naturally beautiful places in our world. It is not that beauty is not part of the picture, it is just not the whole picture.
In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy refers to the sense of a place as its “genie-soul”. It is something “which every place has or else is not a place” (Percy 202). He goes on to say it is something to be mastered or else it will master you. The genie-soul that is found on the Gulf Coast in late Fall is a sort of deserted loneliness, and it will control you if you let it. I have felt this most acutely at sunset, which is simultaneously luxurious and lonesome at the end of October. The sadness that can overtake you is real. The days are getting shorter; people are becoming scarce. A sort of communal empty nest syndrome hangs in the salty air. The feeling of being at the edge of the world is at its strongest during sunset on an empty beach.
There is something beyond this sadness, however. There is a reward for acknowledging it, getting past it, and embracing the melancholy. There is a sense of longing that a lonely beach seems to nurture, and this is somehow attractive to the more pensive among us. In spite of my wordiness, I find it difficult to put this feeling into words. I only know that it exists, perhaps as some psychologically necessary quality of the human soul–an essential counterweight to the joy we feel at other times, providing balance. The sweet spot for the off-season beach visit seems to be late October, when it is still comfortable enough to sit in a beach chair for hours yet a little chilly by the traditional summer-loving beachgoer’s standards. Crowds will never be an issue at this time of year, for regardless how compelling mine or anyone else’s arguments for the off-season may be, they cannot compete with popular opinion. For this, the few of us who have fallen under the spell of the off-season should be grateful.
Maugham, W. Somerset. Of Human Bondage. New York: Penguin Books, 1963. Print.
Percy, Walker. The Moviegoer. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.