Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 30, 2005 At the Beach.

Since I started traveling, Iíve tried to avoid winter. True, I got caught in the cold in San Antonio, but I didnít know that would happen. But after my uncleís birthday, I found myself caught in the teeth of winter, with two weeks to fill before I was heading to New York to work on the Gates. It wasnít a comfortable feeling. It was too cold to camp, and I didnít know where to put myself. I found myself thinking about my friends from the perspective of where I could get temporary lodging, not whom I wanted to see.

For two days I decided to splurge, to go to the beach and simply stay at a hotel. I booked a room at one of the few places in Cape May that was open for the winter. It turned out to be a small place, a house converted into half a dozen rooms, owned by a large old hotel across the street. My room was on the top floor under the eaves, with a view past the parking lots and the street to the beach and the ocean. It was sunny and cozy, and I liked it very much.

It began to snow as I drove to Cape May, though it wasnít very cold out. By the time I was settled in, the town was covered and it was coming down fast. The streets were empty, most stores and restaurants closed for the season. I walked about in the dark, pushing great mounds of snow off cars, watching flakes fall in the street lights, splashing through sloppy piles of snow and water. On the beach my footsteps were the only marks in miles of pristine whiteness. As I moved nearer the water I was absorbed in the darkness and the roar of the waves, the streets a distant yellow glow, the sound of the occasional car lost in the night.

In the morning the sky was still gray, but the snow had stopped falling. I walked on the beach, where my footprints from the night before had hardened in the crunchy snow. It was quiet, empty, the long sweep of the white snow-covered beach, the gray sky, the darker gray ocean. After a few miles I reached the end of the houses along the oceanfront, and turned back. I saw a few other people. We nodded as we passed, not disturbing each otherís solitude.

By afternoon the temperature had risen, and the snow was melting fast, the city turning from whiteness to spring-like puddles and breezes that were almost warm. The sun came out, and I sat in a sheltered armchair on the deck of the hotel across the street reading for hours, moving my chair to stay in the sun as it slid across the deck. I had to do nothing, there was nothing to do in Cape May, everything was calm and peaceful.

The next day the sun was blinding when I went out on the still-snowy beach. I walked the other direction, past the end of the oceanfront walk, past an area of new construction, past a lighthouse, to the next town, where staircases climbed up the dunes and into the quiet streets. On the beach there were patches of sand, patches of snow, big puddles, and lovely patches of thin ice splintering in fine cracks forming elaborate patterns in the sunlight. Seagulls huddled on the beach where the waves had washed the snow away. Footsteps crisscrossed the remaining snow, as people were enticed out by the sun. On my return I watched a group of black wetsuited surfers, playing in the waves in the sunlight and the cold.

I thought of extending my stay by a day, but I didnít. The calm would stay with me better if I left while I was enjoying it, I decided, and I packed up to head north.

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