All I want is solitude.
It gets like this every year about this time: it’s warm again–finally! And I get this primitive urge to go to the beach. Problem is, my beaches are clogged with cranberry-colored tourists, searching unsuccessfully for the perfect balance between “a little color” and “melanoma.”
Too far for tourists to drag a cooler and too remote for young families, the north beach beckons those of us willing to trade a beach hike for the sound of nothing but waves and birds.
I discovered this strand of hay-colored sand when I turned 16 and could take my mom and dad’s grey Plymouth Reliant out for a spin. I would slip into the only legal parking spot by Carlouel, steal over a narrow sandspur path, and find solitude on the north end of Clearwater Beach.
Today bleached limetone boulders block my old spot, so I slide into the metered spots outside 880 Mandalay and make my way over one of the two official beach accesses. Those “official” signs letting people know about the accesses make the first ¼ mile more populated than I remember, but the further north I walk, the people fall away until it's just me and this stretch of beach that looks as I imagine it did to the Timucuans and the Spanish explorers.
To my left, orange-beaked oystercatchers, mottled brown sandpipers, diminutive plovers, and leggy Willits ferret out coquina snacks and graze on hapless baitfish. To my right, sea oats perch on the edge of oatmeal sand dunes. Beyond the dunes, patches of cactus, palms and mangroves hold in the sand, protecting bird nests and colonies of crabs from the ravages of the waves.
This silent world speaks with the lap of the blue-green waves and the voice of the wind over the dunes. The occasional cicada clicks to life while the Willits stop picking at their afternoon snacks to scold each other. This end of the beach offers no city-sponsored sunset celebration with artists and artisans. Instead, I lose myself in Clearwater’s other artists. The swirl of a broken whelk, the lemon yellow cactus blossom and the brown and white reticulated brown and white sandpiper feathers are dancing brushstrokes on a canvas painted in sand and salt.
Within a half hour I reach Caladesi Island, which used to be an actual island until the universe redesigned the landscape with wind and sand. I see a tree that looks like it’s covered in cotton. I move closer and discover it’s adorned not with fluffs of cotton but splintered shells. Willits snuggle into sand beds, watching cautiously as I stroll by. The sun, summer hot, pulses on my neck as I slip into water I discover is still too cold for swimming. I move to a bench, placed at the edge of the park, to let the solitude surround me.
As I sit on the rough boards of the bench, I see its inscription: “Heaven on Earth.”
As I sit alone and watch the golden sun as it moves down to meet the cool blue water, I couldn’t agree more.