South Beach in Edgartown – a playground of dunes, waves, and crowds – is the beachiest beach on Martha’s Vineyard. The quintessence of Beach.
State Beach is family-friendly and easy-access. Menemsha Beach has picturesque quaintness and sunsets with lobster. You can sneak out to Owen Park beach at lunchtime if you work in downtown Vineyard Haven. Polar bears and aspiring yogis gather at the Inkwell in Oak Bluffs. Head up-Island and you can bathe nude or surf or indulge in key-protected seclusion. Every striper-hunting surfcaster has his own favored secret stretch of sand.
South Beach is a generalist in the best tradition, and though other beaches are unique, this one excels precisely because it is like every other great beach: a big, sandy, wavy, fun place. If a beach can be hard-core, South Beach is.
South Beach is where you go to watch hurricanes arrive, to fish at night, to take a sandblasted walk on an off-season day, to feel the refreshing enormity of nature as you step clumsily over the rise of the dunes and absorb the mostly unbroken expanse of water and waves. All of that is great, of course, but South Beach is fundamentally a party on a hot summer day.
And when you get that hot summer day, head south from Edgartown’s cluster of big-ticket preciousness, preferably in a car with no roof – or better yet, a bicycle. Immediately out of town you come to a split in the road and you’re faced with a choice: left fork or right fork? If you’re in an old Jeep, wearing a cowboy hat, a bikini, or mirrored sunglasses, chances are you’re going right. If you’re in a minivan or SUV, are preoccupied with sunscreen, and have PB&Js in your cooler, maybe head left. Generally speaking, the right fork is more for the party set and the left for families, but the division is not strict, and all are welcome everywhere.
The dunes at South Beach are like an air lock between the beach and everything that is not the beach. Trudging that quicksand path through the waving grass, you move from life to the beach, where the military trained during World War II. And like soldiers, your group has brought only what it can carry, the bare necessities of the mission at hand. Orders are shouted, strategies devised and revised, a literal beachhead established along the sprawling camp. Way off to the left, at Norton Point, the over-sand vehicles gather like an armored column.
And then: beach.
Beach, the verb: beach v. to exist in a higher state of being on a sandy shore, looking and feeling your absolute best.
You were not born to wear hard-soled shoes or to give PowerPoint presentations. You do that so you can do this. This is the person you want to be.
Then you look at the lifeguards. Maybe you want to be them. Forget for a moment that they get paid squat and sleep on twin beds in their childhood bedrooms or in someone’s garden shed. Gazing coolly from behind sunglasses that are part of their faded red uniforms, running between stations for exercise, they are part of an elite unit. They guard lives while you read paperbacks and listen to interchangeable pop tunes on your iPhone.
Then again, they don’t get to wash the salt out of their mouths with cold beer. In fact, alcohol is prohibited on South Beach, a regulation enforced precisely as much as it should be.
A Cessna roars over the dunes, like something out of The English Patient or a D-Day film, close enough to momentarily halt a volleyball game. Later, a red biplane will do some barrel rolls and hammerheads off the coast for thrill-seeking customers. Just imagining the ride, our palms get sweaty. We’re good right here, reaching into the cooler again. Offshore, a seal peeks its head up, and then continues east. No menacing fin follows.
Into the waves. Facing the open Atlantic, South Beach offers fine breakers for frolicking, body surfing, or getting worked. Parents frown at the surf, straining to hold the kids back like a pack of Malamutes in Anchorage, trying to decide if it’s safe, if they’re old enough. Dad decides to let nature take its course; lessons must be learned, probably many times. Getting worked by the waves is, in fact, critical to understanding the power of nature, how one can be relentlessly abused by the uncaring water, even on a day as blessed as this. Upside down, under water, scraping the pebbly bottom, left breathless and wide-eyed on the bubbling sand. The tears, if any, are short-lived.
On the walk up the beach, sand castles sit just out of reach of the surf. Some are constructed traditionally with a bucket, crenellated and bristling with defenses. Others are cathedrals of the drip method that would have been favored by Antoni Gaudi. All with moats, but eventually helpless against the hungry waves.
There’s a guy with a skim board, and unlike the clumsy tweens who seem to favor these devices, he knows how to use it. He paces the waterline, and finding an empty patch, runs, tosses the small board onto the thin wash of a receding wave, jumps aboard, and rides into the shore break before sinking waist-deep and trudging out. He moves on, eyes always to the water.
Sitting near a group of sleek young people, you hear snippets of conversation, fascinating yet shockingly inarticulate and banal. The anthropologist in you strains to understand the dialect of their tribe. They move as a group down into the water, and you wonder if, when you roamed the sands with a band of your friends back before the flood, you looked and sounded as good and as awful as they. (You did.)
The sun moves from left to right.
Now the lifeguards have left their posts, and the children have swarmed the towers like ants, shouting and jumping. The day is fading, and the sunsetters have arrived to survey the field. Generally older and often sweatered, they watch the horizon in near silence, as those who’ve been here for hours troop back to their cars. The crowds will shower and don their dress blues and pinks and greens, go out and battle their sun-baked fatigue in restaurants and bars and at parties, but they’ve left their best at South Beach.
This day in Edgartown is repeated around the globe: Ipanema, Waikiki, Cancun, Bondi, Negril, Goa, Brighton (New York, England, and Australia), and that other South Beach. But it is never done better.
We few who remain watch in gratitude, sunset to right, moonrise to left.