Monday, July 27, 2015

Tidal Wave City

A crashing wave, packing unusual force and energy. The water hits the beach and runs. Walls breached. Houses swamped and washed away. A senseless loss. Built too close to the sea. But it's expected. Tidal Wave City has run its course.

This is a beach game. An extravagant sand castle built just below the high-tide mark. Moats, roadways, out-buildings, walls. Walls, decorated with sea shells. Hours to complete the city. Until it gets washed away.

This game has been going on for centuries. Probably millenia. When prehistoric tribes came to the beach to fish, to collect salt. And played with the name Tidal Wave City? For at least for forty-five years. My brother Dana and I might have made up the name. Or possibly we got it from some older kids or even my father. Regardless, now I play it with my kids. And they will probably play it with their kids. At least if parent/child interactions don't change too much.

My father didn't play with me on the beach. Sometimes we would fish together, but we wouldn't play. I don't remember any other dads playing with their kids either on beach vacations. People have changed. Parents playing with their kids is no longer unusual. Especially digging in the sand. Either the adults are less mature or less inhibited. I'm guessing the latter. We are saddled with a much smaller sense of propriety today than our parents and grandparents were. Personally, I like digging in the sand, building Tidal Wave City. It's more fun than fishing, especially since there are no fish left in the ocean.

I'm at North Carolina's Outer Banks right now, Nags Head Beach. We are as far south as possible before it is no longer considered Nags Head. It's pretty quite here. This is where development turns into national seashore. Pennsylvania schools let out exceptionally early, the season hasn't even started yet. The shops are still hiring and many of the rentals are empty. We pretty much have the beach to ourselves.

The last time I visited was twenty-five years ago. Approaching this vacation, I was told time and again that I wouldn't recognize the Outer Banks, things have changed so much. This is true, I don't recognize anything. But the last time I was here it was truly a beach vacation. And a drinking vacation. Up at ten a..m., volleyball on the beach until three or four, beers until bedtime. We didn't get out much to explore the town.

I'm sure we went to some restaurants, but I don't remember which ones. I don't remember how the town looked. But at the time I was in marathon training. I needed to log a shortish “long-run.” Something less than ten miles. I don't remember having any trouble finding a quite place to run. My recollection of that outing is a sleepy beach-town. Half built neighborhoods and a wide sandy shoulder. It isn't like that now. Every inch is of these islands is developed, right down to the park. A bike path adjoining the road is pretty much the only running option now. This vacation, all of my runs have been on the quiet, almost empty beach.

One of the constants in Tidal Wave City is that a portion of the population pushes closer to the sea. They are the 'smart' ones. The outliers. The ones with the prime real estate. The best view. All human building is temporary, but some is more temporary than the rest. Although Tidal Wave City is a child's game of destruction – a game with a certain and inevitable outcome – it is also allegorical for humanity. It is human nature to want a home in the most beautiful spot. Or the most useful spot. But it is foolish to think that our ever evolving planet is not going to change. It is the responsibility of humanity to hedge its decisions with knowledge. Those outliers are always the first to go.

When I look at a map of the Outer Banks, I see a real-life Tidal Wave City. It's a thin strip of land, and it hasn't always been here. And undoubtedly, it will be gone again. The other day I was watching a documentary about the changing nature of the Currituck Sound – the body of water that lies between the northern Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland. In this documentary, they showed how inlets opened and closed over time in the peninsula. They showed where the last inlet closed up “for good.” This change was so recent, it is remembered. “For good” implies forever, and this is simply wishful thinking.

The next time an inlet opens on the Outer Banks, billions of dollars in property and infrastructure will wash away. It will be national news. People will blame the government for not taking the proper precautions. The Governor will appeal for disaster relief. And the insurance companies will get a financial bail-out. This will be an unforeseen act of God. Except we already know it's coming.

Tidal Wave City happens again and again. The rebuilding New Orleans; the houses littering the slopes of Mount St. Helens since it's last eruption; San Francisco; New York City. It is all temporary. These are places where nature will ultimately win. It may be next month or it may be next century, but calamity is as certain as the next high tide.

Humans are destined to repeat this mistake. We posses an innate ability for optimism, especially to get something we really want. Maybe we just secretly enjoy the destruction that comes at regular intervals from the choices we make. I know I enjoy watching the waves inch closer and closer to Tidal Wave City. And when that exceptional wave breaks and runs, I always feign disbelief. My kids and I shout out “Ugh!” As if we are all bummed out that our hard work has washed away. But really, this is the point of the game.

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