When my children were small, the beach was purely a summertime destination — a place to go only when the sky was blazing blue and the water warm as tea, with all of us slathered in lotion to keep from crisping in the four-alarm sun.
A child doesn’t want to visit the beach at any other time of year. It’s no fun to take up plastic shovels and pails when the day is cold, the wind slices your back and the sand is as lumpy as yesterday’s oatmeal.
But my daughter has her own life in college now, and my son, nearly 15, doesn’t really care what the weather’s like at the beach. He needs only a corner where he can go and think about how dumb his parents are.
And so, when our friend Lynn invited us to an October weekend in coastal Alabama, we quickly accepted. Lynn likes autumn at the beach best of all. There are few people around, so you have what there is to yourself. Tourists stay away because the Gulf Coast in fall can be a tricky thing, with days that are sullen and charcoal gray.
But how bad can a beach house be, even in the dead of winter? The decor is always tropically bright — vivid pinks, pastel blues, greens the color of Easter grass. No wonder that Jimmy Buffett is such a cheerful guy.
October also brings warm and sunny weekends to the coast, if one is lucky to arrive at just the right time, as we did.
Annie Dillard once wrote about almost not going on a mountain trip for fear that it would be so beautiful she’d fret about leaving. I thought about Dillard as we had coffee and biscuits on a balcony overlooking the pier last Saturday. The sky was like something painted by Michelangelo, the air an Aegean sublime of perfection. Pleasure boats rested in their slips as motionless as chess pieces. Across the water, sprawling beach mansions lined the shore in a panorama that would have put “The Great Gatsby” to shame. The morning seemed like a table set just for us. I silently counted how many hours were left until we had to go home.
But the point of the beach is to lose track of time, if only for a little while. With folding chairs under each arm and umbrellas slung across our chests, we flip-flopped over a four-lane highway to the shore, our progress brisk but uncertain, like a family of sandpipers dodging the surf.
I’m a coward about cold water, so I plodded into the Gulf as slowly as a shadow across a sundial, taking an hour to get my shoulders beneath the surface. How long I was there beyond that I can’t say. Tiny waves lapped me into daydream, carrying me into some place a clock couldn’t go.
Hunger finally lured me to shore for lunch, then an afternoon back on the balcony, dozing beneath a paperback that mostly went unread.
The beach in autumn isn’t the same as the beach in summer. Sometimes, it’s better.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.