Friday, August 28, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Tybee Island, GA

Fresh from a week of seminars and posters, colleagues and friends, shrimp on river boats and shrimp in local restaurants, my visit to Savannah last year ended with a short excursion to the Atlantic Coast. In all ways you can imagine, I needed some fresh air. I like talking about meteorology as much as the next of a seemingly infinite number of guys and gals, but there is life outside of work. There is a whole world outside the windows of a confining hotel with mysterious thermostat problems.

My friend Somer, her massive pickup truck (which could be easily confused with a tank), and I decided to ride (plow, run over) US 80 to Tybee Island. On the way, we saw beautiful trees, marshes, and tall grasses signaling the transition from land habitat to sea habitat. Those on the East Coast recognize the transition easily. Thousands of trees dot the landscape, with puddles or swamps of water lying underneath. Suddenly, the trees begin to be replaced with open prairies of what I call "sea grass". The tall browns of grass that look like you could drown yourself in, which (I imagine) is actually possible from time to time. Soon, coves of water appear, transitioning from freshwater to brackish under the camouflage of a deep blue reflection. Marshes, estuaries, and deltas line the landscape, with winding gravel and concrete disappearing into the horizon.

I love these drives. I love the moment of realization, in which you realize that there are no structures behind the ones you see. There is no land. You cannot see the ocean yet, but its presence is already overwhelming. And the smell of the air, itself brackish and raw. The air is cooler, and the sea gulls above fly in dart-like zeal, playing around in the endless sights of clashing blues and browns.

I love the looks of ocean towns. Almost all are run-down, worn by the raw air, the constant fight between continental and marine. The ground is dirty, the roads are rotting, and rust coats the corners of every structure in sight. A light coat of sand can be seen in pockets on sidewalks and rooftops, and people disappear as they walk into a flock of birds competing for the same oceanside pleasures.

Tybee Island is a beautiful place, blessed the day of our visit by a scarcely visited beach. The sky was clear, and the ocean reflected the sunlight in ways I didn't think possible. A pier overlooked the ocean in a pathetically ineffective manner, with the shining waves passing harmlessly underneath. Ah, the sound of the ocean. For me, white noise. Nothing, nothing I can think of, is more pleasing to the ears than the sound of water meeting its end in the sand.

Somer and I walked the beach, sometimes separate, sometimes together, always in silence. Words were not necessary, as nature was doing the talking. I may be described by some as a quiet person with occasional bouts of outspokenness. At the ocean, I am a mute. A delighted one, because talking would only ruin the mood and the scene.

Tybee Island also boasts a beautiful lighthouse. I am a fan of lighthouses, and will someday take a "lighthouse vacation" along each of America's two ocean coasts. In general, I am not a fan of man-made structures, but I have two very big exceptions: bridges and lighthouses. One of my favorite locations in America is the Mackinac Bridge in northern Lower Michigan, basically because it boasts one of the best bridges in the country as well as an absolutely gorgeous lighthouse. In a future post, I will talk about this splendid location.

The lighthouse on Tybee Island is black and white, tall and proud. Its phenomenal contrast with the deep blue sky that day is something I will not forget. I think I like lighthouses because they are so small but so hopeful in their rotating glimmers of hope, and to many, of home. I think they are an artistic way of expressing our rather small presence in a gargantuan world. The lighthouse is a more beautiful pier, still a pathetic attempt at overseeing something much larger than itself. No matter the contender, the ocean is always victorious.

Brackish water near the Atlantic Ocean on US 80 in southeast Georgia.
Tybee Island.
Ah, the Atlantic.
Somer pondering life, or something.
The lonely pier.
Tybee Island's beach.
Look at the beautiful reflection. Superb.
Somer ponders some more.
Tybee Island Lighthouse.