The heat wave had finally broken when I woke up on the second to last Sunday in July. It was an unoppressive 80 or so degrees, but given the temperatures over the past week, it felt like 70. Being in Boston — particularly commuting to work on the T — during that time had been akin to working in a foundry. One would think a heat wave is the most appropriate time to go to the beach, but I’m not one for crowds, and all I could really think of doing was sitting in air conditioning. Spending more time in the sun was of little interest to me.
There were plenty of invitations, even obligations: trips to the Cape, one or another craft beer festival, free outdoor concerts. Yet planning things in the summer, with its volatile and in my mind, gross weather — not to mention the societal pressure to have fun — is never pleasant for me.
Yet Sunday was different. I could see that slight change of pigment in the sky — just a little bit deeper blue, just a bit less faded than when it’s extremely hot. I asked if Brennan, my boyfriend, wanted to go to the beach. I felt like it. So did he. I texted a friend, Emilee, to join and packed a beach bag. She was free, as was her co-worker Margot, so after grabbing some less than beach-friendly snacks (olives being among them), the four of us hit the road around 10:30.
The drive up to Crane Beach, in Ipswich, from Boston is lovely. Even the Route 1 portion of the trip is enjoyable for its oddball strip malls and themed restaurants. I prefer the trip and the locale to the Cape. It’s generally less crowded and to be honest, much more scenic.
After an hour, we were at Crane. You can’t see the beach from the gigantic parking lot — just four wooden staircases scaling the 30-foot-tall dunes and disappearing. When I first went there, maybe five years before, I remember matching the image up with some sort of Platonic ideal of a New England beach that I’d formed in my mind. It was something completely divergent from the flat strips of beaches on the Jersey shore, where I grew up. That ideal only grew stronger as I crossed over the dune bridge.
Crane Beach extends far beyond where most people ever go, arcing up toward Little Neck and down (where we go) toward Essex Bay. It’s incredibly expansive, and with just a short walk, you’ve got the beach to yourself. We didn’t go quite into that territory, but walked maybe 10 minutes, settling just past the “Swim at Your Own Risk” sign delineating the protected — and crowded — area and the Trustees of Reservations-owned land beyond, where there were acres of untouched beach and piping plovers nesting.
The sand at Crane is gorgeous — white, but coarse and unrefined. It feels more like walking on lake sand than anything else. It doesn’t make the squeaking sound I’m used to when you walk on it. The beach’s true masterpiece is its sandbars and the way the tide goes out, usually through mid- to late-afternoon when I’ve been there. Twenty feet of beach extended to hundreds, as the trenches between sandbar after sandbar were drained, leaving rippled sand and tiny tide pools to be taken over by children.
Once we’d settled, we went into the water — which was surprisingly not cold compared to my last ocean swimming experience just a few weeks earlier at home in New Jersey — and then relaxed, snacked and chatted as the water slowly crept away from us.
Brennan and I went for a walk, which we always do at Crane, down to the completely unpopulated area of the beach. There’s a point formed by Essex Bay and the inlet past Plum Island there, that pulls the sand outward and allows you to walk out hundreds of yards into the water without getting your waist wet. I swear one of the passing boats was just 100 feet from us. We stood as far out as we dared for as long as we felt like and then, holding hands, walked back.
After rejoining Emilee and Margot and drying off, we went back into the water. Despite the air temperature and the breeze, the sun was still midsummer strong. I found a clamshell — not particularly remarkable — and decided to try to skip it. I’d never skipped a shell, so I thought I might as well. It worked and somehow, after finding more and more shells (and the water gradually warming up as the tide continued widening the beach) we ended up in some bastardized version of catch, with the four of us standing, skipping shells at each other. Who knows why, but it was sure as hell fun.
Around 4:30 p.m., we gathered up our beach bag and headed back. The late afternoon sun simmered over Crane Estate, a breathtaking Gatsby-looking mansion with a long, manicured lawn running down to the beach just to the north of the swimming area. It is now also owned by the Trustees.
We clambered into the car and set off, rumbling over the odd combination of unpaved sand and concrete in the parking lot, past the entrance to the mansion and onto Argilla Road. Just a mile or so down, we stopped at Russell Farms, a small but surely touristy operation selling everything from refrigerator magnets to strawberry wine. We bought a pre-picked blue carton of raspberries as a snack for the drive, and some fruit wines to try, before heading back toward civilization.
I don’t like to plan things in the summer. Whenever I do, it always seems like something goes wrong. Maybe it’s my mother in me, but I feel an obligation to have fun, to smile, to enjoy myself and relax, when I’ve planned something. By waking up in the morning and heading to Crane Beach on a whim, I was freed from that burden to just spend a carefree day lounging, walking and taking it all in.