In years past I have been able to get away every spring. I had determined from experience that two weeks away would help me to withstand the two hectic months of summer on the Chappy Ferry. I preferred going to the southwest. Wide open spaces and stunning geology helped to reset my frame of mind. Revisiting places that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid made me feel younger. Being treated politely as a tourist reminded me that I could do the same back home.

But then came the Covid years and I didn’t go anywhere. So this spring I was eager to get back to the other side of the continent. But the thought of cramming into an airplane with several hundred other humans is still not at all appealing. The reported scarcity of rental cars and the expense of it all kept me from committing to a trip. Then it dawned on me: we could just get in our own car and drive down this coast.

First we visited sisters who had been in seclusion for so long. Then we drove the length of the Garden State, voyaged across the mouth of Delaware Bay from Cape May to Cape Henlopen and stayed in a hotel on the Maryland shore overlooking the surf. We spent an afternoon on Assateague and Chincoteague islands, marveling at the wonder of feral ponies roaming the dunes and park roads.

I have also been marveling at how much of the land along the east coast of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia lies so close to sea level. A great deal of human habitation and commercial endeavor exists on a string of narrow and low barrier beaches. Whole cities exist where once were only dunes and marshes. Being washed over by storm tides and waves was a natural part of the existence of the barrier beach.

Not so with the now fully-civilized shoreline. There are road signs indicating evacuation routes in case of storm tide flooding. Even in the off-season, it is pretty obvious that the few bridges between the islands and the mainland can not accommodate an onslaught of fleeing citizens. Yet new construction is everywhere. Even without sea level rise, spending money here seems foolish and shortsighted. But human nature is very adept at ignoring the obvious.

Running down the center of Assateague Island is the remains of a 15-mile long, two-lane, macadam road. It was built by developers in 1962 to provide access to 9,000 proposed house lots. A not-so-powerful storm in 1964 made short work of removing most of the roadway and cast grave doubt on the wisdom of plunking down 9,000 homes in a place so exposed to the forces of nature. Now that land is a national park providing a home only for herds of wild horses.

Nearly 60 years later, the lesson of the 1964 storm is apparently forgotten on these shores. It’s as if the people here are depending on the concept of safety-in-numbers to rationalize continued occupation and even growth in a place that is not at all safe for humans during overwhelming weather events. On a beautiful sunny day it’s hard to imagine the wind blowing 120 miles per hour and sea water inundating the land to a depth of half a dozen feet. Perhaps we should be doing a lot more imagining of that as further development on Chappaquiddick island is contemplated.