MADEIRA BEACH, FLA. — EVERY vacationer experiences a delicious, private moment when he or she steps through a looking glass that separates the world of work from the world of play. For some, the transition can be as simple as putting away a briefcase or saying goodbye to colleagues. For others, it might be the act of packing a car or boarding a plane. For still others - inveterate beach walkers - it involves the long-awaited ritual of taking off shoes and feeling, once again, the tingling freedom of sand between toes.
To a landlocked, desk-bound Northerner, a Florida beach represents the ultimate escape - an irresistible combination of sea and sand and sky. Here, in this never-never land far from telephones, deadlines, memos, and meetings, a beach walker joins a community of strangers who share a common love for walking the mysterious, exotic border between land and sea.
Beach walkers can be divided into two groups: hares and tortoises. The hares walk with a sense of determination left over from their off-beach life. They stride purposefully, as if to catch an invisible bus pulling out at the next breakwater.
The tortoises stroll - even that word is too fast for what they do. They are slow-motion personified. Each grain of sand must be savored by each toe on the foot. They walk the way children lick an all-day sucker.
Most beach walkers alternate between the two extremes. The collectors of shells are tortoises who turn into hares when they spot a prize. On the other hand, when sprinting hares sight a sea gull or a pelican, they may freeze in their sandy tracks, enchanted by the grace of what they see.
While their sedentary companions arrive laden with lounge chairs, umbrellas, coolers, radios, and paperback best-sellers, beach walkers travel light. For them, the pleasure lies in shaking off the encumbrances of everyday life. The delight of beach-walking lies partly in what a vacationer walks away from. Who wants to hear Madonna when the sound of surf is available? Why keep up with the news-on-the-hour when a very important sandpiper is zigzagging by on the way to his own kind of urgent business?
A beach walker also discovers evidence of the delicate relationship between man and nature. This time of year, on this beach, triangular patches of sand have been staked off with warning signs reading: ``Sea Turtle Nest. No person may take, harass, harm, pursue, hurt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or attempt to engage in any such conduct to marine turtles, turtle nests, and/or eggs.'' Violators will be subject to imprisonment and fines up to $20,000.
Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Bob Martinez imposed a dress code on state beaches by banning thong bikinis. Residents rose to the defense of ``the modern bikini,'' dashing off letters to the editor complaining about the silliness of ``this beach attire issue.''
They have a point. To an occasional beach walker, in fact, the most urgent waterfront problem, here as elsewhere, appears to be not under-dressing but overbuilding. Fifteen years ago, this particular stretch of white sand was largely unspoiled. Only a Holiday Inn, a scattering of pastel cinder-block motels, and a string of modest cottages interrupted the view.
Today high-rise condominiums form a white stucco barricade, their massive fa,cades casting long shadows on the beach in the morning and across Gulf Boulevard in the afternoon. Signs reading ``Private'' and ``No Trespassing'' have proliferated.
In this sense, the walker on the beach is staking out his own territory. The beaches that are not being occupied by exploiters are being eroded by the ocean. The preciousness of common sand becomes apparent as never before.
In the evening, just as the moon rises, the last walkers on the beach feel especially the charm and vulnerability of their border state. The sand castle is a beach's fragile metaphor. Yet when the beach walker puts on shoes and returns to the so-called real world, the world of the beach will seem for a while the more powerful reality, leaving an imprint on the memory that will not disappear with the next high tide, like the tracks of a walker in the sand.