The Nine Rings of Summer

Traversing the beach from hell

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In the first quarter of this my mortal life, I find myself on a shimmering beach, astray. It is not easy to tell what glorious beauty confronts me, what treachery lies at my very feet. I wander thither across the lands, taking in the wondrous sights, yet growing wary of the dangers. The beach is not as first it seemed. Nine rings of horror await me, a perilous price to pay for a seemingly fun-filled day. As I brave the torturous path, I see a sign: Meters strictly enforced, stay off the sea oats, swim at your own risk, and ... abandon all hope, ye who enter here.The First ring is naught but a nuisance. Mosquitoes buzz about my head and sand fleas leap and bite my legs. A lifetime Florida resident, I arrive at the beach prepared with citronella and Off!. But I should have learned by now. The feisty insects view bug sprays as no more than an unappetizing garnish hiding the annual feast of bare skin. As quarter-size welts rise on every square inch of exposed flesh, I realize that my suffering has just begun.

In the Inferno, those who dwell in the Second circle are carried along in an eternal tempest. In Tampa Bay, we've had a few narrow escapes from devastating hurricanes in the past few years, but we still cower from the destructive tornadoes and waterspouts that occasionally hit our coastline. And despite my long experience with our summer storms, I'm as big a Glutton for punishment as any of the sinners from the Third ring, who are trapped forever in a deluge of rain. Every sunny afternoon I head to the shore, and am inevitably driven away by the downpour and the violent lightning strikes.

That is, if I'm able to get there at all. To arrive before the rains, I must endure the very worst of the area traffic. The Fourth ring of summer includes bridges, interchanges, and geriatric snowbirds incapable of seeing over their own steering wheels. Its symbol is the giant, incomprehensible roundabout that has turned Clearwater Beach into a hazardous maze of cars, burning asphalt and honking horns. Why, God, why hast thou forsaken us here? After overcoming traffic jams, accidents and bad northern drivers, I'm brimming with road rage.

Which makes me easy pickings for the Fifth circle, reserved for the Wrathful. I am given a royal welcome to the beach, red carpet and all. Yet this new twist comes with piles of stinking seaweed, rotting fish and an overwhelming stench capable of driving even the most ardent beach-goer away. A red tide. Surely, there can be no worse affliction to cast upon an innocent sun-worshipper such as myself? But such heresy plunges me right into the Sixth circle, where my theology becomes my bane. The punishing summer sun beats down on my already overheated brain. No sun-hat, no umbrella, no refreshing frozen beverage can soothe this burning pain. And I know the water will provide no succor, for the lukewarm temperature of the shallow Gulf in summer is more suited to bath water than cool relief. Nevertheless, it's a better option than most. I head toward the water, and encounter my next ordeal.

Dante described the Seventh circle of his Inferno as the "Plain of Burning Sand." I discover how apt a torment it was for his sinners the moment I apply my own tootsies to the white-hot beach. After years in the area, I know the drill. My feet fly over the crystalline grains as if they were so many hot coals, as I sing the refrain of beach hoppers everywhere: "Ouch, ooh, hot hot hot hot, for the love of God, ow!" I catapult myself into the waves and prepare myself for a slightly different dance, one we Floridians know all too well: the stingray shuffle.

But it's not the predators of the sea that I most fear. Forget the rays — the real stingers on the beach are the rip-off artists who line the shores. Dante's Eighth circle is reserved for the Fraudulent, and the area beaches have those in abundance. From tourist traps to overpriced restaurants to ridiculously expensive beachfront property, seducers, swindlers and downright thieves are all around, waiting to pounce on the first gullible mark they see.

And the danger doesn't stop there. In the Inferno, the Ninth circle is encased in ice. After everything I've been through, cooling off doesn't sound half bad. Cold definitely doesn't seem a sign of hell to my heat-stroked, sunburned body. But I'm not prepared for the arctic freeze that greets me inside the air-conditioned shops, offices and dining establishments near the beach. Throwing heavy sweaters over tender, lobster-color skin is among the worst of agonies. I spend my meals shivering in summer-weight dresses, and tramp through malls, wishing there was something for sale on the racks that covered more surface area, to protect me from the frigid air that pipes out of the vents as an excruciating counterpoint to the heat wave outside. The air-conditioning is a sinister trick. It feels like relief, but who wants to spend their summer huddled under heavy clothing? Who the hell sets the thermostats in these places?

The beach is fraught with danger, but also with rewards. To experience that lovely sunset, that perfect strip of sand, the relaxing sound of the waves — I'd go through hell.

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