I awoke far too soon. I hadn’t slept much, and I hadn’t slept particularly well, but my eager mind was done sleeping. I was here, in a new place, and it was time to see things.

I dressed, slipped into my flip-flops, grabbed my camera and headed out the hotel’s side door. The world was dark. A yellow light at the corner of the building illuminated the sign and a well-worn path through the grass toward the road. I followed that path and crossed the silent street.

The further I moved away from the hotel, the darker it became. I used my phone to light the ground in front of me as I picked my way through beach grasses and across what felt like a low mountain of stones. The early morning night enveloped me. Soon I stepped onto smooth sand. The ocean roared out ahead, invisible.

I put my phone away and gazed out into the nothing, waiting for my eyes to adjust. Stars appeared above me, and the sand around me grew vaguely visible, but the ocean lay black beyond me, knowable only through the charge of waves rolling onto the beach.

I was alone and the world felt wild.

For a time I stood, an alien encroaching on a dimension beyond waking life. Then practicality returned and I pulled my phone back out. It was 6 o’clock, and the weather app indicated sunrise wouldn’t come for nearly two hours. I slipped back through the blackness to the hotel.

I used the next half hour to plan and then shower: I’d get some sunrise photos, then head straight to town rather than going for a swim. At 6:30 when I went back to the beach, an orange-yellow gradient had already appeared beyond the now-visible, low-crested waves, offering muted backlight to a long smear of clouds.

Into this dim morning a handful of souls stirred. A woman moved down the beach from my left, picking up trash. A small boat jetted across the water the other way. I stepped into the churn of foam as it raced up and down the beach and marveled: it was so, so warm. And as I watched the light intensify over the water, an enormous fish suddenly flipped up out of the waves and crashed back into the sea.

The clouds blocked the sun at first, painted in cool pastels until finally starfire burned brilliant, searing an outline upon their crest. And then the sun burst through, and the ocean was bathed in gold.

As the sun broke the dark, so too did morning birds break the stillness. Birds with long legs and narrow beaks bustled across the sand and burst into flight over the waves. Gulls passed overhead in a smooth line. A tiny white bird with grey markings sped across the sand, stabbing its beak in to search for breakfast.

With the world alight, I saw that what had felt to my feet like mounds of stones were actually rolling dunes of seashells. At the top of the hill separating the beach from the road were flowering vines and shrubs with purple and orange blossoms, undetectable to me in the night. And next to the hotel, the dark shrub I’d passed to reach the road was filled with delicate white blooms.

I rinsed the sand from my feet at the outdoor shower and made my way inside for breakfast. The sun was up on my first day in St. Augustine.