The U.S. Travel Association reports that, of the nation's $1.8 trillion travel business, American people hit the road to reach water more than any other reason except to visit relatives or sightsee. In Southern California alone, there are 100 million visits to the beach each year.
The lure of water is why Americans are willing to wait in traffic, sometimes for hours, on stifling summer Fridays to reach the shore or the family lake house. Boating industry figures show Americans own 17 million boats, and 83 million of us went out in a boat last year.
But while the water itself is the primary attraction, there is more to it than that. There is the culture of the water, too.
It's walking by the dunes at the Cape Cod National Seashore, riding roller coasters on the Jersey Shore or taking a spin on the Skywheel in Myrtle Beach. It's salt-water taffy and overpriced French fries. It's the smell of suntan lotion and teenagers wearing T-shirts with suggestive pictures and sayings that will get them kicked out of any high school in America once September rolls back around.
In the mountains of North Carolina, visitors are lured to the state's hundreds of waterfalls, walking deep into the woods simply to see water falling over weathered rocks. We try to bring water home with radios that play the sound of rushing waves as we fall asleep and are transported to days at the shore simply hearing the Beach Boys sing "Surfin' USA" driving down an interstate in the middle of Tennessee.
The story of America is one of European settlers making their livings as fishermen and traders on the coast and entering the wilderness using rivers for roads and the water that supported life. The revolution that built our nation into an economic superpower took root at the river fall lines, where waterfalls comprised the fledging nation's first power grid.
With modern technology, it's not necessary to live close to water anymore. But most of us do. The Census Bureau tells us that more than half of the American population is clustered within 50 miles of the coasts. And many of the rest of us live near where people originally settled along a river, lake or bay.
The poet doesn't study such feelings, she just tries to get them down on paper.
"The sight of the ocean always brings me home," South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth wrote in her collection, appropriately entitled "What the Water Gives Me."
"My childhood was one long day with the sea," she writes. "I even believed that the souls of the dead swam beneath the water until it touched an edge of the sky and became heaven."
Eloquent words, infused with a darker meaning in the past week for a coastline of Americans still trying to figure out precisely what the water they love has taken from them, and whether things will ever be the same.