You may not notice it right away. As you visit Dallas or Idaho or Corona, something slowly tightens in your stomach, or your throat thickens like a small spring allergy. Some describe it as claustrophobia; others say it's like a mild panic attack.

You have been away from Laguna Beach for too long. You are missing the water, the peaceful sea, the horizon that is eternity.

There is an undeniable "thing" that happens in people who live at the coast. Almost like an infection, we cannot be away from the water for extended periods. It is inconceivable to be landlocked.

Many myths surround this attraction to the sea. There are theories about tidal forces and inherent "humors" that go back to the ancient Greeks.

Regardless of what you might believe, the fact remains that people feel something. How many times have you driven over the last knoll of Crown Valley Parkway and seen the great expanse and smiled, "Ah, I'm home."

For me, it's every time. It is a palpable relief.

It's the salt in the air, the heaviness, the centeredness of being at sea level. It's the immutable horizon, slightly curved yet razor-like, able to elicit the most amazing daydreams.

You sit and stare and walk and stare some more.

I'm not alone.

Veteran Laguna waterman, author, war correspondent, Surfing Magazine editor, long-time lifeguard and all-around philosopher Craig Lockwood, 73, told it to me this way: "We are drawn to the sound of the surf and the sand between our toes. There's a romance involved here. All of these elements contribute in ways that Shakespeare said are 'beyond our philosophies.'"

Lockwood acknowledges the almost biological reaction, calling it an "intimate connection to the ocean and its rhythms."

"It's the kind of Zen that you do," he said. "You resonate to it. If it's a placebo, then so what, it works. The truth of it is that there is a functional relationship and if we perceive it as therapeutic, it's therapeutic. Simple as that."

"There's a quality of …." Lockwood paused to try and use the right word. "Introspection is part of it. But it's also expansiveness. It isn't funneled through your ego or personality. You open up to the experience of this boundless, empty blue field in front of you. And finally a finite line where it meets the sky. It's contemplative, that's for sure, and it's evocative also. There's a lot to it."

The finite line is perhaps my most cathartic feature. It's been that way since I was a boy. I remember sitting on the sand at Crescent Bay as often as possible, staring out to China, wondering if another kid my age was staring back.

I eventually took Chinese in high school for three years. I now joke with friends that I like to daydream in Chinese.

Nick Cocores, owner of Thalia Surf Shop, agrees that the ocean is the place to leave your worries.

"It's quiet and peaceful," he said. "You can get your mind off other things. It's Mother Ocean; it's a special place. It's so powerful and massive and big. There's a lot of respect for it.

"It brings happiness. I wouldn't want to live away from the water and be landlocked."

Indeed, the feeling of being landlocked becomes a fear. It's doubtful that the same ocean dynamics — the scale, variety, sounds and smells — can be replicated by an Iowa cornfield or Colorado mountain range or a Great Puddle — I mean lake.

"It's not the same," Lockwood said. "The ocean is much more transient, and it changes constantly. You're feeling the wind in your face from one direction one moment, then the wind shifts and then the water itself takes on a different color and hue."

Forever changing yet constantly level, rough but soothing, angry and stoic, happy, unforgiving, volatile, measured, epic, sublime — the ocean is all things human, which is why I continue to stare and ponder, hoping to learn another lesson.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.