Thursday, September 13, 2018

Going to Carolina

Someplace warm: that was the goal.

A minivan on a mission, filled with four kids on their April break and two delirious parents.

It was the most spontaneous thing we’d done since we had kids. And, possibly ever. Certainly, the most unplanned trip since weekends in grad school, when we’d depart for Canada on a whim. Or that time we went to Sackets Harbor in December, almost two decades ago, because my parents had a gift certificate for a hotel that was going to expire. That story was actually a ruse – one that ended in a proposal.

This time, there was no plan, by either of us. We just headed south. With no place to stay. Not even a certain destination. Other than "someplace warm."

That’s what my wife kept mumbling after a Winter that wouldn’t relent, even as the Spring months ostensibly took charge of the calendar. She wanted to be warm. So, on we drove. Southward.

We left midweek. Wednesday, if memory serves. A few days away from work was all I could muster without more notice.

“My wife can’t take it anymore,” I told my boss. He understood. Everyone understood. Though, I’m not sure I did.

“I think your mom has lost it,” I told our eldest, as we cruised south.

“Just go with it,” she advised, with all of 15 years of wisdom under her wings.

So, I did.

And with each mile and each degree, the light returned to our eyes. Several hours into our journey to warmth, we picked a place out on a map: Carolina Beach.

We’d been there once before, briefly, for the wedding of a friend. I remembered liking it and hoping to return.
My wife had hoped to go further south to some island off Georgia, where it was going to be in the 80s. But that would take another six hours. Besides, I knew that come late June we’d make our annual trek to Hilton Head. And that would be spoiled if we went so close to it just two months prior. So, we settled on the mid-70s.

As I drove, and the kids slept and fought and complained about being hungry, my wife found a place on HomeAway that was available for the rest of the week. A small place, a few blocks from the ocean, with enough beds and good reviews.
She called the owner, and emailed her, and texted her as we hurtled down I-95, not sure where we’d end up.

No answer.

We started looking online at other places. Then at hotels in the area. Then cheaper hotels. Then motels.

Then the phone rang.

The place we wanted was available. And we could rent it for the rest of the week, into the weekend. The owner was a fellow New Yorker. She’d gone to the North Carolina coast and fallen in love with it. Bought a place and fixed it up. My wife liked that last part.

She said we’d love it. So, we booked it.

Suddenly, we had a destination. And a place to stay for that night and a few more. It was just south of Carolina Beach, in the small coastal community of Kure Beach, North Carolina.

To say the entire Carolina Coast holds a special place in our hearts would be an understatement. My wife did her undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill and took many trips to the coast throughout her college years. Before that, she was introduced to the region when her parents started going to Hilton Head, South Carolina, when she was a kid. Quite a hike from Pennsylvania, but they loved it so much they bought a timeshare. And, it was that timeshare that has drawn us to Hilton Head each summer since we started having kids, even though it's an even longer hike from Upstate New York. The truth is, our children have grown up going to the beaches of South Carolina.

But North Carolina was new to most of our family. And Kure beach, during that miserable Spring, seemed downright exotic.

The moment we arrived, we knew we’d chosen well. The towns of Carolina and Kure Beach crowd several blocks deep up against the ocean dunes, connected by a single road -- two places inseparable to the untrained eye. With the ocean on one side and cape fear on the other, the peninsula that’s also an island reaches down to the southern tip of what is called the Outer Banks. Though, this bank is much closer to the mainland than some of its northern brethren and is only an island because of an almost imperceptible cut in the land under a bridge on the north side of town.

Along the ocean’s edge of the peninsula, pastel homes on stilts and brown condos stand shoulder to shoulder, broken up occasionally by stout older homes that have yet to be torn down and replaced. As you drive south from Carolina Beach to Kure, the stouter homes become more common.

You know you’re in the center of Kure Beach when you arrive at the stoplight, with the fishing pier one block to the east, and small beach houses in rows and alleys to the right.

We found our place on 6th street, surrounded by other one-story brick homes.

And inside, we found what we’d come for. A comfortable, cozy, perfect little beach house.

And in the time that followed, we had a Spring Break for the ages. We ate well at Jack Mackerels Island Grill and Kure Beach Diner; A&G’s Barbeque and the Shuckin’ Shack. We explored to the state park with Venus Flytraps and to the coastal village of Southport. And we found the best donuts in the world at Britts, and we devoured them.

We walked along boardwalks, beaches covered with shells, and on the pier that reached into the ocean.

For a few days this April, Carolina and Kure beach were our refuge. Our Spring salvation. Our warmth.

Today, I’m thinking of these places and the people that call them home. Like the waitress at Jack Mackerels, who was originally from Ithaca. She moved south a decade before, like so many did, to Wilmington – just inland from Kure Beach. Then, she decided she wanted to see the sunrise each day and feel the ocean breeze on her skin.

She was the first person we met there, the one who put up with our stir-crazy kids as we relaxed at our first meal, and drank drinks made for island dwellers.

For a moment, I was jealous of her life. Thinking, maybe I belonged there. That we belonged there. 

My wife had often talked about convincing me to move to the Carolinas. When she did that, I always thought of places like Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Nice places, no doubt, but not places I longed to be.

If she had taken me to Kure Beach, she might have won that debate.

It felt like a place that could be home.

I think of that today. And I also think of all the things these days that divide us as a nation, in our minds and in our hearts. The North and South. The Red and Blue. The who did you vote for, and what news do you watch. 

As a storm for the ages bears down on this place that is special to me, a friend on Facebook joked that these people voted for that orange guy, they don’t believe in Global Warming, so they reap what they sow.

That’s no way to think. 

I know these places and the people. And they are as diverse in their thought as the neighbors on my street, and in my state. They come in all creeds and colors and beliefs. And they have no more culpability in what mother nature brings, than any of us. Not that it would matter much if they did.

And I know that they are good. And that we owe them one -- my family does.

So, now, I think of this place. And its people. And the pier, reaching out into the ocean. And I hope that what makes it special remains so, and recovers from whatever the days ahead hold.

And I pray for them.

For strength. For safety. And for warmth.

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