The following is the third entry in Our Land’s summer travel series, “A Summer of Unremarkable Travels.” Enjoy.
The Outer Banks is a nostalgic place for me. Every year during my childhood, my family would rent a beach house in Nags Head for a week. My grandparents, aunts and uncles would travel down from Western Pennsylvania, and we’d all have a glorious time chasing sandcrabs out of their holes at night and doing other typical beach things — like stuffing our faces with seafood and lying in the sun until our skin turned the color of old baseball gloves. You know: normal summertime-in-America stuff.
There are other, more specific, memories, too: like the time my brother saw the ghost of our recently-deceased grandmother, or when 13-year old me sat alone in my dad’s truck for half-an-hour, listening to the “Hotel California” guitar solo on repeat for 30 minutes because it blew my teenage mind. I also recall being enamored by the strange names of the towns down there: Duck. Nags Head. Kill Devil Hills. Kitty Hawk. Ocracoke. It seemed like such a foreign place, with all those dunes, lighthouses and skittering night crabs.
Last week, I returned to the Outer Banks for the first time in over two decades. The wife and I visited our friends, Mia and Will, in Avon — one of the more southerly-located towns in the Outer Banks. The Outer Banks are essentially a collection of islands off the coast of North Carolina strung together by bridges — not unlike the Florida Keys, except in the Banks the water is black instead of crystal clear. The drive down there, along the scenic by-way, is serene and peaceful. Dunes rise high on both sides of the road, and there are stop-off points that allow beach-goers to explore if they’re feeling up to it. It feels like a place apart: isolated, quiet, at a slower pace. There’s also an air of mystery (and history) to these islands. This is, after all, where the Wright Brothers famously first took flight (Just for 13 seconds, but still. It was the beginning of an era). The Banks were apparently also a hot spot for pirates and shipwrecks back when pirates and shipwrecks were still a thing. According to an article in Outer Banks magazine — which I read while baking my flesh on the beach in Avon — there are an estimated 2,000 shipwrecks off the coast of the Banks. And during World War II, German U-Boats lurked like sharks just off the shore, waiting to sink their teeth into American vessels.
All of that mischief and subversion is long gone now, of course, replaced by kids flying kites and and lotion-caked adults reading summer thrillers under umbrellas. It’s a generally non-violent place, as long as you ignore the nasty undercurrent that was present during our first day there. I mean, this thing was truly vicious: the waves, which were much bigger than I remember them being during childhood, were breaking hard on the sand, and instantly you’d feel a strong tug back out to sea, as if Mother Ocean was calling her children home. A lifeguard drove by on a four-wheeler with a large red flag tethered to the back, warning pedestrians about potential riptides — which are essentially strong outward currents that sweep people far into the water until these people are either lost forever or exhausted from swimming against the grain. These are the only two possible endings for someone caught in a rip-tide. No one survives*.
As a kid, I never gave much of a fuck about riptides or other dangerous aspects of being in the ocean. I’d spend what felt like hours out there, throwing a football with my dad or trying to catch a wave on my neon green boogie board. The board was velcroed to my wrist, which meant anytime a particularly violent wave overtook me I’d be yanked around like a ragdoll. I was often slammed into the hard ocean floor. It was awesome, and it kept me tough — as my dad used to say. I have to admit, though: in recent years, I’ve become what teenagers back in my day referred to as a “pussy.” I have a particular aversion to the Atlantic Ocean, because as I mentioned before, it’s mucky — not clear, like the Gulf of Mexico — which means it’s impossible to know what’s lurking underwater. Jellyfish? Shark? Mermaid? Weird fish? It’s the mystery I despise. If I’m going to be eaten alive by a prehistoric beast with teeth the size of my pointer finger, I’d at least like to see it coming.
All of that mischief and subversion is long gone now, of course, replaced by kids flying kites and and lotion-caked adults reading summer thrillers under umbrellas.
Thanks to my newly-minted status as a “pussy,” I prefer to lounge on the beach, under an umbrella, with a book. Like a civilized adult. Yet Will and Mia are still young and vibrant, and thus enjoy spending extended periods of time in the water. So I decided to do the same, because when in Rome, you know? The undercurrent, as I mentioned, was quite intense, and the waves themselves were skyscraper-esque. It was a mild thrill to float on top of them: you see them coming, towering four-to-five feet overhead, so you take a leap — weeeeeee — and up and over you go, your gut dropping like you’re on a small roller coaster. After floating over a few of these big ones, I attempted to body surf into shore. Everything was going well until the wave broke and drove my geriatric body into the sand. I was churned about underwater for a moment, but eventually rose to the surface, a gallon of seawater in my gut. As soon as I opened my eyes, a second wave smacked me in the teeth with the force of a Floyd Merriweather jab. Another mouthful of seawater down the gullet. I resolved to take a break.
“I’m drunk on salt,” I told my wife, who was wisely sitting on a beach chair under an umbrella.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” she said in that wifey way. “You’re no spring chicken anymore, you know.”
She’s right: I’m 31-years old now, with recurring lower back problems and one leg that’s occasionally shorter than the other (according to my chiropractor). As soon as I sat down next to Caitlin, another guy we were at the beach with — Mia’s 25-year old cousin Adam, who works as a chef in D.C. and once dated Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s black sheep daughter, Gracie McGraw — started skimboarding with the energy of a coked-up maniac. He’d hurl the board 10 feet in front of him, sprint like Usain Bolt to catch up to it, then hop on just in time for a wave to pummel him. He’d flip up into the air and come down, hard, directly on his back. Then he’d take a swig from a can of Rolling Rock he’d buried in the sand and get right back at. I thought: there’s no way he can keep up this pace. But 30 minutes later he was still at it, with all the gusto of a pit bull puppy. He must have swallowed several liters of seawater, because at one point, he faced us — the crowd — and in the most theatrical way possible, hacked and dry-heaved like a cat coughing up a hairball. Then he took another swig. “I have to drink 17 beers by the end of the day,” he announced to no one in particular. Then he was back at it.
I thought: I must try this…skimboarding.
I wish I could tell you that I took to it like a fish to water. But I did not. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been good at board sports (I was always a traditional baseball/football type of guy). Maybe it’s because I wasn’t drinking Rolling Rock — skimboarding, after all, appears to be a sport made for drinking, if for no other reason than it numbs the pain of being repeatedly slammed into the ocean floor. But whatever the reason, I sucked at it. During my first three attempts, I stepped on the slippery part of the board and the thing went shooting out from under me like a banana peel. My ineptitude was made more apparent by three nearby 12-year olds who were skimboarding with the grace of a young Tony Hawk.
“These assholes make it look easy,” I said to Adam.
“Don’t let them get you down,” he responded. “No one likes a showoff, anyway.”
Three more attempts, three more failures. The board flying into the air, me slamming into the sand like an idiot. After about 10 tries I finally got it right: there I was, balanced on the board, surfing toward a sizable wave. The goal of skimboarding, I’m told, is to coast on a thin layer of water into an approaching swell, then catch it like a surfboarder and ride it to completion. “That’s what the professionals do,” Adam told me. But I’m not a professional, so I panicked as this large mass of water approached. At the last minute, I leapt off the board. The wave caught me in the legs and I went flipping through the air. I landed on the back of my neck and my legs bent overhead. After several moments underwater, I poked my head into the air. I thought I was facing the shore, but this wasn’t the case: Another Floyd Merriweather wave smacked me in the teeth. Yet another mouthful of water rushed down my esophagus.
“You nailed it, dude!” Adam shouted, impressed that I’d finally stood up.
“Seawater tastes like shit,” I said. “I’m taking a break.”
I handed him the board. He polished off his sixth or seventh Rolling Rock and tossed the crushed can onto the beach. Then Gracie McGraw’s former lover was back at it without hesitation. For a moment, I felt like a kid again: battered, bruised and content. I sat down under the umbrella and opened a book: Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, which is a great read, by the way. Perhaps the best book I’ve ever read, next to The Things They Carried.
When I’m at the ocean, I fully embrace the life of a beach bum. I like to spend all day in the salt and sun, and when the day is done, I don’t always take a shower. I like the starchy feeling on my skin, the way the salt makes my hair stiff. My wife hates this about me. She doesn’t understand why my sense of hygiene, which normally falls within normal limits, completely evaporates when I’m close to a large body of salt water. “It’s disgusting!” she says, and though I don’t fully agree, I also don’t care. Much to her dismay — and my joy — I reached a peak level of disgustingness on this particular trip, after a long day of skimboarding fails. A significant amount of sand found its way into my bathing suit pockets, and even the netting around my butt — so much so, in fact, that it felt as thointo ugh I was wearing a diaper. When my wife realized this, she immediately shoved her hand up my shorts leg and pulled the netting from my skin, releasing an air drop of sand and rocks onto the porch below. Inexplicably, one rock was the size of a medium-sized beetle. “How did that get in there?” my wife asked. No one knew. Mia wiped the sand and rocks off the porch with her bare hands, to which my wife responded: “You’re touching Michael’s butt rocks!” We laughed and laughed, for no one could deny this was indeed the case.
“Two Girls, One Cup,” isn’t really appropriate beach talk — in fact, it’s not appropriate in any circumstance — yet there we were, Mia, Will, myself and my wife, on the beach, discussing the particulars of the infamous smut video that became a viral sensation before viral sensations were a thing. I was the only one who’d actually seen it — not the whole thing, you know, but, like, part of it.
(Sidenote: If you don’t know what “Two Girls, One Cup” is, go ahead and skip this section. No sense in Googling it. Just ignore what’s being said here and press on with your innocent life.)
“It says here that they used chocolate instead of actual poop,” Mia said, looking at her phone. “That’s not so bad.”
“I really don’t think so,” I responded. “I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and unless someone did some pretty remarkable editing, I really don’t think that’s the case.”
Thankfully our discussion of that awful topic was interrupted by a video call from Jourdain, a guy my wife and Mia attended grad school with in Malta. He’s now a foreman for a factory in Argentina — don’t ask, because I don’t know all of the details, anyway. Eventually COVID-19 came up — you know, that once-in-a-century pandemic we’re all living through at the moment, that old chestnut — and we voiced our confusion about why people wear masks at all when they just pull it down off their nose anyway.
“That’s like letting your dong hang out of your underwear,” Jourdain said.
And so it was.
That night, Adam opened the door while he was taking a dump and announced that we should all get up super early the next morning and watch the sunrise from the beach. We would all be awake early anyway to pack up, so why not walk across the street and catch some natural beauty before hitting the road? It sounded like a good idea at the time. “OK, Adam, maybe we will,” Mia responded, to which Adam nodded his head, shut the door and got back to business.
The next morning came and not a single cell in my body felt like getting up any earlier than necessary. So I laid in bed, looking out the sliding glass door as Adam, Will and Mia walked across the street to the beach. It ended up being too cloudy to see the sun anyway, so chock that up as a win for late-sleepers everywhere.
Leaving is always the most difficult part of a beach vacation, since real life awaits back home, with its lack of magic and lack of saltiness. So as we packed up and prepared to depart, a memory from one of the last family trips I took to the Outer Banks danced across my mind. I was 13 or 14, and had fallen in (puppy) love with a girl I’d met named Lisa. I don’t recall how we ran into one another, but I do remember hanging out at a pool the night before I left, wanting to kiss her but not having the chutzpah to do it. I’m sure 13-year old Adam would have done it, go-getter that he is, but that’s neither here nor there.
The prospect of meeting a girl was always at the forefront of my mind during childhood beach trips, and this time, for once, it had actually happened. Oh Lisa, how I loved her! I knew we were meant to be together forever, but in my blind stupor I failed to ask for her number — just like I’d failed to kiss her — and because of that, our fate as a couple was ruined. She’d go back to wherever she was from, I’d go back to Virginia, and our paths would never cross again. With America being so big and all, what were the chances that we’d run into one another a second time? Life would be gray, dull, pointless from here on out.
I decided to really soak in my melodrama, as teenagers are wont to do. As soon we arrived home, I moped up to my room, popped a Beatles CD in my Sony Walkman and listened to “Yesterday” over and over again, until the proper amount of heartbreak had filled my soul. Then I cried and cried and cried, like only a teenager who’d just lost the love of his life at the beach is capable of crying.
* – Some people survive.
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.