Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bill and Jen's Most Excellent Adventure

I like best the feeling just on the other side of the swell. You've stood up to your neck in water, and the wave is coming--no breakers, as you've jumped past those and fought the current to get to the part of the ocean where the water is bumpy. You're on your tippy toes, and the wave comes, so you push off the sandy ground and let the water pick you up, and if you relax, it drops you--poff!--on the other side of the wave. That's my favorite part.

And that's why I spent hours of our beach trip in just that place in the ocean, where the water came up to my neck when I stood on tippy toes, and the waves were breaking behind me, and I just let the ocean carry me up and then down(poff!), up and then down(poff!). At Emerald Isle (as opposed to Atlantic Beach where we were the first day), I even found a sweet spot where waves came from the left and from the right, making a corner of swell in the water, and it not only dropped me down(poff!), but a little to the left or to the right. Poffwhoop!

But the ocean was only the sugar glaze on the Krispy Kreme donut that was our entire vacation. From just about the minute we left till we pulled back into our driveway, we had an enchanted time.

We took back roads both ways. If you know of the stretch of highway between here and the coast, you know it's deadly boring and really quite ugly. My friend Robin has seen every mile of I-40 from its origins in Barstow, California, to Wilmington, NC, and she said unequivocally, the ugliest, boringest stretch is that between Raleigh and the coast.

So we forewent the direct route and chose instead Highway 55. The same road that has our Food Lion on it. We went out of our neighborhood and turned right. All the way to the beach!

We passed Billy Bob's (which, we later found out, was a bar, pool hall, hot dog and burger grill, and general store). We passed the billboard for the agent "in tune with your real estate needs" and the picture of him playing saxaphone. We passed the cheesy church signs, the clapboard converted-barn structure with dark stains and a dirt parking lot that advertised itself as a bar, "bikers welcome," in the middle of a field miles from the nearest store, gas station, traffic light or other signs of life. But they advertised Karaoke on Thursday nights, and Bill visibly shuddered at the thought of the "music" emanating from the cracks in those wood boards at midnight.

In some towns, we could see homes torn apart by recent tornadoes--roofs blown off, frames mangled--right next door to untouched homes, still perfect, yards away from badly damaged ones. It was sobering to see them so close to our home.

We passed fields of tobacco and beans and corn. Huge manor-style homes beautifully landscaped separated only with a single row of trees from the trailers and shack-style homes of the Latinos migrating up the region to pick the tobacco as it grows. A "curb-appeal" house got us laughing out loud when we saw that the front of it had been refurbished, freshly painted, bright white with a red door--looked beautiful. But the other visible sides were run down, paint peeling, boards separating, mold growing. Behind the house was what appeared to be a church, in a state of disrepair that matched the sides. The odd juxtaposition caught us both at the same moment as we rounded the curve, and we bust out laughing together.

We also saw chimneys standing without houses, foundations still visible in crop fields, passed tiny white churches with beautiful windows, and old cemeteries gated off in the corners of crop fields.

North Carolina is such a pretty state, and 55 curves, slopes, sweeps through amazing greenery, history, strength, and beauty.

As we approached Carteret, the air grew heavy with the smoke of nearby forest fires, our throats itched, and the smell of ash and burned wood filled the air. Large metal power-line poles (heavy-duty and hurricane "proof") loomed out of the smokey dusk ahead of us, looking every bit like the scenery from a science-fiction movie.

We arrived late Wednesday at the home of Bill and Frances, friends who have generously offered us use of their home. They were still in Hillsborough until tomorrow, and had been for nearly two weeks, so we opened up the house, made sure the power had not been disrupted to the freezer, the digital tv, the internet. We checked on Frances's mom and sister who live nearby, walked down to the dock, threw the net for shrimp, and watched tv. What a glorious day and a relaxing evening!

The next morning we went to the local coffee shop where we'd been before, and over mochas, planned our jaunt to the beach (Bill and Frances live on the sound), and at a local cafe, Bill ate the best corned beef hash ever while I enjoyed my usual eggs, bacon, toast.

We found parking at Atlantic Beach, where the water was perfect--cool when you first get in, but easy to get used to, and the waves broke over our knees and against our tummies, making it easy to push past them to the lull of the swells. We found a sand bar where the water was up to our necks and rode the waves up and down. I was rubbing my face at one point, eyes closed into my fists, when I felt the water pull away from my body until even my waist was in the sun, and I realized with a sinking feeling the size of the wave that must be approaching, sucking the water away. BOOM!! I felt the water crash over me and tug me toward shore, which I let it do, until I could get my feet back under me and stand up, giggling at the picture I must have made, calm and unsuspecting as the wave rose well above my head. I'm basically afraid of water, but I like it anyway. Especially on a day like that when it's perfect.

The next day was Emerald Isle, but also some sight seeing. Bill and Frances had arrived by then, and they told us of a drive through the Croatan National Forest. Oh my!! Pine trees, tall, straight and growing in fields like surreally-sized grass, the forest stretches for 160,000 acres across coastal, sandy planes. We rode for miles, noticing where fires had scorched the brush, where hardwoods were taking hold, and different places where the pine trees were winning, and where the colors danced in the sunlight dappling through the tall stretches of needly green.

We also stopped at Christina's Collectibles, a delightful, pagan-owned store where Christina sells primarily wine, but also has a number of odds and ends, all of which gave us great decorating ideas for the house and envy for crystal and glass chandeliers outside of our price range. We made a mental note to return after we win the lottery, and Bill got completely distracted by Chablis, the lovey cat named for the color of both her fur and her eyes. Who can resist a monochromatic shop cat who loves attention?

Saturday we again took a leisurely route, and this time we headed up to Oriental, NC, where 55 ends. We checked the map in the process, and discovered that 55 peters out in Durham and doesn't pick up again west of here, so we drove almost the entire length of 55, and given the number of times we've driven to the end of 55 here, we figure that counts.

Oriental is an amazing little sailing town cut-and-pasted out of Maine. We agreed to come back one day and spend the weekend in their Captains' Quarters B&B. (Right before we bought another lottery ticket.)

Just before Oriental, though, we were driving on 306 north and the traffic slowed to a stop. Hmmmm... wonder why. Oh! A ferry!!! Bill's first ferry!! How fun! We drove on board, under the watchful eyes of the black-faced gulls, each perched on their own pole in the water until we left dock, when they hitched a ride on the back and side railings. I had forgotten how mesmerizing the water is that splashes up on the front of a boat as it cuts through the current. As a kid I could stare for hours at the rhythmic tossing and foaming against the front edges of the boats my dad took us out on. I did that again that day, sitting on the window of my car with my feet propped against the side of the boat. Bill went off to take photos and I saw him chatting up the little old ladies nearby. He definitely has a way with little old ladies...

It was on the way back that we stopped at Billy Bob's, just outside of Seven Springs. It is a bit of a ramshackle place, with a dirt parking lot, an obviously aging building that's falling apart, and some nice-looking people outside who make you wonder how it is they have nowhere else they need to be. It was 11 a.m. on a Saturday, and inside two men sat at the bar getting drunk. A younger guy obviously had a head-start and was bouncing around manically, talking to anyone who would listen, about his acts of strength and prowess. Bill noted the pool tables in the back, and I sat at the formica table with molded plastic benches while Bill used the rest room. Once we were both at the plastic table, the older gentlemen at the bar stared curiously (and not really nicely) at us, so once Bill's hotdogs were done to his liking (chili, cheese, onions, peppers, ketchup and anything else you can fit on the bun), we stepped outside to eat. The nice gentleman on the porch who had been having a neighborly conversation with the other nice gentleman on the porch teased us about not being allowed to eat inside, and I agreed, "They don't serve our kind here." We walked to a shady spot near our cars, on the edge of a beautiful green pasture with horses and a classic white house with black shutters. The nice gentleman on the porch followed us and struck up a delightfully friendly conversation. Turns out he's Bob of Billy Bob, and Billy, his brother, had started the business with him, but after about six months, the call of the road and his former life as a truck driver, bit him badly, and he left Bob holding the fort with his wife ("but not really 'cuz we never really got married") of eight years. We talked and joked quite a bit, about the horses, about small-town living, about owning a business. It was delightful, and we left feeling uplifted and happy about our state and the country side. In the car we joked about the clientele, the nature of the old fashioned general store, the genuineness of it all. "The bathroom doesn't even have a sink," Bill said, which kind of killed the mood.

Anyway, we wended our way home to find a hungry dawg (he doesn't eat when we leave), and nonchalant cats (Oh. You're back.) It was perfect since the holiday weekend meant we still had two full days to recover from the trip, and in my mind, it was the perfect vacation.