Don McCullough

Return Trip, OBX

All the houses in the Outer Banks have names. They’re the kind of affectionate, ocean-themed identifiers owners bestow on their property regardless of what body of water it sits by: Wave Breaker, Pelican Reef, Seas the Day.

About a dozen years ago, my boyfriend John’s extended family fell for the idyllic, vulnerable stretch of Mirlo Beach. “Dare to dream the impossible dream” is spelled out on a wooden billboard at Mirlo’s northernmost point. Facing the ocean, there’s a single row of big houses staked breathtakingly close to the water, doing the daring.

When I first started coming down with John’s family in 2008, we stayed in a house called Ship’s Watch. After that we rented Sea Strand, down the beach just a bit. During one of our stays there the summer after Hurricane Irene hit, we went for a walk at high tide and saw the ocean flowing right under the house we’d slept in soundly just a few years before, waves crashing into the stilts-in-cement foundation and making the whole place shake. We watched this standing next to the house, staring up at bathing suits drying on the railing, water up to our calves, bracing ourselves against the undertow.

By the following summer, the sand buttressing the foundation had eroded so severely that the house was condemned. This was soon after the nearby Tailwinds crumpled into the surf like a person falling to his knees.

We keep coming back. And of course, we’re not alone: Scattered around the country, countless T-shirts and bumper stickers and shot glasses emblazoned with “OBX” are testaments to the enduring popularity of the Outer Banks. Heavily trafficked areas exist alongside more Spartan ones, with outlet shopping and a Dirty Dick’s Crab Shack not far from a national wildlife refuge and an abandoned waterpark.

But an air of fragility pervades much of the 200-mile string of islands and peninsulas, especially the parts to the south, where the land is scrawny and a prime target for hurricanes. Over time a combination of inclement weather, sea-level rise and beach erosion has cut some islands in half and reclassified the geography of others.

Every summer, our dependable vacation unfolds against this shifting backdrop. We show up assessing a year’s worth of change in ourselves and the landscape. We anticipate peaceful, sunny days—and deterioration. Between visits, we keep an eye on hurricane reports and worry over the dramatic storm footage on YouTube. We enter taking note of patched-up bridges and rerouted roads, sheets of sand and pools of water in new spots. And then we have the privilege of more or less ignoring them. It’s easy to picture all of us in a story where the world is ending and this beach is the place of last retreat.

There are small shifts from year to year, variations that are traditions in themselves: We alternate who gets first pick of the bedrooms, which duo makes the expedition to the Food Lion to buy a car-load of groceries, which family hosts the mid-week covered dish supper, who cooks what and when. The first night we always pick up pizza from the place down the road. At some point all the women convene at The Top Dog for a “long ladies lunch,” followed by a stop at the Pea Island Gallery. There are trips to pick up more beer, wine, chips, bread and cream cheese (a top five of Things We Always Run Out Of), a wild goose chase or two in search of some hard-to-find ingredient for dinner. Inevitably someone will need to drive to the far-away state-run liquor store to re-up. One day will probably be consumed by rain.

There is a short list of things we could do that we haven’t done before, that we talk about doing while knowing we probably will not do them. We more or less know that we will stay put, drinking coffee on the deck before carrying our chairs down to the beach for a day of reading, dips in the ocean, and repeated sunscreen application. Maybe someone will want to throw a baseball around. When the sun gets low in the sky we open fresh beers, drag our chairs closer to the water so it rushes over our feet. We go back to the house and hose off the sand. Cocktails are at 5. These rituals are earned, achievements rather than inertia. We sink into them, hard.

One summer I sat on the wide, ocean-facing deck next to John’s dad while he inventoried our annual whereabouts on a yellow legal pad, looking completely at peace. Over the time we’ve been hopscotching among this row of houses, he knows which ones we’ve occupied when, why, and what was happening that summer in the world beyond the beach. When we’re reminiscing about the minutiae of earlier visits and need to factcheck something, he’s the expert.

I keep track, too. I always have. For me it’s part of what it means to relish something—to really drink it in, and get it down. Maybe even to get it right. For years, I fixated on New Year’s Eve, caring less about what happened on any one December 31st than the opportunity to account for a whole series of them. Party hat in place, I couldn’t resist narrating the events of previous years for friends who were, visibly, much more interested in where we were that night than where we’d been before. But there was reassurance and something like wisdom to be found in the way those nights were piling up. Recall was my safety net.

Whether accounting for dates or places, my memory—and to some extent, my life—hangs on the episodic stuff. I’m attached to the repeats and iterations: A mental inventory of restaurants where I celebrated successive birthdays. The bar John and I proceed to after work every Friday night. Three-and-a-half hours on the train to Harrisburg every December. Bagels and The New York Times on weekend mornings.

I hoard the specifics. I can separate out each week at the beach like beads on a string, keep them in order, put a few in my pocket, tell the story of each one. Typically, it’s less a coherent account than a collection of anecdotes and neutral facts that can be shuffled and singled out: what was foreseeable, what was unusual, what were the data points?

All this background means that when I return to the Outer Banks, my presence feels preordained. Or maybe just “scheduled,” a less romantic variation on that theme. Some of the early excitement—the amazement I felt at the unguardedness of the place, the thrill of being here with no demands on my time—has been traded in for gratitude and relief. Basically, for familiarity. It’s satisfying, the particular flavor of anticipation that comes with knowing what it’s time to do, where I’m slated to be.

Reliability is seductive. Go back to a place enough times and leaving starts to seem beside the point. The chapters bleed together and frustrate even my most diligent attempts at keeping them straight. The past couple of years when we’ve arrived at the beach, I’ve been met by the feeling that I was just there—as if the year that went by between visits was nothing at all, as much a dalliance in its own way as this one cherished week. Heading in on roads we last traveled twelve months ago in the opposite direction, I’m half-convinced that previous drive was just a prolonged run to the store.

Ever honest, the shape of the land tells me otherwise.


1 Comment

  • DeniseBalog says:

    I have so enjoyed this post. Returning to it in my mind over the past two days. Living “land locked”, after growing up with childhood summers spent on the Jersey shore, this story refreshed my heart. Sea, salt, shells, and yes, (never considered it before) but all the rest of the year is condensed into the two weeks at the Shore. Thank you..truly memorable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *