Every once in a while I’ll throw in a personal post about my travels, life, or other musings. This is the first.
We lie on our backs and point into the air, drawing invisible lines with our fingertips to connect the stars. By my final night we’ve amassed a respectable group of known constellations and what I feel, at the late hour, is an equally respectable group of ones we’ve completely made up. Shooting stars and satellites make their way across the sky, and usually after five we forget to keep counting. We don’t have watches or cell phones; time is measured by moonrise. The glow creeping on the horizon and dimming of the otherwise bright Milky Way tells us it’s almost time. Mars has already risen, the moon isn’t far behind. And when it does rise it’s so incredibly bright compared to the darkness we’ve been enjoying that it’s almost painful, like looking into the sun, but we don’t look away. Like what often happens when humans are overcome with emotion or wonder, we try to put it into words for each other, as if we’re not all looking in the same direction.
It makes me feel like I’ve never really seen the moon before.
And I agree, it’s exactly what I was thinking. On clear nights we cross the dunes, spread blankets, and then head-to-head we turn ourselves over to the skies. We forget everything about our lives outside of this moment, our own struggles, the chaos of our planet these days.
And every night when I see the Milky Way or the moon rise over the Atlantic it always feels like it’s the first time I’ve really seen it.
Thanks to my family, I’ve been traveling to this island for twenty years now. Many of those beside me on the blankets I’ve known for almost as long and some more recently. We all met on this little barrier island and they too are compelled to return every year at the same time, well after we reached the age when our parents no longer dictated our vacations. Not everyone we grew up with here feels the same, some never return. But that’s okay. I get it, it’s not for everyone.
heat. sand. sand spurs. mosquitoes. bugs. more bugs. sometimes an Indiana Jones level of bugs.
But when the sun starts to set and we break bread, reminiscing about summers past while the next generation shrieks through a game of tag in the grass, I remember why I need this place as much as I’ve ever needed anything. We’re one big very extended family, entertainingly diverse but with a single common thread. And it’s enough. For two or so weeks a year we put aside our differences in lifestyle, politics, and religion (which we know exist, because well, Facebook) and cook for each other, wash dishes together, help repair tents and campers, watch over children, and share meals and drinks and dancing and laughter and sometimes tears. We celebrate successes and milestones from the year and lend shoulders or an ear for the losses. I’ve missed two years, one in Scotland and one in Oregon, both beautiful places but both times I remember being so incredibly heartbroken.
Sometimes I think it’s odd that I feel this way. How is it possible to be so incredibly in love with a place? But no, it’s not necessarily the place, is it? It’s the feeling. It’s addictive. It’s a drug that I can’t get but one time a year and only at a very specific time and location, and then it’s gone. It can’t be rescheduled. There are no rain dates.
It’s the high of spending every day with a family you’ve chosen and who love you unconditionally through your best and worst. It’s hugging each other as often as possible because you have to cram a whole year’s worth of moments and feelings into a week or two. I often wonder what life would be like if we were all this free to express ourselves and our gratitude?
And of course, there are those intoxicating hours on the beach at night. Laughing with some of my favorite people in the world, taking deep full-body breaths of warm, salty air, not caring that I’m covered with sand, damp with humidity, and will likely only get a handful of hours of sleep. Tomorrow doesn’t matter. And maybe that’s why I love it so much.
When I get on the ferry to leave it’s the strangest combination of melancholy and fulfillment. Some years I’ve cried, knowing that I won’t feel this for another year. At the same time, however, I feel so incredibly fortunate that I have this. I have a place I can go to actually feel at peace. But it’s fleeting, having such hard spatial and temporal constraints. This time. This place. And even more terrifying is that it’s so geologically transient. Rising sea level projections are half a foot on the low end in my lifetime and are multiple feet on the high end, enough to either compromise or completely inundate the island.
And so we do the only thing we can do when faced with the possibility of a punctuated future, a future in which we don’t get to watch our own children and grandchildren playing soccer with their own adopted beach families. We pack our cars, our tents, our campers, our coolers. We stock up on bug spray, implements of shade, solar panels to run fans, and cooking supplies for the chowder-offs. We drive for hours, sometimes days, to a tiny island in North Carolina to live off the grid and love by the sea.
And although it’s never really enough, it’s enough until next year.
In memory of Butch Carnes, a beloved member of our Ocracoke family.