The Carolinas have always been home. But home means different things to different people. Is home a place? The family you surround yourself with? Is it more of a feeling than a physical structure?
For me, home wasn’t just the house I grew up in. It was one- or two-week vacations at Sunset Beach. It was Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Betsy’s in Montgomery, Alabama. This past weekend, it was a one-night stay at the Microtel in Carolina Beach, a short weekend adventure in the greater adventure of life and, if you read my last post, semi-unemployment.
Carolina Beach has a calm, lovely, welcoming charm to it. The main strip is lined with bold and colorful homes, just as you’d expect from a standard Southern beach town. The boardwalk is a short stretch of Fudgeries and kitschy beach shops, with a sprinkle of local flair nooked among the Hampton Inns, a McDonald’s, and a one-block-wide county fair.
I will admit, I’ve been spoiled when it comes to beaches—my family’s beach locale, Sunset, is a true hidden gem. Or at least I pretend that it’s hidden. People don’t know about it in the way they do Myrtle or the Outer Banks or Martha’s Vineyard.
I was at Carolina Beach—well, technically, Kure Beach—for a wedding, though I’d never before heard of or met the bride and groom. I was a plus-one and, yes, it was a little strange. But upon meeting a mutual friend or two and even the mother/father of the bride/groom, it felt as welcoming as any other wedding I’d been directly invited to.
The venue: Fort Fisher Aquarium. I hadn’t been there since the fourth grade; when I think of that field trip, what comes to mind is faint but real—the school bus taxiing us from our elementary school to the doors of some extension of the aquarium where we could collect fish and look at them under microscopes. Those big rubbery rain boots we wore to collect the specimens. Nathan Ogborn getting his pants wet and the teachers getting really mad. The premade bag lunches (because I wasn’t at all upset about the totally-average turkey and cheese with a side of Lay’s and a Capri Sun, which I of course turned into a cell phone when I was finished, the orange straw serving as the antenna).
The wedding was beautiful, unlike any I’d been to before, and before I knew it a night of champagne, overindulging in sweets and food (note the order in which I wrote those), and making friends with people you’d never see again was over. It was 7:00 a.m., the morning after the charade. Hungover as hell and unable to go back to sleep, I pulled a “screw it” and decided a walk on the beach would beat half-sleeping in a beach-themed Microtel for the next three hours. My friend (the one who was actually invited to the wedding) was a good sleeper, so I wanted to be courteous and slip out unheard. I unlocked and opened the unnecessarily loud door and heard a little toss and turn. But I knew that I was ultimately in the clear; I escaped unheard, and let my friend catch up on her beauty sleep while I walked off my hangover.
That morning, the beach was everything I needed. It provided an overdue moment of clarity—one I hadn’t had in a really long time—as I reflected on where I was in my life. Something about the soft air, the unbraced smiles from humans and children and dogs and even beach critters makes you free. I find it hard recreating that feeling anywhere in the city or suburbs. There’s just something so special about looking out into that big body of water, knowing that, if you really try, you can find your way.
After the walk, a cute-from-the-outside corner coffee/wine shop struck my fancy. I walked in, ready to expect a cheesy beach coffee shop with hand-painted “What happens at the beach stays at the beach” decor. But I was pleasantly surprised at the dark hardwood and soft, orange lighting behind the small coffee bar. It was almost as if this place was soundproofed three times over; you couldn’t hear a grain of sugar drop among the barista, two young male cops laughing about the previous night’s happenings, and me. I became privy to the young cops’ animated story of the two high-school kids they busted the night before, just eight hours ago at this point in the morning. The cops didn’t mind. They told me to “cover my ears.” I didn’t, and instead cracked a smile at the ridiculousness of their tale. Beach culture is weird.
To my delight, the flat white I ordered was as authentic as any I’d had, mind you I’ve never actually been to Australia. An actual double shot of espresso with microfoam later, I made my way back to the Microtel. I thought about home. Now, as I sit here with my home-brewed coffee and tap water, drinking from one of my favorite plastic Mardi Gras–themed cups, I think about home. What home once was may not be what it is today. And that’s okay. But it does make me think.
Now, home is a visit to my parents’ house in North Carolina. It’s a weekend stay at Brian’s dad’s house in the suburbs of Chicago. And for the 22 hours I was there, it was Carolina Beach—a stretch of sea and sand that kept me safe under moonsoon-like rains and a sorta-bad hangover. A town of friendly-ish beach locals, in- and out-of-state tourists, beach puns, coffee shops, and a gorgeous beach. A place that provided me more peace than I ever expected to find over a short weekend trip in my home state of North Carolina.