Holden Beach, N.C.
I grew up a Sunday afternoon’s drive from the towering sand dunes of Holden Beach. We’d park the car — mom, dad and five siblings under 10 — check both ways, sprint across the soft, sun-hot, barely-two-lane asphalt beach road with its non-existent traffic, then hike miles up and over the dunes and across the sand to THE BEACH. With shells.
It wasn’t miles. I know that now. But, it was a long way. A long way up, down and across. No houses. No boardwalks. No nothing except the sand mountains, some sea grass, a fishing pier and a sparse handful of similar 1950s families. We’d paddle and dig and almost drown in the riptides. We’d argue and whine and then sleep in the car, piled together like a litter of sticky, sandy kittens.
So begins my six-decade ocean love affair.
It’s a shared love affair, of course. Millions of us plant our toes in the water and our butts in the sand (with apologies to Zac Brown for a bit of literary license) for vacations or forever. Like poet John Masefield, we “must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.”
We’ve built our houses on top of the dunes, paved over the wetlands and we’ve insisted on our amenities. One really must have a super store and a gourmet grocer close at hand. We did it because we loved being at the beach, and we’re close on killing it with our love.
I’m going to stroll on down my sandy memories, but as I do, I ask this of myself, of you: If we can’t — or won’t — find ways to protect our beaches from ourselves, to step back from the water’s very edge by refusing to rebuild what has destroyed the dunes, the natural barriers to hurricane wind and surges, there will be no beaches left for our butts, our toes, or our memories.
From Holden Beach to the annual teenage girl’s pilgrimage to Atlantic Mecca — Myrtle Beach. Rebels and Redcoats playing slow dance music at the pavilion. Baby oil and iodine. Peggy burned so badly she had blisters along the waistline of her (1960s discreet) bikini. Lots of boys, especially the scary kind one’s parents frowned upon. My 15-year-old self wrote my parents that I thought perhaps I’d go back to Augusta, GA, with one of those boys rather than come home. To their credit, they barely flinched. I went home.
The Jersey Shore. Pizza. Or tomato pie, if you prefer. Taffy. Fudge and giant ice cream cones. Boardwalks. Houses right up to the edge of the water. Miniature golf and cotton candy. And, gaad, that awful sewage smell, a stew of hypodermic needles and medical waste, beer cans, milk cartons and feminine hygiene products washed up on the sand, rotting and stinking and closing the beaches lest one die of some dread, 16th century plague caused by dumping 20th century garbage just off-shore.
Still, we were down the Shore. Asbury Park and Belmar to Cape May with weeks in Seaside (the Park, not the Heights; can’t forget to say that). Summers were always down the Shore, even when the beach was a dump. One just cleaned up around one’s towel and smacked little toddler hands if they reached for a, well, “balloon.”
OBX. You’ll find the letters on the back of my car. The Outer Banks of North Carolina. Six of us 20-somethings pile into one car after deadline at the Roanoke (VA) Times. Ride through the night to be first in line Saturday morning at the campground with a stop for Wonder bread, baloney, mayonnaise, Hostess Twinkies and Dr. Pepper. Forty eight hours on the beach, pile back in the car barely in time for work on Monday morning.
OBX. This time a decade of family reunions. A nine-bedroom monster of a house oceanfront rented the third week of every September. We watch first our children, then our grandchildren discover Jockey Hollow and the Wright Museum (almost broke an ankle there on my honeymoon) and hurricane-driven waves that towered over the sand and ate it away. Today, the government “replenishes” the sand and makes miniature dunes. Nature can’t do that anymore.
And, there were the occasional side trips to Nantucket, Sanibel, Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the isolated end of Long Island and the rocky, not-really-a-beach shores of Maine.
Today, I live on an island at the farthest tip of the United States. Closer to Havana than Miami. An island with not much in the way of beaches, completely surrounded as it is with a barrier reef of coral. It, too, is dying. Sun screen, cars, sewage and snorkelers, you know.
Climate change and rising sea levels likely won’t much affect me. But, if I want my grandson, Connor, to share this ocean love affair with his someday-granddaughter, I cannot forget it took less than 60 years to turn the Atlantic shores from soaring sand dunes to parking lots for beach side cities — and me.