For those of you who did not know, the Outer Banks is OBX, and it is the name for a collective string of barrier islands along North Carolina’s east coast. But for many people, it’s just “the Beach.”
That’s what it is for my now-fiancee’s family from central West Virginia, who have been spending a full week in the summer together in a beach house there for his entire life and for perhaps a decade before that. Coming from an area that has rivers, lakes, and streams, but no ocean, OBX is “the beach” to them; it’s an almost-exotic treat they get to experience once per year, a concept I did not think I could wrap my head around because I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a region smack dab between Assateague Island National Seashore and Ocean City, two beach areas with very distinct personalities, but each with its fair share of seagulls, salt, sand, and sea breeze.
So when he invited me to come down to the Outer Banks with him in the summer of 2015, I didn’t quite understand what it was I heard in the tone of his voice. I, in fact, wasn’t even certain that “OBX” and the Outer Banks were the same thing, and it was with a fumbling and uncertain tongue that I confirmed that with him — making sure I was agreeing to experience the place all of those people with the oval bumper stickers were so impressed by.
When we arrived at the Wright Memorial Bridge to enter the Outer Banks, he opened the windows to smell the air, something my mother and I had always done on our yearly trips to Maine. I didn’t see it then, but that habit of his exemplified what I had heard in his voice weeks before when he first invited me to come along.
It was a quiet entry into the region, though, with no hooting and hollering about our excitement to be on vacation, because it was about one in the morning, and everything was quiet. I had seen nothing of the legendary traffic that clogs the islands. All I saw was dark water, a line of white lights, and the road. When we got there, we tiptoed toward the house with a few random bags and read the note that had been taped to the door. “Welcome to the Beach!,” it read, written on the inside of a paper grocery bag in marker. We went in and locked the door behind us, finding another note taped to the first inside door we saw. “This is your room!” it said, and we went in and crashed.
The notes were from his parents, who were up the next morning, waiting at the kitchen table for our sleepy heads to pop up at the top of the stairwell. But they weren’t the only ones there: his brother and his brother’s girlfriend, his aunt and uncle, his two cousins, their wives, and their children were all awaiting our arrival before going on about their days.
I probably could have seen it then — what it was about the Outer Banks that is so much more than just the beach — but not much can be expected of me before that morning cup of coffee.
We spent the next two days in the sun, fending off sunburn with SPF 45 and eating at home with the family, hanging out, answering questions, playing games, asking questions, sleeping, and generally forgetting to think about life’s purpose and the work that goes with it.
Since it was my first time on the islands, I wanted to see a few tourist spots, so we made a trip to the Wright Brothers National Memorial on N. Croatan Highway in Kill Devil Hills. We paid $3 to get in, grabbed brochures, and walked around. Looking at the memorials to this pair of brothers whose strong family bond literally changed life as we know it, memorials that I later learned were constructed because of the people of OBX’s “‘dauntless resolution & inconquerable faith’ in honoring & recognizing the 1st flight of the Wright brothers,” it dawned on me what I was being let in on on so many levels: I was being allowed to see Chris’s family’s lives, and ways of treating one another, and methods of bonding, and the constant, simple gift of allowing one another to be vulnerable for the simple gift of being vulnerable in return.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial and the statues there are the embodiment of that special moment when vulnerability becomes strength: in the scene the First Flight sculpture depicts, the Wright Brothers and their team are putting their dreams and educated guesses to the test, opening themselves up for failure and allowing a veritable miracle to take place.
That’s what happens on family vacations in places like the Outer Banks (and Maine, for my family), and that is why those places are so valuable. Yes, the land and the natural atmosphere provide an irreplaceable frame that needs to be protected and preserved, but we need it as a place to be vulnerable and strong at the same time.
And that’s why people have those oval stickers, and that’s what I heard in Chris’s voice, and that’s what I hear in my mom’s voice when she talks about Maine. It’s in my voice too — and when I drive down to OBX to get married to Chris next year, I’ll open the windows and smell the air and feel that beautiful combination that reminds us what it is to be alive.