Saturday, July 30, 2011

Atlantic Beach, North Carolina

I'm not sure if this is going to be commentary, a recap, or something else entirely.

Ever since I was about six years old, various members of my family have made an annual trip to North Carolina where my Grandma B. and Grandpa S. live.  They make their home in New Bern, a former N.C. state capital which is about forty minutes from the city of Atlantic beach on the Outer Banks.  The trips varied as I grew up, at first being only grandma-visits and later expanding to encompass "Beach Week."  Beach Week is an invention of my late Uncle D. where the family would rent a cottage on the beach for a week.  (There is something to be said for simplicity in naming.)  The attendees would be most of my Dad's side of the family, which in the past two years has included my Grandma B., sporadic visits from me Grandpa S., my dad and his two surviving brothers (and the one's wife), my two youngest cousins (14 and 11), my two sisters (20 and 18), and myself (24) with occasional visits from one of my other female cousins (21).  All in all between ten and eleven of us in a three-ish bedroom cottage situated on the beach.

I don't think I'm going to recap a whole lot about this year's particular trip (which differed little from last year's) and focus mainly on the places we visited.

The first stop was my single uncle's house in Harrisburg, PA about five hours from us and an additional eight from the beach, a pretty convenient way to break up a long drive.  I love my uncle's house, it's the exact kind of place I'd like to live some day.  It's a cozy two bedroom ranch with an enormous unfinished basement and deceptively large back yard.  Across the street are two baseball fields that are used for semi-pro tournaments during the summer as well as local little league games.  I can remember watching them as a kid, enjoying the bickering and emotions of players not good enough to make it, but too good to give up the sport.  It's one of those slices of Americana that transcends its own corniness.  The fields are complete with a ramshackle concession stand/announcer's pulpit built hastily into the side of the hill that overlooks the fields that feels a little rickety, but serves pretty good hot dogs.

After Harrisburg we made the trek to my Grandma's house in New Bern, N.C., another house that holds many memories for me.  It's a three-turned-four bedroom ranch with enclosed front and back porches plopped in the center of what can best be described as a typical old-person community in the Southeastern United States.  Every house has about an acre of land with immaculately kept lawns and fantastic gardens and there are Cadillac and Buick and Mercury sedans everywhere.

I used to stay at my Grandma's house by myself when I was a kid, relishing the only week of my life when I had freedom by way of cable TV, The Original Nintendo, and no bedtime.  I used to stay up late at night (when midnight was still late to me) watching the Braves and White Sox games that were being replayed on their local stations.  Somehow my Grandma's cat, which I bought for her in 1996 for the tidy sum of $5 from a pet shop that was going out of business, still survives.  It may in fact be a zombie though.

I was interested to return because I hadn't been there in over seven years.  Not much has changed, but it was kind of sad being back with my Uncle Dave gone.  He had always been my favorite uncle, spending hours playing Super Mario and Tetris with me on the system he'd passed down to my Grandma.  He lived about five minutes outside of New Bern, so we saw him pretty often and he was always good at calming my grandma down and placating her eccentricities.  He always exuded a level-headedness and a sense of humor that my own father severely lacks and never seemed to have a bad day.  While the rest of my family views my writing as a sort of gimmick, Uncle Dave always took it seriously.

We didn't spend much time at my Grandma's house, heading off to Tryon Palace, the former Governor's residence, in downtown New Bern.  It was interesting, but pretty light as the palace tour was short, and the historic houses were underwhelming.

After Tryon Palace we headed to the cottage in Atlantic Beach.  Even though it's boring as all hell, and all you pass is redneck hardware and boat stores (sometimes both!), I always loved the forty minute drive, especially the portion where the center median is taken up by a set of train tracks.  As a kid, the uniqueness of that amused me, and I was always a little bit sad when we had to turn off of route 70 onto the bridge across the sound.

The cottage itself is amazing, the only drawback being the utter lack of parking.  The access is a narrow one-lane road that wanders by three other duplex cottages before reaching ours.  If you're good, you can park two cars side by side, but only one at a time can leave, and it always seems to be the enclosed one that needs to.  Who cares though, the cottage is literally right on the beach.

This is the view from the back porch

My grandma rents the place from the family that owns it that she's never personally met.  Every year they mail her a set of keys in early July for the impending week and we do our best to enjoy it and clean up afterwards.  The cottage is half of a duplex unit featuring three bedrooms and a full bath upstairs, a large kitchen/dining room and living room downstairs, and a spiral staircase leading to "the dungeon" which is basically a rec. room with two fold out couches, a set of cabinets and a sink.

As much of a pain in the ass it is to use this for a week, it's fucking awesome.

My Grandma gets a bedroom, my one uncle gets a bedroom, and my aunt, uncle, and two cousins share the master bedroom.  I sleep on the fold-out portion of the L-shaped couch in the living room, my sister takes the remainder of the couch, and my cousins use either the cushions or the chair and ottoman.  (I miss being small enough to sleep in a chair.)

Kelly crashing in the chair.

It's a pretty good arrangement; everyone gets their own space, but at the same time the introverted members of my family are forced to interact in the shared common areas.  Just about every room has a TV so everyone can watch their own thing if they want, but no one ever does.  There were Harry Potter, Back to the Future, and Pirates of the Caribbean marathons on various channels so we settled on those most of the time.  (My personal thought is, "there's a beach 300 feet away, fuck the TV.)

The beach is amazing, one of the few that remains relatively untouched.  Since Atlantic Beach is pretty small, and thus residences are limited, the beach is never crowded.  On a busy day, I could look down in either direction and count maybe a hundred people, and on any other I'd count less than twenty.  There were a few instances in which we were the only beach-goers within a few hundred yards.  The water is warm, and is usually a pretty good mix between calm and choppy depending on what you want to do in it.  It's on the part of the outer banks that faces south so it's almost never directly struck by bad weather.  In fact, the forecast predicted scattered thunderstorms the entire week and we didn't see a single one.

Atlantic Beach is kind of like a perfectly preserved ancient city.  The entire area has remained stuck somewhere between 1960 and 1990.  Most of the cottages and hotels still use CRT or even vacuum tube TVs.  Basic cable is the norm, and WiFi is a luxury.  Almost all of the architecture is at least a couple decades old, and most of the restaurants are small diners that have been there since the forties.  The shopping is several identical beach marts that carry tacky things like snap-bracelets that haven't been popular in twenty years.  It's the kind of old-timeyness that manages to be endearing instead of inconvenient, relaxing instead of frustrating.

Even though the three "cities" Atlantic Beach, Morehead City, and Beaufort only total about 15,000 people there's plenty to do.  (Like go to the fucking beach.)  Beaufort has pretty good shopping as well as one of the three North Carolina Maritime Museums situated about the eastern portion of the state.  the NCMM in Beaufort has artifacts from Blackbeard's ship the Queen Anne's Revenge, so I defintely made sure to get out there.

This is a replica of a goblet supposedly made from Blackbeard's head.  Awesome.

After we bid farewell to the beach, we stayed at Colonial Williamsburg for a night.  It was about worth the $30 it costs for each of us.  There are a dozen or so historic buildings with various tours up to a half hour in length and a bunch of shops along the main street.  It was interesting, but probably not a place I'd seek out, or ever visit again.

I did take this bitchin' picture though.

All in all it was a pretty good trip.  The highlight was definitely the mornings spent on the beach with my phone back at the cottage (and avoiding sunburn) and the low-light was the eight hour drive home that my dad turned into a twelve hour drive because he took a "shortcut" to get to I-81 that involved going southeast to get to New York.  Overall a success.

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