Time Enough At Last

We say we have to travel to see our families for the holidays. Why did we leave in the first place?

A rainbow appears after a frigid rainstorm on Harkers Island, North Carolina

It’s the busiest travel day of the year and we are a part of it. By chance, not by choice, we’re a little bit amazed at the number of people who line up at the gas pumps before 9 AM on a Sunday morning. Most are heading home after sitting and spreading with their family for the weekend.

I hear the same excuse echoed all throughout — if we don’t use this time to see our families, then we would never have the time to see our family. Is this an excuse? Or an indication of a bigger problem?

We had been here a year and never seen the coast; we were running out of reasons not to. One doesn’t think of North Carolina as a coastal state, but here she is with several coasts, her inner and Outer Banks, over 12,000 miles of shoreline in all. Of course, everyone has a boat here.

In Beaufort, we look down the span of Front Street. On one side, facing the water, residents hang Biden flags. On the other side, backing the water, with their newly rebuilt docks tieing in the boats and yachts, a parade of the incumbent flags.

Driving onto Roanoke Island, more trump flags. Hundreds of years ago, a black person could cross the river and reach the shores of this island and be granted freedom — a stop on the underground railroad. A mile to the east the Outer Banks barely rise above the tops of the water. There is one motel on the farthest southern point of the isle that is still open to off-season sport fishers. Rooms are cheap if you can find a place to park: most of the lot is buried in an ever-moving dune. Every house here is on stilts — preparing for the inevitable storm surge. Folks around here might not agree with climate change, but they all know not to fuck with mother nature.

We sit on the beach for a few hours, soaking up the cold sun and watching the crab boats trawl the waves. Every so often, another tourist walks by and stoops down in that strange, unhealthy American bend to examine a sea shell. They want it intact and picture-perfect otherwise they toss it back to the waves which will eventually toss it back to the beach. Every shell an indication of a former life — a mollusk or crab or some other kind of sea life that soaked up the calcium and built a fractal of itself. Even the stoniest crabs and clams are pulled apart to have their flesh plucked clean by carnivores with all manners of tools — built or evolved — to make short work of them.

Then, their skeletons are washed ashore, rinsed, and ready for the gift shop.

We’re in jackets, but the sun and wind burn away at my face most of the day. That salt life, you feel it age you if you’re not careful. I’ve never been careful. At sunset, we sit out on the dock as the waiter brings another cold beer as a chilled breeze draws out the last of our energy for the day.

After dark, we tell ourselves we’re going to read books by the dim lamplight, but there is a 90 Day Fiance marathon this weekend. We stop in and look at the lives of people trying to build families on unfamiliar ground. The bride-to-be travels to Europe, to Russia, to the Middle East or India and faces her future (maybe?) mother in law. Every country not-America, it seems, doesn’t have to make time for their family. They don’t have to travel through pandemic restrictions to make time for dinner with their parents because they never had anywhere to go in the first place.

It’s an excuse: I have to travel to see my family for the holidays. Are we honest with why we left in the first place?

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