Calling time-out and getting away a necessary part of life
The sky was a brilliant blue, the sort of color that gets described as “azure” or “cerulean” on paint swatches at places like Sherwin-Williams, on the day of our departure from Topsail Island, N.C.
It was a stark contrast from the day before, when Tropical Storm Andrea roared up the coasts of the Carolinas, turning the sea into an angry cauldron of foam-capped waves and driving the sand before it like microscopic shards of glass. To stand at the end of the boardwalk atop the dunes was a test of endurance as the winds maintained a steady 40 mph gale throughout the day, the skies shifting from blue and sunny to gray and menacing within the span of minutes.
Vacations along the shore come with certain inherent risks during hurricane season. Although it officially starts June 1, most beach-goers have no need for worry until August or September; global warming and climate change, however, seem to have messed with Mother Nature’s timetable — not that she ever paid much heed to pre-determined calendar dates for certain catastrophic weather events anyway.
Topsail Island — composed of the towns of Sneads Ferry, North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach — is part of the slender fingers of barrier islands that ring the North Carolina coast. Forty miles northeast of Wilmington, it’s a sleepy oceanside hamlet that seems perennially stuck in the 1950s: Island Delights, a restaurant where our family always stops for ice cream, features all the trappings of that era in the way of decor, and family-owned, local establishments far outnumber the national chains along the 20-something mile stretch of the island. In fact, there’s not a single chain hotel anywhere to be found once you cross the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, something I find both charming and ideal.
As a teen and a young man, such a place would have seemed to me the epitome of boredom: no amusement parks. No bars. No places where the nightlife stretches into a Bible-black pre-dawn, with neon lights and pulsing music and distractions of all kinds to entertain my demand for instant gratification. These days, however, a place like Topsail Island is a paradise: quaint, clapboard-festooned beach houses, one right after the other, filled with families and couples who seek nothing more than the hypnotic repetition of waves washing onto sand, a steady shining of the sun and evenings gathered around dining tables piled high with fresh seafood.
For the Wildsmiths — myself, The Wife, my son and my parents — going to Topsail Island has become a family tradition. My brother and his brood were unable to make it this year, and I confess to a certain amount of chagrin that I was unable to channel my 12-year-old self — not hard to do, mind you — and torment my sibling as I’ve always done. In fact, we made signs with each of their names and took various pictures to send via our phones: “Where’s Mike?” beside a pile of freshly shelled shrimp ... “Where’s Beth?” (my sister-in-law) beneath a stack of seashells ... “Where’s Josh?” (my brother’s stepson) atop a boogie board.
They were missed, but the rest of us — along with my wife’s nephew, Cale — didn’t miss much else from back in East Tennessee. Oh, our pets, a little bit, but everything else — stress, worry, jobs and the constant rotation of the mind’s gears as it clicks through a litany of tasks and to-do lists and never-ending responsibilities — was left on the other side of the waterway bridge.
The weather cooperated, for the most part. Monday was a wash-out, and by Thursday afternoon, Andrea had announced her arrival in the form of towering clouds and passing showers. Friday, it was inhospitable to stay outdoors for long, so we spent a lot of time reading, napping, playing video games and staring out the window to marvel at the visceral power of nature.
But even with a storm on top of us ... even with an ocean so roiling that to swim or surf in its waters would have been to court drowning ... even with a sandy beach that couldn’t stay in one place due to explosive gusts of wind ... it was still vacation. I worried, vainly, that what tan I got might fade before I returned to work this week, but something like that hardly matters.
What matters is that when the alarm clock went off Monday morning, I awoke with a smile on my face. This entire week, I’ve been rather jolly — although certain co-workers who accuse me of having a permanent scowl would probably beg to differ, I’ve been serene and overwhelmed with gratitude: (a) for a job that allows me the luxury of time off, (b) for circumstances that give me the funds to get away and (c) for a family that I love so dearly that spending a week with them all, even cooped up indoors during a tropical storm, did little to diminish the recharging of my spiritual, physical and emotional batteries.
Because we all need that from time to time: the ability to call a time out in our lives and step away. Last week I did just that, and the afterglow of that retreat still resounds in my head as fervently as the sound and sight and smell of the Atlantic Ocean rolling up to the boardwalk steps just on the other side of those grass-topped dunes.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope with everything I have that I and mine haven’t seen the last of Topsail Island. It’s a special place, and I’m grateful to have spent some time there, even if we did have to share part of the week with a rough ol’ broad like Andrea.
Steve Wildsmith is the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or at 981-1144.