I ended this drive the same way I started it: with a walk. Sunset Beach is the last incorporated community on the coast, but it is not the end of the coast. Adjacent to Sunset is a 1.5-mile strip of sand and dunes, accessible only by foot or by bicycle, called Bird Island. I drove to the end of Sunset, parked the truck, and made the 30-minute hike to the end, where the beach gives way to a massive breakwater that frames a small bay on the north end of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I lingered long enough to watch the tide come in and shrink the coast by a few feet, then turned and headed back.
A few hundred yards from the end of the island stands a lonely mailbox with the label “Kindred Spirit” on its side. Inside the mailbox are notebooks and pens, and people who make the trek down that far often stop there to inscribe an anonymous message and leave it in the mailbox for anyone to read. On my way back, I took a minute to write a letter and leave it in the mailbox.
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So, here at the end of this first drive, the expectation among the three or four of you who still bother to read this blog might be for me to wrap up the journey with some sort of culminating observation about the common themes that unite our coastal communities. I think I’ve written enough reports and memos over the years to gin up something along those lines, but to be honest, it would be somewhat disingenuous. The truth is, a week traveling from point to point along our coast is not enough to get a sense of that level of connectivity; that’s likely only to come after years of embedded listening and observation in many different places. While I feel like I have that in spades for the Bogue Sound area, I am far away from that level of intimacy in most of the other places I visited. Plus, I stayed in motels instead of with families, and that’s definitely not the best way to get a sense of the community (though I did try to eat where locals recommended, rather than where the crowds were headed).
I think the most fair thing I can say after this week is that our coast is big enough and diverse enough to be all things to all residents and all visitors — the key is finding the space where you fit in. From boardwalk beaches (like Carolina Beach) that are reminiscent of weekend destinations in some of our neighbors to the north, to towns that evoke New England fishing village charm (like Ocracoke), to places that feel like someone’s hometown rather than like vacation destinations (like Cedar Point and Harker’s Island), to family-friendly beaches with few signs of over-commercialization (like Caswell Beach), there is a way to feel at home out here, even if you are not from here.
My cousin said as much on my first day, in Corolla, when he talked at length about why Corolla was the right fit for him. The idea may have been best expressed, however, by a gentleman I met at a winery outside Ocean Isle today. John works at Silver Coast Winery (a 13-year-old winery that sources its grapes from Yadkin Valley; the only grapes growing along the coast are muscadine).
A former post office employee, John — like so many of the other people I met this week, young and old — relocated here from up north (New Jersey) several years ago and has been at the winery for about five years. As I often do when I meet transplants, I asked him whether the move turned out to be a good idea for him. He said simply, “My worst day here is better than my best days at any other job I’ve had.”
And that pretty much sums up what I heard from so many people this week, no matter where they live now or where they originally were from — they had found the space along the coast where they fit best. And, as much as I enjoyed my experiences this week and was gratified to see so many different facets of our coast, I think I have, too.
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I ended the day in the best way possible for me — drinking a Duck-Rabbit Wee Heavy on the beach at night.
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Accommodations: Continental Condominiums Motel and Apartments — probably as close to a 1960’s beach experience as one can get any more; cinderblock walls, indoor-outdoor carpet (complete with mysterioyus stains), and furniture that would look right at home on the set of “My Three Sons.”
Dinner: The Dockside Seafood House, Calabash — fittingly, the restaurant at the end of the road in Calabash. Traditional Calabash fare in an establishment not quite as old as the Sanitary in Morehead City, but similar in feel. Special thanks to Kim for taking care of me at the bar.
Drive music: Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.