"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Island Life Revisited: Outer Banks Edition

Warning: there are no horses in this post, but I do talk about wave riding...because for you to understand the significance of this trip, I have to go back to my time in Puerto Rico so I can explain. But most of you seem to enjoy those stories so here goes. :) Extra-long post as a result, though...

If you know I am a former islander, it should not be surprising that I have a lifelong love affair with the sea.

My first memories are of the creepy house in Fort Polk, Louisiana, where my family was transferred to by the Army only a month after I was born in Oklahoma.  My dad was still getting things wrapped up in OK and she had gone ahead to LA with their two enormous dogs and a tiny baby in tow to start getting the new house ready. My mom cried the first time she walked into that house because it had such bad vibes. But it was assigned military housing so there was not much they could do at the time. There is nothing specifically bad about those first memories, just an aura of darkness around them and a constant unexplainable fear of the house itself. Something horrible had happened in that house before we moved in, and it was heavy in the air still when you were alone in it. Thankfully, the memories of that house are only a handful, and they are highlighted by the Dobies my parents owned, who adored me, and the music my dad used to play on his huge stereo and speakers: Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, Phil Collins, The Mamas and the Papas...the last music you'd probably expect a Cuban to listen to. :) Music, on the radio and played by my dad on his guitar, along with the palpable love of my family under that roof, both four-legged and two-legged, pushed the darkness of that house away in those memories. I was only a year old at the time. Music is still such a powerful thing to me. But that's a subject for another post. :)

Flash forward and in my next memory, I am in the sea, in a safe cove created by the rocks on Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico, where we had gone to spend summer vacation time. I have some sort of flotation device, as I don't yet know how to properly swim, but I am in the water up to my neck. Early morning light is sparkling off of the water's surface and the water is so very clear, I can see my feet on the bottom and the ridges of sand created by the ocean currents. I am grinning, hopping from one ridge of sand to the next, the water warm and quiet and safe around me.

Kind of like these tigers. You can see the ridges in the sand underwater! 

I was maybe two years old at the time, and I still remember that there were no words in my head, just this sense of wonder and absolute happiness, existing in that moment.

And that is how long I have loved the sea. And that is how long it has been my sanctuary and my haven.

As a teenager I used to be intimidated by the waves. They were a beautiful thing to watch from a distance, not something to actively swim in. I loved the crash and thump of them on the shore, over reefs, and I could sit and listen and watch them all day long. But you couldn't have paid me to swim in them.

And then my uncle bought the beach house in Arroyo.

Arroyo is in the southeast corner of the island. It is a tiny town that you could just blow through without even noticing, unless your soul decides to take residence there.

Arroyo is circled and the town highlighted in red.
I found a missing part of myself on that beach.

My photo.
Photo by my uncle.
Specifically, on her waves. That broke unexplainably over a sandy bottom. If you know about surfing, you will know that the best waves take place over reefs.

Not Arroyo's.

The bottom was shallow enough that you could walk a good 1/4 mile out from the shore and the water would still be below your waist on a day when the sea was quiet. And so I braved the waves for the first time and learned to bodysurf without a board, letting the waves lift me up and send me to shore.

At the time, I was 18 and I already had a huge crush on Carlos and I knew his sport of choice was bodyboarding. I decided to try it out and bought a cheap foam board at the Walmart in town.

I rode my first wave and fell madly in love. It was love at first ride.

Before I knew it, that cheap foam board was so highly inadequate I ended up with not one, but two Real bodyboards (apparently I must have two of everything...cats, horses, dogs, etc...), rash guards, a whole slew of bikinis that were chosen for their ability to stay on, wax for my boards and how to use them. I was picky about what type of armband I liked (bicep band) and where I wanted it set on my board (offset on the right so the clip for the armband wouldn't dig into my chest or my boobs) and I was familiar with the breaks on well over a handful of local beaches that I felt safe in. I learned to recognize a riptide and how to get out of one. I became familiar with "Locals Only" concepts, about the war between surfers and bodyboarders, but also that girls who surfed, be it on a surfboard or bodyboard, were considered badasses. No one messed with me, even when I was the only girl in a lineup of riders waiting for the next wave. Latin culture may be viewed as unendingly chauvinistic, but overall Puerto Rican women are respected as something not that far from goddesses. This is a heritage from the Taino Indians, who were a matriarchal culture, that has persevered into modern times: we had a female governor run the island 15 years before a woman ever ran for the presidency in the continental US. If that's not women's lib at its finest, I don't know what is.

Scoping out the waves at Arroyo.
I participated in two male-dominated sports on the island: bodyboarding and Paso Finos, and all I ever encountered was admiration. Showjumping in Puerto Rico was a world of women, just like it is here.

Bodyboarding is the only activity that has ever been right up there with horseback riding for me. The one thing that kept me from taking the next step into competing was my fear of reefs: I might have a high tolerance for pain but I don't enjoy it, and the idea of being slammed against the gnarly sharpness of coral, volcanic rock and sea urchins only a couple of feet, sometimes only a few inches (!!) under the surface by a miscalculated 12-foot wave was...well, it wasn't exactly an alluring thought!

Underside of a wave breaking over volcanic rock, as seen underwater. Puerto Rico did not break off of the mainland US; it erupted from the bottom of the ocean as a volcano. Most of the islands in the Caribbean and Atlantic were formed in this way. Hence why it has a central mountain range, like most of the Virgin islands do, and why the rocks on its shores are exactly like what you'll find on the beaches of Hawaiian islands
Because to compete, you must ride over reefs.

Like these waves at Tres Palmas Beach in Rincon, Puerto Rico.
The best waves in the world break over coral reefs. (If you know anything about surfing, you've probably heard about Pipeline on the North Shore of Hawaii. That is where that link will take you. Pipeline is the Tevis of surfing.)

I did eventually surf a reef, in the cove of Mar Chiquita in Manati.

Aerial view of Mar Chiquita, which means "Little Sea". It's a huge cove, with that round beach maybe two miles in length. Photos are deceiving. And yes, the water really is that color! The beach itself was unusual because when you stepped into the water, it was smooth rock on the edges, not sand. It was like a humongous tide pool. It's one of those places that you don't hear about unless you're a local or know locals that will tell you about it. It's one of the island's better-kept secrets. But if you're ont0e island and you decide to go check it out, just be careful, ok? There are some sketchy people that hang out there. Don't go alone (I always went with my ex, whom I got hooked on bodyboarding as well), and do lock your things in your car. 
The waves of Mar Chiquita.
It was not known as a surfing beach but it could have quite the impressive waves during surf season (September through March on the island is when you will find the biggest waves) but it had tidy, clean waves that always broke in the same direction that were easy to ride: the waves erupted over a shallow reef (less than 3' underwater) and then "sank" as they rolled into the deeper waters (a good 15' deep) beyond the reef. They were highly unusual and took some getting used to, but were tremendously fun once you got the hang of their feel because you got an extra-long ride out of them! Until, of course, I got too cocky one day and was slammed against the reef by a 5' wave. I managed to keep from getting my skin ripped off by clinging like a barnacle to my spinning bodyboard as we tumbled through the water. My bodyboard kept me afloat even when upside down and so the wave dropped us off in the deeper waters of the cove, unscathed. But it had been too close of a call. I had nothing to prove to anyone and that was, honestly, the last time I surfed that beach.

And so my favorite beach was always Arroyo. It was my first love when it came to my affair with wave riding, and it was the place I ran to when I was troubled, worried, upset, or life was getting me down. My 20s were full of much more turmoil than my teenage years ever were, and the ocean would set me free with so much more ease than horseback riding ever did.

That was my mom walking on the shore.
And  you know what? Arroyo isn't even particularly pretty when compared to some of PR's other beaches. But it was MY beach and that is what made it better than all the rest. 
As you guys know, riding a horse involves working with a living, thinking animal that reacts to your emotions, thoughts and body language. Some horses will give you exactly what you need in order to forget, in order to distract you. But others will feed off of those emotions and mirror them back at you because they don't understand why you feel this way, compounding the problem. So then you have to deal with your emotions AND the horse's.

On the back of a wave, it's just you against an element brought to life by the moon, the currents, the wind, barometric pressure changes, the nature of the ocean bottom, and whatever weather pattern is happening out at sea or on land. The ocean is itself, no matter how you feel. It doesn't react to you, it just is. It's just you reacting against her. You can't train her, tame her, nor control her, and very often you can't predict what she's going to do next, even when you're in the moving waters of a well-known sea.

What you do will keep you alive or will make you drown, depending on the type of sea you're willing to challenge and your ability to be one with the water.

We had days when the ocean was so flat, the light shimmered off of it like a mirror, and other days when the waves were so pitiful it was pointless to even attempt to surf them. But then there were days when the sea offered up gorgeous waves, breaking cleanly in both directions, 4', 5', 6' tall, and I would run out to join them.

Arroyo's waves. Taken by moi with my SLR and long lens. There is always less wind in the mornings, so the waves had nicer breaks. It was not uncommon to find me plunging into the water with my board at 7:30 am.
The biggest wave I ever rode was an 8' wave during an electric storm. There was thunder and lightning out at sea and the wind was ripping over the water, roaring parallel to shore, fueling the power of the tides into enormous monsters. Jerry, my brother's best friend who was an avid surfer, was out with me and we both caught the same wave. We had been waiting for close to two hours for the perfect wave, knowing that it would come.

Jerry was adorable as a teenager and is even handsomer as an adult
My brother and I called him The Third Sibling. :)
We cut left across the front of it, chasing the barrel of the wave as it wrapped around itself, all the way out its end, racing out of the water onto the shallower waters of the shore before we could be devoured by the foam. We were quite literally spat out onto the foam by the crashing wave.

Riding inside the barrel of a wave. Photo from the internet, but just so you guys can understand what it feels like! You wait for hours, days, weeks...you hunt for the beach with the perfect wave just for the opportunity of riding the perfect barrel. And it only lasts a handful of seconds. Unless you are fortunate and brave enough to surf the likes of Indo, Pipeline, Domes, Gold Coast, etc...large, perfect waves mean you can ride a single wave for much more than just a handful of seconds!
Roaring with laughter, Jerry and I grabbed our boards and ran out of the water right as the storm hit land! We had waited for our wave and received it!

All of this I discovered thanks to Carlos and my love for him. I never would have snagged that $20 foam board at Walmart if it hadn't been for knowing that this was his favorite sport.

This photo is relevant because it was taken during my last surf season in Puerto Rico, during the long-distance relationship with Carlos. I grabbed my best friend at the time and we drove around the island on the weekends, visiting all of my favorite beaches and exploring bucket list places, and slowly saying good-bye. Breda also had an SLR and we had a blast taking photos of everything and one another just 'cause.
I last visited Arroyo 9 years ago. When we lived in South Florida, Carlos and I would laugh at the poor souls that attempted to surf the pathetic little waves of Fort Lauderdale Beach. "They have no idea!" we'd say, shaking our heads.

I always entertained the idea of having my mom ship my boards to me, but it seemed pointless to pay the outrageous shipping for such awkwardly sized oversize items given the lack of real waves to surf.

How did I come to own two boards? I acquired  the first as a total noob. I weighed 115 lbs and bought a 45 cm board, which is what a 6' tall person should use, simply because it was at half price due to missing wrapping material and a scratch across the top surface...and it was purple and blue! It was a Challenger bodyboard, which are now considered "vintage" since the company that made them doesn't exist anymore.

Learning to ride the Challenger
The board was way too big but I learned to maneuver it anyway...which resulted in several wipe-outs when I finally bought my second board: a 42 cm Manta board more suited to my height and weight at the time, and I used the same force to turn it that I had used on the Challenger.

I loved that Manta board. The Challenger would go to my brother and later Carlos would surf on it when we visited the island.

And so I left all of that behind when I moved to Florida for Carlos. I didn't just leave my horse, my career, and my family behind: I also left the waves and my bodyboards and a beach that was the resting place for my soul.

And for the longest time I didn't miss any of it. We had pretty beaches in South Florida. None that inspired us to surf again, but we could spend time on the beach if we chose to. My problem is that I have never been one to just lay on the beach to tan or read or nap: I like walking or running down the shore, exploring anything I can find, and either jumping up and down with the waves in the water or riding them outright. Flat water with no rocks nor tide pools was mind-numbingly boring for both of us...and that is how during our first year in Maryland we visited the Potomac River more than we ever visited the beach during our last 3 years in South Florida put together!

But this year...this year the ocean called for the first time in over 12 years.

The in-laws had planned a spectacular visit to the island that got cancelled due to the entire family getting new jobs (Carlos's brother and his brother's wife too!) I had been longing for that trip simply because we would be staying at Rincon, my second most-favoritest town on the island, known for its international surfing level waves. I was surprised by the viciousness with which I wanted to be on that beach again. To be on a beach with waves.

We went to RBTR instead...but the sea still called with the driving force of an uncontrollable addiction.

And so one morning I woke up and said to Carlos, "I need to go to the beach. And I have always wanted to go to the Outer Banks...so we're going!"

The Outer Banks has been a long-time bucket list item since South Florida. But the drive from South Florida was FIFTEEN HOURS...so you can understand why we hadn't ever attempted it. From Maryland? SIX hours!

Trip from South Florida on the left, trip from Maryland on the right.
Except I didn't look at the map nor the drive when I decided to look for a hotel. I figured it was between 6-8 hours, which was totally doable for decent beaches (as in Not Ocean City). I simply googled "oceanfront hotel outer banks" and checked out the first hotel that popped up.

The prices were reasonable, you could see water from both sides of the hotel (Pamlico Sound on one side and the Atlantic on the other) in addition to the Hatteras Island lighthouse; and it had excellent reviews online. I checked out some of the other hotels on Hatteras and Lighthouse View continued to be the best of them all, so I booked the trip. I didn't even bother comparing to hotels on other Outer Banks islands.

I then showed Carlos, who mapped the trip out and laughed when he saw which island it was: "You chose the eastern-most point of NC to visit! If you wanted to be as far away as possible from the continental US, you most certainly achieved it!" That had not been the goal but I laughed and shrugged when he pointed it out.

I didn't look at a map until we were already driving towards Hatteras Island.

It was the island that had chosen us, and I didn't need to confirm anything about it to know that this was where we were destined to go. I didn't second-guess anything: we packed up and got in the car ridiculously early on the morning of Friday September 9th, swung by the barn to check on the girls, and then got on the highway that would take us south.

I drove for the first four hours or so of the trip, switching places with Carlos when we were nearing the islands so I could take photos.

There is something about driving fast to electronic music over an infinite flat bridge with water on both sides.

We smelled the salt in the air before we saw the ocean. "Roll the windows down, please!" I said to Carlos, which he was more than happy to do, and the car was filled with hot humid sea-salted air. We raised the volume of the radio and cruised on.

We both knew that the islands had very strange names: Duck, Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills. And then more normal names like Roanoke (which has a pretty creepy history) and Avon. We entered the islands through Southern Shores and made our way south on Route 12, with me looking up the stories behind the stranger names of the islands as we drove through them and reading them out loud to Carlos.

Kitty Hawk
Carlos and I joked that we envisioned an animal like a griffon, except half cat and half hawk (instead of half eagle, half lion), every time we heard this name.

Historians note that the town first showed up on English maps in the early 1700s as "Chickehauk" and "Chickahawk." By the late 1700s, land deeds referred to settlements there as "Kitty huk," "Kitty hark," "KittyHawk," and finally "Kitty Hawk."
According to "The Outer Banks of North Carolina," a book by historian David Stick, another story traces the roots to the large number of mosquito hawks found in the area. So the nickname "Skeeter Hawk" could have morphed over time into "Kitty Hawk," Stick writes.
Stick also states that the term "kitty" once meant "wren," the little songbird commonly found in North Carolina. Thus, "kitty hawk" could have derived from the mosquito hawks seen on the Outer Banks that preyed on wrens for food.
You can read more here.

I thought it was fascinating that no one really knows where the name of the town comes from! Though the evolution of the Native American name rings truest to me, mainly because most of the town names on my own island come from the Taino language that was originally spoken there: Maunabo, Yabucoa, Guayama, Guaynabo, etc. My uncle wrote his doctorate's thesis (he has a ph.D in History) on the names of Puerto Rican towns and barrios. Fascinating book.

Kill Devil Hills
I think this was one of my favorites, because of the rum ships part of the story. This is so...island! Text is from this link.

Perhaps the most plausible explanation - and the one the town officially endorses - stems from rum-carrying ships that sometimes ran aground off the treacherous barrier islands during Colonial days.
In 1728, William Byrd of Virginia, hardly a fan of Carolinians, wrote that "Most of the Rum they get in this Country comes from New England, and is so bad and unwholesome, that it is not improperly called 'Kill-Devil,' and there is a story that the ship loaded with this 'Kill-Devil Rum' was wrecked opposite the sand hills, thus accounting for the name," according to Stick's book.
The town's Visitor's Guide skips the smarmy comments from Byrd and just says the shipwrecked rum, later scavenged by locals and stashed in the dunes, "was strong enough to 'kill the devil.' " And the name stuck.
The guide also mentions another tale, this one much more fun but far less believable:
As legend goes, a local man once tried to extort money from the devil himself, then trapped him in a deep pit atop one of the many tall dunes that shape the town's rugged landscape.
Also: Kill Devil Hills is the REAL place where the Wrights Brothers flew for the first time, from one of the town's sand dunes. Not in Kitty Hawk, though the confusion comes from the fact that the Wrights Brothers lived in Kitty Hawk. We drove past the monument in Kill Devil Hills.

Nags Head
Another one that made us grin from ear-to-ear, as there is a similar (though I guess somewhat reversed!) story around the legend of La Rogativa in Old San Juan in PR.

The tale that named Nags Head has it all: pirates, tall ships, the new world and a lawless sea.
As they carved their living from a scrubby and barren landscape, the story goes, locals along the North Carolina waterfront turned to the ships sailing off their coast. At night, they would tie a lantern around an old horse's neck and walk the nag up and down the sand dunes.
Captains at sea saw the bobbing light and thought it came from an anchored ship. But upon sailing closer to what they thought was safe harbor, their ships would wreck on the shoals. That's when local "land pirates" attacked, plundered and made off with the booty.
It's an awfully good story, and a popular one. The logo for the town's recent 50th anniversary even features a gleeful-looking horse carrying a lantern around its neck.
But is it true?
"I think it's a legend," said Sarah Downing, assistant curator of the Outer Banks History Center. 
There are other theories, but that was my favorite one!

I'm not going to go into each and every island name, as you guys can look them up if you're intrigued :), but those were the ones we liked the best of the names we looked up.

The sea oat-covered dunes were so different and so beautiful from the island beach landscapes we grew up on. There are no dunes in Puerto Rico. Sand rapidly turns to earth as you move inland and then the earth becomes true hills that roll up into jungle-covered mountains. There are palm trees and, on the south side of the island, you will also find mangle trees.

Mangle trees on Gilligan's Island, a tiny piece of land off of the coast of Guanica, PR.
I love anything that's different, that throws a ripple in my perception of "normal". I loved the OBX's dunes because, to me, they were like something out of a movie or a dream.

We finally arrived in Hatteras. We drove right past our hotel at 1:30 pm because check-in was at 3:00 pm, and decided to go check out the nearby lighthouse.

Hatteras Lighthouse
Park offices at the lighthouse. Loved the light pattern on the wooden deck here.
The lighthouse up close. It's $8 to go to the top. We decided to skip that part because I was in a hurry.
I just wanted to get my bare feet on the sand already. Carlos obliged: the lighthouse is right next to a public beach.

I have seen so many paintings like this photo.
That iron wall was part of the remnants of the lighthouse's original location. Remember this iron wall! It will come up again later.

The waves would crash against the wall and the foam and spray would fly up through channels in the iron.
And then this beach.
My brother has a series of worlds that he visits in dreams when he is troubled. I have an island. It is not my island; no one else really lives on it in my dreams. But I always go there in dreams when I am stressed, either as a distraction or to resolve problems with specific people, never remember the dreams until the problems are resolved: that's when they come back to me. The dream island is both my battleground and my resting place. I used to visit Carlos a lot on that island when I worried about him constantly, first during my platonic love for him and later during our long-distance relationship.

I now looked at this beach in front of me, at the beach of Cape Hatteras, and every hair on my body stood on end because I recognized it: it was a beach from my dream island. It is the first time that I have seen one of the dream island's beaches in person. The steep shore, the roaring surf, and the way I felt looking upon it, right down to the eerie sense of deja-vu. I had visited it just this past week and had forgotten the dream until now.

"I dreamed of this beach," I said to Carlos quietly in disbelief. And before he could respond, I ran down to the wet sand...to stand at the water's edge so I could stare at the waves. I wanted to step into them, but their pounding roar was intimidating because, despite having dreamed about it before, it was still an unfamiliar beach. Carlos didn't chase after me; he simply stayed behind, waiting and watching.

I always used to talk to the sea in my head, just like I would have talked to a horse.

"I am afraid of you," I said in my mind to the waves as they pounded with ferocity on the shore. "I don't know you and I am afraid that you will hurt me."

"We won't hurt you," they said. "We have been waiting for you."

And I swear that suddenly the sea calmed. The waves were still coming but they slowed so that they were lapping at the shore instead of beating it to a pulp.

"Come," they said.

I stepped gingerly into the foam, and the waves pulled back, tugging at my feet insistently. I took several more steps into the water and the waves returned, splashing playfully around me.

"Run," they said. "Go run like you always do."

And so I turned and took off running along the shore, splashing in the shallow water over the hard-packed sand. I have been doing this since I can remember, every time I re-encounter the sea after a hiatus. The waves remained gentle, inviting, as I raced my way down the shore.

I had run about 1/8 of a mile before I realized that my injured leg and glute did not hurt anymore.

Nothing hurt. 

It was just the waves and me, as I turned around and sprinted back towards Carlos, zig-zagging across the foam as the water broke and rolled around me.

He had no idea what was going on, and he still took pictures.
I was out of breath when I finally reached him. I stopped, facing the water, and thought at the waves, "Thank you. Thank you for healing me. Thank you for allowing me to run again."

Seagulls cried overhead as the surf continued. I climbed back up to the highest part of the shore and the waves returned to their previous pounding.

"Take it away, please," I begged them. "Please take it all away." Not just the physical pain but also the ache in my soul lately.

"That's why we called you," they said. "That's why we brought you here."

Like the waves of Arroyo, these waves also broke over a sandy bottom.
I turned back to Carlos, choking back the unexplainable tears of relief. "Let's go," I said. We were both starving and we wanted to grab a light lunch before checking into the hotel.


We got back into the car and pulled up a list of bars that Carlos had looked up: they were all supposed to be playing music that evening, so I checked out reviews and we went to one called The Wreck, which was at the opposite end of the island only 20 minutes away.

It was on a boardwalk with a handful of other shops.

The docks faced west, and thus the Pamlico Sound. Carlos was very excited about this: he wanted to come back out in this direction to watch the sun set over the water that afternoon. We hadn't seen the sun set over water since we lived in Tampa, where sunsets seem to sink into the Gulf Coast.

It was a fun little place, with a great selection of beer on draft (Fat Tire!) and a menu that made it hard to choose any one thing because everything sounded amazing. Also: starving!

We finally settled on an appetizer of loaded nachos, which had black beans, veggie chili (I'm not vegetarian but I'm always up for trying vegetarian dishes; Carlos didn't even notice that part...he just saw "chili"! Haha) shredded cheddar cheese, tomato and corn salsa, and guacamole. It was just enough to reasonably fill us without feeling stuffed.

The place had character. We took our time.

Carlos asked them if they would have live music that night and they said no, it had been the previous evening (Thursday). The bartender recommended one place but then one of the guys from the back spoke up and said the Lighthouse Sports Bar would have reggae music that night: he knew because he was the drum player for the band! The bar was actually within walking distance of our hotel!

And so this was our goal, see? This is why we had no plans: we were going to let the island tell us where to go.

We still had spare time, so we wandered over into one of the other stores on the docks. There was a Life is Good store; Carlos loves their T-shirts. I was surprised when we walked in and found this:

Kites!! So many kites! Kites everywhere!
Carlos did not buy a shirt, but I walked out with a long-sleeved navy blue one that said, "Let the sea set you free," across the front. It was the only one in my size. It had been waiting.

It was time for check-in. We got back into the car and drove back across the dunes to our hotel, deciding on the way that we would drive back in this direction at sundown so that we could watch the sun set over the water again.

We had only just arrived and I was already madly in love with this island. I had had no idea at the time of booking the hotel, but Hatteras is the largest, quietest and most remote of the Outer Banks. And that is exactly what I had been looking for.

We checked in uneventfully and made way to our room on the third floor. Considering the price we paid, this was one of the nicer hotels we've stayed at. I would have loved to have an ocean view but the Sound + lighthouse view was enough. Carlos was impressed. I was not surprised: this place had found me.

We changed into swimsuits and ran down to the beach.

View of our hotel from the beach.
Section of beach directly in front of the hotel.

I ran around and played in the surf, splashing and leaping over the baby waves until I was thoroughly drenched and used to the iciness of the water. Carlos just followed me around like a parent, grinning as he watched my regression to 6 years of age, taking a million photos like he always does. 

I finally dove into the water and leaped up and down with the waves for a bit. Carlos said it was too cold to join me; he was enjoying himself just seeing how much fun I was having. 

The undertow sucked and pushed at my feet but I danced with it, unafraid. There was a deep trench only 5' into the water where you abruptly went from thigh-high water to neck high, formed by the crashing waves. I finally decided to return to shore to join Carlos but the water was pulling at me. Every time I took a step forward out of the water, the tide would pull me back.

"Don't leave yet," the waves said.

"But I have to. I'll be back tomorrow. Carlos wants to go watch the sun set. Let me out, please," I thought. 

"Fine," the waves said. And a tiny, powerful wave came up from beneath me as I was trying to paddle back onto the sand and literally lifted me off my feet. I barely had time to stiffen up so I could bodysurf it before it had dumped me unceremoniously on the shallow foam covering the wet sand. 

I just sat there laughing my head off as the waves splashed over my legs and around me, pushing now. "You wanted to go. You can go now," they said. 

I laughed and laughed. 
And Carlos caught the whole thing in photos.
Coincidence? Maybe. But boy was that perfect timing!

I ended up running into the water one more time so I could get all of the sand out of my bathing suit bottom!

We returned to the area in front of the hotel and lay on our towels for a bit, watching the clouds in the sky, the gulls winging overhead, and listening to the pounding surf.

At around 5:30 pm we got up and ran back to the hotel room to shower and change so we could go chase that sunset. We thought we had time, so we stopped at a liquor store next door to buy a bottle of wine...only to realize that they don't sell wine or beer at liquor stores in NC.

"I told you," I said to Carlos. He has gotten so used to Maryland's alcohol laws that he has completely forgotten the way it was in Florida: you could buy beer and wine anywhere, and the liquor store was for hard liquor exclusively. This is one of the things that I love about the South! "Ask them where the nearest grocery store is, " I said, as Carlos went up to the register.

After he confirmed for himself that they had no beer or wine inside the store, the guy at the cash register pointed him in the direction of Conner's, a supermarket right across the street.

We found my favorite red wine...and I might have gone a little gaga over the HUGE selection of EVERYTHING that they had in this little store. From firewood to foam coolers and towels to quinoa and organic preserves and every type of cheese imaginable. It was rapidly getting dark outside and Carlos almost had to drag me out of the store by my hair in order to get me out of there!

"Come on!" he said, "We'll come back tomorrow!"

"Wait...look at this!" I had defaulted to serious island time. Islanders are normally fashionably late to everything.

"I'm paying! I'm leaving! Bye..." He waved at me with the wine bottle from the cash register and I ran out the door after him. The girls at the register laughed.

(I am my mother's daughter: we have a thing for grocery stores with large selections of interesting things. Ask Carlos about my relationship with Wegmans...)

And that is how we ended up literally chasing the sunset!

Carlos pulled into a marina with a waterfront restaurant when the sun was just about to touch the water and we leaped out of the car so we could run down to the docks.

It was so beautiful it was unreal.

We watched the sun disappear behind the water, then realized there was a sort of nearby inlet that we could drive to, right next to the marina, so we headed there.

And we watched the colors fade.
And I just wanted to be a part of it.
By then the mosquitoes were out and eating us alive, so we scrambled back into the car to head back in the general direction of the hotel. 

Sunset in the rearview.
Even as darkness set in, the beauty didn't stop. 
We were starving by then but it was too early for reggae: it wouldn't start until 10:00 pm. So we looked around at which restaurants seemed full as we drove by, and noticed one called Sandbar & Grille, a two story building set away from the main road, right next to the Sound. A quick Google search revealed that it was decent, so we pulled into the parking lot. It took a minute to find a place to park: it was packed!

We waited for a table for about 30 minutes while sitting at the bar with Blue Moon pints. It was a fun little place. The bartender and waitress were lovely, and their key lime pie was to die for.

And then we headed for Lighthouse Sports Bar. 

Towards the end of the evening, I had been super gung-ho about going whereas Carlos was sort of "meh" about it. But the moment we walked into the bar, I wanted to leave. I'm not sure why. I just felt...uncomfortable. And I can't really pinpoint why. Nothing specific happened to make me feel that way. It was an unusual bar in that it felt like someone's home bar and living room from the 70's: really cool, actually! It was a large, open area with couches and bar tables to sit at around the dance floor, and a couple of pool tables on the far end of the floor. But I felt uncomfortable enough to not want to dance. So we stood around and enjoyed a couple of songs and right about then is when it hit me how very tired I was: it had been a very, very long day...and we headed back to the hotel.

I woke up the next morning to the alarm I had set for 6:00 am. I wanted to watch the sunrise because it would be happening in front of the hotel, over the Atlantic. I let Carlos sleep (I had told him I would be doing this), changed into a bikini top and shorts, and made my way down to the beach.

The sky was just starting to show its colors as I walked onto the sand. 

View from the stairs, taken from our side of the building.

I walked towards the "wild side" of the beach, in the direction of the dunes. A large sandpiper was my only company (I think he was some sort of Tattler sandpiper)
I walked along the shore as I waited.
The early morning breeze was warm and the foam from the waves was not icy, as I had expected.
And then the sun broke forth over the horizon.
I continued walking, waiting for it to rise above the clouds.
And when it did, I stopped. There was a large piece of driftwood conveniently lying in the sand right there, so I went over and sat on it to watch the spectacle before me. But as the sun rose above the thin strip of clouds over the horizon, I couldn't just sit there. I stood up and walked to the water's edge. 

I still have a hard time believing that I was really in front of this, that I witnessed it in person with my own two eyes. Like those of the sunset the night before, these are completely unedited cell phone photos.  I didn't tweak a thing about them; there was nothing to alter! 

I mean, seriously: this is a cell phone photo!!!
The sea looked like molten metal in the light.
I felt like I was in a Christian Riese Lassen painting.
I can't describe the way I felt. I looked out upon that stunning, stunning gorgeousness and my heart filled to the point that it just about burst with it, with the unbearable beauty in front of me. I had never before witnessed something so beautiful that I could hardly stand it.

The light shone through the backs of the waves, turning them to gold and copper.

And I thought, "I have found my Arroyo again at last." And the tears welled, overflowed and streamed down my face. And I both laughed and sobbed, because as always, the best things are those that find us when we need them most.
There is no concurrence, no coincidence: it is written.
I waited until the sun was well above the water, turning the entire sky and ocean to a pale, pale gold, before slowly making my way back to the hotel.

I loved this little guy. He let me get pretty close to him.
Back up the stairs to our room.
Again: completely unedited cell phone pic. The sea and the sky really were that color.
I woke Carlos up.

"How was it?" he asked.

"You need to come with me tomorrow," I said. "It is well worth waking up early for!"

As it would turn out, August through October are the most beautiful months on the Outer Banks. Not only had we unintentionally chosen the first week of the off-season to go (dramatic decreases in the price of everything), we had chosen a date right smack in the middle of the time of year when sunrises and sunsets are their most spectacular. You know, if we had tried to plan it that way, it would have never happened.

There was a little restaurant within walking distance of the hotel that I had looked up to make sure it was decent and affordable. They had great reviews and they served breakfast, so that's where we went.

It was called Diamond Shoals, named after a shifting sand bank off the coast of the Outer Banks that is considered one of the most dangerous parts of the Atlantic Seaboard, responsible for over 600 shipwrecks. It's another really cool story and you can go read about it here. There were ship models and paintings of stormy seas all over the restaurant, which is what prompted us to look up the name. "This is definitely named after something important!" we said. It is.

Breakfast portions were huge and the coffee was amazing.

And then we walked back to the hotel, grabbed the car keys and drove over to Conner's again, where I swept up and down the aisles checking everything out before deciding on food for a light lunch. I ended up choosing manchego cheese sticks rolled in serrano ham, coconut water, blackberries and...I stopped at the grapes section because two types of grapes caught my eye: muscadine and scuppernong. "Scupper-what?" I thought. They were huge and round and were every shade of green and reminded me of our Puerto Rican quenepa fruit, aka "Spanish lime" (they have NOTHING in common with limes, btw, other than the color of their rind!)

So I grabbed a pound of scuppernongs as well. As it turns out, they are the North Carolina state fruit, and I am so glad I went with my instinct because OH MY GOD they were amazing!! Tart on the outside, mildly sweet and soft on the inside.

And we grinned over the girl doing her grocery shopping completely barefoot. "Life goals," Carlos said. That's right up his alley for real.

Island beach towns are the absolute best, guys.

Back at the hotel, we put everything in the fridge and ran down to the beach, where we spent the rest of the morning.

We walked up and down the shore to both warm up and get used to the water's temperature: for whatever reason, it was colder now than it had been that morning! And we eventually dove in. And talked about surfing and bodyboarding and waves and island beaches and all the stuff we miss that we don't normally talk about because it's shelved in the recesses of our memories, lying dormant until now.

For the first time since moving to the US twelve years ago, I wanted to ride a wave as badly as when I used to live on the island.

Around noon we headed back to the room so Carlos could take shelter from the sun: he burns. We had lunch and then decided to drive around and see if we could find a decent surf shop. We wanted to look at bodyboard prices. Not necessarily to buy something right then and there, but to see how the market had changed during our long hiatus.

We drove around and explored. This was a really cool house and it was for sale!
I had missed this sight: surfboards on top of one car, ocean kayaks on top of the other!
Yes, this is an alien spaceship and it is a Hatteras Island icon.
Read about it here!
There was one place that was advertising as "everything 50% off!" We walked into the store, took one look at the clothes rack, a quick look at the bodyboard selection, and walked right back out.

It's not that they were 50% off. It's that they sold very, very cheap imitations of high-end gear and clothes...We both used to spend a large portion of our time in real-deal surf shops. Billabong, Roxy, Volcom were clothes brands I wore. My fave flip-flop brands were Reef and Sanuk. The store was fine for your average tourist that just wants stuff for their beach vacation though.

We stopped at another surf shop and they had the right gear clothes-wise and surfboard-wise, but all of their bodyboards except for four were some obscure brand named Hydro...and when they are discounted to $35 from $75...well, let's just say that bodyboards are like anything else: you get what you pay for. Cheap materials mean your board is more likely to take in water and sink, instead of floating and allowing you to skim over the water. We turned around and headed back out. It was understandable though: we hadn't seen a single person on a bodyboard, so the store was catering to the crowd they have on the island.

BUT... is highly likely that bodyboarding is in our future again now. :)

There was a place called Uncle Eddy's that had a mini golf outside and advertised homemade frozen custard. Carlos wanted to go (he loves frozen custard) but the place was still closed when we pulled up. We decided to drop off the car at the hotel and walk back, since it was that close. As we were getting into the car, two paramedics arrived in their ambulance. One of them stopped us to ask, "Have you been to Uncle Eddy's before?"


"It's worth waiting the 10 minutes until they open!" she said.

"Oh no, we're coming right back!" we said. I grinned. Again, the island showing us the way.

We did come right back, on foot, and the ice cream really was amazing.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach, walking up and down the shoreline and swimming in the water. We realized we could walk all the way to the lighthouse; it was only a mile up the beach!

I love this photo. It's a still from a video. I stood on the cement wall and lifted my hands just as that monster wave rose up out of the water. As I brought my hands up behind my head and it crashed against the wall just as I touched my head. It felt as if I'd invoked it.

Remember the iron wall next to the lighthouse, from the beginning of this trip?

There were channels in the iron that funneled the water upwards every time the waves hit the wall.

There were lots of jokes about these photos (durh) but I do love them anyway!...
Beach dog. <3
Hot blazing sun.
Fishermen. They were all over, and so very into their sport!
Afterwards, we headed back out to the far end of the island to watch the sun set again.

I love when he wears the long-sleeved shirts with ripped jeans and flip-flops.
We saved the coconut water bottles so we could use them for this...I poured wine into them so we could bring it with us for the sunset.

We stopped in the dunes area because I wanted to check out a side trail that led to the Pamlico Sound.

I wanted to sit here to watch sundown but Carlos insisted that there was a strip of land between the spot where the sun would set and the water. I rolled my eyes and acquiesced.
This place just never stopped with the beauty, though.

Back in the car, with the sea oats against the sky.
We drove all the way to The Wreck to watch from the docks...and then realized there was no place where you could be right next to the water to watch the sunset. So we ended up chasing the sunset again and driving back to the marina from the day before, where we just parked at the inlet and sat on the rocks with our wine.

The problem with living in a place like this is that you would eventually start taking it for granted.

And then dinner. A friend had recommended the Buxton Munch, which was right next to the liquor store from the day before, but as it turned out they only open for lunch during the off season. :( Across the parking lot was a place called Rusty's Surf & Turf and after a quick Google search to check reviews and the menu, we walked in.

Oh my GOD the food here was incredible!! The full menu isn't online so I can't remember the exact name of what I ordered, but it was brisket soft tacos with a side of rice and black beans and it was out of this world.

There were clear skies and a half moon so after dinner we went for long walk on the beach, going all the way up to the lighthouse again. It was beautiful and none of it showed up in photos other than this.

We went to bed relatively early because I would be dragging Carlos out to the beach to watch the sunrise with me.

It was worth it, again. I'll just let the photos speak for themselves.

The light of the lighthouse was on right up until 7:00 am.

Our footprints.
And then I followed the path of light into the water.

We walked back to Diamond Shoals for breakfast and hit the water one last time before packing up our stuff to return home. 

I played with the waves for a good hour. Carlos had way too much fun getting slow-mo video so he could get higher resolution stills from them. 

And then it was time to go. 

I looked at the sea one last time from the dry sand on the beach, and searched and found that all of the ache was gone. I was free. The wind whipped around my hair and I closed my eyes and opened them again, letting them sweep over the pounding surf. I refused to say good-bye to the water.

"We will be back," I said to the sea.

"We'll be here," the waves said.

I am not capsized anymore.


  1. Wow - I wish I'd known you were coming. This is where I live. Not far from the flying saucer actually.

    It is the most amazing place. And you can see the sunset from the water, you just have to know a local. ;D

    We should get in touch about future visits. xianleigh (at) earthlink (dot) net

    1. So I might have squealed in the middle of the gym when your comment came through...enough that Carlos ran over to see what was wrong! You are next on my "Blogger I Would Love to Meet" list! I will e-mail this week! There is another visit planned before the year is over, if all goes well! :D

  2. Definitely a beautiful place! Mountains are for me what the beach is to you, so I understand your feeling in the morning during the first sunrise. So happy you finally got your escape. I foresee multi-year visits in your future =)

    1. I love mountains and can't live without them. The problem with the East Coast is that you can't have both sea and mountains at once like you can on most of the Virgin Islands (see Arroyo pics!) It seems like in most places in this part of the US, if you want one you have to give up the other. And if I have to choose, I will choose mountains to live in because they are safer: no hurricane evacuations. Florida was a long slow torture because we had neither: no mountains on the horizon and no sea in front of us unless we were willing to pay double what we were already paying in rent while also dealing with all of the consequences of oceanfront dwelling in the tropics.

      Moving water is the place where I recharge. For the longest time, the rivers in this region were enough...until this year.

      I foresee multi-year visits too! Bodyboard options have been researched and decided upon, too...

  3. SO much happiness, peace and renewal. Those pictures are gorgeous. I have never been a beach person until we went with Wyatt to the Isle of Palms this summer and I fell in love. I find it fascinating how people are drawn to certain places for their soul to heal. For me it is the deep forest filled with silent places and with the sun filtering down through the leaves leaving speckles on the ground. Nothing can make me feel more calm and at ease with the world. For Dusty i is the vast, open desert.

    1. The place is gorgeous. I really do recommend it, if you guys are looking to head to the beach for a weekend or longer...though I hear SC has its fair share of beautiful beaches as well! :D

      It *is* fascinating how different people are drawn to different places for their souls to heal. <3

  4. I love this story. I, too, have a special place on the Ocean (Pacific, rocky, rugged for me) that calls to me.

    1. Seeing the Pacific from the Northwest is pretty high up on our bucket list. It is so gorgeous in photos! I'm thrilled that you loved this story. <3