Monday, July 7, 2014

Bring It, Art!!

When you're talking about a week at the beach, do you focus on what you did or didn't do?

Sunday: Arrived at the same little oceanfront cottage I've been renting for 20 years to find the ocean an incredibly warm 77 degrees, a drastic improvement over last year when the water was so cold we couldn't go in all week. I wasn't in the water half an hour before the surf knocked me over, earning me incredulous looks from my crew when I emerged.

"Is that blood on your leg?"  Given the missing skin over my kneecap, I just assume it's a rhetorical question and let it bleed. Sure, my legs are the moneymaker, but ocean cred has been established early on. As the fireman has been known to say, YOLO (you only live once). We are resolved to drink a Rose a day all week long.

First beach read of the week: Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone.

Monday: Our morning walk on the beach reveals that Southern Shores, the beach just north of us, has lost considerable width over the past year. Morning tides are high, so shell collecting is abundant. After a day of nothing more than sitting on the beach reading, forays into the now 78-degree ocean and napping, we clean up and head south to Outer Banks Brewing Station where locally caught steamed shrimp and fat hushpuppies are just the ticket to soak up our extended Monday happy hour on the porch.

Tuesday: While I've yet to check my e-mail since we arrived, the male members of the household are keenly attuned to the outside world and today's World Cup match between U.S. and Belgium. They're not going to watch it anywhere that serves mussels, so I decline to join and spend a happy afternoon with the womenfolk, reading 1913: The Year Before the Storm, full of anecdotes about Stravinsky, Freud, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann.

We stay in the ocean so long that our fingers resemble prunes when we make it back to the house to shower off the briny water. Already, my skinned knee is healing thanks to the salt. Once the balance of the sexes has been restored (after the U.S. team's heartbreaking loss), two of us take to the beach and walk up to Art's Place ("Locals welcomed, tourists tolerated...sometimes") for burgers and more N.C. shrimp.

When I ask about the sign outside touting "Live music tonight 7 p.m." our server, Courtney, looks abashed and says, "Oops, I was supposed to change that. Live music was last night." We're happy enough to spend the rest of the evening sitting on the porch swing listening to the black ocean, the whitecaps the only visible indications of the sound's source.

Wednesday: In addition to the four decades of music (heavy on the '90s) that the local radio station plays (the playlist varies so little from year to year that we could practically write it out ourselves...and therein lies part of the charm), today's patter is full of talk of Arthur, the tropical storm gathering force and heading directly for us.

Interestingly, in a quarter century of vacationing during this week, we have never had a hurricane. As one of the pithy members of the household noted, "hashtag Al Gore." Indeed. The DJ says the ocean needs to be 82 degrees for a storm to form and since we have been in the upper '70s for days, we plan accordingly.

That means it's date night and we start with a drive down Collington Road, where we end up at a little locals bar called the Blue Crab ("the crab" to those in the know) where we take our libations out to the soundside deck when a man looks at me and calls out, "I was waiting for you! I knew you'd come."

Once again, it has been proven that I carry the gene that causes strangers to talk to me. My date chooses the furthest table, albeit with only one in between us and my new admirer, and we observe bird life on the sound while a foosball game goes on nearby.

Our dinner destination, the Brine and the Bottle, is on the causeway and new to us both, although we're into its slogan - get pickled! We sit on the deck, the pre-Arthur wind whipping my hair around non-stop but also bringing a sense of weather excitement to the evening. Mortified when I drop my knife and it neatly slides between the wide-set boards of the decking, our server assures me it happens all the time. "Periodically we just send someone underwater to retrieve all the dropped stuff." Don't sweat the small stuff, I get it.

To start, quail and pickled anaheim chili waffles and fried green tomatoes with S.C. peaches, candied bacon and buttermilk chive dressing before I move on to a soft shell crab with pickled ramp tartar sauce while my date has olive oil-poached mahi mahi. After moving to the other side of the deck, we finish with two desserts - one chocolate, one blueberry and peach - and bubbly to toast vacation.

Not that the evening needed to get any better, but we make a final stop at Kelly's to hear the Deloreans, an '80s cover band that eschews the hair bands of Sweet Justice for pop. Cyndi Lauper, the Go-Gos, Prince (oh, yes, we partied like it was 1999), performed by a female lead singer who played a bass with day-glo strings, a snarling guy mimicking Billy Idol and another who looked like David Byrne. It was a blast.

Thursday: Arthur becomes official and Hatteras Island was being evacuated, but not us, so people began preparing for the storm, battening down hurricane shutters on the few houses that still have them. Food Lion puts up corrugated metal sheeting over their windows. Awful Arthur's changed their sign to read, "We had the name first!" and homeowners boarded up windows with plywood spray painted, "Go away, Arthur" and, three houses down from us, the cocky, "Bring it, Art!"

You can call Kitty Hawk the "ghetto of the Outer Banks," but I like its attitude.

With the ocean suddenly a chilly 59 degrees, swimming was out, but not eating. Lunch of fried rockfish strips, fried okra and cole slaw plus chocolate milkshakes at John's drive-in was interrupted only when a John's employee came to take away our table umbrella, sure that Arthur was imminent. We didn't have the heart to tell him it was 12 hours away.

A cop stopped by the house to suggest we move our cars to higher ground (which we did) but didn't warn us to leave, in fact reassured us they'd be around all night if we needed anything. Fog rolled in so heavy toward early evening that the Kitty Hawk pier, barely a third of a mile away, was invisible in the mist. Visibility on the ocean kept diminishing. Many of the vacationers in nearby houses packed up and left.

We did the only sensible thing: had a long happy hour on the porch and then ate crabs, corn and cole slaw on the picnic table. Everyone wanted to get in bed early so we could get up once the storm arrived and watch.

Today's beach read: When French Women Cook

By 2:30 a.m., Arthur was overhead and the wind was a pretty continuous high-pitched whine while the surf pounded just outside. We all got up to watch and discuss before going back to bed and re-emerging at 5:30 once the wind had shifted from off the ocean to off the sound. It was then that Arthur began ripping off siding and insulation from the house across the street and eventually ours, leaving pieces to beat against the house until the wind died finally down. My first hurricane at close range: a rousing success and great entertainment.

Friday: The "no swimming" flags were up when we awoke and the surf was rough enough (and only 65 degrees) to ensure no one would flaunt the flags except surfers, so we called the Nags Head pier to see if they were serving and then drove south to survey the damage and eat.

Like our house, many had taken more than a few blows on the north and eastern sides and there was a lot of sand on the road in places, but all in all, the beach looked pretty good. We ate our pancakes, eggs and sausage gravy watching throngs of vacationers milling about on the beach, like sightseers at a train crash.

It was a fine, sunny afternoon for reading and talking to strangers. Our house's scarred look meant that we were part of the beach gawker tour that afternoon and more than a few people stopped to take photos or ask about the damage. One woman asked to come all the way up on the porch, concerned because her mother spends two weeks in that cottage every May, "So it feels like home to us." Tell me about it, toots.

With all the fireworks rescheduled, dinner was served at Ocean Boulevard where we had the same bartender we've had for ten years. After the OBX skillet with pork shoulder, goat cheese, and tomato chutney, I went for a bistro salad and pan-seared scallops while next to me, a one-pound veal chop was my date's choice and my, but it was tasty. We were leaving just as fans of the Hound Dogs family band were arriving, but after so much hurricane-watching last night, we needed a rest.

Beach read: VCU professor Tom De Haven's Dugan Under Ground.

Saturday: Glorious weather for our last full day. No swimming flags still up, but water warming up nicely. I took my morning walk in both directions to see what there was to see. Between those who evacuated and those whose cottage terms ended on Saturday, it was not particularly crowded anywhere. Not ashamed to say I did some serious beach napping all afternoon and burnt my buns.

And then the day trippers began arriving. Fortunately, without ocean access, many left before long and we had our beach back. Finally, at 5:00, the no swimming flags came down and most of us hit the water, now a lovely 72 degrees, immediately. I only had one knockdown, luckily not on the healing knee, although my sunburnned back end didn't deserve it, either.

Best of all, we had happy hour standing knee-deep at the ocean's edge, a first but most certainly not a last. If you can balance your Rose while all around you post-hurricane waves are crashing on you, then you are truly beach-worthy.

Dinner was in-house and pitch perfect: bacon cheeseburgers, succotash made from butterbeans, corn and onions procured at the Grandy Market farm stand on the way to the beach, and salad of mesclun with Grandy peaches and radishes bathed in a goat cheese dressing. Yum.

Full as ticks, we dragged blankets (and bubbly) to the beach for the fireworks, all of which were south of us this year. Usually it's like a tennis match, heads swiveling to see both north and south, but this year we could focus all our attention to the Avalon pier.

As a bonus, there was a fire-twirler performing on the beach next to us and we watched him in between explosions. Happy birthday, America.

Sunday: To keep it fresh, we did the morning walk down in Nags Head where plenty of people were surfing but we were happy just strolling. Cowabunga. Then after a stop to get a N.C. map, it was on to Manteo for a walk around the waterfront admiring schooners, pirate ships and tycoon-type yachts until Avenue Waterfront Grille opened and we commandeered a table overlooking the sound and marina to eat, drink and map out a course.

Then heading west on Roanoke Island, we glided over multiple bridges (including waiting on one swung open for a boat to clear), through lots of swamps, past signs warning of bears and red foxes, when we unexpectedly saw a sign for "Vineyards on the Scuppernong" and pulled into a visitors' center to get the scoop.

A short boardwalk from the nature center (no bears or foxes spotted), we came upon the former firehouse and Columbia town hall turned winery. A surprise wine tasting in the afternoon? Thanks, I think I will. The grapes were all sourced from New York and many were fruit wines (the peach which was blended with Chardonnay being particularly winning, a refreshing light summer wine) but there were two dry ones and we had a glass of the Armadas made with 100% Viognier after we finished the tasting.

Wandering up Route 17, we eventually decided on Norfolk for dinner, enjoying steak frites and our final Rose of the week on the patio of the Green Onion. "Way to stretch out vacation as long as possible," my companion observed, clearly as satisfied as I was about our marathon trip back.

Why limit happy to only an hour? Why keep a week at the beach to a mere seven days? Why do birds suddenly appear?

Only checked my e-mail once all week. Didn't listen to the dire predictions about weather. Didn't always take a buddy in the ocean with me despite rip tides. Didn't blog.

Arthur? Just part of the fun. Next trip to the beach can't come soon enough. Bring it.

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