It might be the best October 28th I ever get.
With a forecast of sunny and 81 (and it actually made it to 84!), I got up resolved to address the last thing on my Fall 2014 to-do list (after having made it to Chatham Vineyards last month): visit Sandbridge for the first time.
As a life-long annual visitor to the Outer Banks, I could never get into the Virginia Beach experience. It just wasn't my thing. But earlier this summer, a loved one had assured me that I'd be happy as a clam at Sandbridge because it had a lot in common with the N.C. shore.
Surely there wasn't going to be another day as ideal for beach-combing this year as today. At least I wasn't going to take a chance on it.
So I packed a bag of essentials for a day at the beach, setting out five minutes after eating breakfast with a handful of past beach vacation mix CDs for my soundtrack. My only stop on the drive down was as a directionally-challenged visitor at the Virginia Beach visitor center to make sure I knew how to get to Sandbridge.
Even so, I didn't hesitate to ask a guy in the car next to me at a traffic light if I was on the right track. You can't miss it, he assured me.
He was right, I couldn't. I found the municipal lot with no problem and joined the mere seven other cars parked in it. Near the back of the lot was a line of tall, white lifeguard stations in off-season storage. Yes, I climbed one.
Doing my best pack animal imitation, I loaded myself up with an umbrella, my beach chair, the bag of supplies and a small cooler and crossed the street to the beach.
A woman was walking toward me nodding approvingly of my day trip supplies. "Can you believe this day?" she asked incredulously. When I told her it was worth driving from Richmond for, she lit up. "Good for you! It'll be worth it!"
I was counting on it.
Since it was fairly breezy, I did my best getting the umbrella in the sand but before I even finished setting up the rest of my camp, a guy walked up and asked, "Can you use some help?" and handed me his stainless steel thermos (I didn't presume what might be in it). "I used to do this a lot as a kid."
As he was working it well into the sand, he shared that he'd seen where a beach umbrella had blown away and killed someone in California. That would ruin my day, I told him. "I think it ruined theirs, too," he said with a grin.
Once he was certain I wouldn't be killing anyone with my shade device, I returned his drink and he walked on down the beach.
I was halfway through my lunch and the latest Rolling Stone when he returned to take stock. Looking at my "Rebuild New Orleans" t-shirt, he asked if I was from NOLA. Nope, I explained that I'd been there the year after Katrina, hadn't bought it then when these t-shirts were everywhere but found it in a thrift store the next year. So it had all worked out.
He praised my foresight in bringing a lunch and asked if I'd be staying on to see the rocket launch tonight. Duh. Could there be a better viewing point than where I sat? "Smart woman," he said and walked on.
After lunch, I did what I usually do after breakfast: left for a good, long walk. I headed north on the beach walking along the water's edge, surprised to find that it wasn't colder. Hell, it's been colder than that in July some years.
I wound up walking a couple of miles north, looking at the houses that lined the shore to get a feel for the area. While it was a huge improvement over Virginia Beach because there were no hi-rises and hotels, just about every single home was a McMansion.
Worst part? I didn't see a single beach house with a screened porch. I guess rich people don't use such things. The most impressive thing I saw was one house that had its windows open. One. Meanwhile, it's so gorgeous I'm out in the ocean up to my waist.
As I was walking back to my campsite, I saw that someone had set up only a few feet from me. Really? There aren't two dozen people on this beach and you're going to put you chair, cooler and three fishing poles within spitting distance of my stuff? Interloper.
Of course I just sat down and took out my book, the one from the ex-cop that I hadn't yet started, while my new neighbor went back and forth between the three lines he had in the water, once pulling in something small and saying, "I thought it was a flounder at first. Dig it!"
It was hard to believe November is four days away as I wiled away the time reading, lounging on a beach towel doing nothing more than listening to the surf and overhearing snippets of people's conversations as they walked the beach.
Eventually I got up and headed south for another walk where I was rewarded with three (small, older) houses with screened porches. By then the tide was well on its way out, leaving a massive sandbar that allowed me to keep going further out without ever getting more than my calves wet.
When I got back, the fisherman offered me something to drink: Gatorade or a PBR, both of which I declined. Suddenly, he spotted something on one of his lines and took off to grab the fishing pole.
All of a sudden, he turned around and yelled to me, "Come quick! Come down here and reel this fish in!" Now why a stranger would presume that I could handle a fishing pole is beyond me, but I was out of my beach chair in a flash and the pole was transferred to my untrained hand.
Like a sensei, he stood nearby coaching me every step of the way. "Keep reeling him in...pull back on the line occasionally...step to your left a bit, he's going this way...that's it, you're doing great...your husband's going to be so proud when you tell him you caught a fish!"
Now don't get me wrong, my Dad was an enthusiastic surf fisherman long before I came along and cut into his leisure time and as my five sisters and I got older, he continued to fish. Some of my sisters joined him, learning the intricacies of bait cutting, throwing and reeling. I was not among them.
My first fishing lesson learned today was that I needed to anchor the pole against my body because this fish was seriously challenging me. I put the end of the rod on my hip bone and hoped that would keep it steady.
Second realization about fishing was how much strength it was taking to hold the pole in my right hand against the moving fish and constant surf. And, honestly, after the first ten minutes, even my left hand was getting fatigued with the constant reeling.
I'd have thought I had a bit more fishing skill in my DNA than was proving to be the case. Sorry, Dad.
After what seemed like eons, I pulled in a great big, wriggling stingray, its tail whipping side to side menacingly. Well, that was a lot of work for nothing.
But my teacher didn't see it that way and quickly pulled the hook out of the stingray's mouth and directed me to get my camera so he could take a picture of me. Although I'd looked for it, I hadn't brought my camera because I couldn't find it. "Well, get your phone," he said.
When I explained that I didn't have a cell phone, his jaw dropped. "Really? You don't have a phone? I mean, that's cool. Really, no phone?"
His solution was to grab his own phone and instruct me to stand, pole in hand, next to my catch. He was pleased as punch that he'd gotten to see someone make their first ever catch, saying over and over again, "That was so great seeing you reel that in!"
But everyone has their talent and when it came time to e-mail the picture to me, he had no clue how to do that. Oh, sure, he knew how to text it to a cell phone, but I had to walk him through the steps to get it sent to me. "There, now you've got proof!" he said, as proudly as if I'd caught something worthwhile.
Hardly surprisingly, he was a local who'd played hooky (ha!) today to fish. He was impressed that I'd driven down from Richmond and understood my distaste to Virginia Beach, saying despite living nearby, he hadn't been in Virginia Beach for 25 years.
"Now this, this place, is a different story," he said, spreading his arms to encompass the wide beach and bright blue ocean and sky. His ten-year old dog, a white-muzzled sweetie who got worried every time her master ventured too far out on the sandbar to cast, looked like she enjoyed it just as much.
When I mentioned I'd be staying for the rocket launch, his face lit up and he thanked me. He'd forgotten about it and immediately began calling friends to tell them to come down and join him for the spectacle.
I tried to go back to reading but apparently reeling in a fish for the first time gets your adrenaline going so I gave up and went down to the ocean, trying to stay out of the way of the several fishermen around me.
It was already after 5 but people were still arriving at the beach despite the sun heading lower in the sky. As I stood in the water on the edge of the sandbar, my shadow was distinct on the relatively placid ocean surface, stretching all the way to the breakers.
As I was marveling at its length, the fisherman came down the beach toward me and when I looked over, he told me to stand still, shooting a picture of me against the blue of the ocean with the golden light of sunset illuminating me from behind.
When I came back up to my chair, he hurried over to assure me that he wasn't a creep who collected pictures of strangers. "The sunlight looked so beautiful and I thought it might be a nice reminder of your day here." Assuming that he wasn't a weirdo, I also sent this one to myself.
I've never known the pleasure of a late October afternoon with ocean water drying on my legs as the sun sets, but I gotta tell you, it's pretty magical. Clearly the salt air and sound of the waves had been just the thing.
As it got close to 6:00, friends of his began arriving (including a guy who used to live in Richmond), many with beers in hand and everyone faced northeast for the rocket launch. When we'd seen nothing by 6:24, someone started hollering that there'd been an explosion and the mellow group on the beach thought it was a joke. Sadly, it wasn't.
I started packing up my stuff, saying good-bye to the people I'd met, giving a chaste hug to the man who'd given me my first fishing experience and making a stop in the PortaPotty to change out of my damp bathing suit.
On the way into Sandbridge earlier, I'd noticed a little place called Margie and Ray's Seafood and my new friend had mentioned it unsolicited as a terrific place to eat. A day on the beach had given me an appetite.
I'd been told that the restaurant had begun its life as a general store and tackle shop on a dirt road in 1964 and become a restaurant in 1997 (with a paved road and everything).
It was bright, it was loud and it was full of locals. Plenty good enough for me.
I took a seat at the bar next to a couple eating fat, steamed shrimp. After ordering fish and chips, I asked the bartender what the fish was (telling him it didn't matter, I was just curious) and he said it was pangasius, a warm water fish from the Gulf. Very tasty, he assured me.
"Pangasius?" the man next to me said quizzically, looking at me and the bartender. "That sounds like a Greek god not a fish!" I suggested that it was the god of fish. Soon the three of us were chatting up a storm about political correctness and Halloween.
The problem was that they always chose "couple costumes" for Halloween parties. Last year they'd gone as Sonny and Cher, but since he's taller, he'd been Cher. Yes, I already liked these people. This year, they'd planned to be a priest and an altar boy but friends were saying that wasn't PC.
We talked about how half the comedians that came out of the '50s, '60s and '70s wouldn't be acceptable today. And how you could make yourself crazy worrying about offending people now.
Oh, and the bartender was right, pangasius was perfectly delicious as was the obscene mound of fries that accompanied it, all of which got dipped into housemade cocktail sauce.
When I finished and asked for my check, the couple offered to buy me a drink and continue our conversation. Much as I hate to turn down perfectly good tequila, I knew it was time for me to hit the road.
There were so many ways a day by myself at the beach could have turned out. Mine couldn't have been better. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take direction from a stranger.