Going with the grains: Reflections on an Outer Banks vacation


The beach where reporter John Kelly spent his vacation in Avon, N.C., on July 31. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist August 10

Thoughts from a week at North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Toward a taxonomy of sand

All sand is not the same. First there is the dune sand: soft, powdery, bristling with sea oats. This sand is difficult to walk on — not because it’s so hot (though by the afternoon it will be), but because it’s so dry and so loose. You start out wearing your flip-flops, then kick them off, thinking bare feet will give you more purchase as you scrabble through the thick, sinking sands. (It doesn’t.) Though the sand is pale, you somehow end up with black powder all over your soles, as if your feet have attracted dark unseen particles of pulverized lava.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Next comes friable sand. It covers the broad band of beach you walk on after you’ve descended from the dune. This is the beach’s no-man’s land, a place of blackened bonfires and spent fireworks and desiccated cigarette butts. The trash cans are here, posted every 60 yards or so and surrounded by pitchpoled beach umbrellas, mangled folding chairs, busted plastic spades. This sand is mildly unnerving, and you move quickly across it.

Finally you reach the beach sand. This is why you drove seven hours. There is an almost erotic pleasure in twisting your naked feet into this cool sand: nature’s dermabrasion treatment.

Just below this, where the Atlantic kisses North America, is the surf sand. With each retreating wave, tiny holes appear in the wet, percolating sand, evidence of burrowing creatures. You are as a Titan to these puny sand fleas. They quake at your tread!


The beach where reporter John Kelly spent his vacation in Avon, N.C., on July 31. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

And then, as you enter the water, you step on something. Uh-oh. A crab? A sting ray? No. This is the seashell band, a scree of broken seashells spread like shattered crockery.

You continue into the water. The firm sand gives way to a gloopy, viscous sand. Weird.

And then there is no sand at all. The beach has dropped away and you are floating. You rise and fall with each wave, reveling in the ocean’s amniotic embrace.

Lawrence of Carolina

I watch as parents pull heavily laden carts that roll on huge bulbous tires across the sand in search of the perfect beach spot, toddlers following on uncertain legs.

A young man pauses. He carefully places the surfboard he is carrying across the bannisters of a wooden boardwalk, then whips off his gray T-shirt. He reaches into the shirt’s neck hole, pulls the tail through and with a practiced hand ties it off, creating a new garment. He studies his handiwork, then lifts it, fitting the neck hole onto his forehead and tossing the rest over his shoulders.

Looking like a sheik from a silent film, he strides toward the water.

Crab nebula

I head out early one morning to watch the sun rise.

The sand is covered in the crisscrossing tracks of ghost crabs, crustacean hieroglyphs, like an unknown shorthand.

Shhhh. . .

When our daughters were little, we spent a week at the beach every summer. But we hadn’t been for five years, for the simple fact that I don’t actually like the beach. Sand is gritty. Sunblock is sticky. When salt water dries on your back, it’s itchy.

I had thought that this summer’s vacation would be an epic road trip. (I even asked readers for help in planning it.) But then something happened.

I am standing in the checkout line at the grocery store when a man walks up, stands behind me and starts eating yogurt. He is smacking his lips loudly as he eats: Slurp, smack. Slurp, smack.

In that instant, I realize I cannot take a summer vacation that involves interaction with other humans. I need a beach.

At the last minute, we are able to book a house on the Outer Banks. It is the smallest in the neighborhood, a single story in a clutch of double- and triple-deckers, its unpainted wooden exterior weathered to a steely gray.

Miraculously, it is oceanfront, not that we can see the ocean from the house: The dunes are too high. And so there is a two-story tower out back, and from it I can look over the dunes to the beach and the greeny-blue ocean beyond. The horizon is so straight, it looks as if it’s been scribed with a stylus and a metal T square.

I sit on my tower — a novel on my lap — and I realize it isn’t being in the ocean that’s important to me. It isn’t even seeing it. It’s hearing it.

Not slurp, smack, but shhh, shhh, wave after wave upon the shore, as regular as breathing.

Susurration. Respiration. Inspiration. Vacation.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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