Back in the early days of Globalization, Europeans (who don’t have to drive far to hit another country, you’ll recall) came up with a nice, simple way to give a shout-out to their home turf, or keep a public record of their motoring adventures. They had a system of simple, black-and-white (or patriotically colored) oval bumper stickers bearing the familiar and universally recognized initials of the country (or countries) in question. Unfortunately for all of us, this oval-bumper-sticker trend has since caught on in the United States with a vengeance, and true to form, we have managed to shred any meaning from this simple continental trend.
Every time I drive somewhere in the traffic nightmare that is sub-and-urban living, I see European-style bumper stickers with their requisite two or three letters. However the letters don’t have universal meaning any longer, watered down as they are with our national allegiances to a million different places, teams, hobbies and events. Regional holiday spots, local football teams, favorite computer brands, local bands and political sways have been compacted down into three-letter obscurity with a peculiarly American marketing savvy. I found myself tailgating offending SUVs (another unfortunate American trend, this one now being exported to Europe at an alarming pace … but at least their petrol taxes, good sense and tiny country roads are holding that at bay) to read what obscurity might be referenced this time.
(Go Bears not Great Britain, Dance Addict not Denmark, Grave Diggers Reunion not Germany ... the car below boasts Stone Harbor, Beach Bum and Avalon. I will admit I am a bumper sticker snob, but I believe this snapshot, taken at random this week, seals my case nicely.)
One acronym I noted with increasing frequency during my sojourn into east-coast traffic has been OBX. I finally came to read that this referenced the Outer Banks, but this was meaningless to me since I can draw a more accurate map of Southeast Asia than the United States. I later gathered from Peter this was a popular summer destination on the coast. After much ridicule of this frequent entry, it was with some chagrin that I realized these very Outer Banks were our destination for a late-June, pre-move family shindig on the beach.
As we approached the single road heading down onto the small, sandy strips of dunes and salt scrub that make up the costal barrier islands that are the outer banks, I began seeing the OBX acronym on more and more cars, trucks, SUVs and boat trailers. It was not hard to miss, as traffic piled and slowed until I felt like we were driving into New York City rush hour, and not out to a placid week of sun and sand. Only the back windows packed with beach towels, sun block and sand buckets, and boogie-boards on roof racks trailing their shredded leashes in the breeze gave me confidence we were headed in the appropriate direction. On some level, I felt like I was taking part in a truly American Cultural Phenomenon for the first time. Here I was, stuck in nose-to-tail traffic with thousands of identically packed cars, heading for respite from the heat at the coast on a hot summer’s Saturday afternoon. I was living a Don Dilillo novel. Delightful!
As we drove south, the traffic thinned. Eventually, we made our way to the house we shared with Peter’s family for the week. It was a wonderful week, full of sand and sunburn and pruned fingers. We slept with the sound of waves crashing through the windows, and nearly lost breakfast to gulls on the deck. Best of all, Peter and I rented two sit-on-tops for three days. I have been chomping at the bit to introduce him to the addiction that is kayaking, but finances (mostly) and situation (landlocked) have kept me at bay. We tried them out as soon as we got them back to the beach house. I gave a mini-tutorial, and we launched, paddling into a nasty headwind along a thin stretch of island next to the highway. We were primarily over a very shallow sandbar, the car drone was constant, seabirds nowhere to be seen, and the heavy wind (and Peter’s recently broken glasses) made the whole affair a rather miserable introduction.
I was, to put it very mildly, disheartened. Peter carefully noted that he wouldn’t mind all the other things if we weren’t paddling next to cars and houses and power lines. It didn’t help. I had tried to introduce my best friend to the thing I love most besides him and the hound (who, for the record, has been kayaking several times and hates is almost as much as she hates being *in* the water) and it was a spectacular flop.
The next day, I was determined to make up for it. We loaded the Kayaks on Annie (my faithful Subaru wagon … and I get plenty of flack as it is for naming my cars, thank you very much) and headed north, to the hope of better paddling. We drove right into a torrential downpour. My heart began sinking, and did not stop for over an hour. We plodded up and down the One Road, looking for put-ins or interesting coast line, dreading the cold drizzle but determined to try. Eventually, we reached the bridge at the end of the island. Instead of turning around, we drove over it to get gas in the next town. From the bridge we could see (on the far island) a wonderful network of channels between pockets of salt-grass, full of birds and possibility. We drove to the gas station, and while we pumped, the rain let up, sky cleared, and a beautiful evening followed the clouds down the coast. We booked it back to a public boat ramp we’d passed near the bridge, unloaded and slid into the water.
It was a perfect evening. The sky was clear, there was just enough breeze to keep the shore-bugs at bay, and the channels near the inlet were packed full of birds, fish and (apparently) a water snake. Peter took to the rhythm quickly as we covered the ground from the dock to the bridge. We explored as much as we dared as the sun set slowly over a continent we could not see. It did not take long for Peter’s face to take on the giddy, peaceful air that comes with being on the edge of the world, paddle dipping into another realm altogether, sliding silently up on birds with impossible colors and beaks, watching a small heron scoop a fish from the water yards from our bows.
When we finally caved to the dying light and began paddling back to the docks I realized, with a sweep of contentment, that our evening had fallen on summer solstice: the most generous of them all.