Ode to the Summer Vacation
Travel Stories: The sun. The sand. The improvised Taco Bell sing-alongs. Terry Ward revels in the power of her family's long ago trips to the Outer Banks.
08.09.10 | 7:30 AM ET
We always left home on a Saturday—after the newspaper was delivered, so there would be reading material for my parents along the way, but long before the mailman came by with the bills.
Every August, my family carved one week out of a busy year to flee the Washington, D.C., suburbs and the circuitous structure of lives that buzzed like the Beltway at rush hour—a loop of work and commuting, school and sports practice, grocery shopping and homework.
The night before we’d depart for our summer vacation in the Outer Banks, I’d find my father fretting in the driveway over how best to strap down the X-Cargo rooftop carrier and the logistics of packing a week’s worth of provisions into the family vehicle (always some variation of a mini van or station wagon). Already delineated in the back seat were clear if imaginary lines that my brother and sister were not to cross under threat of annoying me, the dominant eldest.
In the morning, my mother rose early to make deviled eggs, fill the thermos with iced tea and organize the cooler into layers to match our snacking progression throughout the six-hour drive. In travel, as at home, life revolved around filling our stomachs.
My dad would inevitably have forgotten to account for the cooler in his packing scheme, and there would be last-minute adjustments under the watchful eye of manager mom. Then my grandparents would pull into our driveway in their gunmetal gray Oldsmobile with the plush velvet seats, American flag bumper sticker and a full tank of gas. And our adventure would finally begin.
Filled with anticipation for the biggest treat of the year, we’d roll caravan-like from the cocoon of our neighborhood, called the Hamlet, where every street bore a Shakespeare-inspired name, and make our way to what felt like a faraway land—a neighborhood called Sea Tern in Duck, North Carolina, where we rented a beach house.
On the drive south, when we’d near the exit sign for Creighton Road, my sister, brother and I would press our faces to the backseat window, gesturing wildly at my grandpop, also named Creighton, who beamed with pride a respectable trailing distance away behind the steering wheel of his Olds.
“I’m an Irishman,” he’d always say. “Why else would I drink my tea with milk?”
It was a long while before I had any idea what he was talking about.
Rambling along the highway, my mother alternated between making sure my father wasn’t falling asleep and dispersing snacks to the three of us in the backseat, like an osprey feeding her brood. If we behaved, we were rewarded with a Taco Bell stop. But my parents, for their own entertainment, I suppose, always made us earn our fast food with a song. And with a chicken soft taco as the ultimate reward, I was more than happy to devise lyrics and employ my sister and brother as the chorus:
Me: Where’s that place we love to eat? Where’s that place gonna knock us off our feet?
Them: Taco. Bell. Taco. Bell.
Me: Where’s that place we love to yell?
All: Where’s that place? It’s Taco Bell!
At no time since has the joy been so much in the journey, in the carefree course of getting there. Leaving our neighborhood behind. Driving down the highway for hours, then finally exiting east for the coast. The kids falling quiet and expectant in the backseat as the scenery changed from a crush of cars to the blowing marshes and roadside fruit stands that meant we were getting close.
Then collecting the keys from the Realtor and dashing up the wooden stairs of the house. Seeing the familiar bay windows that framed the dunes and dark blue Atlantic like a Bob Ross seascape. The wicker papasan chairs in the living room where my grandmother would retire with her martinis. And the rickety boardwalk traversing the dunes to the beach.
In the late afternoon, when the shadows started to lie on their sides, we’d play whiffle ball in the cul-de-sac, the air scented like a beachy bakery, sun on sea oats. Then we’d jump into the ocean and wash off under the planks of the porch in an outdoor shower that drained onto oyster shells.
Memories like sand through an hourglass.
Wrapped in a towel, watching the afternoon storms roll off the sea, the clouds layered like moods on the horizon, changing and deep. The pieces of driftwood my mother scavenged from the beach that became canvases for the sand-dollar shards and ray egg sacks we collected.
At night, the sky prickled with points of light, my dad would channel Carl Sagan, telling us there were more stars in the universe than grains of sand on every beach in the entire world. It was more than my mind could grasp. It still is. But back then, I only knew where we’d come from and where we were—the beach house I never wanted to leave.
For someone who can barely recall where she spent last New Year’s Eve, I’m amazed by the permanence in my brain of these early travel experiences—by definition, not nearly as exotic as the places I’ve been since, but in many ways, more deeply defined. Maybe it’s because they happened during a time in life when everything was new and had that limitless power to impress—and little to which it could be compared. That feeling of voluntarily leaving somewhere so secure—home—and arriving somewhere so different was, I realize, my first taste of how it felt to be free. What it meant to fly the proverbial nest—be it a suburb or an entire country—and realize you can feel at home anywhere, as long as the company is right.
At some point, my family stopped going to Duck. I left for college and moved far from home. I was doing other things, as they say, of which there were suddenly as many as there are grains of sand on every beach in the entire world.
But that beach will always be where it began.