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More Stories - The Way We Were

Out of Season
by Walter Mills of
Recipe du Jour

Most Thanksgivings we spend with my wife’s parents in the house where she grew up in State College. This year my wife, daughters, and I drove 600 miles to Myrtle Beach where my extended family was gathering to eat turkey together and celebrate my mother’s birthday.

When we left Pennsylvania it was cold and raining. The weather felt every bit of late November, a dull and bitter day with winter coming on. But with each state that we crossed heading south, we stepped back a few weeks into an earlier season. Virginia was October again, with some of the turned leaves still showing color. North Carolina was like a late September day, and we rolled down the windows as we drove. By the time we reached Myrtle Beach we were in the last days of summer, and some of us put on our swim suits and ran down to the ocean.

We crossed a wide, nearly deserted boulevard to reach the water. A small wooden bridge led through sea grass to a sand dune and down to a wide flat beach. Eight young cousins raced across the hard-packed sand and threw themselves at the waves, squealing. At 70 degrees, the water felt like ice.

Summer faded quickly. After a day or two we walked along the beach in windbreakers and long pants, looking out at a gray ocean, at dolphins leaping and shrimp boats trawling against the horizon. The wind came up and blew the tops off the waves and made the sand dance like whirligigs at our feet.

I had never been to Myrtle Beach, but it reminded me of other tourist towns I have known, like Virginia Beach, Fort Lauderdale, or Lake Tahoe. People are drawn to a place because it is beautiful and relaxing, and before long it is neither.

It is hard to love a tourist town. Miles of hotels and condominiums jam the beachfront, tacky T-shirt shops blast music on every corner, and there are more topless bars than churches. It’s hard to find a neighborhood of normal houses or a restaurant where locals eat. Out of season, Myrtle Beach feels hollow and unreal, like a movie set left behind when the cameras stop rolling and the cast has gone.

After a few days of playing tourist, my sense of reality was already growing thin. There were too many shopping malls and restaurants, too many miles of concrete. The large screen TV that someone always had on in the living room, tuned to CNN or Fox News, stopped conversations in mid sentence. I would turn it down or off, but before long it would be back on, the talking heads yakking like a bore who won’t let anyone else speak.

You see a lot of Myrtle Beach in our society, and sometimes it can come to seem like that is all there is, that we’re becoming tourists in our own lives. Still there was the beach and the ocean, new young relatives to get to know, and hours playing Scrabble with my mother at the dining room table. Thirty of us ate dinner together, and though we were almost evenly split in our political opinions, no one argued and no one’s feelings were hurt. It was hard having to say goodbye when the week was over.

Heading home on back roads Sunday morning, I began to recover my sense of reality. Up on the Interstate, the cars were whizzing by at 80 mph, but we stayed on the smaller roads when we could. We passed through small southern towns where men in suits and women in dresses were going in to church. We passed cotton fields next to ramshackle houses, country stores with a single gas pump out front, and farm stands selling boiled peanuts and turnips. Everything looked weathered with time and stained with toil.

We drove on back roads through much of the Carolinas and Virginia, with historical markers every few miles, and the names of old battlefields haunting the road signs. As we drove north the seasons unwound into their natural order, and soon we arrived home, hungry and tired, in a late November rain.

Reprinted by permission.  (The above column is copyright © by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. To contact Walt, see  .)

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