1. Where are you?
2. What are you doing?
3. When are you coming back?
I've heard those questions--or something like them--just about every time I check the messages on our at-home answering machine.
1. In North Carolina
2. Hanging out with a two-year-old.
3. How's the weather back there?
The slightly longer version is that we'll be spending part of our time down here for at least this next year, so that we can finally get a chance to be close-by grandparents to our two younger grandkids, instead of the more distant "see you at Christmas" kind we were forced to be with the older ones.
I've already written a bit about the beautiful views and the beachcombing lifestyle I've been doing my darnedest to pursue, but it wasn't until I started to read and explore that I began to realize what an interesting, diverse story Topsail Island has to tell.
It's one of the long line of barrier islands that border the North Carolina shore. We first discovered it over 30 years ago when we drove along this section of coastline late one night and looked for a hotel to stay in after three weeks of beach camping, sandy sandwiches and cold-water showers. We didn't have much luck that night, because the Island has never had much in the way of hotels and resorts, partly because it's too narrow to really develop and partly because it's a little off the beaten track.
As it turns out, that's the good news.
While we were disappointed in our long-ago search for clean sheets and hot water, we're now enjoying the fact that the narrow configuration of this 26-mile spit of sand has caused it to remain comparatively underdeveloped, especially as far as giant high-rise hotels, resorts and restaurants go. The island is just wide enough to accommodate one "main" two-lane road for much of its length and only offers a couple of bridges on and off. There are three towns on the island. Smack dab in the middle is Surf City, a retro-hip 50s and 60s-looking beach town that sends Beach Boys tunes swirling through my head every time I drive through it. On the south end is Topsail Beach, an older vacation community that manages to squeeze more beach bungalows throughout a winding series of path-like streets than you'd think possilbe. The area where we live--North Topsail Beach--is a little newer and more sparsely populated; not because it's more exclusive, but because a pair of 1996 hurricanes pretty much wiped the place clean. There's one grocery store on the island, a teeny-tiny IGA that features a good selection and surprisingly reasonable prices, even on busy summer weekends; a smattering of beach-style bodegas and an amazing 1000-foot fishing pier just down the way that also offers a cafe and bait shop/convenience store.
If you want more than that, you've gotta get on one of those bridges and head for the mainland.
But if you're happy with two-way water views, the narrowness of the island means our morning vista offers ocean sunrises, while evening sees the sun setting in our backyard over the intercostal waterway that separates the Island from the rest of North Carolina.
According to some historians, that channel between the mainland and the island accounts for its unusual name. Topsail (pronounced top-sul) refers to stories of marauding pirates who hid their ships in the channel behind the island and waited for slow-moving merchant ships to pass by along the coast. Eventually, the merchantmen got wise to the hiding place and kept an eye out for the top of the pirate mainsails over the high dunes of the island--the topsails.
Whether or not that tale is true or not, it is a certainty that pirates, including Stede Bonnett and the infamous Blackbeard roamed these waters, with some claiming that pirate treasure still remains buried on the island.
So I've got a mission now. Every time I walk the beach or explore the sound-side marshes and thick maritime forests, I'll keep my eyes peeled for glimpses of gold buried in the sand. It's a good switch from shell-searching, and hey, a little treasure would come in handy.
Of course, when I see the sunlit ocean, the miles of sandy beach, and, especially, the look on my wife's face every time she greets her grandsons, I realize I've already found it.