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Wednesday, 26 July 2006 00:00

I hear the mountains calling

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Even though she’s an Indiana girl who had only seen the ocean once before we met, there is something about the beach that feels like home to Tammy. She especially likes Sunset Beach, where we go every summer. When I was a kid, on the rare occasions my family took a vacation, we went to Myrtle Beach, about a half hour south of Sunset Beach, but another world entirely in character.

Myrtle Beach is kinetic, bright, boisterous, ostentatious. It’s a peacock preening in a thong. It’s a big wet dog loose in the house, knocking over lamps and getting your sofa muddy. It’s a couple you invited over for a dinner party who got way too drunk and didn’t know when to leave.

Sunset Beach is still, relaxed, quaint, folksy. It’s a terry cloth bathrobe and a pair of old slippers. It’s an old hound stretched out on the porch, one eye barely opening when something makes a noise. It’s an elderly stranger offering to take your family’s picture, then telling you about her daughter.

There’s a pontoon bridge, for goodness sake, that you must go over to get to the island. If you catch it at the wrong time, you might sit there for 15 or 20 minutes and watch the boats mosey through like cows ambling across the pasture, not in a hurry, not at all.

We like the atmosphere at Sunset Beach. Myrtle Beach has become so commercialized, even more so than when I was a kid. It’s mostly golf courses and familiar touristy attractions now. Even the Pavilion is closing. Basically, it’s Gatlinburg, with sand. Sunset Beach is more like Cruso, with an ocean. Not much going on, except beauty and peace. We like us a little bit of both.

“Oh honey, it’s the home of my heart,” Tammy said, as we rolled through Calabash, looking at all the familiar restaurants and ice cream and T-shirt shops, waiting there to greet us like a row of old friends at a reunion.

I laughed.

“What are you, a person or a postcard? And what about Waynesville? I thought you had adopted that as your new home. Can’t we call Sunset our ‘home away from home’? I could get it embroidered on a pillow for you. I bet there’s already a postcard.”

“You know what I mean,” she said. “It’s just a spiritual thing for me here. I’m just at peace with all of this.”

Great, New Age in a two-piece. Crystals slathered in Coppertone. Deepak Chopra in a Speedo. Kumbaya.

In fairness, I know what she means. There is nothing I like better than returning to the mountains after traveling, no sight more inviting than the first glimpse of the mountain range on the horizon, no feeling more comforting than the gradual ascent on a winding road, the land suddenly rising up on both sides of the car, cupping me in its palm, carrying me home.

I do like the beach, I do. But there comes a time, a defining moment, if you will, when you will realize whether you are of the beach, so to speak, or simply on the beach. That time came for me on day four of our vacation as we were making our way back to the motel after a four-hour outing on the beach.

I was lugging the folding chairs and the beach toys, and Tammy had the kids. I was slightly burned on my left arm in an odd-shaped splotch that somehow escaped the sunscreen. I was soaked from top to bottom, and my swim trunks were bunching up in the most unpleasant way as I walked, chafing me in regions best not chafed. About 60 percent of my body was coated in sand, and my shoulders felt as if they were being polished to a smooth sheen by a power tool where the belt from the folding chairs dug fiercely into my flesh. It was nearly a hundred degrees, the sun bearing down like it was personal between us. I felt like an ant being tortured under a magnifying glass by cruel boys with nothing better to do.

In short, I needed a hot shower and a cold beer, not necessarily in that order. I needed to be on a hammock between two big maples, trading the sound of crashing waves for the music of wind playing a tune in the leaves high above me. I needed to feel a real breeze envelop me, not an oven blast. I needed dry underwear. I needed to go home.

Yes, Sunset Beach is our home away from home. But it’s not home. I like to be on the beach, but I will never be of the beach.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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