SG | One of the most endearing things about Alabamians is their perception of what a beach should be. Only because, for those lucky enough to have been sheltered from the rest of our nation’s beaches, they think that’s just what a beach is. Vast stretches of powder-white sand so fine it squeaks when you walk across it. Warm, crystal blue waters, pristine aside from the occasional seaweed patch, jellyfish swarm or tar ball. The confidence that comes with a plethora of fail-safe dinner options, all serving up mountains of fresh fried fish and at least passable gumbo.
This is not the norm.
Sadly, my beach bubble was burst during college, when I was a summer intern in Washington, D.C. “Let’s go to the beach!” my roommates and I declared one weekend. Three hours later, we were somewhere north of Virginia Beach, sunning on a sad strip of dirty sand with the angry Atlantic whipping at us mere yards away. We attempted to console ourselves with a seafood feast for dinner. There was not one fried option on the menu. Not one. All steamed.
Steamed seafood is an abomination and an insult to the fish that gave its life to be on your plate.
It was at this point I realized there was something special going on along the Gulf coast. Beach trips were a part of life growing up. There was the car ride, which upon checking a map likely took close to four hours because, for whatever reason, my dad always opted to take state highways over I-65. This is despite the fact that on numerous occasions he referred to the stretch of road between the state capitol and the coast as “The Ribbon of Death.” It is a two-lane highway most of the way, so I can only assume there were a lot of accidents due to drowsy drifting or local drunks just trying to keep it between the ditches. Whatever the reason, in my college days, whenever I would mention to him that I was heading to the beach, he would just tell me to drive safe and then shake his head, muttering something about the Ribbon of Death. In my youth, we were never in an accident and the ride never really stood out in my mind as any sort of obstacle.
So jump to the beach trip itself. I feel we usually stayed for a week or so, although the amount of time never really entered the picture. A beach trip was a beach trip. My parents favored a little cottage cluster in Orange Beach or a nicer hotel in Perdido Key (across the line in Florida), the latter I later realized was likely associated with business trips. Regardless of where we slept, the beach was the same glorious white sand Shangri-La I described above. Mix that with bountiful souvenir shops (shelves laden with rubber sharks, coconuts carved to look like pirate heads, airbrushed T-shirts and hand-painted shells/sand dollars), putt-putt courses and seafood restaurants as far as the eye can see. The pinnacle of the trip was always a drive to Magic Mountain, a part of the Alvin’s Island chain in Panama City that from what I can gather may still exist, though in a less extraordinary form. I’m saying do some research before you take your kids there. I went in the ‘80s and it was awesome — a souvenir Mecca — although even then chicken wire was poking through the poured concrete volcano. It likely doesn’t hold up.
My memories of time spent on white Alabama sands are fairly care-free, aside from the occasional beached hammerhead carcass or terrifying jellyfish sting. A story the rest of my family tells but I remain oblivious too is the “pop-top under the pier” bit, in which my toddler self was playing under a pier with my brother when — as if guided by the great Jimmy Buffet himself — I stepped on a pop-top and started bleeding profusely from my foot. Needless to say, I had to cruise on back home, carried in my 11-year-old brother’s arms. Hear-tell I lost all color and passed out. Scary for my brother and everyone else, I’m sure, but my memories from that trip remain confined to frolicking in the surf and profitable trips to Magic Mountain.
These days I do love a good beach trip, although I am limited to finding the best approximation of what makes a good beach along the Atlantic coast. North Carolina’s Outer Banks get close. But I just can’t get used to hassles like semidiurnal tides and the very real chance you might pick a restaurant that doesn’t offer a “Captain’s Bounty” fried seafood platter option.
On a recent trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I even came across storm drain pipes dumping their warm, frothy contents directly into the ocean. I respect those little plaques near storm drains that caution against dumping toxins, due to potential fish kill, but I really never could have imagined any pipes actually regurgitating their contents directly into the fresh surf. Well in Myrtle Beach, they do. I had to walk through one and was compelled to scrub my feet with a bar of soap afterwards.
From our present home in North Carolina, I can’t take my family to any pure, clean Gulf beach without a 12-hour drive or a flight. Possibly with connections. We’ll get there one day, but I must accept that my children will grow up in a reality where the beach forever disappears or advances aggressively due to the creeping tide, and popcorn shrimp are not a given menu option.
I will leave you with one final pleasant memory. Just home from an Alabama beach-trip, my six-year-old-self has laid all my beach-loot out on the living room floor back in Montgomery. I gaze at it, wishing to be back from whence it all came. That may actually be my first memory of longing, or nostalgia for what has passed. I stood there on that Sunday afternoon, looking at all the shells (some painted), carved wooden pirates, wind-up diver toys and petrified horseshoe crabs collected from the trip, and I felt sad. For just one fleeting moment.
The sound of the Gulf was calling me back, but I was miles away. As I remain.