At the end of the rutted two-track, which wound through a tunnel of water oaks toward where the sand met the sound, she didn’t stop.
She traipsed past the oyster bed and headed around the sandy bend, tongue out, prance intact, hardly looking back. I held the leash in my hand, and as she nosed everything she passed, I just watched.
After a decade, she was back and happy. Our dog, Strider, had returned to the Outer Banks.
We Rowes first brought her as a puppy. She was no more than six weeks old when we joined Andrew and Betsy Miller along with their two young daughters, Anna and Megan. Back then, we stayed at a huge beach house a few miles north of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and spent our days in the sand and our nights with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
From watching those three films, we Rowes named our border collie after the film’s intrepid hero Aragon, also known as Strider. My kids, Will and Elizabeth, were big fans. But when it came to the Outer Banks, that’s not all we embraced.
Over the past 25 years, we’ve traveled up and down the Outer Banks with the Millers at least seven times – first a few years after college, then right after Andrew and Betsy’s wedding, later as child-free couples and then as couples with young kids.
This month marked trip No. 8.
But this time was different. We hadn’t spent a week together in a decade. We were older, our kids had grown in height and intellect, and we had celebrated life’s big moments and endured heartaches far from one another’s presence.
Plus, the Miller daughters were no longer the freckled-faced youngsters I knew. Anna is headed to law school; Megan is entering her junior year in college; and the dogs they brought, Sam and Rosie, were unfamiliar additions to our Outer Banks crew.
But I shouldn’t have worried about the awkwardness years apart could bring. We picked right back up where we had left off a decade ago. Conversations came easy. Silence did, too. And Strider got along with Sam and Rosie.
Like a slow-moving circus, we traveled together once again. We journeyed to the beach, to the ferry, to Ocracoke Island and to a wildlife preserve where we spent two hours one morning riding horses along a narrow sandy path that led us to the Atlantic Ocean and back.
That was just … beautiful.
I rode this huge horse named Doc, and as we plodded through Buxton Woods Coastal Preserve, pushing through water and trudging underneath a canopy of water oaks and wax myrtles, I cradled Katherine’s iPhone and kept telling myself, “Don’t drop it!”
But that wasn’t the only noise in my head. From that solitude in the forest, I remembered a discovery a week or so ago – “Inversaid,” a poem written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1881. Or really what I remembered were the last seven lines:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet,
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Our days on the Outer Banks were dictated by the rising tide and the day’s sunset. We’d sit at the end of the dock or even in the crow’s nest atop the house we rented, and watch the last light of the day dip below the horizon and bathe everything in this ethereal orange glow.
Then, we’d clap.
The next day, we were off. We’d walk the dogs down the rutted two-track toward the Pamlico Sound in the morning and hit the beach in the afternoon. Then, one afternoon, we explored the back streets of Ocracoke and found conversation starters around every lazy bend.
A fence of shells.
The handwritten hosanna about shrimp.
The homegrown joy of local radio.
And a few weather-beaten tombstones with a half dozen or so lines, chiseled in granite, intended to capture a life.
Like the one about “Baba.’’
She was born in 1912, a month after Titanic sank. She died in 1969, the same month when an American astronaut took his first steps on the moon. Baba was an Ocracoker, a grandmother born and raised on the island.
On her tombstone, in a private cemetery behind a white picket fence, were these words:
To love someone more dearly every day
To help a wandering child find its way
To ponder o’er a noble thought
And pray and smile when evening falls
That was her task.
Words to live by.
I put away my iPhone, finished two books, started a third, had a beer by noon and steered clear of my laptop for hours at a time. I took as gospel the words of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug for a few minutes, including you.”
When I did, I rediscovered a friendship formed long ago when a basketball court was my first church and journalism was more of a wish rather than a reality.
That brings me to Andrew and Betsy and the University of South Carolina.
When I first met Andrew, we almost got into a fight. Really.
He thought I was guarding him way too close during a basketball game at the student center. I called him a few names I won’t mention here and told him to … hmmm … grow a pair. Then, we went back on the court and played against each other once again.
A year later, I sat in the back row beside Betsy Huggins in my Latin American history class. She was a cute girl from the small South Carolina town of Newberry. We studied together, we became friends, and one night, she invited me over for dinner to meet her boyfriend.
Her boyfriend was Andrew.
Hmmm. Well, OK. Maybe, I was … er … wrong about that mouthy shooter from Greensboro.
That’s how it began. And that’s how we all grew close.
During our senior year, we toiled in the windowless newsroom below the Frank McGuire Arena and put out a weekly newspaper known as the Carolina Reporter. We assigned stories, wrote stories, edited stories and laid out stories. We lived in that dungeon of a newsroom, and we lost track of everything except fundamental tenets of journalism — who, what, where, when, why and how.
Is it Wednesday?
Did anyone order pizza?
And gawd, is it beer time yet?
Along the way, we got better. We learned about journalism. We also learned to trust and love one another. You know how it is. You work side by side for months at a time, depending on each other’s talent and good humor to lift you from the often thankless fray of word work. Bonds do form.
I still remember the day we graduated 32 years ago. It was a sun-dappled day in May, and there we all were, members of the Carolina Reporter, mugging for the camera and knowing we had survived what we all saw as a journalism boot camp.
After that came many postcard moments.
I slipped into a tux when Andrew and Betsy got married and stood a few steps from them when they took their vows. Then, at the reception, I picked up Andrew and tossed him into a pool.
A year or so later, I visited Andrew and Betsy at their home in Charleston, S.C., and introduced them to my girlfriend over lunch. When they were leaving, Betsy leaned out the window and hollered, “Jeri, she’s a keeper!”
That girlfriend, Katherine, is now my wife.
Those kinds of moments do make a life, and they kept Katherine and myself heading south on N.C. 12 along that finger of barrier islands, a place of mystery, buried treasure and pirates, a spot where as a kid I’d look at the map and think, “What is down there?”
For us, down there was Andrew and Betsy Miller, and a time to make more moments that we can remember forever.
This month, we did.
Betsy and I scarfed down two plates of raw oysters at Howard’s Pub. She has always been my partner in that. We also played Howard’s legendary ring game on the porch, which I once referenced in a story I wrote for Our State more than a decade ago.
In that piece, I used the ring game as a metaphor of lasting friendship and memory. And of course, Betsy and Andrew were the images in those words.
Today, Andrew and Betsy are the last from our tight-knit, pizza-eating crew from USC still in daily journalism.
They both work at the Post & Courier in my hometown of Charleston, S.C. Andrew covers all things sports, and Betsy manages people and helps supervise the newspaper’s design.
Like we did a decade ago, we talked this month about the troubles of our profession. Yet, those conversations were short. So were our conversations about the state of our nation.
We simply shared stories about times past and times present as we sat at the beach, beside the pool, on the porch or at the oblong dinner table.
On our last night together, we stayed around that dinner table for nearly two hours. Stories and laughter came in waves. I caught myself more than once thinking, “Where has the time gone?”
Like with Anna.
I watched her grab a beer, and I thought, “Wait a minute …” Then, I remembered, “She’s 22.” But in my mind’s eye, I’ll forever see this little girl with a head full of curls, overheated by the Outer Banks heat and urging us to go back to the beach house by cooing over and over one word:
The Miller girls had grown up.
The Rowe kids, too.
The morning we left, I walked Strider up the rutted two-track around the corner from our beach house one more time. Dragonflies flitted around us, and I counted the salt marsh morning glories that framed both sides of the path.
My kind of math.
Once we got to the end, where the Pamlico Sound looks as broad as an ocean, I watched Strider head down the beach once again.
The only sound was the wind; my only thought was a roadside marquee I saw online a few weeks ago. It read:
Do more things that make you forget to check your phone.
Did do that.
At the Outer Banks, there was Doc and Baba’s tombstone. There were two plates of raw oysters with me beside Betsy grinning like “Here’s Johnny!” Jack Nicholson from “The Shining.”
Then, there was my last afternoon at the beach.
I was standing thigh-deep in the surf, in the shadow of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, watching wave after wave crash around my knees. My mind bounced between work and the White House. I tried to shut that out – at least for a moment – even though I did dig what Katherine sent me about Scotland’s reaction that week to the visit of 45.
“You mangled apricot hellbeast.”
“You clueless numpty.”
“You bloviating flesh bag.”
“You weapons-grade plum.”
“You weaselheaded fucknugget.”
All that made me laugh and think about what I faced when I got home – the constant roar of news that made me wonder about the future of you, me, us and democracy.
Then, I remembered my office wall.
I have taped near my desk a poem from Wendell Berry.
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
He calls it “The Peace of Wild Things.”
Wendell Berry, a farmer and poet from Kentucky, is right.
Beside N.C. 12, where lighthouses are the only skyscrapers and the air smells of salt, I can rest in the grace of the world for a time, and I am free.
With a horse.
And a table full of friends.