Right past the corner of East Pelican and 55th Street, in the waning light of the day, I saw the signs.
I had spotted them every summer when I walked our dogs for what seemed like the umpteenth time. They’re nailed to a post, a collection of placards about places and miles calibrated from where I stand.
I’ve always looked at it, and I always saw this — Fermi 786 miles – and every time, I thought, ‘Where in the hell is Fermi?”
Or should I say … what is it?
This time, I checked.
From what I gather, it’s a nuclear power plant, situated on the banks of Lake Erie, named after creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor.
But that’s about as far as my curious mind went. See, Kath and I just got back from vacation, and for one of the first times ever, we went without our kids.
Elizabeth and Will are halfway around the world. Will, a rising junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, is studying Arabic in Jerusalem; and Elizabeth, a rising high school senior, is seeing France with a group of students, teachers and parents from Grimsley.
Me and Kath? We were at our spot, the Rowe spot — Oak Island, a speck on the map long-timers still call Long Beach. We parked ourselves a block from the Atlantic, 225 miles from our home in Greensboro, living in a condo our kids know well.
Their photos are on the walls and on the refrigerator and show their smiling younger selves.
In years past, our jaunts to the beach rotated around building sand castles, jumping into waves, throwing the football near the ebbing tide and always – always – driving a few miles to Provisions in Southport for a plate of seafood and fries beside the Lower Cape Fear right before sunset.
But this past weekend, Will and Elizabeth were like ghosts. They were here – but not here.
I’d see them on the walls and on the refrigerator, I’d hear their voices in my mind, and I’d realize the richness of the memories made in and around this three-bedroom space.
Kath and I do miss our kids, and our trip to the coast this past weekend seemed weird without them. And quite honestly, it made me sad.
When I looked at the photos on the refrigerator or along the hall, I realized what I took for granted in our beach time more than a few years back and how I’ll miss it for years to come.
Today, Kath and I keep in touch with Will and Elizabeth through text messages and phone calls, and we ask innocuous questions like “What you doing?” and “What’s on tap today?”
It gives Kath and me a glimpse of what life will be like in a little over a year. Then, we’ll really be empty nesters, and our Rowe household will really become more like a hotel than a home for our two kids.
Life will become slower, quieter, less about schedules and more about quality time.
I think about that when I pulled a beer from the refrigerator this past weekend at our anchor along the coast. It’s because of what I saw right in front of me – the grinning pic of a young Elizabeth, bangs in her eyes, digging a hole a few feet from the Atlantic.
Where has the time gone?
In past summers, when we came to the coast with Elizabeth and Will, we were always on some kind of schedule, often created by Kath.
We were always off to the beach, to Southport, to Wilmington or some adventure – even to the other end of the island where the sandy beach bent like a fish hook and all we could see was water for days.
This time, though, Kath and I remained rooted for hours at a time in the condo. We didn’t stray far. We read, and we walked.
I walked East Pelican at least four times a day with our dogs, Ross and Strider. I walked past the yard art I’ve seen for years – a dolphin lighthouse, a sun of many stones, a relic of a boat buoy and of course, the signs.
I walked at all hours of the day, and the dogs and I ran into everything from a brave heron – Ross loved barking at that one – to a family of raccoons skittering across the road at the day’s first light.
And Kath and I walked across Brunswick Town.
It’s an historical site just outside Oak Island. It’s the location of North Carolina’s first colonial towns as well as Fort Anderson, the remnants of a Civil War fort still surrounded by huge earthen mounds.
We Rowes, with Elizabeth and Will, had never seen it. We simply drove by. But this time, Kath and I stopped, and we discovered a place of cannons and God.
We walked through the red-brick skeleton of St. Philip’s Church. It sits right beside the visitor’s center, four red-brick walls 24 feet high completed in 1768 and still standing nearly 250 years later.
Who knew? We didn’t.
We also walked a trail. It snaked around the earthen mounds of Fort Anderson, at least 20 feet high and as big as a baseball diamond, as well as past huge water oaks and excavated foundations of 17th century homes whose crumbling bricks felt as important as Egyptian hieroglyphics.
We stopped and read every sign, and we turned our heads and looked out onto a view of the Lower Cape Fear that would make anyone catch their breath.
Brunswick Town was Kath’s suggestion. She is the history buff among us. But the outdoor concert a block off the Atlantic was Margaret’s suggestion. Margaret is Kath’s sister, 18 months her junior, and she has more of a party nose than Kath does.
So, once again, Kath and I walked. This time, to see an Eagles tribute band.
We walked past a baseball field, where a fleet of kids played kick ball, and we found a spot in the back behind a sea of chairs near an array of the pickup trucks. We people-watched — Kath and I love to people-watch — and we spied an older guy, as slender as a fence post, walking as if he was navigating the deck of a ship in a rolling sea.
Kath and I both wondered aloud if he’d fall.
Kath then pointed to something behind us — a fleet of golf carts.
They were all parked beside the road like new cars at a dealership. They were driven, as far as I could tell, by the lawn of Friday night fans — mostly older, many parents and grandparents, toting coolers and tents and chairs for another Friday night on the coast.
As I listened to a decent version of “Hotel California,” I time-traveled back to the days of Ashley Plaza Mall.
It sat just up the street and across a busy highway from my childhood home. I’d go there as pre-teen and eat warmed pretzels slathered with mustard, side-glance at girls in feathered hair and tight jeans and play pinball at two machines beside the two-screen theater.
I thought I was Roger Daltrey-cool. I wasn’t.
But as I listened to “Hotel California,” I thought about Will and Elizabeth, too.
They’re moving on, growing up and seeing the world without us. Kath and I will soon learn how to relax our grip on their chubby hands of childhood and rely on the vagaries of technology to make us feel like they live only a few steps away.
Yes, it’s the truth of growing up and growing old.
So, this past weekend — the weekend that heralded the beginning of summer — I thought about all that. And walked.
I tried to work on the elusive art of wandering in which I could think about nothing much except staying on the other side of busyness, a time without a deadline.
When I was lucky, I had Kath beside me. Strider and Ross, too. And once again, we’d be walking past the signs near the corner of East Pelican and 55th, and I often found my mind ping-ponging with questions about Will and Elizabeth.
What will their life be like?
Where will they live?
Who will they become?
What job will they get?
Will they be happy?
And will they really call or text home?
Hell, I don’t know. At least right now.
That brings me to John Muir. He’s known as “John of the Mountains,” the man who helped create our national parks system and saw the importance of preserving what God gave us. And yes, he walked a lot, too. He once said:
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
” … for going out, I found, was really going in ….”
Yes. That’s it.
Now to a walking stick.
I received it after a freelance magazine assignment a few years back where I interviewed all kinds of folks atop a beautiful mountain in western North Carolina. Today, that walking stick sits in a corner of our first-floor hallway, and the wood chip attached reads: All who wander are not lost.
So, yes, I’ll continue to wander.
I’ll let you know what I find out.