Thursday, January 25, 2018

Thelma & Louise on Spring Break

One state west, in Missouri, the weather system we were traveling through had turned absolutely deadly as we blithely drove south, favorite CDs playing on the stereo system and a can of Diet Coke apiece.  More than a dozen people had died due to the storms we drove through that day in Missouri, Kentucky and southern Illinois.  But at the time, all we knew was that the windshield wipers wouldn’t lose their annoying “bumpety, bumpety, bumpety” sound every time they dragged across the glass for nine hours straight, the rental car’s steering had a definite “float” to it, especially in the wind, and the water in the drainage channels beside the two-lane road in southern Illinois seemed to be getting a wee bit high.

Oh, and the Dairy Queen sign next to a highway exit looked like it was going to be under water soon.   Raindrops broke the surface of the gleaming black pool surrounding it, lights from a nearby gas station shimmering off the rising water.  At the rate we were going, we were never going to make it to our motel in Montgomery, Alabama before three a.m.  We settled on a cheap room in Birmingham, found a double on our third try after midnight

Huh.  Welcome to spring break.

The first day of vacation had started off with not much more to recommend it.  Thick, cottony fog had cloaked most of the first leg of the trip from Wisconsin to Peoria, Illinois, where Kristin and I had arranged to meet to carpool for the rest of our impromptu adventure.  The fog had slowed me by about an hour, and the fact that I didn’t take five extra minutes to MapQuest the Peoria airport before leaving added another.  In my haste to get moving, I relied on the kind of blind optimism that propelled our forefathers into disasters like Custer’s Last Stand and the scenic trip through Donner Pass. 

Really, how hard could it be to find an airport in Peoria!!  For that matter, how big could Peoria really be??  Well, as it turned out, a lot bigger than I thought…and the kindness of strangers is no substitute for an actual plan.

No matter, Kristin and I were on a road trip for the history books, and we weren’t going to be deterred.  Sanity and good sense had nothing to do with it.  We were fed up with winter, pure and simple, and we were goin’ south. 

The winter had been long and ghastly in our neck of the woods, which roughly sketched would be a swath across Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.  Snowstorm after snowstorm.  School cancellation after school cancellation.  Temperatures below zero.  Days that I dutifully drove the fifty miles to work only to wish, halfway there and fishtailing on snow-covered roads that hadn’t been plowed, that I’d stayed safely home in bed. 

And the winds and the grey skies just kept coming.  It felt, deep down and for the first time that I could remember, like I would never see spring or green grass again.  Like I was living in the ice cap of the Arctic Circle, and flowers were something to be seen and admired only in catalogs, grown by happy gardeners in tropical warm, sunny places thousands of miles south.  Like I said, sanity had nothing to do with it…but by early March something in me had snapped and I became a desperate woman.  Apparently it was catchy, because we charged off our respective blocks only four days after Kristin—a friend from law school living a good six hours away in Iowa—sold her husband on the idea that she really needed a winter break too, and that he and their two daughters could spare her for a few days. 

The plan was simple—drive straight south until we hit the Gulf of Mexico, and stop at the first beach we saw.  And aside from the first day and a half of driving through steady rain, it actually worked.  About the time we got maybe sixty miles from Gulf Shores, Alabama, the skies finally parted, the sun came out, and we saw blue skies above.  And sure enough, when we finally ran out of highway, the road ended in a large paved public parking lot at the edge of a pure, white sand beach, with enormous breakers kicking up spray a few hundred feet out.  We locked the car, rolled up our pants, and happily waded in.

The trip was especially sweet when I thought back to my early years in college and realized I’d never properly been on “spring break” before.  Somehow multiple instances of herding four kids and a spouse and six pieces of luggage and a half suitcase full of Easter chocolate and bunny bags and plastic Easter grass  hidden under socks and a nightgown for a family vacation in a condo on the Georgia coast didn’t quite qualify.

The words “spring break” just had a connotation of more carefree abandon, of caution to the wind, of randomness and adventure and opportunity and the Great Unknown.  Of course, they also conjure up popular visions of “Girls Gone Wild” and drunken revelry and bikini-ready hardbodies oiled up and ready for Mai Tais and short-lived romance.  But hey, we had to start somewhere. 

There are advantages to doing some things when you’re over…thirty.  Sometimes it’s simply that you know, starting out, that your friendship is strong enough to survive a cramped, muscle-screaming drive of twelve hundred miles in two days in a compact car.  In our case, the catching up we did during the drive was half the adventure.  We’d weathered law school together, with all its exams and anxiety and pressure and competition and chocolate cravings.  Since then she and her family had moved twice, I’d gotten divorced and adjusted to all that that big change brings, and between the two of us, a full fifty percent of our children had weathered serious health crises resulting in major surgery.  Not to take anything away from the courage and grace and resilience of our kids in dealing with these horribly inequitable turns of chance…but that kind of misfortune gives two mothers a lot to talk about as the miles slide by.

Another advantage to being…over twenty-one…is that you don’t feel you’ve got to reinvent the wheel and discover everything for yourself to make the memories last.  I’d picked Gulf Shores as a destination because a clerk at the courthouse suggested off the cuff that it would be a nice place to visit, and two minutes on the internet later that night had me sold.  After arriving at the beach that first day, we struck up a conversation with a local and asked him where a good restaurant serving seafood might be found.  He pointed us up the street to a place with a full parking lot and a dolphin statue outside, and boy, was he right!

The next morning, with a full day of beach-going to make the most of, I wound up having breakfast with an elderly gentleman from Illinois who shanghaied me in the parking lot while Kristin—never a “morning person”—slept in, and directed me to the tourist welcome center I’d blindly driven past twice the night before.  Asked for the best, quietest beach around, the clerk at the welcome center pointed us to Cotton Bayou beach a few miles down the coast, her personal favorite.  Just to say we did, we drove past it by a few miles and into Florida looking for something better…and came right back.  Took her advice on a seafood restaurant near the beach for dinner too, wolfing down plate after plate of seafood appetizers, selfishly foregoing entirely the niceties of a full dinner (rolls, salad, potatos, veggies) in favor of crabmeat and shrimp from start to finish.  And after dinner, as we walked along the shore and watched the rising full moon shimmer over the shore, we never regretted not wasting our time looking for something better.

And the beach alone was worth it. Pure white “sugar sand” underfoot, the rise and fall of waves rushing in, the chorus of black-faced laughing gulls behind us, sounding like a bunch of raucous monkeys in a tree.  As I walked along the water’s edge, stopping to pick up the occasional small, perfect shell, I felt very much like the little girl I used to be, bent over and searching with single purpose for tiny shells along the edge of the Montrose Avenue beach in Chicago.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh had it exactly right in her book of heartfelt essays, “Gift from the Sea,” when she wrote that “the beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think.”  I have forgotten that many times over the years, bringing notebooks and pens to the shore as she once had, expecting to find the inspiration to write, only to find myself mesmerized by the sound of the waves and the wind, like listening to the world breathe.  Even this time, I had efficiently packed both a book and a magazine in my tote bag—“Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown and the latest Oprah magazine, you couldn’t ask for better, less demanding beach reading than that—and still found myself hypnotized by my surroundings.  The book and the magazine remained untouched as I stretched out full-length and dug my fingers into the warm, perfect sand beside me.

Instead of “accomplishing” anything, we shopped a little.  And stretched out on the shore a lot, waking long only enough to turn over and broil our other sides.  Lounging like lizards in the sun, we felt the energy of the universe permeate our frozen bone marrow and imprint our shivering psyches with memories of warmth that would have to last the rest of the winter.  With two blankets and plenty of sunblock, there was nothing that we lacked.  We lunched, and breakfasted, and otherwise snacked throughout the day on seafood dip on crackers brought in a picnic cooler that also held hummus, and cheese, and grapes, and fancy chocolates, and plenty of drinks.  Wine for her, Smirnoff Ice for me. 

While the signs posted at the edge of the beach all warned that alcoholic beverages were verboten, well, we were females over the age of thirty in bathing suits on a public beach, while college kids with better bodies in skimpier suits played Frisbee and volleyball nearby.  In other words, we were absolutely invisible.  A votre santé!  Having left our only bottle opener (my Swiss Army knife) back in the hotel room, Kristin laughingly drew on what she called her “sketchy past” and illustrated how to open a beer bottle with a house key.  Hey, it’s never too late to learn a new social skill.

Two days at the shore passed far too quickly by any measure.  We skipped a trip to a nearby outlet mall—surely a first for us—in favor of spending the last few hours on the beach.  Packed up and left straight from the shore, sand still in our shoes and the sound of the waves behind us.  The drive back was dry this time, but at two days, still far too long for anything like comfort.  We split again at the Peoria airport, with a shuffle of baggage and a quick hug before resuming our last sprints back toward reality.  In my case, reality involved serving Easter dinner for eight at my house the next day…after making a mad dash to the supermarket for something to cook. 

But I brought a piece of the shore back.  Not just in memory, but in a few handfuls of white sand and a half dozen shells in colors of grey and white and tangerine.  Encased now in a glass jar and wrapped with a ribbon the color of seafoam, a miniature version of the Gulf of Mexico sits on my desk at work, the swirls of the seashells drawing my hypnotically back to the rhythm of the shore, and reminding me daily of the value of acting on impulse once in a while.

Before I pick up another magazine or finish “Angels and Demons”…I feel like  re-reading “Gift from the Sea” once more.