The hands of the clock showed 11:30 p.m. on December 4, 2020, when I was shaken free of the irrational nonsense that filled my dreams and was brought me back into the world of wakefulness, which was real—and full of excitement. As soon as I opened my eyes and saw the empty bird cage, I recalled the reason why I was being shaken awake at such an hour. Tomorrow, which was less than half an hour away, would usher in the beginning of a hopefully long companionship between myself and a small but bold member of the parrot family, a conure. Even though what would later become the main event of the day was something completely different, this bird was the reason it all happened in the first place.
My two sisters and I helped our parents finish loading the van, but none of us had any idea what our parents were plotting. We knew that they were plotting, but exactly what remained a closely guarded secret. We were not allowed to ask any questions whatsoever.
It was Saturday, the 5th of December, when the van finally trundled out the driveway. Our destination, or at least the only one any of us children knew much about, was the home of a well-reputed conure breeder located nearly four hours away.
Most of us fended off sleep for an hour or so. The excitement was just too great for us to fall prey to our heavy eyelids right away. But eventually I lost the fight and surrendered to the extreme tiredness that seized me.
I was again shaken awake around three in the morning. We were approaching Fancy Gap, a stretch of the interstate just above the North Carolina border that affords one of the most magnificent views I’ve ever seen. It was even more exciting this time, since none of us had ever seen the sight at night. A huge several-hundred-square-mile patch of North Carolina stretched out like an endless sea of land, dotted with millions of twinkling lights that looked a bit like the night sky laid out on the ground. Immediately, we all began searching for our favorite feature of the spectacular spread—Pilot Mountain. The lights of Mount Airy, just beyond Pilot Mountain, reflected on low-hanging clouds and produced an eerie glow which made for an unusual but memorable view of the landmark.
When I finally awoke the next time, the eastern sky was beginning to blush yellow with the kiss of dawn. It was decorated with a single, sparkling diamond, Venus.
As we drove on through the streets of sleepy Wilmington, I kept noticing that we were following signs to the beach.
Before we left, my mom had told me to make sure I brought my camera, which I thought was odd. I would’ve brought it anyway, but I wondered why Mama was specifically making sure I had it. Now I began to put together the clues. But the greater part of my mind still doubted—were we actually going to the beach? Or was it just a teasing coincidence that our route to some other place happened to follow those signs?
I soon found out that it was not a coincidence. We were really going to the beach! After weaving through a dizzying maze of suffocatingly close-together, luxurious vacation homes, we took one final turn, during which our headlights swept over a sign announcing “Public Beach Access.”
By now I was fairly bursting with elation, but none of us was allowed to say anything, in order to keep the surprise from being revealed to anyone who had not gotten the clues already.
As soon as Daddy had turned off the engine, he turned around and asked, “Does anybody know where we are?”
Some of us shouted, “The beach!”
Then he let out the real surprise. “We are going to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic!”
I heard his words; but for some reason it didn’t actually click with me what we were getting into until I walked out on the sand, saw the endless horizon and heard the faint crash of waves, and my dad said, “That’s the Atlantic Ocean, Anna.” The mere thought threatened to overwhelm me. This, the awesome, mountain-less spread, illuminated faintly by a predawn half-moon, was the coast. I was looking at something I’d longed to see since I could remember—the ocean.
Surely, it couldn’t be real…but it was! My family was walking with me…I could feel the chilly breezes playfully tearing at my hair…hear the raucous calls of the gulls farther out near the water…yes, it WAS real!!!
We had a fair piece to walk before we actually reached the tide line and the water’s edge. Once we reached the high tide line, I saw for the first time the crashing waves, driven on by the sea wind, assaulting the shore with thunderous noise. The horizon was now blushing a deep orange, casting its warm light across the ocean’s restless surface.
At this point, completely overcome by the magnificent sight and the glorious sounds of the Atlantic Ocean, my eyes filled with tears—happy tears. Tears of ecstatic joy, of sheer wonder, at the sight of something so beautiful, so powerful, so completely awesome. I know many of you reading this know the beauty of the ocean already, have seen it many times; but to me, a virtual first-timer, it was the most extraordinary, overwhelmingly beautiful sight I’d ever seen. My dad turned to me and reminded me of the verse that says our sins are removed as far from us as the East is from the West. This place perfectly illustrated that verse, and that only served to overwhelm me even more.
I’ve lived in the mountains all my life. They seem to have a crowding effect on the landscape, closing in on all sides and impeding the skyline. On the coast, it’s completely and vastly different. The horizons seemed infinitely far apart, and the sky was so open and so vast, I realized then just how small I was. Even the waxing moon looked much smaller than usual in that huge expanse of blue empty space.
Once I regained at least a fraction of my composure, I unpacked my camera and began capturing the beautiful scene unfolding in front of me. As the sun pushed its way past the eastern horizon and finally broke free from the chains of night, a brilliant scarlet light danced over the clouds and the ripples of the ocean’s surface. It all happened so fast; one minute, only a pulsing glow of orange gave indication of the sun’s impending rise. The next moment, everything was bathed in an intense flood of warm, coastal sunlight. Instead of a soft, gentle light engulfing the shore, now each wave, each seagull, everything reflected a blinding glare of yellow light.
We hung around for a few more minutes, reveling in the “miracle” we had just witnessed and in the aftermath of it.
A cold wind blew. The little ones were getting restless. As the gulls closed in, some of the children became frightened. They didn’t understand that the greedy gulls only wanted our breakfast, not our toes. Eventually we decided to head back to the van. The tide was rising. Soon the spot where we had spread our blanket would be flooded with salty sea water.
We came back to the beach later, around ten o’clock, at high tide. We chose a different access point, farther up on the beach and situated off the open ocean rather than an inlet, which had been the case earlier. It was much more pleasant now, since the sun had had sufficient time to warm the earth, the sand reflected the heat, and the wind was not so cold. The waves were also bigger, since the ocean here was not hampered by the rocky barriers that had formed the inlet farther down. Without stone barriers breaking up the horizon, the sea felt much more open, which I had not thought possible. The horizon stretched endless, and the beach was longer and straight, rather than curved.
Several Brown Pelicans were on the hunt far out at sea, and it was fascinating to watch them zero in on prey, then whirl around and dive. They would disappear in a fury of water, then reappear with something held fast in their huge beaks.
Among the hawk-sized gulls roaming the shore, two Snowy Plovers scurried in and out with the rise and fall of the waves, searching for food that might have washed up with the tide. It was intriguing, the way their little legs flew as they ran just an inch or two ahead of an incoming wave, then never far behind it as the wave receded. I’d seen pictures of the little critters before, but I didn’t know just how small they really were until I saw them running among the much larger seagulls.
We spent a delightful hour at the ocean’s edge, standing in the waves as they crashed up on shore and trying in vain not to get too wet. An interesting feeling is standing on the sand as a wave comes in and then recedes. The sand seems to dissolve beneath your feet, and you sink a couple of inches. My little sister was having trouble just keeping her balance in the shifting sand, and my dad stood in one place so long that he sank up to his ankles!
But the clock hadn’t stopped, and it was steadily ticking on toward noon. We needed to be in Raleigh by two, and we needed to pack up and hit the road if we didn’t want to be late.
We piled into the van once more, sopping wet and covered with sand. We soon left the wonders of the Atlantic Ocean behind, weaving our way westward through the crowded streets of Wilmington.
We may have left the ocean behind in person, but the amazing and awesome experience of that day will always stay with me.