4:42 pm
Mon January 26, 2004

Winter Beach

A trip to Wrightsville beach reminds Richard of his connection to the place.

Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Richard's commentary.]

Driving out to Wrightsville Beach this past Sunday for a sunset walk, I instinctively took a right onto Waynick after crossing the Channel Bridge and headed toward the south end of the island. I just as instinctively ended up two-thirds the way on South Lumina, parking near the same public access path down which I have shuffled countless times on my way to the water. And there it was, to the right of the path: a gaping hole where the Sutton Apartments once stood. Though they?ve been gone for more than a year now, this visit made the reality of their absence more absolute against the quiet and rarified winter air.

If you?ve spent any time at Wrightsville Beach you?ve seen the Sutton Apartments ? a pair of drab two-story cottages on the beach side of Lumina, a shell?s throw down from Crystal Pier, where the Oceanic restaurant sits. And I mean no disrespect when I say drab. Built some time in the 1950s, the two cottages were simple, utilitarian and somewhat inelegant -- one gray and one brown. But they stood apart from the flashier historic and contemporary real estate surrounding them because they looked working class; they looked like the kind of place where families would bring kids and people of ordinary means would spend precious downtime.

I should know: for most of the past decade my family and their friends, in various combinations, spent time in winter, spring, summer and fall in virtually each of the five apartments that comprised the Sutton?s.

The insides of the apartments were a throwback, with old metal sinks and claw foot bathtubs, a bit of nautical artwork on the walls, and wood floors perhaps topped by a thin layer of carpet. They were meant for waves of summer families and their kids, sand, hot dogs and sticky blue Kool-Aid. I was lucky enough to spend a winter there eight years ago, living cheaply and alone while figuring out where I would dwell next. It was a great respite during a time when I had time, and reminded me that, like many tourist beaches filled with chaos during summer, Wrightsville Beach has an equally calm, wonderfully understated winter personality.

Unlike this winter, that winter?s weather was full of extremes. Some days I could open all the windows and doors and enjoy the gentle sixty-degree breezes as they made their way through the cottage. A few nights later I?d switch all the lights off and experience the salty and blustery winds of an on-shore storm as it gave the place a thrashing. The cottages, of course, weren?t insulated and there were several January nights with temperatures in the twenties when I would sit huddled in a blanket on the living room floor. It was the room with the wall heater ?the only source of heat?and when the blower stopped you could feel the warm air leaving through the ceiling, chased by the freezing air rushing up through the floorboards.

It was austere ?on those cold nights the water would be shut off at 10 p.m. to avoid freezing the exposed pipes?but that was just fine. In return, I could sit all afternoon in the heavy rocking chair on the seaside porch watching the seagulls line up above the surf to take turns plunging for fish.

Once, at midnight, I made my way down the beach to the southern tip of the island. It was cold and none of the island?s winter residents were out at that hour. There was no wind, the ocean was so calm you could hear only the slightest utterance of waves, and there was no moon. There was no light, at all, and once I reached Banks Channel at the southernmost point, I could see neither beach nor sky nor the line separating the two or even the line separating water from shore. During that moment, I had found the edge of the earth.

One returns from the edge, of course, and gets back to work and timed routines. It is the prerogative of the seasons to come and go ?we?re just along for the ride-- and structures disappear. The Sutton Apartments are now gone but certainly not my ability to imagine the ocean as viewed from the front porch. Memory itself is a part of the cycle.