By the Sea

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Wendy Hodge

By WENDY HODGE

It’s that time of year again – the season of bathing suits, bare feet and beaches. It is summer, and this week I am so grateful to find myself in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on a vacation with my best friend’s family. This is a yearly tradition for them, and I have been invited to go along. There are 12 of us who have driven from different parts of the state to spend a week by the sea. My best friend’s parents gave us this holiday as a Christmas gift, and we’ve all been counting the days since December.

Entering Gulf Shores and turning down the beach parkway, we pass cottages and bungalows with names that make me smile: “My Friend’s Place,” “O-Sea-D,” “We’ve Got Crabs” and “Please Don’t Knock.” Each house is painted a different vibrant color, as if someone turned loose a giant preschooler with a box of crayons and said, “Have at it kid. Don’t stop ‘til they’re all done!”

About halfway down the road, we arrive at our spot. It is painted a yellow the color of a glass of homemade lemonade. There is a screened-in open room on the ground floor with tables, a fridge and a sign on the wall that reads ‘Tiki Bar.’ This is where we’ve stored our fishing gear, boogie boards and all the coolers. The second level is spacious with two kitchens, five bedrooms and more TVs than I can count. The wraparound porch has tables and chairs tucked in every corner. The back of the porch overlooks the private pool with water that’s clear and inviting. The front of the porch is high up enough that we have a great view of the street below and the ocean beyond. It’s the perfect spot for morning coffee, evening drinks and people-watching.

We’ve been here for a few days. In fact, it’s toward the end of the week, and we all keep saying how we can’t believe it’s almost over. It’s a cruel joke of life that, on vacation, time moves so much faster than normal. But we have used our time well. There was a storm the weekend before we arrived. In fact, we were warned by several well-meaning friends that we should reconsider sharing our week at the beach with a possible hurricane. It turns out, though, that the weather could not have been better. Hot, but not so hot anybody melted. Beautiful skies. Warm water.

And oh the things we have seen!

From our perch on the porch we’ve seen a group of teenagers on remote-controlled skateboards zooming by. Remote-controlled? I’m not sure I get that. There’s the girl who runs past the house at least 30 times a day, every single day. She is toned and healthy, wears expensive running shoes with turquoise neon strips on the sides and makes us all uncomfortable with all that energy. “Good for her,” we say as we sip our cold drinks and reach for another handful of boiled peanuts. “Really. Good for her.” I call her Neon Girl.

We’ve seen dune buggies and convertibles and pickup trucks with tires taller than I am, racing up and down the road, leaving fumes and the sound of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” lingering in the air behind them. We’ve seen family after family loaded down like half-drunk pack mules with beach chairs and umbrellas and neon-pink bags stuffed with towels and enough sunscreen to grease up a whole village. They drag coolers on wheels and children in wagons and dogs on leashes. They are hot and optimistic when they head off to the water, and hot and weary when they make the trek back by. We smile and wave, knowing full well we will descend from that porch and make the same journey ourselves. But only after some more boiled peanuts.

Between a bungalow the color of a raspberry, and a cottage the color of an orange peel, is our path over the dunes. Some mornings we pick our way through the sand with every provision necessary to settle in for a long, hot soak in the sun. On the first day, from our spot on the beach, we saw what my grandmother would have called a “big-boned girl” in a thong whose companion was an even bigger-boned man covered in tattoos and sporting an ankle monitor. Even felons, apparently, need a vacation.

Another day we watched a man catch a shark. He struggled, fought and finally reeled it in. Kids were jumping up and down. Teenagers were posting videos of the event to TikTok. Men hitched up their swimming trunks and walked over to check out all the fuss.

“Whacha got there?” asked a bearded man wearing a t-shirt that read “I Know My Beard Makes You Want to Kiss Me.”

“A shark,” was the breathless reply from the fisherman. “But it’s only a baby one.” He was as nonchalant as a person can possibly be while dripping sweat and posing with a shark he’s just pulled from the ocean.

Side note: The shark was released back into the water, looking slightly ticked off but no worse for wear, and with no idea he is on the verge of being TikTok famous.

By lunchtime we are all ready to escape back into the air conditioning. We have brought enough food to feed us a few dozen feasts and have leftovers for a month. Each group in the family is responsible for making dinner for everyone one night of the week. That covers five nights; on the sixth we go out for seafood. Everyone brought their own breakfast, lunch and snacks. The counter is groaning under the weight of it all. One group brought fresh fruit, six gallons of juice, paper plates and several loaves of bread. Another part of the family brought sandwich meat and condiments, chips and dip, paper towels and several bags of dinner rolls. Yet another group brought sausage, donuts, crackers, boiled peanuts and three different kinds of bread. We are covered when it comes to bread.

As we came back in the door on day one of our trip, one of the cousins was heading to the store.

“What are you getting?” his mom asked.

“Bagels,” he called back over his shoulder.

Bread. He was going to get bread. 

Some days we opt for spending the morning in and around the pool rather than on the crowded beach. The deck around the pool has reclining chairs and umbrellas that we have managed, after much tilting and adjusting, to the perfect shade over us all. Those who spend the morning across the way on the beach return to the house and drift back to the pool to collapse into its cool, shimmering oasis.

Just yesterday, as I made the same pilgrimage from beach to pool, I waved to Neon Girl from the front of the porch. She never even glanced up. Healthy people are not easy to distract. My best friend was waiting in the water for me. I had barely dipped a toe in when I heard, from the back yard on the other side of the 10-foot fence, a voice call out, “You children are driving me crazy! Where in the h#$@ is my Bible??”

And then there was silence. I looked over at my best friend who was swimming slowly from side to side.

“Did you hear that?” I asked.

“Yep,” he said. “Sounds like someone is about to get beat with the Old Testament.”

We laughed together and tilted our heads back to look at the sky. This pool is the perfect size for doing a few laps or for floating….

One of the cousins popped his head out the door and said, “I’ll be right back.” 

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To the store. To get some floats for the pool. And some bread.”

To Be Continued….

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