Monday, September 4, 2023



I woke up early the day after the Fourth of July, quietly rolling my old body off the air mattress beside my grandson Justin's bed. His father, Robert, said we were all leaving by seven this morning, and I wanted to be ready to go before Robert began barking to "get our asses moving."

I take my yearly summer visit to see family in North Carolina in early July when Robert's job at Firestone shuts down for the July 4th week. Typically, this vacation involves hanging out and making up for lost time with Robert, Emily, and the grandkids, Justin and Kaylee. This year, Robert had something special planned for all of us.

I remember Robert's texting me while I was cleaning out my classroom for the last time at the beginning of June. He told me to bring some old clothes I would not be worried about ruining. "What are we doing, Robert?" I had to ask. I am always about control, not so much because I want to be in charge. But I have reached that age when the fewer surprises I encounter, the better my quality of life.

"You're going to Busco Beach with us."

"Shit." I thought to myself. I like to hear about other people's adventures but never wish to do them myself. I will say, "Oh! That sounds like fun!" However, I am already preparing excuses for a possible forthcoming invitation. I take no pride in being pathetically wired this way. It makes for a lonesome life sometimes. 

Robert has been doing this side by side thing for a while, sharing his stories and pictures at Busco Beach. People ride four-wheelers, dirt bikes, and side by sides around this immense man-made park filled with dirt and mud trails. It's a fun mess. Not my type of fun nor my type of mess, though.

I slipped into my get-dirty work shorts and a sleeveless T, dreading the day ahead. I wore my "I-ain't-sweatin-this" face for Justin and Kaylee, who had been teasing me about going to Busco. "I can't believe Grandpap is going to Busco with us!" 

I couldn't believe it either, kids.

Robert drove us down to Busco Beach through an early-morning drizzle. A mixture of Outlaw Country with Pop2K on Sirius kept my sighs and nervous trepidation from being exposed to everyone focused on the road ahead while I counted the quiet houses along US-13. Life was nearing 8:00 AM as I was doing the math quietly in my head: four hours until noon + one hour for lunch + three hours til three. How many times can I go to the bathroom? How many beers or Monsters will I need?

To the uninitiated, Busco Beach was a dystopian world. A beautiful green area of Eastern Carolina trees and landscape had accompanied us on our drive south. However, once Robert drove his Jeep and trailer into Busco, we entered a different world, which reminded me of Mel Gibson's Mad Max world from the Road Warrior series. 

A range of trees encircled the beach, a dry and dirt-filled stretch of land with large ponds of tan water that barely shimmered as the sun slowly peered through the clouds. RVs lined the side, full of campers still sleeping from the July 4th revelries the previous night. A group of ATVs with larger-than-life wheels roared by us, staking their claim to the surroundings, spewing billowing clouds of dirt to remind us where we were.

Robert wanted to be early to return to his traditional spot alongside a small pond resting at the edge of the trails. Kayle took me to the pond while Robert and his wife, Emily, unpacked the Jeep to set up camp for the day. It was a nice view. I can see why Robert liked it so much, as we had this entire stretch of the beach for ourselves. Maybe I had been too much in my head, overthinking and trying to control the experience when I should have embraced the moment. After all, I was in safe hands.

Robert's younger brother JR and his girlfriend Ashley arrived shortly after we had settled and joined us on the side of the pond, where we talked and relaxed before taking our first trip. Midmorning had barely arrived before Robert was itching to hit the trails. No one hesitated when our de facto leader, Robert, grumbled aloud, "I wanna get a ride in before it gets too hot." We all moved on Robert's command, grabbing our hats, packing the coolers, and readying the side by sides.

Robert and Emily sat in the front, with Kaylee snuggled in the middle of them both. Justin and I crouched into the back seats with both legs smashed against the back of the front seat. I could already feel the heat from the engine as it hummed. I knew the heat would only get worse once we really started moving. Robert returned to my seat to ensure I was buckled in tightly and advised me to keep my hands inside. He chuckled through his huge beard like some demented Santa Claus preparing a prank for a child who made the naughty list. I laughed in defiance. "I'm good. Let's fuckin' go."

And we did.

Both groups powered around through the woods, spitting dust from the dry paths and grinding through mud in the wet areas. Robert had his music mix of rebel country, rap, and alternative rock blaring through the speakers as the soundtrack for the day. I was scared at first; that much is true. My hands gripped the handles on the back of Robert's seat while I peeked past his big straw hat and shoulder to watch the direction JR was taking us. I found comfort in knowing where we were headed, but it took me a while to enjoy the crazy, bumpy ride I was experiencing.

I was poor Justin's worst nightmare in the backseat for the next hour. Over the years, I have grown to trust Robert's driving ability. That trust served me well as we sped along the trails, zig-zagging and sliding back and forth. "Grandpap!" Justin would yell. "You need to quit falling on me! Stay on your side!" He would use his arm to push me up against my door. I felt terrible landing on him, but deep down, I was blessed to have him there to break my fall.

We all arrived at another pond, this one much bigger and deeper than the one back at camp. As we navigated along the water's edge, the sun was now at the end of its morning glow. Robert and JR backed the rides up to the pond, where we all climbed out to let the hot engines cool down before the second leg of our morning ride.

Kaylee and Justin fearlessly waded into the pond, where the cool, foggy water washed the mud and dirt from their clothes, only to soak more back in again. I was at an impasse. Contrary to popular misconception, I do not mind getting dirty. I was wearing my old clothes, already dusty and muddy from the ride to this pond. Wading chest-deep would not make me cleaner, but standing there like an idiot was not an option either.

And so I waded.

The last vestiges of my aversion to this entire experience slowly washed away into the pond. I squeezed my toes tight to keep my new Crocs from sticking in the muddy pond floor. In his own moment of insanity, Robert had taken to swimming across the entire pond while JR and the women were tending to the side by sides. So I used Kaylee and Justin as my markers, going out only as far as they would venture. Slowly, ever so slowly, I waded deeper, crouched to let the water come up to my chest, and smiled.

Across from me, JR had already waded out to the kids. With his long hair and beard, JR was our own jovial redneck Jesus smiling as the children came unto him. Emily and Ashley stood in the water near the rides, where Emily could keep a nervous eye on Kaylee, who kept putting her head under the murky water despite her mother's stern demands that she stop. Not far from Kaylee, Justin joined his father, who rested atop a round inflatable meant for the kids, chilling in the warmth of the noontime sun. 

Life hits us so hard sometimes that we hesitate when a new opportunity or adventure lands in our lap. We may have been banged up and tossed around to the point where we all wanted to step away to catch our breath and heal our wounds. Regardless of age, we tell ourselves that we do not have it in us for one more adventure, but we know in our hearts that we do. So we grab some old clothes, complain a little but always smile, and then buckle up for the ride. Eventually, we will find a cool, calm pond where we can take a break until we decide what to do next.  

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