A visitor’s perspective on the life cycle of an Outer Banks vacation.

Jordan Salama photo 1

From a bird’s eye view over coastal Corolla at dawn on a summer Sunday, you might mistake the small beach community for a major city. Runners, joggers, walkers and bikers swarm the narrow roads, trying to beat the steamy heat that’s to come. Fishermen line the shores, tossing freshly cut mullet baited on sharp circle hooks into the crashing waves, hoping for a lucky bite while kayakers dodge their casts. Shoppers fill their carts to the brim with ice cream, hot dogs and wine in the massive Food Lion supermarket complex. Others are tempted by the smell of warm, fluffy pastries as they anxiously wait in line outside the nearby Lighthouse Bagels, Donuts & Deli.

Is this what they call a “sleepy beach town?” On the Outer Banks, that relaxing week by the seaside seems to be full of commotion.

Let’s first familiarize ourselves with the dynamic at play here, because it’s a bit of a whirlwind. Every Saturday afternoon, swaths of American vacationers make the long road trip to the Atlantic Coast barrier islands to stay in large rental beach homes for a week, usually bringing an entire extended family in tow. Aunts, uncles, cousins, girlfriends, grandparents and close family friends — all of these types of people are typically brought along to the Outer Banks for a stress-free week at the beach, causing a huge influx of individuals excited about a wide variety of activities.

Jordan Salama photo 2

In many ways, this weekly cycle resembles the span of an entire lifetime. The first morning each week could be, let’s say, birth to age 8, when everyone is filled with seemingly endless enthusiasm like kindergarteners bouncing off the walls. The first morning every week is also a bit like New Year’s Day, because everybody seems to have resolutions as the top priority. And so much time to follow through! Cars packed airtight with newly purchased exercise gear, fishing rods and cooking supplies pull into driveways. People want to get into shape, learn to surf and cook gourmet meals – and on that first day, it’s as if nothing’s going to stop them …

Except for reality. Because after the first day indeed follows a second day, and a third day and a fourth day and several more days all the way up to a seventh day that would have to be filled with ceaseless activity to meet those ambitious goals. This is the fantasy, of course, and it rarely comes to fruition. Because if you were to walk into my family’s rented beach home on the second day, you would find the following: Half of these go-getters are sleeping – sore from the previous day’s expenditure of energy – or have returned from an even more ambitious second-day attempt in pain and suffering.

Cousin Sebastian, for example, has brought back exciting news: 1) He is in fact not yet fit enough to run 5 miles with weights in his hands, 2) he has promptly dropped said weights on the side of a road somewhere, and 3) he needs you to drive him to find them (“the road has a beach-y name, I think”).

Uncle Victor, self-proclaimed “King of the Grill,” is covered in a mix of sweat, smoke and the smell of charcoal after cooking made-to-order burgers for the entire family.

And poor, hopeful fiance Brian, in a sad attempt to impress his future in-laws during “sunrise tai chi,” is incapacitated on the couch surrounded by ice packs and Aleve.

By the fourth and fifth mornings, an eerie quiet blankets the Outer Banks like a fog. It’s turned into a type of mid-life crisis, when a person realizes they can’t live up to all of their aspirations in life but still want to make the best of the time they have left. People have chosen to sleep late, order in from Sooey’s Rib Shack and head to the beach in the afternoon. The line outside Lighthouse Bagels, Donuts & Deli – how they can still keep it all up at this point remains a mystery – forms at 9 a.m. now, instead of 6. People start dwelling on their choices for the week (“Should we go mini golfing or parasailing?”), buying OBX mementos of their vacations and making concrete efforts to spend more time by the pool with their loved ones. The beaches and couches fill up with people who just want to lie down and rest without a care in the world. This is, essentially, what “relaxation” should be at its finest: good times and no worries.

The seventh day, that somber Saturday checkout, is like retirement. It’s when everyone realizes their time is up, and we’re so pooped that all we want to do is crowd onto the couch and watch TV, lounge by the pool or just sleep nonstop (vacations are meant for relaxing, after all). The roads are bare, the fishermen are sparse and the Food Lion is low on supplies. Those awake are nostalgically packing their state-of-the- art, once-used beach radios and skimboards. The microcosm for life that is the Outer Banks is getting ready for its new cycle of energetic vacationers after successfully draining its last.

And the strangest part of all is that, looking back on it, the one word everyone uses to describe their week at the beach is exactly as expected: relaxing. Not only that, but they literally can’t wait to plan the whirlwind of “relaxation” again for next summer. In fact, many of these beach homes are booked for any given summer week during the summer beforehand. It all sums up this bizarre dichotomy of expending energy (and money) for the sake of relaxing, which leads us to the only logical conclusion that being productive, in our minds, is relaxing.

We spend so much time in our lives wishing that we could do more; in the same way, we have a desire to be seen by others as driven “go-getters” when given the opportunity. You’ve all felt it before – I certainly have. Waking up late and seeing that everyone else has spent the morning productively, for example, is not a nice feeling. But an Outer Banks vacation provides us with a standalone week of time when we have no real responsibilities to worry about. They give us the chance to feel productive, even if it’s only for the first day. That period of productivity, followed by an even longer period of doing nothing, allows us to validate our stay of nothingness and truly unwind.

So the next time you’re down in coastal North Carolina (or any so-called “sleepy beach town”), I encourage you to spend that first day running a few more miles than you’ve ever run before. Then, I encourage you grab your ice packs and pain relievers, spend time with your families and just relax. You deserve it.

Jordan Salama is a writer specializing in comedic journalism at Princeton University.

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