Vanishing Month: Where Is Everybody?
Essayist Jim Dodson is taking a couple of weeks off. This is reprinted from the current issue of PineStraw magazine.
As you read this, I’m probably not here. And chances are, you’re probably not here, either.
August has arrived, or as I think of it: Vanishing Month.
Every time you turn around, someone else has disappeared. It’s a little bit eerie, somewhat like a sci-fi movie. You’re pleasantly chatting with a neighbor on Broad Street and turn away for only an instant and ... she’s gone.
Could be the Rapture. Could just be the siren call of summer. Anyway, I invariably feel like one of the vacation-challenged Left Behind.
If I’ve learned anything from five years in the Sandhills, it’s that virtually everyone I know at some point decamps for someplace else during the month of August. Sometimes that quickly, too.
Soon friendly postcards begin showing up from the Blue Ridge mountains or the Outer Banks or the hot springs of Iceland, the castles of the outer Hebrides, Santorini or Lake Como, anywhere but here in the blast furnace of North Carolina.
“Having a great time! The water’s perfect. We found the most adorable secluded beach only the locals know about. Yesterday Bill and the boys swear they saw Brooke Shields going topless!”
How very European we’ve become. If you’ve ever traveled through France, Spain or Italy during August, you’re familiar with bolted-up shops and signs that advise their owners won’t be returning until September.
In its early days, of course, Pinehurst was like that. It shut down entirely, rendering the streets of the village something of a ghost town. An older friend who grew up here recalls riding her bicycle through the village on hot August afternoons without seeing a single living creature except for the odd bird sitting on a limb fanning itself.
The ice house in town was known to attract elderly raconteurs in straw hats and village dogs, both with their tongues hanging out, and though a few of the better-known resort hotels in Southern Pines stayed open for business with reduced staffs — cooled by electric fans — I’m reliably informed that others in nearby Aberdeen and Pinebluff shut down completely.
AC Changed Everything
The advent of air conditioning in the 1960s began to dramatically alter that scenario, allowing Pinehurst in particular to become a year-round, full-service resort rather than an exclusive winter getaway spot.
Though businesses here today don’t seem to suffer too greatly from the seasonal vanishing act of locals, proving what a destination this has become for families and golfers impervious to heat stroke, I’m always a bit astounded to reach August and find every other soul I reach by phone either at the beach or up in the mountains.
This year a neighbor has taken a long Alaskan cruise with her beau, while another friend on our block shut up her house and retreated to her family’s place in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain for the month. She putters in her “alpine” garden in the cool of mornings, and naps and reads on her porch after lunch. Nice work if you can get it.
A buddy of mine is back in his hometown on Lake Michigan for the summer, savoring life in a place he left almost 50 years ago. He called me on a recent afternoon just to let me know he was hiking along the shore of the lake where the temperature was a bracing 59 degrees. Outside my office window, the temperature on the street in Southern Pines had just reached 97.
“How’re things in the Sandhills?” he asked, knowing full well.
“Kind of slow,” I told him. “A tad warm, too.”
“Yeah, I hear it’s brutal. Will you get away anywhere interesting and cooler?”
“Only in my dreams, I’m afraid.”
Growing up in this state, I had an undeniable love-hate relationship with the month of August. After June’s graduations and July’s national holiday and family reunions, summer suddenly seemed to slow down, and the afternoons grew hotter, longer, slower as they edged toward the start of school.
My interest in golf mysteriously atrophied around mid-August, and most of my friends went away to the mountains or the beach. Our family normally went the beach, too, but only days before the start of school, which made our vacation time feel a trifle anti-climactic. Besides, by then I was almost giddy to return to the classroom.
Luggage Rack Season
During the 20 years we lived in Maine, August was (and is) the mirror opposite of the Sandhills.
It’s an occupation month, the height of what I used to call Luggage Rack Season, when half the East Coast straps half of whatever it owns on top of the family van and heads for Maine. The population of our quiet Midcoast village more or less tripled after July Fourth and stayed at maximum occupation level clear to the Tuesday after Labor Day.
Feeding off the tourist frenzy, restaurants doubled the price of a shore dinner and were basically avoided by locals. We also avoided Main Street at noon like the plague, owing to backed-up traffic and hordes walking the streets.
If you dared to go to the beach — ours was a truly magnificent one, by the way, two miles of pristine sand with a rock island you could wade out to at low tide, ironically the beach used in the filming of “Message in a Bottle,” laughably purporting to be North Carolina — you went before sunrise and claimed a parking spot in the small state parking lot.
We locals got two whole bucks off the 15-dollar-a-day parking fee. By noon, cars from 40 different states would be parked out on the salt marsh road leading to Popham Beach, and town cops would be writing parking tickets like party invitations.
Most of the time, we avoided our favorite beach until after Luggage Rack season’s abrupt end. On Labor Day Monday, traffic headed south on the Maine Turnpike, and I-95 sometimes came to a dead stop for 30 miles. A governor of Maine once told me that 50 percent of the state’s income was generated by tourism in August, and I believed him.
Dozing and Dreaming
Up there, my August routine was to stay on my forested hill just outside town and putter around my own “alpine” garden with a weekly afternoon foray out to meet my three best pals for afternoon golf at our club. August normally brings a week or so of insanely hot temperatures in Maine, too — which feel doubly uncomfortable since many natives don’t fool with air conditioning.
Curiously, down here in Vanishing Month, I follow a strangely similar August routine, minus the golf. I often walk to work early before the devastating heat of the day grips the world, and I spend my evenings on our house’s cozy back terrace, shadowed most of the day by a pair of huge Savannah hollies, keeping an eye out for those fabulous thunderstorms that bring astonishing bolts of lightning and biblical downpours that mercifully drop the temperature 20 degrees in minutes.
That’s how I spend my time waiting for August to pass, left behind but surrounded by the last Asian lilies and heat-stunned hydrangeas and my beloved blue hostas carried south from my old garden in Maine. I read books I’ve meant to read, I watch evening birds, I often doze off and dream I’m somewhere on a linksland golf course in Scotland, preparing to hit a wedge in a cool drizzle to a beautiful green set against the Irish Sea, when suddenly out of the blue Brooke Shields appears.
Then I wake up and remember to water the plants before I go inside and try to fall asleep in the air conditioning.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
More like this story