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Monday, August 22, 2005

Barnacle Bill’s Two-for-One Crabs Special

Jamie took this picture during our dolphin watch off the coast of North Carolina.

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It was just a week in a rented house on Hatteras Island, but it was fun, and we badly needed it.  We’ve been to the Outer Banks about a half-dozen times.  In 1993 and 1994 we actually dropped off the kids with my parents in Virginia Beach—our only child-free vacations between 1986 and today—and spent three days in Avon, NC in a charming and slightly ratty beach hotel called The Castaways.  Funny thing about the Outer Banks below Nags Head, where the Cape Hatteras National Seashore begins: you have twelve miles of federally-protected, pristine, undeveloped beach, then three little towns (Rodanthe-Waves-Salvo), then another twelve untouched miles, then Avon, and it’s like the Land that Postmodernity Forgot.  Just as U.S. route 158 gives way to state route 12 (Hatteras’s only major road) at the Manteo/ Roanoke turnoff, there’s a KFC, and then . . . no franchises, no multinationals, no crap for the next 50 miles, until you get to Buxton at the island’s elbow.  Buxton has a couple of fast-food joints and cheap hotels.  But for many years, The Castaways was the only structure of its kind for miles and miles, the only “beach hotel” between Nags Head and Buxton.  Certainly the only five-story building around.  It was as if The Castaways had itself been cast out of the Kitty Hawk - Kill Devil Hills - Nags Head region, which is chock full of ratty beach hotels and fast-food franchises (but not quite as bad as, say, Ocean City, Maryland, which seems to me to have been completely paved and Hardee’d from one end of town to the other).  But we loved it.

The Castaways was torn down a few years ago.  In its place is Hatteras’s lone contribution to postmodernity: a string of new beach houses borne aloft on the housing bubble.  I don’t have the exact numbers, but I think that housing prices in Hatteras have increased approximately five trillion percent in the past six years, even as the average rental price has stayed pretty level.  And this despite the fact that the island gets battered by hurricanes every year (and was actually severed by Hurricane Isabel in September 2003).  Some of the beach houses we’ve seen amount to McMansions on stilts; we rent more modestly, needless to say, and despite all the money sloshing around in some corners of the Outer Banks (in and around those new houses), there are still plenty of trailers and campgrounds and guys with pickups who are here just for the fishing.  Which, I hear, is amazing.  But me, I don’t know nothing about no fishing.

In fact, as this post will soon demonstrate, I don’t know nothing about no aspect of the natural world.  I interact with the ocean only by way of a boogie board; when I was a kid in Queens and we took off for Jones Beach, I was capable of body-surfing, but I’m too old and slow and delicate for that kind of thing now.  On certain days at Jones Beach the waves would be reasonably strong and would break quite close to shore, which meant that if you rode them wrong and got caught in the break, you could be deposited on the sand from a height of four or five feet, face first.  On a boogie board you have a margin of error, though not so large a margin as to save me from wiping out twice and getting tumbled onto shore in a most undignified fashion.  “Michael,” Jamie said as I rolled in on one wave, “you forgot to stand up.” I asked Janet what my wipeouts look like from the safety of the beach.  “Well, I can see your feet sticking straight up in the air as you go under,” Janet said.  “That’s usually a bad sign.”

And the only reason I’m indulging in boogie-board discourse on this bumbling blog is that this year, boogie-boarding involved interacting with some very interesting global (or at least hemispheric) processes.  The day we arrived, August 13, the news was full of Hurricane Irene, which might or might not reach land and which might or might not cause the island to be evacuated by Wednesday.  (My mother, who stayed with us for a couple of nights along with my two sisters, my niece, and my nephew, prepared for the possible evacuation by bringing along extra food.  “Mother,” I said, rolling my eyes with considerable vigor, “when they ‘evacuate’ the island, that means they make everybody leave. We’re not going to be holed up in a bunker, grateful that you’ve remembered to bring a box full of canned tuna fish and hot dog rolls.” “Well, you never know,” she replied, an all-purpose incontrovertible answer if ever there was one.) Irene never did hit North Carolina, but she did send some serious waves our way: when we went down to the beach that Saturday evening, we heard and then saw these massive things crashing just a few yards out from shore, keeping almost everyone out of the water except for walkers and waders.

So, of course, I plunged in with my boogie board.  After all, half the fun of riding waves comes from that adrenaline rush of watching a good wall of water form right behind you as you prepare to jump into it, right?  Surfers do this kind of thing for real, and we baby-surfers have our Adrenaline Lite version of the thrill, too.  But I couldn’t even manage to get out to where the waves were forming; after fifteen minutes, I realized that the best I could do would be to get to the point where the most modest waves were actually breaking, and if I managed that feat, I would very likely be smacked in the head and tumbled end over end until some bigger wave took me out.  And weirdly, the water was cold—much colder than I’d remembered from 2002, the last time we were on the Outer Banks.  Not quite New England cold, but biting nonetheless.  And the undertow was vicious.

I watched eagerly as some young folk ventured into the water with boogie boards.  “Good,” I thought, “I’ll get to see how it’s done when the waves are scary high.” But one after another, the young folk backed off.  Nobody rode any waves that day, or the next.  And the water stayed cold.

Not until Tuesday did we hear that the water temperature was attributable less to Irene than to an earlier tropical storm that (in the words of the Talkative Guy on the Avon Pier) sucked all the warm water off the continental shelf and replaced it with this cold stuff.  Regardless of whether he was right about that, the water temperature increased by more than ten degrees in the next five days, from the mid-60s to the high 70s.  It was quite weird.  Every day the water was warmer and the waves milder.  Tuesday and Wednesday were ideal for boarding; after that the rides were markedly shorter and less exciting, though Jamie had an easier time with his boogie board.  (I hold him on the board and wait for a wave to break near shore, then let him ride the rest of the way in on the foam.  Depending on our timing, he can get himself a nice quick shuttle up the beach this way.)

Then on Thursday night, Janet suggested we go watch the sunset over Pamlico Sound.  The sound is about twenty miles wide and three or four feet deep; I imagine that if the ocean levels change even the slightest bit either way, North Carolina will either lose its beautiful outer banks or gain another twenty miles of marsh and swamp.  (Either way, I will blame Bush.) But we were thwarted in our attempt to get right up to the shore of the sound, so we went back to the sea side of the island (it’s only a five-minute walk across the entire thing) and saw, much to our surprise, a stunning moonrise over the ocean.  Actually, we’d missed the spectacle of the moon being born from the waters by about ten minutes (my guess) or an hour (Janet’s), but we watched in awe for a while before reluctantly agreeing to go back to the house and reclaim our children.  But we vowed to return on Friday night for the full moon.

Now here’s where the fun began.  Because I’d estimated Thursday’s moonrise at 7:50 and Janet had pegged it at 7, Janet suggested we go out to the beach on Friday evening at 7.  “Uh,” I said, “I think moonrise is later each evening.  Maybe 7:30.”

“We don’t want to miss it,” Janet said.

“I agree,” I agreed, “but we ought to get some ballpark figure.”

At this point the amateur astronomers in the room should be mocking us with a great mockery (Janet for misunderestimating the time of Thursday’s moonrise, which was 7:45, and me for not knowing anything about moonrises), and everyone else should be saying, “hello, fool, each day’s moonrise and sunrise is listed in every newspaper available at the local Blue Whale General Store down the block.” Had we been home, we could have looked at the Internets, but in our rental house we didn’t have any Internets access.  Or, more simply, one of us might simply have remembered that moonrise at the latitudes we’re familiar with comes about 35-40 minutes later each evening.

But no.  And even though I had spent a blissful half hour on the beach sunning myself and miscalculating the rotational speed of the Earth 35 degrees from the equator (that is, the tangential velocity of a point on the globe more or less right around the point I was lying on, which just happens to be something like 850 miles per hour—I’d had it at 650), I could not figure out when Friday’s moonrise was likely to occur.  So we sat together Friday evening at 7:30 under a brilliant sky under layers of soft and shifting clouds, a sky whose colors changed minute by minute, and I drew circles in the sand trying to plot the moonrise.  Let’s see.  It’s revolving around us counter-clockwise, just as we revolve around our axis counter-clockwise, and the moon is zipping along an orbital path of about 1.5 million miles every 27.3 days, or just over 2300 mph.  Now.  If the moon is 240,000 miles away and we have a tangential velocity of 850 mph. . . .

All right already, the answer is 8:22 pm.  You know, four million years ago when that big black monolith showed up on the African plains, Australopithecine hominids figured out that moonrise comes x minutes later every day, and here in 2005 I couldn’t do it.  Granted, they were the smart Australopithecine hominids, the ones who believed in evolution, and they got neural-net upgrades and bigger hat sizes in the next round.  But still.  Had we known that moonrise would be 8:22, we’d have shown up at 8 instead of 7:30, and we’d have missed the spectacular sunset we’d wanted to see on Thursday but wound up seeing on Friday instead.  So let that be a lesson to us.

And don’t be telling me I was “ruining the moment” with my cosines and circles in the sand, either.  The moon is only more amazing when you realize its anomalousness; no teeny inner planet has any business with a moon so big.  How would you like to be stuck on Mars, waiting for the imperceptible moonrises of Phobos or Deimos, both of which are basically glorified pebbles?  I bet you wouldn’t like it at all.  And the more I sat outside and hurt my head with forms of math at which I was never very adept, the more I realized that Earth is my very favorite planet in the entire solar system.  The liquid water we have here is especially nice.  Such a small window to work with—just 100 degrees Centrigrade.  Oceans of steam or ice just wouldn’t be the same.  You frozen methane-and-ammonia fans can have the outer planets all to yourselves, thank you.  I’ll stick with the liquid water.  Also, I have to say that the atmosphere was a good idea, on balance.  It’s very pleasant not to be bombarded by cosmic rays when you’re just trying to soak up some sun.  And it’s breathable, too!  At least in most places.  Yep, the atmosphere and the liquid water are OK with me.  In fact, the whole setup is so cool that it eventually produced beings capable of figuring out what the moon and sun are, and plotting their diurnal rise and fall, among other things.  Of course, those beings were eventually wiped off the face of the Earth by religious fundamentalists, and then came the invasion of the giant enlightened insects from the planet Effexor.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet!

I don’t want to suggest that our vacation was all fun and games.  We don’t do all fun and games.  Jamie’s ear infection persisted all week—it seems to have persisted all month—so we had to be extremely careful about plugging up his ear with moldable wax and keeping his head above water as much as possible.  But even when his ear wasn’t plugged up with wax, he still had himself a perforated eardrum, and (as a result) a pretty significant hearing loss.  We hope it’s temporary, of course, but it’s still unsettling.  Send Jamie your hearing-restoration vibes when you have a moment, if you would.  He’s getting better every day, but vibes would help.  If you need to know Jamie’s tangential velocity in order to “lead” the vibes correctly, consult the Internets.  I’m no good at these things.

John McGowan will post Butler v. Nussbaum II tomorrow, and then the family and I are driving to St. Louis to drop Nick off at college.  I’ll be back next week with a resumption of Theory Tuesdays and everything else.

Oh, and here’s Jamie from that same dolphin watch (on which we saw many Atlantic bottlenose dolphins):

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Posted by Michael on 08/22 at 01:55 PM
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