June 1, 2010

Island Living: In defense of a world without Walmart


Ah, summer is here, and with it comes sunny beach days, blue ocean views, and a never ending swarm of freeloading friends who descend on our guest bedroom, our couch, and all the contents of our refrigerator like a tornado of beach bum locusts.

Not that I mind.

Truthfully, summer is the one time I can actually catch up with my out-of-town friends whom I rarely get to see. Am I going to make an eight-hour trip inland to some small town with bad Chinese food and a second-rate Food Lion when a few long phone conversations will do in lieu of a visit? Probably not. But will my old buddies travel eight hours to play tourist on one of the world’s most pristine beaches? Yeah, they do, and by the dozens.  

But when these reunions arrive, amidst all the happy hoopla and catching up and wondering how on earth one person drank an entire case of beer that was carefully hidden in the back of the refrigerator, one thing keeps bothering me.

My friends honestly believe that I live in the North Carolina equivalent of a third world country.

It’s strange, because without their honest input -- probably brought on by mass quantities of beer that I, not them, paid for --, I never would have noticed that I was living without.

Don’t get me wrong. When I go on vacation off the island, I am genuinely impressed by what the outside world has to offer, and my trip becomes a whirlwind of fast food and shopping that leaves my wallet and my senses in an irreparable state of overly excessive activity. But when I’m just living here, day to day, and leaving the island maybe once a month to “do important errands,” (i.e., go bowling), it doesn’t occur to me that anything normal in my little island world is actually missing.

But these wandering friends who show up for a makeshift beach vacation have, occasionally, led me to believe that this is incorrect.

Let me share an example.

My dear college friend Otis is a successful engineer living in the DC area who just purchased a high-rise condominium and works on submarine radar equipment in Newport, Hawaii and South Korea. (For the record, I am a struggling journalist in Avon. Judge away.)

It should also be mentioned that he has won five Krispy Kreme eating contests, which I find equally admirable. 

Anyway, he came down to visit last summer, and apparently sometime between admiring his stunning view of the Washington Monument and hopping aboard a submarine destined for the Virgin or Galapagos islands, he forgot to pack his underwear.

Not a big deal, naturally, and once he realized his mistake, he asked me where he could buy some. I thought for a good five minutes before I could actually come up with an answer.

“Ummm… Walmart!”

“Fine. Where’s it at?”

“Uh…. Kitty Hawk.”

“OK. How far away is Kitty Hawk?”

“Uh…. Oh dear. About an hour and a half.”

And this is the part where Otis gives me an eyebrow raising that is simply unparalleled. Seriously, I think it permanently shifted his scalp.

“Are you kidding me?”

What ensued was a two-hour, island-wide hunt for underwear, spanning five villages and ending, mercifully, at the Ace Hardware Store in Avon.

Yep, you heard it here first. You can buy britches at Ace. Last I checked, they were located in between the swimming pool supplies and electrical tools, which I suppose makes sense in a way because if you use electrical tools in the pool, you probably will end up needing new underwear.

Regardless, for the rest of his trip, Otis pondered the fact that all the little conveniences that normal people enjoy are more or less completely out of reach here on Hatteras Island. 

Walmart, Target, Golden Corral, Taco Bell, Burger King, and of course, the illustrious Krispy Kreme -- how on earth did one live without these every day amenities? And he was even more shocked when I told him that it was nothing compared to the wintertime, when what limited outposts we had were pretty much closed.

(And, yes, I helped fuel the fire of shocking him by using words like “outpost,” “general stores,” and “ma and pop eatin’ huts.” But, come on, that’s pretty funny.)

Really, what local hasn’t heard, at least once from some beer-stealing friend or relative, “I love Hatteras Island, but I could never live here.”

And for many reasons, they’re right.

In my past seven winters on this island, without the availability of local outposts or eatin’ huts, I have taken up the following hobbies just to stay entertained -- shelling, paint-by-number, knitting, needlepoint, painting, applying to grad schools, applying to clown colleges, poker, online poker, online gambling, online gambling rehabilitation, and pinochle.

But obsessive compulsive crafting and gambling addictions aside, why wouldn’t I want a world in which, once I ignore that fact that having a Walmart around the corner is actually pretty convenient and cool, I realize that I get to live in a tremendously tranquil and beautiful place?

This scenario reminds me of one of my father’s favorite jokes.

Guy 1 is continuously and aggressively banging his head against the wall. Guy 2 notices.

Guy 2: “Why are you doing that?”

Guy 1: “Because it feels really good when I stop.”

Indeed, once the winter blahs are out of my system and I’m done lamenting the fact that I have to drive an hour for underwear (or at least a wider variety of underwear that hasn’t been in contact with electrical tools), I can stop and smell the Russian olives and Hatteras Island does start to feel really good.

Who needs non-hardware store panties when I have sunsets over the water seven days a week? Who needs chain restaurants when I can walk into my favorite local establishment (or eatin’ hut), and have a glass of sangria waiting before I hit the bar stool? And who needs Taco Bell when… um… actually, I take that one back. I’d love a local Taco Bell.

But I suppose when it comes down to it, there are people who get it (or at least people who are crazy enough to tolerate it), and people who don’t, and that’s fine.

I’m sacrificing my right to worldly underwear variety, Walmart, and all the other conveniences of modern commerce to enjoy the most beautiful place I’ve seen with a few other weather-worn, full-time beach bums who love it as much as I do.

And besides, situations such as this one is the whole reason the good Lord invented online shopping.

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