By JOY CRIST
The greatest day in Hatteras Island’s long and storied history is — without question — Nov. 30, 2006.
Because, on this day, a genuine miracle happened.
It was a miracle that bettered the lives of so many residents, that renewed faith across the island in the rewards of beachcombing, and that still lives on in my mind as the “Single Greatest Find by Any Beachcomber in the History of the Universe. Ever.”
And that miracle was that hundreds of bags of Doritos washed up on the beach in Frisco.
This miracle was attributed to a container ship that lost some cargo while passing by North Carolina, but I know in my heart that this was an act of God – a God who appreciates the locals who comb the beaches regularly — and pick up trash along the way — and who also realizes the overall awesomeness of Doritos.
And not only did several dozen islanders walk away with a year’s supply of Doritos stuffed in trash bags – in both cool ranch and classic varieties – but those who were not present for the miracle got to enjoy the experience via a nice variety of hilarious photos and headlines. My personal favorites were Catherine Kozak’s Virginian-Pilot article that started with “Doritos junkies hit jackpot…” and a WTKR news piece that was titled “Chip-wrecked!”
Yes, it was an amazing day to be sure.
And, for me, the only thing that could ever top it is if a Taco Bell ship accidentally lost a container of product, the ocean was also warm enough to keep the goods heated until they reached the beach, and also the waves were so big that they all landed directly in front of my house in Avon somehow. I realize that this scenario would also be a major sign of the apocalypse, but at least I would go out in my pajamas, feasting on seven-layer burritos.
Now you may wonder if I was part of the frenzy that descended on the Doritos bonanza, and the unfortunate answer is “no,” I was not. I was working, and at the time, I just couldn’t rationalize walking out of my job in order to score free Doritos. (Yeah, I know – that was a silly move on my part.)
In fact, days later when I was combing the Avon beach, I found two sealed individual bowls of Apple Jacks. And as anyone who’s had Apple Jacks before can attest, it was a total slap in the face.
But this incident, and a number of weird incidents that both preceded and followed it, is why die-hard beachcombers like yours truly go to the beach. It’s not just the shells – although the shells certainly play a major role in our expeditions. It’s that ongoing idea that anything, literally anything, can make an unexpected appearance on the shoreline at any given time.
Granted the “Great Hatteras Island Doritos Wreck of 2006” — a title I just made up — set the bar pretty high, but there’s always something to root for, and look for, when you’re walking along the beach, especially this time of year when you have the island pretty much to yourself.
So with this in mind, I’d like to share my favorite beach find stories, both personal and secondhand, to inspire beachcombers up and down Hatteras and Ocracoke islands to keep combing, and to keep dreaming about the next unprecedented find — or, at least, not to be shocked when something really, really weird washes up on the beach.
Let’s start with my most recent amazing find, which happened just this past weekend.
I love gardening. And I love shelling. But I’ve never been able to combine my two great loves before.
This is mainly because of the fact that most plants and saltwater don’t mix – a fact that took me hundreds of dollars in landscaping and at least three soundside flooding events to figure out.
But this all changed this past Saturday, when I was irresponsibly strolling under the old Frisco Pier, and happened upon an agave plant in the ocean wash, with the roots still intact and the palm-like leaves still vibrantly green.
And once I spotted it, I did what any normal person would do. I scooped it up, went to Ace Hardware and spent an exorbitant amount of money on cactus and palm tree-specific soil and then cut the living crap out of my hand trying to plant the extremely sharp and painful thing.
It was awesome.
Now, granted, I have no guarantee that it’s going to grow – and in fact, some of the leaves looked a little brown after a day, although that could have just been my dried blood.
But the fact that I was finally able to plant something that washed up from the ocean more than made my day. Because as much as I fantasize about it, there’s unfortunately no such thing as a seashell tree.
Many years ago I was walking along a deserted beach between Avon and Salvo with my buddy when I noticed a bright yellow, plastic construction hat that had just washed up. Again, like any normal person, I removed the gobs of seaweed and dead fish bits, put it on my head despite the smell, and kept on walking.
About a hundred yards later, we spotted another yellow construction hat, which my buddy promptly put on his head, after, again, removing seaweed and dead crustaceans.
We continued on our walk, and kind of forgot that we were wearing the hats, which, in retrospect, completely explains why the few folks we passed and said “hello” to looked at us like we were nuts. I guess when you’re walking down a stretch of sand that is miles away from the nearest manmade structure, you don’t expect to see people in bathing suits and hard plastic helmets.
Anyway, the construction hat is only one of the many hats I’ve collected in my decades of beachcombing. I also have an NCDOT ferry cap, a kids’ pirate hat, and one of those weird beanies that’s in the shape of a crab and has legs and eyes popping out in every direction. (Fun Fact: I wear this hat often when I’m somewhat inebriated.)
So essentially, I have a “beachcombing hat” collection, which today is just as prized to me as my favorite shells, and I encourage every beachcomber to carry on this tradition and start their own arsenal of weird beach hats. You will thank me during the Super Bowl, or another fun winter party, after you and your friends have had a few, and the crab hats, construction helmets, and cameras all come out.
My mother taught middle school for more than 40 years, and as a result, it affected the maturity of her sense of humor.
This is why when I go to the beach with my family, I have to check my beach chair whenever I leave it, because if I don’t, I will sit on a dead crab claw, or a slimy manta ray egg case, or another one of Mother Nature’s infinite treasures that my mom has decided to put under my butt as a practical joke.
But never did my mom’s love of teaching and gross humor more perfectly combine than when it came to beachcombing. And as a result, I have fond memories of my mom hauling away crustacean carcasses both big and small to “dry out,” stink up the car and porch in the process, and eventually be utilized as teaching tools in her classroom.
Some of these finds were totally gnarly – like a whole horseshoe crab that she found early on in her pursuits, before we realized that rotting carcasses should be kept as far away from the house as possible.
But it was nevertheless fascinating and fun – and if I ever missed the beach, I could just go outside or to the basement and check out the array of crabs, or egg cases, or whatever my mom had lugged home, for an up-close view — and smell — of the seashore.
And in the end, her pursuits were educational and allowed her to bring a new and unexpected resource into the classroom, all thanks to a beachcombing trip. (Although, now that I think about it, she did teach English, so how she used these teaching “tools,” I have no idea.)
Now I want to preface this by saying that if you find underpants on the beach, you shouldn’t take them home and repurpose them.
But one of my favorite beachcombing stories is secondhand, and it’s from a friend who was taking an early beach walk in Avon and who happened across not one, but FOUR, pairs of underpants that had just washed up along the low-tide line.
Apparently, according to the friend, three of the pairs were women’s undergarments, and one was men’s underwear, and there was no visible indication that they were just left over from a fun beach party from the night before. (Well, fun for the guy, anyways.)
My friend didn’t pick them up or take them home, but this, nevertheless, created a legendary mystery for both my buddy and all who heard the tale, and it’s a mystery that still lives on today. Because, when you think about it, what on earth happened in the middle of the ocean that required four people to remove their underwear? The unending questions and theories live on.
And this is why beachcombing can be so amazing. Because when you find that random object, like a roller skate or a kazoo — both of which I’ve found before if you can believe it — it opens up a whole new world of mystery and presents a barrage of questions that will never be answered.
Although truth be told, if I had found four pairs of underpants, the roller skate, AND the kazoo at the same time and at the same location, my internal curiosity of how this came to be would truly drive me mad.
Now, it should be noted that my short list is just the tip of the weirdo iceberg.
I’ve heard countless stories of the eccentric things people have found when they’re originally on a mission for shells, and then come across something else entirely – a list which includes, but is not limited to, antique bottles, bottles with messages in them, basketballs, sunglasses, car keys, wedding rings, computer parts, rubber duckies, and menus from New Jersey. (If you’re bored, just Google “weird things washed ashore” and you’ll be amazed at how long the list runs. Also, you’re welcome, because it’s totally hilarious.)
But this “element of surprise” is inherently part of the joy of beachcombing. With every new visit comes a new opportunity to find something completely unusual, which will serve as an exceptional story for years to come.
After all, we live in an area with two major Atlantic currents that meet offshore, that’s known for centuries of shipwrecks, and that has more than its fair share of deserted beaches.
So keep exploring, and keep looking. If nothing else, the sheer idea that anything is possible on a beachcombing trip is reason enough to roll up your jeans and head to the shore.
And if you keep looking, I promise that someday, my friends, your Doritos ship will come in.