OBX and back again
Deeply disturbing is the only way you can describe the smile of a Chesapeake Bay retriever.
After an 18-hour ride, this is what greeted me, in duplicate no less, at the top of the stairs leading to Leslie's raised porch. Her two massive reddish dogs, Phoenix and Fella, were waiting for me, their upper lips curled back from sharp teeth.
"They're smilin' at you," my brother-in-law Phil explained from his porch chair, reading my mind.
The dogs are identical except one has a smooth back and the other is rippled and pilly, like a sweater that went through the wash with the towels.
A few months back, when my wife mentioned possibly going to Disney World, my 7-year-old daughter surprised us by saying she didn't want to go there. "I want to go to Auntie Lee's instead," Samantha said.
Auntie Lee, or Leslie, is my wife's sister. She grew up right here in South Thomaston, playing in the band at Rockland District High School, but that doesn't stop her from referring to us as "Y'all," these days.
She now lives on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with her scallop boat captain husband, Phil. The Outer Banks, or OBX as it appears on hats and bumper stickers, is an awesome land of sun-drenched beaches, surf shops, tall lighthouses, parks and museums. Just off its shores is a vast graveyard of wrecked ships. It's a place once known for pirates and now settled by fishermen and surfers.
My parents-in-law, Rick and Sue, drove Christine, myself and the two kids the more than 850 miles to the OBX in a VW van.
Auntie Lee's house is in Rodanthe. It was down on the ground last time we visited, but after the flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011, they redid the whole place, raising the house up off the ground with a new patio down below and a wrap-around porch.
The yard has become a farm with ducks and geese waddling around, chickens laying eggs in the bushes and roosters crowing every few minutes.
It sounds just like in the movies when they cut to a scene on the farm, only roosters don't just crow in the morning. Every other second, one goes off, making it feel like you are still in Kansas, Toto.
As Leslie walked around, pointing to places in the bushes where the chickens might have laid eggs, a duck waddled up to us. I noticed its whole head was misshapen, eyes all on one side, bill twisted, like it had been drawn by Picasso. But it was friendly and followed Leslie everywhere.
One of the chickens was named "Beetle Face." It walked around looking like something had started chewing its head off, but got bored halfway through. The mean rooster, the one that had terrorized the community for some time, Col. Klink, had met his demise the night before, Phil reported. He did not elaborate with any details, but we suspect fowl play.
Normal or deformed, mean or tame, Leslie loves all her critters equally. Humans, she can take or leave.
My kids adore her.
Wesley, 12, came running in after fishing in the back pond. "We saw a water moccasin!" he shouted.
"Aren't those poisonous?"
"Oh yes," the North Carolina locals tell us. As with all the things I worry about, snakes, guns, four-wheeling, none of this concerns them in the least. Phil's father will tell you he used to swim with venomous snakes.
Phil showed us how to properly handle and fire semi-automatic pistols. We had four guns out there in the backyard, which was less than a quarter of Phil's total arsenal.
"How many places can you go out in your backyard and shoot guns?" Phil asked me, with pride. In Maine there are plenty, but I understood his feeling of freedom. It turned out to be harder to line up the sights and hit the target than I expected. Playing Call of Duty video games didn't translate to real world skill, it seemed.
Wesley enjoyed shooting, but he liked fishing and four-wheeling more. It was fun to watch him tearing around by himself on Phil's red ATV, even if I worried that he's growing up too fast.
There are many sights, but the beach itself, which stretches for miles is the main attraction in the Outer Banks.
With the warmer climate comes a different and beautiful display of flora and fauna. You see palm trees here and there. You see pelicans and osprey and little birds scuttling down the sand as the water retreats, eating quickly and then high-tailing it back to safety as the waves crash back in.
As I was watching a few people jumping the waves, I saw two dorsal fins suddenly break the water, so close to the swimmers and surfers they could have touched each other. They were big black creatures, their backs curving out of the water and back down. Porpoises.
I couldn't raise my camera and focus quickly enough to catch them. Wesley saw them too, though, and so we have that quick glimpse into another world to remember our trip.
We arrived back home in Maine the day before Labor Day, having traveled 2,400 miles round trip, going out of our way a little to fit in as much as we could.
With the kids headed back to school and us back in our routines at work, we can say the summer went out with a bang, and we squeezed everything we could out of it.
For now, Disney World can wait.
Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine and two children. Email him your thoughts and stories from the Knox County community at email@example.com.