Travels with Harvey: A Magical Hush

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Travels with Harvey: A Magical Hush



My sixth-grade science teacher, Mr. Hathaway, once posed a question I’ll never forget.  “What’s the most overlooked, but most dangerous kind of pollution in America today?”

A few kids blurted hasty responses, all of which were summarily dismissed.  Then all eyes were on me, because I could usually be counted on for the right answer. (Not in any science class since, sadly, but in the sixth grade, I was a whiz.)  “Chemicals?” I guessed.  He shook his head.

“Noise,” Mr. Hathaway said sternly.  “It’s getting worse, and no one seems to want to do anything about it.”

I have often thought about Mr. Hathaway’s warning, and how the last three decades have proven him right. Scientists have noted the dangers of society’s increasing noise level to our mental and emotional health. So when my husband tried to sell me on an RV a couple of years ago, promises of peace and quiet and weekends of solitude finally won me over.

In reality, though, our purchase of Harvey the RV was my husband’s homage to his own childhood vacations, the most memorable of which was a road trip in a rented camper. Peaceful and quiet, however, are not among the words he uses to describe it. His dad was a jokester who often led the family in public displays of silliness, like when they’d reenact a Saturday Night Live skit by entering an otherwise respectable establishment as “The Loud Family.”  Mind you, they were New Yorkers, traveling through the South, working hard at being louder than usual. The unsuspecting targets of their pranks are probably still recuperating.

My childhood vacations were completely different. Most summers, I traveled from Florida by car with my grandparents for weeks at a time. We often visited my uncle wherever the Army sent him: Corpus Christi, Denver, even Fairbanks; but a couple of times, we headed to their old home state of Kentucky, with detours through Virginia and the Carolinas. Though I’ve since revisited many of those East Coast destinations, it’s the tone of those trips that now seems unattainable: the hours of calm discussion and even silent contemplation in my grandparents’ Cadillac as we steadily made our way from one motel to the next. There were no cell phones ringing, no movies playing, no video games binging – just us, the scenery, and whatever thoughts we allowed to roam around our minds and settle in for the ride.

For all the great trips we’ve had with Harvey and our three boys, I don’t recall much in the way of silent contemplation or calm discussions. For us, The Loud Family isn’t so much a funny prank as a force of habit. We interrupt. We talk over one another. We shout across crowded rooms for each other’s attention.  And that’s when everyone’s getting along; conflicts only add to the din. But since everywhere we go is pretty loud, too, we blend in. Like the fabled frog in hot water, I’ve tuned out the amped-up background music, one-sided cell phone conversations, and kids louder than my own (for which I am truly grateful) and hardly notice the intrusion.


Until, that is, it’s gone.

We experienced such magic one weekend last year on the Outer Banks.  Not during tourist season, of course, but in the winter, when visitors were reduced to a trickle, and in Rodanthe, where Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath had dampened tourism further, Harvey was one of only four RVs in a campground designed for hundreds. The fishing pond, flooded during the storm, had a gray-green sheen and no sign of life.  Many of the town’s shops remained boarded, and debris was stacked near still-damaged homes.  As we set up, I wondered what we’d do all weekend and why on earth I’d thought camping on the beach in winter would be a good idea.

It wasn’t long, though, before the boys climbed over the dunes and found the ocean.  Nicholas, our oldest, has an aversion to shoes no matter the temperature, so it wasn’t long before they were kicked off onto the sand, followed a few yards later by Alex’s, then by Jonathan’s.  There was no chance of losing them, or their discarded jackets, either.  Aside from the sandpipers, and the most opulent spread of shells I’ve ever seen, the piles of abandoned clothes were the only items on the beach.  We were completely alone.  While the boys hunted for treasure, we wrapped our jackets around us and enjoyed a rare stillness, one where the greatest rush of activity was in the breaking of the frothy waves, and where the only chatter was among the hungry gulls.  As we settled in our beds that evening, we could still hear the ocean’s roar, but nothing else.

The next day, in Manteo, we visited Fort Raleigh, where actors perform The Lost Colony drama each summer.  This was months before opening night, and without anyone to shoo us off, we poked around the empty amphitheater by ourselves. On an elevated walkway behind the stage, we looked out across the Albemarle Sound amidst a quiet that hinted at the scene encountered by the original colonists centuries ago.

Next month, the theater seats will be filled.  So will the shores and campgrounds, just like they appear in thousand of vacation photos. But my mental image of the Outer Banks will forever be different: an empty beach, an abandoned theater, and a hush that would have suited Mr. Hathaway, and my grandparents, very well.

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