For the past ten years, my family has made the nine to twelve-hour journey (depending on the number of squalid gas station restrooms we have to endure and the number of Icees I’m forced to purchase) to Orange Beach, Alabama. Before my first trip to the Redneck Riviera, my only experience with Alabama was wondering why the the mascot of the Crimson Tide is an Elephant, which makes absolutely no sense-unlike the logical choice of a collie dog for the mascot of my alma mater’s team-the Aggies.
Our reasons for repeatedly traveling to Orange beach are simple: it’s a relatively inexpensive vacation that keeps our children happily occupied for long periods of time and allows us to avoid going to Disney World. As I keep telling my kids, “We’ve driven to Disney World for ten years straight. We just always run out of gas about 481 miles before we get there. Hey, look! The beach!” At this point, my children don’t even want to go to Disney World for fear that if we go, we won’t be able to go to Orange Beach. I call that a win.
Although I enjoy being with my wife and children away from the hustle and bustle of work, school, piano lessons, art lessons, gymnastics lessons, horseback riding lessons, or whatever other lessons someone has dreamed up to relieve me of my life savings, one needs to understand exactly what a beach is. The part of the beach that gets the most attention is the sand. People are always touting the beautiful sugar-white sand of Orange Beach. They seem to have forgotten that sand is really just dirt that’s had a bath. Unfortunately, the bath water is teeming with millions of organisms, and none of them are housebroken. Why do you think it’s salty? Along with their lack of potty training, most of those creatures would happily devour you if they were big enough, and some of them are-and those that aren’t try anyway.
And then there’s the dreaded sunscreen ritual. Before we ever get the pleasure of frolicking around in the water with our man-eating animal friends and lodging enough sand in our crevices to house a family of meerkats, we must all subject ourselves to enhanced sunscreen interrogation techniques, primarily performed by my wife. If sunscreen were paint, then Susan would be Jackson Pollock-or at least that guy with the afro who painted the “happy little trees.” She applies it with such gusto and in such vast quantities that I’m almost certain if she could encase us all in giant cans of sunscreen, we would waddle out to the beach with “Coppertone” emblazoned across our chests. Despite all of the whining, wailing, and whimpering (and the girls complain some, too), she manages to get us fully protected from the harmful rays of the sun to the point that I would not be surprised if we caused some kind of solar eclipse, which makes perfect astronomical sense.
Speaking of the sun, there wasn’t much of it in play at our most recent trip to Orange Beach. It actually rained the first two mornings and early afternoons we were there, which gave our middle daughter, Anna, more time to participate in activity that is her primary motivation for making the trip-souvenier shopping. Anna has always said that she wants to be a professional shopper when she grows up, and not a shopper for a wealthy celebrity or a large company, but for herself. (I’m not sure how the economics of that would work.) Anyway, these vast repositories of worthless junk, commonly known as souvenir shops, are her Mecca. When she shops, she handles and inspects every item the store’s inventory, from the shellacked puffer fish to the shark-tooth earrings, all lovingly made in China. (I wonder if the souvenirs in China are made in Alabama.) We sometimes even ask if these fine establishments have anything else in the back that Anna could scrutinize. Once she’s scoured every momento in the Gulf region, she usually winds up with a stuffed animal of some kind that has nothing to do with the beach. One time, she bought a plush bat, her little sister bought a play purse with a cat in it, and her big sister bought a pig hand puppet. Ah, treasures from the seashore.
My consolation for putting up with the sunscreen, sand and souvenirs (see how I did that?) is that all of these sometimes irritating activities are interrupted by eating at some of my favorite restaurants on the planet. Since I only visit these places once a year, I feel like I have to eat enough to make it last. Whether it’s The Original Oyster House, Lartigue Seafood Market, or Lillian’s Pizza, it’s always a beautiful reunion that’s memorialized with the maximum dose of Pepto.
This yearly trip to Orange Beach has become a special part of our family that I trust we will continue to share. Now that I’m back home, I’m already feeling the longing to head back east and make more precious memories with my wife, daughters, and steamed shrimp. Until then, I always have Ally’s pig puppet to remind me of the ocean.