I ride into North Carolina and take a road that leads over the Intracoastal Waterway to Ocean Isle Beach. Vacation rentals parallel the coastline—exteriors painted in pastel colors that remind me of south Florida—but there is a different feel to these buildings. The blocky structures exude the solemness of parishioners in a New England church service, quiet and austere, as though the buildings are hunched over, on their knees, praying they survive the next nor'easter.
South Florida was glitzier—a carnival with blinking lights and barking concessionaires—an in-your-face ambiance that left me feeling as though the region's only reason for existence is to separate people from their money.
Aside from a few beach shops garishly decorated with alligator entrances or tsunami themes, the North Carolina barrier islands are less aggressive with their advertising, and the result is a laid-back environment. Surprisingly, because I'm not a fan of tourist areas, I feel comfortable here.
I lean my bike against a fence and stroll out to the beach, enjoy the wind and sun against my skin. The long stretch of sand is a lonely place, nearly empty of people, none of whom are in the water.
To the south, legs of a wooden pier jut into the waves, and I wonder if the fisherman are having any luck today. I step into the ocean and it recedes around my ankles, tugging at the liquid sand beneath my sandals, a slippery yet gritty experience that invites me to step deeper, then a little deeper, until the waves are crashing around my waist and it's all I can do to stay upright. While I'd like to remain for a few hours, in the watery timelessness of the ocean—feeling it scrub away the dirt of the past few days—I'm scheduled to meet a reporter in Shallotte and it's time to go.
Back on solid ground, I walk past two women who spread a blanket and shed their outer layers. The bikini-clad sunbathers are drinking rum, chasing it with beer, and I turn down an invitation to join the party.
"Gotta run," I say.
The reporter has a list of questions I try to answer as lucidly as possible. Caffeine. It makes me spacey, and I've been drinking a lot of it lately. I can't accurately respond to some of her queries and wish I was better prepared.
"So," she says, "how did you feel about your brothers dying of this disease?"
I don't want to expose too much of myself, so I give a one sentence answer. "I suppose I carry around some survivor's guilt."
Survivor's guilt is the boxed-up response, a politician's spin to a tough question. Yes, I am the middle brother, the one the disease skipped, and, yes, I suspect I sometimes punish myself because I escaped, but how I feel about my brothers' deaths and the disease that took them is more complex than survivor's guilt.
Imagine life as a carefree child, then finding out someone you love, the person you are closest to in your world, has a terminal illness. The pain of that awareness was so crushing I couldn't deal with it as a boy. I slipped into an emotional deep-freeze, distancing myself, avoiding . . . but the disease was right there, always right there, a thief robbing my older brother of mobility one muscle at a time.
Instead of crawling under the covers and crying at night, I toughened up, squared my jaw, became a rock you could punch but never hurt. By the time my younger brother began exhibiting symptoms, I was impenetrable, a mountain of densest granite—immovable, unfeeling—a teenager who had become an old hand at distancing himself from the horror.
How did I feel about their deaths?
I felt angry and still do.
The unfairness of it—the taking of two good lives when there is so much evil in the world—stirs the ire in my soul. I didn't understand the why of it then and I don't understand it now, and perhaps I never will.
The reporter and I part ways, and my route takes me out of Shallotte on Highway 17, a four-lane with high risk and high stress. Fortunately, this is a short stretch and before long I turn onto a two-lane with less traffic. I camp in the woods and chop up garlic to go with brown rice, lentils, and carrots. I spice the concoction with taco sauce and eat as the sun sets and the air cools around me. A whippoorwill starts up in a nearby pine, and I fall asleep with its repetitious song in my ears.
The next morning, I pluck a baby spotted turtle of the road and deposit him well away from danger. He crawls toward a swamp and I leave him to his meandering. A few hours later, I ride a ferry back to the barrier islands, cycle past the slew of vacation rentals and turn north toward Wilmington.