Pretty much everywhere I’ve called home during the history of my life, the locals have told me on more than one occasion that “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute and it’ll change.” North Carolina is no different.
Of course, that’s hardly true.
But on Saturday, I’m pretty sure I experienced just such an occurrence along Interstate 74 between Wilmington and Lumberton.
The day began innocently enough. After an early morning breakfast with “my guys” — a men’s iron-sharpening-iron prayer breakfast at McNeill’s Restaurant in Lumberton — I had a rare spontaneous urge to go get in the ocean. As the plan unfolded, I decided that my girlfriend, her daughter and I would drive to Oak Island.
I love Oak Island. It’s quiet. It’s an old-school coastal community with just enough amenities to make a day trip or week-long stay enjoyable. The beaches are clean and uncrowded. The water, because of its nearness to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, is calmer than most ocean shorelines.
But before we began packing the necessary items into my Jeep for the trip, we made sure to check the weather forecast. Not because we wanted to be sure the day would be sunny, but because we wanted to make sure the day wouldn’t include rain.
That may have sounded like I’m saying the same thing two different ways, but I’m not. Rain was the evil four-letter word of the moment because, just the night before, I had removed the hard-top of the Jeep. Sun good, rain bad.
We elected to check a trio of weather sources — The Fayetteville Observer, The Weather Channel and Time Warner Cable — and all three clearly stated that Saturday would be sunny, clear and hot. All of Saturday. Every minute of it.
So, with that assurance, we kept the Jeep topless and began stuffing it with towels, beach chairs, beach umbrella, drinks and swimsuits. Moments later, off we went.
The day was spectacular. Hot, yes, but with the ocean breezes helping to keep some of the heat away, we couldn’t have had more fun. We drove to the southern tip of the island, then had lunch at Russell’s Place (an iconic and must-stop eatery spot), spent two hours on the beach and in the water near Fort Caswell, had some seriously awesome ice cream at Frosty’s (owned and operated by a guy who, like me, is also a native of Upstate New York) and then decided to head for Southport.
With the sun still beating down on us, we stopped to get some aloe-packed lotion, more drinks and a loaf of bread before making our way to the ferry in Southport. The bread, of course, was for feeding the seagulls that follow the ferry from Southport to Fort Fisher — always a fun thing to do.
We had 45 minutes to wait for the next ferry after getting our ticket, so we spent much of that time inside the Visitor’s Center where it was cool … a pure “ahhhhhhhhhhhh” moment after being in the 98-degree heat.
Once on the ferry, we enjoyed tossing bits of bread off the back of the boat and watching the seagulls dive out of the sky to pick off the bread in midair. A few times, we even held the bread in out fingers and waited for a seagull to swoop past and grab the bread — which they did.
Once on the Fort Fisher side, we drove through Kure beach and Carolina Beach on our way to dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings in Wilmington. We ate, watched some of the Yankees game, played a little of the trivia game and got ourselves ready for the ride home.
Nothing could have prepared us for what lay ahead.
We made our way through Wilmington, across the drawbridge over the Cape Fear River and into Leland — all the while talking about what a terrific day it had been.
Suddenly, and with absolutely no warning whatsoever, a few sprinkles hit the windshield. I scoffed.
Then a few more. Again, I scoffed.
As my girlfriend looked ahead, she said to me, “that doesn’t look good.” Still, I scoffed. I may have even said “pffffffft.”
Boy, was I wrong.
We soon found ourselves in a monsoon. I mean it had every ingredient necessary in the recipe for an honest-to-goodness monsoon: serious pouring rain, serious thunder, serious lightning and serious wind. I was seriously not happy.
As I was silently praying it wouldn’t last long, it soon became obvious it was going to. Within minutes, we were soaked. So was the Jeep. Inside. Towels helped keep the inside of the windshield wiped down and also protected the radio and CD player. Nothing protected us.
A huge bolt of lightning and clap of thunder sent me to the side of the road under an overpass — and this is where the trip went from terrible to a scene straight out of “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Within moments, we had the beach umbrella opened up over the top of the Jeep and we began drying off everything inside the Jeep that we could — all the while silently cursing the trio of weather services we’d used. Even passing motorcyclists laughed at us.
After 25 minutes, it looked like things were letting up, so we put the umbrella down and took off.
It was just as bad, so we stopped at the next overpass and, since a gust of wind had almost blown the umbrella inside-out and down the highway, we left it in the back. After about 10 minutes, we took off again.
And once again, stopped at the next overpass.
When the rain slowed just a bit, we were back on the road. And this time, as we got closer to the Lumberton exit, the storm began to subside. At the exit, it stopped completely and it only made things worse in our minds that it looked as if Lumberton was dry as a bone.
Once at home, we dried the Jeep off — inside —soaked up the water from the floorboards and I announced that the top would be put back on the next day and NEVER again be removed. Ever.
On Sunday, we reminisced about our adventure from the beach to the ferry to the storm. Then I checked the trio of weather services and found they agreed that there would be nothing but sun and rainless days until at least Wednesday.
Yep, the Jeep stayed topless.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.