“Wear shorts,” we were told. “It’ll be more fun that way.”
We barely had time to brace ourselves as a huge gust of wind caused each grain of sand to feel like a needle pricking into bare skin. Our faces grew numb. Sand poured from our nostrils. It was caked in the corners of our eyes, and each time we gritted our teeth, we could feel it wedging its way into the enamel. Sand scratched our throats whenever we attempted to swallow what little saliva we could produce. Our ears were becoming clogged with it as the sand threatened to fill every pore on our bodies.
One of the college students turned to me, her normally wide, brown eyes squinting against the sandstorm.
“WHY?” Jordon screamed. “JUST WHY!?”
It was the question we were all asking.
The Honors students of Gardner-Webb University didn’t arrive at the Outer Banks in North Carolina until one o’clock in the morning. It was an eight hour drive consisting of thirty-five college students, two professors, and one five-year old boy in four fifteen-passenger vans. Once the luggage was loaded up, though, there were roughly ten seats available per van. Needless to say, it was a tight squeeze for a trip lasting a third of the day.
When we arrived at the Wilbur & Orville Wright Court Cottages located in Kill Devil Hills on Nags Head Beach, students stumbled from the vans in a sleep deprived daze. We gathered our luggage and stood in the middle of the vast entrance, clumped together like a flock of confused sheep.
“I have to go check in next door at the Days Inn,” Dr. Jones informed us. “Stay here until I get back. Just be quiet because there are people sleeping, and we don’t want to wake our new neighbors.”
As soon as he disappeared, the noise level raised ten octaves. One girl was laughing manically at nothing in particular. Another cluster of girls gossiped, but even their hushed voices and giggles grew in volume. Of the thirty-five students in attendance, only eight were male. They stood in their own circle away from the rest of us. Only one attempted to calm the group, but he gave up shortly, too.
Fifteen minutes passed, and people began contemplating the option of sleeping on the cold, hard cement. But Dr. Jones returned, handed groups ranging from six to twelve students card keys to access the cottages, and sent us patiently on our way.
“Breakfast begins at eight o’clock… SHARP!”
Many of us felt the need to pretend we hadn’t heard him as the hour hand moved its way toward the two. Others prayed he meant eight o’clock in the evening. Several girls moaned or grumbled under their breath as we all maneuvered in the general directions of our weekend homes.
It was roughly half past two by the time Jordon and I had showered and crawled into our full sized bed. My head hit the pillow, my legs stretched out across the mattress, and I breathed a sigh of relief. As my heavy eyelids began to fall shut, Jordon turned to face me. I opened one eye and met hers in the dark.
“Sorry if I fart in the middle of the night,” she whispered. “I swear, it only happens at nighttime.”
“Oh joy.” There was a hint of sarcasm in my voice, but I laughed as she stared at me with wide eyes. A noise sounded from under the comforters, and I laughed even harder.
“Stop it!” she whined.
I flipped towards her, gripping my pillow with one arm. “My question is,” I said, “why don’t they have pillowcases on these pillows? I wonder how many people have used this pillow before me.”
“I don’t know, Liv.” Her voice was growing more and more tired. “Why do you have to think about that?” I rolled back over and shut my eyes in response, but the silence only lasted so long. “Dang it, Liv. I can’t sleep now.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I keep thinking about how many heads have touched my pillow! What if they didn’t shower? Or what if they had lice?” I could hear the worry creeping into her voice as it squeaked and raised pitch.
I flipped back the comforter and stood. “Flip on that lamp next to you,” I said. “When I stayed at this cottage on Myrtle Beach, they had extra pillowcases in the dresser drawers or in the closet. You had to put them on yourself. Maybe we were supposed to find them?”
I moved around the room at snail pace, pulling out drawer after drawer. Each one was sullen and hollow. I turned the knob on the closet door and discovered an extra fleece and a vacuum on the other side.
“I don’t know, Jordon,” I sighed. “I don’t see anything. Just try to sleep.” I crawled back under the covers and grabbed for my pillow. It was then that I noticed the thin white sheet encircling it. “Jordon, look.”
She was silent for a moment before she turned the switch on the lamp and turned her back on me. “I can’t believe you. Go to sleep, Liv.”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t know!” I laughed.
Five minutes of silence passed, and I thought we were going to fall asleep at long last. The clock on the other side of the room read a quarter to three. It was then that I heard a sound, a sound that reminded me of blinds being ruffled.
“Jordon,” I whispered. “Jordon. What was that? Did you hear that?”
“…excuse me,” she replied innocently as she stifled a laugh.
The following day began at seven in the morning when the girls in our cottage woke up to shower and get ready for the day’s events. Everyone at breakfast was still sleepy-eyed, but we were herded into the vans precisely at nine. We were right on track with Dr. Jones’s schedule.
First on the itinerary was the Wright Museum. Many of us struggled to stay awake through a presentation on the Wright Brothers, and the hour that it lasted felt like three. Afterwards, Dr. Jones sent us sightseeing on the property, and the group walked around in a daze, snapping pictures occasionally.
At noon, he rushed us back to the cottages for lunch.
“We’re heading to the aquarium right at one, and then it’s on to Jockey’s Ridge,” Dr. Jones informed us through bites of ham and American cheese on white. “Now, don’t forget. This is a giant sand dune. Wear shorts. It’ll be more fun that way.”
The next few hours felt like a blur as we were crammed back into the vans and chaperoned to the aquarium. We sat through a presentation on the world before we were let loose to touch stingrays and look at fish in tanks. By the time we were being steered out of the glass sliding doors and back to the parking lot, raindrops began cascading down from the darkening sky as the wind picked up speed.
“Maybe we’re just going to go home?” a girl by the name of Katie spoke in a hopeful voice.
“I sure hope so,” I replied. “I’m from the desert back home, and trust me. You do not want to be stuck in a sandstorm. Dr. Jones wouldn’t do that to us… right?”
I should have known better.
The vans did not head in the direction of home. Instead, Dr. Jones led our entourage to the parking lot of a kite shop. He beckoned for us to get out and get going. It was a long walk across a busy street and over several dunes until we were to arrive at the one called Jockey’s Ridge.
The minute our bare feet touched sand, I think everyone knew just what a bad idea this whole excursion was. The wind howled in our ears, the sand took flight and embedded itself in our soft top layers of skin. Girls screamed and whimpered at the pain while the boys attempted to “take it like men.” But even then, some of them were complaining and saying “ouch” time and time again.
“Let’s at least make it Jockey’s Ridge!” Delton told the group hesitantly before he and Sarah took off running up and down the dunes.
It got worse the further we traveled, and before long, the street had vanished from sight. Our vans which would protect us from the violent wind had disappeared altogether. Now the view resembled that of the Sahara Desert when one turned in a three hundred and sixty degree motion. But there was no going back until we reached the top of Jockey’s Ridge.
The group eventually made it, and we gathered together to try and block each other from the sand. Better yet, we were trying to use our friends as human shields for ourselves and our own benefit. Dr. Jones appeared before just over the edge of the dune before long, and he traipsed through the sandstorm up to us.
“Kevin,” he said gruffly. “Help me set up this kite.”
The groans were almost inaudible and lost in the wind. It took three people to hold the kite and two people to attach the string. Thirty minutes later, everyone’s skin was noticeably red and raw to the touch, but the kite was ready to fly. Dr. Jones backed up while Kevin held the spool. Everyone waited impatiently as Dr. Jones smiled openly, sand flying into his mouth. He tossed it up and we all watched as the wind immediately snapped the string in half and sent the colorful bird-shaped kite surging down the sand dune.
“Huh,” Dr. Jones huffed as he turned to me. “That string was supposed to hold up to fifty mile per hour wind.”
“That’s because this wind is stronger than fifty miles per hour, Dr. Jones,” I replied politely, trying to keep the edge out of my voice.
“We’re heading back,” Delton shouted as he and a girl broke apart from the group and began the descent down Jockey’s Ridge in the general direction of the vans.
“Yeah. Sorry, Dr. Jones.”
“We’re leaving, too.”
The time that it took us to get up to Jockey’s Ridge was practically cut in half as we sprinted towards the vans. They meant safety from the wind, and better yet, safety from the sandstorm. We climbed over one another as we piled inside whichever van was closest and unlocked first. The excess of students waited outside until a couple of the student drivers appeared. Dr. Jones was one of the last to join the crowd of unpleasant college students.
Keys were turned in ignitions, and before long, we were rolling out of the parking lot. Sand clung to our bare feet and we attempted to brush them off inside the vehicles. We cleaned our eyes and blew our noses into tissues, pried grains from our ears with our nails, and swallowed down the gritty taste left in our mouths with water.
“We have to be going home now, right?” Katie’s voice was more strained than hopeful now.
It wasn’t long before the vans were pulling onto a dirt road and into a dust covered parking lot. A log cabin with a painted sign reading “Visitor Information” loomed to the left of us. Trees and moth covered water surrounded the other three sides.
Dr. Jones rapped his knuckles on the window.
“Everybody out!” he called cheerfully. “It’s time to go hiking!”
“Why?” Jordon sounded distraught. “Just… why?”
It was the question we were all asking.