Making the transition from mountain time to beach time

Author Halle Hill remembers her first trip to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she discovered the true meaning of living the "Salt Life"


Illustration by Harry Tennant

Everyone kept telling me about the Salt Life. The ubiquitous decals were everywhere, promising a secret world of unbridled summer loafing and easygoingness. When I moved back to North Carolina for a job at a university in the middle of the state, I listened to my colleagues’ enthusiasm as they planned their annual two-week, intergenerational trips to Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, or Fort Fisher. I nodded a lot in these conversations, didn’t think much of them. In my Tennessee hometown, most people were mountain people—sneaking away for the summer to Pigeon Forge or Bristol for cooler weather and cold swimming creeks. Here I was surrounded by beach people who swore that in time, I’d become a beach person too.

My first Wilmington trip was a long weekend in early May. I made a promise to myself to: A) follow my interests (i.e. all things woo-woo), and B) sleep. The year before while living out West I became an insomniac. In Wyoming, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t rest right. I missed the South. It took months for my lungs to adjust to the thin desert air. I slept lightly, barely.

Gunning down I-40, the pines thinned out and grew taller. My Volkswagen flew past farmland, large billboards advertising Smithfield’s sweet tea, and biblical calls to REPENT.

About 50 miles out from Wilmington, I saw an exit sign advertising the tiny town of Rose Hill, home of the world’s largest frying pan. I swerved over and followed the signs to the town square. I gawked at the 15-foot-wide, two-ton skillet and found it oddly moving. Shrinelike. After paying my respects and petitioning for a solid REM cycle, I got back in the car and rolled on to the coast.

Wilmington felt just how I hoped it would: quiet and even a bit eerie. My historic rental sat tucked a few blocks from downtown, and I wandered through the Victorian neighborhoods imagining the lives of the wealthy and the enslaved. I stopped to view the Latimer House and Bellamy Mansion, watching soft Spanish moss through the reflections in the windows.

The next day I headed out to see the sunrise at Wrightsville Beach. The morning sky turned seashell pink, and clear jellyfish dolloped the sand. While yogis practiced pranayama and headstands, moms in head-to-toe Lululemon power-walked in foamy Hokas on the shore, their visors the colors of dawn.

That evening I went on a ghost tour. The guide, Melissa, was campy, filled with facts and musical-theater energy. When stopping by the St. James Episcopal graveyard, she told us the story of Samuel Joselyn. How he was buried alive—eternally restless, still clawing his way out. I knew the feeling. Back at the rental I watched the local news. The living room lights flickered a few times. I dozed off. For the first time in months, I slept for 10 hours.

On my final day, I swam in the ocean. Bobbing off the shores of Fort Fisher, my mind stilled while cerulean waves rocked me back and forth. I’m a beach person now, I thought. I smiled while I floated on my back.

Later, in my new Guy Harvey pocket T-shirt, I waddled with wet hair back to my rental, packed my bags, and made the slow crawl out of town. Heading home to Winston-Salem, I passed the world’s largest frying pan and offered my silent gratitude, then contemplated what I’d tell my colleagues about my recent transformation.

Halle Hill is the author of Good Women, which was named a 2023 Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, Oprah Daily, Electric Literature, Book Riot, and Southwest Review. She is the winner of the 2020 Crystal Wilkinson Creative Writing Prize and the 2020 Oxford American Debut Fiction Prize. Her short stories have been translated into French and published in Joyland, New Limestone Review, and the Oxford American, among others.

This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Southbound.