A Different Kind of Nightlife

by | Apr 16, 2020 | Hampstead, Surf City

When the sun goes down, the mundane and ordinary get painted with mystery and are transformed.

While the obvious appeal of the Topsail area is fun in the sun, what is it like after the sun goes down? I’m not talking about bar hopping or the proverbial nightlife — which is an attraction all its own — but rather, how is the community we live in and see every day different with the lights off?

In the evenings, after the kids are down for the night, I’ve been wandering the cart paths of the Olde Point Golf Course and experiencing my little Hampstead neighborhood in the dark. It takes on a whole new dimension with a black dress on and the golfers gone.

I’ve been calling these night walks “noc-tours,” and venturing out at night is a fascinating way to rediscover where you live in a nontraditional way.

I’m not a golfer, but the course is the backbone of our neighborhood, so I check it out.

I stroll along the darkened ribbon of cart path; it’s faint, but I resist firing up my phone’s flashlight and let my eyes adjust. The path is lit only by the moon and the ambient lighting of the houses as I make my way.

The evenly spaced homes look like cruise ships in the dark. The interiors are softly lit. Each house has one flickering television holding the evening attention of the occupants, my neighbors who boarded their 3,000-square-foot vessels, now starting to doze and sail off for Dream Island. I try to keep my eyes averted and don’t stop beside the houses. No one wants to casually look out their window and see some weirdo Michael Myers type outside on the cart path musing about their home’s illumination.

It’s mainly the landscape that moves me. On this night, most of the deciduous trees are still leafless. Their dark limbs are etched black against the slate grey sky — the wind is blowing and the low clouds are rolling by at a rapid pace. The sky is like a time-lapse, but everything else is still. Since my sense of sight has taken on more of a supporting role, my hearing seems fine-tuned on these noc-tours. There’s a randomness to the noises. A flag clanks against a flagpole. Someone back toward Highway 17 is finishing off the last of his fireworks before it gets any later in the year, and to hear the small muffled detonations is like channeling someone else’s war memories.

While there’s nothing to fear, it can be unsettling to wander around in the dark. The squeaking of the live oak limbs overhead as they bend in the breeze makes me wonder how compromised they are from past hurricanes. I hear owls twittering and other nocturnal critters in the underbrush, see the pine stumps that in the dark could just as easily be White Walkers or some other kind of boogeyman that could jump up and drag me off into a bunker.

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As the walks go on, I realize it’s not fear that I’m experiencing, it’s new sensation.

One doesn’t have to wander the suburbs or a cart path to feel it. Topsail Island has around 26 miles of beach that sit out there in the dark like a closed playground, but it doesn’t really close and there are no membership fees required. There’s nothing like a moonlit stroll on the beach, listening to the thundering surf, looking out for any flotsam in the bioluminescent wash.

It doesn’t really matter where you walk on the beach at night, but the less light pollution the better so the stars can really pop. Sitting on the beach in the middle of the day allows you to ponder the immensity of the Atlantic; walking the beach at night puts deep space on centerstage, and it’s humbling.

Starting in May, a beach noc-tourist on Topsail Island may encounter a female loggerhead digging a nest for her eggs. The island had 53 loggerhead nests in 2018 and a remarkable 175 nests recorded in 2019 (according to seaturtle.org), and hopefully those numbers will continue to climb this year. As local neighbors of these amazing creatures, we can help by clearing the beach of obvious obstacles, demolishing and smoothing over sand castles and filling in the holes dug by others. If lucky enough to encounter a turtle, give her some space and don’t disturb her nesting. For a fully immersive experience, swimming in the ocean at night is next-level exhilarating but inadvisable since sharks are active and there may be no other people out if help is needed.

If you’re looking for a place to walk and don’t feel like heading all the way to the beach — but want to get out of your own neighborhood — you can “do the bridge” at night. At 65 feet high and nearly 4,000 feet long, the pedestrian-friendly high-rise bridge linking Surf City to Topsail Island allows visitors to see the sprawling sound and Intercoastal Waterway in all its glory.

There are bike lanes and a separate walkway that is protected from vehicular traffic by a wall. A noc-tourist on foot can probably cross the bridge in about 15 to 20 minutes, but we like to stop along the way and watch the tiny boats pass underneath, each making their tentative way by spotlight. You can see the hole where the old swing bridge used to be, pivot to see the ever-changing shoreline back to the east and ruminate on the shifting landscape in near real-time. There’s ample parking at the foot of the bridge to accommodate a number of vehicles with passengers eager to cross the water in similar fashion.

Regardless of where you go to do your nighttime meandering, safety should always be considered. Wear light or reflective clothing for walking along dark roads. If there is no sidewalk where you’re walking, walk on the left side of the road, facing traffic. If your phone doesn’t have a built-in flashlight, carry one with you in case you need it. If noc-touring around a golf course with water hazards, be aware that alligators could be in the area. Since I don’t use the course to golf, I carry a 9-iron in case I need protection.

Also, be aware that a neighbor walking her dog at night may not be expecting to see a stranger coming the other way carrying a golf club, so give her a kind “hello” far in advance and let her know that you’re just a friendly noc-tourist enjoying the neighborhood that you share.

About the author

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson is a previous winner of the Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Open, 2-time winner of the SC Fiction Project, and former editorial director of Men, Ink. While his work has appeared in many reputable newspapers and journals around the Southeast, his silly and irreverent ravings can be found on his blog, Lunaphyte. He lives in Hampstead with his wife and two children.
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