North Carolina beaches are some of the most beautiful around.
My family’s annual vacation spot when I was growing up was to Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It was undeveloped back then, with 7 little towns owning just a scattering of residential housing, and only a single gas station within the 50 mile stretch.
The early years afforded us a week-long stay at a local hotel in Nags Head, a few miles north. We would spend days out on the water and head back as the sun went down, eating flounder one of my parents had caught. (It was the only time I truly enjoyed seafood.) Laughter echoed freely, the singing was loud, and the snacks were delicious. It’s where I learned to swim; where I felt uninhibited.
1989 was one of the best years of my life.
Being an only child, I had a love for reading at an early age, which is what I found myself doing after building as many sand castles as possible, and jumping waves until my legs gave out. The stretch of beach we often chose was secluded as far as the eye could see.
It was rare to see anyone else out on the water during our vacation.
One Indian summer day in 1989, my dad, true to his relational and free spirit, found a place where we could take our four-wheel drive on the sand, next to the water.
This thrilled my little kid heart, since we could sit in the car with music and watch the fish at our leisure while we drove along the vast expanse.
We owned a 1980s white Blazer I will never forget.
My dad let me sit in his lap, windows rolled down, listening to Sade while we paced along at 5mph. My mom was in the passenger seat, likely taking pictures. It was a different era back then and we didn’t focus on seatbelts during moments like these.
Meanwhile, a storm was brewing in the background behind us, but it looked a good distance off. In the summer months, it was typical for an evening storm to pop up unexpectedly, which signaled our need to exit for dinner.
In front of us, we saw nothing but wildlife and beauty. Birds were gathering in the water, popping fish into their mouth, giving us amazing opportunity to view them in ways we normally couldn’t. “Oh just 5 more minutes,” I asked, nearly hanging out of the window. My dad easily relented and began to teach me about the different types of fish, while the wind blew all around us sitting in the Blazer that evening.
He set his foot on the brake for less than a minute.
Unfortunately, the tide started to come in a little faster than my dad was expecting.
Something shifted in the mood, and my attention was broken from the excitement outside the driver window. My dad lifted me off his lap and put me into the backseat quickly. The next thing I knew, he and my mom were talking in hushed tones as he tried to accelerate.
At 6 years old, I did not realize right away that we were stuck in the sand.
I noticed their panicked looks and I began to feel panic too. It wasn’t until my mom said, “let’s get you out of the car, there isn’t anything to worry about” before I felt calm again. She walked with me near a dune and paused, unsure of what to do. Then she said with complete assurance:
“The Blazer is stuck in the sand, but he’s going to get us out. I need to help him though, so just stand right here for a few minutes.”
She took off towards the ocean and I started to feel nervous. Isolated.
By this point I began to realize what was going on. Like most children who couldn’t stay where they were told, I wandered slowly down to see what was happening with my own eyes.
As I began to walking towards the Blazer, the wind was so fierce I thought it would blow me away. Sand was wisping across my bare legs like tiny knives stabbing me with every gust. I looked to my left and saw the storm was making its grand appearance rather quickly.
We all know how storms appear over the ocean and spread out, looking vastly huge and mighty frightening.
I made it to the side of the Blazer, now with a front left tire in the water, and saw my parents up to their knees digging sand away from the tire that was sinking with every pull. My dad would alternate getting inside the vehicle to try and move it, and then back to digging when the tide would recede.
Both of my parents had become frightened. I could sense it in their movements, in their tone, and on their faces. I started to cry. My dad looked uncertain and had a sense of doom in his eyes. “Go stand back over near the dune. I’m working to get us out.”
I was extremely fearful, but at this point I wasn’t sure what to fear most.
Was it the storm that was approaching us with swiftness? The fact that on either side of us were miles of sand with not a single soul in sight? Or the fact that we were at least 30 miles out from civilization?
My heart was pounding and I could feel myself crying. The tears felt similar to times I’d woken up from a nightmare with terror circulating in my mind. I turned side to side hoping to see signs of life, but there was none.
As I stood on the bank crying, wiping my legs up and down from the pain and shaking furiously, the storm descended. Rain started in a heavy downpour, but it was so windy it didn’t soak us right away.
I remember thinking that we could get caught in a tornado much like The Wizard of Oz, which was the scariest thing I could envision at the time. My mom ran over to reassure me because clearly my crying was quite loud.
“He’s doing really well. It’s almost out, I think.”
I heard nothing she said. “What do we do Mama? How are we going to get back? What if we can’t get back?” My eyes welled with tears seeing that she was truly scared and unsure how to answer me.
“I believe we can get out. We need to pray.” So that is what she did. Then she left me on the bank and continued helping my dad dig out the side of the Blazer that was now tilting on it’s side.
Even with my parents there, I’ve never felt more isolated than in that moment.
It was sheer terror wondering what was going to happen to us.
A good 2-3 minutes later, out of nowhere to my right, I saw a beam of light and thought my mind was playing tricks. But it quickly became two beams. I cried out that someone was coming. A look of relief passed over both of my parents’ faces, as our Blazer was becoming more buried by the minute.
Because the stretch of beach is so long, it took what felt like forever for the little two-seater red truck to get to us. A couple on their honeymoon.
The truck just happened to have a trailer hitch and were able to pull us out quickly. We were able to get back to the hotel, dry out the Blazer, and use that rusted thing for another 3 years until the engine finally gave out.
It is not lost on me as an adult how miraculous that moment was. How out of control we all were in our state of complete and utter fear, the dark and stormy tide surrounding us.
The situation had gone completely out of our hands, and we had no way to help ourselves.
I believed, to the core of my soul, standing on the bank of that dune that day, that we were truly alone.
But we weren’t.
There was always someone there, even if I couldn’t see.
Now when situations happen that are completely outside of my control, that day on the beach often comes to mind. Sometimes the isolation I felt so strongly back then is still present in my spirit today.
In the book of Daniel, we read the King’s statement as Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den: “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” (Daniel 6:16, ESV). I imagine that den was a place of fear and darkness. I wonder if Daniel could even see the lions sniffing out their prey.
He was waiting in the wings, shining a beam up ahead, and I imagine Him whispering in Daniel’s ear, “I truly will never leave you. I am a God who restores, not abandons. You never have to fear; I have overcome this world. You will never be alone.” Just a few verses down in the same chapter, the King declares, “The God of Daniel..He rescues and he saves,” (v.27, ESV). I cling so tightly to these words.
What a balm to my often overwhelmed heart.
Just as sure as someone came to save us from sinking that day in Hatteras, I am able to sit firmly in the fact that God is always there, in the quiet, and in the storm. When circumstances in life leave us in turmoil, I am reminded that He is still on his throne, in control of all it all. He rescues and he saves. I am never alone.
Even if I can’t see Him.