Undoubtedly, part of the charm of Hilton Head Island is her fondness of bicycling. Riding paths weave throughout her landscape, the warm and welcoming wrinkles of her proud face. They meander through her plantations, along her roadways, and frame her edges. They are her "laugh-lines," proof to the years of living she has witnessed, of the families she has embraced.
Like the two previous years, five rental bikes, complete with handlebar-baskets, awaited our family's arrival last Saturday, chained together outside of our beachfront condo, eager to shed their shackles and reacquaint us with Ms. HHI. Barely finished with carrying in our suitcases and supplies, the kids could hardly contain their enthusiasm to go for a bike ride. My wife, despite her sniffles and cough, led the charges.
"Come on, Jim," she said, froggy-voiced, "we have to go. Look at your children!"
Oh, I was looking, alright. Their excitement, their joy, their anticipation--how could a father not jump on that band wagon of happiness. Isn't this what family vacations are all about?
I teased them a bit, plopping myself into a lumpy, over-sized reading chair. "Hey kids," I said, lazily, "why don't we just grab a bite to eat somewhere and, afterwards, come back to the condo. Relax a little. Take a nap. The bikes will be here all week for us." Their collective "noooooooo," moaned with much exaggerated anguish (I'll admit, their flair for drama is my fault), was anticipated. Still, kids, well done.
We went for our first bike ride of the season. And, believe me, it didn't disappoint. There is a bike path along Mooring Buoy in Palmetto Dunes that is, if I may quote my eleven year-old, "Awesome!" No boring trail, this path winds around trees, through neighborhoods, over bridges, and, occasionally, offers up a small puddle or mound of wind-blown sand that must be plowed through. Hairpin turns and S-curves are included. If I was needing to unwind a little bit on this vacation, it was accomplished that first day. I was ten again--a smiling, innocent, fast-pedaling, wheelie-popping kid trapped in a grown man's body.
By Tuesday morning, after conquering most of the bike paths in our area, we decided to bike on the beach. Hard-packed sandy paths, a rising sun, and playful dolphins just yards from the coast beckoned us. No, you didn't have to twist my rubber arm to get me to go along with this plan.
We walked our bikes from our condo, through some loose, white sand, a work-out unto itself, until we arrived to the ocean's edge. The whispering breezes were westbound, and we decided to take them head-on. Just as we expected, the biking was superb. Starfish served as orange caution cones, and we maneuvered around them expertly. As pelicans regally swooped off the shore for their breakfast, new morning shells enticed us to slow-down and inspect their states of imperfection. Morning waves lapped at our tires, their white crests dispensing infinite prisms within foamy bubbles. Yes, life was good, despite having the back tire kick sand and water into the crack of my shorts.
We weren't biking on the beach for all of ten minutes when we noticed something peculiar in the distance ahead. Approaching, we were able to make out yellow tape, scant crowds, and the police. And...a small plane lying on its belly, facing the water.
Say what? A plane? Yes, a plane. Crashed on the shore. An obvious emergency landing. Appearing intact but for the propeller lying near it's front and, from what my non-expert eye could see, some right wing damage. Anchored to the dry shore by its tail, probably to keep it from being swept away. Saving it from drowning itself.
We approached the wreckage site cautiously, my kids asking whispered questions that my wife and I had no answers to. "What happened?" "Did anybody die?" "Where are the people from the plane?" The plane's nose bobbed with each incoming wave and, suddenly, all the recently observed glories were forgotten.
It was a heartbreaking scene to happen upon. Even though I didn't know specific details, a few minutes of scene-watching made it evident that this plane crash didn't just happen. No smoke from the wreckage, no EMS services, no panic. Just an eerie calm blanketing our disbelief.
The who, what, where, when and whys would have to wait--I didn't want to hang around and listen to any of the speculative chit-chat or idle gossip. All I wanted to do was turn my family around and get back to the safety of our condo, to our vacation life. We pedaled hard, the wind at our back, and returned within minutes.
We were all quiet walking into our place. We turned on the news and surprisingly, couldn't find any news-breaks explaining anything. We accessed our computer and, low and behold, my first breaking news of the recent events was from a very cool reader, Jacqueline. Just checking to make sure, via email, that my family was okay. Big thanks, Jac. She had heard on her news reports that a jogger was killed on Hilton Head Island Monday night.
So now, here we are, on vacation, and a jogger has been killed and an airplane has crashed. Hardly the stuff that helps one unwind. After several googled news reports, we found the answer that tied all the facts together. As reported, a 38 y.o. man, here for business, was jogging on the beach Monday evening, listening to his iPod. A single-engine plane had "oil problems," had lost its power, and was attempting an emergency landing at the local airport. The plane never made it. Essentially, by news reports, the pilot, struggling to see through an oil-splashed window, glided the plane in along the shore and, unfortunately, landed his plane on this unknowing jogger. Dead instantly. A father of two. A daughter's third birthday to celebrate this week. A family to support. To love. To grow old with.
I work in an ER. I know how suddenly fate can change one's life. I came down here to get away from all of that. And yet, for all the misery and heartaches I've witnessed, this story struck a nerve. We walk this beach, we bike this beach, we hang in the same spot for hours on this beach. Why this guy jogging? Why not one of us? Or, for that matter, anyone else down here? Why the beach? Why couldn't the fates just let this father, this husband, this son have his casual jog while listening to some favorite music? Why? As with so many other tragedies in life, this seems so senseless.
We don't know this man or his family. But that won't keep our family from sending well-wishes, heartfelt prayers, and good energy their way. We can only hope that their lives will someday recover from this tragedy.
Back to the biking. As you might have suspected, we have given up beach biking for the remainder of this trip and are back to Ms. HHI's trusted, familiar bike paths. And after a couple S-curves and some wheelie-popping, I am once again a ten year-old trapped in a grown-man's body. Relaxed and ready to head home and face my everyday life and job with renewed vigor. A new appreciation of sorts.
Ms. HHI, I thank you--you didn't disappoint. Although I'll be taking one sad memory home with me, it will be tucked within a bundle of amazingly happy ones.
As always, big thanks for reading. Next post will be Monday, March 22. Have a great weekend and I'll see you then...