For most of my childhood and even several years into college, my family vacationed in Garden City, South Carolina. Located south of Myrtle Beach, Garden City is a strip of mostly rental houses, with little more to do than grab a dog at Sam’s Corner or play a game of Williams World Series Baseball at the arcade.
Driving into the city as a kid was one of the most magical moments of my life. As Atlantic Avenue opened up from the trailer homes on either side of the road to the marshes of Murrells Inlet spreading all around, I would sync up my Walkman to some perfect tune (a memorable one was the Grand Finale from Edward Scissorhands) so that every sense was heightened as we crossed over into that enchanted land: the cord grass dipping in the wind, the white egrets nestling among the strands, and the towering castle of the Kingfisher Inn beckoning bare feet to run down splintered planks to the salt of the ocean.
Last week, after a 15-year hiatus, my family decided to return to that little piece of Narnia.
But at 36, things looked decidedly different. As we came through the trailer park out onto the marsh, there was no magic to be had. A wooden walkway had been built along the right side of the road, and the wide view of the marsh and the stilt homes along its edges had been blocked. Up ahead, the Kingfisher Inn looked like a dump, and I was appalled by the beach shop next to the arcade that was selling all manner of Confederate flags and sexist/sexualized shirts. Where once the tourists had appeared to be smiling and relaxed, I now saw a bunch of cracked out meth heads with some serious sunburn.
The magic was gone.
I had a similar experience my second trip to Rome. My first time through the Eternal City was part of a two-week Mediterranean honeymoon. The hotel we stayed at was just a five or ten minute walk from the Vatican Museum, and although the neighborhood where our hotel was located was more residential, less touristy, and a bit rough around the edges, we loved it. The restaurant around the corner served the most amazing meal I’ve had in my life (Credit the chef: “It is not me! It is the ingredients!”), and the owner of the gelato place one block over made us order everything in Italian, despite the fact that neither my husband nor I spoke a lick.
Two years later, I was back by myself. After mass ended at St. Peter’s Square, I decided to relive the memories of our honeymoon. But our hotel was now a Best Western. The amazing restaurant had closed, and the gelato place was under new ownership. That rough around the edges feeling of the neighborhood was a bit coarser than before, and I was relieved when I wandered back into the throngs of Pope Francis adorers.
The magic was gone.
I was a Muggle.
But a surprising thing happened at the end of our most recent trip to Garden City.
I was sitting on the back porch with my nine-year-old niece waiting for the menfolk to finish loading the cars. The clouds were low and dark, and it was spitting rain, but my niece and I were having a nice chat as we had one last rock on the worn chairs on the deck.
And then my niece started sighing wistfully, and I could tell she was struggling to hold back tears. She told me how much she would miss the beach, the fun times with the family, even the long walk where we picked up as much trash as we could carry (and saved “hundreds of animals” according to the people who like to eat sugar cubes—a.k.a. the kids).
I told her not to worry. The beach would be here again next year. But her little shoulders shook as she fought against the tears. And as she looked at me with puffy eyes, it was as if she were telling me, “But Aunt Carrie. It’s magical here.”
Not ten minutes later, we were driving west along Atlantic Avenue towards the trailer park. And it was then I realized, I wasn’t a Muggle. I was the Professor at the end of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I couldn’t see the magic anymore, but I knew it existed.
It existed once in a residential neighborhood in Rome with my husband but moved to St. Peter’s Square with the Pope. It existed at the end of a jetty in Garden City for the eleven-year-old version of myself belting out Part of Your World and then moved into the heart of my nine-year-old niece. The magic of travel existed, but the magic wasn’t always where I had left it.
I took one last look at the marsh as we pulled into the forest of trailer homes, and while Danny Elfman wasn’t on the playlist, I saw the hint of enchantment winking at me through the clouds as the Kingfisher Inn fell from view.
“And that is the very end of the adventures of the wardrobe. But if the Professor was right, it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia.”