A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

“When this is all over,” my boys asked me, “can we go back to Topsail and eat burgers?” It took me a moment to answer them — we were then

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

“When this is all over,” my boys asked me, “can we go back to Topsail and eat burgers?” It took me a moment to answer them — we were then

Where Time Stands Still

“When this is all over,” my boys asked me, “can we go back to Topsail and eat burgers?” It took me a moment to answer them — we were then three weeks into quarantine, the rhythms of our lives so utterly altered as to render even the days of the week mostly meaningless — but when I caught my breath, I said, “Of course we can. We have to, in fact.”

A bit of history: Beachwise, I’m a bucket-of-bad-beer guy. Fried shrimp. I’m an out-of-towner. I’m the vacationer who tries to leave only footprints, and tries to keep his kids from leaving those footprints in the dunes. So when a friend asked — I’m not even sure why — if I’d ever had a pier burger, I said, “A what? Who eats a burger at the beach? What even is such a thing?”

We’d day-tripped it, the boys and I. We’d been having a really hard week, me yelling at the kids for everything and nothing and them yelling right back, and I wanted to jolt us out of wherever we were. We drove three hours each way to have two hours barefoot on the beach on a day that wanted hoodies and hats, and I took them alone, my wife catching me in the driveway, saying, Are you sure you don’t want company? It was a recipe for calamity. But somehow, we had a quiet ride of reading and podcasts and no screens at all, and we came over the bridge and saw the ocean and —

And I don’t know what happened. Or how it happened. We landed at the SeaView Fishing Pier, whose namesake restaurant is housed in a country singer’s former recording studio, as evidenced by the 20-foot-long guitar shingled into the side of the building. We ordered at the counter. We sat at one of the 15 or so blue booths. We watched the televisions on the wall cycle through photos of people holding up their catches — spot and mackerel, mostly. Our food came in a paper boat lined with waxed paper: hamburgers for the boys and a glorious double cheeseburger for me, a $7 steal that was the size of my face and might have weighed a pound.

These places dot the coast — tiny pier diners for fishermen who have little time or patience for seafood dives piping karaoke ballads through speakers hung from fake fishing nets. I’d never been in one, though, never thought to be in one. We loved it. The burger was unfussy and delicious, and I let the boys drink fountain sodas, and we ate until we were sad and happy at the same time. Afterward, we paid our dollar to walk the pier, and then left our shoes on the deck and went down to the beach, where the kids played in the frigid water and I managed, somehow, not to ask them to be careful, not to tell them not to get wet. They managed to say things like please and thank you. It was a stolen afternoon, and the magic of it was that we knew it somehow, all three of us, knew to enjoy it, knew to hug each other and dig our toes into the sand there on the edge of the state and the world.

We brought back shells, and my 9-year-old made us each keep one in our rooms. Mine’s on my bedside table, a palm-size orange clamshell that I like to pick up to remind myself to be still — and of the promise I’ve made them, which is not only that we’ll go back, but also that Topsail will be the first place we’ll go. We’ll never go back to that same afternoon, I know — but we’ll go back and see what versions of ourselves we find. When this is all over, we’ll go eat burgers, one way or another.

Dreaming of a future beach visit? So are we. Download our comprehensive guide to North Carolina piers for fishing, fun, and excellent burgers.

A cheeseburger from the grill at Ocean Isle Beach Pier fuels a day of fishing — or of swimming and building sandcastles on the beach. photograph by Matt Ray Photography

This story was published on May 21, 2020

Drew Perry

Perry teaches writing at Elon University. His first novel, This Is Just Exactly Like You, was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan prize from the Center for Fiction, a Best-of-the-Year pick from The Atlanta Journal Constitution and a SIBA Okra pick. His second, Kids These Days, was an Amazon Best-of-the-Month pick and was named to Kirkus Reviews 'Winter's Best Bets' and 'Books So Funny You're Guaranteed to Laugh' lists.