Photo: Beautiful Myrtle Beach was deemed too dangerous for visitors as Hurricane Bonnie bore down during the summer of 1998, forcing the vacationing Shinder family inland toward more adventures.
I know, I know. “Best summer vacation ever” and “evacuated to get out of the path of a hurricane” aren’t exactly phrases that go hand in hand, but this was a trip I can never possibly forget.
Myrtle Beach had been a favorite spot for my family for a while. We went in back-to-back years when I was a few years younger, both with huge groups of family friends.
This trip, in the final week of August 1998, was 13 people — myself, my younger sister and our parents, my aunt, uncle and two cousins, my paternal grandparents and my childhood friend Matt and his parents.
Myrtle Beach was always a road trip, which meant 12 hours — spread out over two days, with an overnight stop in Rocky Mount, North Carolina — in the back seat of our Ford Taurus trying not to rip my sister’s head off. I have never been able to sleep as a passenger in a car, so these trips were always filled with a combination of reading — “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy,” if I remember correctly — spotting license plates and slowly coming to the realization that there was one Cracker Barrel almost exactly every 30 miles on I-95 once you hit Virginia.
The first few days of the trip were your standard summer vacation fare. Time at the beach and in the pool, comically large meals, elaborately themed miniature golf, that sort of stuff.
Then came the weather reports.
Hurricane Bonnie was gathering steam in the Atlantic and bearing down on the Southeast, with South Carolina a serious possibility for landfall. Soon enough, the evacuation orders came down.
Being a cavalier and fearless 13-year-old, I’m pretty sure I was all for sticking it out, damning the torpedoes and strapping myself to the balcony of our hotel room like I was Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump.”
I was, sadly, overruled.
My aunt, ever the resourceful traveler, booked us rooms at a motel in Hartsville, South Carolina, about 80 miles inland. Getting there took the better part of five hours, most of it spent in a torturous traffic logjam trying to get out of the Grand Strand.
A few hours into the evacuation, we were all starting to get hungry, so we pulled off at a Burger King.
And that’s where it happened.
My grandfather was in his late 60s at the time, and he’d never been much of a patron of fast-food joints — especially since they’d introduced self-serve soda fountains. We placed our orders, and he took his cup over to the dispenser, placed it under the nozzle for Diet Coke … and waited.
Just waited, apparently in the vague hope that the soda would magically decide to teleport into his cup.
My dad and I sorted him out — eventually — but we never let him forget it.
In the late hours of the night, we finally ended up in Hartsville, a place so deeply southern we were a stone’s throw from the NASCAR track at Darlington Raceway.
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For a group of 13 vacationers — including five kids ages 9 to 13 — there wasn’t exactly much to do. There was a nearly empty mall in nearby Florence, an Applebee’s where we stopped for dinner and an aging, two-screen movie theater.
We split up for the movies, the guys seeing the truly awful Nicolas Cage thriller “Snake Eyes” and the girls watching the Lindsay Lohan-fronted remake of “The Parent Trap.” It wasn’t that late at night when the movies ended — maybe 9, 9:30 — but when we walked back into the lobby of the theater, it was completely dark and there wasn’t a soul to be found. And when we stepped outside, the town was eerily silent.
I spent the next 10 minutes convinced our vacation was about to turn into the South Carolina Chainsaw Massacre.
We survived, and after a couple days we made the (mercifully, much shorter) drive back to Myrtle Beach. Bonnie had made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, largely sparing Myrtle Beach.
The trip was extended for a few days, but passed uneventfully compared with what had come before. Soon enough, it was back up I-95, counting the Cracker Barrels on the way home as I came to the realization that there could never be another vacation quite like this one.