Friday, May 08, 2009

from the Outer Banks of North Carolina: Ocracoke Island

We’re sitting at a place that serves breakfast late. Eggs over easy and grits. I watch as Ed adds milk and sugar to his bowl of grits. I break an egg over them. Loaded with pepper. Two people traveling together, with such different approaches to a plate of grits.

I read the forecast: hail, storms, strong winds. All today. At least it’s not a hurricane. Naturally, people here take storms in stride. You can't live on the Outer Banks if you're going to worry about wind and water.

The rain is starting now. We weigh our options and decide to go ahead with our plan to hop over to Ocracoke Island. It’s just south of us, but it can only be reached by ferry. Forty five minutes from our own island of Hatteras.

The rain is steady and for the first time in the Carolinas I feel the chill of a damp and soggy day. We park the truck in the ferry line and wait. I don’t smell a violent storm brewing, but it is nonetheless a very wet and windy day. I ask Ed if he thinks ferries sink in bad weather.
You should be so lucky. Instant law suit and a nice sum of money for your daughters.
I relax.
The ferry pulls away.


Ocracoke Island is an odd little place. To me, it looks like a soup ladle: the arm is one long road with protected shoreline on either side (the ferry from Hatteras docks at the very top of the handle). The soup-holding part is the village and harbor. Settled by the British, God knows how many hundreds of years back (remembering that in 1587, the first settlement was organized by Sir Walter Raleigh on Roanoke -- just a few islands north of where we are now), it’s been so isolated that the people continue to speak in a brogue that has been analogized to something akin to Australian English.

To me, Ocracoke looks magnificent on the handle part and sort of sad on the soup carrying part, where the people, especially visitors congregate. The shops, the motels, the rental huts look weather worn and mostly empty. The marina has very few docked boats. It's as if the party has moved elsewhere. Of course, to us, that's a good thing. The quiet is very beguiling. And yet, you feel for the locals who have given over their harbor to attract boat people and day trippers. Empty spaces mean lean times. Our motel keepers back on Hattaras have put a lot of money into cleaning up an old-style motel. They're paying their bills now, but just barely.

Ocracoke marina

But before we reach the village of Okracoke itself, we make a few stops along the protected shorefront. The long beach along the handle of the soup spoon is magnificent! Even on this gray and wet day.



In the middle of the “handle,” the National Park Service looks after the wild ponies of Ocracoke. At least they used to be wild. Once the road was build across the island (some fifty years ago), the ponies were thought to pose a hazard and now their movements are restricted to this small patch of land.


In the village, we stop at the Flying Melon (a New Orleans dude is cooking here and judging by the menu – I had a fried oyster po’ boy – he’s doing a good job of it). It’s lunch, it’s brunch, it’s a meal in between all meals and it’s quite okay.


But we both pass on dessert. Which says something.

We feel satiated and a little under-exercised. It’s gray still, but the rain has stopped. The storms neve came. The weather is never a sure thing here.

We visit a local museum and listen to tapes on how it was to live here some 100 years ago. Men fished, women took care of life’s essentials. Perhaps in that regard, not much has changed. Men who stay here like the crabbing and fishing. Women can find work mostly in tourism – especially serving and preparing food for others.

And every few years, a hurricane comes and covers the islands with water.

We leave on a late afternoon ferry as the skies reveal wide swatches of blue. Ed talks about sailing here on his coastal journey south some years back. He points out the breakers and the ribbons of shifting sand.


On the calmer side, we see huts perched off shore. Duck hunting cabins. We have them in Wisconsin except they're on firmer ground.


The skies are looking better now and Ed is anxious to hit the waves again. As the sun dips toward the horizon, we head back to our beach by the lighthouse.


I’m not interested in swimming. I play the good admiring companion who sits and watches the man work the waves. Occasionally I am diverted by beach life, coming out of hiding now that the day is nearly done.



On the way back to the motel, we stop and play tennis. One ball goes to the swamp. Ed retrieves it. I grin.

At the motel, we eat cheese and crackers and grapes and I catch up on fragments of work late into the night.