From where I lie on the shore it looks like my children are giants wading in watery-green meadows, crests of white foam rolling behind them like mountains upon mountains. The sun is warm on my chest, the water cool on my feet. Everything is as it should be, and there is no need for anything else.
I’m not entirely sure what I was hoping for when we came to the Outer Banks, but whatever it was, or is, it’s on Ocracoke.
Ocracoke is a tiny strip of sand running about 16 miles, and anywhere from 200 feet to three miles wide, with an official high point of five feet (there are berms higher than that). All total it’s only 8 square miles of land. But something about the place, the way the ocean currents move, the collision of air from the land and sea, the history, the isolation, the seafaring, some combination of it all makes Ocracoke very different than the rest of the Outer Banks.
Ocracoke’s appeal might have something to do with the ferry. It’s that little extra step that makes it better. The harder you work to get something the more you enjoy it when you’re done. As my friend Clay used to say when we were backpacking in the Sierras, you have to earn the peaks.
It might also have something to do with the absence of trucks. Ocracoke is one of the few spots in the Outer Banks where you won’t find trucks all over the beach. I know this probably sounds weird to those of you living near other beaches, but out here everyone drives to the beach — right up to the shoreline. The beach ends up looking like this shot of Oregon Inlet most of the time:
I get the impression that if you want to pick a fight out here nothing would get it going faster than suggesting that people not drive on the beach. Still, I’ve been to beaches all over the United States, and in a dozen other countries, and this is the only place I can think of where the beach has been so completely turned over to the vehicle. Edward Abbey would not approve.
Whatever the case, it was a relief to get to Ocracoke and find beaches (mostly) truck-free. The beaches are nearly white sand, the gulf stream waters clear and cool, and because it’s not quite high season yet, we’ve had them to ourselves most of the time.
Many a ship has run aground off the coast of Ocracoke or in the entrance to the sound on the west end, but no one who met their end here comes close to the most famous: Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.
Teach is a minor character in the novel I wrote, but a big part of what propels the plot and my kids have been obsessed ever since I read it to them. One day we took a break from the beach to visit the lighthouse and hike out to Springer’s Point, which is (most likely) where Teach was murdered by the British.
We paid our respects by doing a little paddleboarding in the shallow bay.
Local stories hold that Teach’s body is still out there underwater, wandering in search of his head. Personally I don’t think so. From what I’ve read, Teach strikes me as someone who was willing to take his chances and if he went down swinging, well, at least he went down swinging. The kids want Teach to fight his way out, to live. That would be a more satisfying story, but part of what I like about Teach’s story is that he didn’t. Because history, and the universe it records, isn’t whatever we want it to be. It has its own plan.
That might be another element in the brew of Ocracoke’s magic: a certain sense that when things come, be they hurricanes, sand bars, or murderous Virginia governors, you do what you can, but you have to accept that it might not go the way you want. In the meanwhile, hang on to the helm as best you can, paddleboard while you can, and most of all, enjoy the ride.