A Sense of Place

    We all have a place, a favorite spot that gives us comfort and time for pause. Maybe it’s a country, a climate, or a spot in the sun on your back deck. We just returned from a family vacation in Ocracoke, North Carolina, one of my places, a veritable paradise.  This will be the fourth time in the last five years that we’ve taken the exact same vacation to this remarkable island that boasts a grand total of 900 residents in the off-season.  This time around I realized that what I love the most is the elemental nature of the island:  nothing but sun (fire), sea (water), sand (earth), and sky (air).

    Ocracoke is a barrier island, part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and a truly mysterious place.  Ocracoke’s physical connection to the rest of the world is tenuous:  the only way onto the island is by ferry, private boat, or private plane.  Sure you can take your car, but fill the tank before you go because there’s only one gas station on the island.  Once used for subsistence hunting and fishing by the Hatterask Indians, and a favorite haunt of Edward Teach, better known as the pirate Blackbeard, most of the island is preserved and wild, a thin, undeveloped strip of land that barely manages to keep its head at five feet above sea level.  

The Ocracoke Village, built at the Southern, wider tip of the island along Silver Lake, is home to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  Built in 1870, it’s the world’s tallest brick lighthouse and a National Historic Landmark.  There’s also parasailing, deep sea fishing, jet skiing, a great local music scene — love Molasses Creek — and a beautiful, welcoming beach which is home to federally protected or endangered species such as the piping plover, the seabeach amaranth, and sea turtles.  Once out of Ocracoke Village, you can walk for miles along the island’s shores without seeing a single building, nothing but dunes, sand and sea.  There are amenities, yes:  quirky hotels, restaurants, even a few fine dining establishments that serve the freshest caught seafood available, enchanting shops, a yoga studio, a small local theater, a public library, a high school that has graduated as few as three students in a given year. It’s not a town for everyone because the unlimited options just aren’t there, yet there’s so much more than all the usual beach town stuff that you can always find in the more popular, high-traffic places. If you need to pick up stuff for dinner, you go to Ocracoke Variety.  That’s it.  Utter the word franchise and it’s as if you’re speaking a foreign language.  There’s no Starbucks, no McDonalds, no anything that’s found everywhere else.  

Therein lies the island’s charm:  for hundreds of years, Ocracoke has been an outpost run by generations of locals – some of whom are descended from pirates! – in their own eclectic way.  And while nature is always redrawing the boundaries of this mostly untamed island, its essential, individualistic character and that of its inhabitants remains intact. 

    Each time we’ve gone with the same friends who have kids our kids’ ages — another layer of heaven for us parents because everyone has a buddy.  While we’ve only spent a total of a month in Ocracoke over the years, we’ve watched each others’ kids grow and mature, and weathered some personal storms that have made the friendship indispensable despite the fact that, in addition to the vacation, we only see each other a couple times a year.  Perhaps that’s part of the Ocracoke magic, that the friendships forged there are as indelible as the island itself.  And while the island may one day give way to rising sea levels brought about by climate change, my money is on its survival in some form or other if for no other reason than that I wish it, albeit need it to be so.

    By far, my favorite part of the Ocracoke experience is riding our bikes everywhere while the car sits parked in the driveway.  We ride for exercise – roundtrip to the ferry and back is almost 30 miles, to the pony sanctuary about 15 -- we ride to the beach, to dinner, to go shopping.  We’re not alone either.  Many people choose the eco-friendly alternatives of either a bike or a golf cart, the latter being the favored mode of transportation, or just plain old walking.  I don’t think that people are consciously making these sustainable choices.  Rather, it’s as if the place expects it of you, like you and the island made a pact the minute you got off the ferry:  go slow, live fuller moments, slow down and breathe, leave the car.  

    And so we do.