Posted July 5, 2021 – Narrated by Carmen
Real islands don’t have bridges.
In mid-Spring, Living in Beauty’s ongoing search for alone time took us, by free vehicular ferry, to Ocracoke Island where it is still possible to camp in the dunes with a private path to the seashore and walk for hours in solitude on a natural beach.
On The Outer Banks (OBX) of North Carolina – where the north-flowing Gulf Stream and south-flowing Labrador currents are constantly shifting the ocean floor around like two kids in a sandbox – shorelines, and even islands appear and disappear over night.
There, we found an adventurous place to test our dry-camping mettle and relax into an extravagant two-week island vacation.
For people from the American west, Ocracoke Island Campground on Cape Hattaras National Seashore is a once-in-a-lifetime (okay, maybe twice) camping experience.
Every day we had stories to tell … Dolphins feeding so close to shore we could reach out and touch them; big black snakes slithering across the path; a ghost crab visitation; anglers pulling gigantic catches right out of the surf; a wind gust that blew us backwards …
Fortunately, there were plenty of cozy local establishments where friendly Ocracokers seemed delighted to listen to our wide-eyed tales while they packed our fresh local catch in ice or tapped us a beer.
But theirs is the story worth listening to.
Countless shores along the Atlantic Coast lay claim to pirating history, but Ocracoke – Blackbeard’s lair – is the real thing and not a marketing scheme. Many Ocracokers can trace their history to the 1600’s to mid-1700’s when governors sheltered pirates for security and booty, and they have the delightful Ocracoke Brogue to prove it. Every Autumn the story is shared in a seriously historic and spectacular annual reenactment at Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree.
For centuries – that is, until the last couple of decades – this tight-knit community lived mostly isolated lives. In the old days, land lay between the island settlements of Hattaras and Ocracoke and people traveled back and forth. These remote communities on the fringe of America swelled with settlers from Jamestown and Williamsburg as desperate colonists escaped over-taxation and debt.
But terrestrial jaunts between colonies changed on September 7, 1846, when a storm blew open a deep, wide inlet which became known as Hatteras Inlet and Ocracoke became entirely isolated.
As a result, Ocracoker ingenuity and community is something to behold.
In WWII, the tiny island was a top secret training base for amphibious warfare. The local skill of using salvage from shipwrecks to build and rebuild their homes and lives between devastating storms has earned them a formidable reputation as survivors.
Until the 1950’s Ocracokers delivered each other’s babies, grew their own food and made their own medicines from local herbs. Even today, many locals prefer to stay home rather than travel away from the island.
The cemeteries of Ocracoke also have a story to tell. With more than 80 family cemeteries, the dead outnumber the living population.
Spend some time here
Most of the island’s visitors are day-trippers. Perhaps the free ferry from Hatteras is to blame for that. Most first-timers are blasting through on a tour of the OBX and, unwittingly, knock Ocracoke off as a BTDT (been-there-done-that). Big mistake. You need at least a three-night stay to absorb the island culture and take in the fabulous beaches … We stayed for thirteen.
True, the island is small enough to explore on a bicycle – most locals use bicycles and golf carts rather than cars – and, a stroll through the village can be accomplished in about thirty minutes. But it would be a shame to miss a single detail …
The delicious local seafood and restaurants …
Boating, sailing and kayaking …
The reading and sunbathing isn’t bad either.
Pico’s favorite activity is beach combing.
He rolled in so many things, that he went through his entire wardrobe.
Beach walks were a daily adventure.
We really slowed down and got a sense of the island, it’s rhythm and landscape, and slowly I began imagining what it would be like to live, far, far away from it all …
Back in the 1950’s, an over-ambitious marketer touted Ocracoke as the Bermuda of the U.S.A. Now, I’ve never been to Bermuda, but I’ve seen pictures and there is little resemblance. True, they are both islands with pinkish sand and occupy the same ocean and are located in the Hurricane Belt along the Gulf Stream, but they are not cut from tectonically equivalent cloth. Bermuda sits pretty on a limestone pedestal and Ocracoke Island is barely more than a shifting sandbar rising less than five feet above sea level and, according to coastal geographers, will be underwater before the turn of the next century.
But the threat of sinking sand doesn’t hinder the real estate business on Ocracoke. From the prices, you’d think it was Bermuda.
Figuring that my new favorite island wasn’t going to sink in my lifetime, I let down my defenses and fell in love with an old two-room over-water house known as The Fish House, built by Sam Jones. It has no plumbing for gas or water and no kitchen or bathroom. The asking price was in the $800,000’s.
So, there ya go. For sailors, pirates sure do have a keen sense of real estate. You don’t need much to survive. Just some fresh water …
fresh fish …
and, a really good escape route.
Even though it didn’t work out for Blackbeard, I truly could live in Ocracoke. In almost five years of LIB, I’ve never felt more grief about pulling out of a place.
While browsing through The Village Craftsman …
I broke my rule to take only photos and actually bought something.
Part of the joy of keeping the LIB travel journal is re-living our experience. On occasion, when I am perusing notes and editing photos, I feel reconnected – almost transported back – so much so, that when I look out the window I expect to see the place I’m writing about.
That’s how it is with Ocracoke Island.
Now, I understand why people say they left their heart in … because my heart still feels kind of shipwrecked. Who knows how long it will take to get the Ocracoke out of my system?
Perhaps my senses were heightened.
Being on a sandbar twenty miles out in the Atlantic Ocean for two weeks is an efficient reminder of one’s vulnerability.
Regardless of the voyage by ferry, LIB was, in truth, just something that washed ashore during two weeks of shoulder season. And, if given a chance, that pristine natural environment would have been proud to use us as a sandbag until we turned up as salvage for some Ocracoker’s snazzy She Shack.
Even on the drive there, we were picking up on the signs and signals – right from when we learned that we had to go 350 miles out of our way to catch a different ferry because the one we had reservations for had broken steerage and right up to twilight when we finally arrived to the campground – that, without a boat or an airplane, we must rely on every ounce of fortitude and smarts we’ve accumulated from living outdoors over the last five years.
I’m not being fanciful here or making an overstatement of any kind. When traveling through The Outer Banks, the gorgeous natural beauty, the national park service and the tourism industry is no insurance policy or guarantee of safety.
Fact is, real adventure has teeth.
And, Ocracoke offers no artificiality, pretense, or groundless assurances. So we were constantly following current reports, monitoring tides, scanning for alerts about incoming storms and rip currents. And, when we drove out of Hattaras Island, past the seepage and sandbags, we were grateful we hadn’t experienced more dangerous wet conditions and realized we probably should have arrived with a multi-structured evacuation plan.
“Choose your natural disaster and prepare for it,” is an important motto for any traveler. But after being trapped in a heat dome in California, cornered by wildfires in Canada, in a race with a tornado in Kansas and evacuated by two consecutive hurricanes in South Carolina, Ocracoke was a piece of cake.
The pure joy and surprise of feeling a kinship with Ocracoke Island still follows us. Calculating that gut-wrenching loss from the local point of view must be incredibly difficult. So, we pray that their magical island remains as it is for generations to come. Because Ocracoke is something different, something apart, something miraculous.
It is a gift from the sea.
If you want to see our exact route, click here.
*photos in this post (unless otherwise noted) were taken and copyrighted by Living In Beauty.