Twenty or so miles off the coast of North Carolina where pirates such as Blackbeard once played, lies a tiny sandbar-of-an-island. This particular strip of sand is 16 miles long by 2 miles wide at its swollen populated end, and is the Southern-most populated island of the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. This is Ocracoke island, population 800, elevation ~0 and can be summed up with two words: my hometown.
When I moved to Ocracoke in 2001, I was a wee boy, not yet an adolescent, not quite a child. I was freshly 11 years old, going into 8th grade, and was presented with a huge decision in life – continue to live in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, but attend a private school, or move with my mother to Ocracoke Island where we owned a vacation rental.
I knew I would have to say goodbye to my elementary school friends one way or another. So, the decision was more between wearing boardshorts and sandals to a small public school versus wearing a uniform to a religious private school. I made up my mind fairly easily.
My mother and I lived on Ocracoke from 2001 until I graduated from Ocracoke School in 2006, along with my four other classmates. Yes, you read that correctly, I graduated in a class of 5, total. And just to toot my own horn here, I was the valedictorian. I usually don’t tell people the class size was so small – my little claim to fame is considerably less impressive when people find out Ocracoke’s population is lower than their graduating class size.
Growing up on an island was everything you’d imagine, and less. Oh sure, we go to the beach all the time, drink piña coladas, bask in the warm sunshine and take our sweet time. But then there are the tourists, who often double the population of Ocracoke within a day, the lack of a real grocery store (sorry Tommy & the Variety Store crew, but you’re no match for Food Lion up-beach), the lack of a real medical center, business closing in the winter, the isolation (imagine having only 10-15 peers in your extended age range to choose as not only friends, but intimate relations with), oh and the storms. We’re not talking Hurricanes only here, Nor’easters would often knock out our power, or flood the island. I took the SATs one Saturday morning at the school after wading the mile long walk there in knee-high water caused by storm surge. I was going to take that damn test and get into college come hell or high water, quite literally.
I’m not trying to knock the ol’ island, but I want to nip this in the bud right now – growing up on an island doesn’t mean that life was a picture-perfect experience rounded out with a tan and beach-blonde hair. Yes it was an awesome experience, yes it was better than your childhood, yes I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and yes there were tons of advantages and opportunities that I had growing up over the land-lubbing school kids. But no, no, no. It was not a fairy-tale, and there were limitations, especially for a young man who wanted more from life. It was these limitations that caused me to leave in 2006 and only set foot back on the island twice in 9 years.
The second Darlene’s tires left the ferry deck and hit Ocracoke soil (or asphalt, whatever), the old familiarity of home washed over me. This was the soil (or sand) where I had so many firsts: my first kiss, my first real girlfriend, my first fight, my first time drinking, my first time smoking, my first long skateboard, my first heart-break, my first time having sex, my first camera, my first truck and so much more. It was a real-life country song.
Here I was now with the first woman I’ve ever brought to the island, to my hometown, and it was her first time being here now. Phew, these firsts are getting out of hand.
We set our sights on Ocracoke months ago – being that it is a small town with plenty of summer work, we figured the island would be a great place to get a leg up for our Westward venture. Here we could live in relative comfort and ease, with some of my closest and longest-running friends who were willing to help us, all while working decent-paying jobs and having little to no expenses.
I could write a novel about our time on Ocracoke, with a three-part prequel that documented my formative years. Instead I can sum up our experience with this:
We worked. We played. I got tan and Beth developed more freckles.
Ok, ok. I’ll say a bit more, fine.
We spent a lot of our time getting used to the whole “camper life” thing. Waking up with the sun, going to sleep when we were tired. Managing moisture in the camper (damn humidity) and managing our time. Time moves infinitely slower in the camper. Nothing goes fast and you must be deliberate and thoughtful in your actions. We learned this the hard way, and the easy way, but those are tales that will not be told.
Beth worked at a gift shop, Over the Moon, most of the time we were there, as well as a one-day stint as a cleaner at The Bluff Shoal Motel, and occasionally serving at The Flying Melon. Between all this she managed to sell some of her amazing artwork and a couple of my photo prints, as well as attempt to spearhead a mural with the local Girl Scout Brownie troop. Meanwhile I tended bar and cooked at The Flying Melon, worked as a cashier at the Ocracoke Station, and wrote/photographed for the Ocracoke Current. Between all these I drank gin & tonics, read novels, and sipped coffee. I also picked up a small photography gig in Salvo, which is an hour and a half North on the Outer Banks, ferry ride included, working with a talented artist, Angel Fritz.
I managed to get one day of surfing in while we were there, and that was more than enough to place a smile on my face for weeks. I haven’t stood on a surfboard in years and it came right back to me. Just like riding a bike, baby!
We only spent two days at the actual beach, which for Beth wasn’t nearly enough (but when has anyone ever spent enough time at a beach?), but the experience itself revived a part of our selves that needed some salt water therapy. I’ve not seen Beth so happy and carefree as the day we spent splashing in the waves; the only thing brighter than the sun that day was her beaming smile.
In the end we were there for nearly a month – we learned how to manage and organize our little home on wheels a bit better, and we managed to squirrel a decent amount of money into our bank accounts for our adventures. We learned to better communicate with each other, that Alfredo can’t be trusted around small ducklings, and that the front toolbox on the truck makes a perfect place for preparing dinner.
None of this would have been possible without our friends on Ocracoke. A huge thanks to Chrisi and Charles, who graciously allowed us to “camp” in their front yard, and provided us with several amazing meals and countless beverages.