Archive for November, 2008

Ocracoke Island, 300 years later

November 30, 2008


Lighted coals smoking in his beard, the pirate Blackbeard terrorized the Atlantic seaboard for years, stealing merchant ship cargo and murdering all who challenged him. The savage pirate met his demise near Ocracoke Island, the southernmost of North Carolina’s Outer Banks in November 1718 at the hands of British Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard. According to legend, when Maynard beheaded the pirate and threw his body in the water, the body swam seven laps around the ship before sinking to the bottom of Pamlico Sound.

My family and I spent a peaceful Thanksgiving holiday in Blackbeard’s former stomping grounds. We stayed in a three-bedroom house on Fig Tree Lane, ate seafood for dinner and walked everywhere we went.

Boat docks in Silver Lake, on the western side of the island

Ocracoke Island sits 23 miles off the North Carolina coast and a quarter mile south of Hatteras Island. It usually measures 17 miles long and a mile wide. The deserted, windblown beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore make up the northern 90 percent of the island, and a small village of hotels, restaurants, shops, homes and the smallest K-12 school in the state, makes up the southern 10 percent.


With no bridges connecting it to the mainland, Ocracoke is accessible only by the Cedar Island, Swan Quarter and Hatteras ferries that arrive and depart several times each day. We waited in the rocking chairs at the ferry terminal for the mustached men to give us permission to board and, once cruising across the sound at a steady 12 mph, could see dolphins leaping in front of the ferry and pelicans and seagulls hovering behind.


In case of emergencies

Ocracoke’s whitewashed lighthouse, built in 1823, is the second oldest of those still in use in the United States. It’s light reaches out 14 miles over the sea.


A couple buildings in Ocracoke Village stand more than three stories tall and a few shops sell kitsch like keychains and coozies, but many parts look as if they haven’t been touched for a hundred years. Gnarled oaks, red cedars and wax myrtles are rooted in the island’s sandy soil; crushed oyster shells litter the unpaved roads (making bare feet a bad idea); and every now and then, you come across a fenced rectangle containing the mossy headstones of a family graveyard.


My family strolling beneath the oak trees shell-covered Howard Street


Pelicans perched over Silver Lake


Mallards resting in the rain

Island natives — whose surnames are often Howard, Styron or Garrish — still speak with a brogue inherited from the Scotch-Irish who settled the island during the 18th century. On their tongues, “there” becomes “thar,” “fire” becomes “far” and “high tide” becomes “hoi toide.”

Music is central to island life. Every Wednesday night from June to September, local musicians perform for a crowd of locals and visitors at the Deepwater Theater, a screen-enclosed deck tucked among a grove of low, crooked trees. Under the tin roof and the rafters strung with lights, performers sing lively and sorrowful stories to a crowd sitting captivated in green lawn chairs.

In addition to eating a feast of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce during the holiday weekend, we walked on the beach, explored the shops and art galleries about to close for the winter and listened to a post-Thanksgiving Ocrafolk music concert in the community center. It was there I purchased a piece of homemade gingerbread cake and dropped it on the floor before paying.


My uncle Jim tossing a disc for his dog Sammy along the national seashore

We also walked around Springer’s Point, the highest spot on the island and home to a grove of especially impressive trees, like this one:



The headstone of Ikey D., the favorite horse of Sam Jones, former owner of Springer’s Point

Public Storage Unit 207: The bane of my existence

November 6, 2008


I can’t ignore my public storage unit, no matter how much I’d like to, because it has eaten my favorite pairs of shoes.

See, before I left for South America last year, I shoved all my worldly possessions, including a cardboard box of my favorite footwear, into this 8 x 10 foot unit. I have not been able to locate this box since I returned to the United States three months ago, despite having ransacked the place multiple times. I just returned from Search No. 3 — and still… nothing.


Visiting my storage unit is not my idea of fun. Actually, I’d rather go dumpster diving in a receptacle of old banana peels, because at least then, you know the stuff around you is destined for a landfill and you won’t have to deal with it anymore. You’re not, in fact, paying $40 a month to keep it around.

The density of the stuff inside my storage unit makes maneuvering around inside virtually impossible. So when I am looking for, um, I don’t know, A BOX OF SHOES, I spend most of my time with my feet higher than my shoulders, my body draped over a bookshelf and wrapped around a floor lamp and a box fan.


Some of the boxes in Unit 207 have themes — the labels identifying ‘winter sweaters,’ ‘kitchen utensils’ and ‘framed pictures’ are somewhat accurate. But most boxes contain a conglomeration of clutter that is not at all related. Take the first box you encounter as you open the door, for example. It contains a bottle of perfume, the vocabulary flashcards I made before taking the GRE, a battery charger to a broken camera and some coat hangers. (Toward the end of the move out of my apartment in Chattanooga, I vaguely recall sweeping tabletop contents into boxes with my forearm.)


The state of the storage unit has steadily declined with each shoe-searching mission. At first, the unit looked orderly inside — boxes perched neatly on top of each other, heaviest on the bottom, and a blue tarp stretched over the beanbag chair and carpet to protect them from dirt. It’s not like that anymore. Now, boxes tip at odd angles, heavy ones crushing light ones, and the blue tarp is balled up against the right-hand wall, not protecting anything at all.


Let me now take a moment to bullet point my feelings.

Reasons I hate Public Storage Unit 207:

  • It contains crap I never wanted in the first place and certainly don’t want now: gas station receipts, near-empty lotion bottles, power cords to unidentified appliances. (For some reason, I have also stored an abundance of painting supplies from that time I decided to take up oil painting.)
  • The lack of temperature control. Shoe hunting is a sweaty job in the summer, a frigid task in the winter.
  • Looking at the inside of my unit makes me despair at the thought of moving, which otherwise excites me to no end.

OK, OK. I concede. There are a few reasons I love Public Storage Unit 207:

  • Bruce, the officious manager of the lot, who has a number of rules you must follow as a renter. Rule No. 1: No sleeping in your unit (i.e. No storing yourself).
  • The switchless light. The bare bulb inside automatically turns on when you open the door to your unit. Unless you lock yourself inside (which would be approaching a violation to Rule No. 1), you won’t ever see your unit in the dark. This phenomenon has me fascinated and also begs the question: If a light is off inside a storage unit, but nobody is there to see it, is it really dark?
  • It keeps my clutter out of sight and out of mind, except for when I get to pining over my missing shoes.


Not like the other boys

November 4, 2008

I’m not sure when it was, exactly, that I realized I was different from the other campers.

Maybe it was when they started a fierce splash war, and I had no interest in participating. Or when the conversation turned to hunting knives, and I had nothing to contribute. Or it could have been when I noticed that everyone else could stand up and pee from their canoes, while I had to paddle to shore and get out.

OK, fine: I am not pubescent, and I am not male. But there’s not THAT big a difference between a 27-year-old woman and a 14-year-old boy, is there? Boy Scouts is for everyone, and plus, I think bathroom humor is funny too!


I joined Greensboro’s Troop 203 on a paddling trip down the White Oak River last weekend. It’s the troop my father scoutmastered for 10 years and is still involved with today. And, in my defense, there were many adults along, several of them women.


We slid our canoes into the water near the coastal town of Maysville, North Carolina on Saturday morning, setting off on a 20-mile journey down a blackwater river toward the Atlantic.

Rain fell steadily all the first day, and the mist that hung over the water lent a peaceful but eerie mood to the setting. The narrow river twisted and turned, cut back on itself and changed its mind. The boys belted out songs, laughed loudly, cursed each other for not paddling.


The decomposing plants in the swampy White Oak River Basin produce tannic acid, which naturally discolors the water, giving it the appearance of black tea.

We pulled off and camped beside the river as it began to grow dark. Burritos on a campstove. A thunderstorm at night. I wore about 50 more layers than my fellow campers, who walked around in shorts.


The burrito-making machine. Mmmmm.


Pumping water from the river so we don’t all die from bacterial infections.

The sun came out on the second day. As we neared the ocean, the river widened, the trees on shore gave way to grasses, and the wind picked up. We rolled up to the takeout around noon, packed wet gear into our cars and begged our dads to stop at Bojangles on the way home.