Familiar strangers, a strange yet familiar landscape.
Until Thursday, October 16, it had been 44 years since I’d set foot in the soft sands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. In researching a piece I wrote for Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments in 2002, and from vacation pictures taken by former co-workers, I realized that the Banks, as I knew them, were only a memory.
And so I felt a need to protect myself from the collision of memory and reality by believing that I could approach the beach on Rt. 64 and quickly head south into Cape Hatteras National Seashore without contact with the new.
That wasn’t the case, but neither did I feel a sense of loss about the built world that confronted me.
I first stopped at the Outer Banks Visitors Center, where the man behind the counter, John Fast, turned out to be a retired Pennsylvania State Police officer who formerly had been assigned to my hometown, Bedford, PA. John shared some insights into relocation to the Carolina’s from the perspective of a retired Pennsylvania state employee, which was an amazing coincidence of perspectives.
I asked John for a recommendation for breakfast in Manteo and he directed me to TL’s Country Kitchen, where locals gather, and where I happily ordered a Greek omelet with biscuits. Eating at the counter, I struck up a conversation with Sucelia Hassell Fahey, a health care professional working on the Outer Banks who just happened to have deep roots in Tyrrell County.
The lunch counter conversation had turned from infectious disease to genealogy. I don’t know if we are kin, but Sucelia had pictures at home to share and we agreed to touch base in a few hours.
I headed south on Rt 12 into the national seashore park, where the dunes have been replenished and re-vegetated over the decades to new heights, and the wide beach in mid-October was luxuriously empty, and reminiscent of the empty beaches I walked on as a child.
That empty beach restored my soul. Truly. I was able – through time and space – to have an exhilarating and solitary experience that I’d imagined could no longer be had on the Outer Banks. But it was fall, and miles away from the billion-dollar real estate investments to the north.
It was perfect. In fact, there were mirage-like places among the dunes more beautiful than I remember. Those places seemed sacred.