A beautiful sunrise after two days of rain was the perfect prelude to an ideal Carolina coastal day: no humidity, high winds, sunshine, and moderate temperatures. It also provided a stunning canvas for my first truly connected moments on the Outer Banks.
Climbing the Hatteras lighthouse is an essential rite of passage for a North Carolinian, but one that I have never undertaken until today. The lighthouse truly is an architectural gem, but it is also somewhat surprisingly small in person, and as it turns out, that’s really nice. At about 160 feet, it is the tallest lighthouse in North Carolina, but it is not much taller than some inland landmarks (like the NC State bell tower, 110’) and many feet shy of others (Duke Chapel, 210’). Most photographers frame their pictures from the base or from a distance to give the lighthouse the appearance of more height than it actually has.
It was in the shadow of this smaller-than-expected lighthouse that I thought about one thing many of our coastal communities share: No matter how many people flock here in the summer, and no matter how many engineers work to preserve them, they are all in the end fragile and small outposts in a still-wild frontier. The steady stream of Highway 12 traffic notwithstanding, everything on the Outer Banks feels – and is – ephemeral, and walking up to the Hatteras lighthouse in person really brings that home. Even this significant and strong edifice looks frail the farther one moves away from it. Hurricanes and shifting sands eventually will win out over bulldozers and pylons. As I sat in the bed of my truck on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, I watched the lighthouse slowly fade below the dunes and realized that even it likely will one day topple into the surf.
Ocracoke is no less immune to the crush of summer tourists than any other Outer Banks destination, despite its remoteness, but it also still preserves a strong Sense of Place, with intimate and personal community touches here and there and dozens of twisting, live oak-shaded lanes that still echo with the sounds of turn-of-the-century net-casting fishermen.
During one of my afternoon strolls, I turned down one dusty lane and stumbled upon an unmarked family graveyard full of reminders that this community, now teeming with tourists, like so many others on the Outer Banks was built on the shoulders of hard work and perseverance.
What do the Outer Banks mean to you? How do you experience this place when you travel here? And how do you know when you have peeled back the veneer of the public face of the towns along this fragile strand and gotten in touch with the year-round community underneath? If you live here, how do you distinguish the heart of your community from its summer persona? Start a conversation in the Comments section below.