Thanks to my amazing aunt and uncle, my family just spent a week on Ocracoke Island. Saying Ocracoke is my happy place is a bit like saying children like Santa. In fact, I hesitate to even talk about it for fear that everyone will descend on it like a pack of seagulls on a carelessly dropped bag of goldfish.
Ocracoke is a very, very small island about 23 miles off the coast of North Carolina, only assessable by ferry. Most of the 14 mile island is a nature preserve, except for the one square mile fishing village that dates from the early 1800s. There are no Wings swimwear shops. There are no beach front homes – Ocracokers are too smart for that. McDonald’s has never heard of the place. There are, however, a little over a 1,000 year round residents who do things like, um, fish, and fix fishing boats, and teach in the 150 student K-12 school. It’s a real place, where people live real lives, not just vacation destination lives.
I kinda have a thing for real.
I like walking past cottages built from salvaged ship lumber, bordered by laundry flapping on the line. No, it didn’t all match when they were hobbled together 150 years ago, but they were strong. They’ve withstood hurricanes, heartbreak, and homecomings, and now look uniform. Whitewashed in time and history and weather.
When I was born, Ocracoke didn’t even have running water. Each house was serviced by a sistern. Those huge sisterns still sit in many yards like grandfathers watching quietly, ready to step in if this new-fangled modern mess breaks down. The power lines are at the mercy of weather and well-steered ships. A bump by an errant ferry can knock out the electricity for days. Every self-respecting house is loaded with oil lamps – lamps that actually have oil in them instead of say, potpourri from the 80’s. Ocracoke is a make-do kind of place.
Say, for example, your 11 year-old Honda with 214,000 miles suddenly stops working two days before you’re supposed to check out of your rental. What do you do? Certainly not drop by the dealership and schedule service. Oh, no. You walk your butt down to Jimmie’s Garage (an easy choice since it’s the only shop on island), and listen to Jamie tell you that you need some exotic part for the engine that he may or may not be able to acquire in the next few days (depending, of course, on the availability off-island and the ferry schedule) and that which, when acquired, he may or make not be able to get onto your van within a day or so. No, he doesn’t know how much it’s going to cost. No, there is no hourly rate, they just charge what they think is fair. No, they don’t take credit cards. Or out-of-town checks.
Now, if you’re me, your first inclination is to lose your schmidt. After all, even though this is a remote island, nearly deserted in the off-season, in-season there is not a rental for 7 people to be found. Well, there’s one, but it costs $450 a night and books by the week.
But, maybe you’ve been on Ocracoke just long enough to let a little make-do settle over you. Maybe you decide that it will all work out, that some kind local will have a lead, or take you in, or let you sleep on their boat. After all, if you’re me, you’ve been stranded and homeless before. So, maybe instead of crying and pulling your hair out and staring at your pathetic account balance, you decide to go clamming.
And maybe while you’re tooling around on the golf cart trying to find your uncle and his fishing boat and therefore the required crab-catching-net, you run across a few other people who are stranded, though they only need to get to the other side of the island in the 100 degree heat. So you pick them up, because picking up strangers is par for the course on Ocracoke. And as you drive them to their destination, you forget all about your busted car and your busted bank account, and suddenly remember how easy it is to connect with people when everyone is aware of how much we need each other.
So, you find the net and you teach the kids (and yourself) how to catch some crabs with a string and a chicken neck. How to cook them and pull them apart. The next morning you wake up and Jessie calls to say the van is fixed and you feel… disappointed.
Because now it’s time to go back to the world where the power always works, and clothes get dried in machines. The world where houses are built from new plywood and covered in perfect siding that will need to replaced in about 30 years. The world where mechanics don’t make exceptions or let you know with a wink that your check won’t be deposited until next Friday. A world where it’s not safe to help strangers.
But you won’t be going home empty-handed. You carry that memory of needing and being needed, that gentle, salt-water buoyancy of trusting while working. You bring it home, sandy and secret, like a shell in your pocket.