Week 3 - Sealevel, Ocracoke

I woke up Saturday morning at Oyster Point, and the rain had moved on, though it was still cloudy. Since I wasn't in a big rush to get to my next destination, I slept in a bit and packed up slowly. On a little walk down to the boat ramp, I met a van-dweller from California, who had just visited his son and newborn grandson in Statesville and was headed to the outer banks to see the wild ponies and properly finish his sea-to-shining-sea trip. We had a nice conversation and then I finished packing up and headed out. A few miles down the road I stopped at a farm stand near Mill River, and bought some tomatoes, eggplants, bread-and-butter pickles, and a heaping quart of muscadine grapes. The farmers were friendly and urged me to come back for clam chowder on October 3rd, which I'll definitely consider. Then I headed east on the back roads toward Sealevel, with another stop at Lookout Grocery in Smyrna. Grocery stores are few and far between out here, with a limited and sometimes unpredictable selection, but tiny as it was, this one had some fresh produce, a butcher, local eggs, and some homemade prepared foods. The cargo nets were starting to bulge with wet gear and groceries.

Rain from the remnants of the hurricane had given way to gale force winds, and the combination of high astronomical tides and storm surge was raising high surf at the coast and flooding roads and driveways inland. Many houses I passed were completely surrounded by water, and traffic would slow down to drive around or through occasional shallow water across the road. The wind was intense, especially crossing high bridges over the inlets, and it took a fair amount of work to keep the bike steady in the gusts. Luckily I really enjoy wind and find it invigorating, so it was a fun ride. Some sections of the road crossed vast salt marshes, and the endless expanses of black needlerush in muted grays, greens, and browns were quite dramatic in their way, like a sodden steppe. The smell of the estuaries blasted through my helmet, balanced delicately between dank rotting and fresh growth. The landscape, the cloudy skies, and the constant roar of the wind made it feel like I was approaching the end of the earth, which I guess in a sense I was.

I arrived in the early afternoon at the Sealevel Inn, which does look a little rough on the outside ("like you can smell it from the road" as KK commented), but is quite nice on the inside, at least by my admittedly low standards. It's an old hotel converted into condos, many of which are rented out by the owners. I had booked this place all the way back in June, mainly because of its cheapness, and was not disappointed by it. Probably the best feature is the pier out back with a roofed gazebo, and the fact that the water is due west so it reflects the sunset. There's also a Dollar General in walking distance, with a pretty comprehensive selection of groceries, clothing, household goods, and so on. I walked over there to get some laundry soap and a few more groceries and had a conversation on the way with a friendly neighbor who was out taking a smoke break.

Once I got back I went into full-on rest mode for the remainder of the weekend, washing all my clothes, drying out and organizing my gear, reading for an hour at a time out in the wind on the gazebo and then warming up inside on the couch. I enjoyed clean clothes, hot showers, and some refrigerated treats like pimento cheese and chicken salad. I caught up on mail and other business and spent some time planning my ferry trip out to Ocracoke, where my parents had rented a house for the week. I'd reserved a spot on the 10:30am ferry on Monday but it was almost certain to be cancelled because of the high winds. To further complicate things, the ferries were only running once a day because part of the channel had filled in with sand and become too shallow for one of the two working boats to navigate. Between that and the weather, all ferries from Cedar Island were officially booked for the rest of the week, but I was told that unofficially they almost always have room for a motorcycle and I should just show up and wait in the standby line.

As expected, the Monday ferry was cancelled, so I worked at Sealevel, mostly indoors because the wind had gotten really strong by that time. After work I fired up Kiddo and cruised around the area, going down some lovely little roads in the town of Atlantic that tunneled through live oaks and lush greenery. I scoped out both of the two restaurants for future fancy lunch excursions. The local marina had bathrooms labelled "inboards" and "outboards", and although I think gendering bathrooms is stupid, especially single-occupancy ones, I did appreciate the whimsical humor. After dark I started watching an anime series called Kino's Journey (which was recommended to me by JC), about a pistol-packing young woman who travels around on a talking motorcycle, visiting countries with strange quirks that raise philosophical questions. It has a surprising amount of depth for anime, and I think the artists must have had some familiarity with motocamping because all her gear is badass and realistically rendered.

On Tuesday morning I called the Ocracoke terminal at 7:30am and found out that the ferry was running, so I rode the twelve miles up to the Cedar Island terminal (only having to cross through water once) and took the third spot in the standby line. Two pairs of motorcyclists arrived and mysteriously turned back while I waited, but sure enough there was plenty of room on the boat, at least for bikes. The wind was still very strong, just under 30mph, bringing back memories of riding that ferry as a kid and having the wind slam a car door on me, from which I still have a little dent in my knee. But the sky had cleared and the air was dry, and somehow the two hours flew by in looking at the waves, birds, channel buoys, and distant islands, and napping on a bench in the warm sun on the leeward side of the deck.

I got to the island around lunchtime, ate some delicious fish and chips at a restaurant, and headed over to the rental house. I found the only road that went there completely flooded, and not being sure of the depth I didn't want to risk it. The rest of the crew was taking the ferry from the Swan Quarter terminal, and wouldn't be arriving until the evening, so I decided to pass some time and wait to see if the water would go down with the changing tide. The old lighthouse was nearby, so I headed there and found a pleasant shady spot under a cedar tree on the boardwalk and set up to work there for a couple hours. When I checked back at the house, the water had gone down, so I dropped off my stuff and went over to Eduardo's to order a takeout dinner for the people arriving on the ferry: my parents KC and CC, my god-brother AP, his wife GB, and their nearly-two-year-old daughter A. They got in just as it was getting dark and we headed back the the house for delicious seafood burritos.

The house turned out to be pretty ideal for a hammock-dweller, with many levels of porches, including a fourth floor crow's nest rising above the cedar trees for a panoramic view of the island. I strung my hammock up there, and for the next four nights I slept under the stars and clouds and was up to watch the sunrise every morning. With all that fresh sea air, I've been getting great sleep and having really vivid dreams. I've enjoyed conversation, fresh local seafood, and some subtle but lovely sunsets. AP is getting into hand-building audio electronics just as I'm getting out of it, it's been fun to see him diving in and learning new skills. A is diving into understanding everything, it's been fun to see her absorbing language and concepts and generally delighting in this world. Today she found my sun hat, which is ridiculously huge even on me, and tried it on, along with my sandals, pretty much breaking the adorable meter. I've also enjoyed seeing AP and GB being so maternal and my parents being so grand-parental.

It's been several years since I've spent so much time around my family, and it's been interesting. Several times I've slipped into old habits, but I've been able to notice the particular discomfort of that and recenter into my current body and needs. Crossing back and forth over a transition makes it clearer, like a crayon rubbing revealing the shape of a leaf that was hidden under the paper. Lifelong relationships expose the sweep of time and the inevitability of change.

Ocracoke is a great place to be on a scooter, because the speed limit is 20mph or less everywhere around the village and people in cars (well mostly trucks) actually follow it and seem unhurried. I guess they kind of have to be because bicycles and golf carts are often so numerous as to fill the street. One afternoon I rode out to the end of South Point Road, a sandy track through the marsh that opens out onto a wide beach dotted with driftwood and fisherfolk. I also rode out to the National Park campground and scoped out the campsites. The odd-numbered ones from D-5 through D-19 are all near the bathhouse and have sheltering shrubbery and paths going over the dunes to the beach, which will be a handy thing to know on future trips. Kiddo's gas light came on only 80 miles from the last fill-up, when it should be closer to 100, so I checked the oil and found it was getting very low. I suspect it's because when I last changed the oil, I reused the aluminum crush washer under the drain bolt, which you're not really supposed to do but I didn't have a new one yet and people online said it was probably okay. Well, I guess I'll top up the oil tomorrow and put in a fresh washer when I get back to Durham, which will likely be in mid-October to close on the sale of the Cherry Grove house.

Things I Learned

  • There are ticks after all, I found a pretty fat one on the back of my thigh at Oyster Point. Luckily it appeared to be a dog tick, so no risk of Lyme Disease and if I don't come down with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever within the next few days I'm in the clear.
  • Banana split ice-cream is like Neapolitan except with banana instead of vanilla and nuts in the chocolate.
  • There's some kind of new app that makes you look like an anime character.

Wonderful Things

  • Moving through a wash of cicada sounds along the roadside.
  • Sulfur-yellow butterflies passing one by one.
  • A fishing bird with brown camouflage plumage resting quietly on the porch rail.

Although I saw a lot of picturesque things this week, most of them didn't actually make good pictures, but here are a few photos that did come out okay. Next week I'll be back in Sealevel, scheming about a weekend trip to explore the coast and do some minimalist camping.

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