Week 4 - Ocracoke, Beaufort, Sealevel

Saturday was a nice lazy day. My parents had some motor oil in their trunk so I improvised a funnel out of cardboard and Kiddo got a top-up. We spent some nice time on the beach just sitting around, got a sprinkling of rain but not enough to make us pack up, and went back to the house where AP and GB grilled up some delicious hamburgers and fresh local scallops. I spent the afternoon reading and napping in a hammock chair and packed up most of my stuff because I had to wake up early in the morning to catch the 7:30 ferry back to the mainland. For dinner I ate some leftover Thai food that I had foolishly ordered "American spicy", which would normally be okay but in this case was right at the edge of my pain tolerance. I think it might be an effective weight loss plan to just make all food super spicy, although one's spice tolerance would probably just go through the roof and ruin the whole thing.

I woke up in the crow's nest at 5:30am in a very thick fog. To the north, the lighthouse threw out a bleary wedge of light. By the time I got to the ferry terminal around 7, visibility was down to a quarter mile, and I was told that the ferry would be delayed until the fog cleared a little. There was a group of bicyclists out of Beaufort and a cute middle-aged couple on a tandem bike. The waiting passengers seemed in good spirits, getting out of their cars to chat with the old ferry pilot who was directing traffic. He told a story about how he had taken the ferry through the fog when everyone else in the pilot house was too scared to, and shook his head about these young whippersnappers who can't do without their GPS and radar, claiming all you need is the gyro compass and a good memory of the headings when you came in. "I put the engine up to 1100," he said, "and then Ben put it back to 600 and I said: who's doing this, me or you? There's a current running, you can't just poke your way along through the channel." My friend who's a licensed mariner tells me that old sailors often bluster like this while still peeking at the GPS on the sly, but nonetheless he was a very entertaining storyteller.

After less than an hour, the fog started to lift and they let us board. I got to go on first this time rather than last, which was fun. We got underway, and the thrumming deck underfoot gave me a feeling of excitement. Sunlight broke through the clouds here and there in the distance and lit up the soft gray water. Some ways out into the channel, the fog thickened again and the boat slowed to a crawl near a sand bank covered with sea birds, some of them apparently nesting. Ahead I could catch intermittent glimpses of the Army Corps dredging boat which was clearing out Big Foot Slough, spewing sandy water out of a long tube hanging off the port side. Once the channel is deepened they'll be able to run all three ferries again. Which there's a big demand for since tourism here is actually up over 50% from last year, presumably because people who would normally take flying vacations are taking driving ones instead. After a few minutes we got moving and I settled down to read some Walt Whitman and relax. I've always liked Whitman but now I feel like I'm starting to get him on a deeper level; he was so powerfully embodied and relational. Those are qualities I've been working to cultivate, and I think I must be making some progress because of how many passages from Song of Myself make my scalp tingle in recognition.

We arrived at Cedar Island and of course I was first off the boat as well. I rode the 12 miles or so back to Sealevel, unloaded my gear, and took a little nap. My mission for the afternoon was to go to Beaufort to buy provisions, since although the Dollar General has a surprising variety of food, it doesn't stretch to fresh produce or anything that could be called gourmet. It was a pretty ride along the coast on highway 70, and I passed the cyclists from Beaufort pedaling gamely against the wind. I found a fancy wine shop and bought a bottle of Zinfandel (which okay, I chose for its pretty label but it also turned out to be delicious) and ate a fancy hot dog outside the restaurant across the street. I explored the waterfront and lounged on a park bench for a while, shopped for a cheap trick kite but didn't find any as cheap as I wanted, then headed inland to the Piggly Wiggly to buy some fruits and vegetables, brown rice, and other goodies. Back at the Sealevel Inn, I gave Kiddo a thorough shower with the hose out front to wash off all that salt water splashed up from the roads last week.

Later on, the wind really dropped and the mosquitoes were out in full force. The screen door on my unit, which I'd been using for the fresh air, was installed improperly and quite a few of them got inside and attacked me, although luckily they were the slow soft kind that are easy to kill. It was hard to choose between fresh air and being left in peace, but I wound up closing the glass door and swatting all stragglers. The next day I got a roll of painter's tape at the Dollar General and a cardboard box they were throwing out and patched the issue. Luckily there were never mosquitoes out on the pier so that remained a nice place to hang out. Did I mention that Sealevel is really really quiet? The road gets some traffic in the mornings and evenings going to and from Atlantic, and occasionally a boat putters slowly across the bay, but mostly there's not much noise but wind, herons and seagulls, jumping fish, and waves lapping against the wooden pilings and seawalls. Fishing is the primary pastime here (for both birds and humans), and as I begin to appreciate the value of boring pursuits I'm starting to wonder if I should give it a try. I just need to find a friendly mentor with know-how and gear I can borrow.

On Monday I started working from the gazebo on the pier and at lunchtime went out for a shrimp burger and fries at White Point Takeout, a cute little shack with some shady picnic tables around the side. The vibe reminded me of the original Saltbox in Durham, except the food is less fancy. In the late afternoon, two fishermen came out to gut their day's catch and toss scraps to an appreciative audience of seagulls. They stopped by to chat just as I was finishing work, and I learned about lizardfish and heard some interesting lore about Portsmouth Island and Ocracoke. Apparently Portsmouth Island, starting in colonial times, used to be a busy port where cargo was transferred from ocean-going vessels to shallow-draft ones that could navigate the sounds and rivers. But repeated hurricane damage and shifting sands caused a gradual decline until it was almost deserted and the National Park Service bought it in the 60s. In contrast the harbor at Ocracoke was just a creek until World War II, when it was built up as a base to patrol for German U-boats off the coast. The older fisherman, whose parents had worked in the Wilmington shipyards during the war, said his mother had twice looked out to sea and seen burning ships. There really were U-boats out there, picking them off as they came from the munitions factories up the Cape Fear River, although I think the US government hushed the whole thing up to keep people from panicking.

Some rain came in on Tuesday, but since the gazebo has a roof, it didn't stop me from working out there. On Wednesday two women came on the pier to fish, but everything they caught was too small to keep. On Thursday I met a retired landscaper from Zebulon, who has a 40 acre farm with cows and two dozen grapevines, which he said grows most of his food. He and a friend recently bought one of the units at the Sealevel Inn, and he said I'd stumbled on, in his opinion, the best spot on the whole NC coast. We talked camping vehicles and he extolled the virtues of the Nissan NV200, which I hadn't heard of. It's really nice to just sit out on the water and have unhurried conversations with people. I think anyone who enjoys fishing can't really be the type to be in a hurry, at least not while they're out here. In the late afternoon I went out to the gazebo to set up my hammock for a snooze and noticed that there were already eye-screws in the posts at the perfect height and distance. I'm not the first to have this idea. Then it hit me that I could easily spend the night out there, and I wondered why I hadn't thought of it sooner, but better late than never! So last night I slept under the fresh breeze and the light of the full moon. Very refreshing.

I just finished Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I read as a teenager but this time I was able to read both more critically and more fruitfully. It got me in a philosophical mood. I've also been reading resumes for work, and because it's a fully remote position there are applicants from all over the world. A striking number of quality resumes came from sub-Saharan Africa, and that and the fact that I myself am working from "the edge" got me thinking that a big shift might be coming in the software industry, driven by multiple trends. The pandemic is forcing companies to develop the culture, policy, and technology to enable remote work, so big cities and big office buildings are no longer necessary. Starlink will soon cover the globe with fast and affordable internet, so fiber optic cables are no longer necessary. Solar panels and batteries are getting cheaper and more efficient while computers use less and less power, so power plants and lines are no longer necessary. Linux and open source software continues to quietly take over the world, so expensive software licenses are no longer necessary.

The real resource in demand is minds, especially ones hungry to escape their physical circumstances into the world of abstractions. I bet there are a whole hell of a lot of them in the rural areas of the developing world, who up to now have been largely excluded from the tech industry. But those barriers are starting to break down, and maybe the only major ones left are teachers and mentors (which given the talent I'm seeing isn't going to be a problem), spoken languages, and time zones. Anglophone Africa has fluency in English and shares time zones with Europe, so I predict that in the next five or ten years there's going to be a huge growth in the tech sector there, maybe with Lagos as a major hub. All an entrepreneur would need is a Starlink terminal, solar gear, some laptops, and some bright village kids to set up a development shop and start pulling in money at a very favorable exchange rate. I expect the industry's axis to shift at least a little bit away from places like San Francisco and toward rural areas around the world, and that wealth redistribution would have a massive impact on local economies. And if someday they transition from riding the coat-tails of the global industry to actually driving it, how might the software we use change to reflect cultures other than that of Silicon Valley? It's exciting to think about.

Not that I have crystal ball or even a really informed opinion. Maybe I'm just projecting from my own childhood, where I learned to code out in the woods of Chatham County on a chunky laptop running off solar power, in a house with no running water or air conditioning. It was before the internet was a necessity, and we had a couple shelves of well-indexed paperback manuals instead of Stack Overflow. I guess in some ways I'm getting back to my roots out here. But despite the "primitive" conditions, it took a lot of privilege for me to grow up like that, and when I see the barriers lowering I can't help but imagine there'll be some kind of sea change. And I hope for it too because I'm not crazy about living in a world dominated by a few monopolistic American technocrats who put algorithms before relationships, as convenient as it sometimes is.

Once again I didn't take a whole lot of pictures but here are a few. North Carolina officially entered Phase 3 of its pandemic plan today, which means that in theory the DMV will start offering road tests and I can get my driver's license soon. This would allow me to (legally) head south for the winter, and I'm already looking into inflatable kayaks again (there was a shortage of them over the summer), and studying maps and scheming about floating adventures in northern Florida. Next week I expect to be another quiet one here in Sealevel, and the week after that I'll be heading back to the Triangle to close on the house and start working on my license.

Things I Learned

  • I've been seeing a lot of Free Will Baptist churches on my travels. Apparently this denomination originated in North Carolina with Paul Palmer, who founded churches in Rockingham and Chowan counties back in the early 1700s. And holy cow there are so many kinds of Baptists!
  • I was curious about why there is an Odd Fellows Road on Ocracoke and found out that the Independent Order of Odd Fellows is a thing.
  • Apparently studies show that the wind doesn't stop mosquitoes from flying so much as it scatters your CO2 plume so they can't smell it and find you. And from my own observations it seems like it also matters which direction the wind is blowing: if the CO2 plume blows out over water or really dry ground, there just won't be any mosquitoes there to pick it up.
  • I couldn't find 70% dark chocolate at the Piggly Wiggly. What I did find was baking chocolate bars in 56% (which is too sweet for my taste) and 100% (which is chalky and not sweet at all). If you take a square from each and eat them at the same time, they average out to 78%. Perfect!

Wonderful Things

  • A convoy of four bearded men, each one in an open Jeep with mountain bikes on the back.
  • Dolphins surfacing around the pier at sunrise.
  • Waking up and seeing the almost-full moon setting over the bay in the wee hours of the morning.

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