August 08, 2022
Far Flung
North Carolina
The Life in Ocracoke

Understand that the mosquitoes can be fierce, and the power comes and goes. Still, make a long visit. Stay for Christmas, when all the pickups have wreathes wired to their front grates, and locals sneak into the pines to cut down Christmas trees, risking huge fines.

By Shea Heard

The best way to see Ocracoke is to find a fisherman and drive around with him in a pick-up truck for a couple of hours.? For a small, a very small, place, driving around is widely loved.? It is often the first thing you do after getting up and the last thing to do before going to bed.

Ocracoke is the last inhabited island of North Carolina?s Outer Banks and can be reached only by boat (including public ferries) or private plane.? The island is about as long as Manhattan, 17 miles, but barely wide enough in some places to hold its patched and ravaged two-lane stretch of asphalt.? There are roughly 650 locals, O?cockers, whose families stretch back to the first British pilots sent over to lead ships through the treacherous shoals and harbor.

A place with 650 people means, after a year or two, that you will not only know everyone, but also everyone?s family, cousins, grandparents and in-laws.? There are just a handful of names.? A friend of mine was a Gaskill who married a Garrish.? Her mother had been a Garrish who married a Gaskill.? There are hundreds of O?Neals.? I?ve never met two married first cousins, but most people agree without self-consciousness that they are connected ?somewhere down the line.?

I?ve read that the Ocracoke ?brogue? is left over from Elizabethan English.? I?ve also read that it is not.? Either way, it is a strange accent, coming from somewhere across the Atlantic from a long time ago.? To some outsiders the O?cockers sound Australian.? Others simply can?t understand them.? Fire is pronounced far and if the water is especially high one day you will hear there is a hoi toide.

Ocracoke is inundated with tourists during the summer, and then the accent recedes some.? You?ll hear it best in February, at the height of boredom, after everyone has been drunk for many days, when even the plainest words sound a little like there are marbles in the mouth.

Still in the summer, driving around with a fisherman, you?ll hear a lot of the accent.? If old women are known for relentless gossip, it is only because they do it on the front porch without cover.? Grown men lining and repairing their nets, cleaning fish and fixing boats, are likely spreading as much rumor as anyone else.? A drive around the village is more a series of stops.? People you saw just hours ago, people who have been off the island.

?How much fish did you have this morning??

?Can I borrow your power washer later to clean my porch??

?Did you hear who they saw coming out of so and so?s house today??

You will likely stop at a construction site and have a beer.? You may be put to work helping somebody move something somewhere.? You?ll probably stop at the gas station for a six pack.

There is no reason not to enjoy Ocracoke without drinking. Its beaches are some of the most beautiful in the world, and you?ll always be able to find some kind of just-caught fish or seafood to eat.? More likely, though, you?ll drink.? A lot.

In a village with no stoplights, no movie theaters, no grocery stores, one bar and a handful of restaurants, there?s not much else to do. The boat ride to the mainland is two and a half hours, and it?s easily two hours to the nearest island, where there is a Food Lion and small movie theater.? People drink the way New Yorkers hurry; it is in the texture of each day.? I heard a friend of mine had a little too much one night and ended up having an accident in the bed with his new off-island girlfriend.? She decided that kind of life wasn?t for her, and left him.? I called him to give fair harassment.? ?They?ve got it all wrong,? he said.? ?I was having a dream she was on fire and just wanted to put it out.?

The best part about the ride in the pickup will be putting it into four-wheel drive and going out to the beach.? In season, a five-mile stretch opens to the southern point of the island.? In the winter, you may drive the whole beach.? All of Ocracoke is protected by the U.S. National Park Service.? There is nothing to interrupt your view of the dunes and the sea oats and the ocean but an occasional low ramp, and boardwalks built every six miles or so.? The rest is open sand.? Even when the island is inundated with tourists, in August, you can find a quiet place to pull off the road, then lug your things across the dunes and have the place all to yourself.

The beach there is as every beach should be: wide, and beaten down by wind and tide.? You will almost always see dolphins swimming by.? As you doze off in your chair, ghost crabs will begin to come from their tunnels and stare at you, looking for something to eat.? Toss them a small piece of shell and see them pounce, disappointed with their prey.? After a good storm you can find any kind of shell or sand dollar.? The Outer Banks are known as the graveyard of the Atlantic, and I have two large pieces of shipwrecks in my apartment found there.

South of Ocracoke is an abandoned island, Portsmouth, with a ghost village and just three or four permanent Park Service residents.? On Portsmouth you can find the big and unusual shells, helmets and spiral conchs, huge pieces of coral, tulip shells and starfish.? I have only ever seen one seahorse on Ocracoke; a friend of mine found it in his fishing nets and brought it around for people to see.

Another friend of mine, gone now, but a lifelong resident who was in his seventies when I knew him, would tell stories about other things that washed up.? He said shoes used to be shipped in two loads, the rights on one ship and lefts on another, to prevent theft.? A ship of lefts wrecked offshore when he was young, and hundreds of boxes washed up.? It was a very poor time for the Ocracokers; brothers may have shared just one pair of shoes between them.? So everyone collected two lefts, larger than the normal size, to make up for the bad symmetry.? For a long time in church and school, he said, you would see many people in two large left shoes.

Another time a banana boat wrecked, and there were enough that everyone could hang many bunches in their attics, and eat them all summer.

More famously, in the 1500s, a Spanish ship wrecked not too far offshore, and the horses aboard managed to swim to shore.? They have survived to this day: the Ocracoke ponies.? They are kept safe and well-fed in a huge stretch of marsh on the sound side of the middle of the island.

Some years ago, one of my vacations to Ocracoke was interrupted by Hurricane Isabelle.? Hurricanes can be very dangerous, but they can also be tremendously fun (or tremendously boring).? I was worried about where to put my rental car in case the flood was as bad as expected.? An old timer, Dan, took me to a small hill on the sound side of the village.? Having ridden my bike around that road since I was very young, I knew there was a hill. But I did not know what Dan told me then: ?This is the highest place in the world.? There?ll never be a tide in this yard.?

Visit Ocracoke, and stay for a while.? Understand that the mosquitoes can be fierce, the power comes and goes, and water is all by reverse osmosis, making it salty and soft.? Still, make a long visit.? Hopefully you?ll be there in February when they catch oysters and scallops that are so fresh and fat you?ll probably never want an oyster or scallop from anywhere else.? Stay for Christmas, when all the pickups have wreathes wired to their front grates, and locals sneak into the pines to cut down Christmas trees, risking huge Park Service fines.? Stay for July, when you?ll meet Germans following their tourist guides, people from Japan buying fish, Marines from Fayetteville hoping to catch a fish.? Stay long enough that you hear the brogue.? Let a drunk front blow in and erase all of your real-world worries.

Shea Heard is a business executive and writer.

3 comments about “The Life in Ocracoke”

  1. ford ranger guy says:

    A home is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.

    Sent via Blackberry

  2. Steve Wilson says:

    As an Englander I would say that the Ocracoke accent is most similar to that of Somerset and then Devon.

  3. Greg Pawelski says:

    I thought the Brogue of Ocracoke was more like Cajun English?

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