31 March 2010

Riding the Hatteras ferry

The ferry ride from Hatteras Village over to Ocracoke island takes about 45 minutes. Each boat carries about two dozen vehicles, and it's free. The boats leave each side every 30 minutes or so during the day, and every hour on the hour overnight.

We took the 2:00 p.m. boat over to Ocracoke last Friday. The weather was breezy — it nearly always is on the Outer Banks — but sunny and clear. The ride was pleasant.

The Hatteras Island car ferry in North Carolina

However, we were only the second or third car loaded on the ferry for that run, and we ended up parked on the bow of the boat. The water across Hatteras Inlet was rough enough, and the wind was strong enough, to blow up salt spray that completely covered the hood of my mother's car and the windshield. Having salt spray on your car is not a good thing for the finish.

The ferry we rode on was the Croatan, and it is
registered in Morehead City, my home town.


Hatteras Inlet was cut through the Outer Banks in September 1846 during the same storm that opened up Oregon Inlet to 50 miles the north. That must have been quite a storm. An earlier inlet existed just a few miles south of today's Hatteras Inlet, separating Hatteras Island from Ocracoke Island, but it was closed up by sand during a big storm in 1764.

The Hatteras-bound ferry seen from the one going to Ocracoke

As we rode across Hatteras Inlet, which is about two miles wide, I saw a lot of birds — mostly gulls, terns, cormorants, and brown pelicans — and two dolphins. We've always called them porpoises here in North Carolina, but I think they are in fact bottle-nose dolphins. The two I saw broke the surface of the water just off the bow of the ferry boat but then disappeared for good. I didn't get a picture because it all happened too fast.

Our car was on the bow of the ferry boat
and got sprayed with salt water.


Besides the birds and the dolphins, I saw a seal. I couldn't believe it. They are rare in these waters. They do, however, sometimes ride the Labrador Current southward and wind up on North Carolina's beaches. This one was sitting on a buoy out in the inlet.

Speaking of such things, I should point out that there are alligators in the brackish rivers, marshes, and swamps all along the coast of North Carolina, though they are not plentiful. I have seen one or two over the years, and sometimes they end up trying to cross a highway and halt all traffic for hours before they can be coaxed off the warm pavement. Some of them are enormous and quite dangerous. Some have been seen gobbling up people's pet dogs and cats in new subdivisions along the local waterways.

When I was growing up, there weren't any pelicans, thanks to DDT.
Now there is a large population of them.

North Carolina is the northern limit of the alligator's territory, and it is also the northern limit for the large herbivorous marine mammals called manatees — lamentins in French. My sister said a manatee took up residence in a creek (a local word for a coastal river or narrow bay) near Morehead City a couple of summers ago, but then moved on, probably back toward the south. Alligators and manatees are much more at home in Florida's waters than in North Carolina's.

Here is the seal I saw on a buoy in Ocracoke Inlet.

There are a lot of snakes, including several venomous species, in the marshes and swamps of the North Carolina coast. They include water moccasins, copperheads, rattlesnakes, and coral snakes. Life here can be quite exciting.

When the ferry docks at the north end of Ocracoke Island, you still have 12 miles to drive to get to the village. The long straight road runs down an island that is so narrow in places that you feel you are on a causeway — you can see the ocean on one side and the waters of Pamlico Sound on the other. The road periodically washes out or becomes covered in deep sand when there is a windstorm.

30 March 2010

Driving down to Hatteras

Driving down the Outer Banks from Nags Head to Hatteras Village, you pass over a long bridge that spans a break in the barrier islands called Oregon Inlet. An inlet is a gap in the islands where the protected sounds meet the open ocean. The Banks are just sand bars, and the inlets are very unstable. They are cut through by heavy seas during storms, and they can silt up and disappear over the decades.

The Oregon Inlet bridge on the North Carolina Outer Banks

In fact, Oregon Inlet was formed by a strong hurricane in 1846, according to historical reports. High water and big waves washed over the island and then swift-flowing currents cut out a deep inlet. On of the ships that rode out the storm on the sound side was named the Oregon. After the storm passed, the Oregon's crew told the local people on the mainland (or Roanoke Island) what they had seen and experienced. The name of their ship was given to the new geographical feature.

Here's a map. Click on it to see an enlargement.
It's about 75 mi/120 km from Nags Head to Ocracoke.

Oregon Inlet is the site of the only bridge of its kind on the North Carolina coast. No other inlet is spanned by a bridge. The Oregon Inlet bridge was built in the early 1960s and is 2½ miles long. The problem is that Oregon Inlet is slowly moving south, but the bridge is stationary. Historians say that the inlet has moved south 2 miles since it was formed in 1846.

People come to the Outer Banks to relax.

That's why it has been necessary to build long rock jetties on the south side of the gap and pump in tons of sand. Stabilizing an inlet is probably a hopeless cause, however. Now a new bridge is being planned. Instead of directly spanning the inlet, it will curve in towards the mainland and be supported by pilings sunk into the more stable sands of relatively calm sound waters, where currents and waves are not so destructive.

The beaches of the Outer Banks are miles and miles long.

The Oregon Inlet bridge leads you to Hatteras Island, which is a 50-mile strip of sand with a population of about 4,000. On the way to the southernmost community on the island, Hatteras Village, you pass through the little settlements called Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, and Frisco. At every wide spot on the island, the road, beach, and sound are nowadays lined with grand vacation houses built on top of tall pilings.

Hatteras Light

The main landmark on Hatteras Island is the lighthouse. It's the tallest such structure in the United States, at nearly 200 ft. or 63 m. The lighthouse is a conical structure made out of bricks (more than a million of them) and was built in the late 1860s as an aid to navigation. The waters off Cape Hatteras are treacherous because of shifting sandbars and shoals off the coast there. It's the point where the cold Labrador Current collides with the warm Gulf Stream, so the waters are especially turbulent.

I think these are the names of lighthouse keepers, carved
on stones marking the original location of the
Hatteras lighthouse.
I like the names.


In 1999-2000, Hatteras light was moved about 900 m (half a mile) back from the ocean, where it was in danger of being washed away in a hurricane, so much had the nearby beach eroded away over the decades. Many predicted that the brick structure would collapse during the move, but it survived. Despite modern technologies including GPS, the lighthouse is still an aid to navigation, and it's of course a big tourist attraction.

A Hatteras waterman returning to port

At the end of the road, more than 50 miles south of Nags Head, you arrive at the landing docks of the Hatteras-Ocracoke car ferry. It's a 45-minute boat ride over to Ocracoke Island, across Ocracoke Inlet. That island is about 12 miles long, and about 750 people live year-round at Ocracoke Village, which was settled by Europeans in the late 1600s. It's accessible only by boat or airplane.

29 March 2010

Nags Head, to start with

One thing about the Outer Banks: the town names are amazing. Have you ever imagined there would be a town named Duck? I suppose there might be a Chicken or Turkey somewhere, in some state. Then there's Nags Head, North Carolina. I have always thought in my mind that the name alluded to a horse's head.

But it probably doesn't. There's no apostrophe. "Head" probably derives from "headlands" — a high point of land on the sea — and nags or horses probably lived there after swimming to shore when sailing ships from Europe wrecked off the coast or were grounded near the beaches. English people arriving later probably named it Nags Head, with the stress on the second word. Nowadays, we put the stress on Nags.

The beach at Nags Head on a quiet spring morning

Other towns are Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. Whalebone. Caffys Inlet Hamlet. Manteo (stress the first syllable), Wanchese (think "pale cheese"), Rodanthe (three syllables) and Little Kinnakeet. Salvo. Avon. Buxton. Frisco. Hatteras Village. Ocracoke ("okra" + "coke"). There's Pea Island. One town that did not survive to the present day, and which was a big port in its own day, had a classic English name: Portsmouth. It's a ghost town now, with just a few old wooden buildings still standing, nearly covered in blowing sand.

A tavern at Nags Head

Actually, the Outer Banks are not land. They are sandbars covered with dune grasses, mostly, with just some wide spots where trees have been able to take root. At the narrow points, during hurricanes and violent winter storms the ocean often washes over the dunes and stretches of sand and on into the sounds. That of course washes out the only road down the banks and isolates communities like Frisco and Buxton even more than they usually are isolated.

Typical houses along the Outer Banks beaches

Many of the newer houses up and down the Banks are built on the non-land that is dunes and sand. To protect them from storm surges, they are built up on high pilings. When the water rises, it just flows under the living space and in theory doesn't damage the house. However, if the wind blows hard enough, say in a hurricane, the elevated house risks going airborne and crashing down into the water or onto the sand — or into the house next to it. In some places, the structures are really packed together.

Sea birds are abundant— the Banks are their home,
and it is also on a major migration route.


In the olden days, only poor people lived at the edge of the water. It was too dangerous, what with flooding, storm surges, and crashing waves. Besides, people didn't routinely have insurance to cover the cost of repairs. The shore was lined with modest houses, not to say shacks, if there were houses there at all. People with more money built their big houses farther away, where they had a better chance of surviving the hurricanes of summer and fall and the "nor'easters" of winter and spring.

The houses protection from ocean waves are the stilts
they sit on top of and a line of low dunes behind the beach.


Cape Hatteras is know as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, because so many ships have wrecked on its shoals and beaches over the past 400+ years. The cape exists because it is located at the point where two major ocean currents collide. One is warm (the Gulf Stream) and the other cold (the Labrador Current). The waters off Cape Hatteras are turbulent, and shallow shoals form and shift offshore as tons of sand are moved around by fast-moving waters.

Here's what a typical U.S. motel room looks like.
It's large, with two double beds.

Speaking of blowing sand, yesterday it was very windy and I had a horrible allergy attack. I sneezed and sniffed all day, and the skin around my eyes is sore from my dabbing at them with paper tissues all day. This morning, it is raining and windy outside, with lightning and thunder, but the wind has shifted to a different direction and I feel better.

28 March 2010

Churches for a Sunday

The town (or village) called Columbia was founded in 1793 in Tyrell County, North Carolina, which had been set up in 1729 by the English. Columbia was called Elizabethtown at the time of its founding.

The town is located on the banks of the Scuppernong River, which flows into Albemarle Sound. The population of Columbia as reported in the 2000 census was 819, and just more than half the residents identified themselves as African-American. The town sits on just 1.2 km² of land.

The Columbia Christian Church — I'm not sure
what protestant denomination that would be.


The Scuppernong River gave its name to a native American grape. The scuppernong grape grew wild in eastern North Carolina when the first Europeans arrived in the early 1500s, and it was first cultivated around Columbia, N.C. Its juice can be made into a sweet, "foxy" wine.

Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church in Columbia, N.C.

Wikipedia says that the oldest living cultivated grape vine in the world is a scuppernong plant growing on Roanoke Island, not far east. There is at least one winery in Columbia.

A very nice house in a typical local style in Columbia, N.C.

I had driven past Columbia on innumerable occasions over the past 40 years, but this was the first time I ever stopped to have a look around. The town was neat and clean — I imagine it has been spiffed up considerably over the past 10 years or so, with the construction of the new wide roadway leading to Raleigh, the state capital and a major population center. It's a stopping-off point for people on their way to Nags Head and other Outer Banks resorts.

The Columbia Baptist Church

I always enjoy seeing the old wooden church buildings in North Carolina towns like Columbia. I don't really know how old such buildings are, but I imagine that they date back to about 100 years ago.

A hardware store in downtown Columbia, N.C.

Larger North Carolina towns and cities have churches built of stone and brick, but in small towns the churches are almost always built of wood and are usually painted white. There is no local stone along the sandy N.C. coast, and there's no clay for brick-making either. Wood is plentiful, and most of the houses are wooden structures too. So I wonder why it is that most downtown buildings are built out of brick?

27 March 2010

Outer Banks interlude

I think I'll be posting pictures of the North Carolina Outer Banks for the next few days. As I think I've said, part of my living the life in Saint-Aignan is my annual trip back to North Carolina, where I grew up out on the coast. My mother, sister, other extended family member, and a few friends still live here.

So until I get back to Saint-Aignan and get my bearings again, I'll just post N.C. pictures here.

A fragile line of dunes separated our hotel
from the beach and the ocean waves.


My mother, aunt, and I left Morehead City Thursday morning for Manteo and Nags Head, by car. The trip showed me that they have been busy building a lot of new roads in Eastern North Carolina. One is a very long elevated bypass around the town of "Little" Washington, N.C. It's four wide lanes spanning an extensive, marshy river estuary.

The beach at Nags Head

Another is a long section of road that runs east and west, again four wide lanes, from Raleigh out to the town of Columbia, on the Albemarle Sound. At Columbia (a tiny town in a swamp, not to be confused with the capital of the State of South Carolina), you find yourself on the old narrow two-lane road through the marshes out to the coast at Manteo, on Roanoke Island. Roanoke Island is thought to be the place where the English established their first colony in America, in 1585.

The Blue Heron Motel on the beach at Nags Head

The first English child born on American soil was born on Roanoke (or on nearby Cedar Island, some historians think) and named Virginia Dare — her first name in honor of Elizabeth I, the "Virgin" Queen. Soon after, the colony failed and all the settlers vanished into the mists of time — or into the extensive forests that covered the land back then. When ships returned from England to bring supplies, the colonists were nowhere to be found.

The beach early Friday morning, as the overnight rain ended

At Nags Head, we spent the night in one of those quintessential American establishments called "motels" — which is short for "motor hotels." We had two large, well-equipped and well-furnished rooms right on the beach, with many of the comforts of home. Each room cost about $58, or 43 €, including all taxes.

We ate dinner in a typical N.C. seafood restaurant — lots of breaded and fried seafood — where the waitress was a young Polish woman who spoke good English but with a definite accent. I wanted to ask her how she ended up living in Nags Head but didn't do it.

My mother and I waiting for our dinner
to arrive at the Dunes Restaurant


I took pictures out on the beach and around the neighborhood of the hotel on Thursday evening when we arrived, and again Friday morning before we left to drive the 75 miles down to Ocracoke. It rained overnight but we had a nice day driving down the Outer Banks... until we got to Ocracoke Island and the ferry landing. A strong storm came up and the 2½-hour ferry ride turned into a real high-seas adventure.

24 March 2010

Driving up to Kitty Hawk

One of the most remarkable geographical features of the U.S. state of North Carolina (pop. 10 million) — besides the highest mountain in the Appalachian chain, Mount Mitchell — is the long strip of coastal sandbars called the Outer Banks. The Banks are a string of barrier islands and they are far off shore for much of their length. They enclose a very large body of salt water.

My home town is at the very southern end of the Outer Banks. I grew up about 12 miles from Cape Lookout. Along with Cape Hatteras and Cape Fear, Lookout is one of the three sharp North Carolina capes that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Eastern North Carolina and the Outer Banks
Raleigh, the state capital, is 150 miles from Morehead City

I should have titled this post "Driving Miss Mary and Miss Annie" — they are my mother and her sister. I'll be driving them up to Kitty Hawk on Thursday morning. We are just going for fun, mostly. We'll spend the night in Nags Head, and we'll drive through Outer Banks places named Kill Devil Hills, Whalebone, Rodanthe, Little Kinnakeet, Salvo, and Ocracoke.

On the way north, we'll take the inland route, passing through the towns of New Bern, "Little" Washington, Plymouth, and Manteo. The inland trip covers about 190 miles (300 km) and takes 3½ hours.

On the way back south, we'll drive down the length of the Banks, and we'll ride two ferries. There's a short ride of 45 minutes or so from Hatteras Village to the island called Ocracoke, which is very narrow and about 12 miles long. You can only get to Ocracoke by boat, and the population of Ocracoke Village is about 500.

Here's the route of the trip.
Roads are in red and ferry routes in blue.


The second ferry ride takes 2½ hours. The ferry carries cars and passengers from Ocracoke Village over to a place called Cedar Island, in Carteret County, N.C. I was where I was born in Carteret Country, and spent my childhood here. Cedar Island (pop. 350) is a 45-minute drive through salt marshes and a string of little fishing villages from my home town, Morehead City.

The distance from Kitty Hawk to Morehead City via Hatteras and Ocracoke is only about 150 miles (250 km), but because of the boat rides the trip takes 4½ hours.

The Outer Banks are amazingly narrow. In many places you can see the ocean waters on one side and the sound waters on the other as you drive down the road. There are extensive salt marshes on the sound side, and there are long beaches and often heavy surf on the ocean side.

The N.C. fishing industry is on the decline, and the old villages are being overtaken by development aimed at tourists and summer residents. The old English-sounding brogue is dying out. But despite rampant overbuilding (vacation homes and strip malls), the Outer Banks are still a world unto themselves.

I'll be on the road and won't be blogging for the next couple of days.

23 March 2010

In my mind...

I'm going to in Carolina but I'm posting picture of Paris. A Paris pâtisserie. I didn't take any pictures yesterday. It rained in the morning, and then the afternoon got very busy. Hope you enjoy these.

Pictures of a pâtisserie shop's window display
near the Madeleine church in Paris


I took these pictures in 2007, when my sister came and visited Saint-Aignan. Talking to her over the past few days about the good time we had back then — we went to the Mont-Saint Michel and to Paris as well as the Loire Valley — inspired me to look at pictures we took during that trip. I think there are quite a few of them that I've never published before.

22 March 2010

The neighborhood

I took a pretty long walk early yesterday morning. My mother lives in a retirement complex, and I'm staying with her. I walked from her place down the the sound, just because the weather was so nice.

The water was right glassy, as we say.

If you don't know what a sound is, I'll tell you. It is a body of water behind a long island and the mainland. Unlike a bay, a sound has two or more openings onto the sea.

The early morning calm

One of the best known and largest sounds is, in fact, named Long Island Sound, up north. Another is Puget Sound out west. The North Carolina coast includes a collection of sounds: Albemarle, Pamlico, Core, Back, Currituck, Croatan, Roanoke, and more. The one in my pictures is Bogue Sound.

Around the retirement complex (100 apartments), a gardening crew has just finished freshening up the landscaping for the spring season. I think it's pretty, despite all the big parking lots and cars surrounding all the little apartment buildings.

Camelias in the morning sun


Crape myrtle trees — no bark!

There are a lot of tall pine trees on the property as well, and it is bordered on the north side by a wide salt marsh. There are a lot of birds (and snakes too, my mother says).

21 March 2010

Things I see on the Carolina coast

In Saint-Aignan, I don't see scenes like these.

A boat speeding through Beaufort Inlet,
seen from the beach at Fort Macon State Park.


The flag of the State of North Carolina

Tracks in beach sand

Late-afternoon sun at the beach on Bogue Banks, N.C.

Boats on the waterfront in Morehead City, N.C.

Yesterday we had gorgeous weather. People keep thanking me for bringing good weather with me from France. Ha! Temperatures here today should reach 74ºF (23ºC).

20 March 2010

Life as a resident alien

Part of the experience of living the life in Saint-Aignan is being so far from "home." Home is of course a place, but it's more. It's where I grew up, though the town has changed so much since the 1960s that it's really not the same place any more. It is, however, where what's left of my biological family lives.

In fact, once my mother inevitably passes on — she might of course outlive me — I'm not sure how much I will come back to North Carolina at all. I lived for nearly 20 years in California, and that was on the verge of becoming "home" for all that time. I lived there for nearly as long as I ever lived in North Carolina, which I left behind at the ripe old age of 22. And yet, I haven't returned to California since I left for France in 2003.

This is the line that attaches me to my home town, I think.
It's algae growing in clear waters, and the smell of low tide.


The fact is, France became my "home" de prédilection nearly four decades ago. I chose it, and I always say I had a second childhood when I was in my 20s — I learned a new language, a new way of cooking and eating, a different history and literature. I took on a new mental outlook and world view. I was living in Paris, after all — and I came to see that fantastic city as the true center of the world. I was (and am) living where I decided to live, not where I was born and grew up, or where societal trends and professional ambitions took me.

In a place where the label on a package of cheddar cheese says
"Allergy warning: contains milk", this sign really is pure nostalgia.


My home town in North Carolina is on the edge of the world. It's 100 miles from the nearest interstate highway! It's as close to — or far from — New York City as it is to Atlanta. The people speak, or used to speak, a dialect with an accent that other Americans found unusual, to say the least. I still hear it here. To some, the brogue sounds more English than American. And it threatens to be washed away, suddenly, in the next big hurricane. Or, gradually, by the rising oceans.

This is all that remains of a recently demolished landmark on the
town waterfront that was Ottis' Fishmarket. Because the all-wood
buildings here are so fragile, history moves on fast.

California is also on the edge of the world. It's an outpost, even though people there don't think so. They went — one goes — to California to escape — to escape the cold weather, the crowded eastern U.S. cities, the isolated small towns and farms, and provincial ideas. Out there, you can be somebody that they couldn't be at home, "back" East. You can make a fortune, and you get to be with all the other escapees. The problem is, California also threatens to disappear, or be unrecognizably changed, in the next big earthquake. Or fire. Or drought. Or financial crisis.

Old ways of life disappear. The seafood business has moved
to the Third World, killed off by coastal development
that has brought water pollution.

I guess France is also threatened. I'm not sure. It has sure changed, and is still changing. New ways of life — cars and commuting, suburban developments all around the towns, big shopping centers replacing small shops in villages and cities — mean France isn't at all the same place it was 40 years ago. Mais plus ça change, plus c'est... you know.

Can you imagine this house in Saint-Aignan?

I guess it's because France is so deeply anchored in history. Kings. Wars. Legends. Castles. Les vieilles pierres. France remains, despite Europe and globalization, self-contained. Language has much to do with it. I think Americans and the British can feel the "centeredness" of the place when they go to France. Along with the food and the climate, and the thrill of being a foreigner, maybe that's what is so attractive about France.

So here I am in North Carolina again. Far from home. Ha! Living on the edge, as it were, but anchored by my personal past. Enjoying it, but at moments feeling like an alien, or an impostor. It's fun.