Gone Summering, July 1998
Often, during a stretch of many happy years, I'd find myself at the southern tip of Ocracoke Island, on past the village and the ferry docks and the lighthouse, staring out across the channel and its fatal toss of waves to a luminous bar of sand, golden and divine, that connected to the sea-hazed horizon of trees on the next isle down, Portsmouth. In the summer I'd rake the sound side of the point for clams, the water up to my chest, feeling with my toes for the hard bumps below in the sand, my two setters swimming circles around me (because if I'm clamming, they're clamming too), glancing over my shoulder at that place, that mystery. Occasionally I'd hear a gunshot out in the inlet — some cowardly fools trying to boat a cobia, which is something that's tricky and dangerous if the cobia's big and the boat's small — and see that place, Portsmouth Island, shimmering in the heat.
There was a boat, I had heard, that would take you from Ocracoke to the abandoned eighteenth-century village of Portsmouth, once the region's most active commercial port, but I held back from the place, as if the idea was to preserve something inside myself by staying away from it. I'd drive back home to Hatteras, somehow gratified by the sight of that other, inaccessible island, the ideal of it, the dreamy itch.
I don't know why I clung to that notion of Portsmouth, but I did. I did, until I could no longer live on the Outer Banks, chased off by development and traffic jams and the dog-hating, people-hating cops masquerading as the National Park Service, whose intention seemed to be to turn the Outer Banks into a sanitized theme park for a steady flow of retirees. Only then did I tell myself, as if my life depended on it, I've got to get to Portsmouth.
A tiny, private wooden ferry, which can haul no more than four vehicles at a time, runs from the village of Atlantic, on the mainland, out to the island. Surf fishermen want to go, a few shell collectors — nobody else. Portsmouth is too raw, too primitive and windblown, to appeal to anybody who can't go all the way with nature, as we have it here on the last true scraps of the eastern seaboard.
But what I want from a place is a sense of the fundamental constant, the weight of the elements pounding you or soothing you with the message that there's little time left for things that hardly matter, and an eternity for things that do. Upon first setting foot on Portsmouth, as I drove to the beach through the clapboard fishcamp that serves as the island's only nod to civilization, a five-foot wave popped up in the surf, and in its absinthe-green translucence, like an insect suspended in amber, was a 12-foot-long hammerhead shark, backlit by a sun about to set, its silhouette like a logo for a wild heart.
Whatever dune lines there are on Portsmouth are natural, which means the island overwashes during storms. I pitched my tent on a knoll of sand and for dinner grilled a redfish, caught on the rising tide. The next night I tied my tent to the truck as a nor'easter blew in hard and fast, and in the morning when I woke up I was surrounded by foaming water, on an endless strand of foaming water, a riot of seagulls in the tempestuous air, the only person in the world, waiting for the storm to slacken, and — make your own sense of it — I was happy.
Bob Shacochis's fifth book, The Immaculate Invasion, about the ongoing turmoil in Haiti, will be published by Viking in February 1999.
Illustration by Jason Schneider