April 6, 2011

Walking Ocracoke’s beach with Henry David Thoreau:  Part 1


“The breakers looked like droves of a thousand white horses of Neptune, rushing to the shore, with their white manes streaming far behind; and when, at length, the sun shone for a moment, their manes were rainbow-tinted.”
-- Henry David Thoreau

Sitting on a dune near the north end of Ocracoke Island, I study Thoreau’s words, written more than 150 years ago, about the coastline of Cape Cod. I could have written the same today about the view that stretched before me. 

I used to walk Ocracoke Island’s ocean beach each winter, having someone drop me off near the Hatteras Ferry, walking all day, and then bumming a ride back out South Point Road to the village. I usually did it alone, as I wanted to focus my entire attention on the space and moment I presently occupied, without distractions. Sometimes I took a canine friend, Duchess or Huck.

There is something primeval about seeing the ocean and shoreline expand before you without the refuge of a truck waiting nearby.  I made mental notes and later recorded them in my journal.

While I had visited different stretches of the beach often in recent times, I had not walked the entire beach for seven years. It was after I began reading Thoreau’s classic account, “Cape Cod,” and realized that he had done exactly the same thing, walking the length of the Massachusetts cape, that I thought of doing it again myself.

This time I decided to carry Thoreau’s book with me and compare his experiences with my own. Cape Cod is much longer than Ocracoke Island, so Thoreau broke his walk into several segments, taking his first walk in 1849, his last in 1857.  I decided to break up my walk similarly, so as to have more time to sit down along the way and reflect on his and my experience.

Thoreau wrote, as his reason for walking:

“Wishing to get a better view than I had yet had of the ocean, which, we are told, covers more than two thirds of the globe...I made a visit to Cape Cod in October, 1849...I have spent, in all, about three weeks on the Cape; walked from Eastham to Provincetown twice on the Atlantic side, and once on the Bay side also, excepting four or five miles, and crossed the Cape half a dozen times on my way; but having come so fresh to the sea, I have got but little salted.” 

I visited Cape Cod when I was 22 years old, traveling its length in an old spray-painted-black Dodge van with Pete, a man I loved deeply (though perhaps foolishly), a boa constrictor, and a little black cat named Smut. The Cape we saw in 1972 would have been vastly different from the one Thoreau wrote about.

On his arrival, he wrote:

“…by taking the cars for Sandwich, where we arrived before noon. This was the terminus of the Cape Cod Railroad, though it is but the beginning of the Cape...we here took that almost obsolete conveyance, the stage, for “as far as it went that day.” 

Pete and I spent about a week camping on Cape Cod's beaches, but, like Thoreau, I got but little salted.”
 Now, on Jan. 17, 2011, I set out once again to experience a beach walk, this time through the eyes of Henry David Thoreau as well as my own. It was Martin Luther King Day, so my friend Rita, a teacher at Ocracoke School, was out of school. I asked her to follow me in her car to the parking lot across from the Ocracoke pony pen. I left my truck there and got a ride with her to the north end, where she parked near the ferry docks. 

It had been ferociously cold the previous week, but the thermometer registered warmer temperatures now, and with heavy rains forecast for the 18th, this looked like the best day for a walk.  Rita planned to go with me for a while, so she pulled on her hat and I donned my backpack and we started out along a path through the sand dunes.  It quickly became apparent that “warmer” was a relative term. With heavy cloud cover and a brisk wind rushing down the beach, it was pretty darn cold.

“Are you sure you want to do this, Pat?” Rita asked me. I wondered myself, but told her that I would kick myself if I gave up now.

It was low tide, and the flats at the north end stretched out before us like a maritime desert. We headed east along the dune line.  The shape of Ocracoke Island has always been confusing to me, as it does not run north-south, as one might expect, but juts out into the ocean in an easterly direction. It was hard to get oriented as we hiked across these flats. We could see the village and water tower of Hatteras in the distance, as well as that long stretch of sand, part of Hatteras Island, that extends almost to Ocracoke.

Thoreau said, referring to the name Cape Cod:

“I suppose that the word Cape is from the French cap; which is from the Latin caput, a head; which is perhaps, from the verb capere,--that being the part by which we take hold of a thing:--Take Time by the forelock. It is also the safest part to take a serpent by...”

My dictionary says that a cape is “a piece of land projecting into water.” I guessed that not only the piece of land we gazed at across the Inlet, but also this strip of sand we stood on, was technically a cape.

I stood for a moment and looked at the body of water separating us from Hatteras Island. I knew that Hatteras Inlet had not always been there. The inlet had opened and closed several times through the centuries, the last being in 1846, when a storm breached the island. Now the inlet provides access for boats heading from Pamlico Sound into the Atlantic Ocean, and a corridor for ferries traversing the short distance between Hatteras and Ocracoke. We caught sight of an Ocracoke-bound ferry as it wended its way through the channel and, turning, saw a fishing trawler head through the Inlet and out into the ocean.

Fishing was one of the topics Thoreau wrote about, saying that it had replaced the production of salt which once provided livelihoods for Cape Cod residents. Soon after passing the Highland Light(house), he described what he saw:

“… countless sails of mackerel fishers abroad on the deep, one fleet in the north just pouring round the Cape, another standing down toward Chatham...”

Later he described them as “whitening all the sea road...it appeared as if every able-bodied man and helpful boy in the Bay had gone out on a pleasure excursion in their yachts, and all would at last land and have a Chowder on the Cape.”

 When Thoreau came to Cape Cod in October, 1849, his plan was to walk with a companion along that part of the Cape, which is known as the Plains of Nauset.  They met up immediately with a storm.

‘We walked with our umbrellas behind us, since it blowed hard as well as rained, with driving mists...Everything indicated that we had reached a strange shore...”

I had seen plenty of storms at Ocracoke, and had no desire to encounter one today. I looked at the sky uneasily, hoping the weatherman had been right when he said the rain would hold off until night.

 Rita and I walked along a scraggly shoreline where small, twisted, and lifeless trees protruded from banks, and sargassum weed, blackened by its tumultuous journey to land, draped the sand. We hopped across the stream of flowing water which gushed from a small pond, visible from the highway, that provided habitat for several species of ducks. We wandered across the salt flats for about an hour, picking up shells and bits of jetsam. I came across the remains of several jellyfish, which looked to me to be what locals here call jellyballs. Even in death their bell-like shapes and lovely translucence drew my attention.

Thoreau wrote of coming across similar forms on Cape Cod:

“The beach was also strewn with beautiful sea-jellies; which the wreckers called sun-squall, one of the lowest forms of animal life, some white, some wine-colored, and a foot in diameter.  I at first thought that they were a tender part of some marine monster, which the storm or some other foe had mangled. What right has the sea to bear in its bosom such tender things as sea-jellies...? Strange that it should undertake to dangle such delicate children in its arm...”

 Finally reaching the ocean, Rita and I stopped to gaze offshore. The altitude at Ocracoke is not as high as that of Cape Cod, so we did not approach the sea from a bluff, but otherwise Thoreau's description could have been ours.

“...then, crossing over a belt of sand on which nothing grew...we suddenly stood on the edge of a bluff overlooking the Atlantic...The waves broke on the bars at some distance from the shore, and curving green or yellow as if over so many unseen dams, ten or twelve feet high, like a thousand waterfalls, rolled in foam to the sand. There was nothing but that savage ocean between us and Europe.

It was nearing time for Rita and me to part ways, so we found a protective dune beside which to eat our tuna sandwiches. She returned to her car and I, clutching my jacket tightly around me, continued onward along this majestic ribbon of sand where, in Thoreau's words, “everything told of the sea.”

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