Ocracoke’s beach with
Henry David Thoreau: Part 1
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
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:
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.”
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:
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
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
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
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
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.
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:
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
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:
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
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.
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:
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
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.”