You Are Here: Part 5
Read Part 4 here.
We left Zoe with her aunt on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia, and continued without her up the coast through Savannah and to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Many road atlases mark scenic routes by tracing the appropriate roads with a dotted green line, and in the mountains of Colorado, most of the roads are marked this way. Figgins, who had lived all her life in the land-locked mountainous state, had confused the green dotted scenic route with the blue dashed line which delineates an inter-coastal waterway. It was her turn to navigate in North Carolina, and the atlas on her lap showed her the yellow line that she had drawn skipping across open ocean. We searched for the phantom dotted blue road to the islands, driving onto countless hazy peninsulas which thrust out into the Atlantic. After a few hours of driving in circles, we identified the error and located the ferry to Ocracoke Island and made it to our campsite in time to pitch our tents before dark.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina loop east out into the Atlantic like a net cast out to catch tuna. Historically, the islands have undulated to and fro, but residential development has attempted to stabilize the sand, and developers struggle to reclaim land which is incessantly battered by wind and sea. The Wright Brothers selected the Outer Banks to attempt the first ever successful airplane flight because of the wind. Their flyer— the bizarre love child of a kite and a bicycle—flew more than a hundred feet over the dunes to where it landed with a thud in the sand. Ironically, there is no commercial airport on the Outer Banks today, so the only way to get there is by car or by boat and often, a combination of the two.
The Outer Banks are also known for lighthouses. Each one is more than one hundred and fifty feet tall and features a black and white geometric pattern, the most eccentric of which is the Cape Lookout lighthouse which sports a diamond pattern and looks like a French harlequin. The Outer Banks’ has a few exceptions to the black and white rule, one of which being the stout white lighthouse on Ocracoke Island, which is less assuming than its northern cousins, but which I dragged my friends to, nonetheless. I had remembered this lighthouse from a trip to the islands years before when my family was traveling the opposite direction and I had wanted to see if it lived up to my memory as a landmark of my childhood. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is no longer in use, and like all of the Outer Banks lighthouses, is maintained by the National Park Service. Unlike the others, it does not have a gift shop, nor does it teem with tourists who wait in line for the chance to climb to the top. The Ocracoke lighthouse is chained shut and surrounded by low trees, sea oats, and tiny yellow butter cups.
Most of the lighthouses are no longer in use, but in the United States, those that are operational are maintained by the Coast Guard. Traditional lighthouses housed families who were responsible for making sure the light functioned properly so that it could safely guide sailors past hazardous coastlines and through inland waterways to safe harbors. Each lighthouse served as a navigator and had a style unique to the seafaring culture which it protected. The rise of modern electronic navigation systems has made most traditional lighthouses obsolete which, in conjunction with erosion and encroaching seas, threatens their very existence. As a result, the coastal communities which were once protected by these illuminated sentinels now fight to protect and preserve them.
One of the fiercest fights fought was for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The lighthouse was commissioned by the U.S. government to protect an area that was known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to its notorious shipwreck-causing storms and hurricanes. Originally built in 1803 and rebuilt in 1870, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in the United States at nearly 200 feet, a height which is further emphasized by its trademark black and white spiral pattern that twists all the way to its top. The storms which were responsible for the lighthouse’s construction gnawed away at the shore and threatened to consume it, so in 1999 the National Park Service picked the lighthouse up and moved it, inch by inch, half a mile inland.
By the time the three of us visited the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, we had each begun to yearn for some personal space. The morning had been a rough one. I had stepped on a wasp and every step I took seemed to aggravate the burning itch that emanated from the angry red bump on the arch of my right foot. Packing up camp had been unpleasant and difficult in the gusting wind, and Kate had discovered her cell phone had fallen into the cooler full of melted ice and left to soak overnight. Tempers were short, so when we got there, we all went in separate directions. I got in line to climb to the top of the lighthouse, Kate wandered around looking for anywhere her sodden cell phone might receive a signal, and Figgins sat on top of a red picnic table in the pavilion and smoked one of her rationed cigarettes.
When we met up again, we found that each of us had voicemail from the Colonel, politely ordering us to check in, or else he would be severely pissed off. Kate finally got through to him and tried to reason that cell coverage was spotty on the islands and that we were not purposefully trying to be difficult. I took the opportunity to call home only to learn that the Colonel had called my parents to see if they had heard from us. Figgins chose not to call anyone.
When we got to the car we found that Joanie, the dashboard hula dancer, had wilted in the heat. The sun-baked plastic had softened causing her to lean forward precariously, bending at the knee like a flamingo. The adhesive that affixed her to the dash, threatened to give at any moment, so I pulled the ballpoint from the pages of my journal and wedged it against the AC vent to prop her up.
Note: Figgins uses they/them pronouns now, but chose to keep their previous pronouns in this piece to honor and acknowledge who they were then.
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The day-to-days of an Itinerant Illustrator