Saturday 22nd November. Hatteras, North Carolina -> Wilmington, North Carolina, USA
Days like yesterday and today make me wish this trip would never end. The people who've hosted me over the last five months or so have been incredible, and I could never take anything away from the experience they've given me. But it's the surprise of meeting complete strangers that gives me the biggest buzz. Strangers like Gary and Wendy, who've just been through so much, and yet are still prepared to open their hearts to a random hitchhiker. Strangers like the three guys from Okracoke that gave me a ride today. But before I get carried away, let's get back to Hatteras.
The clean-up was in full swing along the beach road by the time I dragged my sore and sorry self off the couch and into the bathroom. The villagers were dreading the afternoon. At noon today, for the first time since Hurricane Isabel turned these people's lives upside-down *literally*, the island is to be opened to visitors. Residents were busy nailing up 'No Trespassing' signs and stretching yellow barrier tape between any remaining trees, posts or buildings to at least keep the reporters and general 'gawkers' out of their yards. I needed some fresh air and wanted to have a look along the beach before the TV cameras arrived. What I saw was devastation like I haven't seen in eleven years, since Hurricane Andrew in Florida. *by the way, if you follow that link to read about my travels in Florida, take note of the treehouse. It may just pop up again somewhere*
By the time I got back to the house, Gary and his son Corey were preparing breakfast. I had a long day ahead of me- it wasn't likely that I'd make it to Wilmington today- so after breakfast I was keen to get moving. The ferry to Okracoke Island to the south wasn't open to the public till noon, but Gary was able to get me aboard the eleven o'clock ferry. Remember, everyone knows everyone around here!
The ride to Okracoke was only fifteen minutes or so. For the first few minutes, I sat in the tiny passenger lounge, chatting to the only other walk-on passengers- a couple of little girls, Amber and Logan. I guess they were about twelve years old or so. They live on Hatteras, but one girl's family has a house on Okracoke and they were on their way down there for the weekend. Logan sat quietly, but Amber could talk the leg off a chair. Amber assured me that Logan talks 'a lot!' when she gets started. Then Amber told me I was crazy! It reminded me how much I miss my nieces back home in Australia.
From the map, I could see that it'd be crucial to secure a ride while on the ferry. Okracoke is a long narrow island, predominantly an uninhabited nature reserve but with a small village at the southern tip. The ferry arrives at the northernmost point, so unless I had a lift right off the ferry, I'd be stuck in the middle of nowhere. I'd be S.O.L. as they say! The first car I approached was a two door Mercedes sports. I didn't fancy my chances, but there were only a dozen or so vehicles on the small ferry, and I was determined to ask every driver. I didn't have to ask but one. Dan, the driver of the Merc, shifted his gear off the passenger seat and in I jumped. In the rear vision mirror, I could see Amber and Logan peeping out from the passenger lounge, checking to see if I got a ride. I gave them a 'thumbs up' out the window, and they waved.
Dan is a local businessman; a hotelier and restauranteur. It hasn't been a great year for him, with the enforced isolation of the island. Even though Okracoke was fortunate enough to escape the worst of the hurricane's fury, the ferry service to and from the island had been suspended. Businesses on the island are very seasonal, much like in Alaska. They rely on the warmer months of the year for their entire annual income, so many businesses on the island are suffering. Dan dropped me at the grocery store, where I bought some bread and cheese to keep me happy during the two and a half hour ferry ride to the mainland. Dan had suggested that I actually hitch a ride onto this ferry. Where the previous ferry had been free, this one wasn't. Even though it was probably only a few bucks, why waste money when I can ride aboard in a vehicle for free. The first driver I approached said that was no problem. In I jumped. We got to talking, and he said that if I wasn't able to find someone on board who was going all the way to Wilmingto, he could give me a ride a bout a third of the way. When we were aboard, he directed me to a few guys in a big blue van, who he thought may be Wilmington bound. First priority was to stretch out on the upper deck and sleep off my headache.
Kevin, Jeff and Rodney were residents of Okracoke. Kevin and Rodney are carpenters, and Jeff's a fisherman during the summer and does carpentry in the off season. Although they were fiercely proud of their island home, they admitted that the nightlife leaves something to be desired. They'd knocked off work early, bundled into the big blue van and were headed to a Bluegrass concert about an hour out of Wilmington. They welcomed me into the disco-lights-equipped Stealth Sport and away we went, chugging beers while Dell McCurry wailed out his bluegrass tunes on the stereo. I had a feeling that they'd be going well out of their way to take me to Wilmington, but they shrugged and said it was no big deal. "You're lucky" Kevin said "You teamed up with the right assholes!"
It was a fun filled ride to Wilmington. The guys were in high spirits, having gotten away from the island. When we reached the city, they took me into the Water Street Restaurant and Bar. There they shouted me a double whiskey, and introduced me to the mayor of Wilmington, who was also the publican and a personal friend of theirs! I phoned my host Alex, who was expecting me, and he said he'd be down to meet me in a while. I didn't mind waiting. I'd struck up a converstaion with a cool local couple at the bar- Tom's a cabinetmaker and Jean's a marine biologist *goes fishing every day and gets paid for it* The musician was awesome, playing everything from Billy Joel to James Brown, and a great range of classic Southern tunes. I was well into 'The South' now, I could feel it.
Alex and I stayed there for a while, then moved on to another venue where his friend's band was performing. They were good too. I meant to get a photo of the band, but was distracted by our waitress, Erin and ended up with a photo of her instead. I'm sure none of you guys will object. Alex cooked up some pork chops when we got back to his apartment, and I was so tired that I fell asleep on the sofa while we were talking. Yes Gail, again!