Sanctuary

oasis 1

All my sanctuaries are green and empty of people or at the edge of the sea and deserted. Some are hard to get to and some are harder. Some have names like music – Aransas, Edisto, Hatteras, the South San Gabriel River. Some are just fun to say – Abernathy, Little Pine Garnet Mine. My newest has a clunky unfortunate name that sounds like machines, all metal and rust, like a steam engine pumping, like a Victorian shipwreck, iron hull screeching against the sea, some poor lost soul’s clumsy surname – Shackleford.

What a clumsy word for the hissing of shifting sand, the hush of the clamoring surf, all that motion and energy and peace and nothing to witness it but the gulls and wild ponies. Nothing comes here that doesn’t swim or fly or float.  A fluid island, creeping grain by grain along the coast like a beast made of sand and salt and bits of shell, feather, bone and fossil, where grass roots itself in dunes and sea birds feed and shelter but just for awhile. The next storm will shift it, divide it, cut a channel through or join it with another – barrier islands don’t stay individual.

poniesFor 400 years the shaggy ponies have survived an ocean away from Spain where they began – living on rainwater and occasional springs, swimming in salt channels, eating grass dry as chaff. The wild-eyed, scarred horses – exposed on a shifting pile of sand in the heat, bearing by turns the huge summer sun or the thrashing rain and shrieking  winds with nothing but a dune to huddle behind. Sometimes the ocean wells up and washes over everything. But they drop their foals in the spring and live another year.

The Gulf Stream passes near here, a river of tropic water surges by just miles offshore just before it swings away into the massive Atlantic. It flings Florida conches and queen’s helmets onto shore, the remains of milder latitudes carried here like a message I’m not equipped to understand. But I keep trying.  I’ll spend my life trying.

Someone here salts the sea with wine and whiskey bottles. Green seems the favorite. There’s surprisingly little plastic. Just colored glass to shatter in the surf and melt in the pounding like a sliver of frosted soap for some tourist like me to find like a treasure – beach glass. And I do. And I keep it. Because it’s a bit of the message but only a tiny part.

oasis 7All the questions I see in the stars at night, I can find here washed up on the sand, but written in shell and bone instead of ancient light. The math is the same, only more apparent – almost. So I pick up the bits and bring them home. A snail made this shell from calcium and carbon it soaked from the sea. Maybe a hermit crab used it too and discarded it again. Then the warm sea river carried it here to me. Maybe I’ll put it in my garden – pick it up occasionally when I can’t remember how the ocean sounds because I’m 200 miles away, imagine the snail and the crab and the stardust in its atoms. But mostly to call to mind the quiet thunder of the surf and horses’ hooves, the tick-tick-hiss of dunes creeping grain by grain, and the windchime rake of empty shells in the undertow. The sun and salt and winter wind sucking the water from my skin until it’s hard just to swallow.

I’ll keep doing this, every time I come here or any place like it. Combing the wrackline like a priest, looking for portents in the shell and flotsam – a hollow wing bone jutting from a dune, a fossilized scrap of turtle shell, fish vertebrae, a bit of coal from a steamship wreck, a Caribbean nut – the sea tells a story, writes it on the sand all over the world in a strange and wonderful language. I think I’ll spend my life walking the tideline every chance I get trying to decipher some small part of it.

oasis 6

Deserted Island: Shackleford Banks

At the southern end of a 200-mile string of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast known as the Outer Banks is Cape Lookout National Seashore. And at the southern end of that is an uninhabited island called Shackleford Banks. I spent the day before Thanksgiving there with my parents.

The island is only accessible by boat but there are a couple of ferry services on the mainland in Beaufort. Beaufort itself is a cool little town established in 1709. It’s rich in history and very picturesque but its biggest claim to fame (and my favorite thing about it) is the fact the Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground just off its coast in 1718. The wreck was discovered in 1996 and is the subject of an ongoing archaeological research project.

You can view artifacts from the QAR in the NC Maritime Museum in Beaufort  which happened to be right across the street from our ferry service. So while we waited for our departure time, we got to wander about the museum examining artifacts from straight pins and tiny glass beads to cannon that had been buried under the shifting shoals of Beaufort Inlet for 300 years. To me, that’s a lot of fun and I tried to read every sign in the 45 minutes we had before our boat left.

Our ferry was a flat-bottomed skiff that offered no protection from the frigid late November wind which I thought it was invigorating. My parents looked slightly less thrilled, but 15 minutes of cold wind and spray seemed a small price to pay.

Leaving Beaufort in our wake.

We were plenty warm enough once we arrived at the island and hiked the half a mile through the dunes to the ocean side.

The sound side of the island where the boat dropped us.

My parents hiking across the island.

And when we got there, it was delightfully deserted.

There were just two people on the other side when we arrived and they were just leaving to catch the boat back.

The Gulf Stream passes at it’s closest just off shore here before swinging away to the east bringing with it plenty of shells more common to shores farther south.

I haven’t picked up a Florida fighting conch (lower right) since I was a kid beachcombing in Florida.

A broken queen’s helmet, also not common this far north.

There were also plenty of shorebirds…

…and a lone shrimp boat being swarmed by gulls.

And to my delight, a bonus. To visit the Cape Lookout Lighthouse (and take a photo of it making my collection of Outer Banks lighthouses almost complete), we would have to have taken another, longer boat ride and our mini-vacation just didn’t allow time for both trips. But when I took a closer look at this photo, I realized the Cape Lookout Light is just barely visible on the horizon.

See the tiny tiny lighthouse on the horizon? I say this counts.

And even more delightful, on the walk back across the island, we got to see some of the wild horses that have lived on the island for about  400 years.

Locals say the “banker ponies” are shipwreck survivors. You can find a more detailed history here.

So I’ve added another island to my mental list of favorite places, and I’ll be going back first chance I get.

How about ya’ll? What’s one of your favorite places and why?

Flotsam

It’s day three of our retreat at the Outer Banks, and I’m celebrating by spending as much time as possible wandering up and down the shore with my camera.

If you look closely at the pincers, it looks like they’re lined with teeth. Crustacean parts are creepy.

 I am a compulsive beachcomber. One of my great joys in visiting the edge of the any big body of salty water is to pace its margins too see what the tide left on the sand.

I don’t know where the people went but it was thoughtful of them to leave this for me to photograph, don’t you think?

And sometimes, people leave behind fun stuff too. I saw several sand castles yesterday but this was the best (and most colorfully staged).