The Outer Edge

Assateague Pond and the work of the pine bark beetle

Assateague was just as good with the sun rising over it in my rear view mirror as it was the day before. But the edge continues south and so must I. Down the index finger to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, over and through which you get to Norfolk. The bridge-tunnel is 23 miles long, and was opened in 1964 — the year before I was born. I know how I feel in the morning, and I don’t have hundreds of thousands of people riding on my back every day. I felt for the old boy. For $13 you get to save a bunch of time and get a spectacular view of the bay. I videoed the trip over and under, but it’s waaaay too long to post with this. So far, since opening, more than 100 million vehicles have passed over and under. Today, I added one more.

Somehow, once on the other side, I felt like I was legitimately inVirginia. I have no claims on the state one way or the other — though I did spend four of the best years of my life in it — but the DelMarVa kind of felt like its name, a little bit of a lot of things and not really any of any of them. It took getting off it, to the barrier island of Assateague, to get much of a sense of place. Some of this is because the peninsula is in a bad way. The two Virginia counties on it are the poorest (or nearly) in the state. The idea of being a waterman or a crab fisher or an oysterman on the bay, and having a home and raising a family are gone. It’s an interesting process, and one that seems to happen a lot on the edge. The foundation of a place is built by people around a set of skills. Those skills become either obsolete, illegal, or so regulated that the cost isn’t up to the price. The people who built it (and those like them) leave, the folks left don’t have any skills or resources, and the place, and all its rich culture falls to ruin. One of the folks I talked to was asking if I’d been to Tangier Island, which is in the middle of the bay. I said I had not and asked if that was something I should do. He said, well, once, you should go once.

Tangier used to be a relatively thriving community of watermen and crab fishers and oyster men. Maybe 800 or so on the island with no connection to the mainland except boat and air. They didn’t care, they could catch crabs and fish and oysters, and take them to the mainland and make money. Money they needed very little of to live and thrive on Tangier. They knew how many traps they needed to catch enough crabs to make enough money to set enough traps the next season. They knew. They knew when to keep crabs and when to throw them back so they would make more crabs for the traps they would set next season. They knew. Then someone, somewhere, with power lines and roads and water and no salt on the windowpanes read a study and said this is the number of traps you can set. No more than this. And it wasn’t enough. The population on Tangier is dwindling now and the residents are working on rigs or just moving ashore. The thing is, too often, in my opinion, the folks who make a living off natural resources are not considered the experts on the natural resources. We assume that the greed of the corridor I just came through applies to everyone — but it doesn’t. The guy who will starve next year if there aren’t enough crabs is not going to exploit the crabs. He doesn’t need a bunch of studies to tell him when the stocks are low, he just takes less and charges more. He needs the resource.

I thought about those folks on Tangier when I was crossing the bay. I hoped somehow there was someone out there figuring out how to hang on. To keep the possibility of a life away from all the corridor possible. To keep the noise of everything except the wind and the water somewhere else.

I think the peninsula will be okay. But it will be chicken that saves it. I can’t say if that is better or worse, but Perdue and Tyson have big processing plants, and immigrant populations are becoming citizens and building their own success stories with big chicken houses and that’s not a bad thing. The processing plants are a bit piquant, and I’ve seen much better architecture than the huge chicken houses, but the market is working and poverty is being fought tooth and beak with a new weapon. Maybe in a hundred years when the place is thriving again, they too will get told how to manage birds and they too will have to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Maybe it’s all a cycle, no matter the romance of the beset.

The old gray Hundy finally gets her feet on the edge north of Corolla on the The Outer Banks

Once on Virginia proper, it was barely a cup of coffee before I was crossing over to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This is the edge of the edge of the edge. The graveyard of the Atlantic is a series of barrier islands and shoals that basically encircle the coast of North Carolina. It’s a daily battle out here of wind and sea and sandy land. The shoals move a lot, but the wind is good next to the shore and that, over time, has lured sailors too close. Over 600 ships are on the floor of the sea off this coast. Out here we’ve lost boats to the Germans, lost horses that swam ashore, learned to fly and found a place to hide. I drove the entire Outer Banks, basically from the Virginia line, on the actual beach, through Currituck where I got on pavement, Corolla, Duck and Kitty Hawk. From Kitty Hawk to Hatteras, where I ran out of road and ferried to Ocracoke. The southern section, from Kitty Hawk to Hatteras, is National Seashore and that continues onto Ocracoke. This makes a big difference. Most of the section north of Kitty Hawk is pretty much a vacation land. There’s a good deal of that south until you get clear of Nags Head. Then it is almost as it was. Empty beaches and dunes on one side and wide marshlands dotted with wooded hummocks on the sound side.

The beach at Ocracoke Island, Outer Banks

This is doubly true on Ocracoke. I would like to stay here. There isn’t anything, save a small collection of houses and businesses at the south end. It’s all National Seashore. It is sublime. It’s kind of how I want the edge to be everywhere — a big empty, perfect, unmolested space that guards all our foolishness, like a buffer zone, from the outside. A place where, if you sit long enough, you can remember what we are supposed to be — not what we hear and struggle with everyday. But the edge is an edge of a country. A country we built and fought for and fought over. A country that values our individual liberty over everything. And sometimes people, individuals, get away with stuff. That’s how it is. Someone somewhere makes a decision that changes everything on an island in the middle of nowhere. A group of people figure out how to make a ton of money doing something no one ever imagined, and we all go along because we like what they figure out. And the edge gets crowded in some places, and in some places that where crowded it gets empty again. It can’t be different, because if it were different it wouldn’t be here.

The quiet emptiness of this outer edge. Ocracoke Island.

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