Locals and Outsiders in the Outer Banks

Hello friends and family!

Driving across North Carolina from Appalachia in the west to the Atlantic Ocean in the east is like travelling in a wormhole backwards through time. The further east you go, the further south you get. People have stronger accents and drink weaker beer. Men smoke inside their cars, the windows rolled up. The forests give way to cotton fields, then marshes, then swamps, then sandy beaches. The houses are shabbier; their white-painted boards are grimy with a patina of salt, like the briny crust of ocean air that fogs my van windows. There are people selling shrimps and boiled peanuts out of buckets outside gas stations, cash only.

I’ve spent the past week in coastal NC, also known as the Outer Banks or the OBX. They are a series of barrier islands, so perilously formed that their borders are constantly being reshaped by storms, and so remote that some are only accessible by thrice-a-day ferries. There’s a certain Southern Gothic aesthetic in the Banks. Think shaggy pine and cypress trees with lichen draped from their branches, or abandoned houses being swallowed up by blackwater swamps, or decaying boat launches where a lone old lady sits slumped in a lawn chair, fishing. Think brackish, foul-smelling marshes that flood every year and swallow up bigger and bigger pieces of sadder and sadder towns. Due to the unpredictable coastal climate the houses are raised up on stilts, looking like plump seabirds on stick legs, and have multiple porches and balconies to beat the sticky, humid heat. Out on the lawn, many homes have their own fenced-off family graveyards.

Swamp creature

Seeing as it’s November, the summer tourist crowds are gone and the only people left are the die-hard fishermen and birders. The islands teem with flocks of migratory birds –  Canadian geese, egrets, ibises, great blue herons – while the beaches are dotted with long-legged plovers and pipers running into the surf. But birding isn’t as big a business as fishing is. This is the most fishing-crazed place I’ve ever visited! Every business is either a crab shack, a bait and tackle shop, a charter boat agency, a boat storage place, a pirate-themed family restaurant, or a seafood market. Every truck is outfitted with rod holders on the front and back bumpers. Every beach is crowded with pick-ups driven down to the tideline, where men stand at even intervals next to their hard-sided blue or red coolers, casting into the crashing waves. I never once saw anyone actually catch a fish. One guy told me he hooked an otter, to my horror. “Don’t worry, I cut the line,” he said, “and the seawater dissolves the hook in about a week.”

I really don’t think that’s true.

Hundreds of gulls chase the ferry wake

Since I’m not a fisherman, I’m glad that the Outer Banks are also rich in history and mystery. Roanoke Island is the home of the first British settlement in America, which landed in the 1580s. This is, of course, the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke. Before Jamestown, before Plymouth and the pilgrims, this is where a boatload of ambitious Elizabethans were dropped off, only to disappear off the face of the earth. They left a single clue to their whereabouts: the word Croatan carved into a post, which could have meant nearby Croatan Island or the indigenous tribe of the same name. By that point, the colonists’ relationships with indigenous peoples weren’t good. Initially, they received a warm welcome from local tribes, who were happy to trade fishing nets and food stores for metal and other European trade goods. But as a scouting party travelled from village to village, they inadvertently killed dozens of people in each place by spreading influenza or smallpox. This so impacted the annual harvest workforce that it likely contributed to food shortages. The colonists had also murdered the local chief, beheaded him, and mounted said head on a stake. When a single silver cup went missing, the colonists burned a nearby indigenous village in vengeance, destroying homes and crops.

Perhaps it’s best that they disappeared. When a supply ship returned to Roanoke Island three years later, it found no trace of the colonists. It has been posited that they moved inland, or were massacred by indigenous tribes, or starved to death, or were killed by Spanish raiders who patrolled the Florida coastline. The most enduring myth is that they were absorbed into the Croatan people, producing grey-eyed offspring that were rumoured to be literate and light-skinned, but there’s little archeological proof to support any theory, let alone this old-fashioned tale of “savages” tamed and tempered by European blood.

Sunset over Roanoke Island

In Kitty Hawk, just across the sound from Roanoke Island, I got to chatting with a local fisherman on a public pier. Jim was a New Yorker with a thick accent, a former heavy machinery operator who’d retired to the Banks with his wife and overweight housecat to fish and escape the Poughkeepsie winters. He identifies as a local now and gets territorial about his fishing spots because his buddy Dan, an alcoholic who works at the local shoe store, won’t stop getting drunk and telling tourists about Jim’s secret spots. As we chatted, a man in a tie-dye shirt with a braided ponytail and a balding hairline walked down the pier to take a selfie in front of the sunset, and he greeted my new friend. “I remember you! Last time I saw you, we talked about being local,” he said. It sounded like an old and tired argument. Jim was gregarious, and insisted that because he’d moved permanently to the island, he was a local. “No,” barked Mr. Ponytail, his temper rising. “You’ll never be a local. I was born here. You moved here. Even if you lived here for 30 years, you wouldn’t be a native.” As if there’s no greater badge of pride than being born into, and never leaving, some podunk community. Big whoop. Locals in the Banks take this seriously, though, because their license plates all start with the same three letters: OBX.

I’ve heard this exclusionary argument plenty of times before, but it struck me as especially silly given the tortured history of the Outer Banks. The story of the Lost Colony is also a story of another community: an ancient and insular community of indigenous people who had long adapted to the land, hunting and fishing and trading, who then became both disdainful of and dependent on a colony of unruly outsiders. Nowadays tourists, not colonists, flock to the islands to play at fishermen, though it’s a similar dynamic. Tourists create jobs and fuel the economy, but more outsiders means more trouble. I read the police blotter in the local paper, and while it’s not quite beheadings and smallpox, it’s still trouble: domestic violence, drunk driving, drug overdoses, a woman leaving her toddlers in the motel room while she goes out to party. Though the locals of the Outer Banks may want our tourist dollars, they will never accept us as locals, no matter how much money or time we spend in the islands. It makes me wonder about the enduring myth of the Lost Colony, how they were said to be absorbed by the Croatan people to intermix and mingle and create those fabled grey-eyed offspring. If it’s true, I wonder if the Croatan ever came to accept the colonists as neighbours or family. Was it possible for the colonists to become, in some way, locals to the land they had no right to claim?

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