I think it was happenstance that I found myself returning one year later to the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Thanksgiving Weekend. This time, it wasn’t my idea. Here it was a long weekend, the middle of a pandemic, my children not coming home, so why not socially distance at the beach with my sweetheart, Roy? Although I love the Outer Banks, on our trip in 2019, the weather was cold and dreary so my expectations weren’t set very high for 2020. Perhaps it was the low bar for expectations, but this year had many surprising, awe-inspiring moments that I won’t soon forget.
My moments of awe:
On our way to the Outer Banks, we stopped once again at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. This place feels like it is about two hours from civilization; indeed the closest grocery store is probably in Swan Quarter where the ferry docks. There are miles and miles and miles of driving the backroads of the Inner Banks where the only thing to count is roadkill. When we arrived at the refuge, it was socked in with fog. Roy and I were not hopeful that there would be many migrating birds which is one of the main draws in going.
We arrived at the viewing deck and to our surprise there were hundreds of Tundra Swans and Canadian Geese floating in the marsh. The awe-inspiring moment came as I was filming the birds who were surrounded by fog. I could hear hundreds of swans flapping their wings and honking in flight but could not see them initially, until the fog slowly lifted and the swans appeared magically to land in the marsh next to the swans, who had arrived earlier, cooing lowly on top of the water. It was a ballet with the bright white flashing wings of the flying swans in formation and the low moan of cello-like base notes floating below. Awesome.
The last time I was at Ocracoke island was about fifteen years ago when my children were young and we were headed for a visit with my good friend, Susannah and her family, in Avon. Ocracoke is a barrier island which means that the only way to get there is by ferry. The ferry starts in one of three very remote places: Cedar Island, Swan Quarter or Hatteras. The shortest ferry ride is from Hatteras, so Roy and I headed out and arrived at the ferry station in Hatteras at noon. We waited an hour to get on the ferry and then spent another 75 minutes on the ferry taking an absolutely crazy, circuitous route; I was a little worried we were headed to Swan Quarter instead of Ocracoke.
It was overcast, it rained and finally, our journey was over. Upon our arrival to the remote island, the sun came out, as if on cue. We drove several miles on the spit on land between the ferry station and the town of Ocracoke. Roy pulled off along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and I walked the boardwalk out to the beach. It was 2:30 PM in November and the place was desolate, high tide, and the sun was glinting on the water as waves crashed on the barren shores. We were alone on what felt like the end of the earth with nothing but 40 feet of sand between me and the North Atlantic. Nothing but crashing waves, a flying pelican and a shore bird meandering along poking the surf. There are these moments when you feel isolated yet part of something so much bigger. I could only stand there in awe and take it all in.
As Roy and I drove back from our return ferry in Hatteras, we were trying to time the sunset as we drove up what is the narrowest sliver of road called Highway 12. It is one of the rare highways where you can see the vast intercoastal waterway on one side the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. As we approached Rodanthe, we pulled off on the intercoastal waterway side of the road. There, surrounded by marsh and sand, we watched as the sun slipped below the surface and we faced the limitless water of the intercoastal waterway, knowing that there was the mainland out there somewhere but impossible to see.
The next morning, I woke up early to head out to the Kill Devil Hills beach to watch the sunrise. I was taken aback as I arrived at 6:30 AM only to find some twenty other hearty souls standing or sitting strewn along the beach waiting for the sunrise as well. We all faced the same altar – the East. Patient, quiet, communal, as we witnessed that instant where the red sliver creeps above the horizon to commence another day. Same sun, same barrier islands, same water and such continuity. Awe-some.
I need these moments as I have endured some nine months of isolation. Awe is available in isolation, it’s a matter of discovering it. It is seeking it out, letting it surface and accepting whatever shows up. What moments inspire awe in you?