Cape Hatteras is a place for pilgrimages.
It is a bit of sand that emerges from the ocean 30 miles out to sea off North Carolina. It is a place where you go to be reminded that you don’t live in an apartment, you don’t live in a city, but rather, you live instead on a planet.
For years in the late 1960s and early ’70s, my college friend Alexander and I went to Hatteras each February to experience the organ-point surf and a constant 20-knot wind that keeps your lapels flapping and your skin wrung raw. It’s a wind that can part your eyebrows.
Others may visit in the summer, when the ocean is tamed and the wind warmed, but February is the only real time to visit if it is a pilgrimage you are on.
Hattaras is much congested these days, but in 1968, at least in February, you could grab a mile or two of beach all for yourself.
In February, the last nor’easters of the season have blown through and chiseled the dunes into new shapes.
And each February, it seemed, there was a stretch of about a week when winter breaks and the temperature would climb each day to the mid-70s and the sun could warm your chill-chapped face.
It was then that Hatteras gave up its best.
To get there, you take N.C. 12, a two-lane blacktop that runs the length of the Outer Banks like the vein down the back of a shrimp. For the 50 miles from Nag’s Head to the cape, the road runs straight between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Pamlico Sound on the other.
The Banks are a series of barrier islands that begin to tear away from the mainland in Virginia and reach their greatest distance from terra firma at Cape Hatteras, about 100 miles farther south.
At their skinniest, the banks are only a few hundred yards wide, with its single road protected from the stormy Atlantic by only the skimpiest of sand dunes.
And in February, it is not unusual for portions of the road to be flooded or blown over with sand.
After one vicious nor’easter, the road about five miles north of Buxton at the cape was nearly washed away. A vast pool of salt water covered what used to be highway. To make our way through it, Alexander had to take his shoes and socks off and wade through the icy water, feeling for the pavement with his bare feet. I followed in the car, driving at a cautious crawl through water that washed over the top of our hubcaps.
As befits a pilgrimage, we had our rites. We camped in the dunes and drank Alexander’s ceremonial hot chocolate in the mornings. His penitential recipe called for equal parts milk and Hershey’s syrup.
There were the whelks, Scotch bonnets, skate egg cases, dogfish carcasses, the 360-degree aural horizon of surf crash, the snap of the tent’s oily canvas in the wind, the intermittent flash of the lighthouse at night seen from our campsite, the squeak and squawk of the gulls and terns, the beef stew simmering in the black iron pan, the corroded spikes pulled from the wreck of the Laura Barnes — iron pulled and twisted like taffy — the swig of Courvoisier in the morning followed by that tar-thick hot chocolate.
There were those mysterious — to me anyway — channel markers land-locked on the mud flats near the Bodie Island campsite — the surf so far away — that unnamed wreck near the lagoon at the Cape, those Loran towers, the old dune-covered ruins of the former Route 12 near the light house that we walked along one evening and watched the stars through binoculars — the most stars I had ever seen.
A great deal has been erased and recorded over in my memory, but these items are indelible. I can even see it in these photographs awful as they are.
In all the years we went on this pilgrimage, two episodes stand out.
First, one inky night, we walked past the base of the lighthouse on our way to the beach. For some reason, the door to the lighthouse, which was always locked, was left open. There was no one around, and we didn’t hear anyone in the lighthouse tower when we poked our heads in, so we started climbing the iron spiral stairs.
It is a long way up the tallest lighthouse on the East Coast, and when we got to the top, we opened the door to the balcony that surrounds the lamp and walked out in the wind and watched the light flash over our heads and swing out to sea, where the tiny stars of ships shown on the black horizon.
The other episode occurred as we walked out in the dark toward the cape point, a mile or so from the lighthouse.
At the cape point, the surf crashes around you in all directions. You can lose your bearings quite easily, especially when you are below the dunes and can’t see the lighthouse.
The air is thick with the mist of exploded breakers; it collects in your beard and dampens your peacoat.
To make our way, I carried a hissing Coleman lantern that threw our shadows on the sand at our feet. And when we looked up to spy Orion in the sky, we were startled to see two giants walking in the air.
The lantern threw our silhouettes up into the sky, and we walked among the constellations.
In many ways the Outer Banks have become a place in my head — an eternal place in my head where all the adventures are always happening — and have slipped out of place in time.
Which year did I photograph Alexander inside Okracoke lighthouse?
I want desperately to recapture every detail.
But in another sense, he always in that lighthouse, looking up its whitewashed core.