(near the Outer Banks, North Carolina)
The day after Christmas we drove out to the coast, the countryside slouching to card-table flats, tin-roof tobacco barns dotting the plain. An angry-looking white man in a rust-specked Cutlass insistently refused to let a black family in a late-model Ford pass, changing lanes with vitriolic swerves. We came across the first of the many coastal inlets that add hours to any coastal drive in the Carolinas and I eagerly examined the maps to learn if it was this inlet that held Teach’s Hole, where Blackbeard met his end. We were far afield.
We drove on through the quiet, bare-limbed landscape, ancient cemeteries flashing in the slanting winter sun, to arrive at the colonial capital of North Carolina, a Georgian mansion dressed in holiday finery, wreaths of real fruit and evergreen atop the locked gates and fences. We strolled through the herb garden, cold, considering our options.
We determined to head north, passing by the site of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, near the location of Teach’s Hole, before seeking a hotel on one of the Outer Banks themselves. By late afternoon we’d reached the first of these destinations. Pulling into the park, we were taken by surprise to note that we were the only people about. It was a holiday, after all.
We wandered around the park, noting the signage and general lack of reconstructions and archeological digs common in such places, before coming to a surprising edifice partially cantilevered out beyond the rocky shore of the island itself. It was an elaborate stage set, constructed solidly of wood, designed to give the impression of a pioneer stockade and blockhouse. We clambered about it, peeking backstage, bemused by the irony of finding the Lost Colony abandoned, no mysterious “Croatan”, no “McDonald’s,” no “Wal-Mart” carved into the wood of the stage. The moment of my culture’s troubled birth enveloped me.
The park itself came into being as a result of a summer-stock drama reimagining the story of the vanished colony on the very spot where the 1500-odd colonists lived, and vanished. In respect of the heritage of the production, the park co-exists with the play.
As I trod the boards, musing on the theatrical fertility of Elizabethan England, I gazed north and west to see the low, sandy line of the Outer Banks wink in the unseasonably bright sunlight. As I looked, I saw a white tower blink as clouds scudded by the sun. I took it for a lighthouse, but then reconsidered: the object did not sport the iconic striping of the Banks’ lighthouses, familiar from menus, signs, rural mailboxes, windsocks, bumper-stickers, and so forth. It was a pale cream color, not quite the yellowish tone of sand.
With a start I realized I was looking at the 60-foot granite monument erected at Kill Devil Hills to commemorate the first flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, 96 years and nine days prior. As I stood on the empty stage of the Lost Colony, the very birthplace of the Twentieth Century was visible across a few miles and five hundred years.
The next day, the unseasonable weather was gone and the more usual spitty, wind-blown conditions prevailed. We parked in the lot and noted that the park was open, and filed into the interpretive center to observe the Wrights’ memorabilia, including a full-scale operational reconstruction of a 1902-season glider. A park docent demonstrated what the Wrights’ guidance technique of wing warping truly meant. The wings twisted organically as he slipped his hips from side to side, bowing like giant cupped hands with a great woody chunk.
The grounds about the center were empty due to the wind and rain, chilly and strong, pinking the greetings of the winter Atlantic into my face. I leaned into the wind, working my miserable way down from the 90-foot hill on which the monument stood, supposed by the builders to be the very place that the first flight took place. The information at the park, however, claimed the dune had migrated by the time the pylon was raised in the 1930’s and that the tiny canvas-and-wood shack visible to the seaward of the great dune was the most probable location of the Wright’s winter camp and first flight. From the height, I had been unable to spy the stage on which I’d stood the day before, my peerings defeated by the misty white lashings of the weather.
Gratefully, I stepped out of the wind and rain into the careful recreation of the 1903 cabin, each item neatly stocked and ranked with the appropriate precision of the engineer. Turning to look back into the blow, I noted a short, metal-topped wooden rail a few feet beyond the door of the cabin, about an inch wide along the top surface and about two-and-one half inches tall, running for fifteen feet or so in the sandy scrub. I took it for a path boundary from an earlier landscaping effort, overlooked by strapped groundskeepers.
For no particular reason I walked out to the rail. I began to teeter my way along it, balancing arms out, leaning into the wind.
The wind caught me and steadied me as I moved down the rail; I raised my head and the rain spattered my glasses and stung my face. Suddenly, I realized this rail was a recreation, as the cabin, of the rail the Wrights rode into the sky on December 17, 1903. The river of wind I faced and leaned on was the wind that launched us to the sky. Since earliest childhood, I’d ridden its’ tributaries around the world. The rushing sound of it ouside the portholed cabin remains a drowsy lullaby for me to this day.
I let the wind take my arms and raise them above my head.