Oriental, NC

I’d heard Oriental mentioned a few times in the past year. It was spoken of by enough sailors that it started to accrue a sparkle in my mind, and even its name suggested something mysterious within North Carolina.

I’d done a lot of driving through that state this year, largely because North Carolina is as far south from Maryland as you can go before you are committed to a longer journey. If you keep driving south, you’ve broken the line. You’re officially on the metaphorical road, on a necessarily multi-day drive back home. I’d seen Boone, Jefferson and West Jefferson, Winston-Salem, New Bern, Oriental, and all the land in between. I hadn’t planned to get to know this place so well, nor stay cold this winter, but in hindsight it’s fun to look at how life (or your caprices and poor planning, depending on how you prefer to see it and where you place the locus of control) surprised you.

One thing that has not changed over the years is my internal resistance, or the effort required to get out of inertia. Life’s not a free flowing dance; it’s taken me up to half an hour to get out of my car once I’ve parked it for some event. Oriental had been a guiding star for this trip, but by the time I got myself settled into New Bern, I saw no point in it. It really has nothing for a tourist, and driving yet more when it felt like that’s all I’d been doing the past two days seemed a habit to break rather than doggedly continue.

In the morning I sought out a nearby Planet Fitness for a shower, and then a site I’d found on freecampsites.net off the highway, a little recreation area on the water where I thought I’d read for the day. There were two tents set up on the primitive campsites, but no one emerged. It seemed safe enough. I got an uneasy feeling nevertheless as I strolled on the narrow, empty beach, all the dead black trees rooted in water and covered in Spanish moss, many of them rotted down to soft, pointy stumps. There was trash here and there, but not much. I recalled the reviews of ‘many drugs passing hands in this parking lot’ and indeed when I returned, one car and another drove in, parked, and waited before driving away. I followed the easily ignorable but insistent uneasy feeling out of there and drove to Oriental, 40 minutes away.

55 is one of two roads to get there, and the other seems like a country lane. I felt almost instant relief getting on it, as if all the hubbub of quaint but central New Bern and the network of major highways it lies along had fallen off the radar. This was a separate world, almost as separate as a world could be in the States. This struck me immediately, as did the essence of what I was coming upon.

On 55, the surrounding world changed. The scenery looked largely the same as the rest of Carolina – flat, similar style of houses; more of them were in better shape, but many still had that forlorn look of sliding into ruin in the midst of plant growth going wild once more. But it was all with charm, lent to it, perhaps, by its remoteness.

It was something invisible pervading the atmosphere and gave this area its allure, a quality I wouldn’t know how to capture on film. Maybe it would be in the slowly swaying plants. Maybe the flat land as a backdrop. Maybe a peaceful expression on one of the residents would reflect their surroundings the way some people embody with their very being the incommunicable spirit of the community they live in. About ten minutes out, for the first time in maybe years, I felt peace, and real relief, like the burden of people as a whole had been removed. In my personal life, I’ve been frantic for so long trying to create a life conducive to more freedom and the ability to travel, to regain the track I felt I’d lost that led to running from one career to another, from one desire to another, from the beginning of one pursuit to the beginning of another – that to strike upon peace was unexpected. I had not thought peace possible until I could painstakingly sort out my thoughts and come to some direction. Often it happens in the opposite order.

Almost every late summer I get this feeling that’s impossible to describe, like a flood of memories I’ve never lived comes rushing in and I’m walking through the echoes of another life whose forms I cannot touch, but whose essence permeates the whole of me through the falling sunlight and that peculiar perception. In these remote flat forests and marshes, I caught a strong whiff of that very essence on the drive into Oriental.

The world was easier to manage here. Maybe that was the source of the relief. The world had shrunk, and by no small order. You could now meet individuals, types you’ve never met before, rather than people who remind you of five other people you know.

I was thrown off initially by what seemed to be a single, spread out, jumbled neighborhood rather than a town. Everything is a house – the brewery, the theater, the inns, the surf clothing shop. When I finally did find the central hub, it was a coffee shop right on the water, facing the marina. At the end of that street is a general store for tourists, visitors, any folks in some way transient. I quickly realized that it’s far easier to get to Oriental by sea than by land. The single connecting road to the wider world keeps most people from making the detour to easternmost Carolina, and there’s really no reason to go. There’s nothing there. But from the water, it’s right on the ICW and well known among sailors, a must stop that lies on a different major highway. This is the key of this town. It belongs to a different society, a different network of humans… and one that is much smaller than the mainstream. That is the psychology of it.

There were in fact far more visitors who’d come there by sea than who’d come there by land. I believe I was one of two or three. One man later told me that you could meet a hundred people here in one day and it might be that not one of them is a local.

I observed several such psychological layers while walking around. For such a small town, its many little pockets belong to different eras. There were little broken streets whose uneven borders collected large still puddles after a rain, unevenly following a creek in the manner of a country path with large falling trees. This I believed to be the oldest part of town, the original town, and its houses were the most broken. The road led straight down to the marina and the coffee shop, bisected by other roads in a similar state. Going eastward continued more of what could still be considered the original town, as the houses had historical merit but had clearly been built during another wave. To the southwest, however, were a few nice new townhomes, white, spotless, with a neat road and the trimmest lawns. Further down were the largest single homes, facing their own, more private waterfront. And back in the center were the marinas, docks full of sailboats and a few steamboats.

There’s no paid parking, no gates at the docks like there are in Baltimore. I walked down one when I first arrived, completely missing its private property sign as I was too entranced by the boats and quickly found my favorite, a neat little thing with brown sail covers named, appropriately, Odyssey, that I stared at far too long. At the coffee shop first thing I met a man with a dog that put its paw in my hand unprompted. The man, a local, and it seemed something or a social arbiter, recognized my newness at once and turned out to have built the coffee shop building when he was a builder. We talked about Oriental and the economy; from him I learned that many here were former IBMers and the like who’d retired in the 80s-00s and were still living on retirements we will only ever be able to dream of. I told him no one in my generation will ever retire or own a house. He said if you can work remotely, it might be the best way to live here. We talked about the economy and the vastly changing world. “Open a boutique,” he advised more than once.

Most of the population is retired. I saw fewer than ten people around my age and three of them were coffee shop employees. The rest were on laptops, living a very different youth from the salts who came in in the morning to recount stories of Pearl Harbor and other bygone times and talk about what work they needed to do on their boats that day. They all had a similar look about them: most were fairly elderly couples, but many were middle aged. One couple spoke Spain Spanish, one man had a South African accent, many were reuniting or talking about how long they were staying and when they last were here. Most of them wore rain jackets of some sort, and all the women who weren’t only sailors’ wives or paramours but who looked like they might know something about sailing had an air of better things to worry about than the overly intricate trivialities of the narrow, landlocked world.

I spent most of two days in the coffee shop, applying to jobs and editing a novella I wrote in 2014 but had gone back to, and absorbing the life and culture that walked through the doors. 7am the next morning the old sailors gathered for their morning coffee and took over for several hours. A few more trickled in through the afternoon. I learned from a side conversation that land in Oriental was going cheap and you could get an acre for 16 grand. I found said acre and texted my dad that I was buying land here. I could have a tea shop, or build a cob house, or just have a home with peace for a few years until luxury condos come in next door and give me ten times what I paid for my acre to rinse and repeat from an ever diminishing bank of escape plots.

In the evening, I sat on a chair at the marina lawn, read, and took in the peace, pleasure, and wind of just being there, plastering the impression of this place and moment into my bank of experiences.

It’s been my impression that such small towns are on the rise and that my peer group is favoring moving into such hubs that are smaller but have something to do and charms to offer, that such towns are being built up and new, smaller cultural centers are flourishing as cities become prohibitively expensive and draining. I saw it when I went to West Virginia in 2016: a vision of this break into small, mostly self-sustaining commune-like tribes as the main unit of our social worlds. Maybe someday.

The next day I walked all over town and then back to the docks I’d admired the day before, where I could finally have some time to read the celestial navigation book that’d been my constant companion. A man walked along the grass, playing with a coiled piece of line and approaching multiple rocks as if considering them each for something.

“The gray one looks good,” I eventually called to him and we began a conversation. He said a sailor always has to be playing with line and I said I was looking for a small sailboat. He turned out to be the owner of Odyssey and gave me a tour of the Cape Dory 22, sealing it as a model of boat I might get in the future. It was he who explained that many people had sailed here, looked around and thought it a good place to retire, and did just that, buying a house as he and his wife had.

The history isn’t all that old, as is the history of so much that had been restored to look quaint and historical. 30-40 years for the life we see running through it now. But not ancient. In fact an older generation’s beacon. So bring on the codos, I guess. We are in another era, in which the old salts are dying and their world along with them unless some try to pass their essence on and some try to appreciate what can be passed down.

A terrible dark gray storm mass started covering the southwestern quarter of the sky and we ran for shelter, but it passed us. A gong had sounded in the inner world, definitively signaling that the trip had reached its natural conclusion. I had planned to leave in a half hour anyway. He walked me all the way back to my car several streets away and parted with, “Well.. have a good life” and the knowledge of towndock.net

It rained for much of the way to to Richmond, and, the next day, to Annapolis where I had a job interview. If not for that, I’d be much farther south….

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