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Guest Column: ‘Island Time’ on Hatteras

Miles of mostly deserted beaches await the wintertime denizen of Hatteras Island. Photo: National Geographic

Miles of mostly deserted beaches await the wintertime denizen of Hatteras Island. Photo: National Geographic

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Reprinted From the Island Free Press

AVON — After a lot of “discussion,” my hubby and I finally finagled a way to head back to Hatteras Island for the winter.

I use the term “discussion” loosely, because what I learned from this, um, negotiation process, is that apparently if you nag long enough, you can accomplish just about anything. Yay, marriage.

(Clearly, I am a charming newlywed.)

But as I began plotting how to efficiently caravan five grumpy cats to an island seven hours away, I started thinking about what new residents must feel when they freshly arrive on good old, desolate Hatteras Island for the wintertime.

After all, I know what I’m getting into, and I am completely and 100 percent on board. January on Hatteras Island means an influx of deer, beer and poker games with friends — and not much else, except miles of freezing beaches that are nevertheless still beautiful and worth the frostbite.

Even so, I do recall a time when January on the beach didn’t bring an automatic smile to my face.

Because your first winter on Hatteras Island is, well, a little rough. It’s different from every other area on Earth, because the island more or less “shuts down” and you’re fairly reliant on the entertainment you and your friends can provide on your own steam and ingenuity.

A new variety of Chef Boyardee on the shelves at Charlie's Grocery were cause enough to rejoice. Photo:

A new variety of Chef Boyardee on the shelves at Charlie’s Grocery is cause enough to rejoice. Photo:

Fun Fact: This is how I discovered the sport of snow-surfing in my early 20s – which is when you tie an old surfboard to the back of a pick-up truck, wait for a dusting of snow, and then ride through the streets of Avon village. (Don’t try this at home — or at least utilize a helmet. Also, tequila.)

But that very first winter I spent full-time on Hatteras Island, I was so displaced, discombobulated and bored.

I remember watching a work-out VHS tape every day — not to date myself — and finding new, exciting nuances in the 45-minute routine – like the one chick in the back who looked like she was so disappointed to be there or the dude in neon bike shorts who looked like he wanted to wear something more comfortable.

I also remember going to Charles’ grocery store daily — again, not dating myself — and being excited when a new variety of Chef Boyardee popped up on the shelves.

So, yeah, I get it. Moving to the islands in the wintertime can be, well, off-putting

But to the new residents I haven’t met yet, don’t lose hope. The winter is actually a wonderful time to be on the islands and is filled with veritable months of fun, provided you embrace all the weird ways the islands are different.

To this end, I am providing a list of all the reasons why life on Hatteras Island is truly fantastic in the winter months and how newcomers can get out and make a community connection.

And who knows, on a personal note, maybe it will make my upcoming task of driving across the state with multiple cats and a dog – yet again – all the more enjoyable.

OK, that’s a lie. Nothing is going to make that fun. Ever.

Meet and Greet

A snowy beach  is a delight to behold. Photo: Don Bowers, Island Free Press

A snowy beach is a delight to behold. Photo: Don Bowers, Island Free Press

You know you’re acclimated to Hatteras Island when you go for SIX months without talking to virtually anyone except close friends and the folks at work and then you suddenly run into absolutely everyone you know at the grocery store, post office, doctor’s office and all essential island locales.

Know why this happens? It’s because we all have an abundance of this previously foreign concept called “time.”

When it’s Fourth of July weekend, you’re surrounded by a swarm of 20,000 people who are in town for a week, who will always remain strangers, and whom you’ll never see again. (TIP: This is an ideal time to do something stupid and out of character, like hit on a Canadian or sing karaoke.)

But in the wintertime, it’s just us. And we’re not in a hurry to clean the next house, inspect the next pool, or serve the next table – we can take a few precious moments to, you know, actually catch up.

Take advantage of these encounters and start talking. Wintertime is truly “island time” for residents, and I do believe most of us look forward to good, impromptu conversation.

Winter winds drive sea foam onto the beach. Photo: Sam Bland

Winter winds drive sea foam onto the beach. Photo: Sam Bland

Community Events

I bet you thought this header applied to all the amazing events that take place during the winter, didn’t you? Like the local seasonal benefits, the Outer Banks marathon or the Hatteras Village Christmas Parade?

Well, it doesn’t. It applies to bars.

You’re going to meet a lot of good people at your local watering hole, and the best thing is that without tinny loud music and throngs of intoxicated vacationers, you’ll be able to sit down, order a beer and an appetizer and talk to the person on the bar stool next to you.

I met my husband this way, as well as a lot of ridiculously wonderful people whom I happened to encounter because I was lonely and was tired of watching the increasingly awkward VHS work-out video.

The point is, it’s perfectly OK to go out to lunch alone, dinner alone or have a drink alone – just find a spot where you’ll have a chance to chat with the people next to you.

I honestly don’t know if this practice is socially appropriate or not. I do know, however, that on Hatteras Island, we have a disproportionate amount of people who are incredibly friendly and newcomers should take full advantage.

More Community Events

The local watering hole is a good place to catch up with neighbors or, maybe, meet your future spouse. Photo:

The local watering hole is a good place to catch up with neighbors or, maybe, meet your future spouse. Photo:

OK, I touted the bar as the first stop for making friends, but it is obviously not the only option. And you really should take part in all the amazing events that are more or less accessible during the winter months only.

Case in point, my hubby met one of his favorite friends by joining a local basketball league.

It was informal at best and comprised of all volunteers who just wanted to meet at the Fessenden Center and play a casual game of B-Ball during the winter months, which, not to sound like a broken record, is when you have plenty of time.

Hubby had a fantastic experience, met some new acquaintances and formed a lifelong friendship with one of the participants, whom he admired immediately because A) He was kicked out of the game for being too opinionated and B) He was also the volunteer referee. (Hubby was on to something, because I adore this dude too.)

Anyways, the lesson learned is that you should get out and go forth into the community – whether it’s on a bar stool, or by frantically running around a gymnasium. (I prefer the former.) This is the optimal time to make lifelong buddies who are as odd as you are, so take advantage.

Beach It

Beach coming for sea stars and other ocean delights is a favorite wintertime activity. Photo: Sam Bland

Beach combing for sea stars and other ocean delights is a favorite wintertime activity. Photo: Sam Bland

At this point, I have about 10 years of articles under my belt that detail the lengths I’m willing to go to ensure that I get the best shells out of everyone who has ever lived on Hatteras Island.

This includes, in no particular order, flashing fishermen, swimming in inlets, fighting pelicans, glaring at beachcombers and even purchasing an off-road “driving permit.” (OK. I haven’t succumbed to that last ridiculous effort yet, but I’m afraid I may have to at some point. Dammit.)

So when I say the following, I can understand why you’d take it with a big old grain of sea salt, but I assure you it’s valid:  If we’re shelling on the same beach, I promise I will smile at you.

And to go a step further, if you’ve scored a find that’s better than what I have, I promise I will genuinely admire it and not try to snatch it out of your hands and take off running down the beach.

The wintertime is when you’ll discover the other people who are as dedicated to the same coastal activity that you adore – and this sets the stage for a pretty good long-term friendship.

Now I can’t lie. I have Facebook friends who constantly post photos of the amazing shells they’ve found, and I am internally forced to “like” and respond with a “smiley” emoticon, because the Internet hasn’t come up with a “seething jealousy” emoticon yet. (Or an “I will steal that shell while you sleep” emoticon, for that matter.)

But the crazed beachcombers are, inherently, my people. And every genre of on-the-water activity has these people, from surfers to kiteboarders, and from fishermen to birdwatchers.

As a result, the beach is a solid place to meet folks who live on Hatteras Island in January for the exact same reason that you do.

So do as I say and not as I do – abandon your jealousy, stop your glaring, and start chatting with follow anglers/beachcombers without the intention of stealing. Or at least, send a very endearing apology note if you do take off running down the beach with someone else’s shell.

Lesson learned?

The only way to get acclimated to Hatteras Island is to get out there.

Granted, there are all sorts of modern reasons to enjoy your own little cocoon of seclusion on the off-season. (I hear there’s this newfangled thing called “Netflix,” which is taking over the VHS industry), but you’ll have so much more fun if you get out there and introduce yourself to the community.

And if you make a jackass out of yourself, (which I’m sure I have done – see aforementioned shelling behavior), the good news is that come summer, you won’t see any of these people for months.

Someone much smarter than I — large demographic, I know — once explained that when you first get to Hatteras Island, you love the summer, and hate the winter. And then, over the years, that feeling gradually changes – like a tide – until you treasure the winter months and dread the busy, steaming arrival of the summertime.

Now this is in no way a command that you should immediately embrace a season with limited restaurants, shops, and freezing cold waters.

But after more than a decade of making this transition — still not dating myself,  I hope — I am so excited to return to a season of friends, community, and reclaiming my title as Hatteras Island’s Beachcomber Extraordinaire.

Yes, I just made that title up.

This story is provided courtesy of the Island Free Press, a digital newspaper covering Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. Coastal Review Online is partnering with the Free Press to provide readers with more environmental and lifestyle stories of interest along our coast. You can read other stories about Hatteras and Ocracoke here.

There’s nothing like a winter storm to illustrate the majesty and power of the ocean. This is a storm on Hatteras Island in the winter of 2010.

About the Author

Joy Crist

Joy Crist is a Hatteras Island resident since 1998 and a writer and columnist with the Island Free Press. Her work has also appeared in a number of regional Outer Banks and statewide websites and publications.