At the Outer Banks, recalling things that were and weren't

The once-tranquil pier in Rodanthe, N.C. is now a for-profit, tourist attraction.

I’m on my bicycle in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, barrier islands known for shipwrecks, a lost colony, the first flight, and storm ravages. And where, nearly 30 years ago, I’d found a few rare moments of serenity.

It was 1990. I was about to begin a new career. The 200 miles of flat, easy pedaling between sound and sea seemed just the right tonic for reflection. I still remember the sound my bike wheels made against the crushed stone in the parking lot of a motel during the hour before sunset when the light in the sky was soft and red. I remember the next day, looking out from the pier just down the road, the waves thrashing about while I was content to just be.

I recently returned to these Outer Banks just days after retiring, hoping to regain a measure of tranquillity.

It’s the offseason, so “off” that the tiny village of Rodanthe barely registers upon my entering. I try to reserve a room at that motel with the gravel lot, only to be refused because of a two-night minimum. I reference without success my earlier transcendent experience. But the man at the Sea Sound is unmoved. “Is there anything else?” he inquires.

Well, yes. There’s the pier. I wonder if it’s still standing. Would it not have been washed to sea by any number of hurricanes?

It is still there, but now private. A woman in an adjoining gift shop points to a sign saying “Sightseeing $2” even though the only “sights” are its wooden supports and the ocean beneath it. The pier I had walked on in 1990 had all but collapsed into the sea during Hurricane Sandy. It’s been rebuilt as a tourist attraction.

I describe my earlier visit, gaining no more traction than at the motel. Things change, intones the shop proprietor. Everyone charges to walk piers nowadays. I disagree. No one is going to win this argument.

I revisit the remainder of those 200 miles.

Postscript: I’m home rereading my account of my earlier trip when I come upon a reference to an Ocean Aire Motel — not the Sea Sound. Might the name have changed?

I sheepishly dial the motel only to learn I could not possibly have stayed there earlier. No crushed gravel driveway, says the owner’s wife. That could only have been the Ocean Aire, which, like the pier, was all but wiped out by a different hurricane.

She’s moved by my account nonetheless. She apologizes profusely for her husband’s having turned me away even though I was the one in error.

“My husband’s a great guy, but he doesn’t always see the bigger picture,” she says.

But the lesson is on me.

Faulkner wrote, “Memory believes before knowing remembers.”

I remember a feeling of time and place with a clarity that even faulty memory cannot alter.