Monday, November 19, 2007

A last look at Beaufort, N.C.

My mother, sister, niece, and I had lunch in Beaufort again yesterday. We sat outside in the warm sun on the deck of a restaurant on the town waterfront, with a nice view of water, docks and boats. My sister know the chief cook at the restaurant where we ate, and he treated us to a nice meal. That was a good surprise and a very nice gesture on his part.

This is what my mother calls a "shotgun" house. It's one of the
more modest dwellings along the Beaufort waterfront these days.

Beaufort is one of the most picturesque and cosmopolitan places along the central coast of North Carolina, because it is a popular stopping-off point for people traveling by boat up and down the East Coast. For example, today at lunch there were two men at the table next to ours who were speaking French. From their accents, I could tell they were Canadian.

A monument to the county's Confederate soldiers in the Civil War

This area is a birder's paradise. Yesterday I saw egrets and a blue heron in the marsh behind my mother's apartment complex (she sold her house two years ago and moved into a retirement complex). There are flocks of geese and ducks flying overhead all the time, headed south. And there are so many sea birds — gulls, terns, cormorants, plovers, sandpipers, etc. etc.

I think these are cormorants flying low over the surface of the sound.

There are a lot of big old live oak trees along the N.C. coast. Their thick, arching limbs make sensuous shapes overhead and their branches and leaves provide much needed shade in the heat of summer.

Live oaks on the grounds of the Carteret County Courthouse

Beaufort is the county seat, and the big brick courthouse was built about 100 years ago. The county's population has doubled or tripled over the past 40 years, when development started in earnest. Retirees flood in, looking for a mild climate, low prices, and good recreational facilities.

The Carteret County courthouse in Beaufort, N.C.

One of the most impressive houses on Front Street in Beaufort is one that was home to the Carteret Academy, a boarding school for girls whose families lived on the N.C. Outer Banks in the 19th century. The classrooms were on the ground floor with dormitory rooms on the upper floors.

The Carteret Academy, a building that dates back to 1842

The ground floor, in brick, was built under the original house some 25 years ago, if memory serves. More and more old houses around Carteret County are being elevated so that they can withstand floodwaters. Newer houses are often built on tall pilings for the same reason.

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Starting Wednesday 21 November, I'll be blogging de nouveau at Living the Life in Saint-Aignan.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Grits Grill, Nags Head, N.C.

Do you eat grits? Have you ever eaten grits? Do you even know what grits are?

In Nags Head, North Carolina, there's a breakfast restaurant called the Grits Grill, where grits are the mainstay of the menu. The Grits Grill is open daily from 6:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., serving eggs, bacon, sausages, biscuits, toast, and... grits.

A breakfast place in Nags Head, N.C.

Wikipedia describes grits as a "corn porridge" — think oatmeal, cream of wheat, and, especially, polenta. Both grits and polenta are made from ground corn, a.k.a. Indian corn or maize in some parts of the English-speaking world, maïs in France, and blé d'Inde in Québec.

The chef at the Grits Grill

The main difference between polenta and grits is that polenta is made by grinding up whole corn kernals and grits are made by hulling the kernals before they are ground. Polenta can be described as "yellow grits" as opposed to the white grits served across the Southern U.S.

When I was in college in North Carolina, way back when, "grits" was a term used by students from Up North to describe us Southerners. Then I finished college and moved to Champaign, Illinois, to continue my studies at the University of Illinois, and I knew I wasn't too far from home when I saw grits being served at breakfast in the university cafeterias there.

I'm not sure exactly what this means...

I had never heard of polenta until a guy I knew in Paris in about 1975 told me about it. He had grown up in southern France and he prepared a dinner of polenta with sausages (chipolatas, I think) in a tomato sauce. Now that I live in France, I know I can have (yellow) grits whenever I want, because they stock polenta at Intermarché and SuperU in Saint-Aignan.

I'll be flying back to France tomorrow. According to Walt's blog, it has been very cold in Saint-Aignan for the past few days. It's supposed to snow today and then warm up and rain for a couple of days. Walt will drive up to CDG airport Tuesday morning to pick me up.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ocracoke, N.C.

Sand dunes protect Ocracoke Village from the ocean's waves

In 1585, a ship carrying a band of English people who planned to establish a colony sailed through Ocracoke Inlet. It was the first English attempt at colonizing North America, and it ended in failure. Conventional wisdom says what is now known the Lost Colony was set up to the north, on Roanoke Island, but some believe it was really located on Cedar Island in what is now Carteret County.

Sailing to Ocracoke...

Ocracoke Inlet was open in those days, while today's Hatteras Inlet and Oregon Inlet didn't yet exist. Ocracoke was not an island then, but the tip of the peninsula that was the Outer Banks. Since the Great Gale of 1846, which cut Hatteras Inlet through the banks, Ocracoke has been an island. It is still accessible only by boat or aircraft.

...or riding the ferry

Ironically, the Great Gale of 1846 also virtually closed Ocracoke Inlet. Until then, Ocracoke was a thriving port. Ships arriving from across the ocean and along the coast stopped here, as did ships sailing away from two of North Carolina's oldest mainland towns, New Bern and Bath. After 1846, Ocracoke went into decline.

First sighting of the village and lighthouse

Isolated and windswept, the island was home to about 500 residents who continued to speak an archaic brogue that sounded more English than American to those who lived on the mainland. You can still hear that brogue, but it is dying out now, as television, radio, and tourists and new residents from the West and the North bring a newer brand of English to the island.

Ocracoke Lighthouse is one of the oldest on the U.S. East Coast

Today, about 800 people live "permanently" in Ocracoke Village, which is at the southern limit of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The village is located on the south end of Ocracoke Island, which is about 12 miles long and only a few hundred yards wide in many places. Its average elevation is five feet above sea level.

The harbor on Ocracoke Island is called Silver Lake

The population swells in the summertime, as tourists come in. The village lives almost entirely off of tourist dollars nowadays. This year, Ocracoke was named the best beach in the United States by a professor in Florida who does such ratings.

Old fishing boats and new buildings at the docks on Silver Lake

Friday, November 16, 2007

A few signs

My trip to North Carolina is drawing to an end. It's Friday, and I leave on Monday to return to France. I'll be leaving home to return home. Is that a paradox?

On the Cedar Island - Ocracoke ferry

Yesterday it rained nearly all day. Over the course of the day, I spent an hour or more talking with a man who was born in North Dakota, lived as a boy in Montana, and then had a career in Seattle. For medical reasons linked to the rainy, chilly climate in the Pacific Northwest, he moved to Hawaii and had another career there.

Back of Beaufort

Through a series of unlikely events, including a relationship with a German woman whose daughter had relocated to North Carolina, this man has ended up living out his retirement in Morehead City. He says he had never heard of North Carolina before he came here, and wouldn't have been able to find it on a map.

To me, that's the story of today's world.

On Front Street in Beaufort

I also spent a few minutes talking with a, -young man who grew up in Eastern Kentucky. His father was a coal miner. He served in the army in World War II and has great memories of places like Le Havre, Paris, and the south of France. Problem is, this man is so deaf that it was hard to communicate with him. Otherwise, he is in very good health.

Clawson's Restaurant in Beaufort

In the afternoon, I paid a visit to a cousin I hadn't seen in at least 30, if not 40, years. Her name is Ethel and we grew up together. Her mother and my grandmother were first cousins — their fathers were brothers, one born in 1879 and the other in 1895. How's that for a complicated genealogical chart?

On Beaufort's waterfront

Anyway, to me all this seems emblematic of today's world. I guess it's always been so — plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as we say. Ethel, her husband, their granddaughter, and I had a very nice visit, talking over old times, reliving family memories, and catching up on lost time. One reason I got to go see her was this blog: she wrote me a note a year or so ago to say she had been reading it.

Cruises over to Cape Lookout lighthouse

Blogs are great.

By the way, the pictures in this post are some random shots of signs I've seen around the county over the past two weeks.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Morehead City, on Bogue Sound

The people of Beaufort, N.C., were so poor during the 19th and 20th centuries that they had no choice but to stay in their houses and try to maintain them. In Morehead City, on the other side of Newport River and Beaufort Inlet, people were not so poor. They tore down the big old houses downtown and sold the land to developers who wanted to build banks, stores, restaurants, and movie theaters in their place. Downtown thrived for a few decades.

A nice house near the shore in Morehead City

The population of Morehead (we drop the "City" when we talk about it, and we call each other Moreheaders) is now about 8,000 — that's twice as big as Beaufort, and twice what the population was when I left to go to college 40 years ago.

Sunset on Bogue Sound, 14 November 2007

Morehead itself is located on a peninsula surrounded by Bogue Sound and Newport River. The sound is about a mile wide at its widest and about 30 miles long. There are inlets at each end — Beaufort Inlet at the east end and Bogue Inlet at the west end. Newport River is really a wide, shallow bay, fed mostly by sea water but also by a small stream at its western end.

On the shore in Morehead, live oak trees are shaped
by salt spray carried by prevailing southwesterly winds

The neighboring town of Beaufort was founded in 1709 and has a long history as an ocean-going port. Of course, ocean-going vessels in the 18th and 19th centuries were mostly small sailboats. Morehead City was founded in 1857 by North Carolina's governor John Motley Morehead as a new town and a new deep-water point for the state. The land was subdivided and a railroad linking the new town of Morehead to the state capital, Raleigh, was built.

The bridge linking Morehead to Bogue Banks and the ocean beaches

Morehead is protected from the ocean's waves and from big storms by the narrow strip of sand known as Bogue Banks. My grandmother used to tell me about sailing across the sound in a skiff to go to the beach along the ocean. There were just a few buildings over there in the 1920s and 1930s. In my lifetime, I've known three different bridges. The first two were drawbridges, and the one used now is a high-rise bridge. Now Bogue banks is covered by big houses and condo complexes.

Fences, docks, and the bridge

When I was growing up, we lived in a small house on the edge of a neighborhood known as The Promise Land. People abandoning Diamond City, near Cape Lookout, in the early 1900s had dismantled their houses and floated the boards over on skiffs and barges to rebuild them close to the shore in Morehead, where they were protected from hurricanes and storm surges. A lot of the streets were dirt roads — I remember that from the 1950s and '60s.

Gnarly live oak limbs trying to escape from somebody's yard

Development proceeds apace in and around Morehead City. On n'arrête pas le progrès. Monster houses on stilts (elevated above potential flood waters) stand out like sore thumbs in old neighborhoods of small, low clapboard houses. Traffic is incredibly heavy — I think people live in their cars. Retirees from "up north" have discovered the place. The old downtown is moribund, and a new "downtown," centered on a WalMart super center, has grown up on what used to be the western edge of the built-up area. That's typical in American nowadays.

A sign on the wall of the Beaufort ice house

Why do retirees want to live in Carteret Country on the North Carolina coast? Well, the weather here is very mild, except when hurricanes hit. Today, for example, the temperature in my mother's apartment is 78ºF — that's slightly above 25ºC — and she has not yet turned on the heat this year. Today is November 15. To me it's still hot and humid. Hence the importance of ice and iced drinks.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Beaufort, North Carolina

Beaufort, N.C., was founded in 1709. It is the third-oldest town in North Carolina, after the towns of Bath and New Bern. Beaufort, pronounced [BO-furt], not [BYOO-furt] as it is in South Carolina, was originally called Fishtown. It is a fishing port located on the mainland facing one of those famous inlets that let water and boats pass through the N.C. barrier islands.

Cars waiting for a sailboat to pass by on the way into Beaufort

When you drive from Morehead City east to Beaufort, you pass over a long causeway and then a drawbridge. As you can see, the bridge was up when I drove over to Beaufort this afternoon. There are plans to replace the old drawbridge with a high-rise bridge in the near future, but the residents of Beaufort and town, county, and state authorities do not so far seem to be able to agree on exactly where the new bridge should be built.

There are a lot of old houses in Beaufort, which has a population of about 4,000. Every year there is an old homes tour. People work very hard to preserve the look of old Beaufort, and a lot of new homes being built on the outskirts of the old town are built in the old style.

Photo above is a detail from the photo below

The Manson house dates back to the beginning
of the War Between the States

The oldest houses still standing in Beaufort date back to the 1720s. In all, about 100 Beaufort houses are "plaqued" as being of historical interest.

Photo above is a detail from the photo below

The Ward house dates back to the founding of the USA
after the War for Independence

Beaufort is a choice stopping-off point for pleasure boats cruising down the U.S. East Coast from New England and New York toward Florida on the Intracoastal Waterway. It is home to the Duke University Marine Laboratory and the North Carolina Maritime Museum.

Photo above is a detail from the photo below

The Sloo house dates back to colonial times

Near Beaufort is the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which is made up of a long string of barrier islands that are reachable only by boat. The park is centered on the Cape Lookout lighthouse. Until about 1900, the whaling and fishing village of Diamond City was located near Cape Lookout, but destructive storms finally forced its 500 or so residents to abandon the site and move to more protected islands or to the N.C. mainland.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Don't build near an inlet

No, don't build a house near an inlet. Inlets move around. First the sand washes away on one side and builds up on the other, and then the sand washes away on that side and builds back up where it was before. It's hard to predict when all that might happen.

A house at Bogue Inlet where the water is eating away at the land

Some people built houses on the shore at Bogue Inlet at the western end of the barrier island that protects the towns of Morehead City and Swansboro from the Atlantic Ocean. Then the inlet started to shift. Bulldozers were brought in, sand fences were put up to help blowing sand build up where residents wanted it, and now sandbags have been put around some of the houses to keep the waves from washing them away.

These two houses at Bogue Inlet are in real jeopardy.

It's not really working, though. The sea and the waves and the currents are relentless. Storms come along every year, and in some years there are catastrophic hurricanes with destructive winds and storm surges.

The beach at Bogue Inlet is flat now, but it was
probably all sand dunes a decade or two ago.

Before World War II, only the poor people lived on the shore. That was the only land they could afford. People of greater means knew the shore was a dangerous place to build a house. They lived away from the water, especially the ocean.

Inside the inlet, in Bogue Sound, the water is calm, shallow, and marshy.

Now all that has changed. People want to walk out their front door and go swimming. It sounds nice, and if you can afford the insurance I guess it is. But be prepared to kiss your house goodbye when the next big storm rolls in.

The salt marshes make nice patterns in the water.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Riding the Outer Banks ferries

The Ocracoke lighthouse

Drive down the N.C. Outer Banks from Nags Head or Manteo or Kill Devil Hills. At Oregon Inlet, in the north, cross what is known as a high-rise bridge. Continue for another 30 or 40 miles toward Cape Hatteras down the long, narrow strip of land that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the calmer waters of Pamlico Sound.

The ferry Cape Point departing Hatteras Island for Ocracoke

About halfway down you will notice a place where the ocean washed across the island in a recent hurricane. Except for the efforts of the N.C. Department of Transportation, which sent crews and bulldozers to fill in the gap in the sand, there would be a new inlet there.

The ferry's front probile, with the pilot's cabin up top

An inlet is a gap in the narrow sand bank that encloses the North Carolina sounds and that lets sea water and estuary water be exchanged between the open ocean and the more protected coastal waters and wetlands. The inlets are endlessly shifting and changing as strong tidal currents and storm-driven waves move sand onto or away from the shore.

Heading toward Ocracoke Island

Hurricanes often cut new inlets through the Outer Banks. Water surges over the barrier island and cuts a deeper and deeper channel into the sand as it rushes through. It's the coastal equivalent of a gully or canyon, but everything happens in fast motion during a hurricane

The ferries are registered at the state port in Morehead City

It's very difficult to build a bridge over an inlet because the sand is so unstable and the tides and currents are so swift. Building the Oregon Inlet bridge near Nags Head was quite an engineering feat, and I believe it is the only bridge on the Outer Banks that spans an inlet. Other bridges link the islands to the mainland, spanning the slower moving waters of the sounds.

Sailing into the sunset toward Ocracoke

Here's what Wikipedia says about Oregon Inlet: it was created by a hurricane in 1846. So it is very new. One of the ships that rode out that storm in the sound was named the Oregon, and it gave its name to the new channel.

Welcome to Ocracoke

Here's what's even more interesting: Wikipedia says that Oregon Inlet, like many other inlets along the Outer Banks, constantly "moves southward due to drifting sands during tides and storms. It has moved south over two miles since 1846, averaging around 66 feet per year."

Outer Banks sunset, 09 November 2007

The inlet that now separates Hatteras Island from Ocracoke Island was also opened up by the great storm of 1846. The same storm nearly closed up the inlet on the opposite end of Ocracoke Island, sending the once-prosperous ports at Ocracoke Village and Portsmouth Village on the other side into a steep decline. Portsmouth Village was abandoned in the early years of the 20th century.

Ferrying toward the western sky

One inlet that has been fairly stable since the late 1600s is Beaufort Inlet, about 75 miles down the coast from Ocracoke. Beaufort has been a fishing port since about 1710, and nearby Morehead City is one of North Carolina's two modern deep-water seaports. Morehead City was founded in 1857 and then developed when the harbor was linked by rail to the more densely populated Raleigh-Durham area.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could all just turn a knob
to get a clearer vision of the world?

Inlets, then, are bad places to try to build bridges. There is a project to replace the one at Oregon Inlet, which costs a fortune to maintain, with a bridge that would be built farther away from the inlet and the pounding waves of the ocean. If you want to move people and vehicles from island to island rather than from island to mainland, what is the solution? Ferries.