An astronaut wheeling around the globe might view Smith Island as a small green chip floating off the coast of North Carolina, a band of trees crossing one end, a blanket of marsh covering the other. He might notice its triangular shape. He might even have time to observe the white water jumping over the shoals: a pretty sight from his lofty perch, but hardly more than that. Surely he would smile at the following description of Smith Island, written at a time when men circled the globe in ships:
"...a naked, bleak elbow of sand, jutting far out into the ocean. Immediately in its front are the Frying Pan Shoals pushing out still further twenty miles to sea. Together they stand for warning and woe; and together they catch the long majestic roll of the Atlantic as it sweeps through a thousand miles of grandeur and power, from the Arctic towards the Gulf. It is the playground of billows and tempests, the kingdom of silence and awe, disturbed by no sound, save the sea gull's shriek and breakers' roar. Its whole aspect is suggestive, not of repose and beauty, but of desolation and terror. Imagination cannot adorn it. Romance cannot hallow it. Local pride cannot soften it. There it stands today, bleak and threatening, and pitiless, as it stood three hundred years ago.... And there it will stand, bleak, and threatening, and pitiless, until the earth and the sea shall give up their dead. And. as its nature, so its name, is now, and always has been, and always will be, the Cape of Fear."
The Cape of Fear. How quaint that sounds today, when cameras scan the moon and the air rattles with jets booming overhead. The only cape the astronaut cares anything about is Cape Kennedy. (But why, one wonders, has he never come back to earth with any description to match the mariner's?)
While the capsule hurtles on its way, passing by now over Bermuda, the great Ship of State from which it was launched plunges on through the 20th century, bow down, decks jammed with people. Occasionally a few tired souls—tired of the press, tired of the clamor, tired of the smoke pouring from the Ship's millions of funnels—will climb down the sides and journey back in time to Smith Island. A water journey is always the best journey, and it is by water that you reach Smith Island. There is no other way, unless you own a helicopter. Consequently, because boats are not yet as numerous as cars, Smith Island lives a life apart from the mainland. Hawks soar among the dunes, sea oats lean with the wind and under the warm sand hatching loggerhead turtles struggle through the darkness to reach the sunlight. But not before the astronaut has reached Africa.
When I went out to Smith Island recently it was after a day-long drive on the Ocean Highway south from Norfolk, a moderately pleasant road now that Interstate 95 has siphoned off most of the traffic, but a road, nevertheless, that carries you through a tattered fringe of the Atlantic seaboard that derives much of its income from tourists. Signs knock holes in your head, UNWANTED HAIR REMOVED PERMANENTLY. MOTHER DORA, INDIAN ADVISER, HEALER. HOT WATER HEAT, JUSTICE-PEACE. LAST CONFEDERATE SEAPORT, WHERE THE PINE AND THE PALM MEET. The only palms I saw north of Wilmington were sad, displaced things withering in front of already withered motels. At one beach I found the ocean breaking on all but deserted shoreline, while not a block away a shopping center was selling to a packed house, as though the idea of a vacation was to buy not to swim, better still to buy in swimming suits. I did see two boys on the beach. They were playing fungo with a dead fish.
This is what has happened to a great part of the Atlantic seaboard. Tawdry and trivial. All that grand sweep of water and sand, a coastline unlike any on earth, and we have buried it beneath seafood platters and heaping piles of catsupy french fries.
Against such a background Smith Island is a freak, an anachronism, a mistake, a geographical error. On the day I rode out there—a city man in a bumpy little boat loaded with gasoline and groceries, an uncertain mainlander—I felt that I was on my way to some strange, forbidden land. When uncertain Dante emerged from his dark wood he had confident Virgil to guide him. I had Reese Swan, caretaker of the island, a man who had grown up on the place but who would not sleep there alone without a lantern burning nearby. "Noises." he said, "you hear all these noises." I wonder whether Reese's father Captain Charlie Swan, lighthouse keeper on Smith Island for 30 years, who died at the age of 91, heard those noises or whether they were not something only modern, urban men could hear. I know I heard them all night long, while lying in the old man's house, I heard the sea's monologue, the trees' dialogue and the dunes walking around the house, scratching at the windows.
Captain Charlie's house is one of three built around 1900 by the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. They sit huddled together on Bald Head Island, the highest and largest island in the Smith Island complex. Two of the houses are in various degrees of collapse, but Captain Charlie's is still intact. Perhaps, like Captain Charlie, it is determined to last.
To reach Bald Head Reese takes his boat across Southport Bay. a wide body of water at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and then up a looping tidal creek that runs through the marsh behind Bald Head. Here he transfers to an International Scout—again bumpy, again loaded with gasoline and groceries—and plods overland, first through a dense forest of oaks, cedars and palm trees, and then along the beach. This forest, whose live oaks average 40 to 45 feet in height, is among the last of its kind on the Atlantic Coast, exemplifying as it does the so-called "salt spray climax," the idea that the form of coastal plants is determined by salt water drenching them from the surf.
Coming out of the forest, the road passes among a number of ruined buildings, which go back in time to that era in Bald Head's history when the Coast Guard manned a station on it. Actually the island has known a number of eras, some distinct, some overlapping. First Indians occupied it and then pirates, the most famous of whom, Stede Bonnet, would lead ships onto the shoals with false lights and then attack them. Later pilots moved over from the mainland. Captain Charlie himself has left a record of that era. "Piloting was a highly competitive business in those days [the 1880s]. The first pilot-boat to reach a ship preparing to enter the harbor, got the job of taking them over the bar and up the river. For that reason, many of the pilots moved over to Bald Head, to get a start on those who stayed on the mainland. The minute a ship was safely through the channel, friendly relations all started again. It was a community in the woods."