This story appears in the June 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
It’s difficult to explain to some folks why I’ve ended up living on what is essentially a hurricane-prone sandbar. But I’ve been coming down to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, often referred to as OBX, since 1956, when I was 12, right around the time I got hit by a passion for photography. Now the smells, light, and rapid-fire weather changes that are so OBX are part of my psyche. When I’m not walking down a dusty road in Senegal or dancing in Rio during Carnaval, I make the Outer Banks my home. After more than 40 assignments for National GeographicI’ve seen a lot, and I’ve lived deep. But nothing seems sweeter than the view from my front porch.
For me the Outer Banks is personal. For everyone here it is. Nobody comes down to build a career. Escape one, yes. Build one, no. Even though I’m usually working down here, the pace suits me better. When my parents brought me here as a kid, the place was a Waldenesque backwater, a few summer cottages scattered among the trees. I camped on the beach and bodysurfed. As a teenager I let some air out of the tires on my family’s ’53 Chevy and drove a little too fast with my buddies on the low-tide flats, arm out the window, radio blasting—and please pass me another cold one. A few years ago I bought a house I’d had my eye on. I’ve spent my career trying to capture the right moment. Now the right moment is here.
Even my memories, though, don’t fully explain the Outer Banks’ hold on me. It is something more primal, something about the capriciousness of the weather. Every day unfolds with its own mix of sun, wind, surf, and rain. The wide, sweeping sky offers a broad stage for summer squalls that frequently blow through. A fleet of white clouds will appear on the horizon and then suddenly darken. Lightning flashes, waterspouts rise out of the sound, and sheets of rain mixed with sand pelt the windows. And then, just as suddenly, it’s all over. The sun returns to dry out the beach chairs, and the breeze lifts the kites up again.
These little tempests serve as reminders that at any moment the fickle winds can hurl a boat onto the shoals. (As the wrecks of a couple thousand ships along the OBX coastline attest.) Or possibly fling you into the sky. (They carried Orville and Wilbur Wright into immortality.) Living here is a straight-up bet on the weather.
The islands are highly mobile piles of sand, and the Atlantic gnaws at them little by little. Moves them around. They’re not going anywhere for a while, but building a house on the waterfront should not be considered an investment for your grandchildren. Major hurricanes and tropical storms blow through every few years, sometimes cleaving new inlets through the islands. My neighbors Billy and Sandra Stinson lost their historic summer cottage to Irene last year. It had been in Billy’s family for more than 50 years and was one of the few remaining original Nags Head houses. It had been built on stilts over dry land, but slowly the waters of the sound had crept beneath it. Billy and Sandra are determined to rebuild. It’s a classic gambler’s move—doubling down on their weather bet.
Why would anyone live with such a lack of security? Because we’re all gamblers, thinking our luck will hold. And because when there’s no hurricane, life is at its best. It’s that simple.