Friday 21st November. Norfolk, Virginia -> Hatteras, North Carolina, USA
Today was one of those days that makes travelling the great experience it is. Jim had to be present for a court case this morning. His part in the proceedings was fairly minor, but I thought it'd be interesting to see how things work, so I tagged along. The so-called 'sniper trials' were being held in the very next courtroom, so security was extra tough around the courts. A tent city in the carpark housed the media circus that had taken residence during the high profile trials. We had a few cases to sit through before Jim's came up, and he thought I might find the sniper trials more interesting. Too bad though- I'd have to have signed up two days earlier to secure a space in the public seating in that courtroom. Anyway, I'd never been in a courtroom before, so even though the cases we observed were relatively minor, it was still fascinating for me.
There was a guy who'd been charged with trespassing and assault. The girl he'd assaulted was in the courtroom to see his application for bond rejected. Another guy who'd been before the judge repeatedly for domestic violence against his own mother. In that case, the judge allowed the defence motion to have the prisoner released into the custody of a rehab centre. I kind of felt sorry for one lady who applied for release under a bon- even her lawyer knew it was a waste of time, in light of her previous convictions, which included several instances of failing to appear. Then the last case was of a young black guy who'd tried to rob a guy at gunpoint. He got away with about three dollars, and is now looking at something like three years behind bars. What a waste of three long years of your life. None of it was really high courtroom drama, no LA Law or Allie MacBeal, but it was fascinating for me. Obviously, I wasn't able to take photographs in court, but I did manage to do a few quite good sketches.
After Jim's case, he drove me across the border into South Carolina, and I stuck out my thumb. In light of the incredibly unusual November weather, I'd decided not to hitchhike down the interstate, but to make my way down the coast, and along a series of long skinny islands called the Outer Banks. It wasn't long before I had my first ride. This guy was huge; he could barely move, apparently pinned between the seat and the sterring wheel. His goatee beard and tattoos made him a formidable looking character. When I asked him what he did for a living, I'm not sure what I expected, but I mustn't have expected him to tell me that he steals cars for a living. Hmm.. Turns out, he used to steal cars illegally. Now, he works as a repossession agent, proudly proclaiming that he's only ever come across one car that he couldn't break into in less than a minute. I was curious about how he goes about such work, and asked him all sorts of dumb questions. He said he often saves himself the trouble of even having to break into a car, simply by grabbing the wayward owner by the collar and saying "Gimme the keys." I looked him up and down, and assured him that if he grabbed me by the collar and told me to give him my car keys, I'd be handing them over quick smart.
My large, intimidating friend didn't take me real far, but where he left me was a much better place to hitch, catching the traffic from Elizabeth City as well as the southbound traffic from Norfolk. I guess it was almost an hour before anyone stopped though. The guy who picked me up was Gary, and he was on his way home in the brand new pickup he'd just bought. Gary lives in Hatteras. I'd seen it on my map, but couldn't remember how far down it was. It turned out that Hatteras is the last village before you have to catch a ferry to Okracoke, so lady luck was definitely on my side. It was a long, relaxing drive down the narrow island. In some places, the land was so narrow that there was just enough room for a single row of houses on each side of the road. It reminded me a little of the Florida Keys.
Gary's story was fascinating, another of many characters that you could write a book about. He's pushing sixty, and has lived in Hatteras for fifteen years or so. He's lived in Saudi Arabia, Spain and several places around the States, but I get the feeling that Hatteras may be his home for some time to come. We drove past an old rusted out pickup, and Gary pointed it out to me. That was the vehicle that he drove here in, with his wife and kids and a hundred bucks in his pocket. Now, he has a successful marine construction business, his wife has a handmade jewellery business, and life in Hatteras seems almost idyllic. Almost.....
Hatteras is a disaster area...literally This peaceful, pretty beachside community was 'ground zero' for Hurricane Isabel. While the televison had been broadcasting from Washington DC and around, with footage of heavy rain and a couple of fallen trees, Hatteras had been devasted. Houses had been literally destroyed. The entire top floor of an oceanfront motel had broken away, and washed across the road intact until it rammed into another building and wrapped itself around that. Protruding from the calm surface of the pond behind Gary's house, you can see the pitched roof of two beachside cabanas. Believe it or not, some of the missing cabanas haven't even been found, probably smashed into pieces by the force of the waves. Gary's own house had been ripped in half by the raging seas, and half of it had been spun around. He and his son were in the house at the time. The roadside building where Gary's wife Wendy sold handmade jewellery was destroyed, along with much of her stock. They're now living in a rental house nextdoor, which escaped the hurricane relatively unscathed.
The entire area has been off limits to tourists and media, while the massive cleanup effort gets underway. In fact, I would've undoubtedly been turned back at the roadblock if it weren't for the fact that the officers on duty know Gary personally. By the time we reached Gary's house and had a couple of beers, it was after 4:30. It'd be dark in an hour and the ferry to Okracoke was closed to non residents until noon tomorrow. I couldn't get any further today. Now it was just a case of finding somehwere suitable to sleep. I hate to ask, but I had to. Could I stay the night somehwhere at his place; not inside, but somewhere under the house or in an outbuilding? Just somewhere I wouldn't be bothered by overly efficient police officers, who might think I'm a looter. Gary was understandably wary of how his wife Wendy might react to him inviting a stranger into their home. However, he assured me he'd at least find me somewhere to sleep that would be out of the weather, and away from the vigilance of the police. That was all I needed to hear, and I accepted the next beer gratefully!
Gary and I went for a drive around the tiny village, dropped in to visit some of his friends, and picked up a few more beers at the local grocery store. That store by the way, is the only store I've ever seen anywhere in the world, where the cigarettes are in the aisle, not behind the counter. After we'd left the store, Gary realized we'd forgotten to get ice. He grabbed a couple of bags from the ice machine in the carpark. I offered to run back inside and pay for the two bags of ice- the least I could do- but Gary said not to worry. "I'll get it next time" he said. From the look on my face, he could see that I was getting an idea about what life on the Outer Banks is like, and why the people here are proud to be 'different' from the rest of the country. Gary and I were standing around in the kitchen, drinking beers and telling stories, when Wendy came home from a party. She and a couple of her friends kept us entertained, and Wendy was happy to let me sleep on the sofa.