CC Parker’s Escape to Ocracoke

Writer CC Parker takes a trip to the sturdy island… and discovers that she’s a dingbatter.
illustrations by Jillian Ohls

Last spring, in need of an escape from the capital city, my husband and I headed to the coast. A quick adventure to re-frame and reboot. To relax.

Maybe I was too relaxed. After just an hour on the island, I found myself lurching down the Irvin Garrish Highway on a bicycle, immersed in a sea of souped-up golf carts, bicycles and pickup trucks—and I was cycling in everyone’s way.

My husband was no help. Mr. Perfect was speeding two blocks away, with no handles on the handlebars. I don’t know bike hand-signals. “Am I to ride with or against the traffic?” I called. “Who has the right of way?”

I was a dingbatter. According to the Ocracoke Current, ‘dingbatter’ is the local term meaning, roughly, ‘tourist.’ As in: if you ask the cashier at the Community store where to catch the ferry that goes from here to Ocracoke, you’re a dingbatter. (Answer: you’re already there.)

Dingbatter or not, if you need a change, Ocracoke is a great spot. Blackbeard the Pirate, presumably weary from pillaging, took refuge on the island circa 1718, as have countless people since the North Carolina Department of Transportation established a ferry service in 1950. Accessible only by boat or plane, Ocracoke is the sort of place I can imagine a person alighting and never leaving. Other-worldly, off the grid.

Our visit to Ocracoke included very little preliminary planning. We booked ferry tickets online, then booked the hotel online, too: The Castle Bed & Breakfast, because I liked the name. Dumb luck, as it was the perfect spot, affording us gorgeous views of Silver Lake from the rooftop deck, complimentary bicycles and homemade breakfast. (Fun fact: Sam Jones, the eccentric businessman who built the Castle as his home in the mid-1930s, buried his horse standing up at nearby Springer’s Point, so he could ride it in the afterlife.)

To help manage the daily arrival of dingbatters, Ocracoke established a tram through the village with stops at various businesses. I’m uncertain if this has had much effect, as people seem to be everywhere—milling through the cemeteries, cycling through the residents’ front yards. I couldn’t help but wonder how locals feel about wave-after-wave of strangers driving bikes like kamikaze pilots and asking the same questions over and over.

I confess, this dingbatter made many of the same mistakes. Our first night there, I asked a new friend (a local) about hurricane preparations. He shrugged it off: “We have generators and the Ocracoke Variety and Hardware store never closes. It’s no big deal.” I asked about tsunamis and he looked bored. (When Hurricane Dorian asserted himself by passing over the island not once, but twice, the scrappy Ocracokers were pretty much back in business by the next season.) Finally, I leaned in and asked conspiratorially, “death to Spotswood?” to see if the rumored secret Ocracoke Blackbeard fan club existed. He rolled his eyes.

Our mornings began at the Ocracoke Coffee Company, sipping brews in Adirondack chairs as the world passed by. (We noted that there were more people sitting and watching than actually walking by.) Our days were punctuated by stopping somewhere for something to eat or drink on the way to the beach: SmacNally’s for beer and wine and fried jalapeno bottle caps. The porch at Zillie’s for beer and wine and chips and dips. Eduardo’s for beer and wine and tacos. Repeat.

One day, we hit the ground cycling, determined to visit all of Ocracoke’s hot spots quickly, so we could get down to the business of relaxing. We checked off:

The Ocracoke Lighthouse

At a diminutive 75 feet tall, it’s presided over by the largest cat I have ever seen.

Springer’s Point Nature Preserve

A peaceful enclave where Blackbeard fought his final battle. (And where, more notably, we came across an empty rental house nearby with perfectly ripe figs in the yard. Thank you, strangers!)

The British Cemetery

Where we learned that in May of 1942, four British soldiers washed up on the Ocracoke shore. Their boat had been torpedoed by the Nazis. These young men are honored here with an annual ceremony.

Howard Street

An iconic Ocracoke destination that’s actually a dirt road peppered with homes, cemeteries and a charming gift shop.

The beaches are beautiful. Windy. I chose to think of the slashing sand as free dermabrasion. I was struck by the village’s strong sense of community. I picked up the Ocracoke Observer, which listed all of the village’s high school graduates, post-graduation plans and scholarships. There is a page for visitors with information about rip currents, basic island rules (etiquette we should already know, but apparently don’t) and the ferry schedule. There was an article about the community theater, another about the annual Women’s Arm-Wrestling Tournament Fundraiser. The champ had deposed her best friend to win back the title: “I changed my technique this year but we’re still amazing friends.”

We browsed arts at The Village Crafstmen, literature at Books to be Red, decoys at The Downpoint Decoy Shop. We ate well: mushroom cheesecake and grilled scallops with lemon beurre blanc sauce at The Flying Melon. Flounder tacos with basil aioli and Asada steak tacos at Eduardo’s. After dark, the Slushy Stand, where kids and adults alike swarm like moths to the flame.

And then it was time to go. Bikes loaded, we rolled aboard the ferry. I wished we had a deck of playing cards (dingbatter mistake). Our captain gave a “toot” as we slipped out of the bay. Re-frame, reboot, relax. Mission accomplished.