Vanlife at the Edge of the World

By J.R. Switchgrass

For me and my partner Kit, Vanlife is about being able to point our bus in any direction and go. Since we’re able to travel whenever—wherever—we’ve challenged ourselves to find all of the hidden gems our country has to offer. The Outer Banks of North Carolina is one of those treasures: A chain of semi-stable sandbar islands precariously perched in the Atlantic Ocean. Ocracoke Island is the southernmost island of the chain and it can only be accessed by ferry.

Our trip began by boarding a boat from the mainland to Ocracoke Island, both of us ripe with anticipation. After about an hour out to sea, the wind playing in our hair, the shore appeared through a blue haze of sea spray, and we knew we were in for a true adventure.

Pompano, the quaint, charming fishing village of Ocracoke smelled of fresh fish. Kit and I arrived at the local market just as the fishermen returned to the pier with their day’s catch. A flock of fifty pelicans hopped over the cracks in the ancient deck, hoping to stealthily steal a snack. The faint scent of raw clams lingered in the air.

We spoke with the fisherman as he unloaded his fish onto the scaling table. In a steady voice, he told us about his grandfather, who taught him all about fishing these same waters. He was of the Outer Banks, through and through, and when we complimented him on his catch, he winked at us and held out a perfect pompano, speckled with green and yellow scales. He explained that a pompano is a small fish, typically cooked and eaten whole. I had never cooked, eaten, or processed an un-filleted fish before, and the thought of it intimidated me. Kit, however, was undaunted by the task.

“We’ve got this,” she said. We scored a beach-side campsite in the state park and she got to work on the pompano. When your kitchen rolls with you wherever you go, it’s possible to cook a gourmet meal even in a campground. Thanks to Kit’s handiwork, the pompano melted in our mouths as we sat at a sandy picnic table and watched the sunset over the desolate beach.

The next morning, we walked barefoot along the shore. The unbroken coastline stretched for miles ahead of us. The more we walked, the further away the coastline seemed to go. But we were determined to reach the end. Eventually, though, we gave in and turned back. As the morning fog lifted, the sun glinted off of the ocean—the day open to endless possibilities.

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We’re not usually tour-takers, Kit and me. We typically find fascination in exploring places on our own terms, in our van, or on our own two feet. But, when an opportunity to ride the beach on horseback arose, we simply couldn’t refuse. On the beaches of the Outer Banks, we were free to gallop our horses at break-neck speed. The sight of Kit thundering down the beach on horseback with an expression of unbridled joy is etched in my memory forever.

I share these experiences in hopes that others will go forth and really live in the world. All of these experiences are available to those who are willing to reach out and grab them. So, following in the spirit of Mark Twain, I encourage you; “Cast off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.”

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