But before we ride, we crab. Bright and early Monday morning on Currituck Sound, Jane Scott provides us South Bend crab lines, which are weighted industrial-strength safety pins on kite string to be wound on a stick. Jane hands the children any old stick off the ground for this, which they readily accept, but most of them will not touch the chicken backs they are supposed to pin up for bait.
The size of a crab, when running around a dock en garde against threats made with net handles and tennis shoes, waving its spectacular Popeye-heavy blue-and-red claws, is not important to children. They have difficulty with the notion that one crab is too small to eat, another not, probably because they can't fathom eating one at all. The number of crabs, on the other hand, is very important. When Amanda has two to Elena's none, we nearly lose Elena to what looks like terminal prison-yard sulking. When we finally induce her to pull in two infant crabs, the music of the spheres resumes, and she cavalierly gives her crabs away to the community bucket and retires from crabbing.
When I purchase a video about the local wild horses, I am calculating toward recreation that I hope may not involve becoming airborne. The adventure begins safely enough: on the couch, where the girls watch Wild in Corolla, a very well-put-together film. Narrated by the late Charles Kuralt and freighted with good local talkers, it tells the story of the oldest denizens of the Outer Banks: horses descended from, it is heavily argued, those of Spanish conquistadors. If so, they are now the only wild Spanish mustangs in the world. The girls are sufficiently encouraged by the images to risk a trip outside for secondary evidence.
Scott Trabue of Corolla Outback Adventures takes us to see the horses in his Chevy Suburban 4 x 4, which we need because the last 12 miles north of Corolla to the Virginia line, the 16,000-acre fenced home of these horses, is without paved roads. A northeast wind has kicked up, canceling the Heat Advisory and throwing sand like snow into the car tracks on the beach. There are 30 or 40 residences up here, and a few dozen rental houses, scattered and serene. There is an active livestock ranch, abandoned development roads and canals, the stately, fast-moving Penny's Hill dune, an eerie 1,400-year-old forest of petrified cypress stumps, low quiet maritime forest with loblolly pine and stunted bonsai-like live oak, two wildlife preserves, and the horses, so tame you can pet them from the car. Scott Trabue says there are seven species of poisonous snake up here, which gets me hoping for a nonchalant moccasin in the placid live oaks. If you were not obligated to provide girls Things to Do, this would be, to my mind, the place to be. But if Things to Do is imperative, and Things More Appropriate than moccasin sighting, then Ships Watch and Duck is the place. We quit the wilderness, back to Duck.
Duck is small, but not. From Ships Watch you can walk to Island Bookstore, Diane's Lavish Linens, Eden Spa & Salon, North Beach Sailing & Outfitters, Islands (festive and exotic clothing and gifts), Toy-Riffic, Sunset Ice Cream, Donna Designs (wearable art), Blue Point Bar & Grill, and Duck's General Store (whence the horse video). In the event you have not yet found what you might regard as necessary for your beach stay, you may hie on to Beach Essentials for rafts, wind socks, flip-flops, sunscreen, key chains, ceramic lighthouses, crayons, toothbrushes, shells, toys, pails and shovels, flags, hats and visors, crab nets, swim fins and masks and snorkels, rubber duckies, blow-up boats and tubes and pools, Boogie boards, postcards, change purses, kites, Wiffle balls, Frisbees, life jackets, sunglasses, swim caps, and scrunchies and cozies and croakies and saltwater taffy.
There is relief in all this. Dockside 'N Duck Seafood Market has the best stock of what might have to be called seafood accessories I have ever seen. They'll get you the Zatarain's Crab Boil from the back if it's not on the shelves and you prefer it to Old Bay, and live crabs to go with it. Nothing is so delightfully uncommercial as a cardboard box full of scrabbling crabs under your arm. The proprietress, Karen Lassiter, tells me she'd like to go to Italy but that she winds up on the beach during her vacations "just being useless." After all my exertions entertaining girls, I want to be useless myself. I am about familied out.
I go to Bob's Bait & Tackle next door, in Duck's oldest building, a Hopperesque canopied gas station. Approximately where the gas pump would be is a snow-cone stand. Inside are two or three hundred fishing rods in a room that feels smaller than any in my house at Ships Watch. If they have a refrigerator, it's going to have rust on it. They do have a refrigerator, with bait in it, and they let me look at bloodworms, an exotic northern bait. Bob Vaught is talking on the phone almost nonstop, booking fishing charters for 71 of the 140-odd charter boats that work the Outer Banks. "I've got a guy, retired merchant captain," Bob tells me. "Even if you didn't get fish you'd be entertained." "No fish" sounds good in the surfeit of essentials around here. I could sit in a boat and be useless. This would work. I am coming back.
At Ships Watch the last day, we meet some fellow residents. While the girls are at swimming lessons, to be followed by Camp Sunshine, I discover poolside that the woman whose children crabbed beside mine three days ago, and who refused my offer to watch her children while she went for a crab pot, is Wendy Sherman, publisher of Owl Books, a division of Henry Holt & Co., my own publisher. She has been coming to Ships Watch for five years precisely because of these activities for children that allow one to be useless.
Jane Scott arrives with a yellow star painted on her face, which signals that the day's activity will be face painting. I ask Wendy to determine why no bookstore can get my second book, one of four she publishes. I am rudely intruding business into the business of being useless. Children are under a tent already champing at the bit to paint their own faces. "Wendy," I say, "bye."
At Bob's Bait & Tackle I stop and peruse the snow-cone flavors—royal strawberry, wild cherry, watermelon, lime, orange, piña colada, banana, root beer, magic pineapple, bubblegum, grape, and tiger's blood. It is a moment of the old surfeit bugbear until I select grape. Amid this embarrassment of riches on the Outer Banks, you can have a house with no road to it and a boat with no fish in it and just a grape snow cone with a whole lot of syrup in it, if that is all you want.
Or you can have everything, as you choose.
We make our escape down the Banks to Ocracoke, a trip of such rapid commercial depressurization that it could cause the bends. The Avalon Pier in Kitty Hawk is—excepting the high-tech virtual-reality arcade in place of old-timey low-tech pinball—exactly what a pier was in the fifties. Shirtless men with quart bottles of beer look at young women in bikinis. Bad stomachs abound. People fish in the roasting heat of the day and keep everything they catch. Small dried marine carcasses blow around like chaff. A boy has nearly drowned and is being attended by paramedics; the sentiment at pier's end is that he should be fined $200 for swimming when red flags are posted. A guy goes around saying, "You don't got good odds bucking Mother Nature." The pier moves with the swell, and nothing is level or plumb about it. It is the absolute antithesis of Ships Watch.
After Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hill and Nags Head, where the land is wide enough to support actual shopping malls, you narrow into long stretches of unspoiled dune and beach (Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Hatteras National Seashore). Interspersed are the small towns Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras, and finally, by ferry, Ocracoke.
In Ocracoke people walk from cafés to shops to more cafés, rent bikes, ride them to the beach. All houses are soundside. At the Island Inn & Dining Room our last night we are serenaded by four fellows who have never sung together before but who, as members of other barbershop quartets, can do all right. They sing for everyone in the restaurant, having dined themselves. It's great fun—rather like The Lawrence Welk Show busting out beside your table—and it's something you don't see up north on the Banks. Up there, at, say, the Blue Point Bar & Grill in Duck, where the food is so good the reservations in high season must be made a week in advance, there really isn't even room for serenade.
So, again, it comes to this: On the Outer Banks, take your choice. There's high-end, and low. There are 1 million beach essentials, and there's the beach. You can spread a family out.
PADGETT POWELL's latest collection of stories is Aliens of Affection (Henry Holt).