As Southerners, we are intrinsically tied to the water. Through the centuries, water has fueled so many of our journeys, from the tug boats of the Mississippi to the fishing boats of the bayou, our lives synced with the ebb and flow of the waves of our waters. It is to one great body of water, the Atlantic Ocean, that we owe our very history and origins. Long ago, adventurers and navigators undertook perilous journeys across that salty brine in search of new lands, and it is that same body of water that fuels us today. Whether it be for sun-soaked vacations or for sustaining fishing trips, we Southerners are all familiar with our ocean, the Atlantic. And perhaps none of us are quite as familiar as the residents of our easternmost point, Rodanthe, North Carolina. The small strip of land, literally immersed in the waves and cultures of the Atlantic, both depends on and is ravaged by the fickle sea. Once dominated by dramatic tales of shipwrecks and lurking enemy submarines, of oceanic life-saving missions and life-wrenching natural disasters, the small town of Rodanthe has settled into the sleepy rhythm of a tourist town.
Located on a delicate string of land called Hatteras Island, part of North Carolina’s famed Outer Banks, the rolling dunes of Rodanthe have been occupied for over 1,500 years. Located miles from the mainland, the unique island offered an impregnable fortress for natives, a safe-haven from enemies natural and human alike. With a natural moat separating them from invading tribes and a seemingly endless supply of game and harvests, as well as mild winters and fresh water, the native settlers were able to live unchallenged and unchanged on Hatteras Island for generations. But Rodanthe’s remote location, once its salvation, proved to be a detriment for natives as it was one of the first regions of the Americas discovered and settled by Europeans. But one notable group chose not to settle on the island, a decision that would ultimately affect the history of the country: in 1587, John White first landed on the shores of Rodanthe, the cardinal settlers by his side, before deciding to move on and settle further north, in Roanoke, Virginia. Those settlers who so nearly made Rodanthe their home later disappeared, forming America’s first mystery, the Lost Colony.
Who did end up settling on the sandy land of Rodanthe was a small group of hardy Europeans, their lives dedicated to commercial fishing and hunting and farming, as well as the North Carolina lumber trade, the natural waterways providing easy transportation for large loads. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that Rodanthe first began to see glimmers of its future in tourism. Wealthy gentlemen, desperately seeking some vestige of wilderness, adopted Rodanthe and the rest of Hatteras Island as their vacation destination for game hunting. These rich visitors established large and infamous hunt clubs along the strand of islands. Though the hunt clubs of yore are long gone, it was those moneyed vacationers who opened the proverbial floodgates for tourism. When the government paved NC Hwy 12 that runs through the island in the ’50s, followed by the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge in 1963 connecting the islands to the mainland, they established reliable transportation to, from, and along the island, inducing the current era of tourism to Rodanthe.
But life was not always so easy for residents and visitors to Rodanthe; dangers, natural and manmade, lurked in the oceans and dunes of the island. The rocky Diamond Shoals off the coast of the island proved fatal for countless hapless sailors. Hundreds of ships sank into the frigid waves following a collision with Diamond Shoals, even lighthouses proving futile in sailors’ fight against nature. In an effort to preserve lives, the government finally began establishing Life-Saving Stations along the coast around the middle of the nineteenth century. One of the first life-saving stations established in North Carolina was in Rodanthe, the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station. In its time as a life-saving station, the Chicamacomico fulfilled its mission countless times, well-trained swimmers braving the frigid waters to save drowning sailors and swimmers. The station closed long ago, but it remains open as a museum, a popular attraction for modern visitors to the island.
Despite the danger, Diamond Shoals proved to be a safe harbor for a formidable enemy in the twentieth century. German U-boats lurked off shore in World War II, hiding amongst the shoals and pouncing on unsuspecting passing Allied ships. Maimed bodies, lost in the melee, would frequently wash ashore at Rodanthe. The treacherous coast of Rodanthe became known as Torpedo Junction through the tumultuous war years. And in more recent years, the perils that struck Rodanthe came not from human hands but natural ones. Again and again, hurricanes have ravaged the usually peaceful beach town, wiping away homes and roads as easily as dust falls from a chalkboard. Again and again, the town has rebuilt, the strength of the community carrying it through the most difficult of disasters.
Nicholas Sparks’ popular novel and film Nights in Rodanthe has two central story lines: a love story and the impending chaos of a storm on Rodanthe. The island has long been a safe harbor for vacationers searching for a release (as for the characters in the story), but a harbor with a sharp and roughly hewn edge, the edge of Mother Nature. Despite its historical and modern crises, Rodanthe remains, for the most part, a peaceful hub of tradition and respite. The crystalline waters play host to visitors and dreamers, featured in films and best-selling novels. The peaceful lapping waters erased the pains of the past long ago, leaving in their wake a string of smooth, long beaches. Seasonal restaurants and store fronts open their doors widely to smiling visitors, making this summertime getaway the proverbial home away from home. And like any truly Southern destination, the screen doors are always open and the tea’s always fresh.
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