Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
The day starts out friendly enough.
It’s Day 15 of my month-long artist residency on Ocracoke Island, N.C.
I’ve finally settled in to a comfortable routine of art-making, research and exploration on this fringe of America, a long thin barrier island (basically a sandbar) at the southern end of the Outer Banks.
It is 5 a.m. and long before I begin any art, long before my only companion (a three-year-old black lab, Chester) has even begun to think about waking, long before daylight, I have a cup of tea and climb back into bed, reading and waiting for the eastern sky to lighten.
It is balmy here for early spring, not just for this Canadian but by coastal North Carolina standards. And when the day does lighten and everyone comes to life, we set off from our rental cottage on a long leg-stretch around Ocracoke Village, ending where all walks end in the mornings, at the coffee shop.
I sit on a wooden stool, in a patch of sun at one end of the shop’s porch, coffee and daily newspaper at hand, working on the crossword puzzle. Chester is at my feet and, deeply interested in the breakfast being consumed by two of the other patrons, points himself toward them.
I can just make out their conversation, in which, alarmingly, I think I catch the word “tornado.” Well, nothing so new about weather talk on small exposed Ocracoke Island. Tide tables, wind speeds and direction, the ceiling, the swell and small-craft warnings, are ubiquitous.
Sobering stories of shipwrecks along the coast, the shifting sands in the channels, fishing boats late coming in, can all be somewhat unsettling. And phrases like “rip tide warnings” and “lost at sea” and “washed up on the beach,” all reminders of where we are – a sandbar butting up against the restlessness and unpredictability of the Atlantic.
Even so, this particular morning of gentle light and warm breezes feels safe enough to me.
Or so I thought. As we walk home I notice there is a certain humidity and haze about us, which wasn’t there even an hour ago.
I begin my morning drawing session, but the weather is on my mind.
Picking up the paper, I flip through the first section to the weather page, and yes, the entire Outer Banks looks extremely unsettled. I go to the window. Can this be?
Not knowing exactly how these things work, we stick close to home, me art-making, Chester flat out on the sofa.
And through the morning it does cloud over. And then, more than a breath of a breeze.
Early afternoon and windy now. Quite windy. And the sky is funny. Not exactly darkening but strangely tinted. It is becoming sort of greyish, well, a sort of greyish-green.
Out of curiosity, I turn on the television. A wide band of red crawls across the bottom of the screen. It appears to be mid-message, and I catch the words “… take immediate cover …” just a few moments before the message repeats, beginning with, “EXTREME WEATHER ALERT.”
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
Not that I’m panicking. I pull myself together, and consider bundling Chester and me into the car and heading for … where?
The ferry dock, the community centre, the church … the pub?
But as I read the message again, it gives advice on what to do, and gives a window of half an hour in which this tornado could happen. I have 10 minutes. I find my battery-operated radio, cellphone, water bottle, blanket, flashlight. I consider calling my husband back in Ontario, but decide that as an independent 50-plus woman, this would be a mistake. I put several dog-cookies in my pocket, one of which is used to lure Chester into the bathroom, right at the back of the cottage.
We shut the door, and wait.
When nothing happens, I creep out and check the television again. The red warning has changed the window of time to beginning right now. The wind, quite shockingly strong, is violently shaking the bathroom window. I try not to think about the spindly stilts upon which our little cottage sits. But it is when I see what looks like a snowball fight outside the window (big big hail), that Chester and I shift to Plan B, and get into the closet.
I keep the door shut tight for 15 minutes. Trying to block out the banging and rattling, I concentrate on all that is good – the artwork accomplished, the string of fine weather leading up to today, soft warm days, balmy breezes. As I am sitting on the floor, Chester has his full shivering 100 pounds pressed against me, his head in my lap. He’s clearly wondering what this new game is all about.
I’m wondering that, too.
I creep out after 20 minutes. All is peaceful. Birds are twittering. A glimpse of sun breaks through the clouds. The baseball-sized hail has melted.
The cottage is standing.
Again to the television, as mercifully the power hasn’t been effected.
Yes, they declare, it is all over. Having missed us to the north, we just caught the tornado’s tail end.
Still, not trusting this sudden change in weather either, I stick to the cottage for some time before heading out on our afternoon beach walk.
When we do venture forth, it is a totally different day.
Still, sunny, warm. Frilly surf and calm, orderly waves.
Chester, in dog-like fashion, has already forgotten his fears. After all, nothing bad happened.
He’s off and away down the vast expanse of empty beach, sniffing at the occasional washed up dead thing.
I, on the other hand, follow slowly, reflecting on it all – this exposed place, my solitude. Fear.
Willing my legs to stop shaking, I shake them out and walk it off.
Walk it off, and put it all behind me.
After all, nothing bad happened.
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