I grew up on the same island where I live now, Hatteras Island, North Carolina. I left for college, traveled a ton, met my husband in grad school and then lived in Atlanta for 14 years. I’ve seen quite a bit of the world, from the chic spots in Paris to the slums of Cambodia. When I moved back to the island after so many years away, I knew what I was leaving and why I wanted to leave it. I wanted to live in a small town. There’s a saying: “Leaving and coming back is different than never having left.” I have to agree.
You know those Hallmark movies that take place in a cute little coastal or mountain town where everyone knows your name and your business, where everyone puts up cute decorations for the holidays and people gather for community pot lucks? Those places do exist. I live in one.
We have one main road here- Highway 12- and it’s a two lane. We have two stop lights, one at the only chain grocery store on the island (Food Lion) and the other at the ferry dock. It’s easy to get around here. I can be at the little local grocery store in two minutes, park 10 feet from the door, wait in line for maybe 3 minutes tops and be back out the door. I can ride my bike to the post office where I will be greeted by name by the Post Master, who will also make sure to invite me to church. Some people find that annoying. I find it charming.
Have you ever seen the show “Heartland” on Netflix? It’s about a ranching family in the Canadian Rockies. It’s like a Hallmark movie that takes place over 14 seasons. I fell in love with the little town in the show- Hudson. I got so jealous that Amy (the main character) could ride her horse to the mailbox or over to visit the neighbors. I loved that her whole family was right there in the town. Sure they squabbled and got on each other’s nerves, but they were together for holidays and birthdays, for home cooked dinners and lazy Sunday afternoons. I wanted to live in a town like that- and now I do! Now I can be at my brother’s outfitter business helping schlep kayaks and look up and wave at my dad across the street at the post office. My daughter works one afternoon a week for my brother, and when she’s done, she walks to my mom and dad’s house, five minutes away. That might not seem like a big deal to you, but you can’t let a 12 year old girl walk anywhere alone in Atlanta.
We have no fast food here- no burger joint where you can feed your entire family Grade D beef for $20. But on Saturday nights in the summer, we have the Fish Fry in Hatteras Village. It’s a fundraiser for the Volunteer Fire Department, and for $9 you get fresh, locally caught fish, cole slaw, potato salad, hush puppies and iced tea. For $1 extra you can choose a homemade dessert made and donated by locals, everything from brownies to lemon pie. That sort of thing doesn’t exist in the city anymore. Sure, y’all have Chick-Fil-A, but I’d still choose the Fish Fry because it’s been a tradition for over 60 years!
When I stand in line at the Fish Fry, I see people I know, lots and lots of people, because this place is tiny and everyone knows everyone else. I grew up here, and even if someone doesn’t recognize me right away, I just say, “I’m Reuben and Vanessa’s daughter,” and that does the trick. I had gotten used to being anonymous in the city. I hardly ever knew anyone at the grocery store. Everyone was a stranger. We all floated by each other, not knowing or caring to speak to each other. Here, when you run into someone you know, you ask about their family, you comment on the weather (usually windy), or you marvel at the amount of tourists here so early in the season. Everyone in the city is in such a hurry all the time, but not here. Part of the fun of going out to run errands is visiting!
Part of the commerce of small towns is gossip, not in the malicious sense, but in the sense that this is a quiet place and any little tidbit of news is of interest. Someone’s daughter got a full scholarship, someone’s son won his wrestling match at state finals, someone’s husband caught the biggest marlin in the fishing tournament. When one of us does well, we all do well. When kids from our tiny school go to state championships, it’s a BIG DEAL. There’s something to be said for growing up in a place where people want you to succeed and cheer you on, and when you succeed you bring a sense of pride to the whole community.
Because we live on an island that is inundated with visitors every summer, there is also a sense of pride in being local. People who make a home here full time have to withstand hurricanes, gale force winds on the regular, tide, road closures due to the tide, and all the inconveniences that come from living outside of “civilization.” In the wintertime, all the shops and restaurants shut down and it is essentially a ghost town. Not everyone can handle that. You have to like solitude to make it here. Lots of people in the city sport “Salt Life” bumper stickers; we live the real salt life.
I told my husband when we moved into our house on the island that I’m never moving again. I will die in this house. Part of that was how stressful our move was; I’m not going through that again. But mostly I’m not moving because I’m home. There’s nowhere else I want to be.