Winter on the Outer Banks

This is the seventeenth winter I’ve spent on the Outer Banks.

I recall that first one being particularly brutal as my psyche struggled to adjust to life on what, at the time, felt like the outskirts. I felt winter more intimately.  It settled in more quickly and lingered longer.

I wasn’t entirely prepared for wintering here. Signs of life were hard to find back then, especially where we lived – in a weathered, windswept flat top on the beach road in South Nags Head. Cold, dreary, and dismal were words that drifted through my consciousness often that winter.

At the time, I cursed the northeast wind that whipped through the seams of my jacket as I walked the dog along the desolate beach road, feeling as if it was put together with only a few flimsy pieces of fabric and a mini stapler.  On some mornings, both the dog and I returned home looking like we’d weathered a particularly violent sand storm.

Along with the wind, I cursed my decision to move here in the first place. Yes. It was colder where I had come from. It even snowed – often and accumulated. My wet hair would freeze when I stepped outside in January.

While winter here may not have been quite as frigid, it was no less harsh and, in many ways, even more so. The cold, the wind, the rain, the brown everything – grass, beach boxes, sea oats, you name it –all moved through me unlike the colder climates I’d lived in. Here, I found myself noticing more – like Mother Nature’s gray blanket of clouds she’d spread out above us for days at a time. Or the barren emptiness that moved in as northeast storms dumped sand onto the roads and forced every living thing that was rooted in the ground to bow to the southwest.

Unlike today, many stores still closed up during these months and I swear the year-round population felt like maybe a few hundred residents who were sparsely scattered around the island.

Now, all these years later, I still feel Outer Banks’ winters deeply. The cold still settles in, but the years and Mother Nature have changed me. While these days are still dark, and can deliver chilling winds, the months that follow the holidays no longer make up a season that I completely dread. 

Certainly, on some January and February days, those old words – cold and dreary – creep back into my mind. But now there are just as many winter days when beauty and quiet work their way in instead.

I have learned to notice even more through the years – like the blanket of stars Mother Nature also likes to lay out on many cold, crisp nights when light pollution is minimal. Or how the trees, baring only their branches that twist and turn, are as beautiful naked as they are covered in  radiant foliage. 

Perhaps by living on the Outer Banks, we learn to feel the seasons a little more, read the weather a little better. Maybe it’s because Mother Nature’s hand is closer to us simply because of the wildness and energy that exists in the environment we call home.

She knows how to get our attention, and during these next few months she offers to us some of the most beautiful images of nature as it retreats before being called to wake in the spring. In Nags Head Woods, along the ocean, at Jockey’s Ridge, on a soundside beach, or in the skies above us in our own neighborhoods – she reminds us again and again that there is beauty even on the darkest days.  And she owns many blankets. ♦

Michelle Wagner

Michelle Wagner is the editor at Three Dog Ink and has been living and writing on the Outer Banks for more than 15 years. Contact Michelle

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