By Kelley Shinn
March 12 was my tenth trip to Portsmouth Island in eight months. Last June, on my first visit, something happened inside of me—something I am only, and hesitantly, able to describe as spiritual–a physical magnetization of sorts, as if every molecule that makes up my being dispersed and meshed into that island like a billion, microscopic, unfaithful lovers. I loved it immediately.
On this most recent trip, Capt. Donald Austin braved the morning chill and ferried four of us over just after nine o’clock. The day soon warmed to near 70—a precious reprieve from the fierce, roller-coaster winter. We sat in the sun on the porch of the Salter house and lightered our belongings, nourished ourselves with morsels we had packed, and then headed off to explore the village.
Ray Schmitt, a longtime friend of Ocracoke and creator of Dead Girl Walking, the award-winning documentary on islander Marcy Brenner’s struggle with breast cancer, had his camera in hand, anxiously attempting to capture the presence of Portsmouth Island, which cannot be fully felt by an image alone. One must be there to understand the sacredness of that ground. Images can rarely convey the essence of a place— the sound of the birds and the crickets, and the wind in the junipers, and the ocean in the distance, too.
They cannot reproduce the smell of the marsh grass and the meadows and the aged, wooden homes and the folks who dwelled within them and the salt air, too. A picture of a gravestone will not give you the tactile experience of rubbing your hand over its chalky, harsh exterior, nor the humility that comes with reading an epitaph so close to the remains.
The essence is like this—as if the lives that dwelt on that glorious bump were lived so wholly that they can still be felt now, even though Portsmouth Village’s last two inhabitants abandoned the island in 1971.
After sauntering through the post office, the Henry Pigott house, the school and the lifesaving station, we headed for the beach, renowned for its glorious shelling potential. The road was a flooded impasse where we met up with Portsmouth Island’s official caretaker, Dave Frum.
We talked for some time about the significance of the village—Ray is full of curiosity and wonder—and Dave has an answer for everything Portsmouth. Ray, who is known for seeking the spiritual in his independent films, asked Dave if he had anything to say about Portsmouth within that realm. Dave, far more pragmatic, aptly satisfied the question when he replied that every day he spends there, he is aware and grateful that he walks among “the spirit of the past.”
The Friends of Portsmouth Island hosted their biennial homecoming. April 26. Descendants of the families that lived there returned to the island to gather and reminisce.
I hope to share pockets full of stories from having attended. On the boat ride home, Ray caught my eye and mouthed, “One of the best days of my life.”
I’ve been a lot of places, some natural wonders of the world included, but I can also say that 10 of the best days of my life so far were spent a hefty bit more than a stone’s throw from Ocracoke, on that timeless, uninhabited island, teeming with life.
Writer’s note: Shortly after finishing this piece I discovered that Ray Schmitt passed away suddenly on April 15. The village of Ocracoke has lost a dear friend and avid supporter. Ray and I had only been working together for six months, but they were the right six months. It will not surprise me to hear his whisper in the breeze at homecoming.