Shackleford Banks, NC – May 12, 2013Shackleford Banks, NC – May 12, 2013
The narrow, muddy channel snaked through marshes and oyster beds to a small stand of trees a hundred feet from the back of a supermarket. I stepped out, sunk into the mud, and dragged the boat ashore. A few steps brought me to asphalt and parking spaces.
Shackleford Banks waited across the Beaufort Inlet, a mile of open, but calm water. I had to hurry, the sun was racing toward the horizon and I wanted to imagine the scene almost three hundred years ago, when Blackbeard’s ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge smashed into a hidden sandbar.
The supermarket’s automatic doors slid open as I grabbed a cart and pushed past the line of registers. Everything looked like it always does–uniform American grocery store–and I began the familiar circuit up and down the aisles. I passed fruit stacked in colorful piles and cartoon-covered cereal boxes. I walked by cartons of milk and meat wrapped in styrofoam and plastic. I filled my basket bit by bit.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge used to be a French slave ship called La Concorde until Blackbeard captured her near the Caribbean island of St Vincent. He loaded her with cannons and gave her the new name. When he ran her aground, he’d just finished blockading Charleston, holding the whole city ransom, and had gone north to hide from the British navy. Some say he grounded her on purpose so he could flee with the treasure on one of his other ships and cut out half his crew from their share.
I picked up a few pieces of fried chicken and some bagels with cream cheese to eat back on the water along with enough food for a week on the barrier islands. The bored cashier flicked items by a scanner one after another, each beeping in turn. I read tabloid headlines and tried not to buy candy bars as the register’s belt inched forward.
The British caught Blackbeard eventually, just north of here near Ocracoke. He went down hard, shot, cut open, and stabbed more than twenty times before he fell. Then they cut off his head and threw his body overboard just to make sure.
“You got a savings card?” the clerk asked me.
“No, can you swipe one for me?” I said.
“Sure,” she said. “You can use mine. Where you visiting from?”
“Florida,” I said.
“Why would you leave Florida to come to a place like this?” the kid bagging groceries said.
“It seems like a neat place, barrier islands and all,” I said. “I’ve never been before, what should look out for?”
“It’s pretty boring,” he said. “I’d take Florida over it any day.”
“I hear there are wild ponies on Shackleford Banks,” I said.
He shrugged again.
“Let me get you a visitor’s guide,” the clerk said, running off and returning with a glossy magazine of restaurant advertisements and hotels next to mini-golf courses.
Legend says that Blackbeard’s headless body swam around the ship five times before it died. Some say it’s still swimming, roaming the afterlife in search of his head, fearing that his friends and the Devil won’t recognize him without it.
I reached Shackleford Banks just as the sun set. A wild horse met me on the shore, dark brown against the purple sky. It stood for a moment then raced away, disappearing into the island.
I thought of growing up in Tallahassee and how many times I felt like that kid bagging groceries. I didn’t see the crystal clear springs or endless beaches. I didn’t see the giant alligators or oak trees with limbs that twisted out like fingers on a hand. I didn’t see any of it because I saw it all the time.
I camped on the beach, stared at the water that held Queen Anne’s Revenge, ate bagels with cream cheese, and hoped the footsteps I heard belonged horses and not Blackbeard looking for his head.