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Welcome to 2021. Finally.
Last year is over. This year is now. The future will be here soon.
Happy New Year! I got up early (kids) and I’m basically runnin’ on three cups of coffee. I meant to finish this yesterday but I kept pushing it and pushing it until it was late in the afternoon. I’m out here at the coast, playing with kids, walking the dog, taking some time off. But before I get back to real life next week, I wanted to mention three things:
1. Away Message, the podcast that won’t die.
This was going to be one of those big long year-in-review posts but honestly, I was not a prolific writer in 2020. The biggest piece of journalism I produced was an eight episode season of my podcast, Away Message, which focused on North Carolina’s amazing and complicated Mountains-to-Sea Trail. I’d never done a serialized story about one topic before, and in some ways, I felt less like a reporter and more like a show runner. If you’re interested in how an episode comes together, I did a Twitter thread about that a while back, which you can read here. But overall, I’m quite proud of it. Since I don’t have much else to promote from last year, I really encourage you to give it a listen if you haven’t, or tell your friends about it if you have. One of the hardest parts of podcasting is getting people to discover your stuff. It’s always an uphill battle. If you liked the show, please post about it, give it a good review, and so on. I’ll be honest, I haven’t started thinking about what comes next for the podcast. As a project, it’s both extremely gratifying and extremely exhausting to make, and I’m grateful for everyone who listens.
2. Okay, I did write a couple of things.
In 2020, I wrote Our State’s Back In The Day series that features quirky bits of North Carolina history.
I also wrote a thing about making Charlotte’s Interstate 277 into a river.
I put out two videos, one about a man’s extreme social distancing:
And the other about a woman who crossed North Carolina, on foot, in less than 30 days:
Also! I started this newsletter. WHICH YOU’RE READING RIGHT NOW. If you like this and you’re not a subscriber, please allow me to enliven your inbox by hitting the button below.
If you already subscribe, again, tell a friend! Share this on your social media feeds! If you don’t already know, I typically take some time off of Twitter in the new year and delete the app off of my phone. So I probably will be more active here than there for a little bit, but I’ll still be listening, and would love to hear from you.
3. The First (and Last) Reporting Trip of 2020.
Last February, I drove down to the end of Hatteras Island and caught the ferry over to Ocracoke. It was off-season in the Outer Banks, which is always a great time to visit. The facades of tourism are stripped away. The cars are gone. The beaches are empty. The sun hangs low in the sky and the shadows are long. It’s impossible to tell which places are abandoned and which ones are merely closed for the season. I was the only person staying in my 30 room motel.
I was there to write a story about Highway 12, which ended up being the only longform feature story I wrote for Our State in 2020. The interviewing portion of the trip only involved a single truck ride with some state engineers, who pointed out the Sisyphean effort of pushing sand back to one side of the road, only to have it blow over to the other side. It’s a five hour trip to get to Nags Head from my house, so I figured I’d do a few other things. I ran on the new Marc Basnight Bridge that crosses Oregon Inlet. I went to the Guy Fieri-approved Tortugas’ Lie for a beer and dinner. I walked to the top of the Wright Brothers Memorial and took a picture of my daughter’s stuffed monkey. I checked on Biscuits ‘n’ Porn, which was still selling biscuits and, to a lesser extent, porn.
Then I drove down to Ocracoke. I’ve been writing for Our State for almost ten years, and for some reason, a story had never led me there (I did a podcast episode about a mid-summer power outage on the island, but reported it by phone since Ocracoke was basically cut off at the time). So, I hopped on the ferry without an agenda. I just really wanted to see this place.
Ocracoke is only reachable by boat or by plane. It’s an old pirate hangout that morphed into a tiny fishing village that’s now powered mostly by bed-and-breakfast visitors. It has a small lighthouse and a handful of restaurants and a lovely little bookstore. The island is 12 miles long, and the village sits at the southwestern tip of it. For the first 11 miles of the drive from the ferry terminal, it looked like there was nothing wrong.
On the ride over, I’d noticed that almost all of the other vehicles on the ferry were dump trucks. As I drove the last mile into the village, I figured out why they were there: They had been hauling debris off the island non-stop for months. It didn’t seem like it was happening fast enough. In one parking lot next to a beach access, there was still a pile of trash that was at least 30 feet high.
In the village, there was fiberglass, soggy furniture, concrete, and rotten wood piled up everywhere along the roads. There were tarps on roofs. Construction crews hustling from house to house. Not much was open. At the Flying Melon Cafe, I sat at the bar next to a guy who was in town installing pilings. Everybody needed pilings. Homeowners on the island were jacking their homes up and putting them on stilts to keep from being flooded by the next hurricane. Everybody else was furiously trying to rebuild everything in time for visitors to arrive in the summer.
Ocracoke looked like this because of Hurricane Dorian, which blew through in September 2019 and covered the island under a seven-foot-high storm surge. The damage was so widespread and severe that the island was closed to visitors for almost three months after the storm. It finally reopened to outsiders in December 2019. I visited about three months later, in late February.
And then, two weeks after I left the island, the pandemic took hold.
I’ve been coming back to that Ocracoke trip in my mind over the past ten months. It wasn’t the most consequential thing I saw or experienced in 2020, but it keeps me thinking about the three places where you can live your life: the past, the present, and the future. It’s easy, I think, to be nostalgic for the past, especially right now. But as anyone who’s into Thomas Wolfe or Bruce Springsteen already knows, you can never really go back to the way things used to be. That leaves you to live in the present, or the future. During the pandemic, we’ve all been stuck in the now, not knowing exactly when a post-coronavirus era will begin. But that future won’t look like the past. When a storm comes, things change. They have to. Eventually the debris will be gone, but the homes will be raised up.
So here’s to embracing the future, whenever it gets here. Happy New Year, everyone.
I, Jeremy Markovich, am a journalist, writer, and producer based outside of Greensboro, North Carolina. If you liked this, you might like Away Message, my podcast about North Carolina’s hard-to-find people, places, and things. Season 4 was all about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Author avatar by Rich Barrett.
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