"Son," said the old-timer over the drone of the ferryboat's diesel, "what do you know about this little island we're a-going to?"
A half-mile away the white sand of Ocracoke Island glittered in the afternoon sun. It was hot - North Carolina summer hot - and the air was still as we ran ahead of the perpetual Outer Banks breeze.
We had come from Hatteras, boarding the state's free ferry with our cars for the short run across turbulent Hatteras inlet, where the surging swells of the Atlantic meet the placid shallows of Pamlico Sound.
Something comes over me in the South, where words are chosen slowly and carefully. The old-timer was from Alabama, his license tags disclosed, and I adopted a strange, city-boy approximation of his laconic dialet.
"Frankly," I answered after an indecent pause, spitting a spurt of imaginary tobacco juice over the side, "not much."
It had been 12 long years since I'd spent any time in Ocracoke, and my memory began and ended with two vignettes: friendly natives waving, unilaterally, to a youthful tourist from New York; and the discovery of the wrecked bones of a wooden seagoing boat on an empty stretch of perfect white beach, with no one for miles to share my discovery with.
But what about motels, and nightclubs, and entertainment? No, I recollected, nothing like that. Just a few simple inns. But after driving 80 miles through the new Outer Banks, where stretches of flimsy-looking summer homes pop up from the sand on skinny stilts and burger bars shine their gaudy neon in the starry night; who knows?
Wonder of wonders, Ocracoke is still Ocracoke.
The town sits at the southern end of its own 12-mile sandspit, overlooking Ocracoke inlet. It's a sun-washed gaggle of neat year-round homes, many dating back a hundred years and more. The population was 600 or so when Thurston Gaskill, a native, was born. Gaskill is still there 75 year later, and it's still 600.
"I worked a couple of months on a dredge boat in Delaware Bay when I was 18," said Gaskill. "I got to see a little of how the city folks lived and then I turned around and sniffed my way back home like a dog. Been here ever since. It hasn't changed much."
Somehow Ocracoke has escaped the Outer Banks boom, and the world can breathe a sigh for that. Silver Lake, the main harbor, where Blackbeard is said to have caroused in 1715 and near which he is said to have died by a Britisher's sword in 1718, still sparkles, and the traditional white Carolina working dories still bob at mooring in the ripples, like cattle at the feeding trough.
"It's like New England," the tourists say one after another. Of course it isn't. The architecture is newer, the land is flat as a flounder and the water's so warm you can swim in it. But it's got a feel and look of age that makes the comparison stick.
How has Ocracoke escaped?
The best guess is that it's because it's still an island, for real, while its northern cousins on the Banks have fallen prey to the bridge-builders. Apparently there's something a bit frightening to mainlanders about a place you can't get away from after dark, when the ferries stop.
It's got some other minuses, which turn out to be pluses if you don't like crowds. Like swarms of greenhead flies that bite like fury, and outdated liquor laws that only recently changed to permit sale of beer and wine in the grocery stores. And the somewhat spartan character of the inns, and the meat-and-potatoes character of the meals.
And there must have been plenty of folks who took the Hatteras ferry over to Ocracoke, drove five miles down the island and saw plain crisp nothing and gave up, never making it to the tip and the lovely town. The first 10 miles are national seashore, thoroughly empty but for one primitive campground.
Whatever the reason, Ocracoke is today what I first pondered the road map and traced the line of highway that skittered down Carolina's ribbon of sand.
It's an eight-hour drive or worse, a mean haul for a summer weekend. But who knows how long it will last?