Thirty years ago you couldn't get there from anywhere. Then the state put in the free ferry from Hatteras Island, connecting Ocracoke with a far corner of the real world. Ocracoke was still at the end of the line. You could go there, but you couldn't get anywhere from there.
It wasn't until the Cedar Island Ferry opened, hooking up the little sandy island with the mainland, that Ocracoke became a 20th-century real-live place, and Ocracokers started earning their keep in part by pandering to the tourist trade, instead of wresting it entirely from an uncaring sea.
Ocracoke. Eleven miles of sand, uninhabited and wild except for the southernmost mile where the town itself nestles around Silver Lake and the Coast Guard lighthouse. Ocracoke. Just a few tired houses with sandy front yards.
"Let's drive around a little bit," I suggested.
"That's about all you can drive around," said the islander who was driving. "A little bit."
People go to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a week, sometimes just a weekend, to laze on the endless white sand and listen to the roar of the surf. The ones that really want to get away from it all don't stop in the clutter of Nags Head, but keep going south onto Hatteras Island, where the small towns of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Buxton and Hatteras Village pop up like trading posts in a desert.
The ones who are downright antisocial take the winding, 45-minute ferry ride across Hatteras Inlet to Ocracoke, where if the world ended it would take three days to find out.
Norman Miller came there eight years ago, disgusted by the demise of a river he grew up loving. Today he is the lord of a small manor, the baron of Lakeside Courts, eight small rental cottages that fisherman occupy during the long fishing season.
If you should go to Ocracoke, stop by and see Miller. He has a story to tell.
At 34, Miller has sandy hair bleached cotton white by the sun. He is thin and red-bearded. His 30-footer, Rascal, lies at the dock two dozen paces from his front door. He doesn't have far to go to explore the fish-rich sloughs and channels of the inlet between Ocracoke and Cape Lookout; after a 20-minute boat ride the diesel is idling and Miller is feeling the bottom with a broomstick, looking for a channel where he expects red drumfish to by lying.
Miller knows the sloughs and drains of the inlet about as well as he once knew the Severn River, where he grew up.These days his memories of the Stevern are tainted.
"I used to trap muskrats in the marshes up the Severn," he said. He would crab in the summer, catch fish all year. It was a brackish wilderness for a boy to grow up in.
Then the Great Society came and, as far as Miller is concerned, ruined it. "It was in the '60s," said Miller. "Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. The federal government increased -- I don't know, tenfold.
"All these people came to work for the government and they needed places to live. They started building and moving in all along the river. The thing I couldn't understand was that they had money. Not a lot of money, but enough to throw around. They were working for the government. They didn't take any risks, but they still had money."
Houses went up, the marshes were filled in, and slowly the muskrat habitat vanished. The creeks became somebody's back yard; the backwaters where ducks and geese had wintered now had docks and pilings and boats, instead.
The Great Society.
For Miller, who had grown up plying a quiet river in solitude, it was as if someone had built a roller-coaster on his porch.
He took a job with the government but couldn't stand it. He got one in private industry and couldn't stand it. He wandered, looking for something that made sense. Then he found Ocracoke.
Miller is known today as a fearless boat captain who, if he believes there are fish there, will take Rascal into places in the surf that even the Ocracoke natives are afraid to navigate.
He knows the sloughs in the flood-tide and ebb-tide deltas of the inlet the way he used to know the creeks and fingers of the Severn.
But Ocracokers, islanders at heart, haven't accepted Norman Miller yet.
"I'm still an outsider," said Miller, "just like those people moving in on the Severn were to me.