A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

They gather on Friday night at the Comfort Inn South Oceanfront in Nags Head, where a salty wind whips across the second-floor deck, and a full moon slowly arcs above the Atlantic.

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

They gather on Friday night at the Comfort Inn South Oceanfront in Nags Head, where a salty wind whips across the second-floor deck, and a full moon slowly arcs above the Atlantic.

Drawn to the Light

They gather on Friday night at the Comfort Inn South Oceanfront in Nags Head, where a salty wind whips across the second-floor deck, and a full moon slowly arcs above the Atlantic.

They’ve flown in from Texas and Minnesota, California and Colorado; one family traveled all the way from Alaska. They reunite with children and grandkids, great-aunts and uncles. Some meet cousins they never knew they had.

They’ve brought photos and heirlooms, a painted doll, pine-needle baskets. Pieces of their pasts. All connected to the lighthouse.

Most have never been inside the black-and-white tower on Bodie Island, where their ancestors kept the beacon burning. In its 141-year history, the lighthouse had only been open to the public for a couple days in celebration of the U.S. Lighthouse Service bicentennial in 1988. Until last year.

So this weekend in mid-October, as autumn blows in and the National Park Service prepares to close the lighthouse for the season, more than 300 descendants of the 34 keepers are getting together to celebrate the tower’s $5 million restoration. To share stories of hardships and hurricanes, climbing dogs and flying cats, hot biscuits, cold stairs, and the constant comfort of that steady white light that links their lives.

• • •

“Oh, look at everyone. This is just wonderful. It’s so very special getting to be here,” says Marilyn Austin Meads, 84, whose sweatshirt is dotted with lighthouses. “I thought they would just let it sit there and rot away. I never thought I’d get to see it fixed up to what it was when we were there.”

Marilyn and her younger sister, Verna Austin Wall, are the daughters of the lighthouse’s last assistant keeper, Julian Haywood Austin. They lived in the white duplex on the grassy grounds in the 1930s, their bedroom window framing the striped tower.

Living in the other half of the house was their friend Erline “Enie” Gaskill White, whose dad, Lloyd Vernon Gaskill, was the last lighthouse keeper.

The three women, all widows, haven’t seen each other in years. But tonight, in the Comfort Inn ballroom, they share a table — and memories of being the last children who grew up beneath the beacon.

“I can’t wait to get inside that house, to see the staircase and our old room,” says Marilyn, who lives near Elizabeth City.

“I can’t believe how many people are here,” says Enie, 84, who traveled from Norfolk, Virginia. “All these people I haven’t seen in years.”

“It’s beyond words. Just such a joyous occasion. An honor,” gushes Verna, of Camden. “The chance of a lifetime.”

At 79, Verna is the baby of the trio — a 5-foot-tall firecracker with a pixie bob and mischievous eyes. She was in first grade when she left the lighthouse, but she remembers her years there as the best part of her childhood, the sprawling sanctuary where she learned to love silence and solitude. She had thought she wouldn’t be able to come back.

Verna was in a car accident six months earlier, and surgeons fused five vertebrae in her neck, warned her she might not walk again. Though rehab helped her recover, her arthritic knees still ache, and she has started carrying a cane.

She brought 14 people with her: her oldest son and youngest daughter, four grandchildren and their three spouses, five great-grandkids — the youngest only 2 months old. Four generations coming together to celebrate their heritage and return to their roots.

“Now that we’re all here, and we get to go back there, do you know what I’m going to do?” Verna asks. Her sister  scowls. Enie raises her eyebrows. “The doctor told me not to. My kids say they won’t let me. But how can I not even try?”

She hasn’t scaled those spiral stairs in 73 years — not since she ran up them as a girl. Ten flights, 214 skinny steps.

“Tomorrow,” Verna says, “I’m going to climb it.” She grins and nods, then repeats her plan, a little louder, so people at nearby tables can hear. “I’m going to climb that lighthouse.

“At least I’m going to try.”

Verna Austin Wall returns to Bodie Island to see the house she lived in as a child — and the beacon that still shines over the Atlantic. photograph by Melissa Lyttle

• • •

The Comfort Inn ballroom has been turned into a museum. History hangs from every wall: ledgers and logs, portraits and pay stubs. John Etheridge, who ran the first lighthouse in 1848 — back when it was called Body Island — earned $400 a year. By 1853, the lighthouse had begun to tilt, and the keeper’s annual salary had increased to $500.

There are blueprints for the three versions of the lighthouse; a chronology of every keeper and his years of service; supply lists and letters and drawings of the rare, first-order Fresnel lens, which was made in France.

During the four-year restoration of the lighthouse, workers removed, repaired, and cleaned the 344 glass prisms. Now, the lens remains one of the few working first-order Fresnels in the world. And though today’s seamen rely on GPS devices and computers for navigation, some say the blinking beacon continues to reassure them. For Outer Banks mariners, it’s a symbol that they’re home.

“The lighthouse is so much more than bricks and mortar,” says Bruce Roberts, who helped organize the gathering with his wife, Cheryl. “It preserves the personal history of all the people who worked there, whose families lived on that isolated stretch of barrier islands, whose work helped save countless ships.”

Bruce, a photographer, calls lighthouses “America’s castles” and has traveled the country documenting them. Cheryl, a former fourth-grade teacher, accompanied him on a trip to capture the Great Lakes’ lighthouses. She got bored of the towering architecture, of trying to chase the slant of the sun. She started musing about the keepers. Who had kept those lights burning? Who else had shared those remote towers? She began tracking down people who had lived in lighthouses and collecting their stories.

A decade ago, the Robertses helped found the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society and started working to save and celebrate the islands’ four historic structures. Four years ago, when Congress finally funded repairs for the Bodie Island tower, the couple started searching for the keepers’ descendants.

The Robertses checked county marriage licenses and state records, federal documents and national archives. They sent letters and emails and Facebook messages. With the help of genealogist Sandy Clunies’s database of more than 20,000 names, the Robertses documented 1,066 descendants. Some never knew they had a lighthouse keeper in their lineage.

“This far surpasses our wildest expectations,” says Cheryl, scanning the crowd at the Comfort Inn.

• • •

Genealogy charts paper the far wall, stretching 10 feet from floor to ceiling, with names rimmed in red, green, and blue rectangles.

“Some just weren’t interested,” says Sandy, who refers to herself as a “Damn Yankee that the Outer Bankers adopted.” Others were excited, eager to come see where their ancestors had served. “Lighthouses are never in ugly places,” Sandy says.

“We’re all so grateful that it’s open to the public,” says George Bonner, 47, a Coast Guard captain whose great-great-grandfather was a keeper. “I heard all these stories growing up, but I never got to see what they saw. I always wondered about that view.”

Bonner brought his daughters, ages 9 and 12, to see the lighthouse and learn its lore. He tells them about his great-grandmother Lily who had lived there when she was a girl. Lily had this cat — he couldn’t remember the cat’s name. One day, Lily followed her dad up the lighthouse stairs and the cat followed Lily and while her dad was lighting the lamp, the cat leapt out of her arms, dashed onto the balcony, and jumped — 15 stories to the ground. Lily tore down the spiral stairs, ran out the door and around the lighthouse. She found paw prints in the sand. But she never found her cat.

“The view from up there is incredible,” Verna tells Bonner’s daughters. “I grew up there. And I’m going back up tomorrow.”

Verna is one of the last to leave the ballroom. Later, in a relative’s cottage near the Avalon Pier, she lies awake remembering the smell of fried spot over the woodstove; the sting of salt spray on her skin; the sight of swans swooping over the marshlands far below the lighthouse balcony, where she stood watching them from her platform in the clouds.

And she prays, “God, do you think I can do this?” Then she changes her plea. She’s almost 80. If she can’t climb the next day, she knows she never will. “Please, God,” Verna prays. “Help me do this.”

(From left to right) Judy Rosson, Marilyn Meads, and Erline White have fond memories of living on Bodie Island when they were children. photographs by Melissa Lyttle

• • •

Carolina’s coast, especially along the Outer Banks, contains some of the most treacherous waters in the world. The cool Labrador Current, just offshore, carries mariners swiftly south, while the warm Gulf Stream, 20 miles east, shoots ships north. The currents collide off Cape Hatteras, near a series of submerged sandbars called Diamond Shoals.

Sailors trying to traverse that stretch of sea have to skirt between the shoals and the Gulf Stream for about five miles. They used to call it “threading the needle.” With high winds and waves, passage is sometimes impossible.

In the past 500 years, more than 1,000 ships have wrecked along the Outer Banks, claiming countless lives.

Back when our country was just beginning, when waterways were our highways, federal officials recognized the need to help mariners navigate the difficult shorelines. Future statesman Alexander Hamilton, in 1773, dubbed the area off the Outer Banks “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Congress created the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment in 1789 and, nearly 50 years later, sent a crew to scout locations along North Carolina’s craggy shore.

A tower is most needed near Bodie Island, Lt. Napoleon Coste wrote, where “more vessels are lost … than on any other part of our coast.” A light there, he reasoned, would give seamen time to shift east and head farther offshore, into deeper waters, 35 miles before they came to Cape Hatteras.

That same year, 1837, the government pledged $5,000 to build the light. It would take another decade to finish it. And neither that lighthouse, nor the next one, would last long.

The first tower opened in 1849 and stood 54 feet tall. Its beam was fueled by 14 Argand lamps that burned whale oil inside parabolic reflectors. The lighthouse was constructed of bricks, atop soft sand and mud.

In three years, it began to sink and lean. After 10 years, engineers determined it had to close. So taxpayers shelled out another $25,000 for a second tower, which opened in 1859.

The next one was taller, by eight feet, and sat farther south — on shoreline that has since been swallowed by Oregon Inlet. The bricks of the new Bodie Island Lighthouse were whitewashed, and its new Fresnel lens, imported from Paris, revolved. Sailors could see the beam from 15 miles at sea.

This became a problem during the Civil War. Confederates removed the lens piece by piece so Union troops wouldn’t be able to navigate by the light. Soldiers packed the glass sections into wooden crates and loaded them onto wagons that horses carried to Raleigh. Later, as the Confederates retreated, they tore down the new tower so Union soldiers couldn’t use it as a lookout.

For the next decade, more than 100 miles of coast between Cape Henry and Cape Hatteras remained dark.

The third lighthouse was three times as tall as the first and cost $140,000 to build, which seemed like a lot in 1872. But during the 15 months workers were building it, six ships crashed along the Outer Banks, losing more than $130,000 in cargo — not to mention the lives. Mariners could see the new, brighter beacon blinking from 20 miles at sea, and the black-and-white bands became a daytime symbol of the dangerous shores just south.

In order to avoid coastal erosion, engineers set this lighthouse on a grassy expanse of marshland topped by tall pines, more than a mile north of the second site, much farther inland.

From its granite base, you can’t see the shore, only small ponds and thick grass.

But from the top of its 165-foot tower, you can see all the way west to the Pamlico Sound, across the entire island to the ocean.

Even from up there, when the last keepers’ daughters were growing up in the 1930s, they couldn’t see a single house. Insulated and isolated, their world was rimmed by the woods and a white fence that kept out grazing cows. They had each other, a couple of Chesapeake Bay retrievers, some stray kittens, and a family of box turtles.

The girls knew, from the time they were old enough to know anything, that their light was a lifeline, a salvation for sailors, steering them away from the shoals toward safety.

But they also thought of the lighthouse as their personal playhouse. A dozen times a day they tied nails or nuts inside their handkerchiefs, raced up those spiral stairs without stopping on any of the landings, tore out of the tower and onto the balcony, where they leaned over the ornate iron railing and dropped their homemade parachutes into the wind.

By 1939, when the older girls started middle school, the light had become electrified, powered by batteries and generators, so no one needed to carry fuel up all those stairs. A flash controller worked an electric bulb. There was no longer a need for keepers.

Enie, who hated living at the lighthouse, couldn’t wait to leave. Marilyn, who had been there her whole childhood, couldn’t picture another home. Verna, who was only 5, cried as her dad carried her away. She knew one day she would come back. She just never thought it would take so long. Or that her childhood castle would be restored and open for everyone. She so wants to show her great-grandsons what she had seen.

• • •

Saturday dawns gray and damp; sooty clouds scuttle above the pines. As Verna climbs out of her daughter’s car, a moist wind whips through the parking lot at the lighthouse. She pulls a striped sweater over her black turtleneck and smiles.

The grass has just been mowed; it smells as sweet as she recalled. And the old buildings around her, everything was exactly as she remembered — only better, spruced up. A cleaner, whiter version of her girlhood.

There is the cistern that collected rain, their only source of fresh water. There is the pump that bit the nail off her little finger. There is the woodshed, where she and her sister learned to roller skate on the cement floor.

Slowly, Verna strolls past the two-story wooden house, the duplex they shared with Enie’s family, where her dad struggled to care for the light and three kids. The house has been repainted, too, its rotten porch railings replaced, all the windows washed. “That was our room up there,” Verna tells her daughter, pointing above the right front door. “Marilyn and I shared a bed.”

When Verna turns to look up at the lighthouse, she gasps and holds her hand to her heart. It looks so splendid, shimmering against the sky. “Let’s take a picture,” says her granddaughter, Morgan Capps, who has come from Raleigh. “Here, Grammy, do you want to hold the baby?”

So Verna poses with her youngest great-grandson on the brick pathway, surrounded by a dozen descendants, in front of the backdrop of her beginning. “Say sweet potatoes,” Verna says. And they all do.

“When do we get to climb it?” she asks a young park ranger, who looks startled. “Oh, we’re all going up,” she says.

The Lighthouse Society has rented a long, white wedding tent for the lawn, set up scores of round tables inside, crafted centerpieces of fishing nets and shells. A low stage stretches across the back of the tent, flanked by golden mums. Tripods with television cameras are tucked into the corners.

Verna and her family sit up front.

Then the Coast Guard color guard marches in with flags, and someone sings “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and a minister prays that “each of us continues to be a light for those who are in darkness.”

“On days when the water was calm and the sky was clear, you really didn’t need that light,” Warren Judge, chair of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, tells the quiet crowd. “But when the waves were high and the skies were dark, the captain’s only hope was to see that beacon in the dark that would guide them to safety. Your ancestors kept that light on. You should be proud. You’re all part of this place.”

Someone passes out prizes: For the oldest descendant, for the most keepers in one family. Verna wins the most prizes. Her great-grandson, wearing a sailor-striped onesie, is the youngest attendee at 9 weeks old. Her four generations are the best represented. And her 60-year-old son Frank, a retired Coast Guardsman from Palmer, Alaska, has traveled the farthest: more than 4,000 miles.

“We have three women with us today who actually lived in those keepers’ quarters,” says Cheryl Roberts, wiping her eyes. “I’m sorry. This is just so moving.”

Marilyn clutches a canvas purse covered with lighthouses. She married a farmer, raised two daughters, and worked as a bookkeeper at a building supply company. “This is my grandson,” she says, introducing him to Enie. “This is Enie. We grew up together here.”

Enie married a Navy man, raised four children, and was a secretary at a construction company. She brought nine relatives to the lighthouse, some from as far away as Texas. “This is my niece,” Enie tells Verna. “And her two children, who have never been to the Outer Banks.”

Verna hugs them both. “And that’s my gang over there,” she says. “Well, most of them.” At 17, Verna fell in love with a lineman for the power company and took a job as a legal secretary in Camden. They had two daughters and two sons. The youngest boy drowned while he was mackerel fishing off Hatteras Island, at age 22. Three years later, Verna lost her 50-year-old husband to a heart attack. “Oh, he was my love,” she tells Enie, pulling out her iPhone to show her a photo of a tall man in a starched white shirt. “See how handsome?” Gone 30 years now, his picture was the first one she scanned. “He will always be my screen saver.”

Introductions continue all morning. Everyone in the tent is related to someone, Etheridges and Danielses, Basnights, Tilletts, and Midgetts. “It was a close-knit community. Keepers’ sons married assistant keepers’ daughters,” Cheryl says. “Some of these keepers had 10 or 12 kids.”

After a lunch of barbecue sandwiches, cornbread, and green beans, it’s time for “The Old Ones’ Panel.” Or, as Verna prefers to think of it, “Life at the Lighthouse.” Audience members are supposed to ask questions. Mostly, the women tell stories.

“We didn’t have many visitors up here,” Marilyn says softly, shaking her head. She was 4 in 1933 when her mother got tuberculosis and had to go to the mainland, into a sanatorium. Marilyn and her older brother, Julian, moved into the lighthouse with their dad, who dressed her in dungarees, cut her hair like a boy, and taught her to chop wood.

Verna, who was only 9 months old, went to live with her grandmother in Maryland and didn’t share the keepers’ cottage with her siblings until she was 3. “A few times, some strangers would struggle here through the sand to see the lighthouse,” Marilyn says. “They always wanted to go up to the top, so I would take them. I guess I enjoyed that more than anything. It was always so lonely here otherwise, until Enie moved in.”

Childhood, for Marilyn, sounded like hissing winds and rolling surf and feral cats crying under the porch. It tasted like collards from her dad’s garden, bluefish untangled from nets, oysters dug from the mud, clam chowder, and canned peaches. When geese crashed into the lighthouse, drawn by the mirrored sun, she scooped them off the sand and the family had a feast.

She slept on a bed of goose feathers with the beacon blinking through her room, 2.5 seconds on; 2.5 seconds off; 2.5 seconds on … then 22.5 seconds of blackness. The too-bright light swallowed the stars. In Marilyn’s youth, the night was never dark.

Every morning, Marilyn and her brother dressed by lamplight. “My aunt in Norfolk sent me clothes, or we ordered from the Sears catalog,” Marilyn says. Her dad let the air out of the tires of his old Buick and they puttered seven miles across the sand to Whalebone Junction, both kids crammed in the rumble seat, often getting out to push and dig. The school bus came at 7, just as the cantaloupe sun was climbing out of the ocean. The drive to Roanoke Island took almost an hour, when they were lucky. When their dad got back to the lighthouse, he made sure the light had been turned off, then he climbed up and pulled curtains around the glass tower, to protect the fragile lens from the sun.

Once a year, a buoy tender dropped coal, paint, and supplies for the keepers. Marilyn always looked forward to the traveling library, a chest of 30 books, mostly history, along with some recent National Geographics. She sat in the living room, studying faraway places, while her brother climbed the tower with his dog to see the ships sliding up and down the sea.

From the lighthouse balcony, Marilyn and her siblings watched men from the Civilian Conservation Corps plant sea oats along the sand dunes. During the hurricane of ’33, they found muskrats and snakes huddled on the lighthouse steps, trying to escape the flood. “Dad had to row a johnboat to get to the lighthouse, and climb in a window!” And when the light went out one night, and their dad was down at the hunt club, Marilyn and Julian, ages 8 and 11, ran two miles through the dark marshland to alert him. They knew how important that beam was, how many sailors were depending on it. “Dad was so worried, he jumped in the car and drove straight back to the lighthouse,” Marilyn says. “He forgot about us. We had to walk all the way back.”

Some Saturdays, their dad treated them to the movies at the Pioneer Theatre in Manteo: A quarter bought a ticket and popcorn. He always brought home a Coastland Times, to keep up with the rest of the world, and a load of ice, which lasted two days in a box lined with sawdust. “In 1937,” Marilyn says, “we finally got a refrigerator.” Though the lighthouse had been electrified by then, the keepers’ quarters hadn’t. The fridge, like the lamps, ran on kerosene.

Enie moved to the lighthouse that year, when both she and Marilyn were 8. Her three older siblings had grown and moved out of their Wanchese house, so Enie’s mom decided to join her husband. “I hated it,” Enie says. “It was so far away from everything. There was nothing to do. Not even a piano. The only saving grace,” she says, “was Marilyn.”

The girls coaxed frogs from the cistern; swam in the ponds; and played hide-and-seek with Enie’s German shepherd, Whiskey, who always found them. When word went out that an inspector was coming down from Baltimore, Marilyn and Enie whitewashed the stairs at their duplex, mopped the lighthouse’s marble floors, and polished the lens with soft cotton cloths. “We weren’t allowed to leave any fingerprints,” Enie says. “We were stuck. But it was home.”

“We didn’t suffer during the Depression,” says Marilyn. “Our fathers had steady government paychecks” — $140 per month, less $20 for rent. “We caught and grew most of our food. There weren’t really any bills or other expenses.”

Both sides of the keepers’ quarters had upstairs bathrooms. But the house never got indoor plumbing. Each side had its own outhouse, two-seaters with screened windows, to block the mosquitoes. “I kept cats in my bathtub,” Enie says, laughing.

“My brother slept in ours,” says Marilyn. “That was his bedroom.” The bathroom, in the center of the house, had the best view of the lighthouse.

That first summer they were together, the keepers took their children to see The Lost Colony outdoor drama. President Franklin Roosevelt was at the same show, but the girls were more excited about the actresses’ elaborate costumes.

Verna moved to the lighthouse the year after Enie arrived, and toddled after the older girls. “One of my first memories of being here was picking blackberries,” Verna says. “One of my best ones was when our father took us to Adams Floating Theatre.” The showboat docked in Manteo, and the keeper bought each of his children a box of taffy. Inside Verna’s was a magic ticket, redeemable for a prize. Pick that one, her father told her, pointing at a model sailboat. But when Verna asked for it, the woman with the prizes leaned close and whispered, ‘Which one do you really want?’ ”

“Oh, I wanted that doll with the painted beauty mark so badly,” Verna laughs. “The woman gave it to me. Her name was Rachel. So that’s what I named my doll. And my daughter.”

Reaching into a canvas bag, the elderly woman pulls out the 76-year-old china doll wrapped in a crocheted shawl. Some of the blonde hair has fallen out; the scarlet lip paint is chipped. But that beauty mark is still there, as elegant as ever. “She lived with me here at the lighthouse,” says Verna. “So I brought her home.”

Cousins meet for the first time at the reunion, and strangers share stories about island living that are unique, but very familiar. And all have a common bond: the Bodie Island Lighthouse. photograph by John Havel

• • •

When a park ranger lifts the tent flap that afternoon, sunlight floods the gathering. The clouds have cleared. The wind has died. Outside, it is warm and bright.

“OK,” says the ranger, raising a fist full of tickets. “Who wants to climb?” Normally, admission is $8. But today the descendants get to go in for free.

Verna’s great-grandsons, ages 3 and 5, rush to the front. She’s right behind them. “Aren’t you coming?” she calls to her sister and Enie.

Marilyn shakes her head. Enie laughs. “I couldn’t even get up those first few steps!”

Leaving her cane at the table, Verna follows her family down the long brick path to the lighthouse. Seagulls float overhead, cawing. “Oh, wow!” says her granddaughter Callie Wright, looking up at the stately tower. “This is just. Wow.”

The ranger tells them all to be careful. The stairs are open, and there’s no air-conditioning, so it gets hot up top. “Take your time,” he warns. “And don’t feel badly if you have to turn back.”

“You sure you want to try this, Mom?” asks Verna’s daughter, grabbing her elbow.

Verna shakes her off, smiling, and unbuttons her sweater. “Oh, I’ve done this a thousand times.”

Five cement steps lead into the oil house, beneath the gabled door and the plaque that reads, “1871.” Verna takes her great-grandsons into the cool, dark hall. “They used to store fuel in here, for the lamps,” she says. “But by the time I lived here, it was full of batteries.”

She stops in the foyer. The black-and-white marble tiles, arranged like a checkerboard, have never been so clean; the ebony iron railings gleam. Eight more steps and she is in the lobby, where a spiral staircase twists around her, narrowing as it rises through the tower. Everyone tilts their heads, trying to see the top. Verna brushes past them, never looking up, her eyes glued to the stairs. Grabbing the handrail, she plants one foot, then the next, and begins the long climb to the top of what had once been her world.

“Wait! Mom!” calls her daughter. “I want to be right behind you, in case.”

“Go, Grammy, go!” call her granddaughters.

At the first landing, Verna pumps her fist — and keeps climbing. At the third, she pauses to peer out the window, across the sea of yellow-green grass, the patchwork of ponds where she learned to swim. She stoops to rub her knees, then keeps climbing.

After the fifth flight, she leans against the brick wall and bends over. “You OK, Mom?” asks her daughter. Verna nods, struggling to catch her breath. “You don’t have to do this.”

She rests for a few minutes, then walks to the railing and looks down into the lobby, far below. “I’m getting close to the top, aren’t I?” she asks. She won’t look up. That was the trick she learned as a girl, a lighthouse lesson that has threaded through her life: Don’t look up at how far you still have to climb. Look back at how far you’ve come.

“I’m ready,” she announces. “Are you all?”

For the last flight, Verna hauls herself up with both hands, steadying herself with both feet on each step. “Only 18 more!” calls a ranger. She is too winded to answer, too proud to quit. She trudges upward, head down, watching her feet: 207, 208 … Breathe! This used to be so easy. She used to sprint these last steps two at a time. Now her legs and back are aching; even her hands hurt from holding on so tightly: 212 …

She feels the wind before she sees the light, tastes the salt spray and knows she has made it. When she finally looks up, the open door to the balcony is just above her. The crowd parts, making way for her to come outside.

One more stairstep: 214. She climbs onto the deck, wheezing. Everyone cheers.

For a few minutes, people pepper her with praise. You did it! We knew you could. Look at you! Everyone wants to pose for pictures beside the last assistant lighthouse keeper’s youngest daughter. She obliges, smiling, while the wind whips her white hair. She shows her great-grandsons the ships sliding just offshore, pointing out the old path to the pier where she used to fish.

What she really wants, right now, is to be alone. It is wonderful, being able to share Bodie Island with all these other descendants. But one of the best things about the lighthouse, Verna always thought, is the solitude, the chance to be by herself on that balcony, looking out across the entire island, high above everything, even the clouds.

On this idyllic afternoon, “by far the best day of my life,” Verna walks the whole balcony, drinking in the panorama. Even now, 74 years after she left, she still can’t see a single house or hotel from her lofty sanctuary. Only grass and pines, ponds and pelicans, framed by the silver sound on one side, the frothy Atlantic on the other.

And overhead, the light.

Bodie Island Lighthouse
8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse Road
Nags Head, NC 27959

This story was published on Feb 25, 2014

Lane DeGregory

Lane DeGregory is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Tampa Bay Times. She spent her first decade as a reporter on the Outer Banks and comes “home” to North Carolina whenever she can. Lane has taught at universities and writing conferences around the world and won dozens of other national reporting awards. Her first book, The Girl in the Window and other True Tales, is an annotated anthology which the University of Chicago Press released in 2023.