After the last ferry leaves the dock, carrying away all of the day-trippers, the island is theirs again. Ron and Joan Preloger wave to the departing boat, then wind along the wooden boardwalk, through an ocean of sea oats, toward the lighthouse they call home. At least for a few weeks each year.
“I’ll bet that storm washed up a slew of shells,” Ron tells his wife at about 5 p.m. on this evening in early autumn. “Let’s ride out to the beach before it gets too dark.”
Their grown children worry about them all the way out here at Cape Lookout National Seashore, just the two of them, retired teachers, both 70 years old. A 30-mile drive from Beaufort, plus a 15-minute ferry ride from Harkers Island. There’s no Internet access, only spotty cell service and a landline they use to talk to park service colleagues.
Their friends from church can’t understand why they travel two days from Indiana, to the eastern edge of the continent, to stay on a sliver of sand between Back Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. To cut grass, sweep floors, and clean public toilets.
Without a car. Without air-conditioning. Without pay.
The Prelogers can’t explain it, really.
They talk about the isolation, about being far from news and noise. They describe the roar of waves bashing the beach, the whistle of wind sculpting the dunes, the loons’ haunting lullaby. They talk about the silver sheen of salt water, wild horses splashing through the surf, stars piercing the inky sky. The smell of the sea, the briny taste of the air.
Unless you come to the barrier island, unless you spend a night with the Prelogers so far from civilization, you can’t truly understand their desire to retreat to one of the country’s last outposts of unspoiled seashore.
“Some of our friends are cruise people. They want everything to be planned and taken care of, to live this fantasy, surrounded by thousands of strangers, and never leave the ship,” Joan says. “We’ve discovered we don’t need much to be happy.”
In the seven years they’ve been taking care of the Keeper’s Quarters beside the diamond-patterned lighthouse, the Prelogers have survived raging storms, fierce flooding, attacks from green flies, swarms of stinkbugs, raccoons stealing food off the grill, generators dying — even the haunting portrait of an old lighthouse keeper whose eyes seem to follow them.
“You get used to it,” Joan says. “At least, you try.”
Out here, they never know what to expect.
Ron picks up Joan in an off-road four-wheeler at 6 p.m., in front of the two-story house with nine shuttered windows and a chimney sprouting from each end. The porch railings are covered in shells. The couple collects them to send home with visitors and to take back to their three grandkids. Ron likes Scotch bonnets, striped or checkered. Joan prefers conchs, which she presses against her ear to hear the sea.
“When we first started coming out here, we couldn’t believe how many shells there were, and how perfect [they were],” Joan says, climbing into the Polaris ATV. “With this, we can drive farther up the beach than most people will walk. So we collect as many big ones as we can.”
“It’s amazing getting to stay in an environment that’s still in its natural state.”
There are no bridges to Cape Lookout, no official roads along the 56 miles of islands. Car ferries carry a few four-wheel-drive trucks from the towns of Atlantic and Davis. Some private boats come over from Beaufort, Atlantic, and Harkers Island. But most visitors pay $17 for the passenger ferry, which carries as many as 50 folks at a time. Summer weekends are busiest, with 2,000 visitors a day coming to swim, sunbathe, surf, fish, and explore.
The park is free, open all year. There are no hotels or restaurants, just rustic cabins to rent, or you can tent camp on the beach. From mid-May through mid-September, you can climb the lighthouse’s 207 iron steps and look out over the ocean. “When you’re up there, you can’t help but think of all the ships that light guided,” Ron says. “All the sailors it has saved.”
On their hunt for shells, Ron drives north for a while, weaving behind the dunes, then turns east and parks on a slick swath of sand. Joan gets out, clutching plastic bags. Stretching along the shore, as far as she can see, are piles of huge, whole oysters and angel wings, knobbed whelks, and bay scallops. Horseshoe crabs, sand dollars, and starfish. All washed up in the storm.
Joan fills her bags, loads them into the four-wheeler, then fills two more. “We should head out soon,” Ron says. “I still want to stop by the village.”
Neither Joan nor Ron grew up near the coast. They don’t sail or boat. Didn’t come from seafaring families. Their love of the lighthouse, they say, grew from their love for each other. A drive to help preserve the past. And to escape.
“It’s amazing getting to stay so far from any development, in an environment that’s still in its natural state,” Joan says. “We’ve learned to depend on just each other a lot more.”
They look like each other now: same cropped gray hair, square glasses, warm smile. They dress alike: polos embroidered with the park emblem. They finish each other’s sentences, respect each other’s silences.
“When you’re up there, you can’t help but think of all the ships that light guided. All the sailors it has saved.”
They met in choir at Concordia University in Chicago more than 50 years ago. Got married after graduation, had a son, then a daughter. Joan taught third grade. Ron taught middle-school music. During summers, they drove their kids to the beach, went fishing. For their 25th anniversary, they boarded a mail boat to a small island off Maine, in Acadia National Park, and stayed in a two-story lighthouse without electricity. All night, they lay awake listening to lobster boats bouncing against the piers, feeling, for the first time, that they were alone.
“I guess that’s when we got hooked,” Ron says. They became interested in lighthouse history, stories of men who tended the remote towers, who caught rainwater in cisterns and carried 45 pounds of oil up 12 stories twice a day to keep the light burning. “Their job required hardiness, skill with mechanical devices, tolerance for boredom and loneliness,” he says. “Often, they didn’t bring their families, so it was just them against the elements.”
Joan became obsessed with the icon, the structure itself: lighthouse pillows, bedspreads, ornaments, sweatshirts, and earrings. Lighthouse paintings, plates, and fan pulls. At their Indiana house, a six-foot lighthouse stands sentry over their patio. “All my students knew I loved lighthouses,” she says. “I must have more than 250 at home.”
Their kids were in college when the couple learned about the Volunteers-In-Parks (VIP) Program at Cape Lookout. The brick lighthouse was built in 1812, the fourth in North Carolina, and rebuilt in 1859. The beam was powered by whale oil, kerosene, and then electricity. The last full-time keeper left in 1950, when the beacon became automated.
Cape Lookout National Seashore began its VIP program a few decades ago, when 50 visitors a day was considered high traffic. But after the tower reopened for climbing in 2010, so many visitors flocked to the seashore that the Keeper’s Quarters docents (Ron and Joan’s official title) got to really prove their mettle.
For four-week shifts, two people can live in the Keeper’s Quarters for free. They get to use the upstairs — two bedrooms, a square living room, and a cramped kitchen and bath — and drive the off-road Polaris through the park. They have to bring their own linens, pots, pans, and food; greet visitors, clean the museum on the first floor, clear brush, pick up trash; and rescue birds and sea turtles. And, most important, sit in the wooden rockers on the front porch, answering questions.
“This is our volunteer time and our vacation,” Joan says.
As salmon-colored streaks paint the sky, they drive south along the soft sand, rimming the ocean. A few fishermen, leaning on their poles, look up to wave. A flock of shorebirds flits away.
The Prelogers ride for about 10 minutes, then come upon an abandoned cottage and what once was a mansion, now sliding into the salt water.
Up until the 1930s, the adjacent island of Shackleford Banks was still attached to Cape Lookout, and there was a little town there that locals called Diamond City, after the lighthouse’s black-and-white pattern. Men fished and caught whales; women tended gardens. Most of the locals moved away from Diamond City after a hurricane in 1899, some of them relocating to the site that became known as Cape Lookout Village. By the 1950s, all of the buildings in the village were summer homes and fishing shacks.
But when the government created Cape Lookout National Seashore in 1966, no one lived on the island anymore. The Coast Guard still kept a complex there, and the old lifesaving station still stood. But most of the homes had been abandoned. Only 13 original structures remain today — and most are too run-down to inhabit.
Except for the lighthouse. And the temporary VIP homes, such as the Keeper’s Quarters, which the National Park Service recently refitted with new windows and shutters.
“We manage the buildings, but the Coast Guard owns the light,” says Ranger B.G. Horvat, who helps oversee the island. By May 2017, he says, the Coast Guard had replaced the old beacon with LED clusters and installed solar panels between the pines to power them. The new beam reaches about 14 miles to sea — 10 fewer than the old light. It isn’t nearly as bright. So now, instead of walking the beach at night, the Prelogers have to get home by dark.
When they return to the Keeper’s Quarters, the sun is slipping into the sound. They retreat to the back porch and watch sooty clouds blanket the last faint sunbeams. All around them, in the marsh, cicadas whir. “Are you getting hungry?” Joan asks. “Let’s open the wine.”
They climb the stairs to the kitchen and sip Zinfandel while they make spaghetti.
Ron is at the stove when the first moth falls into his red sauce. He spoons it out and goes back to stirring. Another moth crashes to the counter. Soon, dozens are circling the bulb above his head. Joan laughs, and then she, too, is besieged. Moths in the pasta, moths in the salad, moths in the sink. They can’t tell where they’re coming from. They’ve never endured a deluge of moths. “It’s always something,” Joan says.
They check the windows for leaks. Nothing. Joan turns out the kitchen light so it won’t attract more moths. But the lighthouse beam keeps blinking through the window. And mounds of papery wings keep fluttering down from the ceiling like confetti.
Sometimes, after washing dishes, they’re so tired that they go straight to bed. Some nights, they sink into the worn armchairs in the sitting room and read James Patterson novels or watch M*A*S*H on DVD. Each visit, they bring the same movie: Cast Away, where the Tom Hanks character gets stranded alone on an island.
Sometimes, they recount their adventures: Remember that time the Boy Scout troop traipsed in at night, wanting to use the bathroom? And the desperate camper who climbed through a first-floor window, seeking shelter from a storm? How about when those Coast Guard pilots flew their helicopter in close to the lighthouse, just to check in and say hi? And that man who dropped to one knee beneath the tower to propose? And that coin that washed up on the beach, a 1730 doubloon!
“Remember when we helped all those boaters?” Joan asks. “We must’ve had 50 people in the museum down there, trying to keep warm until the wind died.”
“Yeah, I’m no skilled mariner,” Ron says. “But I can open the door for you.”
These modern lighthouse keepers always have cookies and coffee for guests, and cell phone chargers to share.
Their bedroom is in the back of the Keeper’s Quarters, overlooking the sound, away from the lighthouse. The beacon still winks above them, but below, the night is black. They go to sleep with the windows open. No shades or curtains. No neighbors who can see in.
About 2 a.m., Joan calls Ron out of bed. “Come see this!” she says. “What’s going on?” Out in the inlet, bright circles of light are dancing on the water. “They look like UFOs!” Joan says. “We’re not alone.” Ron smiles. Those are probably flounder fishermen, he says, gigging on the flats. Just another harmless invasion.
Another story to bring back to Indiana.