A Disappearing Pile of Sand

By  |  June 13, 2017
Kristen M. Williams, Red Kiwi Photography Kristen M. Williams, Red Kiwi Photography

Is it too late for the Outer Banks? 


 

Beach sky is different than prairie sky: it bleeds into the water, without boundary. Often on the Outer Banks, especially down on Hatteras Island, where the beach has worn so thin that ocean and sound are barely two hundred yards apart, I feel like I am on some other planet, an outer space of air and water. Though I have traveled farther from my home in the Northeast, and to places more remote, none feels quite so distant—foreign and far away—as this shifting, ancient pile of sand off the coast of North Carolina, twenty-five miles from the mainland. Only the very top rises above the water, a two-hundred-mile-long necklace of eroding islands that on a map and from the ground seems to whip off the state’s low, wet coast and into the Atlantic. The pile of sand is in fact much bigger than that: it fills up Pamlico Sound to the west, where a person can in places walk ankle deep, and juts east into the ocean as Diamond Shoals, a fickle maze of sandbars known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. It’s been there for about seven thousand years. The sand moves, sweeping into dredged channels. The sand moves, clogging up harbors. The sand moves, cutting new inlets. The sand moves, crumbling before the ocean’s force. The sand moves, and the people with it. For nearly three hundred years, the Midgetts have also moved across the Outer Banks. I must have seen them my whole life—my mother’s parents were already living in Kitty Hawk, on the northern half of the Outer Banks, when I was born in 1986—but I didn’t notice them until many years later (though the signs were, literally, everywhere). It’s hard here to look away from the horizon.

We had commandeered our mothers’ time-share, my cousin Nora and I, late in the summer of 2010. Our mothers bought it in the 1980s when their parents moved to the Outer Banks and chose not to sell after our grandparents moved away in the 1990s. The beach of our childhood, across from Winks (a beloved, ramshackle, half-century-old grocery), had all but disappeared, narrowing to a sandy nub between dune and water. Nora and I still went there every day, our beach chairs tilted at a precarious angle, our toes in the water. But we were hungry for a proper length of sand—one where we could lie flat and fall asleep on our towels without worrying about the tide washing over us. To find it, we were willing to drive the hour and a half south to the cape, where the Banks elbow farthest out into the ocean before bending back toward the mainland. On the long drive, I saw the name—Midgett—appear, then reappear, then never quite disappear. 

It is as well distributed as dune grass up and down Route 12, the state highway that hugs the barrier islands’ long coast: Midgett Lane, Midgett Drive, Midgett Road, Joseph Midgett Road, Midgett Realty, Midgett Realty Construction, Midgett Insurance Agency, Midgett’s Campground, Joseph “Mac” Midgett Water Plant, cemeteries with dozens of headstones—all of which read MIDGETT. When we returned to the time-share, I did what any self-respecting twenty-three-year-old with an internet connection would do: Google it. Known variously as Midget, Midyett, Midgette, and (most commonly) Midgett, the family is one of the oldest and most prolific on the Outer Banks. The first recorded Midgett in the area, Mathew, lived inland along the Alligator River in 1712 and was on the Banks by 1722, when he received a grant for eighty acres of Bodie Island. By the 1790 census, the nation’s first attempt at counting its citizens, “Midgett” was the most common name on the local books. The more I searched, the more I understood: to read about the Midgetts was to read about the Outer Banks themselves.

In all major tourist destinations, there’s a palpable division between temporary visitor and permanent resident. The Midgetts could not have been more permanent: people so deeply entrenched in a place that they shaped it as much as it shaped them. I’ve spent considerable time on that side of the divide—a whole childhood in D.C. cutting my eyes at school groups in matching t-shirts. But on the Outer Banks, I’m on the opposite shore. Even though my grandparents owned property in Kitty Hawk and lived there for many years, their thick New York accents and demonstrative Irish Catholicism made it quickly, though not unpleasantly, clear that they were from somewhere else. Still, a whole generation of their grandchildren, me included, grew up spending time there. All the sand we swallowed—and that got lost in our hair, stuck in our eyes, tracked into our cars—had accumulated over the years: a dune of memory, affection, attachment. My parents met, in part, because of a beach house on Hatteras Island. (My dad met Nora’s mom there, and she introduced my parents.) It’s where I learned to ride a bike. Though I don’t feel like I can make a claim on the Outer Banks, it has one on me.

These days—as the weather everywhere grows steadily stranger, storms stronger, seas higher—I worry about the Outer Banks, surrounded by water and just barely above the waves. What does it mean to be from, and of, one of the most vulnerable places on Earth? The Midgetts felt like a key. Six years after I first took note of them, I started the nine-hour drive down the coast to find what I could unlock with it.

 

When Stockton Midgett first started driving for the Manteo-Hatteras Bus Line, a company he founded with his two brothers in 1938, Hatteras Island had no road. So Stockton drove on the sand, the bus tires deflated for better traction, seated atop several Sears, Roebuck catalogs. (At thirteen, it was the only way he could see over the dash.) Stockton’s father, also called Stockton, was a surfman with the Coast Guard at Chicamacomico; he died of a heart attack at age forty-four. The bus company sprang up in the wake of his death because his sons had to support themselves and their newly widowed mother. It would be fifteen-something years before Route 12 rolled through Hatteras and the younger Stockton could drive the entire route on pavement. But by then, the Midgett brothers had begun to turn their attention elsewhere. On Stockton’s bus layovers in Manteo, on Roanoke Island, he began selling subdivision lots as a side business, and when the family sold the bus system to Trailways in 1962, he and his brother Anderson went into real estate full time. This second company, Midgett Realty, is now one of Hatteras Island’s oldest and largest family-owned businesses.

Driving up and down Route 12 last September, I saw Midgett Realty signs everywhere, on rental properties large and small, from the weathered single-story cottages of an earlier era to the stilted, Seussian mansions of today. These homes, and the people who fill them every summer, are the economic engines of the Outer Banks. In Dare County, which encompasses most of the islands, 44 percent of the housing is seasonal, as measured by the 2010 census. (It’s the highest such proportion in North Carolina.) On any given day in summer, the county estimates that an additional 225,000 seasonal residents are on the Banks. In 2015, tourists—roughly five million of them—spent more than a billion dollars in Dare County. 

In 2011, my family brought my Nana, then ninety years old, back to the Banks one last time. Four generations (nearly thirty of us in total) crammed into a six-bedroom beachfront mansion; for my portion, I spent more money for a week of sleeping on a floor than I did for a month of rent back in Brooklyn. This is the road’s bequest to the Outer Banks: money and people. The Outer Banks themselves are what the road bequeaths to its visitors. 

For millennia, the islands have shifted, along with the big pile below them, westward. Pushed by water or blown by wind, sand crumbled away before the ocean and grew up behind, by the sound; as the Banks moved, they remained roughly the same size. But early last century, Route 12’s construction—principally the dunes that protect it and the bridges that connect it—halted one but not both processes. The ocean side continues to shrink, but the sound side stopped growing. The road blocks the sand. Today, Hatteras Island between Buxton and Avon is only one quarter of its 1850 width; there, the island has lost more than twenty-five hundred feet of land to the water. Even without sea level rise, the islands are vanishing. Yet the sea is rising.

Climate change in many places is treated as a political dispute rather than a well-documented fact, and this is especially so in North Carolina. In 2010, a state-commissioned report that predicted a thirty-nine-inch rise in sea level by 2100 (putting most of the Outer Banks, save the cape and Kill Devil Hills, under water) was so thoroughly rejected by North Carolina’s government that it ordered a four-year halt to climate change–related regulations: not a coastal bridge nor a beach house could be built with global warming in mind. Instead the government ordered a new study, one that would measure a considerably less dramatic thirty-year term of change.

On the Banks themselves, the issue is unavoidable. When we were little, my younger brothers and I loved to chart the progress—returning each summer to gather fresh data—of a particular shore cottage near Kitty Hawk as it traveled into the ocean. In the beginning, waves would lap at the house’s stilts at high tide. In the end, the cottage sat dilapidated, floating above moving water even at low tide, a house at sea. (Its name, delicious to us, was Drift Away.) In 2016, searching for Midgetts, I stayed just above the cape in Buxton. On the night of the full moon, the high tide reached up and over the dune that protected the end of my street, sending water and sand streaming down onto the road below. The parking spots underneath the house closest to the water were filled waist-high with sand. A set of stairs from its ocean-view porch led down to the beach but ended midair. The shore had moved on without it. 

East Carolina University coastal and marine geologist Stanley Riggs, who worked on the rejected sea level forecast, has proposed removing the dunes that protect Route 12, as well as eliminating portions of the road itself, in order to slow erosion. Tourists, he suggests, can travel by ferry instead. In 2014, Michael Orbach, a professor emeritus of marine policy at Duke University, offered a perspective both more and less drastic to National Geographic: “As a practical matter, we will try to defend some places for some period of time. But also as a practical matter, we will not be able to defend most coastal places throughout time.” Riggs’s own predictions show a dire future for the Outer Banks as a place where people live and work—no amount of dune elimination or road removal can protect its low-lying communities from more than three feet of water. Why limit access now?

“If you’re wise, you’ve got to see where the waves are coming from,” said Tim Midgett, Stockton Midgett’s son. We were talking about the future, economic and environmental, in his office. Tim is now the principal of Midgett Realty; its branch in Hatteras, where I met him, used to be the old Manteo-Hatteras Bus Line depot. In his early sixties, Tim is boyish-looking and deeply tanned. He showed me a framed picture of himself at the 2003 Rose Parade, hanging across from his desk. In it he walks alongside the Wright Brothers Memorial and the 1903 Wright Flyer, all wrought in flowers—the Dare County Tourism Board, on which Tim served between 2001 and 2004 (the last two years as chair), had sent a float to commemorate the centennial of flight. He calls the islands “paradise,” but he also talks about paradise’s price. An influx of private-equity money and corporate retail chains has reshaped the island’s traditional mom-and-pop economy. He’s watched several longtime family businesses shutter or sell in the past several years.

“There are very significant changes on our doorsteps . . . some are Mother Nature oriented, and some are just plain life,” Tim said. “All of them are the result of the success we’ve created.” He reflected on a recent storm that brought in seven feet of seawater. It obliterated his and his wife’s elaborate, hard-won front garden and made it difficult to reach his elderly father. “It’s just defeating,” Tim said. But leaving is unimaginable. “I’d love to think my kids and the generations after me could enjoy the same things my dad saw.” His eyes got a little watery, and his voice caught. “I don’t think they’re going to, by any stretch.”

 

The Outer Banks are unstable and difficult to reach, with brutal weather and poor prospects for agriculture—why would anyone live on a pile of sand? Until the advent of the modern tourism industry, beauty wasn’t enough: you couldn’t eat it. Still, people have lived on the Outer Banks for as long as we have records; explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano writes of indigenous islanders during his 1524 expedition up the North American coastline. (He, meanwhile, mistook the Pamlico Sound—eighty miles long and twenty miles broad—for the Pacific Ocean.) The Outer Banks exert an unusual pull on American history: a remarkable number of iconic and indeed world-shaping events have occurred there. England’s first, albeit failed, North American settlement set up shop on Roanoke Island in 1587. (The English captain Barlowe describes the Banks in his journal as “very sandie.”) The real-life Blackbeard used the Banks as a base, and his death in 1718 (he was surprised at anchor off Ocracoke Island) effectively marked the end of the golden age of Atlantic piracy. And, of course, the Wright Brothers came here, lured by soft sand and steady winds, to test their flying machines. 

Today, tourists shape the geography of the Outer Banks as much as wind and water do. How the balance sheet adds up depends on who you ask. I like the new Harris Teeter grocery store; I also miss the empty space. I’m reflexively critical of tourism’s impact; yet I’m loath to give up my own visits. Vying for space, resources, and attention, too, are the Outer Banks’ many historic places: the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (former home of the “lost” Roanoke colony), the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the Cape Hatteras Light Station (a pet project of Alexander Hamilton), the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, and—small but not to be ignored—a modest century-old building on Route 12 in Nags Head known as the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum. (History, after all, is a fine thing to search for on a rainy day on the Outer Banks, but preserving it is considerably less lucrative than building a beach house.) The Beachcomber Museum’s unwitting founder, the irascible and unbending Nellie Myrtle, hated the forces that reshaped the islands before her eyes. I think she might have hated me, a visitor, too. “It’s all gone, all gone,” she told National Geographic in 1986. Of what tourism was doing to the islands, her language was blunt: “Some call it progress. I call it rape.”

Nellie Myrtle was born a Midgett in 1918. Though two brief marriages left her with a new last name—Pridgen—hardly anyone used it. In pictures, there’s a kind of hard glamour to her: high cheekbones and cat-eye glasses, overcoats and pearls, scarf wrapped around her head, her curly hair caught in the wind. Her son, Woody Pridgen, called her a “mean sonovabitch.” In their book, Legendary Locals of the Northern Outer Banks, R. Wayne Gray (who himself has Midgetts in the family) and Nancy Beach Gray more diplomatically describe Nellie Myrtle as “preferring beaches to people.” Nags Head, when Nellie was born, was a sleepy town of eighteen hundred located in the sheltered pocket between Jockey’s Ridge—the East Coast’s largest natural sand dune—and the Pamlico Sound. Her father, Jethro, was a commercial fisherman and her mother, Mattie, the proprietor of Nags Head’s only general store. (It offered, for many years, the area’s sole telephone aside from the life-saving station.) No one lived full time by the ocean in those days; it wasn’t worth dealing with the weather. But Nags Head even then was home to one of the oldest beach destinations in the country, with large shingled cottages—a row of houses now called the “Unpainted Aristocracy”—that date back to the 1850s. In 1918, only a handful of them dotted the oceanfront. That changed in the 1920s, when the first bridge was built connecting the northern Banks (Nags Head included) to the mainland, and again in 1931 when the first beach road, what would become Route 12, unfurled along the ocean. Nellie’s parents followed the new influx of beach-oriented tourists and, in 1932, rolled the store across the island, sound to shore.

Nellie Myrtle spent her life on the beach. In the morning and at dusk she walked, in trousers and lipstick, carrying her own hand-sewn plastic bags long before the advent of the mass-produced kind. Even during the only period she lived away—throughout World War II she worked at the Naval Station Norfolk, the only woman in hydraulics—she’d return every weekend to walk the shore. Ever since Nellie Myrtle was a little girl, she had collected Scotch bonnets and beach glass and fulgurite (sand that’s been struck, and fused together, by lightning), but during those years the ocean sometimes offered up a grimmer bounty: the bodies of the dead. Carmen Gray, Nellie’s daughter, remembered seeing as many as thirteen ships on fire offshore at the same time. “They’d burn for days,” her friend Dorothy Hope told me. Though war—and the U-boats that haunted the Banks just offshore—temporarily slowed tourism, it did not end it. Over the course of her life, as Nellie Myrtle walked up and down the beach, Dare County’s population rose from just over five thousand in 1920 to over twenty-two thousand in 1990—not to mention the millions that wash in every summer. Later in life she’d hang up a hand-painted KEEP OUT sign on the now-closed general store and line the boundary of her property with cinder blocks. Once, when a tourist parked, unthinking, on her land, she had a friend move the car to the middle of the road and leave it there. Then she spray-painted its windshield.

 

On a sunny morning in September, Chaz Winkler and Dorothy Hope invited me inside the wood-paneled living room of Nellie Myrtle’s former home, Mattie’s one-time store, where they live and maintain the infrequently open Outer Banks Beachcombers Museum. They are the stewards of Nellie Myrtle’s legacy, though they are considerably nicer to strangers: they thoughtfully cranked up the air-conditioning as soon as I walked through the door. Chaz and Dorothy inherited the historic buildings and their contents from Nellie Myrtle’s daughter, Carmen. “We were best friends,” Dorothy said. She gave me a copy of the cookbook they wrote together, Love That Tuna, and Other Game Fish: A Complete Outer Banks Cookbook. (One mustachioed and another eyelashed tuna look out, side-eyed, from the cover—my favorite recipe is “The Poach Approach.”) In 1993, the year Nellie Myrtle died, Carmen invited Dorothy to move into the old Midgett store. Carmen had wanted someone to take care of it; her own husband had been itching to turn the plot of land into a Jiffy Lube. Instead Dorothy, joined by her partner Chaz in 1994, became the caretaker of an unwieldy bequest: not only the buildings—the store dates back to 1914—but also about eight decades’ and several tons’ worth of Nellie Myrtle’s beachcombing collection.

Prettily arranged like merchandise in the store’s former retail space, itself marooned in time, Nellie’s haul is a veritable horde. Dorothy showed me what Nellie Myrtle found: a fifty-million-year-old crab fossil, a Civil War cannonball, a Hershey’s sugar bag from Cuba, a rum keg, petrified truffles, eight messages in bottles, the decorative jug handle from a piece of sixteenth-century German stoneware, an Argonaut shell, a $5 bill that had been in the ocean so long it had barnacles on it, gallon jars full of sea glass, of shells, of plastic toys. Dorothy pointed out a table that washed up after the wreck of the U.S.S. Huron in 1877. “Ninety-eight men died in that wreck,” she said. “How many of those men sat at that table?”

In truth, many old homes on the Outer Banks were constructed from wood salvaged from shipwrecks; more than five thousand ships have sunk off the coast of these barrier islands. The occasional windfalls of otherwise expensive imported commodities—salt pork, coffee, sugar, alcohol—were a lifeline to the once poor communities. Government largesse made up another big part of the Banks’ economy until tourism took over: often the only regular source of cash was a job with the Life-Saving Service, later the Coast Guard, or post office. But Nellie Myrtle combed the beach long after it ceased to be an economic necessity—judging by the volume of her collection, I would call it an obsession—and what she gathered is a midden of twentieth-century history. (Archaeologists do, after all, learn the most from what we cast off.) David Stick, the region’s best-known historian, told the Virginian-Pilot in 2004, that, “next to Jockey’s Ridge and the Wright Brothers Memorial,” the store and Nellie Myrtle’s collection inside it “is the most historically significant place on the northern Outer Banks.”

The centuries-old flotsam and jetsam, the century-old store, and the photos of Mattie at the counter or of Jethro bent over a fishing net are part of a rare look into an Outer Banks past that isn’t often remembered: its residential life before tourism took over. Visitors will find no pirates here, no lost colony, and only a spindly connection to airplanes (Mattie’s parents owned the plot of land used by the Wright Brothers during their test flights). But the Beachcomber Museum represents the sinew that links the big-ticket historical sites, bringing the Banks themselves into the foreground. “This house, this history, it’s too important to lose,” Dorothy said. “If we don’t save it, who’s going to?”

Dorothy, Chaz, and Carmen first invited the public to see the store and collection during four Preservation North Carolina tours of shore cottages in the late 1990s. In 2003, they officially opened the museum and, in 2004, added the store to the National Register of Historic Places. Yet Dorothy and Chaz have struggled to keep it open on a regular basis for the last decade—mostly due to zoning and parking issues—a struggle they pin on the Nags Head town government. Chaz speaks disparagingly about the town’s $36 million beach nourishment program, which was paid for with local, rather than federal or state, dollars. (Residents had voted against the program in a 2007 referendum, but the town went ahead with it anyway.) “The town of Nags Head is more interested in beach nourishment than preserving the town’s history,” he said.

The couple, for their part, joined with other property owners in the Nags Head Beach Cottage Row Historic District this past April to purchase an acre of undeveloped land just a few hundred yards away from the museum, farther back from the encroaching beach and behind a protective stand of trees. They’ve also begun to raise money to move the store there. The additional space would solve their parking, and thus zoning, problems. Though they’d have to reapply to the National Register, Dorothy believes the relocation is in keeping with the history of the building. “Miss Mattie already moved it once.”

 

In the ghost town of Portsmouth, just south of Ocracoke, all of the former residents seem to have come back as mosquitoes. They settle on clothes, thick as raindrops; when I visited, my mouth was numb with DEET. Much of the empty town is marsh now. The abandoned buildings—a hurricane-tilted Methodist church, a post office and general store, a former U.S. Life-Saving Service station, sixteen or so homes, a school—are neat and clean, if also weather-beaten. I came to Portsmouth on the hunt for Midgetts, and I found them in the schoolhouse’s pictures and the life-saving station’s ledgers. But none of them—or rather no one at all—has lived here since 1971, when the last two residents of Portsmouth moved away. Now maintained by the National Park Service, the town, founded in 1753, was once the Outer Banks’ first and largest European settlement, the main port of entry for ships seeking to trade with inland North Carolina. But the sand moved, and the Ocracoke Inlet on which Portsmouth sat grew thick with shoals. Then an 1846 hurricane punched a new and deeper inlet north at Hatteras. Trade shifted and so, eventually, did the people.

Navigating the Outer Banks has always been perilous. Hugging the coast, the southward Labrador Current brings cold water from the Arctic, and the northeast-bound Gulf Stream brings warm water in the opposite direction. Both currents function like highways for ships (especially before modern navigation tools), and both high-traffic routes meet just off the shore of Cape Hatteras, not far from Diamond Shoals. In a video at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, now a museum, David Stick recalls stories older Banks residents told him about seeing as many as one hundred fifty vessels tacking back and forth outside of Kinnakeet on Hatteras Island, waiting for the wind to change so they could safely navigate past the cape and shoals that extend miles beyond it. The staggering number of wrecked ships not only helped fuel and feed Outer Banks residents by way of scavenging, it also created a cottage industry for life saving. This work is what brought the Midgetts to Portsmouth, and then led them away again. There was no one left to save.

I had already left for Brooklyn by the time I got Tonya Midgett on the phone. She laughed when I asked her about her first few months in the U.S. Coast Guard. “Wait,” she said, mimicking the questions she got then, “are you part of that family?” When I started Googling the Midgetts back in 2010, what I found first was their long association with the U.S. Life-Saving Service and the Coast Guard: more Midgetts have served in both than any other family in history. Tonya is the great-great-great-granddaughter of my favorite Midgett, Rasmus, who single-handedly saved ten people from a shipwreck in the dangerous surf after a hurricane. “That’s kind of normal for us,” Tonya said. A Coast Guard cutter, the Midgett, was launched in 1971 to honor one of the family’s most famous heroes, Chicamacomico station keeper John Allen Midgett Jr. In 1918, he led a team of five—four of them Midgetts, the other married to a Midgett—to rescue forty-two crew members of the British oil tanker Mirlo after a German-planted mine detonated and set the ship’s cargo on fire. Seven Midgetts, including Rasmus and John Allen Jr., have won the U.S. Coast Guard’s highest honor, the Gold Lifesaving Medal. The charming but entirely hagiographic 1974 book The Mighty Midgetts of Chicamacomico breathlessly compares the Coast Guard Midgetts to “the sea itself, which drowns out time”—they “belong to eternity.”

“We’re watermen,” Tonya told me. “Watermen and women.” Now a boatswain’s mate—a boat driver, she helpfully informed me—she was awarded a Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal for her work gutting houses on the Outer Banks after Hurricane Irene in 2011. These days, home-wrecking storms are more common than shipwrecks. The work demanded by life on the Banks changes, and the Midgetts follow in step. “My family will never go anywhere,” Tonya said.

 

Is it too late, in the long run, for the Outer Banks? The signs and sources I trust point to yes. “If the sea level continues to rise,” Scott Power, a regional supervisor and preservation specialist at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, asked, “what do you preserve?” We were on the phone, talking about historic places, but the question was broadly applicable. You can’t save everything. 

On my last day in Buxton, a heavy storm greeted me—the first real rain since I had arrived a week before. Good, I told myself, better it rain while I’m in the car, better that I lost no time at the beach. It had been raining hard but only for an hour or so when I turned onto Route 12 and started north. The puddles began just beyond town and grew deeper along the National Seashore. A few cars were on the road, and we all slowed to a crawl, a caravan through the rising water. I worried about stalling out. I worried about hydroplaning. I was surprised, despite everything I had read, how much water had appeared in so little time.

About a mile and a half south of the Chicamacomico Live-Saving Station, I passed one of several Midgett family cemeteries. I had crept through this one a few days earlier after the station had closed for the day, thinking both I love my job and I hope no one sees me doing this, pulling burrs from the bottom of my flip-flops and taking pictures of headstones with my phone. The earliest graves date to the 1920s, the latest to 2016. Many bear the official granite or marble markers of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, honoring former members of the Coast Guard. Another Midgett cemetery three miles south dates back to the 1870s, but it has seen no new burials for some time. The water there is doing its own exhumations: at least one hundred fifty feet of land, as well as a stand of trees, have vanished between the graveyard and the sound since 1970. Now the shore breaks like a fault over the cemetery ground and caskets are visible above the eroded sand. Several graves have already washed out, swallowed by the sound.

On Route 12 the traffic edged on, foot by foot, and I watched the rain fall over the new cemetery from my car window. I wondered when I’d next come back. Water had filled in around the graves, a broadening pool. I could see the stones peek above it, little islands that all read MIDGETT.


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Molly McArdle is a writer from the District of Columbia. She is Brooklyn Magazine’s books editor and a regular contributor to Travel + Leisure.