The Outer Banks of NC have five lighthouses. They were placed along the dark coastline to assist ships sailing closer to shore to avoid the Gulf stream where it was especially dangerous. On my Outer Banks journey I visited three of them.
I loved the beauty of Currituck Lighthouse, at the northernmost part of those barrier islands. It’s the only unpainted one in North Carolina and the numbers of clay brick and variations in their earthen color were striking against the blue sky background. Visiting on a Monday morning before tourist season with only mid-eighties heat, it was the perfect time to push past my fear and climb the 220 steps to the top.
My anxiety often surfaces when I’m faced with heights and tight spaces. Looking up through the stairs toward the top of the lighthouse made me wonder if I could handle it.
When I’m traveling solo and I encounter a potential risk, say falling down steps or passing out with anxiety, I have to consider whether it’s worth it to push myself. The steps were broad and sturdy, and I reasoned that I could stop at each landing to ‘settle myself.’ If I fell, there were park staff that would help and ‘people in my path’ who would surely lend their assistance; I always count on the goodness of others.
I took a deep breath, in spite of my heart beating in my throat, and held tight to the hand rail, stopping at each landing, avoiding looking back– or down. No need to rush, since I was traveling at my own pace and there weren’t groups of tourists waiting for their turn to climb to the top.
When I arrived at the observation area, I marveled at the 360 degree panorama of the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Currituck Sound to the west. I had to hold onto my cap in the cool breeze that was salty and refreshing.
I thought about the Lighthouse Keepers who climbed those steps for years to be sure the light was burning to aide the boaters. How different my perspective was from atop the lighthouse– able to see out into the distance instead of what was in front of me when standing on the ground.
After I literally ‘caught my breath’ at the top, inhaling deeply the cool air and preparing for my climb down, I approached the return with caution. I stayed to the inside feeling more secure next to the brick wall of the lighthouse, reminding myself to just focus on the next steps, get to the next landing. As a child, I was always fearful of steep steps, and now, at sixty-four, I felt like a child again. How many times in our lifetime do we relearn the lesson to just focus on what’s in front of us, don’t look too far ahead?
I felt satisfied and relieved when I touched down on the concrete floor of the lighthouse.
At 162 feet tall, the Currituck Lighthouse wasn’t as impressive in stature as the Cape Hatteras lighthouse that’s 193 feet and at the southern end of the Outer Banks. It’s the tallest brick lighthouse structure in the US and second in the world.
The Hatteras light can be seen twenty miles away. It had to reach further to help ships with the dangerous waters at Diamond Shoals– where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current– that cold water that flows from the Arctic Ocean, meet. I guess it was fortunate that when I stopped at the Hatteras Lighthouse on my way home from Ocracoke Island, it was closed. The extra thirty feet of height may have pushed me over the edge!
The third lighthouse was the one on Ocracoke Island at the southern end of the Outer Banks. The whitewashed, simple beauty of the lighthouse and the adjacent keeper’s home were the stuff of post cards.
Touring the area around the Ocracoke lighthouse, it’s easy to see why lighthouses are beloved and a common theme of arts and crafts. Even people who don’t like to visit the ocean seem to love lighthouses. Perhaps it’s because lighthouses symbolize the way forward, vertical beacons that help us navigate rough waters. What is more universal, more timeless than the need for a light?
I like the way John Lund refers to lighthouses:
“Nothing else speaks of safety and security in the face of adversity and challenge quite the way a lighthouse does.”
When I returned from my solo journey to the Outer Banks, I carried those images of the three lighthouses and the muscle memory of climbing Currituck with me. With every journey there is the ‘boon’ or the gift you bring back. I think about those treacherous waters off the Outer Banks and all the ships that didn’t make it. I’m reminded to stay focused on that light emanating from the lighthouses to help me navigate difficult waters, because that light is the way forward.
How About You?
In what areas of your life are you needing to follow a guiding light?