This Way

It was almost dark when we stopped in Buxton Village to ask directions to the lighthouse. No cell phones, no Mapquest back in those days.

The old guy at the bait & tackle shop just laughed and pointed to a tiny but brilliant flashing light on the flat horizon to the east and said, “Just follow the signs.” Against the fading Atlantic light if you looked carefully you could just see the tower—silhouetted against the pale orange sky—the light at the top shining then fading about every 8 seconds.

The three couples—six doofus college kids—crammed into that aged 1965 Chevy station wagon with a ton of camping equipment, beach gear etc. must have looked pretty silly to the bait shop guy. And he probably thought we were a bit odd going to the beach in Late October. The 2 other guys wanted to get off campus and get wasted, the girls were just bored and had nothing else to do that long weekend. All were up for a road trip—no one really cared where we went. I did—I wanted to see the light.

Despite the dark, lonely roads and occasional fog banks, we had no problems following the Hatteras National Seashore signs until we finally turned down the last paved beach road. There were these big white arrows painted on the pavement—lit by the headlights—coming out of the night—in effect saying, “this way,” to the lighthouse. It was like we were being shown the way through darkness.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to see the Hatteras Light—it was a very personal symbol to me. As a little kid—elementary school age—I don’t remember being any more afraid of the dark than most kids but I was always fascinated by the dichotomy of a rescuing light in the darkness. There was this (to me as a kid) vast open expanse of frozen dirt and piles of rock behind my house when I was in 7th or 8th grade. The woods I had played in growing up were torn out to make way for a large military housing development.

Bordering our property in upstate New York, the huge construction site was turned into a desolate wasteland when the New England winter set in after the land was cleared but before any actual construction began. I would sit at night looking out my bedroom window into that wasteland where the darkness seemed so much more consuming and resolute than darkness usually was.

One day I was struck with an idea—I would defy the darkness and be a bringer of light.

I read a few things on how to make a really good torch and out of a piece of metal rebar, and old rags soaked in waste oil wrapped with wire (to keep it together as it burned), I made my torch.

During the day I located a small hill in just the right spot, dug a hole, drove in the steel rod and packed the hole with gravel.

After dark I walked back out with a flashlight and set my torch ablaze—only I knew about this solitary act of light-bringing. I sat for hours at my bedroom window watching the flames defy the consuming night. I didn’t know it then, of course, but I was responding to a profound human archetypal agenda. I was expressing the deeply primitive need to bring light into the darkness of winter as had our pagan ancestors thousands of years ago with their Winter Solstice bonfires.

At some time during those years—probably from a book I read on lighthouses—I learned about the Hatteras light—the tallest lighthouse in America and at that time, the tallest in the world. The seed was planted and I began the long journey to that weekend on the North Carolina Outer Banks.

I had intended to get the tent set up first then go see the light but as soon as we got fairly close I couldn’t stop myself. An overwhelming force drew me to the towering structure. A three-quarters moon shone across the waves as they roared and scoured the beach. Fiddler and hermit crabs scurried in every direction as I walked quickly across the moon-lit beach in bare feet—the sand cold on top but still warm a half inch down.

Ankle deep in sand, I stood at the massive base staring in open-mouthed awe up the 210 foot tall tower—black against the starry, night sky. At the top of the tower the powerful light swung silently like a blue-white archangel’s sword cleaving through the universe. I felt small, less than small—it was as though my whole life had been leading up to this moment—this epiphany.

One of the girls was yelling at me from the parking lot—saying they were going to the little camp ground at the edge of the dunes a few hundred yards down the beach to set up camp. We would be the only campers there that whole weekend.

I lay down on my back in the sand—lost in my epiphany—looking up at this mystical structure for at least a half hour. It seemed ageless, all-powerful—as though built by gods before the beginning of time for arcane purposes humans could never understand.

I think I was in an altered state. Suddenly 2 of the girls were standing next to me—one saying something about just leaving me there, the other laughing and telling her no—they could get in trouble for leaving junk on the beach.

Almost in a daze, I walked down the beach with the girls who were debating the merits of Vaseline versus cocoa butter for moisturizing. A driftwood campfire had been built at the base of the dune line—in the firelight the third girl was running around, squealing and yelling at the crabs, throwing sticks at them. The guys had broken out the pot and each was working on a blunt that would have choked Bob Marley. Half an hour later these clowns were so baked they didn’t know where they were at. The only light in the darkness they were interested in was the glow of a flaming doobie.

With a chilly breeze blowing off the Atlantic I spread out a sleeping bag on top of a dune with a clear view of the light and crawled in. My thoughts wandered back to my childhood pagan torch flaming in the darkness. For hours I listened to the surf, watched the light and looked up at the stars. I’d drift off, wake up watch the light and drift off again. I began dreaming I was doing the same thing—watching the light, listening to the surf and looking at the stars—reality and dream became synonymous.

The distance between the lighthouse and my dune, between the ocean and my dune blew away on the October Atlantic breeze. My senses were no longer separate—smell, sight, hearing, sensation—had blended—place and presence became irrelevant. I had slipped from an epiphany into an A-pelth.

The concept of the A-pelth is common to several pre-historical Indo-European language cultures. But it is most clearly articulated in the last Proto-Canaanite Alphabet (Wyeth’s Linear-4-a) and written language where it appears as both a letter and a word. In this state one’s individuality is absent and a person becomes more than at one with the universe as in an epiphany—he/she stands apart from the universe. Life and death, existence and non-existence become the same thing. So went the night I spent on my dune, communing with my pagan ancestors—and hanging out with God.

The dawn was pretty mediocre—a gray light over the ocean turning into a gray sky which turned into light rain—the Hatteras light went out. In the uninspiring light of day the tower stood mute and indifferent to the sweep and roar of the surf—each wave sounding as it did millions of years ago.

The group decided to drive into Buxton for breakfast. With the advent of daylight I guess we felt an unwarranted confidence—we took a wrong turn and lost our way. After quite a bit of confused wandering in the gray light we eventually found the arrows—the ones saying, “This way.”

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