More Elusive than Unicorns
Had I known the man in the water was about to die, I would’ve stopped complaining.
My favorite time of day is early in the morning. An hour or two hours before the sun comes up, the air is still; the streets are empty; fat, lumpy clouds saunter casually and unnoticed overhead; the last stars of the night fight against the inevitable glow lurching higher and higher on the horizon.
This was how it was on Sunday morning in Beaufort, North Carolina. I had driven since 5 o’clock, past the Marine base, past the sleepy fishing town of Swansboro, past Cape Carteret and, finally, past Morehead City. This coastal corridor is normally overloaded with tourist, weekend fishermen, kayakers, boaters, and a few locals – but not before the sun comes up.
Front Street in Beaufort ran parallel to the waterway without a single vehicle, save the policeman patrolling its avenue. The linen shop, the olive oil company, the wine shop, and restaurants and bars and fudge factory buttressed a silent umbra. Empty parking spaces lined the street with a sort of unemployed hopefulness. A plastic shopping bag slowly cartwheeled in front of my car like tumbleweed. A sultry, marsh breeze blew through my window like lingering spirits. At 6:30, similes staged the town and supported its structure: it was only like something else because it was near indescribable without the usual plodding traffic and excited tourist eating ice cream cones.
I parked in front of the ferry where I was supposed to meet my photography club and walked the boardwalk. Sailboats rested easy in the calm waters and their mast and top lights flickered and waned a silken reflection in the brackish channel. I set my camera bag down, decided which lens to use, and set up my tripod. No matter what adjustments I made, however, I couldn’t frame the shot right. I have yet to learn all the knobs and dials of my tripod and ended up kicking the contraption out of frustration, which was much easier and more satisfying than slowing down to actually learn how to manipulate the tree-legged mongrel.
I dragged my bag and mongrel up and down the boardwalk, taking one bad photo after another. This is the hardest thing about photography and the reason why it is both an art and a science. A good photograph captures both the quality and the essence of a place. It gives the viewer a sense of standing on the boardwalk absorbing the blues and reds as they slowly fade to purples and pinks, while a surge of expectancy wells up. Morning will dawn, boats will sail, tides will turn.
I’m not a great photographer. I may be a good or half-way descent photographer, but that weak-kneed superlative is only granted or bestowed out of pity. The amount of effort and money devoted to the art is enough to make the harshest critic find mercy and sympathy. “Yeah, I see what you were going for,” I can imagine her saying.
As I fail and fail and fail to capture the simple beauty of boats in the predawn, I remind myself that I actually don’t have critics and it doesn’t really matter how many pictures disappoint. One, it only takes one decent picture. That is my goal. Just one. Breathe. Calm down. Be present in this moment.
When this meditative approach fizzles out, as it nearly always does, I figure someone must be serving coffee somewhere. Coffee, the great elixir: if God had brought Adam a cup of coffee instead of the chore of naming all the animals, it is reasonable to question whether humanity would have ever known melancholy or hopelessness. And had God given Adam and Eve a single cup of coffee before that snake slithered up, this whole sin business might have been avoided.
But God’s wisdom didn’t prevail so many years ago; now the coffee warming my hands soothed my angst as a lower rung sacrament. After tanking up, I joined my camera club when they started gathering at the boat dock. We exchanged our sleepy-minded hellos and boarded the boat for Shackleford Banks. The ferry was nothing more than a stripped down, tanker sized pontoon boat, but in about 30 minutes it crossed the channel as well as a private yacht could.
Shackleford Banks is a nine-mile-long barrier island that is maybe a mile wide. It is the southernmost island connected to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which runs from Portsmouth Village, an island just south of Ocracoke, to the first step our camera club landed on Shackleford Banks. There is nothing on the island. There are no roads, no stores, no bathrooms. Nothing except what you bring with you. It is a piece of perfect desolation with the exception of the water taxi shuttling people back and forth from Beaufort. And the people come. We were on the first boat of the morning, and when we arrived at the island, a hoard of ill-slept, disheveled campers was packed up like mules. They stood patiently with their tents and coolers and backpacks and bottles of water and fishing poles – their sunburned faces, windblown hair, gritty, sandy bodies – for the taxi to ferry them back to civilization.
Every half-hour the boat would shuffle people on and off the island. At first, I thought what good is a deserted island that isn’t deserted. But as I walked into the island’s interior it quickly became apparent that the few people coming over on the taxi boats didn’t amount to much. The happy cries of children and barking dogs and flip-flop tracks disappeared once we were away from the lapping shore. Our camera club naturally divided itself into smaller social groups, and I fell into the company of James and Kate, two much more advanced photographers.
We wandered over sand dunes and passed briary patches of shrubs and live oaks. We were hunting the wild horses of Shackleford Banks, always on the lookout. Fresh horse poo, horse tracks, stomped down trails – when we initially bored into the island’s interior, we felt like wild game photographers, the National Geographic kind. On this side of the Mississippi River, Shackleford Banks is one of the few places where wild horses still live. How the horses managed to get themselves on an island is a mystery. As far back as the sixteenth century there is recorded evidence of horses on the barrier islands, and I recalled hearing our boat captain say the horses were of Spanish heritage. In between the dunes where craggy sea grass and wax myrtles and knifed yuccas nurture green pockets of this beautiful, dreary park, telephoto lens in hand, walking quietly as though a mythological creature might be slumbering around the next arbor, I didn’t care about the horses’ pedigree or heritage or their genesis. I just wanted a great picture of a wild horse.
Hiking with 25 pounds of camera gear strapped to your back quickly can ruin an exciting hike, and the longer we hiked without finding a wild horse the more I wanted to sit down and give up. They’re just horses after all. Fatigue and irritability were spry knaves: the jaunt from intrepid explorer to nippy milksop was the length of my pinky.
I climbed the highest, nearby sand dune and took in the view. A giant red tanker was pulling out of the port of Morehead City. The breeze felt good. I saw James and Kate walking slowly in opposite directions, still looking for horses. From the top of the sand dune, I could scan nearly the entire bottom third of the island. Not a horse in sight.
Suddenly James dropped to a single knee and propped his telephoto lens on his other knee. I looked to see what he was shooting and saw nothing except a large patch of brush. He saw me on top of the dune studying his every move. He raised a clenched fist. Was that some sort of military hand gesture? A signal that says, “Wild horses?” I didn’t know. But I bet it was. Adrenaline pumped through my body; the milksop was gone, the adventurer returned. I shuffled down the sand dune, quietly came around the other side of the brush, and standing 60 feet away from James was a wild horse.
I carefully dropped my camera bag off my shoulders, moved slowly and as non-threating as I knew how to move, positioned myself in what I figured was a wildlife photographer’s stance, and started snapping images. Kate, who knew by osmosis what we were doing, arrived on the scene and started her own photography. We were careful with the horse, keeping a safe distance as though he were a unicorn.
Out of the brush came another horse. It walked by Kate with causal indifference. And then another horse. And another horse. They scarcely looked like any horse I’d ever seen before: near-pony sized, with exposed ribs and protruding hip bones; their manes had never been brushed and their skin looked like a crusty, salt veneer. The horses circled around us grazing on gnawed-down cordgrass. They paid us little or no attention.
There are supposed to be over 100 wild horses on Shackleford Banks, but we felt lucky to have found just these few. And seeing how the horses just appeared out of the brush, I wondered if there weren’t more horses tucked away, just out of sight. As casually as the horses encircled us, they traipsed back into the brush with the uneven gait of nonchalance.
I hoisted my camera bag over my shoulders and walked away with James and Kate. We speculated about how the horses came to be on the island and where they find drinking water. Giddy with our achievement, we rounded more dunes and stumbled onto a small pond of collected rain water circled with horse tracks.
We saw another wild horse from the top of a dune and started hiking towards it. When we positioned ourselves atop a large dune, we were delighted to discover five other horses. These horses were as unimpressed with our arrival as the other horses. And the longer we took pictures the more it became clear that, while these horses may be technically wild, technically feral, they were also perfectly habituated to wanna-be wildlife photographers.
Satisfied, we started walking back for the water taxi by hiking to the shore in hopes of packed sand. We had been on the island for ten minutes and three and half hours had passed. Kate announced that her pedometer said we had walked over seven miles.
We hefted ourselves back to the taxi landing and waited for our ride. More horses came down to the beach and freely mingled around the gathering crowd. And then more horses. We all shook our heads and many cried that the horses could’ve come to the beach earlier so we wouldn’t have had to hike to find them. But I was glad they hadn’t. It would’ve ruined the adventure.
The hard, plastic benches on the water taxi felt like cushions. I unzipped my camera bag and started looking at the images of horses I had captured. One after another and then another and another, they were all out of focus. I kept flipping through the images as the boat was pulling away from Shackleford Banks. A sense of urgency and panic came over me. Was it all for nothing? Again, and again, out of focus, blurry, too much camera movement. I had misjudged. I wasn’t holding the camera as still as I had thought. The excitement and adrenaline of finding wild horses had so masked my fatigue that I didn’t notice how tired and shaky my body was. My shutter speed was too slow and all the work was lost. I will later discover a hand full of images that were good enough, but on the taxi back to the car I was a complete failure.
I declared the day of photography done and ruined. I zipped up my camera bag and started to pout. The ease of anger and self-pity soiled my spirits, and I slouched back in my seat safely wrapped in self-disgust and defeat. This nip of drama eddied unbroken with a satisfying twinge, and I happily lumped this failure on the ever-growing mountain top of failures, where it would be forever safe from a lapse of memory.
The boat taxi made a wide loop around the dock and started its approach when many people stood up and came to my side of the pontoon boat. Behind me were two men standing waist deep in the water. One man held his arms across his chest and bowed his head. The other man held his arms above is head with his palms facing outward. “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” the one man said. He grabbed the other man by the neck and forehead and dunked him underneath the water. The crowd that had gathered on the shore and the people in the boat collectively held their breath with the submerged man. When the dead man came up, the people on the shore started clapping and shouting and, like a happiness contagion, the people in the boat erupted into applause. Ribbons and balloons, glitter and sparkles fell invisibly from heaven. Angels rejoiced and doves silently flew overhead. A ray of light broke through the spotted cloud cover and a voice said, “This is my son, too.” And the boat taxi cut the engines and slipped quietly into dock having arrived safely from the deserted island.
Everyone was happy, clapping for this stranger’s baptism, and I couldn’t believe my folly: I had already put my camera away. The day felt like a succession of failures, boats, the blurred horses, and now the shot that I wasn’t ready for.
Remember your baptism the ghost of an old preacher whispered in my mind. Remember your baptism. And I did. I remembered that what I had just seen was somehow part of who I was, am, and will be. It was as much an act of grace and gaiety as it was a reminder. The bad boat pictures and out of focus horse pictures, my exhausted legs, and the sand grinding my foot inside my heavy boot. The thirst of my mouth and the weakness of my body. Remember your baptism. Remember who you are. Know the difference between permanence and the vagrancy of disappointment and fatigue. My inheritance and your inheritance, the inheritance of the men in the water, and the people clapping on the boat and on the shore. The alleviation of sorrow and disappointment, the surrender of petty and the laying down of frustration and self-made perfection.
That last sight on the shore couldn’t not have been photographed anyway. It was far more mysterious and beautiful than the sum of all unicorns.