I was standing on top of a dune, looking down into the pristine and empty campsites on North Carolina's Ocracoke Island. The government shutdown closed the national parks, and the sites were a surreal maze of vacant lots.
“It's a shame, to see them like that.”
A man rolled up on an old bike and for a moment we surveyed the park together. “It is,” I said. “I remember coming here as a kid.”
We talked for a bit. His name was Dave, and he was from Memphis. He had been a carpenter, but when the economy tanked he had to go back into sales.
“I learned carpentry when I was 29. My first boss said I was too old,” he said. “It's good to work with your hands. To be productive. Made me less crazy. I got all the energy out, and could sleep at night.”
I wasn't going to ask about the “crazy.” He seemed sad.
And then he said, “My wife passed away six weeks ago.”
He caught his breath and stopped and I turned and then asked some benign question. He didn't answer. Instead, he asked me if I liked Italian food, and when I said yes he told me to go to a place called Rocco's.
“It's just past the ferry, when you get back to the mainland,” he said. “We used to go, every year. They have great pizza. You should go.”
He seemed to want me to go. As if someone should, because he couldn't. I told him I'd look for it.
“It's good to have something like that,” he said. “That you do every year. Tradition.”
We talked a little more. He has six kids: two with his first wife, four with the second. He'd met his second wife in Memphis, “running away from a Yankee girl,” he explained.
“If I can give you a piece of advice: Find a southern girl.”
I went to Rocco's. It was large and almost-empty, decorated for Halloween. Lite beer signs mark the bathrooms. It was quiet and sad, and the place reminded me of Dave and the empty campsites.