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« Blue Highways: Fort Raleigh National Historic Site | Main | Blue Highways: Manteo, North Carolina »

Blue Highways: Wanchese, North Carolina

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapIf Manteo is the flash and glitz that recalls the Elizabethan era, then Wanchese is its groundling cousin, with emphasis on fishing and hard work.  At least that's how it appeared to William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) 30 years ago.  Where is Wanchese?  Click on the map to find out.

Book Quote

"In 1584, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, the leaders of Raleigh's first colonial exploratory expedition, returned to London from Roanoke with tobacco, potatoes, and a pair of 'lustie' Indians to be trained as interpreters.  Their names were Manteo and Wanchese.  The Virgin Queen and the courtiers in their lace ruffs were fascinated by the red men.  Months later when the Indians returned to the sound, Manteo, the first man baptized by the British in America, was on his way to becoming a proper English gentleman.  But Wanchese, after seeing London, came back an enemy of 'civilized' society.  Four hundred years, the towns carrying their names, sitting at almost opposite ends of the island, still show that separation."

Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 10

Harbor at Wanchese, North Carolina

Wanchese, North Carolina

Two men, removed from their lives and taken to a far off place.  Each spends a few months there, objects of curiousity and also of English intent in the New World.  And each comes back to their home with two very different views of their hosts/captors and the world they have seen.  Manteo wants to emulate the people he spent time with, and Wanchese wants nothing to do with them and their civilization.

It's a great story because I think it approximates the human condition, at least in some part.  In every civilization are found people who embrace it and its accomplishments and its progress fully; however you also find people who are uneasy about it or even fear it.  And the truth is, most of us lie somewhere in between on that spectrum.

Think of all the great accomplishments that our own civilization has wrought.  An obvious example is today's technological achievements, particularly in communication technology.  No matter where we go, it is possible today for every man, woman and child to be connected.  Cell phones, just 15 years ago still somewhat of luxury, now are in the hands of most people.  Not only are they simply phones, but they are "smart" phones, allowing us to be even further connected by offering us access to the Internet and allowing us to send text messages and photos.  My wife will often ask me, even when we are going out to the same place together, if I have my cell phone.

It's great to have such a resource at my disposal.  It comes in handy when I have an auto emergency, or quickly need to contact someone.  I remember the days when one had to search for a pay phone, and hope that the correct change was at hand.  I remember pulling out long-distance cards in airports, calling an 800 number and then plugging in a 16 digit number plus the area code and the number I was calling.  It is now incredibly convenient to have a phone on my person where I can make a normal call.

But when my wife asks me if I have my cell phone, my eyes can't help rolling a little and a sarcastic retort comes into my head.  "Whatever did we do before we had our cell phones?"  Because there is something disturbing to me still about being so connected.  There is something a little strange to me still about always being available to someone and that to completely disconnect is not an automatic option connected with leaving the home and office anymore, but involves a conscious choice to turn off my cell phone or power down my computer.

I have no doubt that Wanchese came back and made use of the new things that he had learned about the English and their ways to try to stave off the encroachment of this new people and civilization.  But, Wanchese was also the last chief of his tribe, which disappeared into the mists of history. Manteo became the first Native American nobleman in America.  In the end, Wanchese's tribe succumbed to the forces of progress, and Manteo might have been better off embracing them.  Should we all just unquestioningly embrace change?

I know younger people do not have this inner dichotomy at all.  In fact, they embrace the chance to be connected one hundred percent of the time.  But this older guy has a little bit of Manteo inside me, that wants to embrace that which is new and which, in a way, seems better.  But I also have a bit of Wanchese in me.  I sometimes look at progress and is in some ways deeply disturbed.  Corporate greed in the name of progress has led to billions of people in hardship.  America's technological prowess and might have come at great expense to world resources and world environmental health.  I ride a bike to work instead of using a car, I recycle, and I try to be as energy efficient as possible.  But it's a choice I have, not an imperative.  I do not have to try to feed a family on a dollar a day.  I do not want to minimize what progress has done to make my life healthier and easier.  But, I am aware that even my acts of deprivation in attempts to be a good world citizen are luxurious.

As William Least Heat-Moon was writing, the same forces are at work upon the two towns.  Manteo embraces what will become the new economy geared toward tourism by playing up its Elizabethan roots.  Wanchese remains the fishing town, whose gritty working class mentality is under siege by the forces of progress.  Later in the chapter, he writes of loading crabs on a truck and watching as a man who brings in a load of crabs on his boat is turned away and ends up dumping his load back into the sea.  And a chapter later, he speaks to an older man who is deeply distrustful of the forces of progress represented by banks and corporate leaders far away who make decisions.  Where I grew up, the fishing industry was decimated, along with the lumber industry - just two casualties of progress.  People cannot make a living fishing out of my town anymore, and the harbor is strangely silent where when I was a child, a hundred fishing boats left the harbor every morning.  Our neighboring town embraced arts and its attraction to well-heeled tourists, and is thriving, while ours still tries to find its identity, caught between its working class roots and the demands of a new time.

Two minds, Wanchese and Manteo, and two different interpretations of the same experience.  Two different outcomes.  They are fascinating symbols of both our curiousity and our uneasiness with the new.  Yet for now, progress marches on.

If you want to know more about Wanchese

The Coastal Explorer: Welcome to Manteo and Wanchese
Wikipedia: Wanchese

Next up: Fort Raleigh National Historic Park, North Carolina

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