There are other elements that are important in defining coastal life. Among them are pine trees, live oaks, and the creatures of the air, water, and forests.
All these pieces of our environment make up a world that is very different even from places only a couple hours drive from North Carolina's Crystal Coast.
No matter where you live, there are landmarks or scenes that tell you when you are home. For years I worked in Northern Virginia and would make weekly drives from the Washington, DC area to Roanoke, Virginia where we lived on a mountain.
I would always feel that I had left Northern Virginia as I drove up the slopes of the Blue Ridge. I knew that I had moved to another, calmer world when I turned off of Interstate 66 and headed south down the Shenandoah Valley on Interstate 81. However, I would never feel like I was home in the Roanoke Valley until I saw the towering flat top of Tinker Mountain which guards the northern entrance to the valley.
Similarly when I leave Roanoke for the coast, the roller coaster ride down from the mountains to the North Carolina Piedmont is a different world. Then there is the flat coastal plain with little but pine trees. It seems to stretch forever.
As I am making the long drive down Highway 70, it is only when I reach New Bern do I feel like I have arrived at the coast. When I come down Interstate 40 and take Highway 28 towards Swansboro, I don't have a sense of being at the coast until I cross the big bridge at Jacksonville.
It turns out that water on the horizon is a big part of the feeling of being at the coast. That vista of water which seems to never end is as much a part of being at the coast as are the mountains of the Blue Ridge which stretch to the horizon are for life in the mountains.
It is hard to deny the importance of water being at the core of our coastal existence.
Yet the mountains and the water are very different. Somehow the mountains are more distant and perhaps even more unattainable. Many times I hiked far up our mountain often making it to within sight of Twelve O'Clock Knob Road, but I never made it to the actual summit. Always there was too much private land that I would have to cross to get to the top.
In fact many of the mountains that you can see from our former Roanoke home are not places that you could hike at all. Of course if you limit yourself to the Appalachian Trail and the peaks connected to it or the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can get to some great spots, but unfortunately those aren't the mountains that are in my backyard.
The water at the coast is more accessible. The White Oak River that I see out the window of my office at home can be reached by sliding my kayak in the water from my backyard and paddling ten minutes. The water that I see while I am walking along the Point at Emerald Isle only takes a few minutes to reach by skiff.
Even as I look at the water, I know how it feels on my skin and my mind even remembers the smells of different places on the water and even how the wind felt when I was on the water at a certain time.
So while I might have lived on a mountain, the watery coastal world is a more intimate part my life. We are lucky at the coast. The North Carolina shore is the people's beach. We can walk for miles without a no trespassing sign. In the mountains outside the parks, the mountains are owned by people and often remain out of reach. While they are beautiful to look at, they are harder to sample than the beaches and waters of the Southern Outer Banks.
There is no question that the scenery in the mountains can be spectacular, but a sunset on or near the water often comes with more than just a visual image. Being on the water at sunset immerses me in the essence of coastal life. As the sun slides down behind the pines, great blue herons often glide through the sky, and for much of the year as the warmth of the sun disappears, I can feel the warmth of the water and the breeze that always comes at sunset.