Editor’s Note: We are publishing a series of travel diaries this week. These pieces are part of our effort to deepen our reach across the state and build closer connections to communities in all 100 counties.
Even though I’d never been there before, driving into Hyde County felt a little like going home.
Coming from the west, the land flattens out, wide open fields stretch on either side of the road, and eventually the shoulders of the two-lane highway narrow to make room for ditches and canals.
Two hours into the three-hour drive, my phone overheated and crashed my navigation app.
Normally, this would be cause for alarm, but I learned to drive in Pasquotank County — on roads much like those in Hyde — before anyone I knew had cell phones or GPS. This is why I keep a paper map on my passenger seat.
As the interim superintendent of Hyde County Schools (now serving in the same role for Dare County Schools) joked later, Highway 264 is one of the only roads in Hyde, so finding my way around without GPS isn’t much to brag about.
Hyde County has three public schools serving fewer than 500 students, making it the smallest district in the state.
Two schools — Mattamuskeet Elementary and Mattamuskeet Early College High School — sit next to one another in the county seat of Swanquarter. The Ocracoke School serves pre-K to 12th grade students on a single campus on Ocracoke Island.
Existing data indicate Hyde is currently the only public school district without a school resource officer assigned on a full-time, part-time, or rotating basis.
This summer, Melanie Shaver transitioned from her role as principal of Foothills Community School in McDowell County to become the superintendent of Hyde County Schools. Until his recent retirement, Steve Basnight III had served in that position.
I was visiting Hyde to meet with local education leaders, but in between meetings I explored the mainland.
Things you’ll find on Hyde County’s mainland: farms, bears, alligators, waterfowl, snakes, a sky full of stars at night, and people who will offer you a place to stay once they’ve decided you’re trustworthy.
Things you won’t find in all of Hyde County: a supermarket or Walmart.
Hyde County is geographically unique for many reasons. It’s the second largest county in North Carolina by area, but also the second least populous.
Give yourself a second to process that because it can be a little hard to wrap your head around.
The gap between the size of the county itself and the size of its population is probably because less than half of the county’s area is land.
When you break down Hyde’s 613 square miles of landmass, 13% of that is the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge and another 32% is farmland. All of this math means that just about one quarter of Hyde County is actually habitable.
Hyde County is home to approximately 4,500 residents, 62% of whom are white, 27% Black, and 10% Latinx. Locals will tell you that intergenerational poverty is a longstanding challenge in this area. The county’s poverty rate is 20%. For context, the state’s overall poverty rate is less than 13%.
The people of Hyde County live in two communities separated by the Pamlico Sound. The trip across the sound to the island of Ocracoke requires an almost three-hour ride on a ferry that only runs three times per day for most of the year — assuming the weather cooperates.
Waiting for the ferry’s arrival in Swanquarter to take me to Ocracoke, it was hard to miss the signs warning passengers about the presence of alligators and rattlesnakes.
On my ride across the sound, I was joined by large trucks carrying construction materials, families on vacation, and adventurous campers, along with plenty of pet dogs.
Life on the island is distinct from that on the mainland.
For example, the Ocracoke School lets its students leave campus at 11:10am each day for lunch. Younger ones pack their lunches because the school doesn’t have a cafeteria.
For another example, in the 2020 presidential election the Ocracoke voting precinct overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden while the five mainland precincts overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump.
Everything on Ocracoke is island-sized. The vehicles are mainly golf carts, the sidewalks and streets are narrow and winding, the buildings are snugly fitted together, and the distances from one point to another are short.
People on the mainland and in neighboring counties told me I had to eat lunch at SmacNally’s, and I overheard the truck drivers making plans for lunch at Eduardo’s Taco Stand. The scallop po’boy advertised on the “Specials” board at SmacNally’s won me over this trip. I’m saving Eduardo’s for next time, when I plan an overnight stay at The Crews Inn.
Wandering around the village and driving the length of the island during the four hours I spent there felt a little other-worldly. I knew I was still in North Carolina, but being remote is different from being rural.
Hyde County is both.