Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
The next morning I drove south along the Outer Banks, through Nags Head, Rodanthe, and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, then took the ferry across to Ocracoke Island. I had no real reason to go to Ocracoke, except that I had been told that its beaches have been ranked among the best in the country by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, an expert who dubs himself Dr. Beach.

On the ferry, I met winter's traveler. Presenting me with his business card - a wooden nickel with his name and business details - Dennis Metcalf explained his unusual itinerary. Dennis was in his mid-40s, short, squarely built, and cheery. As we chatted, he had to shout to be heard above the wind, which gusted in off the Pamlico Sound.

"I have no idea where I'm going,'' he bellowed as the gray waters slid past. "When you have a plan, you always worry about being late and getting where you're going. If you don't have a plan, you don't miss all the good things along the way.''

Some might call this aimlessness, but I call it genius. When the ferry bumped to a halt, everyone fired up their cars and made a beeline for the tiny town of Ocracoke. I left my car in the parking lot and wandered through a gap in the dunes. On the other side were wide, empty miles of beach that swept south in a broad arc until landfall and water fuzzed together in the distance. I sat and watched pelicans buzz low across the water while tiny waves unzippered at my feet. The beaches were as lovely as the good doctor had said, their fine-grained sand nearly soft as snow.

The town itself was little more than a tiny jumble of quaint stores and restaurants backed by sand-lined residential streets, the lot of it bumping into a quiet harbor at the island's southern end. At Deepwater Pottery & Uniquities, a cozy home filled with tasteful items, Christina Passanisi commented on the light. A local artist, Christina had spent 19 years observing winter with an artist's sensibilities.