Monday , May 14th – Thursday , May 17th
On Monday morning , we helped our nephew pack up his belongings for his drive back to New Jersey . We ourselves then set out for the Outer Banks .
The Outer Banks are a long , narrow string of barrier islands running almost the entire length of the North Carolina Coast. Strong winds cause the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean to wash over the low slung islands , constantly altering their coasts . However , conservation efforts such as building sand dunes , erecting fences and planting beach grass on existing dunes make the islands much more stable than they used to be . Nowadays , seven million tourists descend on the Outer Banks each year to enjoy the sunny beaches , completely changing the storied character of the area.
We took the I-64 East out of Durham for the nearly 200 mile drive to the Outer Banks , passing by Rocky Mount, Tarboro,Williamstown , Columbia ( a popular name , that) and Scuppernong . The last-named reminded me of the scuppernong grapes which I first read about , as a child, in The Tales of Brer Rabbit . We stopped at a roadside farmstand and tried the boiled peanuts. alas, no scuppernongs. As we left Durham behind , there were more and farms beside the road including one huge field of purple flowers ( Lavender , I wondered).
The I-64 took us over the Alligator River ( actually a wide inlet of the Atlantic ) and then another long high arching bridge carried us over Pamlico Sound to Manteo on the Outer Banks ( or as the T-shirts proclaim , the OBX ).There we hung a left and took Route 158 to our hotel in Kitty Hawk, wending our way past seafood restaurants , fast food chains , beachwear outlets , tanning salons and shopping malls, the usual accoutrements of a beach resort town . And then there were the rental homes , mile upon mile of them , four and five deep .
Luggage jettisoned in our hotel rooms , we went for a walk on the beach and were able to get a closer look at the rental homes lining the beach. These weren’t little cottages or shacks of the type you see on the Jersey Shore. They were substantially larger , buildings two and three storeys high, wrapped around with exterior staircases and decks, sometimes with a platform on the roof ( like a “widow’s walk “). Most of them were freshly painted and well maintained but some were weatherbeaten grey hulks showing the effects of the salt spray and the wind . Initially , I thought there were hundreds but later explorations caused me to revise the number first to thousands, and then to the tens of thousands. We were there two weeks before Memorial Day, the start of the tourist season and 95% of were vacant . A local ( a “Banker” )told us that every last one of them was solidly booked for the entire summer and that the roads would be jammed with tourist cars causing delays of up to two hours . We thanked our stars we were able to avoid the crush !
That evening we dined at the High Cotton BBQ, across the street from our hotel. It was excellent .An unpretentious place , the walls plastered with old black and white photographs showing a barbecue in the nineteen forties , and red and white checkered tablecloths on the widely spaced tables . We got there 5 minutes before the 8 PM closing but the friendly propreitor made us welcome and waited on us personally. We had the combination meal for 6-8 people ( $ 55 approx) and it really hit the spot. The fried chicken was even better than that at at Bullocks in Durham , and the coleslaw and beans just as good. The ribs were very good too but I would have preferred them firmer , not falling off the bone . Highly recommended.
Next morning , we walked out on the Kitty Hawk pier joining a few hardy souls who were fishing there. As we watched , one angler hooked what looked like a piece of newspaper but turned out to be a skate . It was too small, and he expertly removed the barb and threw it back. The sea was quite calm but still the jetty shuddered as the breakers dashed themselves against its barnacled pilings .Standing there , watching the sullen grey waters turn to a lacy filigree of foam as they hit the beach , we thought the same old thoughts that man has thought since the beginning of time : about the puniness of man confronted by the power of Nature.
Later that morning,we drove to the Wright Brothers Memorial nearby in Kitty Hawk. This is where Orville and Wilbur Wright , two brothers who ran a bicycle business in Dayton , Ohio came in 1900 and ushered in the era of manned flight . They came all the way here because the strong winds and the soft sand dunes were essential to their experiments ; the wind provided the lift for the gliders they began with and the sand provided a soft landing. Nowadays, the dunes are covered with grass but the starts and ends sof the first three flights are clearly marked on the grassy field and one feels a thrill in the presence of history. The dune from which the plane took off shifted by some 450 feet before it was stabilised and , atop it , is a stone commemorative pillar . Beside the first ” runway’ , are three domed structures . The farthest houses a little theater showing old footage of the Wrights and their struggles to achieve the miracle of flight ;another has a collection of photographs and artifacts about the Wrights . The third dome , nearest the parking lot , is a museum with an almost exact replica of an early Wright airplane , flimsy looking but larger than I would have thought . We got to the museum just in time for an excellent lecture by a U.S. Parks Department ranger who told us how the Wrights progressed from gliding to flying. Afterwards we walked the grassy field and inspected the two sheds, one a workshop, the other the living quarters where the Wrights shivered in the freezing cold a century ago while they made history. It was thrilling and humbling to realize the enormity of their achievements and the extent of their struggles to succeed. A must see.
The next day , Wednesday the 15th, we drove half the length of the OBX to Hatteras. We took Route 12 which parallels the seashore and were treated to the sight of more beach houses , mostly empty as they awaited the summer crush. We passed through the towns of Kill Devil Hills ,Nags Head, Wanchase, Rodanthe , Waves , Salvo, Avon , Buxton and Frisco. After Wanchase , we entered in Pine Island National Wildlife Refuge and the landscape resembled what it must have been before tourism. Low-lying , swampy , wild and deserted. Some of the town names were fascinating. Nags Head, for instance. In the old days , some Bankers were not above luring ships to their doom so that they could profit by salvaging the wrecks . Legend has it that one such Banker tied a lantern around his horse’s neck and walked it along the beach, the bobbing of the lantern intended to confuse ship captains into mistaking it for a buoy and wrecking their vessels on the shoals. Hence Nag’s Head.
We passed many lighthouses , including one at Bodie Island ( so named because of the bodies that washed ashore from wrecked ships), before we got to the one at Hatteras. At 200 feet , it is the tallest of the lighthouses and is painted in black and white stripes. In earlier times, the distinctive markings and frequencies of the flashes enabled sailors at sea to identify the lighthouse and get their bearings . Nowadays , of course , GPS makes such devices obsolete.
Because the erosion of the seashore put the Hatteras lighthouse at risk ,the National Park Service authorized its move 3,000 feet inland . This amazing feat was carried out without a hitch in 199-2000 and, at the Visitors Center, you can watch a video of the move . In a stupendous engineering feat ,;the entire structure was jacked up and moved on rails to its present location. Don’t miss the video and try ,if you can, to climb to the top of the light house ; the view is fantastic.
On the way back , we stopped at the Sand Bar and Grill for a light lunch . Good home-made chowder ( neither red nor white) and the best Caesar salad we’ve ever had.
Our last stop , before we returned to Kitty Hawk was the ” Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum ” in Hatteras. Well worth the suggested donation ( $ 5). It gave us some idea of the dangerousness of the waters off the Virginia -North Carolina Coast . Over a thousand shipwrecks litter these waters , among them the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor ;another is the German U-boat , the U-85 , sunk in a surface battle with a U.S destroyer after a brief reign of terror. We also get an idea of the bravery of the rescue crews who went out into the raging seas and rescued scores of sailors at risk of their own lives. Informative and thrilling for anyone interested in the history of this region.