If you traveled in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the 1980’s, long before it became a popular tourist spot, there was very little between the small outpost towns of Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head. This long stretch of islands and narrow lands was simply a brushstroke on the map, far off the coast. Its where the Wright brothers worked relentlessly on their vision of flight in the unforgiving summer heat and later succeeded in December of 1903. Traveling down the single lane road that tracked between these places, there was nothing to see but grasses, pines, and airborne sand from the winds that blew relentlessly off the ocean. These sustained winds were perfect for flying gliders, and eventually planes from the dunes constructed by those same winds. In fact, those great dunes were probably the only thing that preserved these islands and their wild horses when the great storms came year after year.
The ocean itself was beautiful, but the beaches were not the kept, engineered beaches of today. The sandscape mutated on an almost daily basis following the changing tides and rip currents. Swimming there has always been dangerous. Many lives have been claimed by those unpredictable waters, fewer in recent years, but every year yields a body count.
If you travelled further South on route 12 towards Hatteras, the land narrowed significantly and the road became the only man-made structure you would encounter for miles as you approached the ferry that would take you to Ocracoke. On a map, it appears simply as a thin white line. The ocean side of this road was accompanied by a seemingly endless tall white dune, speckled with sea oats. It mostly ran too high to see the dark wild ocean on the other side, but dropped down every mile or so where you’d catch a glimpse of the deep blue water that stretched uninterrupted to the horizon. Only marsh grass separated the other side of the road from the Pamlico Sound which stretched several miles to the mainland. An occasional sailboat broke the monotony of that much calmer water, but it was a desolate and lonely place.
I used to dream of cresting those dunes only to encounter monstrous waves that violently broke like a collapsing wall and washed over the tops of the dunes themselves. Waves that would pull you out to sea if you let them reach you. If you were caught on the beach and did not run out to dive under them, they would crush you against the sand and wash your body onto the shore. Turning your back on them was not an option. They always came. You could either run from them or run out to them but you had to decide, and quickly because they would not wait for you. I never actually encountered waves like this, but the fear was similar to the experience I had as a wispy, terrified 14-year old trying to pull my friend’s 8-year old brother out of the surf as it kept pulling him, and me, farther and farther from shore.
That long stretch of wild land still remains to this day. It takes approximately two hours to get from Nags Head to the ferry just south of Hatteras. There are many more outposts and objects of human engineering between the two points, but there are still those lonely places where it seems that only a pile of sand lies between the ocean’s power and your place in the world.
The Outer Banks were similar to Assateague Island in Maryland where we camped in the summers throughout my childhood. In the wilder sections of the federal lands, there were giant dunes we would camp amongst with only a deep well pump coupled with a cold outdoor shower and a few porta-potties per acre. The mosquitos were relentless. When we finally stepped up to the state campgrounds after a few years, there were bathhouses with indoor, hot showers, flushing toilets, and even a sink out back to wash dishes. The mosquitos were a bit better because they were sprayed into submission every evening, but it was still pretty rustic. Regardless, the wild ponies came through both places to our delight and also our frustration when they’d take down a tent, raid the contents of a cooler or two, or any of their other tasks as agents of chaos.
I only visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina once when I was a young teen. I’ve since been back a few times. Except for the wild places, it seems calmer, domesticated by the construction of the modern world. There are bike paths between Kitty Hawk and Duck that will take you through many sleepy villages to the grand prize of beach confectionary, Duck Donuts in the town of Duck, greatly upscaled from my youth.
Just south of Kitty Hawk,however, there are no bike paths. The traffic is heavy, even by the beach front which is populated with restaurants and businesses that require their daily deliveries. On our last visit we sat inside a popular restaurant and watched a beautiful chocolate lab, who probably escaped his vacation home for a grand adventure, fail to cross the street. Instead, he met his fate under the wheels of a delivery van. We watched him bleed out, tail involuntarily wagging, and my oldest son passed out at the table from the sight of it all. It reminded me that these islands almost always make me think of death.
Although I now live in North Carolina, we don’t go to the Outer Banks any more. We prefer the gentleness of the inland beaches of Salter Path and Emerald Isle. I especially appreciate the lack of traffic where children might be riding their bikes to the local cafe or wading in what looks like gentle water. There are still rip currents and unpredictable tides and though death may seem less imminent there, I know that’s just an illusion. There is a body count at these beaches every year as well.
Believe it or not, I love the ocean. I love its power. I love its beauty. My boys have learned from their surf instructors how to read the water and even use those rip currents to their advantage in getting out of the breakers and into the waves. My daughter and I prefer to enjoy the ocean close to shore where we can watch the sand crabs burrow out of reach of the retreating breakers while the sand pipers search for their next meal.
Having watched the ocean for decades, I know how to read the water’s surface, the gulls, and the schooling fish to know when to relax and when to call them all in. But I have a healthy respect for what the ocean can do. And what it does not care about.