Category Archives: North Carolina

The Road to Ocracoke Island

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With Sunday’s wind and lashing rain behind us, we decided to venture down Route 12 to Ocracoke Island. Saturday’s balmy weather was replaced by Sunday’s almost tantrum-like storm only to be followed by a clear, cold day. It was like having three different seasons on as many consecutive days.

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Route 12

We piled into the car, snacks at the ready, and headed south. Ocracoke Island is a little over 85 miles from Nags Head, but Route 12 isn’t exactly contiguous. Our first stop was Bodie Island Lighthouse, at the start of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Bodie Island Lighthouse
Bodie Island Lighthouse

After crossing the Oregon Inlet Bridge the land becomes more sparsely populated, especially in winter. Inspired by the visit to the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum, we stopped just after the bridge to attempt a bit of beachcombing. There were indeed a great many shells washed ashore, but unfortunately the winds were still blowing and the 20-ish degree temps drove us back to the warmth of the car. Continuing south we passed through Rodanthe, Waves, and Avon, eventually reaching Hatteras and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Patrick, a lover of all things nautical, has told me about the lighthouse for years, perpetually impressed that the lighthouse was physically moved. All 12-stories were shifted 2,900 feet inland in 1999 due to increasing erosion. The Outer Banks are barrier islands and as such, they are subject to the whims of the sea. If the sea decides she wants to reclaim the land as hers she will and as such, the lighthouse was in jeopardy. The lighthouse is open in summer and visitors are invited to climb the 257 steps.

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We continued on to the ferry dock and got in line for the 11am ferry to Ocracoke. The ferry is free to the public, transporting locals and tourists daily. In winter the ferries run hourly, weather permitting. During the high season they run more frequently, with locals taking priority. The crossing takes about an hour and even in winter there were a fair number of water birds to watch – including gannets, cormorants, and several kinds of terns and gulls.

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Ocracoke was frequented by Native American tribes, explorers, and pirates before being permanently settled in 1750. It was a favorite spot of Blackbeard and it is where he met his end at the hands of Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard. After 250 years, locals are now quite fond of Blackbeard’s tourism dollars.

Once off the ferry there is a long stretch of road with dunes threatening to overtake the blacktop. Our first stop was the pony pens, where the remaining descendants of horses brought to America by Spanish sailors still roam semi-free. The horses have been in the care of the National Parks Service since 1960.

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We drove around the small town of Ocracoke. There are homes, vacation spots, hotels, restaurants, and more surrounding the natural harbor of Silver Lake. We found the squat Ocracoke Lighthouse and visited the grounds. Then we found some majestic looking roosters. We stopped at Books to Be Red, a local bookstore with an impressive array of sidelines and local goods. I added to my bird reference guides, Garnet found a Boxcar Children book, and Patrick found two local histories. The store and grounds were welcoming and Garnet played on the tire swing cut into the shape of a shark.

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Ocracoke Lighthouse
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Majestic Rooster

It was warmer than it had been when we attempted to go beachcombing, but was nevertheless January and we walked across the street to The Magic Bean for coffee and hot drinks. Fortified, and with fresh reading material in hand, we headed north again.

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Books to Be Red
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Books to Be Red

It is easy to imagine how much fun it would be to visit the island in summer, but visiting in winter meant no crowds, no waiting to get on a ferry, no sunburn, and no traffic. Then again, the annual Ocracoke Fig Festival is in August and that sounds just weird enough to warrant another visit.

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Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum

Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum

Having grown up near the shore, I’ve a great affinity for the small unsung museums that serve as the repositories for coastal lore and culture. Much like the beach in January, such places – like the Barnegat Light Historical Society and Museum, at the north end of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, which in a former one-room schoolhouse contains, among other artifacts, the original first-order Fresnel lens from nearby Barnegat Lighthouse – tend to draw those who most appreciate a place for what it is in and of itself.

While other attractions superbly highlight the area’s past within a greater historical context (e.g., the Wright Brothers National Memorial or the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island), the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum in Nags Head provides a glimpse into the daily lives of the hardy souls who inhabited these parts long before mini-golf and timeshares.

Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum

When a Google search prior to our trip turned up the Beachcomber Museum, I was thrilled to have found such a hitherto unexplored nook. My jubilation, however, was quickly tempered by the chilly realization that, like many beachfront concerns, the Museum would most likely be closed in mid-January. Nevertheless, Davida, taking a shot in the dark, sent an email to the address on their website – and soon received a reply from the Museum’s proprietors, Chaz and Dorothy. They arranged a time for us to visit the museum during our trip. We were especially lucky because the museum does close for the winter, but they kept it open and heated the space just for our visit.

A cold rain fell as we drove down the beach road (NC Route 12), past shuttered summer homes left alone to face the wintry seas, to Mattie Midgette’s 1914 general store, which now holds the late Nellie Myrtle Pridgen’s collection of washed-up ephemera collected from the surrounding coastline over the course of the Outer Banks native’s 74-year lifetime.

Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum

Chaz and Dorothy warmly welcomed us. Following brief introductions, Dorothy, herself a cache of historical knowledge and local goings-on, took us on a tour of what in my experience is a most singular collection, the only one of its kind that I have ever seen, anywhere. Here, for example, you will find an expansive array of shells, sea glass, photographs, bottles (some dating back to the 1600s), Japanese glass fishing net floats, Trinidadian relics, and notes found in bottles, as well as several examples of fulgurites, the product of a lightning strike upon sand.

Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum

One of my favorite items was an elaborately embossed Guinness bottle from 1959 – part of an ingenious “message in a bottle” advertising campaign celebrating the brand’s bicentenary, wherein 150,000 of the special bottles were dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. Each one contained a memo “From the Office of King Neptune” that invited the finder to inform Guinness as to when and where they made the find.

Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum

Chaz, it turned out, is also a photographer, and though we paid no admission fee, we did purchase two of his prints, which help to support the Museum. I commend Dorothy and Chaz’s efforts to preserve a collection unlike any I have ever seen. This place is a must-see for Banks visitors new and old, and a fascinating glimpse into the lifelong obsession of one of the beach’s more vocal keepers and defenders.

Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum

The Outer Banks in the Off-Season

The reason our anniversary trip is in January is rooted in economics. When Patrick and I decided to take our first trip money and time off from work were major hurdles to travel. We decided to take advantage of MLK Day, as well as off-season lodging and airfare. In the intervening years we learned to go warm places in January, which were more expensive, but they were warm and that was all that mattered. Last year we blew our travel savings on a trip to Ireland, which while off-season was still expensive. We also moved, so between the two things we went back to our roots and looked for a cheap trip we could take over MLK Day weekend.

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We opted for a simple road trip. Going north would be colder, so we decided to go south. We hadn’t been to the Outer Banks together in well over a decade. It would be cheap in the off-season, slightly warmer, and the ocean is there, so the decision was made.

There is something to be said for the hearty souls who pronounce “open all year.” For them we are grateful. I do think that traveling in the off-season gives you a chance to experience the place and the local culture in a way that those who arrive and depart the high season would never dream of.

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Lodging: In an effort to keep the progeny entertained and fed, as well as ourselves, we looked for local lodgings that had an indoor pool, kitchen, and a view. We found a place that offered all that for a relatively modest sum in the Outer Banks Beach Club Resort. It was cold and blowing much of the time, but we enjoyed DVDs we brought, enjoyable meals, a view of sunrise over the ocean, and a hot tub.

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Meals: We cooked most of our meals at the hotel (resort?), but we managed two very memorable meals at two local spots – The Thai Room and Outer Banks Taco Bar. After a long day adventuring in Ocracoke (post forthcoming), we drove straight to the The Thai Room. The service was superb, even after they realized we were not another similar family with the exact same eating habits. Garnet enjoyed the fried tofu so much that he got an order to go. They have many vegetarian options and understand that hot means hot.

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On our final day, we waited around Kitty Hawk until The Outer Banks Taco Bar opened. This ranks up there with the best decisions I’ve made in life. We ordered a round of appetizers and the fried tostones were so good that I would have just sat and eaten those until the end of time. Patrick and I polished off the tostones, while Garnet finished the chips and salsa. The homemade corn tortillas were the best I have ever eaten. Seriously. If you can get rice and beans right, you are doing it right, but the tortillas put it over the edge. I sat there wondering of this is what a goldfish thinks as it eats itself to death? I just wish we had eaten there earlier in the trip so I could have had more tostones. TOSTONES!

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Entertainment: Driving into Nags Head Woods, the temperature was well below freezing with a bit of a wind. That said, I mused as I looked at the swamps if the bugs would be worse than the cold. And I like bugs. I wanted the ponds to be full of frogs and turtles, but the frost and winter light were beautiful in their own right. If you can enjoy this kind of place in the dead of winter, there is no excuse from missing it in spring when the world is alive.

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Jan2016-VA-NC-0621During the storm that blew in on our second day, we hit the local bookstore before returning to the room to hunker down. Island Books has three locations, but we hit up Kitty Hawk. Patrick found the new Derf Backderf, Garnet found a Star Wars book, and I found an ARC and gift for a friend. A good selection all the way around.

Elizabethan Gardens is a 10.5 acre public garden located within Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in Manteo, NC. The gardens are lovely by day, but at night in the winter they come alive with lights, music, and even movies. We wandered around in the dark and came across a campfire and old holiday cartoons being projected. The holiday lights were extended due to inclement weather, but that meant we were able to enjoy them into late January.

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While June would offer endless shopping and all sorts of beach-going, there is something about traveling to a shore town in winter. You have to want to be there. There is an appreciation for place that isn’t there when it is an easy landscape. And the year-round shops and restaurants are locals who want you there. Consider some off-season travel and avoid the maddening crowds.

Over the Next Dune

Dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park

The boy pestered me to jump.

I took off my shoes and rolled up my pants. The mercury was high for January – nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sand was cool, though not quite cold, to my bare feet. But the sun warmed my bare arms as I surveyed the vast high dunes – at 80 to 100 feet, the East Coast’s tallest – of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, one of the many natural wonders to be found on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Hiking the Dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park

Now ready, I joined my son in taking a flying leap from the top of the park’s tallest dune while Davida snapped our pictures. We laughed hysterically as we tumbled down its sandy face, steep enough that visitors can hang-glide from the highest peaks. At 9, he’s the same age now that I was the first time I visited this place in the mid-1980s.

Jumping the Dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park

At 40, I didn’t hesitate when he insisted that we climb back up and do it again.

Jan2016-VA-NC-0386The unexpectedly warm temperatures helped to perpetuate the magic of these “walking” dunes, which are subject to the whims of the temperamental winds and water. The last time I was here, in the very early Aughts, the shifting sands had yielded the defiant spires of a medieval castle – the ruins of a miniature golf course swallowed whole by Jockey’s Ridge years before. Their present absence said the dunes had once again reclaimed their bounty. Indeed, like the act of traveling itself, the dynamic nature of a barrier island ensures a certain degree of spontaneity; you never know what you might find just around the next corner.

A few tumbles later, I suggested that we walk up the next dune – toward NC highway 158, which like a fish bone forms the central spine for vehicular travel along the Banks – for a better view of the surrounding town of Nags Head. We gathered up our shoes and made our way across this oasis of sand in a saltwater desert.

Hiking the Dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park

It was the boy, of course, who made the summit first. When I caught up, he was staring intently at yet the next dune over.

That's Boba Fett!

“Is that Boba Fett?” he asked, referring to the bounty hunter from Star Wars.

“What?”

“There,” he said, pointing to the next peak. “Is that Boba Fett?”

I wasn’t wearing my glasses, having shed them and every other lose object on my person before tumbling down the hill. Years earlier I had lost my wallet doing the very same thing; thankfully, a park ranger had found it a short time later and taken it to the visitors’ center, where I retrieved it.

I squinted at the next peak, bustling with an unseasonably large number of people. I surmised that my son must be referring to one particular form swathed in a dark brown blanket.

“No, sport,” I laughed, “that’s just someone trying to keep warm.”

“No,” he insisted. “That is Boba Fett! Look!”

This time one distinctive figure, gleaming white from head to toe, stood out among the group. No, not Boba Fett…but a stormtrooper! Now I looked again at the blanketed form, this time realizing that it was not, in fact, a blanket, but a cloak. Obi-Wan Kenobi! And there, in their midst, stood the unmistakable form of the bounty hunter, Boba Fett.

Obi-Wan, 501st Legion Carolina Garrison OBX StormTroopers at Jockey's Ridge

Davida, toting the rest of our gear, caught up with us. I put on my glasses, and we told her about the cast of Star Wars inhabiting the next dune. Davida, noticing Obi-Wan (note: we’ve since learned that this was not Obi-Wan, but a Jedi of the wearer’s own creation) now walking toward our dune, suggested we go find out what was up.

501st Legion Carolina Garrison OBX StormTroopers at Jockey's Ridge

501st Legion Carolina Garrison OBX StormTroopers at Jockey's Ridge

Turned out, members of 501st Legion Carolina Garrison OBX StormTroopers, 501st Garrison Tyranus, The Rebel Legion, and Mandalorian Mercs Costume Club, also taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather, had gathered for a promotional photo shoot on the shifting sands of Jockey’s Ridge, which, when carefully cropped, bears a striking resemblance to Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tattooine. The full-costume groups regularly participate in charity events. Also on hand that day, among others, were the characters Rey and Kylo Ren from 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The costumers proved very friendly, and they graciously agreed to take pictures with our son, amplifying an already memorable experience.

501st Legion Carolina Garrison OBX StormTroopers at Jockey's Ridge

The sands grew cooler as the sun sank into Roanoke Sound, and I put on my shoes and sweatshirt as the fading daylight chased the troupe and its cameras farther and farther up the dune, the long winter light lending an air of drama to the scene. With the park closing at dusk, we decided to make our way back to our car. I remarked on the gorgeous sunset, in case Davida cared to photograph it, but doing so seemed a bit anticlimactic following our cinematic experience – one of those odd bits of happenstance that eludes the best-planned itinerary. Besides, further adventures awaited us, just over the next dune…

Sunset at Jockey's Ridge