The only friend I have who lives in North Carolina today commented on Facebook that he has never heard of these islands. All the more kudos then to my Austrian-American lawyer friend in Georgetown who suggested I should drive back via The Outer Banks and not (as I had planned) through the Smokey Mountains. Not, you understand, because I would like any of the things The Outer Banks are famous for. I don’t surf, I don’t sail, I don’t swim in the sea and I find beaches unappealing. Nor am I an outdoorsman and least of all am I a fisherman. I do however like to drive the American Road and, like the protagonists of one of my favourite Simon & Garfunkel songs, I’ve come “to look for America”.
The most similar places I have been were Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. I took my family to Nantucket years ago. We took a trip to Martha’s Vineyard while we were there. If you don’t own one of the estates there or enjoy surfing etc., the appeal of those islands is limited. The history of the Nantucket whaling fleet has an afternoon of interest in it and whale watching is great fun, especially if you have young children to marvel at the size of the beasts when they come alongside. Though anyone willing to marvel will do. The soundtrack of one of my family videos of that trip is rendered hilarious by an American lady marvelling so vigorously at the whales that she replicated Meg Ryan’s performance in the most famous scene of “When Harry met Sally”.
But I digress. The public areas of those wealthy islands tend to the scruffy. The Kennedys, Obamas and Carly Simons of this world have entourage to do their shopping for them and tend only to leave their estates to visit each other. The Outer Banks are less elitist. Not only do more tourists come to stay in hotels and rentals that must be made appealing to the public, but listening to the local radio (The Outer Banks have an excellent country station) I feel there are probably more locals here. Locals not in the sense of workers brought in to service the private estates but of people who are from the place and would still be here if wealthy city folks had no taste for sea spray and sand in their toes.
It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on a beachside home, it always seems to look a bit rickety and windswept and have something of the “shack” about it. Windswept and interesting though, as long as there’s sand and sea views. And beachside homes out of season, amid shops and restaurants that are closed until the sun-seekers return, are always going to look that bit shabbier and less chic. I bet the place looks lively and colourful at the times of year it’s meant to be enjoyed though. I reflected as I drove that this would have been a great place to make family memories when Mrs P. was alive and the Misses P were young children.
These were my thoughts and impressions during today’s short journey. I enjoyed the drive tremendously. I set off from my B&B in Beaufort after a splendid breakfast. I tend not to use B&Bs because they usually want firm advance bookings and I like to be flexible when on the road. Whenever I do use them however I wonder why I don’t do it more often. There’s such a difference between a breakfast cooked by a human who is going to look you in the eye as she serves it and the “complimentary” breakfasts of roadside motels. It is a good job I ate a hearty breakfast as the places I tried for lunch were closed. That was my own fault because I drove too quickly out of Ocrakoke and Hatteras, the destinations of the two ferries I took today. Each had a cluster of places around the ferry terminal where a chap could have fed royally. Out on the road, however, there was not enough activity to justify keeping restaurants (not even a Dairy Queen) open out of season.
The attraction then was the road itself. Through such villages as the delightfully named “Sealevel” on the mainland this morning it was already pastoral in a seasidey way. Two lane blacktop bounded by scrub and sand. And water everywhere, though mostly glimpsed from bridges or between the beachside homes. I take childish pleasure when driving in America in the road signs written in English – as opposed to the stupid symbols we use in Britain. I saw two new favourites today; one many times – “No fishing from the bridge” and one just once “Autistic Child Area”. The latter could have caused an accident as I lost concentration wondering precisely how I should drive differently on the basis of that information. I am afraid I came up with nothing useful so drove as I otherwise would – with precisely the same determination to avoid hitting any children I encountered.
Then came the ferry crossing from Cedar Island to Ocracoke. It lasted from 1030 to 1240 and was fun. I left Sally for a while and wandered around the ship with my camera, photographing mainly the distinctive shrimping boats with their wing-like nets that reminded me of Forrest Gump. I attracted a bit of attention on the ferry as I had driven onto it with the roof down. I had driven roofless since breakfast as the temperatures rose slowly from 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 61. It was certainly not as warm as I would have wished but the sun was shining and I wanted both to feel it on my face and to see and smell my surroundings. Sally’s heated seat helped as did the regular heater directed to blow on my legs. I thought it was an exaggeration on the part of a kindly American lady to tell me I was “brave”. Particularly so soon after the Veterans’ Day celebrations of actual courage.
On the islands themselves, as you can see from the map, the ocean is often almost within touching distance on both sides of the road as one drives along. There are “no parking” signs along the road to deter people from just hopping out to go to the beach anywhere – as they certainly could. On the other hand there are regular and neat parking areas with pathways to the beaches for bathers and surfers and tracks for those who have bought a permit to take their 4x4s on the beaches for a drive.
On a windy day like today the road often resembled a beach. Sand was drifting steadily across at some points, and was suspended in the air like a low red mist at others. Just as I wondered how the local authorities kept the roads clear in such circumstances I encountered a road crew engaged on bulldozing the sand back to prevent further drifting. I also drove in a single file convoy through a long construction zone where a major bridge connecting the islands was being repaired. My favourite parts were on the causeways where narrow sandy beaches no wider than the hard shoulder of an English motorway on both sides of the road were all that separated me from the Atlantic. It was at those moments that I could see why pirates such as Blackbeard used to find these islands an appealing base for their criminal enterprises.
Tonight I am going to watch some TV and chill. The town of Kill Devil Hills looks lively enough and its restaurants are both plentiful and open, but it does not exert enough charm to draw me back outside after the exertion of hauling my heavy case up the stairs to my upper level motel room. The updated map of my tour can be found here if you’re interested. Tomorrow I have a longish drive back to Georgetown to spend a final night with my friends there before heading for the airport and home on Thursday.
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