A calming, soothing breath. Salty. Sandy. Dry. Soul renewing. I step out of the car, usually in the crowded parking lot of the first liquor store we hit in the north. More than eight hours in the car behind us and more than an hour still ahead of us, but that first breath of fresh, salty, sandy, dry, soothing air immediately calms and heals my soul and I instantly begin melting into the islands of the Outer Banks in North Carolina.
Even in the mild traffic and the sprawl of strip malls in Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, the healing process begins. My brain is so happy to just be there, where work and stresses of the real world are a few hundred miles away.The big pickup with over-sized wheels can cut me off. The slow moving, cumbersome RV is welcome to slow me down. The bustle of activity cannot ruin my mood because we are back on the islands.
At the end of an 8, 9, 10 hour drive, the trip down NC Highway 12 between Nags Head and our destination in Frisco can feel tortuous at times…A single lane in each direction cruises past dunes, beautiful houses, scenic sound vistas, small shops, small restaurants and a big ocean. However, it is a comfortable final stretch leading us back to the islands we love. Even as we drive up and over the sweeping, roller coaster like bridge over the Oregon Inlet, there is something so incredibly romantic about NC Highway 12. Maybe it is the saltwater that in many areas is moving so close to the road. Maybe it is how this thin ribbon of concrete is barely holding back the sand and nature. Maybe it is those postcard perfect houses that stand defiantly, facing off against the raging Atlantic ocean just next to the highway.
It is likely, though, it is because it is the yellow brick road leading us to our place of adventure, our place of discovery, our place of restfulness. It is the restaurants that run along it that are filled with memories of lunches and dinners in the past. It is the shops and stores where we found those treasured keepsakes that sit in the nooks and crannies of our home back in Pennsylvania. They are all like old friends that feel like we haven’t seen in years. It is all of it and the road is as much the Outer Banks as the dunes, the sand, the water, the Lost Colony, the Wright Brother, Duck Donuts, the fishing boats, the seafood stores, the little dive bars, the watersport rentals stands, Pops Raw Bar, Lee’s, Blue Moon Beach Grill, the Shops at Hatteras, the slow moving ferries, Nino’s Pizza, Frisco Rod and Gun, Oden’s Dock, Bodie Lighthouse, Jennette’s Pier, the countless surf shops, Jolly Roger, La Fogata, the beach ramps, the day use areas and everything that lies between Ocracoke and Corrolla. NC Highway 12 is a long concrete, sand covered ribbon (even when it is actually a ferry) that ties all of the Outer Banks and all of the things that make it great, together.
Just off NC Highway 12 is the house on the sound that has been our little bit of heaven for two weeks in three of the last four years. It feels like paradise there. Even in the mundane, like the smelly, gross task of walking the garbage to the curb, I catch the view of an osprey flying across the deep blue sky and the mundane melts away and paradise absorbs me in. A gull or two in the distance throw their voices to the sounds of insect chatter from the weird knobby trees. The sound of the soft waves of the water against the shore is like a soft violin of an orchestra, providing a background canvas for the rest of the symphony to be played against.
As I approach the edge of the driveway, I can see across the channel to the decks of other houses along it and I see people smiling, grilling, fishing and preparing their water crafts – kayaks, sailboats, goofy inflatable Pegasus-unicorn floats – for a trip out on the sound. Their contagious laughter; the sound of the sizzling meat; the splash of a lure hitting hit the water surface; the banging of plastic against a wooden dock and more contagious laughter at the goofy inflatable Pegasus-unicorn float; all these sounds are added to this deep wonderful symphony. Even the wheels of the trash bin rolling against the alternating gravel and sand of the driveway adds it’s own voice to the composition that is everyday life on the Pamlico sound.
Every so often, the chorus…the symphony…is over-shadowed by thunder from a far away place…or maybe it is just a well timed drum beat. Despite the bright sunny day with blue skies above, clouds frequently seem to sit way out on the sound’s horizon, serving as a reminder at how quickly the weather can change in the Outer Banks. However, most of the time, the clouds don’t seem to move…they just let out the low rumble of thunder, letting you know the power they contain and that they can bring down upon you in a moment.
Tall and noble with calculated, almost robotic steps, the tall great blue heron gracefully hunts for the small fish and critters unsuspectingly hanging around it’s feet. The sleek black feathers sweep back away from his head, fluttering ever so slightly in the warm summer breeze. The still, glass like sound gives him a beautiful background as the green marsh grass and reeds run right up to his feet. At times, he stands so still it feels like you are staring at a painting. A perfect picture of patience and of shore life.
The great blue heron is one of the many majestic creatures that flourish in the sands and waters running alongside NC Highway 12. Beneath his feet swim the powerful and shy red drum, the sleek and quick speckled trout, the annoying and darting pin fish, the graceful cownose ray and so many other species of fish in the vast sound, the raging Atlantic and the inlets in between. Sitting up on the splinted post of an old dock, a quiet diamondback terrapin, with its greys and blacks and white, watches the heron carefully while basking in the sun. She looks like she has somehow stepped out of a black and white movie, sunning in stark contrast to the vibrant colors around her. A brown common water snake makes his way past the terrapin in a direction that will not make him, however unlikely, the heron’s next meal. Shy and elusive, he tries to avoid detection as he majestically wiggles his way through the water. From above, brown pelican’s and Atlantic seagulls fly low across the sound looking for their own meals while far above them a soaring Osprey looks for bigger prey. All three finding different ways to survive above the sun soaked sound.
Life teems everywhere along NC Highway 12. Fiddler crabs emerge through the cracks of the deck, sand fleas suddenly burrow just beyond your toes as the water washes out to sea and piping plovers frantically chase after the sand fleas. Blue crab scuttle all along the edges hoping to find their own dinner without becoming part of someone else dinner.
There is sand on my feet. I hate sand. Perhaps only Anikan Skywalker hates sand more than I do. But I have sand on my feet and my feet are in thong flip flops. I don’t particularly care for flip flops either. Usually, I find enormous comfort in having my feet in soft cotton socks and tucked into a comfortable worn out pair of sneakers. Working the pedals of my car, with my sandy feet sliding around in the thong flip flops would be a thought that might keep me up at night. And my sandy feet sliding around inside the thong flip flops that rub the sand between my toes work the pedals slowly, spending too much time on the brake or only slightly depressing the gas. I hate having to drive slowly, almost as much as I hate sand and thong flip flops. However, somehow, it all feels natural. The sand, the thong flip flops, the slow driving. I have the salty, sandy, dry soul renewing air filling my lungs and pumping out from my heart through each and every cell in my body, including those that are touching the sand in my thong flip flops while operating my car slowly.
There is no rush. My sandy feet in the thong flip flops in a slow moving car are only going to the small Pamlico Deli where the guy yesterday showed me a three foot chunk of un-cut rib eye steak, part of which would make up part of our dinner. He was a seemingly kind man that seemed to enjoy his life and the deli he probably owned and he was so excited yesterday to have shown me the slab of beef. And even though I hoped he would be there to say hello to, it was that hunk of rib eye beef that I had spent parts of my day thinking of. Getting a couple steaks from that slab had been the biggest concern of my day, which is likely why my sandy feet in the thong flip flops in a slow moving car felt so natural.
Along NC Highway 12, nightfall is rarely drama free along the land caught between the powerful raging Atlantic and the calm, shallow sounds…if you are willing to ignore the various insects waiting to bite. The sun does not let go of her dominion easily, laying out the last of her rays to light up the greens of the marshes, the tans of the sands and pushing the lighthouses shadow long across the dunes. And even when those clouds hang low in the west, she flashes her colors even more, lighting them up in oranges, yellows and pinks all while turning the sound orange. The day is hers and she will not yield to the night easily.
However, when the night does arrive, the cosmos’ show has just begun. Stars long lost to men and women not lucky enough to live away from the glow of civilization, reveal themselves in such stunning fashion that you suddenly feel what the native Croatan might have felt staring into the deep night. And then the Milky Way emerges from the darkness…as if the sheer power of the raging Atlantic was not enough to make one feel small, the deep, dark, starlit sky with the vast Milky Way as it’s centerpiece makes you feel like a speck of sand. And when your soul can’t possibly take anymore, the near full moon rises from the dunes…
As I fight against the sleep that wants to collect a soul at peace for a few hours for the night after a day in the sun, I can hear the thunder still threatening from across the sound. If I listen close enough from within the walls meant to stand up to a hurricane, I can here the small waves of the sound lapping at the marshes around the house. The chorus of animals and insects still seep through that windows and walls. While my heart and soul are at peace, I sink further in as I watch the rhythmic flash of Hatteras’ light through the window. Like our small rubber raft (the Oso Del Mar) on the sound, I gently drift off to sleep.
Early in the morning, we need to wearily head back out on to NC Highway 12. We stop at a convenience store for some snacks for the day, joined by other fishermen getting an early start. The air that time of day on vacation feels magical…it is full of the spark of excitement at the possibilities of the day ahead. The air is fresh an there feels like there is a weird camaraderie with those we encounter at the early hour just as the store opens up. With the sun still low in the sky casting that unmistakable post-dawn light and long shadows, the world feels perfect. The morning golden hour during vacation is nothing short of magical.
We can see his boat from NC Highway 12. He is the fish whisperer. “See that spot near the sandbar where the water is shimmering? Cast out there….No, reel it in…you want to go a little to the left…Almost…reel it in and try to put it right on top of where the ripples are…Yeah, that’s the spot…” Suddenly, the line starts running at the tip of the rod bends down and moments later, there is a 21 inch flounder on the boat.
I wonder how many guys there are like this on the Outer Banks…fishermen who seem to know every square inch of these vast bodies of water and seem to know where all the fish are, even when it feels like the sands are shifting daily. While technology helps fishermen like Captain Joey find spots that have proved luck for him in the past, technology does not help you know exactly where to cast a line and what to do next. Every trip with Joey has been an adventure and luck has always been on our side and a trip down NC Highway 12 wouldn’t be much of an adventure at all without some time on the sound on Captain Joey’s boat.
Cape Hatteras is just about as far off US Highway 12 you can get without needing to bail out your car, and that is even before you hit the sand. As we bounce on deflated tires, the waves of the Atlantic feel like they are lapping at my wheels, even though they are still at least 20 feet away. I get moments of anxiety as I feel the wheels slip from time to time in the deep sand, but my trusty Toyota 4Runner quickly catches its footing again. We head out across the sand out to the point at Cape Hatteras. There are a number of trucks backed up to the waves. Men and women cast their lines into the ocean. Children play in the surf. Drinks are shared and even breakfast is cooked on grills. You feel a million miles away from civilization, yet it feels like a grand and exclusive party. We find our spot on the beach and back up to the waves and in moments, the boys are playing in the waves and my feet are sinking into the sand. We settled into a spot along the shore where a small almost harbor has formed where the waves broke thirty feet from shore. The water is calm. Walking a 100 feet in either direction and the waves are crashing the shore. A few years back, the raging Atlantic had placed a small island here. The mighty Atlantic makes for ever changing beaches along the infamous shore of the Outer Banks. Brutal, relentless, ready to rip you out to sea on days, a gentle, mild, water park wave pool the next.
As more trucks roll in, more tents and grills and fishing poles line the beach adding to festive summer feel. Despite all the activity, as I soak in the waters with my family, I feel like we are alone on the beach, even as I watch others walk past and kids yelling and playing in the waves. The sandpipers dart back and forth from waters edge, looking for a meal as the occasional crab emerges from under the sand to chase the small fish flying through the surf. Sand fleas emerge with each retreating wave and then disappear in a moment beneath the sand. It amazes me how wildlife and civilization meet in these areas.
There are so many simple pleasures to the islands, along this magical stretch of NC Highway 12. Sitting inside the door of the Duck Donuts trying to build the perfect donuts…do you go with an old favorite combination or do you try something new? A quick run into Connors or the Food Lion (as long as it isn’t a Saturday evening) to get some snacks, throwing diets and caution to the wind as you absorb the excitement of the rest of the vacationers just beginning their vacations (don’t forget the taco meat). Sitting under that gorgeous night sky with a wood fire blazing in the sand in front of you while the moon reflects off the powerful waves of the Atlantic. That orange glow rising out of the bowl of sand, dancing off the faces of friends and family in the dark as laughter is only disturbed by the silence of deep reflection staring into the flames. Looking down the beach, you can see the glows of other fires. It is nothing short of magical up and down NC Highway 12.
Sitting in my car, the cool breeze rushes through the windows as we bounce along the waves, leaving Hatteras behind. When you reach end of Hatteras Island (at least where NC Highway 12 comes to a parking lot…you need four wheel drive and a off road permit to get to the true end of Hatteras Island), you come to a ferry that connect you to the last segment of the highway and Ocracoke Island. It is an hour long trip that sometime feels like two hours and sometimes feels like 15 minutes. The island never leave your site, but it feels as if you are leaving civilization behind. The south side of Hatteras feels like New York compared to the north end of Ocracoke. In Hatteras, you leave behind a giant parking lot, a big information center, a museum and a series of shops and restaurants around the ferry terminal. In Ocracoke, you arrive a a boat dock, rest rooms and NC Highway 12 heading south. However, the north end of the island isn’t the destination. It is the charming town of Ocracoke at the south end of the island that is the destination. Small, beautiful, a glimpse of the past, Ocrakoke feels like the end of the world. And while a boat could take you a bit further south to the abandoned town on Portsmith Island, for all intents and purposes, Ocracoke is the end of the world and certainly the end of NC Highway 12.
Even when it is time to head back north on NC Highway 12, my soul is still at ease. The highway has shown me all there is to love about this beautiful, thin, precarious strip of perfection, seemingly out in the middle of the Atlantic. The Outer Banks soothes my soul and reconnects me not just with my family, but myself. As we exit the island, I look forward to returning to that narrow stretch of highway back to paradise.