Stare at any map of the Atlantic seaboard and you'll notice only a few places that physically beckon in a cartographic sort of way. For me, until recently there were three: Maine, planted up in the corner like a microwaved Lego; Cape Cod's Popeye arm; and far below, the index finger of Florida's Keys. Last year I added one more spot to the list when some recently acquired friends, my new mother-in-law and her husband, Sally and Angus MacDonald, invited my wife, Jemma, and me to their little beach hideaway in North Carolina's fabled Outer Banks.
Pulling out the old AAA road atlas, I took a closer look at the wispy strands of land off the bulge of North Carolina, in the middle of the Atlantic coast. The place names were vaguely familiar: Cape Hatteras, the keystone for measuring the progress of hurricanes on the national news. Kitty Hawk. Nags Head. Kill Devil Hills. A lot of imagery in the middle of nowhere.
We RSVP'd and booked a flight into Norfolk, Va., about a two-hour drive from the first Carolina bridge to the northern Banks. We noticed right away we weren't the only couple drawn here in mid-July. The Outer Banks has nowhere near the congestion of the big seaside towns of Virginia Beach, Va., to the north, and Myrtle Beach, S.C., to the south, but much of North Carolina's 105-mile-long spit runs by the same formula: Rake in the summer dollars, sandbag against the hurricanes, hibernate through the winter.
Most of the traffic turned right at the end of the bridge, toward Kitty Hawk and the other tourist magnets with their miniature golf and Brew Thru beer-and-T-shirt stores. We turned left, north, on the road that runs along the spine of the spit, with Currituck Sound on one side, the Atlantic on the other. The road ends at Corolla, which is where Angus met us. We parked our rented Neon and hopped into his Ford Explorer.
The pavement ends at Corolla, but the road rambles on, for those who can follow it. Angus deflated his Explorer's tires to 15 pounds and rolled us right along the wide open beach for the next 10 miles.
"This whole place is just one big sandbar, and it's all moving west, slowly but surely," Angus explained. He's an ophthalmologist and photographer whose property sits a few hundred yards from the migrating shore.
"Yeah, up here is really where you want to be," Angus said, bouncing us past a white-tailed deer, a few gray foxes scavenging by the surf line and a fleet of dolphin fins not much farther out. "Just don't be taking this road in some dinky front-wheel-drive."
We were entering the least accessible American beach community I've ever seen. A sparse, jumbled neighborhood of faded gray-shingled homes and sandblasted cottages sprawled off beyond the dunes between half-buried wood-and-wire fences. Some stray Broncos and Pathfinders were down by the shore facing the waves. Beside them, a few after-hours anglers sat on fold-out chairs with poles planted in the sand and coolers stuffed with bait, Buds and no fish.
I was beginning to really like this place. The breeze was warm, salty and everlasting. Soft clouds burned pink above the sound to the west, and a full orange moon began climbing over the sea.
I sank into a hammock on Angus and Sally's porch and nodded off, feeling as untethered as a piece of wood yanked from this sort-of-solid land and set adrift on the tide.
Barrier islands are thin, rootless offshore landforms that take the brunt of the ocean's punishment as it approaches the continent. They stretch from Maine to Texas, constantly eroding from the windward side, rebuilding themselves on the leeward side. Most of them have "drifted" close to shore (or joined it) while following the shape of the coast they run alongside.
One great exception is the Outer Banks. These spits of sand (barely a mile wide in their wider parts) run as far offshore as 20 to 40 miles. They're inching west a few feet every year, an obstinate pace for a barrier island. The northernmost is already attached to land in Virginia, but there's no road, not even a path, beyond the locked gate on the state border, a few miles beyond Angus' place. This inaccessibility has made a haven for wild horses, free-roaming descendants of Spanish barbs shipwrecked here centuries ago.
One morning I spotted some hoof marks in the sand just below the porch. Then I saw the horses, a small assembly of them grazing on sea grass beyond the driveway.
"They visit us a lot," said Angus, suddenly behind me with his telephoto lens.
It was my first wild mustang sighting, and I took it all in. The herd included a spindly foal that practiced kicks while the adults munched, each keeping a guarded brown eye fixed on us. Then, on some hidden signal, the herd cantered off to sample the roughage in a neighbor's yard.
"You can head south to Hatteras if you want," said Jemma, sinking into the porch hammock. "I'm happy here."
As perfect as Corolla is, the draw of Hatteras is hard for any Type A personality to resist after a week of slacking off in the sandy wilds. I collected the Neon and migrated south for a few days.
A dozen miles below Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, and over a three-mile bridge that serves to sever all ties, is the Cape Hatteras National Seashore--a 28,000-acre, 70-mile band of salt marshes, maritime forests and vast, empty beaches.
Wherever you stand, rows of sea oats bend in the wind and tap the backs of your knees. Out near the surf line, beside a parked 4x4, you'll probably see four generations of one family sitting out on the sand with their rods neatly lined up, Norman Rockwell's missed opportunity.
Hatteras, an islet of nature preserves, surfing holes and sleepy towns with names like Waves and Salvo, is threadbare even by Outer Banks standards. A two-lane blacktop road is all that stands between sea and sound.
To experience this area's charms, you'd do best to line up the services of a kayak guide. And you'll want at least one night camping out.
Guide Megan Jones introduced herself to me with a big grin and an enthusiastic weather report:
"They're calling for heavy rains this afternoon," she said, glancing toward a wall of approaching storm clouds. "But unless there's lightning, we're going anyway."
We put in at a spot called Canadian Hole on Pamlico Sound. The tiny parking lot was stuffed with cars from Quebec. It's anyone's guess how this spot first caught on with French Canadian windsurfers, but there they were, zipping around what's billed as America's windiest shallow-water windsurfing port.
The sound is about 30 miles wide here and in some places only inches deep; at one point we passed a surreal scene of anglers walking in ankle-high water.
Farther down the sound, warm 25-to 30-knot gusts pummeled us head-on and broadside. The waves were so disproportionately high that Megan's boat and half her torso keep rolling out of view while my rudder scratched along the bottom.
"We're almost halfway there," she chirped, as my shoulder muscles started to combust.
Five miles or so later, evening was descending and the pale sky looked about ready to drain itself. We combed for campsites, gliding past a woman and two boys collecting oysters on a cove. At the first faint rumblings of thunder we picked up the pace and docked in a hamlet called Frisco on the inside of the Cape Hatteras elbow.
After a supper of chili that Megan whipped up, I dug into my tent and was lullabied by snippets of strangers' conversations in French. During the night the wind picked up and thunder rumbled, but the storm held its fire.
We finished our paddle in the morning, straining for Canadian Hole in heavier, head-on gusts. It was time to call it a day.
A great chapter in the American story was written in the Outer Banks when the Wright Brothers took advantage of the constant wind and made the first recorded airplane flight at Kitty Hawk.
A less heroic but more entertaining story awaits visitors to Ocracoke Island, a few miles and a short ferry ride south of Hatteras.
The village of Ocracoke, with its woods and protected little harbor, was a favorite hideout of a legendary 18th century pirate. Blackbeard--a.k.a. Edward Teach--and his crew terrorized ships off the coast before colonial authorities finally cut him (and his head) off in 1720. His flag wasn't the generic skull-and-crossbones; his displayed an entire skeleton standing tall and chipper, wearing a smart pair of devil's horns and clutching an hourglass in one bony hand.
"It's pretty self-explanatory," said the young bearded guy sporting a cutlass and Blackbeard garb out on the porch of an Ocracoke pirate paraphernalia store called Teach's Hole. He went on to explain it, then glanced at his watch and went back into the store.
The 16-mile-long island may be the easiest place on the Atlantic seaboard to rent an old bicycle and forget about all your big plans.
I got fully in the mood after parking my bike outside Howard's Pub, easing into a rocking chair on the roof and gorging my way through a mess of clam chowder, fried crab cakes, a couple of home brews and three "oyster shooters" (beer, hot sauce, pepper and one raw oyster in a shot glass).
Then I pulled myself up, eased onto my bike and pedaled nauseously out of the village and north along the empty road. I dropped my bike on the sea grass and stumbled over to the beach. It was as vast as the one at Corolla and entirely, eerily empty. Not a soul. No 4x4s. No fishing rods. No boats on the horizon. Had I not shown up, this would be Genesis, Scene One. There was nothing for me to do but sit in the warm, deep sand and let myself drift.
I'd heard the locals talk about this languor. They called it "Ocracoma." I was happy to succumb.
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Guidebook: Break the Banks
* Getting there: The closest major airport is in Norfolk, Va. From LAX, there's connecting service (change of plane) on United, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $439.
The new Chesapeake Expressway links Interstate 64 outside Norfolk with U.S. 158 and Kitty Hawk, a 11/2-hour drive (longer on weekends).
Raleigh-Durham, N.C., is served by the same airlines plus Midway, with restricted round-trip fares from LAX starting at $178, a better deal if you have time and patience for the 200-mile drive to Kitty Hawk on U.S. 64.
* Where to stay: The Sanderling Inn, 1461 Duck Road, Duck, NC 27949; telephone (800) 701-4111, fax (252) 261-1638, http://www.sanderlinginn.com. Rooms at this historic, luxurious resort begin at $247 during summer.
The Island Inn, P.O. Box 9, Ocracoke, NC 27960; tel. (877) 456-3466, fax (252) 928-4352, http://www.ocracokeislandinn.com. A charming 1901 hotel with a modern annex. Summer rates start at $79 a night for a small antique room, $150 for an apartment (three-night minimum).
Typical weekly cottage rentals begin at $650 and drop in September. Some rental agents: Twiddy & Co. Realtors, tel. (800) 489-4339, http://www.twiddy.com (Corolla and the north); Kitty Hawk Rentals, tel. (800) 635-1559; Outer Beaches Realty, tel. (800) 627-3150, http://www.outerbeaches.com (Hatteras); and Ocracoke Island Realty, tel. (252) 928-6261.
* Where to eat: The Blue Point Bar & Grill, 1240 Duck Road, Duck; local tel. 261-8090. Tops the Outer Banks fine-dining charts; reservations advised. Dinner entrees $17.95 to $22.95.
Duck News Cafe, Highway 12, Duck (across from Sanderling Inn); tel. 255-0773. Best place to catch the sunset. Dinner entrees $15 to $22.
Tortugas Lie Shellfish Bar & Grill, milepost 11.5 on the Beach Road, Nags Head; tel. 441-7299. A local favorite. Dinner $5.50 to $13.95.
Howard's Pub & Raw Bar Restaurant, Highway 12, Ocracoke; tel. 928-4441. Dinner $7.95 to $14.95.
* For more information: Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, tel. (800) 446-6262, http://www.outerbanks.org. Another good site is http://www.outer-banks.com.
For water sports rentals: Kitty Hawk Sports, Nags Head, tel. (800) 948-0759, http://www.khsports.com.