Friday, May 4, 2012

Off Again, Part II: OBX

When we left Highlands, we felt like we had so much time to get where we were going that we decided to take a detour of sorts, and drive through some additional counties in central North Carolina. There was nothing spectacular to see along the way, and the only impulse stop we made was at Isothermal Community College, to get someone to explain to us why a community college is named for a meteorological term. It turns out to be as mundane as the term suggests (proving that there is really nothing interesting about the place where the school is located), but the fact that it is as bland as it is silly makes it good fodder for a gag gift, so I bought a t-shirt with the logo on it for a friend. Dinner that night was at a Greek restaurant in the Charlotte suburbs: the Gateway to Athens. Not a bad little place.

Next morning we were up early, crossing the state south to north and west to east. In the middle of North Carolina there was a sign that said "Area Potters Next 6 Exits." Vague signs always intrigue me, so we took the first exit. A few miles down the road was another sign: "Area Potters," with arrows point right and ahead. We went to the right, but after a few miles with no indication of what we were looking for, we turned around and headed back to the main road. After a few miles there was another "Area Potters" sign, but this time there was an actual pottery. We learned from the potter that the clay in that part of Carolina was renowned for its workability, and so the industry concentrated there long ago. Nowadays, because of the danger of contamination and the cost of testing, all the potters use man-made clay, but there are still about a hundred in the area, which stretches over three counties. (About 80 of them display samples of their wares in a single location, in the town of Seagrove, but once I roughly calculated that it would be 7pm before we got where we were going — I do so hate having to be somewhere — we decided that would be too far out of our way.) But we stopped in a couple more potteries, and only the limitations of a small car stuffed with luggage, and the fact that the potter who sold stunning copper-lined vases doesn't offer shipping (!) kept us from buying more.

In fact it turned out to be after eight when we got into the Outer Banks. At our hotel in Kill Devil Hills, we met up with the Colorado Branch of the family for the preamble to our annual Condo Week.

The famous moment, rendered in bronze
We started with a quick trip to the Outer Banks Visitors' Center, where there is a monument celebrating 100 years of flight — actually mostly about space travel. I get the sense that Carolina, where man first powered his way into the air, is desperate to establish its place in the Space Age. Clearly, they've decided that mere atmospheric flying is so Last Century.

From there, we drove a few miles down the island to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. (When they got off the ground, it was near Kitty Hawk; since that time the town of Kill Devil Hills has come into existence, and the memorial stele erected for the 25th anniversary of that famous flight is on top of Kill Devil Hill, the highest sand dune in the area.) Even now, before the Season begins, the place is fairly thickly carpeted with tourists, enough to prevent a decent photograph of the markers showing where the four test-flights that day in 1913 started and ended. We were all impressed, though, that the last of the four flights was over 800 feet, a huge improvement over the first three. (What was once an area of open sand now has trees lining the roadway beyond, prompting my brother-in-law to observe wryly that "it's a good thing they came down when they did; otherwise they'd've flown right into those trees.")

From there we headed down the peninsula (and some peninsula it is: in places only a few hundred feet wide from east to west, it stretches about a hundred miles, from Shipps' Bay, in Virginia, to Ocracoke Channel) and turned west to visit Roanoke Island, site of the Elizabethan Gardens and, more famously, the Lost Colony. Since three of the four of us had done a good chunk of their growing up in Virginia public schools, and I had at least heard of the ill-fated venture, we were all looking forward to the visit to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. But first we had to go to the Elizabethan Gardens, because, after all... it was us. My wife is implacably drawn to gardens like interstellar gas to a black hole. (Okay, that's not really an apt simile, because you can't get gas out of a black hole, while I have managed to get the wife out of a garden; but who else goes to Disneyland to see the flowers?) Her sister enjoys gardens, and has decided to practice her photographic skills on them. Her husband and I can stand wandering around in the gardens for a while, because they are, after all, generally pretty when things are blooming, and kind of pretty when things aren't. Usually, anyway.  But to make a long story that much longer, the Elizabethan Gardens were our first point of call on Roanoke Island.

the occasional camellia
These gardens were put in during the 1950s by a bunch of locals — three guesses, which sort of locals, and the first two don't count — for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Roanoke Colony, which would occur about thirty years later. They are supposedly in the style of gardens being done in England at the time. They seem to me to consist of a lot of azaleas and low hedges, with an assortment of camellias scattered about for variety. Yes, the gardens were pretty, but to my eyes, monotonous. (It didn't help set the mood that one of the two women in the gift shop, where you pay your admission, was snide and officious; the other, though, was most friendly and welcoming. Call it a draw.)

From the gardens, we went to Fort Raleigh, which is practically next door (though we went the long way). The National Historic Site consists of a visitors' center and a reconstruction of the dirt ramparts of the 16th-Century fort, which is about four feet high and the size of my house's footprint. There were a few birds and lots of mosquitos. We puttered around there until it was about time for sunset, which we had decided to view from Jockey's Ridge State Park, a good-sized area of dunes on the lagoon side of the peninsula. So we headed over there, took up our positions and watched the sun go down. All of us got good pictures.

We closed out the day with an excellent meal at Firefly, a slightly upscale local restaurant that impressed.

Our plan for Saturday was to go all the way down to Ocracoke, at the southern tip of the Outer Banks, and work our way back. This required a ferry ride across to Ocracoke Island, which required a wait of about half an hour for the ferry boat to arrive. The highway is two lanes all the way, well paved and straight, and conducive to the wandering of the mind of even the most attentive driver. Luckily, there was a Carolina state trooper handy, to bring our driver's thoughts back to where they should dwell; a valuable, if expensive, favour. Glad I wasn't driving....

There were boats there, I swear.
Ocracoke is a fishing village in the post-modern sense; that is, there are people there who fish for a living, in the classical manner, taking their boats out for long periods, filling their holds with all manner of edible marine creatures. You don't see them: they're out at sea. You see the boats of sport-fishermen, who will take tourists out on day-trips; you see private yachts, as at any marina: mostly single-masted craft whose owners take great pride in discussing how much of a cash drain their sloop is. The rest of the town makes its living dispensing the sort of tourist kitsch you find everywhere east of the factories in China where the stuff is all made. Honestly, other than the squat little lighthouse, the British cemetery (where are buried some crewmen from a British ship sunk during World War Two by a U-boat just offshore) and the suggestion, belied by the congestion of tourists, of remoteness, there is nothing in Ocracoke to make a visit there worthwhile except the fact that it is where the road ends. You go there only so you can say you've been there. Well, I've been there. Impressed?

At Cape Hatteras, where the coast bends sharply to the southwest, there were two things of interest: the famous lighthouse, and a museum focusing on the many shipwrecks that have occurred along the Outer Banks. We got back from the Island only a few minutes before the museum closed at 4pm, so we had to skip that; we went to the lighthouse, a few miles up the coast.

The original location of Hatteras Light
Cape Hatteras light is famous for two things. First, it is the tallest brick lighthouse the world (or was, when it was built; but I think I read somewhere that it still is); and second, it was moved in 1999-2000 from its original location to its present location, because of encroachment of the seashore due to erosion. It now stands as far from the shoreline as it was when it was built 150 years ago. You can see from the picture here how far inland it was moved.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches most of the way from Nag's Head, the last town on the peninsula, to Ocracoke; a part of it is Pea Island National Seashore, though why they need two separate administrative entities is above my pay grade. In any case, we stopped off to have a look at the nature trail at Pea Island, seeing some turtles and a few birds, but the mosquitoes drove us off before long. Before leaving, though, we walked across the road and over the dunes to see the remnants of an 1850s shipwreck (I thought the sign said it was the Oriental, but that ship went down in the mid-20th Century). Only the boiler is still visible in the surf. And to our surprise, there was a wedding just getting under way on the beach.

Bodie Marshes Light
Also within the Pea Island National Seashore, or Cape Hatteras National Seashore (or maybe just nearby) is Bodie Marshes Light, where we stopped next.

The next morning, we packed up our two cars for the trip down to Atlantic Beach, where our condo was; but before leaving the Outer Banks, there was another light house to see, the only one that was open to the public for climbing. And if you know our history, you'll know that we don't, as a rule, pass on an opportunity to climb any tall building that promises a view. So we drove north fifteen or twenty miles, past the town of Duck, to Currituck Beach Lighthouse, and climbed to the top. The wind up there was wicked strong, and scary like you wouldn't believe, especially as you pass that point, in walking around the observation deck, directly into the wind. As you approach the point, the wind is hard in your face. Then suddenly, it's still, as the mass of the lighthouse behind you blocks its force. And then just as suddenly, it's hard in your back. Really a scary feeling, worthy of an amusement park.

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