When it came time to leave Ocracoke we decided to drive north on Friday after a late breakfast in town and a long lounge on the porch enjoying 65 degree sunshine. Cheyenne sat in a patch of grass just beyond our rocking chairs and rolled in the sun of and onto her back, paws in the air grunting as she scratched the spot with the grass. We could have sat there all day doing nothing; Ocracoke was draining away our will to live. But Highway 12, the Irwin Garrish Highway beckoned.
The 13 mile stretch of flat straight road between the village and the Hatteras Ferry is named for a county commissioner who lived in Ocracoke until his death a dozen or so years ago. The road is almost all flat and not terribly scenic, sand dunes to seaward blocking the view and keeping the ocean from covering the roadway in high winds. Swamps shrubs and more sand on the sound dude of the road with occasional glimpses of muddy brown water. There are a couple of curves along the road, my favorite section, with tall pines giving shade and a momentary feeling of being in a forest...
...but for the most part it is long and straight and not terribly challenging. I have heard a story that the man for whom this stretch of roadway is named was not an adventurous driver and was once cited for driving too slowly, "impeding the flow of traffic" on the very highway named for him. Fifty five was apparently too fast for him, according to the story that may be apocryphal.
I myself got stopped on mainland Dare County on Saturday, my wife and I were animatedly discussing a possible summer road trip to New England and by the time I noticed the Sherfiff's Deputy coming head-on I realized too late I was doing 70 in a 55, not at all Irwin Garrish islander-style. I was alone on a dead straight stretch of Highway 64, and the only other driver could hardly help but notice me as we were aiming at each other on the road. I saw him in my mirror pull over and a make a u-turn, so with a sigh I pulled over and waited for the inevitable blue lights and "...do you know why..?" I was doing 70 I said, and I stupidly didn't notice. It was a good day though as I only got a verbal warning so just to let you know these long empty straight North Carolina roads are patrolled. I like to think Garrish got a ticket for going too damned slow.
One reason the speed limit is so relatively high on the empty stretch of roadway on Ocracoke Island is that they have corralled the formerly wild horses of Ocracoke as they were posing a threat to traffic. I suppose it makes sense and even though their corral is large, huge, it is still a shame in my book they have to be fenced in. I'd take a lower speed limit to restore their freedom, but I don't live on Ocracoke, so I can have an opinion on their way of life just as snowbirds and visitors write the newspaper to comment on mine.
I did mention it's long and straight didn't I?
The other object of note here is the fact that almost the entire island of Ocracoke, outside of the village is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and is thus protected, though they do allow vehicles with permits, easily obtained, to drive on the beach, as old fashioned as that sounds.
Out of season the beach is empty and glorious and if a little cold and windswept it's the sort of strand visitors to the Keys imagine they might find, but of course never do. Such beaches are found on mainland Florida usually overlooked by vast great condos, built in the land of no urban planning. This land is controlled by the gummint so it is pristine and lovely with a very low ROI.
Vehicles used by taxpayers are allowed on the beach but are asked not to trample the dunes and sea oats struggling to put down roots to keep the dunes intact.
The Hatteras Ferry is free to users and is considered by the state of North Carolina to be an extension of state highway 12 which runs another sixty miles north to Nags Head, an estimated 90 minutes from Hatteras. The ferry used to take thirty minutes to cross the five miles separating Ocracoke from Hatteras but Mother Nature sent a hurricane that shifted the sands and closed the shortest route so now the ferries have to scribe a large wide arc taking an hour or more depending on the currents. We spent 70 minutes chugging between terminals.
These ferries run about every half hour from 4:30 am to midnight in summer and rather less often in winter. The boats are lacking in amenity but they have an enclosed seating area upstairs and toilets downstairs so time spent waiting to arrive need not be a complete waste of time. There is cell service across this short water gap too which helps to pass the time.
We passed two loaded boats heading for Ocracoke at once. Schedule mix up? No idea. The dredges are manfully pumping sand to clear the short cut and if they ever manage to overcome nature's impulse to close the channel it would help people who travel here daily. Locals get priority boarding which helps I suppose.
So there I was walking around checking out the Harley and the Victory motorcycles and a rather snotty couple riding a tandem bicycle stopped by dressed in the obligatory absurd spandex outfits and cleated shoes that make them walk as though on eggshells. I said good morning as one does on the outer banks and if looks could kill the bearded dude in blue stretch pants would have slain me on the spot. He maneuvered his bicycle away from the wool clad chilled Hobbit and looked at me very old fashioned as though I were contemplating stealing his ghastly contraption. I mentally wished him joy of a ride up the most boring coastal road ever, into freezing cold headwinds. And his partner her ride endlessly staring into the cleft of his spandex, uptight ass. Good for his soul no doubt and her's too perhaps. I got back into the sun-heated car, grumpy I had already left behind the intimate village of Ocracoke where no one knows you name but waves cheerily anyway.
On your marks! Get set! ... And out we spewed into pre-season Hatteras, still on North Carolina Highway 12.
I miss urban planning when I ride up the mish mash of neon and yard waste that seems to line the Upper Keys alongside the Overseas Highway, but the Outer Banks take urban abandonment to a new level of public indifference. They plonk down massive multi-story rental units in the sand higgeldy piggeldy. These barrier islands are all sand so they move around and get sliced and diced in heavy storms. The road has been cut and covered in shifting sands and machinery is still at work reinforcing the only bridge at Oregon Inlet while also trying to push back encroaching sand dunes. All to keep these little towns in operation.
They even offered to feed us on the deck so our dog could sit with us, for they had watched me watering her in the parking lot, but it was too cold and we ate indoors and let Cheyenne sleep in the fresh maritime breeze.
We had selected a few landmarks to visit on our drive to Nag's Head the town that marks the spot where the main road goes inland toward I-95 and where Sheriff's deputies lurk with radar guns. Google maps says the sixty mile drive should take 90 minutes because there are lots of villages along the way with slower speed limits than the rural 55. But in summer I'm told the highway becomes a daily parking lot. In winter locals drive it like it is speed limit-free.
We stopped to visit the Cape Hatteras Light, guarded by the National Parks Service. A walk in the perfectly tended grounds is free, thank you Government, though there is a fee to climb the tallest lighthouse in the US. Mercifully the stairway was closed and the challenge was denied us. The museum on the grounds was delightful and made the stop worthwhile.
The Avon Pier is described in Trip Advisor as a delightful attraction and they charge a dollar to walk it. However dogs are not allowed so this private enterprise lost our two dollars for dissing Cheyenne. I can't say she was particularly moved by our act of canine solidarity.
We skipped the Bodie Lighthouse having done Hatteras, which is actually in the village of Buxton, and the other attraction a US Life Saving Service Museum in Chicamacomico was still closed for the season. We amused ourselves figuring how to pronounce the name of the place as we drove by.
Oregon Inlet is a landmark, a long bridge, Keys style, over a shifting sandy inlet. There was a demonstration there ending as we drove by, protesting the use of sand to shore up the shifting coastline. I wasn't sure what it was about, something to do with keeping local sand local. I googled the issue and discovered that the islands will need to spend about two million dollars a year to keep beach erosion at bay. Rising sea levels seem to threaten these places more so by far than the rocks and reefs of the immutable Keys. In the end though Mother Nature will not be denied.
Nag's Head an ugly strip mall town of three thousand greeted us this year rather like our visit last year, with not terribly nice weather. Last year it howled with wind and poured rain, this year it was cold and gray, and rained overnight as we slept at the dog friendly Rodeway Inn. Cheyenne was so hard walked at this point she was ready for bed and I needed no encouragement to join her for a nap while my wife braved the four lane highway to get herself a pedicure and us both a takeout dinner of oysters, mussels and fish. We slept soundly prior to our marathon drive back to south Florida. We arrived in Fort Pierce at ten o'clock Saturday night. By Sunday lunchtime we were home and I girded my loins for a night shift while Cheyenne fell into a coma of travel exhaustion. Our vacation was over.
Key West Diary: Nags Head Woods
Key West Diary: North Carolina Highway 12
Key West Diary: O'Cockers