At 4:30 in the morning of Monday, April 15th, I bid farewell to my wife in North Florida and began "The Long Road Back" to the place of my youth, Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I was excited but also a little bit pensive, both due to the length of the day's drive and the concern about what I might find there. It had, after all, been twenty-eight years since my last visit and I knew what it looked like today from pictures, but I also knew that the in person experience would likely be much more dramatic.
Once through Jacksonville, I made good time, getting to see the sunrise to the east over the East Georgia wetlands that approached the state's golden isles. It was crisp, clear and beautiful but I knew I had to keep my eyes on the road. The traffic on I-95 is always busy, but what I noticed most of all was the lack of good driving sense by so many drivers. I decided to put the cruise control on at 72 mph and just cruise and when someone ran up my tail pipe acting as if I was supposed to evaporate, I merely chugged on with the flasher on, letting them know how foolishly they were driving. I know that sounds just like the older man that I am but, honestly, one cannot stop when doing 90 riding the leading car's bumper.
By the time I reached the North Carolina line, I began to feel like I was home yet I knew I was really only about half way there. Finally approaching Rocky Mount, I saw the sign to go east on US Highway 64 to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. I began to feel like I was getting close but I knew I still had almost 200 miles to go. Once past Rocky Mount and Tarboro on US 64 East, the look of the old days of Carolina farming surfaced and I felt like I was home. The road bypassed the heart of both Columbia and Plymouth, two towns of old featured in "The Long Road Back" and I made a note of planning to stop in Plymouth on the way home. I was intrigued to find they had a reproduction ironclad in the town park on the Roanoke River and would see it on the return trip. Just east of Plymouth the road soon turned to two lanes, nice and wide however, and it wasn't long before I approached the Alligator River.
As I crossed that broad river, the Albemarle was right next to me on the north, and what there is of East Lake came up. East Lake was the home in the old days of the bootleg whiskey boys and was always quite familiar to the old Outer Bankers when they wanted a nip during Prohibition. The road was through the swampy refuge with no shoulder and nowhere to stop and I was amazed when an oversized SUV came roaring up on my bumper as if to say I should run off the road to accommodate the fool. Nope, I put on my emergency flasher and maintained cruise control at 3 mph over the speed limit and finally he went past, roaring off to the horizon at probably 90 mph. About three minutes later, a North Carolina State Trooper came into the rear view mirror, passed me at warp speed and ten miles down the road I came upon him and the SUV which was stuck in the soft side of the road. I couldn't help but chuckle as the officer was reading him the riot act while calling for a tow. There was no way that man was driving out of the rut.
Passing Mann's Harbor and coming to the new Virginia Dare Bridge across the Croatan Sound, I could see Wanchese, my mother's hometown, on the south end of Roanoke Island and it still looked similar from afar to the way it had been. The northern area was developed but not by an eyesore, just pleasant looking and mostly single story homes along the sound. Further on, however, when I passed the intersection where a left turn goes to Manteo and a right to Wanchese, all recognition to my left front was impossible. The Pirates Cove project completely eliminated the natural pristine nature of the sound shore to the north while the Wanchese direction remained timeless.
When the shock really hit me, however, was on the Washington Baum Bridge as I looked toward what was Whalebone. Getting closer, I couldn't believe the massive development jammed so tightly together on both the beach and bypass roads headed north. Baby carriages and bikes were being pushed and ridden on a walkway area right on top of the roadway and the ambiance of Nags Head was clearly gone. Not only that, but you couldn't see the sea, hear the sea or smell the brine. There was no breeze and it was hot despite the fact that the beachfront was windy and six-two degrees. Frankly, not even Florida destroys the beachfront areas to the same degree and I wondered to myself what will happen in that location if they ever get another Ash Wednesday Storm like the one in 1962. As sure as the sun comes up another such storm will ultimately happen and the destruction and tragedy it will bring will be catastrophic. I must say that I shed a tear as I headed north toward my beach lodging in Kill Devil Hills.
Continuing north I was shocked to see the remains of Jockey's Ridge, only a semblance of itself and now spread out. I promised myself I would come back the next day and walk what is left of those dunes. I saw the family cottage, still looking much as it did and the Culpepper cottages restored next door. They are now the Pelican Cottages, owned by Bobbie Murray with the Bourne's, Barry and Emily, as investors from Richmond and I was graciously invited to come there and park to take pictures the next day. I would look forward to that with gusto.
Reaching the old Orville and Wilbur Wright which is now a Wyndham Hotels property, I checked in and soon was on the beach. It was chilly and I wore a sweat shirt but I did wear shorts and took off my shoes and walked in the ocean. And I thought to myself that no matter what man does to the sandbars that are the Outer Banks, he can't conquer the Atlantic. It was choppy and timeless, just like I remember and after the long drive it felt wonderful on my bare feet.
I got something to eat and came back and turned in early. I was exhausted after fighting the highway warriors for nearly twelve hours and over 700 miles. I called my wife to tell her I wasn't a casualty and turned in so that I could awaken early on Tuesday to walk the beach and take pictures of the sunrise the next day. As I lay there in the dark thinking about my trip up and how I felt, it was a mixture of both joy and sadness that filled my head and heart. It was joy in making the trip back to see what things were like and update myself on the old beach. The sadness came from seeing the place so overbuilt with all of the problems that I knew that had and would continue to be faced with storm, insufficient infrastructure, crime and too many people jammed up on a small island. But then I realized that it was the way of the modern world and life changes and it made me smile. Why? Well, I smiled because I realized how fortunate I was to grow up at the time I did and experience the glory of a wild and open beach where we were footloose and fancy free. And it's why I write today about it as it was back then, hoping to pass on to those who will never have the joys I experienced on a somewhat isolated above water sandbar in the middle of the deep blue sea. I also knew that my next two days would be busy ones and that I must get to sleep and I indeed slept like a baby. We'll continue the journey tomorrow when I write about returning to the very spot where I spent so many days and nights many years ago. Oh, how the memories will flow.