It’s another one of those bees in her bonnet,” my husband tells friends when they hear of our plans to cycle the length of our home state’s Outer Banks, or “OBX,” as they’re known to North Carolinians. Sweet Bill has learned not only to accept the physical challenges I dream up, but also to help me engineer them — then goes along with a smile.
After more than 20 years, we’re excited about revisiting the nearly 200-mile stretch of barrier islands along the state’s Atlantic coast that are linked to the rest of civilization only by a few bridges and ferries. And this time, along with a French friend from Paris who’s game for the adventure, we’ll see those endless white beaches, undulating sea oats and towering sand dunes while zipping along on two wheels instead of four.
Our guidebook reminds us there are two ways to access the major islands — one a northerly route across the Washington-Baum Bridge, the other via ferry from the mainland some 100 miles to the south. Because it also advises that prevailing winds blow from south to north, we choose the latter option, planning to ride north. (As for trusting guidebooks, read on!)
Because accommodations are scarce in the sparsely populated villages along our route, state Highway 12, I make reservations in advance, warning our French friend that the motels might not qualify as “luxe.” I also warn him that this will be a bare-bones expedition. “A double-sided pannier to strap to the back of your bike,” I tell him. “A change of clothing, some rain gear, a toothbrush — c’est tout!”
On the appointed day, we make the two-hour Pamlico Sound crossing by the Cedar Island Ferry to Ocracoke, a small village that, despite seasonal tourist deluges, still seems “quaint.” The next morning, leaving our car at the motel and starting up two-lane Hwy. 12 in a 25-mph headwind, I can’t help thinking, OK, woman. This was your idea. And now there’s no turning back!
It’s a doozy of a day — some 56 miles, straight into the wind. At one point, I ask a burly guy in a parked Budweiser rig if he’ll give three tired bikers a lift. But his answer, filled with suggestive innuendo, strengthens my resolve to pedal on. Six hours later, after a roadside picnic and three coffee stops, we’ve traversed the entire Cape Hatteras National Seashore and made it to our unremarkable destination — Salvo. A screw-top bottle of wine from a convenience store helps erase memories of the long day’s grunt work.
Days Two, Three and Four make up for the bad start. We climb to the top of Bodie Island Lighthouse to enjoy a sweeping view of Oregon Inlet’s shoals and sandbars. We linger on the crest of the 4.3-mile-long Herbert Bonner Bridge to take in the same view. We enjoy a beach walk and stop to question fishermen about their catch. We even do a good deed by using our three bodies to heave-ho a stranded driver’s car out of a sandy ditch.
In Nag’s Head, we hike the tallest sand dunes on the East Coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park but miss a national hang-gliding competition there by one day. A few miles north, we visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills. The memorial has full-scale reproductions of the brothers’ 1902 glider and their 1903 powered flying machine. Outside, the site of Orville’s 12-second, 120-foot “flight that changed the world” is marked on a grassy field.
We don’t consider the trip complete without biking the final 24 miles to where Hwy. 12 turns to sand. (And then we wish we had an off-road or four-wheel-drive vehicle to explore beyond.) Along the way, we make a java stop in Duck, an upscale resort community worthy of its frequent hyping in major media sources. Forfeiting my pride, I “duck” into several of the town’s chi-chi boutiques and galleries, feeling sorry for myself because there isn’t a smidgen of space in my pannier for a souvenir.
Our turnaround point is Corolla, once the barrier islands’ outback but now another amenity-loaded beach town. In former times, wild horses, believed to have arrived with Spanish explorers, roamed freely among the dunes. Their ancestors, having taken a backseat to development, can now be seen only by signing on for a four-wheel-drive tour.
Because of time restraints, we hire a taxi for the return to our Ocracoke starting point. The drive takes less than two hours. Efficient, yes; satisfying, no. I miss the wind — the gentle kind — in my face.
Carolyn Schwartz travels the world, but calls Frisco and Pittsboro, N.C., “home.”