Ferryland
30 April 2022 | 11:23 pm

One of the central conceits of the modern world is that we can make things happen. That we can reach into the world as if it were the proverbial watch and we the watchmaker and tinker to our heart's delight. Perhaps more to point that we can make things happen as we want -- that we can set things in motion and control the outcome of these things. This isn't true of course. And, helpfully, all of existence is here to disabuse us of this wayward belief.

Say for instance you want to get to Ocracoke island. It seems simple enough. You drive down highway 12, hop on a ferry, and you're there. Sometimes it is that easy I suppose. Doesn't have to be though.

Ocracoke is one of the most remote places on the east coast. It is isolated. So much so that there is a dialect of English spoken nowhere else on earth but here, and it came to exist precisely because this island is so isolated. There are no bridges to here. It is a small place. Every resident of this island knows every other resident by name. I'm pretty sure there are no doctors on the island. There is only one grocery store.

Still, the map says all you have to do is drive down highway 12 and make it happen.

In the bus the weather dictates our days as often as not. When it's sunny we're out and about, when it rains we're out and about, but wet. Still, despite our relative exposure to, and limitations of, weather, to be honest I didn't give getting to Ocracoke much thought. We got up early, ate some breakfast and headed for the ferry. To make it happen.

The bus was running well and everything seemed to be going smoothly. If you'd asked me if I was going to make it happen I'd have probably looked at you funny because that's not really how I think of it, but yet, I suppose that's what I was going to do. Right up until I pulled into the ferry entrance area. A ferry worker was standing there to inform everyone that a barge had hit a sand bar and was stuck, blocking the ferry. I leaned out and asked how long it might take to free it and all he said was, well, it got stuck at high tide.

A bunch of optimists had already pulled into the ferry queue, but I didn't want to get the bus stuck in line so we pulled past and contemplated what to do. Just beyond the ferry area is a museum called the Graveyard of the Atlantic that'd we'd been meaning to check out, so we decided we'd do that and see what the status of the ferry was afterward.

boy's head in a pirate sign photographed by luxagraf
Blackbeard was around Ocracoke for less than six months. The vast majority of his career as a pirate took place nowhere hear here, but his fame here has certainly lasted.

The museum was something of a bust. I think we might have spent 20 minutes wandering around, but there wasn't much to hold the kids attention beyond a few interesting artifacts that have washed up here over the years. It was one of those museums, and we've run across a few, that seems to think its subject matter is inherently interesting enough that it doesn't need to bother with pesky details like storytelling. If you want to learn more about seafaring in these parts, check out the maritime museum in Beaufort, or any of the lifesaving station monuments along the Outer Banks, both are much better.

Back outside a quick glance over at the docks told us the ferries still weren't running. Well, one nice thing about the Outer Banks is you're rarely more than 100 feet from the beach. I took the kids down to the shore for a bit while Corrinne did some research and tried to figure out the odds the ferries would start up again that day.

For most of the history of this ferry it was a short, fifteen minute trip from the end of Hatteras straight across to the end of Ocracoke. That changed in 2006 with hurricane Sandy, which chopped off the end of Hatteras. Nature, now nature can make things happen. Thought there was island there did you? Watch this.

The missing chunk of island wasn't a big deal at first, there was a slightly longer ride along the same route, but little changed. However, over time all the sand that used to be at the end of Hatteras has been migrating west, filling in and creating shoals all around the cut between Hatteras and Ocracoke. Now, to get through requires an hour long circuitous route, picking and dodging through the ever-shifting shoals.

We kept an eye on the NCDOT website and just after lunch we got word that a ferry coming the other direction was now also stuck on the sand near the barge. Things were piling up. At that point we figured we were not going to make it happen. We headed back up the island to the other campground to get a site for the night and try again the next day. The Cape Point campground was uninspiring, a grassy, bug-filled field. I drove through twice before we settled on a site that seemed a little drier than the rest. I put the chocks under the wheels and was about to get everything set up when I decided to call the ferry office one last time. Maybe we could still make it happen.

It turned out that shortly after we'd given up, the coast guard had showed up and managed to free the stuck ferry and move the barge enough out of the way. The ferry was open again. We jumped back in the bus and headed down to get in line. And quite a line it was, we waited a couple hours before they put us on. By this point though no one waiting on the ferry had any sense of making anything happen. It was pretty clear that we were at the whim of nature. Maybe it would happen, maybe it wouldn't. Either way, it would happen on a schedule we had no control over. We bought a big bag of chips at the store and sat back and waited.

the bus on the hatteras ferry cam. photographed by luxagraf
I had been using the ferry webcam to check on things so I grabbed a screenshot when we came into view.

We'd never put the bus on a ferry before, or at least not one this big (we did take a small ferry ride in Louisiana once) so I wasn't quite sure what to expect once we finally got on. It turned out to be a nice smooth ride. There was one moment when we hit bottom, but we never got hung up.

It was nearly dark by the time we "made it" to the campground on Ocracoke. We were all tired, but there was also a great feeling of accomplishment, of having gotten somewhere, not exactly how we'd wanted, but perhaps how we needed. Somewhere between will and hanging on for survival is where I think adventures, however small, happen. The collision of will and world and then navigating resulting currents and winds by faith, and some degree of grace, literally and figuratively, is the best way to travel the world.


Cape Hatteras
13 April 2022 | 1:38 pm

We headed south from Oregon Inlet, across Pea Island to Hatteras Island. It's not much of a drive, about 45 miles so we stopped off to play on the dunes and get a feel for Pea Island, which is primarily a nature preserve, before heading on to Hatteras.

It's hard to tell when you're driving -- the dunes have been pushed up to form a tall berm alongside the highway -- but the ocean is right next to the road. And the bay is not far on the other side. These islands are thin strips of sand miles out in the ocean. It's amazing they're here at all when you consider the storms that hit them year after year.

Frisco campground here on the southern shore of Hatteras is much more our speed than Oregon Inlet. Frisco is more up in the dunes, with junipers and cedars -- even some small oaks -- and plenty of shrubs between campsites. It's more like what most of us think of when we think of camping. Oregon Inlet is more what you think of when someone says "we're going to a Phish show."

Our site here backed right up to the dunes, near a boardwalk that led over to the beach. A short stroll through the dunes and we were at the water.

The other side of the campground sprawled up a small hill, away from the dunes, but with a view of the ocean. The kids and I rode our bikes around the loop nearly every night after dinner to watch the sunset from the top of the hill. The sweet smell of cedar and juniper, and the scrub oak undergrowth reminded me of spots we camped out west, near Canyonlands more than anywhere we've been in the east.

Here though we had the beach, and with the wind finally giving us some breaks, we spent as much time as we could out on the sand. Actually it wasn't so much that the wind stopped, it was that temperatures climbed up into the 70s and the wind died down to the point that it was just a welcome breeze. We still had a few storms blow through, but the temperatures stayed warm enough that most days were were playing in the water.

When people think of Cape Hatteras, if they ever do, they think of the iconic lighthouse. It's the tallest in the United States and graces countless postcards in these parts. I'm not entirely sure we'd have made it, we're not really lighthouse people I guess, but it happened to be right by the dump station, so one day we stopped off to check it out.

More remarkable to me than the lighthouse itself is that in 1999 they moved it. Exactly how you move a 4,830 ton brick structure is detailed on the NPS site. It took almost three weeks to move it less than half a mile from its original location down on the sand, to its current home on more stable ground.

Unfortunately I agree with the opponents of the NPS plan, it loses something when it's not sitting out there on the actual point, in the sand. I did enjoy seeing it flashing every morning though. To my mind that's how you should see a lighthouse, from a great distance. That's its job after all -- to keep you away from it.


All Wright All Wright All Wright
6 April 2022 | 2:02 pm

Somewhere offshore, a few miles south of where I am sitting, the Gulf Stream, a northward current of warm water, collides with the Labrador Current, a southward flow of cold water. That collision of currents creates rough waters, fog, storms, and more often than not, wind.

If you happened to be looking for a good place to test a glider, and you poured over meteorological records for the entire country, the Outer Banks would jump out at you. It jumped out at the Wright brothers, and of course Kill Devil Hills is where they came to test their glider.

The glider, as it turns out, didn't really work. What put the Wright brothers in the air in the end, was partly the wing design they came up with, partly the wind the Outer Banks provided, but also, arguably mostly, the engine they built.

We headed over to the Wright Brothers Memorial one windy day and had a look at the dunes where they worked, and eventually, flew. The rebuilt plane is in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, but there's a life size model here, and some parts of the engine (which was also destroyed at some point).

WRight brothers' engine, kill devil hills, NC photographed by luxagraf
The original engine block, and most of the cam, with some plastic parts to complete the picture.

To me one of the most interesting parts of the memorial, after the engine, was learning that iconic photo below was shot by John T Daniels, a member of the local life saving station who had never taken a photograph before in his life. Local legend says he never took another. Quit while you're ahead I guess, because with no experience and only one shot to get it right, Daniels nailed it.

John T Daniels image of the first flight photographed by John T Daniels
image by John T Daniels
John T Daniels statue at wright brothers memorial photographed by luxagraf
Daniels is immortalized at the outdoor statue/model of the first flight.

We've also enjoyed spending the occasional cold day at the North Carolina aquariums, which aren't huge, but have a enough to keep the kids entertained on a stormy afternoon. The one here has a couple things the one we visited in Pine Knoll Shores did not, like a tiger shark and an albino crocodile.

Just in case you didn't get the title, here's the full joke Corrinne made up: What did Matthew McConaughey say when he got to Kill Devil Hills?



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