North Carolina's Outer Banks, a World Apart

Note: Tim recently returned from Virginia and North Carolina. This is the second of two columns from the trip.

OUTER BANKS, N.C. – A recent segment on the evening news featured interviews with people on a beach about the approach of Hurricane Joaquin. That was “our” beach. We’d spent several nights in a house nearby and had left only the day before.
On previous visits to North Carolina, I’d seen little but cities and densely wooded hills and “hollers.” The Outer Banks couldn’t be more different. Topographically, ecologically and in just about every other way, they’re a world apart.
For readers unfamiliar with them, the Outer Banks are a strip of barrier islands and peninsulas separating three sounds from the Atlantic Ocean. The narrowest part, near Cape Hatteras, is about the width of two football fields. A baseball player standing in the middle could throw a ball to the sound on one side and the ocean on the other.
The house where we stayed was at Kitty Hawk, where motorized flight was born. It was a place I’d wanted to see since taking flying lessons as a teenager in hopes of becoming a dashing airline pilot. To go there is to appreciate the enormity of what the Wright Brothers achieved.
Until they made their first flights in 1903, most people thought human flight was patently impossible. The Wrights were ridiculed, dismissed as loonies.
They started out by studying birds and progressed to gliders, flying them with ropes, like kites. Above all, the brothers were scientists. They disproved existing theories of flight and devised their own. They made wind tunnels, built wings, propellers and other parts based on their theories, invented the first airplane engine.
And they were courageous, risking their lives with every flight. They never flew together, the rationale being that if one was killed the other would survive to carry on the work. When success made them “overnight sensations” after years of work, study and ridicule, their fans ranged from everyday people to kings and presidents. A towering monument to them was built at the summit of Kitty Hawk’s Kill Devil Hill, so named because buccaneers there favored rum “strong enough to kill the devil.”
One side of the monument bears a single word: genius.
A nearby museum features a replica of their plane, historic photos and other oddments, but to me the most interesting thing was the field where they made their early flights. Markers show the starting and ending points of successively longer attempts. You can walk the actual flight paths. The first was 40 of my footsteps. Forty steps that changed the world.
Fifty miles down the narrow highway that threads the Outer Banks is Cape Hatteras. A framed poster of its famous lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in the world, graces a bathroom in our house and we were looking forward to seeing the real thing. Getting there, however, was a bit of a challenge.
If you saw the news reports, you know that Joaquin eventually changed course. But it was bearing down when we were there, and there had been so much rain that the road had reopened only the day before. Parts of it were still under nearly a foot of water.
After the towns of Kitty Hawk and Nags Head (combined population about 6,000), the character of the barrier islands changed. Vacation rentals and strip malls were left behind, and the highway became a lonely road lined by marshland, sound and ocean. It was a foggy, rainy weekday; ours was one of a very few cars on the road.
We spent a long time looking for a place my wife’s smartphone touted as a great restaurant but turned out to be a raw fish takeout, then stopped for lunch at Sunny’s Cafe in Hatteras Village. It was anything but sunny. By this time it was raining hard. We began to worry that the road, underwater in more and more places, might close again.
Sunny’s was downright dismal on this stormy, September day. Between the approaching storm and the absence of summer tourists, the lunch crowd was limited to us and a smattering of regulars. We ate, watched the rain through a window by our table and speculated about the course of the hurricane. It was a little like being in a scene from “Key Largo.” We paid the bill and, not wanting to chance the road closing, reversed our course and hurried “home” to Kitty Hawk – with one quick stop along the way.
The stop was the lighthouse. It looked exactly the way it does on our bathroom poster, but the setting was totally different. The foreground on the poster is sand and seashells, but all we could see were grass and trees. A National Park Service guide explained why. In 1999 (the poster is older than we thought), the lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet inland because of shoreline erosion.
How do you move a lighthouse that’s 193 feet tall and weighs 4,800 tons more than half a mile?
Slowly and carefully, on beams and rollers. The actual move, not counting years of planning and preparation, took a little over three weeks.
We spent four days in the Outer Banks and enjoyed every minute of it – Kitty Hawk, the Cape, the history, it was all great. But my favorite thing was standing on the beach, looking out at the eight-foot waves. There’s just something about the ocean, especially during a storm. I could have stood there all day, soaking it up – no summer crowds, no gridlock or honking horns – just the wild, natural beauty of the place.
Thanks, Joaquin, for sparing it.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at

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