The October Session: North Carolina's Outer Banks in Autumn
The breeze is coming in warm and soft off the rolling waves, and I'm midway into a caffeine and lack of sleep haze that won't send me crashing for several hours yet, listening to the wheels grind slowly over hungry piles of sand criss-crossed with footprints and tire tracks. It's sunny, warm, I haven't worn a shirt or shoes for days, and there must be ten pounds of sand that I've managed to track into the Jeep since I started this little adventure. Since putting rubber to the asphalt and sand of Highway 12, I've eaten nothing but boil-in-a-bag grub from Backpackers Pantry. Drank nothing but water, rum, and Red Bull, often all in one sitting.
It seems a world away from where I was just a few days ago, leaving my office and spending four hours fighting Jersey traffic along US1, desperate for my vacation to begin by, at the very least, not being able to look out the window and still see the skyline of where I live. Hard fought and with a few hours sleeping in the back at a Virginia rest stop, sated on an uncomfortable mix of Nutri-Grain bars and Arby's, I finally hit highway 12, the thin strip of sand-swept two-lane blacktop that winds its way down North Carolina's Outer Banks, a long, slender series of islands and sandbars that run down most of North Carolina's coast and, in the old days, provided safe haven and bountiful prowling territory for pirates like Blackbeard. These days, it's a hard-hit fun-in-the-sun hot spot for southeastern sunseekers both rich and poor. And in October, with the summer fading, it's a semi-deserted playground populated by nothing but fishermen, kayakers, and surfers looking to squeeze the last few waves out of the summer. With surfboard in tow and kayak on top, I'm here for two of the three.
Highway 12 through the Outer Banks is one of the great American drives, especially in the late summer/early fall when the crowds have thinned. Starting at Corolla Beach and the upscale community of Duck, and ending some couple hundred miles and a few ferry rides later, 12 will take you through fancy resort communities, seedy run-down beach neighborhoods, nature preserves, sand dunes, the site of the Wright Brothers historic first flight, inlets, seafood restaurants, and some of the best waves on the East Coast. Once the summer season ends, huge swaths of beach open up to four-wheel vehicular traffic. Combined with a sparse population, it's the perfect recipe for finding one of the great global chimeras: a beautiful stretch of deserted beach all your own.
Kill Devil Hills, Nag's Head and Kittyhawk are where you stock up at the local Food Lion on highway 158, which is the more crowded and faster-paced parallel to 12. All you really need are sunscreen and DEET. If you have a hankerin' for hanggliding, Nag's Head is the spot. Launch yourself from the same dunes that served as launching platforms for the Wright Brothers. Kittyhawk Kites (www.kittyhawk.com) will get you airborne for $89.
Leaving Highway 158, follow the signs toward Highway 12 North and Corolla Beach, which is situated at the far northern tip of the Outer Banks. It's a quality spot for catching mellow waves in warm water, even in October -- though you'll be hard pressed to find deserted beach space here. Hit Corolla Surf Shop (www.corollasurfshop.com -- they have two locations) and grab yourself a board or sign up for some lessons. Rent or take the plunge and buy yourself an affordable used board (mini-long, which average 7'9" - 9", are perfect for beginners).
Heading south from there (because you can't head north -- highway 12 dead-ends at the beach), you pass through ramshackle vacation homes in Nag's Head and Kittyhawk before crossing a long bridge over to Hatteras Island and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. There's only one road here -- Highway 12. If you are looking for surf, Hatteras is ground zero in the Outer Banks, and one of the best spots on the East Coast for catching waves. Cape Hatteras, near the southern tip of the island and recognizable by the historic lighthouse towering over it, is the best-known spot, but keep an eye out for surfboard-stuffed 4x4s and VW Bugs pulled over alongside the road. The coast swells with swells, and spots like Waves aren't marked with signs.
As long as you're mindful of the fragile sand dunes, beach access in the off-season is pretty much a free-for-all. This isn't New York, where beach access is strictly policed and people accept that the ocean can be closed for business. The Outer Banks in October operate on a "you're on your own" policy. No lifeguards, very few police. You are expected to know how to take care of yourself, and you are expected to know how to respect and take care of the environment you are being allowing to use so freely.
4x4 beach access is so frequent on both Hatteras and Ocracoke Island to the south that you can almost forget there's a paved highway. Just make sure you know what you're doing (4x4 lo gear and be sure to let out the pressure in your tires to about 20 psi). If you get stuck, you could be spending the night on the beach unless another 4x4 happens by that can tow you out.
From Hatteras, take the free ferry (vehicle included) to Ocracoke Island. Off the western shore of Ocracoke Island is Palmico Sound, a placid, shallow inlet (you'll be able to touch bottom almost anywhere) that is perfect for getting your feet wet with sea kayaking or kiteboarding. Be prepared to paddle alongside curious dolphins, though, because they're plentiful in the waters around the Outer Banks. Tour Springer's Point by kayak and get in touch with the spot where The Man finally caught up with Blackbeard. Real Kiteboarding (www.realkiteboarding.com) will send you soaring ($300 covers equipment and lessons). If you don't have one of your own, Ride the Wind will get you outfitted with a kayak, and Natural Art Surf Shop can take care of your surfboard needs.
If you are looking for something more substantial than boil-in-a-bag backpacker food and the bottle of Pusser's rum you tucked into your pack (you do travel with a bottle of rum tucked into your pack, right?), you can grab food in Ocracoke Village, the only town on Ocracoke Island.
The Outer Banks offer up plenty of motel, hotel, and beach house options, but if you really want to feel the wind on your face, hit the campgrounds on either Hatteras or Ocracoke Island. You can camp on the sand, beach access extends throughout the night (perfect for moonlight swims), and you are more than welcome to get your friends together and build a beach bonfire. Just remember the DEET. Mosquitoes are thick in the early evening and scoff at anything less than 100% DEET.
As for me -- down the beach, away from the fishermen who have come to probe the October waters with arrays of rods so complex and plentiful that even the Bass Pro Shop might consider it a bit of tackle overkill, I guide the Jeep to a stop. The world is silent but for the sound of waves, and this far down, there's not a soul to be seen. I slide out of the driver's seat and around to the back, where I pull out a 7'9" mini-longboard and assess the waves.
Every October should be this good.
Sunset stroll, Hatteras.