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North Carolina

Inner Peace on the Outer Banks

Beyond the tourist hub, the chain of barrier beaches has sand, serenity and seafood to interrupt long, lazy days.

July 29, 2001|JORDAN RANE | Jordan Rane is the West Coast editor of Travelocity Magazine and a freelance writer. He lives in Los Angeles

COROLLA, N.C. — Stare at any map of the Atlantic seaboard and you'll notice only a few places that physically beckon in a cartographic sort of way. For me, until recently there were three: Maine, planted up in the corner like a microwaved Lego; Cape Cod's Popeye arm; and far below, the index finger of Florida's Keys. Last year I added one more spot to the list when some recently acquired friends, my new mother-in-law and her husband, Sally and Angus MacDonald, invited my wife, Jemma, and me to their little beach hideaway in North Carolina's fabled Outer Banks.

Pulling out the old AAA road atlas, I took a closer look at the wispy strands of land off the bulge of North Carolina, in the middle of the Atlantic coast. The place names were vaguely familiar: Cape Hatteras, the keystone for measuring the progress of hurricanes on the national news. Kitty Hawk. Nags Head. Kill Devil Hills. A lot of imagery in the middle of nowhere.

We RSVP'd and booked a flight into Norfolk, Va., about a two-hour drive from the first Carolina bridge to the northern Banks. We noticed right away we weren't the only couple drawn here in mid-July. The Outer Banks has nowhere near the congestion of the big seaside towns of Virginia Beach, Va., to the north, and Myrtle Beach, S.C., to the south, but much of North Carolina's 105-mile-long spit runs by the same formula: Rake in the summer dollars, sandbag against the hurricanes, hibernate through the winter.

Most of the traffic turned right at the end of the bridge, toward Kitty Hawk and the other tourist magnets with their miniature golf and Brew Thru beer-and-T-shirt stores. We turned left, north, on the road that runs along the spine of the spit, with Currituck Sound on one side, the Atlantic on the other. The road ends at Corolla, which is where Angus met us. We parked our rented Neon and hopped into his Ford Explorer.

The pavement ends at Corolla, but the road rambles on, for those who can follow it. Angus deflated his Explorer's tires to 15 pounds and rolled us right along the wide open beach for the next 10 miles.

"This whole place is just one big sandbar, and it's all moving west, slowly but surely," Angus explained. He's an ophthalmologist and photographer whose property sits a few hundred yards from the migrating shore.

"Yeah, up here is really where you want to be," Angus said, bouncing us past a white-tailed deer, a few gray foxes scavenging by the surf line and a fleet of dolphin fins not much farther out. "Just don't be taking this road in some dinky front-wheel-drive."

We were entering the least accessible American beach community I've ever seen. A sparse, jumbled neighborhood of faded gray-shingled homes and sandblasted cottages sprawled off beyond the dunes between half-buried wood-and-wire fences. Some stray Broncos and Pathfinders were down by the shore facing the waves. Beside them, a few after-hours anglers sat on fold-out chairs with poles planted in the sand and coolers stuffed with bait, Buds and no fish.

I was beginning to really like this place. The breeze was warm, salty and everlasting. Soft clouds burned pink above the sound to the west, and a full orange moon began climbing over the sea.

I sank into a hammock on Angus and Sally's porch and nodded off, feeling as untethered as a piece of wood yanked from this sort-of-solid land and set adrift on the tide.

Barrier islands are thin, rootless offshore landforms that take the brunt of the ocean's punishment as it approaches the continent. They stretch from Maine to Texas, constantly eroding from the windward side, rebuilding themselves on the leeward side. Most of them have "drifted" close to shore (or joined it) while following the shape of the coast they run alongside.

One great exception is the Outer Banks. These spits of sand (barely a mile wide in their wider parts) run as far offshore as 20 to 40 miles. They're inching west a few feet every year, an obstinate pace for a barrier island. The northernmost is already attached to land in Virginia, but there's no road, not even a path, beyond the locked gate on the state border, a few miles beyond Angus' place. This inaccessibility has made a haven for wild horses, free-roaming descendants of Spanish barbs shipwrecked here centuries ago.

One morning I spotted some hoof marks in the sand just below the porch. Then I saw the horses, a small assembly of them grazing on sea grass beyond the driveway.

"They visit us a lot," said Angus, suddenly behind me with his telephoto lens.

It was my first wild mustang sighting, and I took it all in. The herd included a spindly foal that practiced kicks while the adults munched, each keeping a guarded brown eye fixed on us. Then, on some hidden signal, the herd cantered off to sample the roughage in a neighbor's yard.

"You can head south to Hatteras if you want," said Jemma, sinking into the porch hammock. "I'm happy here."

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