Outer Banks Part II: Where the Road Runs Out

September 10th:

“Let’s drive until the road runs out and the sky and the sea dance like jewels as the tide rolls in…Let’s get lost in sand and break the wind as the sun kisses our skin.  For a moment before the storm, for a second we could see forever in this our first steps on a last frontier.”

Surveying a map of the Outer Banks, my mom and I decided to spend the day driving up iconic Highway 12, north to the Currituck Lighthouse at Corolla.

As a child studying North Carolina history I always had an affinity for the humble red brick lighthouse – a last beacon warning for sailors of the dangerous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Lighthouses have always cast a spell on my heart.  One can discover an intrepid peace in the beacon’s guiding light, even in the midst of hurricane storms.  The smallest flicker of a lighthouse can destroy the darkness and guide those lost in the sea of confusion to safe harbor.

Traveling north on Highway 12 – the sky is wild and free; the clouds floating like kites.  The sun shines as a diamond in the rough, as the wind howls a haunting refrain.

Highway 12 is a feat of engineering within itself, built atop barrier islands that are ever-shifting with the wind and the tides. Hurricanes, have ravaged the islands and yet the land perseveres – in its grace, its sheer resilience and seize the moment energy.

The Barrier Islands of NC’s Outer Banks are grounded only by the grace of the moment – these islands might not be around in another 100 years as the fury of the sea reclaims the sand as its own, but for a brief vignette – these islands are a heaven on earth – the sort of place you rise to meet the sun and fall asleep with the moon.  If it be God’s grace to raise this sand for eternity – just keep back the ocean’s flood…for now we’ll just bask in the warmth and perfection of this one day.

Heading north on Highway 12, we drove through the town of Duck, ‘North Carolina’s best secret.’  Situated on a stretch of land cradled between the Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean…Duck has a refined wildness.  The community is upscale without compromising the laid back beach vibe – making it authentic OBX with Tar Heel grown locally owned boutiques, and a plethora of delicious eats from fine-dining to kid-friendly fair.  The town is a throwback to vintage Americana – where community matters and life is simple.  I could quack my days happily in Duck – it has a simple grace – a resort area focused more on community and life on the Outer Banks.  As a native North Carolinian who grew up going to NC beaches nothing makes me madder than a duck, than seeing ugly overly pretentious condos and high-rises on the beach.  This is an epidemic – so finding a gem like Duck is a treasure.

My mom and I bypassed the exit for the Currituck Lighthouse, deciding to stop after we’d driven further north.  While the map indicates the road continues north for miles and miles after the beachside hamlet of Corolla we were AMAZED to literally dead-end several miles past the lighthouse exit into a sandy road, leading to the ocean.

We have reached the end of this world, the end of the continent, for once I can say ‘I drove until the road ran out.’

A lot of ATV’s go on this stretch of sandy beach where you can spot a glimpse of the island’s wild horses if you are lucky, search for sea glass and dream.  Parking the car a brief second in a turn out I take in the view – life is good!

(I could not get a picture due to traffic pile up but here is one from a travel site)

I restarted the ignition, making a 3-point turn before driving into the sand-trap (I got stuck in sand once before and it was not pretty.)

The Currituck Lighthouse lies in the quaint castaway village of Corolla NC.  Growing up in NC we were taught the proper pronunciation of our state’s great places.  Corolla is not your Toyota, the village is actually pronounced Cor-rah-lah.

Since the 1980s the area has grown exponentially, with more modern infrastructure and stores dotting the landscape of this last wild frontier of the barrier north.  In spite of its growth, Corolla retains its charm and laid back vibe.

The Lighthouse is the anchor of the historic village of Corolla, which dates back to the 1800s and has a deep history from fishing to hunt clubs and recreation.

The area is known for its wild Banker Spanish horses that have lived in the region for hundreds of years and often can be found near the lighthouse.  The horses swam to shore as their European ships ran aground in the hidden shoals of the dangerous NC coasts…they made a life here and are part of the land. Unfortunately my mom and I did not have time to go on a 4×4 Wild Horse adventure to see the horses in their environment.  It is definitely on my bucket list for when we return to the OBX.  To learn about Wild Horse tours: http://www.corollawildhorses.com/

The historic village of Corolla includes numerous museums, shops and the Currituck Lighthouse.

We started our village tour with a visit to the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education.  This amazing museum features an array of exhibits detailing the intricate ecosystem(s) of North Carolina’s barriers islands, and the history of the region from the Natives to the rise of the Duck Hunting clubs in the turn of the century through 1930s.

A collection of duck decoys and information on migratory birds was fascinating.  Ducks are one of my favorite animals so I personally cannot fathom why someone would want to hunt ducks.  The hunt clubs were important for the local economy, but overhunting depleted resources and a need for conservation practices was instituted along with a focus away from upscale hunt clubs to a broader range of outdoor recreation utilizing the richness of the islands, while preserving them for future generations.

It is fascinating for many tourists that bears inhabit the barrier islands, along with foxes and other smaller mammals.   In fact Black Bear are found throughout NC beaches.  Sadly they only live an average of four years in the wild.  Each layer of the NC ecosystem from the wetlands to forests and swamps provide an important link in maintaining a healthy coast.  I also enjoyed the huge fish tank showcasing native coastal fish to NC.

Leaving the wildlife center, my mom and I spent half an hour exploring Corolla Park, a waterfront park adjacent to lighthouse that also includes the historic Whalehead House.

Walking on the boardwalk, we noticed an ethereal egret, standing guard on a nearby board walk.  Egrets are calming to me – they have a presence of peace and intuitive aura of energy.  I always imagined the egret as a symbol of peace or a messenger able to have great discernment and kindness…of course this is my writer’s mind fantasizing – but you cannot help but be hypnotized by an egret’s grace and stealth.

The beauty of the land is indescribable.  I am overwhelmed by the spirit of thankfulness and humility.  My soul finds rest in the refuge of the ocean breeze and wide open beauty.

Families were enjoying a number of recreation activities in the park, the coolest was kids crabbing right off the dock!  You can see this the featured image.  Crabbing is an old bait and switch game of patience – with strings and lure – while most catch and release – I enjoyed seeing kids so actively engaged in nature and excited to learn about the marine life.  One crab was HUGE.

The Whalehead is an impressive 1920s art deco inspired cottage, once owned by the Knight family – it was used on an off as a hunting lodge for the Knights.  Conservation efforts have restored this architectural treasure – making it an ideal wedding and event venue…they also have ghost tours…

Standing on the porch of the Whalehead, history and mystery collided – ghosts of the past like a dream in the present reality – this place lies on fragile land, but the most glorious castle built on sand that it might stand, I muse…watching Windsurfers courageously negotiate the waters.  I could have sat on that porch all day long and just enjoy the view.

My mom and I followed the skyline, using the Currituck Lighthouse as our guide as we followed a footpath through the park and into longleaf pine.  As we neared the lighthouse entrance, it’s ruddy brown tower disappeared in the trees…I found that moving somehow – God’s creation – something as ordinary as a tree stands so tall, its roots so deep even in the sandy turf, such that even a jewel of a lighthouse cannot overshadow its life…to continue on in the Lighthouse Tour…

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