South… west?

In which things don’t go according to plan.

I was trying to stay away from making plans on this trip, because that was kind of the point of the trip itself. Just go – don’t think about the going any more than is absolutely necessary, just get out there and see what you see. But I did want some coffee.

Sourthern NORTH Carolina

Heading east of Havelock, I had visions of a quaint little shop on the boardwalk where I could sit on the beach and sip some liquid refreshment while the seagulls terrorize sea life and small children. I got a little misdirected trying to return to my route (West? Shouldn’t that be East?), so the sun was rather high in the sky by the time I saw signs for Atlantic Beach.

It came out blurry, but the sign says ‘Welcome to Atlantic Beach’

Atlantic Beach is one of the first beach opportunities you come to south of the Outer Banks. It’s a quick bridge crossing from highway 24 (heading West, which is kind of a strange concept, but take a look at the map… North Carolina dips in at that point, so the coast is almost doubling back). It is a tiny place with a tiny boardwalk surrounded by a spa and two or three eateries, none of which served coffee, and none of them open for business even if they had.

I walked the boardwalk – twice – greeted the friendly hangers about, admired the clump of houses hugging the shoreline and drove on.

It was after noon by the time I despaired of my seaside breakfast plans and settled for finding somewhere quick with good coffee. I passed several fast food places before pulling into a McDonald’s and then pulling back out as it was still under construction.

Perhaps I was making too big a deal of this, but prolonged hunger, fatigue, and stiffness were taking all the fun out of this day. I looked to the heavens and pled for mercy. Mercy answered in the form of the Java Bean.

Occupying the end of a strip mall across the street, the flow in and out of happy customers indicated two things: they had good stuff, and they were open. I got an iced coffee to go and took a seat outside. After an hour with my coffee, my journal and a seaworthy breeze, I was feeling adventurous again.

Ocean Isle Beach was my next intended destination, right at the bottom of North Carolina. I was surprised to again find indifferent shops, a few places to eat, and lots of beach houses. These I drove by for awhile, not finding any to be particularly spectacular, but different enough from each other that they were interesting for awhile.

Overcast in the afternoon – I’m noticing a pattern here

I bought a few postcards, managed to track down the lone public bathroom (sans stall doors or TP) and settled on the sand and wrote home to friends.

The beach itself was delightful, brimming with shells  and seaweed with a high dune of sand rimming the tide. Here I sat after taking the necessary walk on the beach. By the time I’d finished writing, it was nearly 5pm and I realized the mail would not go out until tomorrow (Thursday). Oh well.

South Carolina! Here I finally started seeing palm trees. I immediately hit the Myrtle Beach area, and with it miles and miles of off-shore entertainment. This was amusing, in contrast with all the sober stretches of lonely road I was about to traverse.

Thank goodness I filled up on gas! Having passed through Georgetown and then heading toward Charleston, US-17 took me through about 50 miles of quiet, nearly undisturbed country. As dark fell, I found myself to be driving the only car on the road, a realization that both concerned and comforted me.

One thing I figured out as Day 3 was nearing a close – road tripping is more fun in daylight. When you can see what’s happening around you, it’s exciting. When it’s dark, you’re just driving. It gets dull. Thankfully, I had my Great Expectations going by now, and Pip and Estella kept my brain engaged until I could reach my watering hole for the night.

Civilization snuck up on me and I quickly found my exit to 526, which lifted me into the air over large bodies of water which I couldn’t properly make out in the dark. But there were lots of lights below which I assigned to ships and boats and all kinds of watery engineering. Finally I reached my hotel in North Charleston and lugged my suitcase and myself into the Red Roof Inn.

So, so tired.

Day 3 stats:
Miles covered: 300
Coffees consumed: 1
Beaches: 2
Friendly strangers: 4
Chapters: 15
Next stop… REALLY Charleston!

Ocracoke and Beyond

Okay, where was I?

Standing guard at the Back Porch restaurant

We docked at Ocracoke Island and everyone took off down the road. Only one road, only one way to go. If you couldn’t figure it out yourself, just follow the Element in front of you.

On a side note, I really enjoyed the Elantra I rented. It handles so well and got great mileage! This could be my next car.

The north end of Ocracoke was undisturbed and desolate for several miles. Then all at once, like a reassuring hint, the posted speed limit began to dip until it reached 25 and suddenly I and my ferry companions were amongst civilization.

There it is!

I drove the whole community in about two minutes, reaching the south end of the island at roughly 6:34 pm. I found a sign posted at the ferry office announcing that boats leave every 2 hours, and the next one would go at 8:30. So you see I was forced to poke around a bit.

Feeling the need for something fresh in my on-the-road diet, I toodled around looking for a promising place to eat. I popped into the tiny community grocery, but the pre-washed salad offerings were brownish and dry. If they hadn’t been five bucks I would have settled for it, but they were so I didn’t.

Good eats

Instead I splurged on The Back Porch, which according to their brochure is the best restaurant in Ocracoke. I got a table for one and tried the Chana Masala, which is basically spinach, chickpeas and rice in a buttery sauce. YUM. I ate it all.

It stormed all through dinner and through the open windows I saw that people on bikes and driving golf carts carried on without much noticing. Starting to feel the laid-back, island style of living.

Around 7:45 I figured I’d better get a ticket for the ferry, since I didn’t have a reservation and I would hate to miss it. As it turns out, I shared the boat with exactly two other people, so it was really okay.

Both Google Maps and my GPS estimated the ferry ride at a little over an hour. Both of them lied.

We put out at 8:30 and arrived in Cedar Island no sooner than 10:45 pm, and I still had over an hour of driving ahead of me. Thankfully, I was able to doze a bit during the ride, although I have to tell you it is a strange sensation to be sleeping in a car while adrift at sea. The temperature took a nose dive after sunset and thunder rumbled dully as lightning flickered behind dense clouds. If there was ever a time to feel sorry for yourself, this was it.

Driving through deserted highways in the middle of the night is not my favorite, but Dickens kept me company and the two other vehicles I had shared the ferry with were going my way, so I focused on keeping up with them. There was a strange sense of loss when each of them eventually split off to their own destinations. I was bound for Havelock, NC, a small town about 30 minutes away from the popular attractions with lower prices to match.

I powered through nature preserves and neighborhoods without incident, and arrived at the Days Inn shortly before midnight. Got to sleep around 1 am.

Not a gorgeous place by any means, but quiet and safe enough for a place to crash and shower. I don’t understand how most hotels seem to have such a smell about them. A cross between stale smoke and I don’t know what… that odd uninhabited aroma. Anyway, it had the best bed; nice and firm with an assortment of pillows so you can pick the one you like best.

I slept until 9 (a miracle for me), antsy to get out and do it all again.

Day 2 stats:

Miles covered: 250ish (on the road) + 2 ferry rides
Disappointments: 3
Delights: um, about a hundred
Chapters: 10

Next stop… Charleston!

Delights and Disappointments

In which I discover that driving “within sound” of the ocean is pretty much negated by the rush of air you create when you go above, say, 5 miles an hour.

Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. What a world the Lord has made. I mean, look:

Mirlo Beach, NC

Multiple bridges, two ferry rides, and a few hundred miles later, I am still so enjoying this tour of the Atlantic coast. A little disappointed that the water is so infrequently visible – even where there are no buildings, sand dunes and trees block much of the view. But then the sudden glimpses of blue that come upon you are all the more exciting.

Plus there are some pretty fantastic bridges.

Day 2 got me into North Carolina pretty quickly, and before I had much time to think about it I was in Kitty Hawk. The weather was perfect; the traffic, nonexistent. It was a blast.

Signs for Roanoke Island lured me away from my main route to pursue some history and education. The notion of this ‘lost colony’ is intriguing, and the bridge from the outer banks to the island was magnificent.

This just doesn’t do justice

The lost colony exhibit was a bit of a drag, unfortunately. Maybe I’m just spoiled living near Washington DC, where we know how to present these things. What I found was an ‘earthen fort’ – basically a man-made sand dune circling a flag. It looked like a toy.

The effect was not enhanced by a sign directing visitors not to climb on the earthen walls because they are ‘fragile’.

Somewhat less than desirable for a fort.

I hunted around for an hour and gave up to google it later. Here’s the gist:

Fort Raleigh logoOn these small wooded grounds lie many stories of families and their struggles that have continued through time, resulting in the creation of a nation and its people. Here, the first infant cries of English colonization in the New World (1584-1590) burst upon the world.
These efforts, sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, ended with the disappearance of 116 men, women and children, including two that were born in the New World. The fate of this “lost colony” remains one of the world’s great mysteries.
(National Park Service,

The long drive through Hatteras was peaceful and mindless. There’s only one road on the island, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Civilization is slight and well spaced, but I did get to witness a bunch of people kite surfing off the edge of the island opposite the ocean. I’ve never seen that before.

Welcome to Mirlo Beach?

The clouds rolled over the sun as I continued south and the empty beaches of the Hatteras nature preserve seemed forlorn. I stopped at one of the rare inhabited portions of the island to stretch and look at the water.









Amazing how it can be so warm outside and so frigid in the water!


I was a little nervous about the ferry, having never done it before. Can you imagine, all these years alive on the earth and never driving onto a ferry boat? Well, that is all behind us.


My feet got so swollen from driving!

The ferryman was very friendly and seemed genuinely pleased to see me. That was heartening, and I drove confidently onto the boat behind a Honda Element. There’s something comical about that car.

Five minutes into our voyage the raindrops fell.   The weather flipped back and forth and mixed all the rest of the way, between sun, showers and both. You can kind of see from the picture what a weirdly mixed up sky it was.

But then this happened.

It went from end to end, all across the sky.