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, http://www.nps.gov)

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.

Quiet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Travelogue – The Road Trip Begins

In which the fun begins with surprise tolls and some crazy bridges.

Chesapeake Bay bridge

18 miles over water… do you hear angels?

My plane landed at BWI right on schedule, but due to some thunderstorms the airport had shuffled planes around to different gates. This left us sitting on the ground for nearly an hour, which I didn’t mind nearly as much as my fellow passengers. Probably because I kept falling asleep.

We stumbled off the plane around 1 am, and by then the Red Roof Inn shuttles were not picking up. At this time, I reflected that it would have been nice of them to point this out on their websiteBut I guess I looked helpless enough, because another shuttle driver took pity on me and offered to dropped me off on his way to delivering another passenger.

As we looped around the airport looking for her, I eagerly described my plans for the week. In kindness to my benefactor, I will refrain from posting his response, but basically he found the question of my sanity highly suspect.

The BWI Red Roof Inn is a recently updated accommodation, each room opening to the outdoors. I felt quite safe, even though I was rolling to my room around 2 am.

We bonded.

Monday came at me quicker than was probably healthy, but I was so eager to get going I didn’t care. The very friendly shuttle driver helped me get to the Avis counter, where I was outfitted with a Hyundai Elantra.

I quickly depopulated my suitcase of the 20 or so CDs I had packed, and aimed for the rising sun. The weather was perfect, the traffic nonexistent. What a great day for a road trip!

About 25 miles in to my journey, I came to a toll. Coming out of the toll plaza, I started going up. And up, and up and up. Without warning, I had come to the Chesapeake Bay, which meant I was now crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is a very high bridge with lots and lots of water underneath it.

I yelled.

It was super fun, scary, and awesome. Like a roller coaster, except I was the one driving it. I guess all the excitement was just too much for somebody, because on the way back down, traffic came to a halt behind a stopped vehicle. Eventually a police car stopped traffic in the other lane so we could all get by. I was supremely grateful that this occurred on the lower part of the bridge rather than its highest point.

Most of Maryland passed by uneventfully. Route 13 took me through lots of green and leafy surroundings, punctuated here and there with little bitty towns. It felt quite rural, though I was only an hour or so from the airport. I was making my way through a full audio recording of ‘Great Expectations’, and the Dickensian narrative suited my quiet drive.

My first stopping place was Chincoteague Island in Virginia, which meant I had to leave 13 and hang a left on 175 (which I missed until about 10 miles later, but what are U-turns for?). The drive to the island was the best part of that detour – a fresh, cool breeze off the marsh that lines the two-lane highway.

Come back in the spring!

I’m disappointed to say that Chincoteague did not make much of an impression on me apart from the lovely drive and the quaint little houses of Church Street. But this could be partly attributed to timing.

I had multiple failed attempts to find a place for lunch, since three of the four restaurants I tried were closed. The café is only open for breakfast. J&B’s only works Wednesday to Sunday (this was a Monday). Another place claimed it was ‘closed til spring’.

I only mention this because it means I lost a lot of time driving around looking for food, when I could rather have been exploring the charming little town where people ride bicycles from one end to the other and a lot of the houses look like this:

      

And I thought this was amusing:

…and quite possibly the only one.

I walked around a bit and browsed the shops, but I really didn’t catch Chincoteague at its finest. I have a feeling the number of folks riding bikes will multiply once school lets out. And if you crop your photos just right, the water looks quite inviting.

That’s 175 you see in the background

Then on to Virginia Beach! I’ve been here before, but not like this. Coming down 13 puts you right on the path to an unsettling toll ($12 if you please) and this gem:

One of the more impressive engineering feats on the East Coast is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel, which opened in 1964 at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and was effectively doubled in 1997 by the addition of an extra set of driving lanes. Almost 18 miles long … the structure consists of one high-level bridge, two deep tunnels, four islands, and many miles of raised causeway.

Pretty! Oh, it was so cool.

As the sun was setting I made a quick stop at the beach before heading to Rita’s to meet my friends Tessa and Abigail, who obliged me with a quick catch-up and Rita’s famous Italian ice/frozen custard. The day ended around midnight at Abi’s house.

Virginia Beach

The bank of hotels and resorts against the glow of the setting sun.

Day 1 stats:
Miles covered: 327.5
Thrilling visions encountered: 2
Chapters ‘read’: 9

Next stop… OBX!