Between a snake, a biker meet, a tropical storm and Memorial Weekend traffic, my trip through North Carolina definitely wasn’t easy but proved to be an adventure nonetheless. I had been in North Carolina a few weeks before driving the stunning Blue Ridge Parkway and you can read all about that in this blog post. In this update I’ll focus on my trip up the coast and my failed attempt to drive the Outer Banks.
Before starting my odyssey I spent the night in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The traffic heading into town was awful and after turning on the Weather Channel that Thursday night I discovered two things; a weather system was forming into Tropical Storm Bonnie and was headed to the very area I was planning to travel to, and it was Memorial Day Weekend when it seems like every American and their dog heads for water. This threatened to scupper my loose plan to head up the coast and stay on the Outer Banks in North Carolina for the next night or so. I checked online and the few hotel rooms that were left were up to three times their usual price. Cruddy motels that normally went for $65 were now charging $250. So I came up with a brilliant plan to head to the starting point of the Outer Banks Scenic Highway the next morning and spend the night inland. The next day I would suck up having to do a hugely long drive and do the entire Outer Banks trip in one go before finding somewhere cheap away from the water in Virginia to stay the following night. That way I would outrun the storm and save some cash.
As I was drifting off to sleep feeling happy with my plan it suddenly dawned on me that I should check why there were so many bikers staying at my hotel and why the streets were lined with barricades. It turns out that Myrtle Beach is home to the Atlantic Beach Bikefest over Memorial Weekend, also known as Black Bike Week. The meet was already controversial with allegations from black bikers that they were the subject of excessive law enforcement that outweighed what was happening at similar meets of predominantly white bikers in other towns. This was made worse by a shooting at the 2014 event and as a result the area pretty much goes into lockdown over the Memorial Day holiday. I could write for a while about it so instead you can click here to get a summary of the issues. What it meant for me was that if I didn’t hightail it out of Myrtle Beach extremely early I risked getting stuck there for hours, so at 6am the following morning I once again struck north to get to the start of the Outer Banks Highway.
Despite my efforts to find a scenic route this was a fairly boring day of driving. North of Charleston US-17 becomes a non-changing wide flat road bordered by tall trees so that you can’t see out. It isn’t unattractive and is pleasant to drive, it just doesn’t change. Ever. I soon found myself in North Carolina and got to the pretty little town of New Bern that has lots of old graceful houses and a nice waterfront. It is also the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola.
After a short stop to take a stroll along the water I made for to the town of Havelock. I grew up near a town of the same name in New Zealand so I wanted to get a photo of the sign to show my family. As I was passing through I saw a side road that might prove to be less boring than the one I was on so I quickly took the turn only to find myself about to pass through the main gate of Cherry Point, a US Marine Corps Air Station. Luckily some friendly Marines let me cut across two lanes of traffic to get out of there and off I went down this newly discovered road.
This was much nicer and quieter, enabling me to experience some of the pretty North Carolina sounds. For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, many parts of North Carolina reminded me of New Zealand. I think it had something to do with the lush green rural areas that were surrounded by forest that came in 50 shades of green, from dark evergreen colours to luminous Teletubbie green. The New Zealand forest or ‘bush’ as we call it (stop sniggering Americans) is very similar.
After exploring this region for a while I started to get extremely tired. I think all of the early starts and long days of driving were catching up and all I wanted was a comfy bed and cable TV. After consulting Google and my GPS, I decided to book a cheap resort in Atlantic Beach. It was an odd and slightly awkward resort that I won’t name or go back to, but at least I got an afternoon nap.
That night I discovered that I had made a huge mistake in not factoring in Memorial Day Weekend. The interwebs told me that if I wanted to do the Outer Banks I would of course need to take ferries and even on a quiet day in summer I could expect to queue for up to two hours. The speed limit would be low and the Banks would be jam packed. I reluctantly had to admit that there was no way I could achieve the whole drive in one day when things were so busy, nor could I afford to spend $300 to stay the night on the Banks. And because Tropical Storm Bonnie was heading for the area and expected to create bad weather all the way up the East Coast for the rest of the week, I didn’t feel like I could stay put and wait for the weekend traffic to leave as I risked driving the Banks in rain and wouldn’t be able to really see anything.
I was still determined to get to Kitty Hawk to pay homage to the Wright Brothers and see at least some of the Banks, so I hatched a plan that involved a lot of driving but enabled me to tick that experience off my list. The next morning I backtracked to New Bern then drove via Washington, North Carolina to Kitty Hawk. Once again the road was pleasant yet boring until I drove past a beautiful little lake and noticed that it had a boardwalk around it. I quickly turned off and found myself at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I started the walk and felt happy to be out of my car and into some beautiful swampy forest. The lake was gorgeous with trees growing out of it, and so still and glassy that the clouds were perfectly reflected on its surface.
The boardwalk went through very pretty green forest with the odd smattering of wildflowers and things were very quiet. I got a fright when I saw a log that resembled an alligator so was already feeling a little jumpy when I came across three teenage boys congregated on the path. One pointed and whispered to me ‘snake’. I looked and sure enough there was a snake sunning itself on the path that I was about to step on. So I stepped back rather fast and after a whispered exchange I established that they didn’t know what kind of snake it was. I had seen a lot of rattlesnakes when I lived in Southern New Mexico and in fact had encounters with two of them. So whilst I knew that snakes will strike as a last resort I also knew that rattlesnakes at least can strike a distance of up to two and a half times their length and that these kids were well within range. So I told them to move back, snapped a picture, decided there was no way in hell I was walking past that thing then headed back to the Visitors Centre to find a ranger who could identify it.
Well the ranger identified it as a Cottonmouth and if you click on the link you will see it is in fact a dangerous snake. The ranger and her colleagues seemed quite shocked, if not scared, and asked me to write it up on the sightings board outside and warn the people starting the trail whilst they discussed what to do. Well I wasn’t going to stand there all day doing their job so after writing it up and warning a few folks I headed on out of there eternally grateful for those boys on the trail as stepping on a venomous snake is exactly the kind of thing that would happen to me, evidenced by the fact that this was the second time I’d nearly done it in five years. The three strikes and you are out rule has suddenly taken on a whole new meaning for me.
I crossed the lovely Alligator River (still haven’t seen a gator) and after driving through more lovely swamp forest I found myself in Nags Head where things suddenly got crazy traffic-wise. I’m pretty convinced that every single American was on the Outer Banks that day. It was awful. I managed to get to the Wright Brothers National Memorial that I hoped would be quiet as the weather was great meaning that everyone should be on the beach, however everyone was being told to stay out of the water due to dangerous rips created by the tropical storm so evidently roughly half of America had come to the museum when they realised they couldn’t go swimming.
Whilst I’m glad I made the pilgrimage to where the first ever plane took flight, I found the museum disappointing. The focus was only on the Wright Brothers, their history and those first few flights which sounds about right but in my opinion a lot more should be told with this story. The point is that Kitty Hawk is the birthplace of aviation and therefore aerospace too. I guess I expected more to be made about what happened after this short flight and therefore how significant this place was to the future of our entire planet. I wouldn’t have been standing in that spot if it wasn’t for them.
I was hoping there would be models of the Kitty Hawk next to a Boeing 747 model and maybe a Space Shuttle or Lunar Module. But whilst there were brief mentions made of these things, the focus was on how they built and tested their aircraft which anyone could learn about in a book or online. The museum was located on the field next to the exact spot where they did the first flights that day in 1903 but again, little was made of that other than some stone markers and some of the original buildings, I guess the very first aircraft hangars in the world. How cool would it be to somehow compare that first version of a runway to a runway at somewhere like LAX and to compare those hangars to the ones Airbus use to build the A380?
Disappointed I headed off and made yet another stupid decision. I really wanted to experience the Outer Banks somehow but in the museum they warned that the ferries would likely be cancelled due to high winds from the storm so heading south was definitely off the cards. I decided to instead drive to the northernmost town of Corolla to see if I could find something interesting. What I found was that people visiting both the Florida Keys and the Outer Banks like to drive at least 10 mph under the speed limit. And that once again the wealthy people had blocked the views for everyone else. Any public beach access had overflowing parking lots so after a pointless 40-mile detour at an average speed of 25 mph where the only photo I managed to get was of an old schoolhouse, I left the Banks without seeing the ocean or a beach even once and in a very bad mood. I’d like to give a special mention to the guy driving the huge GMC pick-up from Arizona at 25 mph the entire 20-mile stretch from Corolla to the exit road. I don’t like you and you should buy a sedan that you can handle better.
The only town I could find within 70 miles of the coast with motels for less than $100 a night was Suffolk, Virginia so I headed there and checked into a cheap Super 8 motel that soon calmed me down because the view was beautiful. I was feeling pretty smug about where I was at compared to all those people on the coast paying $250 for motels way crappier than mine. I’d also decided that I didn’t need to focus on the Atlantic Coast again until I got to New England. The beaches are lovely but let’s face it, how may beaches do you need to see? I consistently found myself having more fun and less stress when I was driving inland areas so I decided to focus on that for the next part of my trip north and will write about it in my next post.
Biggest Regret: It was inevitable that at some point my travels would coincide with a major holiday weekend but it was very unfortunate that my trip to the Outer Banks coincided with one of the region’s biggest weekends of the year. With my road trip being unplanned in nature it was difficult to avoid something like this but do try to avoid this area when the tourists are out in force. I imagine it would have been a wonderful drive on a crisp clear day in winter.
Highlights: New Bern & the surrounding Sounds | Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge | Outer Banks Scenic Byway – I missed doing this properly but I’m sure it is pretty cool so I’ve included it anyway.
Musical Highlight: As I’m making my way through my playlist alphabetically on this trip I am discovering all kinds of crazy stuff I downloaded for themed parties, dinners and so forth then forgot about. Anyway I was driving up a highway somewhere in North Carolina surrounded by pick-up trucks proudly bearing Confederate Flags and Donald Trump stickers when some Yemini pop music started blaring out of my open windows and for some reason at a really high volume. I got a few looks when stopped at traffic lights but decided to just turn it up even louder because it was so much fun to watch people expect to see a terrorist driving next to them only to find a white girl. They were clearly agitated but didn’t know what to do about it. It’s always fun to annoy the ignorant racists.