“It feels like there are alligators here,” I think as I try to sneak out of the tent in the early morning darkness. Despite my best efforts, I’m super loud. Sarah rolls over and tries to go back to sleep. Ten minutes later, warm cup of coffee in my hands, the dawn sky starts to break and I sit and watch the woods slowly illuminate out of the darkness.
If I was at home, I would be hunched over my phone or iPad right now – guaranteed. But out here, it feels so good to just sit and watch the world around me. Why do I never look up from my screen like this at home?
We are in Merchant’s Millpond State Park in North Carolina. Already around 100 miles south and two states into our Atlantic Coast bicycle trip, we are getting into the rhythm of the trip. It’s just us, our bikes and the tent – our pop-up home. It feels good, in a vagabond sort of way.
“I want to be a Grandma!”
We are at a fork in the road this morning. The main Adventure Cycling route goes west and then south from here through rural North Carolina. But a “spur” route takes us onto the Outer Banks on a wide detour to the east. It’s longer and likely much busier, but we can’t resist the Outer Banks. The maps pull us in like a tractor beam, just a sliver of land cutting across a sea of blue water. It looks idyllic.
Such blissful ignorance.
Looking back, I’m glad we didn’t know how God awful the traffic would be getting onto the Banks, because we probably wouldn’t have done it — and it was a highlight of the trip. That spur is a metaphor for life. I’m sure most reading this can think of a path they took on their life’s journey that might have been challenging and maybe left a few scars, but that they wouldn’t trade. Such is the Outer Banks spur for us.
Here we go.
“I want to be a Grandma!” Sarah yells at me over the roar of traffic from R.V.’s, 18 wheeler’s, and Bubba’s in monster jacked up trucks. Oh, and Dodge Chargers—we are quickly learning that men driving Dodge Chargers on this trip are likely driving under the influence of Viagra and should be given a wide berth. I can feel Sarah gripping her handlebars tighter each time some moron brushes by our left elbow way too close than necessary. I’m doing it too.
The morning ride from Merchant Millpond and past the “Great Dismal Swamp” was enjoyable and gave us no hint of the gauntlet we were now running. We confirmed there are indeed alligators here, and enjoyed a pretty decent shoulder on the rural roads, passing all manner of Trump signs, tenament-like chicken coops, and “grocery” stores with no fresh food. We see large, prosperous homes interspersed among broken down houses and dilapidated trailers that suggest deep poverty. The “haves” and the “have nots” that define America more and more. We stop at a church in Morgan’s Corner and eat lunch on the steps – the house next door has two sheep grazing in the backyard.
And then, about 40 miles into the day, we turn onto Highway 168, the main artery leading onto the Outer Banks.
It’s Friday afternoon and it seems everyone is going to the Outer Banks for the weekend. Superb timing Mark. You are a genius.
The great state of North Carolina set up this section of 168 to create the highest level of risk of death for any idiot traveling by bicycle. It’s a divided four-lane road with just enough shoulder (around 1.5ft) for us to feel obligated to ride, but not enough for us to get safely out of the right lane of traffic. And to make matters worse, the lines marking the shoulder disappear occasionally for a mile or two, creating even more ambiguity about where our tiny shoulder begins. Seriously North Carolina? You suck big time. This is the gateway to the Outer Banks and you can’t even afford to paint a line for us?
Counter-intuitively, it would have been far safer if there was zero shoulder, and we were forced into the right lane of traffic, something that happened many times on this trip on slower roads. In those cases, I’d just plant myself midway in the lane with my taillight flashing. It got drivers’ attention and they slowed down and passed in the other lane like rational humans. But the tiny shoulder on 168 meant that they could simply brush by us at 60 miles an hour. No lane change necessary! My favorite were the drivers (mostly in Dodge Chargers or Corvettes) that would pass by us within inches in the right lane when there were no other cars around and they could have easily moved into the open left lane to create a safe buffer. Who are these people? I know moving their arm to turn the steering wheel is taxing, but do they realize that they might kills us and ruin their own lives in the process out of sheer laziness, stupidity or impatience? These are the thoughts that race through a traveling cyclist’s brain.
Unless you are Sarah, who chose instead to loudly verbalize her thoughts about being a Grandma—our oldest daughter Maddie is expecting our first Grandchild in April.
“I’m going to write a sternly worded email to the North Carolina Department of Transportation,” I say to Sarah when we finally turn off of Hwy 168 and into a Dollar Store parking lot late in the day. To my surprise, she laughs. I love this woman.
Sarah emerges from the Dollar Store with four Bud Lights, dark chocolate and a Snickers bar, and we ride a mercifully quiet side road the final miles to Bells Island Campground, our home for the night. The guy mowing the lawn stops and directs us to the small tent area. We are right on the water, just a few steps from Currituck Sound. Peace! We set up and crack a Bud Light. It’s the perfect salve.
I pay $25 to the owner of the camp, an older lady who tells me this place has been in her family since 1963. She points to a few giant pine trees that she planted long ago. Roots. Before we can return to our Bud Light, Margaret from South Carolina stops by to ask where we are going. Her husband is a crane operator. They live in their R.V., parked just over there. She offers to drive into the next town and pick up a dinner for us, but we decline as we have a camp dinner planned. Kind people. They are a fuel for us on this trip time and time again.
Nerves of Steel
“This is the coolest thing that has happened to me at work all year.”
It’s Saturday morning and Sarah and I are already ten miles down Hwy 168, which has merged with Hwy 158. We were up at dawn to get an early start on this busy highway and our official crossing onto the Outer Banks. It was a magical sunrise, the traffic is slow and our spirits are high.
We just stopped at a roadside bakery for coffee and sweets, and the three college aged women staffing the counter ask us where we are going. “Key West,” I reply, which elicits a round of confused looks followed by admiration as they realize we are serious. And perhaps a bit nuts. They follow us on Instagram. “Did she really just say we are cool?” I say to Sarah as we bike away. Indeed she did. A college kid thinks we are cool. Mark that down on the list of reasons I love bike travel.
Our ride on Hwy 158, even at that early hour, did not improve my opinion of the North Carolina DOT. It was more of the same tiny shoulder tightrope with death. And as a bonus, we also had two new variables thrown into the mix: Bridges and dogs.
The first bridge was over the Intracoastal Waterway just south of Coinjock, N.C. It was pretty short, only around 1/4th of a mile, but the shoulder seemed even narrower and the railing on the side of the bridge was inexplicably set at about thigh level. One stumble and we would easily topple over the side and fall at least 75 feet (maybe more) into the drink. I thought about what that free fall would be like while clipped into bicycle pedals. And to add to our enjoyment, for some reason we timed the crossing just as dozens of monster trucks and jacked up jeeps passed by in some kind of weird dune buggy convoy. It was pure insanity.
After that crossing, Sarah pulled up Google maps and started looking for side roads. We grabbed any we could find, even if they only lasted for a mile or less and went out of our way. Anything to take a break. And that’s when the first loose dogs of the trip appeared, thrilled to find some shell-shocked bikers to chase. Sarah tried to pull out her water bottle to spray the first one, couldn’t free it, and ended up slowing down in the process. “When we see a dog,” I say after our narrow escape, “please just put your head down and hammer because I’m going to stay behind you as a shield and I can only go as fast as you go.” The next few dog chases went much better, and turned out to be the only dogs we had to outmaneuver on the entire trip.
It was at this point that I made the decision to be one of those A-hole bicyclists that cars hate. I took up my place about 20 yards behind Sarah to create a buffer. And when I saw a gap in traffic, I would ride out into the right lane of traffic to wake drivers up, only retreating to the shoulder when the traffic volume required it. This new “bicycle chicken” strategy worked beautifully. Approaching cars would see me from a long distance, slow and start to migrate over to the left lane to pass rather than lazily staying in the right lane as they passed us. I’m sure most of them also cursed us and marveled at our stupidity. I wanted to yell, “I’m sorry, I’m following a bicycle map that told me it was safe to go this way! I own two cars and I’m not enjoying this anymore than you are.” But instead I just glared at them aggressively as they passed. Sorry I wasted four seconds of your life. Move along.
The final test of the day was the three-mile-long Wright Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Currituck Sound and marks the official entry to the Outer Banks. Having blindly trusted Adventure Cycle’s route up to this point, I did zero advance research on this bridge crossing. Had I done so, this article would have given me pause, as would have this sentence about the bridge from the grammar challenged Tourism Office:
“Located along US 158, the only 4 lane road that run [sic] the length of the northeastern North Carolina coastal corridor, virtually every visitors [sic] who travels to the Outer Banks from Virginia and all states north will cross over the bridge along their route.”
Later, while safely south, Sarah read an article about biking the Outer Banks from this same Tourism Office. It indicated that cyclists would need to have “nerves of steel” to ride a bike across the Wright Memorial Bridge.
Have you ever had someone ask you why you undertook some difficult, risky or challenging task, to which you replied “I didn’t really have a choice.” That’s how we felt about that bridge crossing. One minute I was playing bicycle chicken on 158, the next we were swept up onto that bridge with no functional shoulder and no way to stop, turn around, or consider other alternatives. We just sort of went for it. It helped immensely that the traffic was still light enough for people to move around our lane to the left passing lane, and the fact that we had a huge tailwind and were averaging over 20mph of adrenaline-fueled speed. I tried to wave at drivers as they passed by us in the left lane as a thank-you, but the bridge had weirdly grooved pavement that made my bike wobble dangerously anytime I loosened my iron grip. Incredibly, no one honked at us.
And then, in an instant, we were off the bridge and a bike path appeared along the side of the road. We made it. Sweet Jesus we made it. The bike path led through a tree lined neighborhood. Ahhh. As we crested a hill, the Atlantic Ocean and big lines of surf appeared in the distance. We were safely back in the land where “normal” tourists go for a bike ride – the type of human that the North Carolina DOT probably cares about.
The Critical Ratio of Miles Traveled to Dollars Spent
The Outer Banks are a 200-mile string of low-lying barrier islands that line most of the North Carolina coastline. We planned to follow Highway 12 South, the secondary highway that parallels the super busy four-lane Highway 158 that we had come to fear. Highway 12 runs right along the coastline, but the ocean views are mostly obscured by ugly high-rise condominiums and a natural sand berm that is critically important in holding the rising Atlantic back from the homes, condos, restaurants, strip malls, hotels, big box stores, and cheesy sunglass/sandal shops that dominate the non-protected land on the banks. North Carolina clearly went for profit here over restrained development, but to their credit, there are dozens of public beach access paths for the masses to escape from the sprawl. It’s an incredible contrast to walk up and over a sand dune and find yourself on a windswept beach with roaring surf that stretches out in both directions as far as you can see.
There was a lot of rain in the forecast, so we decided to hunker down for a two-night stay at the Days Inn in Kill Devil Hills, the first town we encountered on our way south. We really classed up the joint—hanging our wet clothes all over the balcony and spreading our tent out in the parking lot to dry. We tried to walk to dinner that evening, but our tired legs protested the two mile walk so much that we ended up hiring a Lyft.
I have mad respect for long distance cyclists that commit to camping 100% of the time—in fact we would soon meet one—but we have the resources to pay for a hotel or AirBnB stay on this trip to avoid the worst weather and get a break from the rigors of the road. This is a vacation, after all, not Survivor. Incredibly, Sarah and I rarely had even a minor disagreement on this trip, but this was an area in which we debated often in our nightly “Team Meetings” to discuss the next day’s plan. I wanted to stay indoors more often than my hard-core wife, who would have camped every night on the side of the road if I was on board. This woman loves her sleeping bag. And a challenge.
To support my cause, I started tracking on a Google Sheet on my iPhone how much we spent on lodging each night and how many miles we traveled that day. And I would soon notice that when the miles traveled number exceeded our lodging costs by a wide margin for several days in a row, we started to feel ragged and exhausted. This helped my cause in Team Meetings. I appreciate Sarah pushing for more camping, but I think even she would agree that we struck the right balance.
After two days of laundry, restaurant meals, the Wright Brothers memorial, bird watching (pelicans and ospreys were our favorites), and too many rum drinks, we said goodbye to the Days Inn. The previous day included torrential rains that flooded the road, but this morning brought warm sunshine and a brisk, beautiful tailwind.
“I feel like I’m on an eBike!!” I yell to Sarah as we ride side by side on the nearly empty Highway 12. It’s early in the day, but I can already tell that today’s ride is going to be magical. Riding a fully loaded bike into a headwind or up a hill is a huge drag, literally, but those panniers full of gear pick up a tailwind like a sail and push you along almost effortlessly. It feels like cheating.
After a quick stop at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, we leave the tourist sprawl and enter the protected Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreation Area. This is what the Outer Banks has looked like for centuries and why we played chicken on Highway 158 to get here.
I think about the nice couple about our age we had just met in the parking lot at Jockey’s Ridge and say to Sarah, “thank you for doing this honey.” They were traveling from Michigan in their R.V. “Oh no, that is not happening,” the wife said as she caught her husband looking longingly at our bikes. This would happen several times on our trip, and confirm to me how lucky I am to have an adventurous partner that dives head first into trips like these.
I have never tried to officially rank my bike rides, but this day’s 73-mile ride from Kill Devil Hills to the Frisco National Park Service campground on Cape Hatteras would easily make my top ten greatest list. Most of the day, the barrier island we traveled was less than a quarter mile wide, the traffic was light, the eBike tailwind held, and we had a safe shoulder. It was bliss.
The newly constructed Oregon Inlet bridge was a highlight I won’t forget–the open Atlantic on one side, the Pamlico Sound on the other, and us rolling effortlessly 100 feet above both. We stopped to look down on the maelstrom of currents where the two met. Kite boarders in the distance. The air full of sea mist from the crashing surf. Us, atop our bikes, in the middle of it all. “Can you believe how beautiful this is honey?” I say almost rhetorically to Sarah, chills running up my arms.
A long-distance bicycle trip can be physically and mentally challenging. There were days we wanted to quit, mostly when we felt unsafe. But there were two main things that filled us up and gave us the fuel to keep going. One category included bluebird days when everything fell into place perfectly—like that ride to Cape Hatteras. A day like that under our belts would make up for multiple days of crap. Another type of fuel came from the kindness people we met along the way. Every act of kindness, even simple things like a friendly honk, would bring a smile to our faces and energy to our legs. And thankfully, we found many kind people of this trip.
Oh, and I almost forgot the final category: Splurging on a hotel or AirBnB from time to time to take a shower, do laundry and sleep in a bed. You are tougher than me Sarah.
What’s Your Story?
After 73 miles of biking bliss, we pull off of Highway 12 and onto the bumpy access road to the NPS Frisco Campground on Cape Hatteras. Frisco campground is spectacular and almost full. But we luck out and find a spot along the top row of sites, with a hill that provides us a view of the beach and Atlantic Ocean. It feels good to be camping again. 73 miles in column one, $28 in column two. I set up the tent in the soft sand and Sarah starts making an amazing one-pot vegetarian meal.
As we set up, a guy a few years older than us rolls up on a mountain bike, a big dog pulling him along on a leash. “So, what’s your story?” he says, out of breath. His name is Andy and he saw us ride in and made the trip up the hill to say hello. He’s from Asheville and is taking some time off to travel in his van and mountain bike. Even after our short discussion, we can tell Andy is a gentle man with a kind heart. We will enjoy seeing him a few more times on this trip. Minutes later, our neighbors in a tricked-out Mercedes sprinter van walk by and a similar discussion ensues. Ryan and Kristen mostly live and work out of their van. They were in the BWCA earlier this year and love Minnesota, except the bugs. And just down the hill from us are Trevor Twose and his wife Patti—their Wisconsin license plates catch our eye. They are 73, but have the most hard-core, bad ass, tiny R.V. trailer in the entire campground. They inspire us. And we make an impromptu plan to meet up with them again next summer at their Hayward, Wisconsin home.
These campground interactions are a common theme on our trip and one that we come to enjoy. We are unicorns on bikes in a sea of R.V.’s. And many folks from the R.V. tribe go out of their way to chat us up out of a mixture of curiosity, pity, and maybe in some cases, envy, for our two-wheeled existence. We take every opportunity to load up on their kindness and tuck it away for the next challenge we will face.
If we were in an R.V., it’s unlikely that any these folks would talk to us. We’d be just another unmemorable member of their group. But on bicycles, we get attention that sparks special connections. It’s yet another reason that Sarah and I are quickly falling in love this mode of travel. And also because college kids think we are now cool.
I mean, come on: There is no other time in my relatively boilerplate, 50-something life that a complete stranger walks up and asks me “what’s your story?”
We end the night with a walk across a long boardwalk out to the beach, which seems to stretch on forever in either direction. The surf is crashing and we walk alone in a hazy moonlight. No headlamps needed. Little shorebirds are still hunting the surf line. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse where we ate lunch earlier in the day is flashing every six seconds in the distance.
I could stay on this empty beach forever, but Sarah wants to get back to the tent and her sleeping bag. To bolster her case, she guesses the time at 8:25p.m., a reasonable hour for a traveling cyclist to retire for the evening. I pull out my phone. It’s 7:21p.m. We go back anyway. It does feel that late.
Whatever Happens, I Like
“Remember our new mantra honey,” I say to Sarah the next morning, as we lock up our bikes at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. We have some time to kill before the next ferry arrives to take us from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island on our southward route. And lucky for me, there is a museum right next door. Sarah does not share my affinity for maritime history, and I hope to motivate her by reciting our newly found mantra for this trip:
“Whatever Happens, I Like.”
I adopted this deceptively simple affirmation the previous evening while reading Oliver Burkeman’s last column in the Guardian, The Eight Secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life. Laying there in the tent, one secret in Burkeman’s fantastic piece hit me like a bolt: “I don’t mind what happens.” I turned it over in my mind. It’s so simple, but just think for a moment how radically different your life would be if you actually lived by it.
The next morning over coffee, I developed my version of that mantra for our trip: Whatever Happens, I Like. Sarah and I would repeat this over and over again in the following weeks. It made a real difference in our outlook. I hope to carry it back into my life in Minneapolis.
Despite its power, the mantra did not improve Sarah’s visit to the museum. But she did learn that the shifting sands, strong currents and dangerous waves generated off the Atlantic Coast of the Outer Banks have caused hundreds of shipwrecks in the past few centuries. And that German submarines terrorized this coast in WWII. It’s a land of pirate hideouts, brave watermen, and local residents that made a full time living “salvaging” shipwrecks before the advent of modern navigation.
The distance between Hatteras and Ocracoke Island is less than three miles as the crow flies. But our ferry would travel close to twice that distance—the shallow waters and sandy shoals requiring a circuitous route. I marvel at how talented the sailors must have been to ply these waters under sail power alone before the age of engines. Not many of us test our wits like this in today’s cushy, protected world.
There was a huge line of cars at the ferry, but bicycles go straight to the front. Take that cars! As we make landfall on Oracoke, and the dozens of cars on our ferry zoom off, we find ourselves completely alone on Highway 12. It will be at least an hour before the next ferry arrives to bring more cars this way. We ride south along a narrow strip of sand dunes and wind shaped grassland and scrub, no wider than a few football fields in most places. We pass a huge end loader plowing sand off the road, but are otherwise free to ride side by side without fear of marauding Dodge Chargers.
Ocracoke Island is a gem—the best part of the Outer Banks in our opinion. It has the laid-back vibe and friendly characters of a proper island, having no bridge access. And it boasts 16 miles of wild beaches that run its length. A beautiful little village of less than 1,000 residents anchors its southern end and surrounds a natural harbor.
“If the campground is nice, I think we should stay here two days,” I say to Sarah as we bike south. She agrees.
The National Park Service campground, located along the beach about two miles outside of town, was better than nice. Probably our favorite on the trip. We take cold showers and bike to town to explore and get dinner. There is a bike path along the road that runs all the way into town.
Thank you Ocracoke!
Later that evening, as I take a sip from a chilled Martini and rest my arms on the white table cloth at the Dajio restaurant, I lean over and say quietly “I love the fact that we were sitting in a ditch along the road this afternoon eating peanut butter out of a jar with a dirty spoon.” Contrast makes life vibrant, and this fancy dinner is a HUGE contrast. We don’t eat much on this trip for breakfast (usually oatmeal) or lunch (usually wraps rolled around peanut butter and a banana), but we go “ham” at dinnertime. After carefully explaining to our waitress that we are traveling by bicycle, I ask her which meal provides the largest portion on the menu. I order that, plus an appetizer, a salad, and a side of corn bread. She congratulates me for eating it all, her initial looks of doubt at my 145 pound frame now completely vanquished. I still get too full eating like this, but unlike in my normal life, I notice that the “stuffed” feeling of regret vanishes within a few minutes—my body absorbing the calories like a sponge.
Sipping a second drink, I look outside and see multiple groups pull up in golf carts to put in their name for dinner. One driver is dressed as a pirate. Another has strung hundreds of Christmas lights on his cart and is thumping music from his speakers. Island vibes. We got right in for dinner, but these folks will have to wait over an hour for a socially distanced table. It pays to eat dinner at 5pm and go to bed before 8pm sometimes. Sarah is a genius!
On the way home, I convince Sarah to turn off her bike light and ride by moon light under a dome of stars. There are no streetlights. Thank you again Ocracoke.
Hurricane Zeta Looms
Our Ocracoke layover day does not disappoint. I’m up early to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic. The first shorebirds fly in from somewhere to start their surf line runs. Dozens of pelicans fly in formation millimeters from the water line. How do they do that with the shifting waves? I notice that there isn’t another person on the beach in either direction. Incredible.
Sarah gets a gift too—both the Blackbeard museum and the Historical Society are closed because of COVID. We wander by a lighthouse and walk a Nature Conservancy property called Springers Point that is full of ancient Live Oaks and hanging Spanish Moss. It adds to the tranquility of this special island. On our hike out, we meet a bespectacled guy with a bushy grey beard. He is Peter Vankevich, publisher of the Okracoke Observer newspaper. We ask him about the oaks and the conversation turns to our trip, and then almost immediately to politics. Peter is the type of person that holds a community together and makes it a better place. He cares deeply about this place. I wish I was more civic minded like him. He gives me his card and a link to an article he wrote about a tiny migrating bird he tracks on the Island.
“How did he know immediately that we voted for Biden?” I ask Sarah as we hike the rest of the way out to our bikes. “Look at you Mark,” Sarah replies, “that hair and those bike shorts and sandals—you are screaming hippie liberal.” This may not serve me well when we cross rural Georgia.
Before returning to camp, we stop by the next ferry gate to ask about the weather. The remnants of hurricane Zeta—the first of three hurricane/tropical storms we would deal with on this trip—were starting to impact our local forecast. Huge winds and storms were on the way and we wanted to ask the ferry operator whether they cancel rides in bad weather. “Anything over 25 knots of sustained winds, and we shut down the ferry” is the unwelcome answer we receive. Tomorrow’s forecast is calling for sustained winds over 35 knots that are set to last for a few days. Not good. Not good at all.
We may be on Ocracoke longer than we anticipated. And we would soon add a third member to our traveling party.