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Travelogue - 04/05/04                                                                                                                               Links to all Travelogue pages


The Outer Banks, then West!

I said goodbye to Beaufort and set sail for the Outer Banks. I say "set sail" because I had to drive my RV onto one ferry to get to those sandbank islands and onto another to traverse them. Until a few decades ago, the Outer Banks were very remote, reachable only by boat. Then a bridge was built from the mainland near the northern end of the chain, more bridges were erected to connect one island to the next, and the National Park Service laid claim to most of the land. The southern, most remote island of the group, Ocracoke, was too far to connect by bridge. Today, state-run car ferries carry tourists and commuters to and from that outpost making it an easy and popular tourist destination. 

All of this was done in the name of progress. However, that's usually a double-edged sword. There are still villages on each of the Outer Banks islands, but from what I saw they have  entirely lost their former primitive individualism and renegade charm, having been invaded and conquered by modern-day merchants and developers. Each village now looks pretty much like the other, and like most other small tourist towns on the Carolina coast. The buildings are generally recent vintage, their siding painted gray to imitate weathered timber without really being messy. It's a sterile, neo-rustic look with little character and no authenticity. This ubiquitous blandness seems to prevail throughout much of the coastal southeast states these days.

Thankfully, the National Park Service protects most of the Outer Banks, allowing development only in the established villages sprinkled along the narrow islands. There is still plenty of natural, unspoiled terrain to see and appreciate.

I camped that night at the end of a little-used dirt road. I had intended to be a nice guy and pay to stay in the National State Park campground because I know how fussy Park rangers can be about doing otherwise on their turf. However, when I got there I found the campground was not yet open for the season. Well, what was I to do, go back to the nearest town and pay to stay in a commercial campground? I don't think so.

Instead, I  followed my natural nose for roads less traveled. This time it led me down a one-lane sand track I noticed sneaking off the main road not far from the campground. It wound through scrub growth and stunted dunes for maybe a half-mile before coming to an abrupt end at a tiny clearing on the shores of Ocracoke Sound, away from the thunderous pounding of the ocean-side surf. There was just enough space to maneuver my 24' van into a comfortable position for the night, bow facing back the way I had come, still leaving room for a car to turn around should one come along. None did, and I spend my very first out-in-the-boondocks evening in this RV without incident. It seemed a good portent of things to come.

The next morning I made an abbreviated tour of the Outer Banks, stopping at a few interesting sites while lamenting the total absence of the eccentric character and characters that once made the place architecturally and anthropologically unique. Still, the long stretches of National Park land allow ample access to the hundred-odd miles of wide and (this time of year) virtually empty beaches that are the real magic of the place, featuring an in-your-face encounter with the Atlantic Ocean.

Click photos to enlarge

I left the Outer Banks by midday and swept across NC to Ashville in the Blue Ridge Mountains. There I found a friendly ranger lady in the National Forest office who suggested several scenic routes I might take through the mountains. I hoped to spend a few days in the woods, maybe more. I also discovered a cozy cafe in Ashville, a free wi-fi hotspot. So I was able to send and receive email before heading for the hills.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America's gems, a well-maintained two-lane road that winds through pretty rolling mountains. However, I think I might have enjoyed it a bit later in the season. As it was, an hour down the road I suddenly found myself in the maws of a blinding snow blizzard. The pavement disappeared beneath a white blanket, making it very hard to follow. I slowed down to a crawl, but even so the RV went into a skid on a tight, downhill curve. To my right the mountainside dropped off  steeply, no telling how far to the bottom. To my left was a solid wall of trees broken only by the occasional rocky outcrop. For a moment I thought I was headed for one or both, then the van glided to a graceful halt near the shoulder. I sat for a moment until my breathing steadied, then carefully turned around and crept back the way I'd come, out of the mountains and the snow, and got myself onto the interstate highway westbound. So much for the scenic route so early in the season.

Running Down the Latitude

Before the advent of the chronometer seagoing navigators were not able to calculate longitude, how far east or west they were. They could, however, determine their latitude at sea, the distance north or south of the equator, and they generally knew the latitude of their next port of call. So they could find the harbor of, say, New Amsterdam simply by sailing to the latitude of that city anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean and then setting a course due west until they reached the coast. Viola! There would be New Amsterdam. This form of navigating was, and still is, called running down the latitude.

I spent the next several days "running down I-40" westward from North Carolina. It happened to approximate the latitude of the spring season that week. At least, it did when I set out upon it. 

Normally, whether I'm cruising in an RV or a boat, I prefer to visit places off the beaten track, and so I tend to avoid driving on interstate highways. Interstates afford virtually no contact with the land through which they pass and have about as much character as cardboard. Instead I stick to secondary roads and local routes to see what life is like in the countryside. However, when it comes to driving a vehicle long distance in a relatively short time, you just can't beat the great American interstate highway system.

I passed without incident through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. About the time I crossed into eastern New Mexico I came down with an intestinal bug and spent a whole afternoon and night in bed in some generic rest area, shivering with chills and scurrying to the toilet every 15 minutes. I didn't eat for 36 hours. The following morning I awoke to a snow blizzard. Someone said it was the first snowfall in this part of New Mexico this year. Was I bringing this stuff with me? 

I-40 became dangerous. Cars were pulling (or skidding) off onto the shoulder. I even saw an 18-wheeler speeding westward on the eastbound side of the highway. I guessed he had accidentally entered via an exit ramp where the signs were covered with snow. I never learned whether he collided with any oncoming vehicles, but I'll bet he scared the hell out of a few drivers. 

Several stressful hours later I left I-40 and got onto a secondary highway north towards Santa Fe. Within minutes, it seemed, I drove out of that snow blizzard altogether, across open range that soon showed no signs of it having snowed at all, as if the blizzard had been restricted to the Interstate. By mid-day I was rolling into sunny Santa Fe.


Next Entry: 04/12/04


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