The Outer Banks Diary Prologue
Welcome to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Graveyard of the Atlantic...I am a creature of habit, and to me, the birthplace of aviation, is a place worth visiting more than once...It is a spiritual place to me...where one can stand at the exact spot where man left the planet for the first time, and reflect in these troubled times, on what it means to soar above the earth and go traveling amongst the stars...
The Outer Banks Diary Part I
Welcome to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Graveyard of the Atlantic. I am enroute from New York to Florida like a lot of other people but I am not a snowbird. I live in Florida and spend the summers in Sag Harbor, and the tour is over and fall is the time to travel. As the song says, “The Coast Is Clear”. Though I have landed out here many times on flights between Florida and New York, this is the first time that I have ever driven the whole length of Route 12 from Kitty Hawk down to Ocracoke. Last year, I took delivery of my veggie burning beach cruiser, which my surf buds out at Ditch Plains christened “The Green Tomato”. She is built for surfing and riding in the sand and there is plenty of that out here and yes you can get grits with your breakfast, which is kind of a cool thing and a rarity amongst other places I go to ride waves. There are other unique things about this string of islands as well.
The Outer Banks first came upon my radar from family stories, because it was just east of Diamond Shoals and Cape Hatteras that the S.S. Chiquimula was becalmed back in 1925, put my grandfather and his family on the brink of starvation, before they were rescued. So, as with a lot of things in my life, luck has played a big part. Somewhere back in my Sea Scout days, I had read a book about Cape Hatteras with its conflicting ocean currents, shallow shoals and hurricane history and knew that one day I had to see this strange and distant American shore.
I first landed here in an airplane somewhere back in the 80’s on my annual trip between Florida and Long Island, back when I did it on pretty regular basis with the intent of attempting to fly the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Florida without ever going above five hundred feet. It wasn’t crossing the Atlantic solo, or racing around the world, but it was a modest goal that I actually accomplished more often than not. The other big deal out here, other than great waves, fishing and miles of drivable sand beaches was the monument to Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk(actually Kill Devil Hills) where Orville flew the first motor powered airplane. Thus, to me, there is no better place to start this travel log, than at that historic and meaningful sight.
I am a creature of habit, and to me, the birthplace of aviation, is a place worth visiting more than once. In fact, I would say it is more than a photo op, a gift shop visit or buzzing the Wright Brothers Monument in your plane. It is a spiritual place to me, as powerful as Diamond Head or Machu Picchu in that regard. It is a sandy piece of land, where one can stand at the exact spot where man left the planet for the first time, and reflect in these troubled times, on what it means to soar above the earth and go traveling amongst the stars. Those kinds of thoughts are the things that separate pilots from passengers.
I took off this morning from the 23rd Street seaplane dock on the East River in New York. Landing and taking off from the water in New York is demanding flying, but still one of the great thrills for any seaplane pilot. The weather forecast was absolutely perfect and I climbed out over the Williamsburg Bridge, flew by the Statue of Liberty and then headed for the Jersey shore. As soon as I cleared the Verrazano Bridge, I descended to my planned flight level for the trip-500 feet. It is an amazing thing that a lot of people probably don’t realize, but there is a lot of unspoiled shoreline all along the east coast. Thank God for national and state parks because without them, I doubt the view would be as spectacular as it is. We cruised over the Marina and hotel on the inlet at Atlantic City, which I hope one day will be a Margaritaville, with a seaplane base, and then followed the beach south and east towards what is known locally as the DelMarVa Peninsula(see if you can figure out the states it comprises by the abbreviations). We spotted wild horses running on the beach at Assateague Island on the Virginia coast and surf casters and beach walkers in every state were taking advantage of the beautiful fall day. Two and a half hours later, we said good-bye to the tower at the Naval Air Station at Oceana and were over False Cape Bay at the northern point of the Outer Banks. We cruised the beach past Corolla and landed at our destination, First Flight airport, right on schedule for my rendezvous with Chris Dixon, my surf bud and van coordinator who had steered the Green Tomato down from Sag Harbor. Like the thousands of birds I saw along the route, I too was heading south for the winter.
We took a few photos at the plane and talked about lunch options, praying to find one of those local seafood joints where a cup of chowder a plate of “peel and eats” and a flounder sandwich with tartar sauce waited. But first, Chris had a little surprise for me. I guess you can imagine the shock to my system when I discovered that the Wright Brothers were back at Kill Devil Hills and better yet, were taking people flying. So, me, Chris and his camera headed over to where the boys were giving rides. I know, you think I'm making this up as the Wright Brothers have been dead for a long time, but wait, I have pictures to prove this was not some major senior moment.
Those Wright Brothers were serious pilots and there was no just sitting around waiting for a ride. You had to first become part of the launch team ground crew. Remember, these guys started it all long before the days you could hurl an F-18 from the deck of a carrier with a steam catapult. So, I jumped in alongside Wilbur and did my part in holding the wingtips off the ground till Orville could gain a little airspeed. I guess I did a pretty good job, because the next thing you know, Orville asked me to climb on board with him. Dixon fired on the photos in quick succession. In these days of instant stardom and photo verification of daily life, one must have proof of tall tales. I know that this kind of flying gives my partners, managers, insurance people and certain family members pause to think that I might have a screw or two loose up there, but if you love to fly and there is no adult supervision around, then you too can pull off these kinds of stunts.
Well, it was a glorious day at Kill Devil Hills and I climbed on board and we did a few imaginary turns around the monument. Orville told me that he had heard I was a pretty fair pilot, but since it was the first plane to ever fly, it had a few quirky things about it, so he really couldn’t let me take the stick, but he told me it was perfectly fine if I wanted to do a little wing walking. Hey with Orville Wright at the stick, what could go wrong?
Wilbur was a great sport, and even gave Dixon a ride, but by now, it was obvious that people had seen us fooling around and the text messages and phone camera shots were now out there on the world wide web, so we thanked the Wright Brothers for the ride and wished them well with their new flying machine, but it was November, the days were getting shorter, and we still had our real job to do-meet up with Andy Zimmerman and test out the prototype of the new Osceola fishing kayak. Okay, I know that Orville was really a bronze statue and the plane was resting on poles stuck in the sand, but daydreaming is what used to get me in so much trouble back in school, it is also the thing that got me where I am today.
Next Stop-The Beach.
Lunch was long overdue after my unscheduled flight with the Wright Brothers and I entered “seafood joints Kill Devil Hills” in my Google phone and up came a list topped by “Awful Arthurs”. I have a little restaurant experience and know that if you are going to call your joint “Awful Arthurs”, then it better be damn good, and it was. We feasted on just what I had wanted and the food was great and after coming so far and doing so much and eating like marooned sailors, I was kind of ready for a nap, but NOOO! We had work to do.
In plotting my trip South, I had found an out of the way old cottage rental at Nag’s Head up on the web, and we bid farewell to our waitress at Awful Arthur’s and cruised back down south along highway 12 following the arrow on the GPS to our resting place for the night. Our “work” was more of a mission, which was to pick up, and test paddle the SUF(stand up fishing) board that Jimbo Meador and I had convinced Andy Zimmerman to build. Andy, had never surfed, but was an expert white water man and very successful kayak and canoe builder who was driving over from Greensboro, North Carolina to the beach and deliver the latest prototype hull to me for testing on my trip. The idea of the board was simple-to combine the uniqueness of two sports-stand up paddling and fly fishing on the flats. I had ridden Jimbo’s down on the Alabama Gulf Coast but now was getting my own. I already had two long boards and an 11 foot Takiama SUP (stand up paddle board) strapped to the sides of the Green Tomato and my trail bike lashed to the back. This was the kind of trip I had built the Green Tomato to do and then there was all the beach driving that is part of the culture of the Outer Banks. Part of our mission was not only to take the SUF board for a paddle out in the treacherous waters of the Outer Banks, but to see if we could pile yet another board onto the van in order to get it to Florida without having to pay a huge UPS freight bill.
Andy was already there when we pulled in. The cabins were just what I wanted, throwbacks to simple beach houses with real dark wood paneled rooms and rocking chairs on the porch, and just a quick hike up over the dunes to the beach where we could launch the SUF board and catch a few waves, but remember, this is the Graveyard of the Atlantic and danger can be found in the least expected places. Being North Carolina, there was also a basketball goal in the drive way of our rental cottage, and who could have known that the great hoop tradition in the land of Sir Walter Raleigh would become such a problem to a couple of surfers looking to have some fun.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Outer Banks Odyssey and yes, I think there could be a new song or two that comes out of this trip.
The Outer Banks Diary Part II
What Do Icebergs and Basketball Nets Have In Common?
Let's face it, the Green Tomato is a big rig. Way back in the old days of touring around the country with the band, crew, gear and merchandise packed stuffed into one old Silver Eagle tour bus, necessity truly was the mother of invention, as it always has and always should be in a tour band, and that is where I learned how to drive a big rig. Taking your turn at the wheel was simply part of the routine for those interested or awake enough to want to do more with the idle hours of highway rolling by than to sleep or play backgammon.
I did it for the fun and the challenge, but at times it was also necessary when we would have to make a run from Portland, Oregon to Tupelo, Mississippi with a day off between gigs (I am not kidding about that one). I liked my time at the wheel. I had driven, and even hitchhiked, across the country in my one man band days and as Mark Twain said in one of my favorite expressions, referring once to Huck Finn as "lighting out into the territory".
Green TomatoI guess I am still doing it. The tour bus was kind of like a land yacht, and I had spent many a night alone at the wheel out on the ocean. So, night watches and day time driving across the vast American landscape was an easy transition, plus, there were no sails to tear or storms to navigate through, but then there was a rock band on board and that is a story that I have yet to write. In those days, I not only used to drive the bus down the Interstate, I would actually use it as my "car" when we got to wherever the next gig was. That kind of driving required a bit more skill to park, turn and most importantly back up in tight spaces. These are skills that one thinks will stay with them, like riding a bicycle or driving a tour bus.
So, when the Green Tomato came into my life, I quickly got back in touch with my "bus chops" to be better able to maneuver my "land yacht" around the highways and sand beaches of the Eastern seaboard. I also had the high tech advantage, not available in those bus years, of a rear view video camera, so when I whipped the van around in the driveway of our bungalow by the sea to unload our boards and make camp for the night, I had a clear view backwards of the driveway, the buildings and the fence.
Everything lined up perfectly, and I eased back towards my final stop in front of the bungalow, where the boards on the side of the van would be a yard from the front porch for easy unloading. Outer Banks
"Stop!" I heard Dixon and Andy scream, and I did. A quick check of possible problems in the rear view mirror and video camera showed nothing hitting the van, but I had heard an odd noise right before the boys started yelling.
When I opened the door for a better look, I did not like what I saw. There above me, out of view of the traditional rear view mirrors and high tech cameras, was the basketball goal and net, and dangling from the last strand of netting like a trapped fish, was the center fin of my favorite Stewart long board. "M*^%$#F%@$%^" was the only word that described the scene. The bottom of my board was not a pretty picture and the story of how I separated the center fin and box from the board was not one based on a gnarly encounter with a wave or a reef.
Fortunately you prepare for things like this simply by having an extra board or two and that was the case. We couldn't let a fin castration by a droopy basketball net ruin our first day on the Outer Banks. Though there were no huge bomber waves like you see on web sites of waves out here, there was a waist high wave breaking on a sandbar right over the dune.
It was getting late and that early darkness was moving in, so we made a quick evaluation that my board was not repairable on the spot, and unloaded the new 8'6'' that I had just brought back from California. We suited up, grabbed the new board and the test SUF board and headed to the beach.
It all happened so fast that there were no photos of our first Outer Banks session, but I will report that I spent a good bit of time on the SUF board and though it was never designed to actually surf a wave, I had to try it and with two eyewitnesses who you can e-mail for verification, I actually road a wave on it without falling off.
We surfed till the sun went down and about that time my buddy Jason Slezak, whom I had met surfing down in the British Virgin Islands a few years back pulled in to the driveway/scene of the crime. I showed him the board and he said he had a guy at his shop down in Rodanthe who could repair it. It was on the way to Hatteras and where we were headed the next day to look for more waves. With all problems solved for the moment, we set off for dinner at a little place called Tortuga's Lie. Beans and rice and fish tacos were excellent and the Land Shark was iced cold.
Over dinner we talked about what else - surf. The forecast was calling for a beautiful day, but not much surf, thus a mission change was initiated and we decided on an aerial reconnaissance session before the plane continued South to Florida and fly the whole length of the Outer Banks with Jason and his friend Lindsay on board for local knowledge and a bird's eye view of waves and fishing spots. We would all meet up back at First Flight airport in the morning. All in all a good first day on the Outer Banks.
FlyingFlying for Fun above the Outer Banks
It was still cold the next morning but clear as a bell as we headed to the airport. I flew, and the rest of the gang got situated in the rear of the plane. Being a thoughtful pilot, I asked of course if everybody was okay with bumps and steep turns, as wave and fish spotting sometimes requires non-airline maneuvers. I got a thumbs up from all passengers and off we went. Jason provided local knowledge and Chris took photos and movies. The thing that got my attention, like the day before when we flew down from New York, was the high concentration of large beach Sir Walter Raleigh homes so close to the shoreline in the populated areas along the Banks. They all look like accidents waiting to happen and backdrops to Jim Cantori on the Weather Channel, and I flashed back to the flight I took over the entire Gulf Coast from Pascagoula to New Orleans right after Katrina when I basically saw the backdrop to my entire time growing up down there obliterated like a computer generated scene in a disaster movie. Jason told me about a house that had just fallen into the sea during the last storm and one on the brink, which laid up the beach near Avon. Then, suddenly, we were over deserted beaches that looked like they must have when Sir Walter Raleigh's "Lost Colonist" saw them over 400 years ago. Jason told me we were now over the National Park boundary and I just thought that some of the dangers those first settlers faced were still battling their modern day descendants. Yes, there is definitely a little ying and yang along the Outer Banks.
Well, we flew the shoreline down to Cape Hatteras and back and were contemplating a landing at the Real store where Jason worked and my board was going to be repaired, but one of our passengers wasn't quite up to the movin' and groovin' at 500 feet and I felt it better not to prolong her agony with a water landing in choppy seas. My karma will get a boost for that.
We bade farewell to Captain Bill and Dixon and a couple of fans from Virginia who had flown down to the monument for the day with their baby girl who was flying before she could walk. She had the eyes of an adventurer.
We watched the Caravan circle the Wright Brothers monument before heading South. Our work in these parts was done and it was time to break camp and move on down the road. Andy and I went back to our cottage to pack up and planned a rendezvous with Jason at the shop in Waves (yes, that is the name of the town) after lunch, but another damage demon greeted me at the cottage. When I went to load up my Light Speed trail bike, the rear tire looked, and worst yet, rolled like a pretzel. This was not good. I figured that someone had backed into it at the restaurant. Anyway, it was unrideable. I was running out of toys. I called Jason and asked if he knew a repair place, and he told me just to bring it to the shop and he had a guy who could look at it. So Andy and I strapped on the broken toys and caravanned out of Kill Devil Hills over Oregon inlet.
I watched the miles of beach front pass by itching to deflate my tires and get on that beach, where beach driving is the regional pastime, but that would have to wait for my surfboard/bike pit stop. Also our aerial reconnaissance had shown us some possible surf action down near Salvo, which we would check out after the visit to the shop.
Well, it must have been the lure of the seashore at work or the good tunes I was groovin' to on Radio Margaritaville, because even with two GPS's spitting out latitudes and road names, Andy and I drove past the big red, you can't miss it, landmark building that housed Real Surf. When I stopped in Hatteras to call Jason for directions, he informed me that I had driven about twenty miles past the shop. "No problem mon", as they say down island. It had been the first big trip for the Green Tomato and I was enjoying my time behind the wheel, so back we went towards Waves.
As a road dog for a good number of years, even though I do possess a few computer skills, I don't do a lot of shopping on line. Eating up the idle hours between getting up and going to the gig in every major city in America has turned me into a shopper (this was not a tip from George Bush). I tend to spend those hours in real retail stores like marine hardware suppliers, bookstores, tackle and surf shops, where you can actually handle things before you buy them. Real was a find. It is one of the coolest surf shops I have been in, and as it turned out, I needed to be there. After getting reacquainted with the gang that I had surfed with down in the British Virgin Islands, I met all the new employees and we used the Green Tomato and the big red Real Store as our backdrops. Jason then introduced me to Dave Betz, the bike repair guy, and I knew I was in good hands by the way he talked about my rear wheel as if it were a space ship. Also, a look at my board by the ding repair expert confirmed the original prognosis of the damage to my favorite board, that this was not going to be a simple repair. Just remember if you ever pick up this sport of surfing, the one thing you will NEVER EVER have, is enough surf boards. It was time to support the local economy. So while I waited for my bike repair, I headed for the long board section. I got myself a very nice Robert August 9' replacement board that would work until they shipped my old Stewart to me in Florida. My bike also was fixed enough for me to ride on the beach until I got to Charleston where I could get a new rim. So, with a few hours of daylight left, we finally went looking for waves.
Our stop at Salvo Pier only produced some "ankle slappers" and there were few encouraging signs as we scanned the beaches north and south. The local posse said that at least there was a spot where we could take a sunset paddle and off we headed towards Cape Hatteras and Slash Creek.
Well, it was cold out there in the Creek and we kind of looked like some aquatic circus or an alien assault team paddling through the marshes of Cape Hatteras. The local boys were obviously much younger and used to the temperature and just jumped on the boards in sweats. I have even in recent years either adapted to the colder waters of Long Island in the fall (my actual last surfing day last year was Thanksgiving at Turtles under the Montauk lighthouse). Either that, or the older I get, the more I am getting in touch with my Newfoundland genetic heritage. There was an Arctic air on the Outer Banks that afternoon and I suited up, eager to try out my new Patagonia 2mm wetsuit with the wool lining. It worked great as we paddled through marshes, over oyster beds, through an RV park and under a bridge.
Paddle BoardingWe had come to Outer Banks hoping for big waves for the other boards in my quiver, but were forced by the elements, or lack of them, into the creek system for a sunset paddle, which is the simple beauty of a paddle board. For me it always comes back to trying to just get more time on the water the older I get, and now the paddle board allows me to get out there whether there are waves or not.
You can be hanging on for dear life on an overhead wave, praying to the surf gods that you can run far enough to the rear of the board to keep the nose above the surface as you drop down the face of the wave or you can be cruising at sunset in a creek on the Outer Banks.
We made it back to the dock, just about the time the sun was setting, and as I paddled back I had that sense of place that only exists on salty pieces of land that force themselves out into the ocean, where they really shouldn't be, and somehow establish a beachhead in the land of King Neptune.
These intruding amalgamations of rock, sand and coral usually have some kind of connection to shipwrecks, reefs and large waves, which probably explains the reason that surfers and pirates usually share a common love for these outposts. Sable Island, the Florida Keys, the shoals of Nantucket, the barrier islands of the Gulf of Mexico, the Alan Peninsula south of Tulum and the Outer Banks all possess that sense of fragile earth, which conveys the feeling that though you might be on land, you are still out in the middle of the ocean, and there are times when the ocean reminds those trespassers who the landlord really is. Fortunately, our weather luck was with us as the sun set to the West of Hatteras. We were met at the bridge by wives, girlfriends, kids and dogs of my fellow paddlers. After packing up and posing for photos, we discovered that it was way past five o'clock and time to be somewhere, like cocktails and dinner. Local knowledge had us heading for a spot called Dinky's for what turned out to be dinner and a show.
After all that paddling in the cold fall air, it felt like a "boat drink" kind of evening. Tomorrow, I planned to spend the day alone on the beach, then take the ferry over to Ocracoke, and that was just enough of an excuse for a "bon voyage" party with the Real gang. I had been hungry about five hours before we sat down at the large table in Dinky's restaurant, and had visions of steamed shrimp, crab dip and boat drinks swirling in my brain, but as I gave my order to the polite waitress a problem presented itself. Dinky's served only wine and beer. HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT vibe splashed over the table like a rogue wave, but then the waitress informed me of a long forgotten old southern tradition which allowed for cocktails in places that didn't serve cocktails - TA DA! - the old brown bag law.
For those unfamiliar with this term, it is some kind of throwback to prohibition or bible belt morality that allows you to take liquor into a restaurant that doesn't sell it. It seems way too complex and convoluted to me as I am in the habit of selling people what they want to eat, drink, wear and listen to. In any case, once I was informed of the rules, I dashed for the Green Tomato and retrieved a bottle of Haitian Rhum Barbancourt Five Star from the cabinet that I had stashed, along with a couple of bottles of California pinot, for just such emergencies and the party was now properly fueled. Pitchers of tonic and large slices of lime appeared as we cracked open maybe the first bottle of such rhum to ever be shared in Dare County. Dinner followed and it goes without saying that one would order the catch of the day out here in the middle of the ocean. You could tell that the tuna on the plate had not been too many hours from wigglin' in the Atlantic.
Along with the party supplies, I had also retrieved my iPhone from the van and showed the movie of our surf adventure from Tortolla neither Jason or any of the other Real gang had seen. It was one of those cultural shift moments of the first decade of the 21st century where a group of faces are gathered around a small screen watching home made videos. Yes, friends, the future is now and if you can't e-mail, download, file share, text or Bluetooth, then you had better step to the sidelines for the future is all around you and moving at light speed, even on the Outer Banks. Dinner finished, numbers and addresses exchanged, we said goodnight and promised to meet up again this winter in warmer latitudes.
I found my room I had reserved above the marina next door and watched a local fishing show on TV with the charter boat fleet visible out my window. I prayed to the surf gods for waves the next day, read a little of the new Jim Harrison novel, "The English Major" and drifted off to sleep on yet another salty piece of land.
Stay tuned for the final exciting segment - J.B.
The Outer Banks Diary Part III
A Tangible Dream
"Time alone seemed to work well for Faulkner
Time alone seems to work for the kid
Life and ink they run out at the same time
Or so said my old friend the squid"
- From "If I Could Just Get It On Paper"
Lines from that old song, pretty much still sum up my feelings that time spent alone is a good thing. I think you have to be able to live with yourself before you can even think about living with anybody else, and if that doesn't work out, then you are back where you started, so it is a good thing to be your own best friend.
I had wanted to spend the night in the Green Tomato but the campgrounds were closed and I didn't want to be disturbed in the middle of the night by the local authorities asking me what I was doing on the beach, where overnight camping is not allowed, so I did the good citizen thing and supported the local economy by checking into a room at the marina. My last full day on the Outer Banks, I was dreaming about big waves as I was awakened just before dawn by the familiar rumble of a diesel engine coming to life on one of the charter boats at the dock across from my room. The sky to the East was just beginning to show that pink color that you only see in that early morning twilight or in the eye of a conch pearl. It was still chilly and I dressed warmly the way I do on dawn patrol to Ditch Plains, a thousand miles up the East Coast from Cape Hatteras. Plan A was to head back for the pier at Salvo, which I had visited the day before with the "Real" gang, hoping there might be a pulse of some kind pushing the tide towards the shore and giving me a chance to catch a few real waves on my stand up board. My high speed card wasn't getting a signal so I couldn't check the surf report, but the description of Salvo on the Surfline website bears repeating here, as it kind of set the stage for what I wanted to see and gave me the title idea for this last installment. Remember as Mark Twain said, "Creativity is just undetected plagiarism."
"Next is Salvo. This is where the four-wheel drive fun begins. Take Ramp 23 to 27 to 30 to 34 to the beach. Let a bit of air out of your tires (drop them to about 17 lb) in case the sand is softer than expected, and go find yourself a wave. You can look for Shipwrecks; simply peer out at the water a few dozen yards from shore for -- you guessed it -- a shipwreck. This is one good wave, and you can amuse yourself with the right that breaks off the wreck, or you can drive north or south looking for an isolated peak. Salvo is pretty desolate. You can motor for miles, park in front of your own private peak, set up a rod, toss your pup a Frisbee, go for a surf, fiddle with your slore on the beach, surf again and feel like a superhero on your private little cloud. This is the kind of Outer Banks experience that's been romanticized for years by writers, artists and storytellers. It's a very tangible dream."
You don't need any pictures attached to that description of what you might find at Salvo on a dawn patrol with the Green Tomato as your assault vehicle, and I figured from Sir Walter Raleigh to me, dreamers had been wading ashore out here in search of fortunes, fish, females and favorite surf spots (not necessarily in that order) for a long time. There was no rush hour commute in Cape Hatteras that morning. Besides me and a couple of commercial fishing boat captains getting ready to head out to sea, the streets were off-season empty, and as I drove north past closed beach shops, putt putt golf courses and seaside motels, I couldn't help humming a few bars to "The Coast Is Clear", the first song Mac McAnally and I wrote together many moons ago about fall on the beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama. It fit the scenery that morning along North Carolina highway 12 just as well. Well, let's just say the Salvo pier scene that greeted me that Wednesday morning was a little less exciting than the above description, and as surfers and fishermen are aware of, we are always at the mercy of the elements. Some days you are alone in a cove with overhead waves and surrounded offshore by schools of blue fin tuna crashing bait, and other days you are just on the sidelines waiting for the game to begin. That morning at Salvo, the wave game was obviously being played somewhere else along the Eastern seaboard.
As I pulled into the public parking lot it was empty except for a couple of trucks obviously rigged for surf casting-no surf racks in sight, not a good sign, and the walk out to the beach confirmed that the lack of activity on shore equaled the lack of activity on the ocean. I checked the campground down the beach and the same flat ocean greeted me there. There may not have been any waves but the sky was crystal clear, the air was getting less Canadian and more Gulf Stream. It was not a day to waste, in fact at this point in my life, few are. Time for "Plan B". Remember; always have a "Plan B". Mine was breakfast and a stop at the local market for snacks and then proceed on with my day alone driving the beaches, a little "test fishing" on the SUF board, lunch, and a late afternoon ferry ride down to Ocracoke. I found the one roadside restaurant open and settled into a booth by a window with a cell tower visible in the distance and my phone now working. I was wondering if maybe the short order cook in the joint had turned the tower on, on his way to work. Anyway, I checked in with the real world and Dixon, who was now home in South Carolina. One of our other missions on this trip was to try find veggie oil refueling locations that would enable me to run on "grease" all the way from Florida to New York on my way back North in the spring. Well, I am accustomed to serendipitous moments and as I walked out the door of the restaurant, I had an Outer Banks one. At the back of the parking lot, near the dumpster, I spotted a beat up old truck with a tank on the back and a young man bent over a couple of rusty, beat up 55 gallon drums. I sniffed the air and went on point immediately. To the untrained eye and nose, this looked like an unpleasant maintenance job of some kind, but not to me. No, I had not struck gold. I had struck grease.
At one time "Grease" was just the name of a very popular movie and Broadway musical, then a movie, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John and referred to the stuff you put in your hair when you were a teenage boy that made you look cool and hopefully make you more attractive to the opposite sex. Today's equivalent is the "spiked hair" thing, which is totally off of my radar since somebody stole all the hair from the top of my head a long time ago. But the connotation of the word has made a giant leap into the future. "Grease" is now the term, which those small, but growing numbers of folks who run their vehicles on waste vegetable oil, call their fuel. I am constantly amazed by the basic lack of knowledge about this fuel source by the general public who are paying three times as much as we do to fuel our cars, and most importantly, it is a clean burning reusable fuel. But, as you might expect, a fuel source this cheap is not what big oil companies want you to know about or buy. You can't find it at an Exxon station off the Interstate, and there are no pretty green soaked commercials on TV telling you about it, but there is a way to get into Grease, and that is via the Internet. You will find a lot of "greasers" up there in cyberspace. It is a coming thing and one I do try to make people aware of when I travel. As you might expect, the words "Powered by vegetable oil" written on the side of a large green van does attract attention. In our Margaritaville world, we are moving to grease as well. Recently I met with our partners from the company Garden Fresh, who make our chips and salsa, and they are already using the oil we fry our chips in to run the delivery trucks that take them to the market. In South Carolina, we are looking at partnering up with a local shrimper to supply our restaurant in Myrtle Beach on a boat powered by vegetable oil. Discovering a source out here in Cape Hatteras only confirmed my suspicions that this is a (pardon the pun) bubbling industry. American ingenuity is a wonderful thing and "grease" is the word.
Gathering grease looks more like garbage pick up than refining an alternative clean fuel source and the young man running the truck was dressed for the dirty job he was doing. I discovered that he worked for his father, who was a chemical engineer, and they were using the grease to make bio-diesel which they used in their business. He offered to sell me some and show me his operation but I had promised myself the day alone, though this would have been a very interesting side trip indeed. But I got the information from him and told him I would check it out on the way back up in the spring. The morning air had warmed up and the sun was shining bright. It was time to flatten those tires and get out on the sand.
Beach driving was a big part of my adolescent years down on the shores of Dauphin Island and Perdido Bay in Alabama. I had a great friend who had a Willys 4-wheel drive Jeep that we used for beach parties, fishing trips and just simply driving on the beach. To me, there is something very liberating about leaving asphalt behind and cruising along the seashore with no road signs, radar detectors or real destination. It is like sailing on land. You can basically plot your own course and if you get stuck or break down there is a community of like-minded "sanders" out there who will stop and help you out.
Though I left Alabama behind a long time ago, I kept the thrill of those early years lodged in the fun chips in my memory bank, and the beaches of Long Island are now my stomping grounds for alternative terrain. What some folks refer to as "four wheelin" is largely the domain of fishermen with trucks turned into beach cruisers sporting coolers the size of dog houses and a literal forest of surf casting rods sprouting from the bumpers. But on the Outer Banks, it is also the way surfers get to the best and most isolated breaks. Accepting the fact that the waves looked like a "no show", I stopped at a tackle shop to pick up some local flies before I left the highway.
The view from the campground at Salvo confirmed that today would be a fishing day, and a beautiful day it was. No problem mon. I headed for the nearest beach access road, deflated my tires to 15psi and pointed the Green Tomato north. It was soon apparent that a lot of people were either playing hooky from work as there were quite a few rigs already set up along the shore. As usual, the "Tomato" attracted stares from the vehicle vagabonds as I made my way up the beach towards the lighthouse in the distance. I wanted a room with a view and a local landmark in the background. You can live like that if your accommodations are on four wheels with locking differentials. My job for the day was to make sure that I could load and unload the stand up board by myself. Back in Kill Devil Hills, Andy and Dixon were there to lend a hand, but this and future trips it was necessary to be able to do it all alone. Traveling alone like this has one very simple rule. If you can't load and unload it all without feeling like you have been involved in a rugby scrum, leave it at home.
I found a spot a good distance from any other fishermen with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse just visible above the dunes. I guess it was the place. I parked, turned on some tunes and began to unload. The big test was a success. I rigged the stand up fishing board, assembled my fly rods, beach chairs and writing table and pretty soon I had my home for the day all neat and orderly and I hadn't even broken a fingernail. My old scoutmasters back in Mobile would have been proud.
Though it was a bright, bright, bright sun shiny day, the wind was still chilly, chilly, chilly and blowing strong from the northeast. It would be a full wet suit day. The sight of the Green Tomato may have made some folks turn and stare while I was driving but it was nothing compared to the looks I got when, looking like a large seal in my wet suit and booties, I drug the stand up fishing board to the waters edge, practiced a few false casts and then headed out through the small waves of the surf break to where I had seen bait working from the beach. I did not care about my first impression to the surf casters, for I was on yet another mission. It might be a second day without waves, but it would be one of those days with a "first" in it, if I caught a fish from the board. Past the break, there was a small stretch of fairly calm water protected by the dunes but beyond it, the chop and the wind were clearly waiting. The trick was going to be to gauge the wind and current and paddle to that calm water, stow the paddle, grab the fly rod and make a cast before I was sailed by the wind out to the Diamond Shoals. I made several practice runs, hooking myself once in the foot, and losing my paddle on another run and having to go overboard to retrieve it.
At one point I could swear I heard laughter from a pod of surfcasters on the beach and I am pretty sure the words "dumb ass" floated by on the breeze. I was not deterred. I kept practicing the moves and finally got comfortable with everything and was ready to now find the fish. The whole point of a stand up fishing board is to be able to sneak quietly up on fish and be able to make a cast with a fly rod without hurling yourself into the water as well. I had done some practice casting on the board in Gulf Shores, Alabama a few weeks before and knew that the board was a fine platform for fly-fishing, but the protected waters of Shelby Lake were a far cry from the infamous Diamond Shoals of the Outer Banks. It didn't take long to find the nervous water I had spotted before. It was on the edge of a slick just beyond the break and out of the casting range of the boys on the beach - Ha Ha. No more practice runs, this was it, and I had figured out the final trick that my water pony would need. At the last second, before the forward motion of the board stopped, I pivoted as carefully as a ballerina and spun my body around to face the stern of the board and made my cast. Once through the water, suddenly I saw a shape dart towards the fly but nothing pulled on the other end of the line. I looked over my shoulder and saw that the bow was only about three feet from the rough water where the wind would then launch me like a runaway helium filled balloon seaward. I also knew that in that rough water not only lay potential capsizing conditions, but also waves of ridicule and laughter from the now several fisherman gathered on the shore watching me. I had one more cast before the comedy special began. I kept my rod close as I could to the surface of the water hoping to keep my fly out of the headwind and reach the spot where I could now see fish moving. I didn't know what they were nor did I care. The fly had barely landed when a splash erupted, the line went tight and the pole bent into a curve. It worked. The bluefish I hauled aboard was certainly no record catch but that was never the point. I released him back into the water and paddled on down the beach looking for more. From the shore, one of the surfcasters yelled out, "nice cast". "Thanks", I replied as I paddled downwind past them, but my thanks were directed much more to the fish that had saved the day than the audience on the beach.
Catching that fish and paddling in that cold air off Diamond shoals was quite a morning's activity and I was happy to get back to my campsite, into dry clothes and in the proximity of my little fridge where lay a treasure of road snacks. I whipped up a little nourishment and settled into doing those things you never quite get to do enough of, like reading, tying flies and cleaning and re-loading your fly reels with new line. The Tomato was a great wind block and I dropped into my beach lounge chair with Jim Harrison's new book and read away till the nap angel descended upon me. The solar panel on top of the van wasn't the only thing recharging on that beach. After my nap, I was ready to plan the rest of my afternoon. I had no real plan for dinner when I got to Ocracoke later in the evening. I was just playing it by ear. The re-pack went off without a hitch. I managed to get the twelve-foot long paddleboard secured back to the side of the van without dropping it on my toe or inflicting self-torture with flyaway bungee cords. Everything went back to where it had come from. I felt that along with all the fun I was having on this little sabbatical, I was also learning to live very comfortably in the Green Tomato. It feels like getting to know the different pieces of your favorite jigsaw puzzle, the edges, angles and colors as they kind of fall into place. Too bad life can't be more like those kinds of puzzles, but as those darn Rolling Stones said, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need." Out on the beach on this day, I was finding that to be true.
With the Tomato back in traveling mode, I headed up the beach. Driving in the sand required desert music and I spun my iPod dial towards my West African music play lists stopping at Habib Koite. Dan Storper, who owns Putumayo Records turned me onto Habib several years before I actually met him at the Festival in the Desert two years ago. His music had been part a musical mélange that had been the soundtrack to our travels there from Bamako to Timbuktu and was a mainstay of my driving music collection. (I will post the rest at the end of the article if I ever get there.) I was groovin' to Habib and just enjoying the day, driving through thick sand, splashing through tidal pools and making tracks North towards the lighthouse. The Tomato seemed to be enjoying the ride as well almost dancing her flat tires across the sand. It is a big rig and weighs a lot, but the guys at Sportsmobile in Fresno knew how to make them do what they were meant to do. I stayed on the sand for several miles just enjoying the freedom and the view until I had to get back on the asphalt to meet Jason for lunch but still had time to stop at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for a climb. You know me and lighthouses. If there is one around, I will climb it. When I got to the light - BUMMER! It was closed for the season, so I followed the signs to where the original lighthouse had been back in the days when it might have been spotted by members of my family becalmed on that ocean so long ago. I met Jason for a late lunch in Waves and we exchanged photos, videos and contacts and I took pictures with the waitresses and cooks. I would see the Real gang again down island in warmer water with bigger waves in January.
I was watchin' the days go by, as David Byrne says in one of my favorite songs. The sun was low in the southern sky as we head for the winter solstice and I watch them both edging for the horizon while I waited in line at Cape Hatteras to board the ferry to Ocracoke, my last island stop before heading back to the mainland. The Green Tomato was going to sea. I joined a small procession of cars, trucks and campers that were lined up to catch a lift on the floating section of Highway 12 that would take us across the two mile pass between Hatteras and Ocracoke. The weather was about to change according to the satellite map that I could instantly bring up on my Google phone. It's a lot better information than what you get on TV where they have to "sell" the weather. There was a big green glob moving up the Eastern seaboard from the mainland and in my mind, there was no doubt that it was coming our way. My only thought about it was maybe there would be waves. It is SOOOOO surfer. But that evening sky presented a "red sky at night- sailor's delight" sunset and I took in every second until, as the French say, the sun went to bed. I was sitting in the van spinning the ball on my G1 phone looking at surf reports, maps and possible fueling places for the final leg of my trip down to the low country of South Carolina, when there was a tap on the window. It didn't take long to figure out that I had again been spotted. I guess the text messages had been flying on the Outer Banks for a few days. It is hard to stay under the radar these days where videos and photos have replaced autographs, so I guess I better take a moment to give you the rules by which I operate in that regard.
1) I won't sign autographs when I am in the act of eating (drinking is okay). Eating is a sacrament to me, and something, which is never to be interrupted. In my world, it comes with the punishment of eternal damnation in the fires of hell (can't get away from that Catholic thing).
2) As for photos, it all depends on your manners and what kind of mood I am in, and if I do take photos I ask that you keep them as personal keepsakes and not post them on the internet or blogs and not shared with the entire planet earth. A photo should be a keepsake, not a calling card.
3) Finally, I don't want anybody bothering me when I am at home and that includes on my boat. Other than that, I feel that I am fair game and it is all just a part of the job, and I have found the vast majority of the time, fans I meet out there couldn't be more respectful and mannerly and I do appreciate that. I still have a bit of a problem with that celebrity stuff as I do still only see myself as a beach boy, ex-altar boy from Mobile, who worked hard and got lucky and not much more. To me, it is just my job.
Meanwhile, back at the ferry dock, the young man at my window introduced himself as a member of the United States Coast Guard and said simply that he hated to bother me but he would probably never get this opportunity again. I thought to myself, hell, if I hadn't learned those three chords way back when at Auburn, Alabama, I might have wound up in the Coast Guard. Anyway, I got out, met his friends and snapped a few photos, shook hands and listened to his stories about his times at our shows, grateful that he and a whole lot other folks out there love our shows. In these days and times of instant gratification and American Idol, real fans are the basis of any career. Without them, you are just a karaoke crooner.
The bell at the front of the line rang as the ferryboat approached the dock. I said good-bye to the Coastie and his friends and climbed back aboard the GT, watching them high-fiving and laughing as they walked away towards town. I thought for a moment about a piece of advice I got from the late and great Paul Newman, when I watched him deal with a crowd of fans at a function up on Long Island years ago. I said something about how gracious he was with them and he looked at me and said something like, "Kid, it takes no more time to be thought of as an asshole than it does to be thought of as a good guy. Give them a thrill. That's your job." Wisdom from someone like that you cherish and remember forever.
The ferry ride across the inlet was way too short to be thought of as any kind of voyage but in my way of thinking it is always good to be at sea, especially when the elements are co-operating. Bad weather may have been in the forecast but that evening was a splendid one. I am at home on a boat. It can be the Queen Mary, the Continental Drifter, a stand up paddleboard, or the W. Stanford White, the ferry on which I was traveling that day. I am always intrigued by the names of boats, as it is a very serious thing to those who venture out on the water as to what namesake they trust their souls to. So, it did set me to wondering why someone would name a channel ferry in the coastal waters of North Carolina after a famous architect who was murdered in New York in a sex scandal over a century ago. But maybe it was just a coincidence and W. Stanford White might have been a famous local seaman who rescued a dog or a baby in a storm. So, if anybody who reads this can enlighten me on this subject, please send me an e-mail. Anyway, the voyage was pleasant, the air tinged with salt and the spectacular sunset put a curtain on a fine day spent mostly alone on the beach. I chatted with some fellow passengers from Alaska and then went over my plans for the rest of the evening on Ocracoke. They were non-existent at the moment. I had a rendezvous with the real estate agent from whom I had rented a house for the night, but until that time, I just sat back and took in the moment. I feel you can never have enough time on the water. And, once again, I found myself, like many times before in this life, leaving one island for another, which is always a portal to another adventure.
Hope you all have a very happy holiday season. Merry Christmas. - J.B
The Outer Banks Diary Part IV
The Last Island
There was little daylight left as I disembarked on the south shore of Ocracoke from the W. Stanford White, so there was not much to see as I drove towards town and my place of rest for the night. Again, the campgrounds were closed and I had surfed the web for an interesting looking place to spend the night. It had been awhile since I had first dropped out of the sky here for lunch and my first look at the Outer Banks. Maybe the thing that had attracted me here in the first place, other than the unusual name, was the fact that Ocracoke's history was significantly effected by two things that have always interested me very much - lighthouses and pirates, which meant I was on a "research expedition".
I have always found excuses to go wandering the planet in the name of book or song research. Though you have to spend a lot of time at a desk when you become a writer, being an obvious admirer of people like Hemingway, Beryl Markham, Mark Twain, Ian Fleming, Bruce Chatwin, Anne Lindbergh and a host of other writers, I believe you have to find the substance of a story or a song, as Twain said "out there in the territory". Thus my writings cover my love of different latitudes, hot climates and remote stretches of beach front, which is what brought me to the Outer Banks in the first place. Oh yes, and the other thing that seems to work for me is to find and explore the local libraries in these outposts, where I can do a little bound book archeology and dig up facts, photos or other information that might blossom into a full blown plot line or a character or a song title.
When I was "researching" the character Charlie Fabian for my book "Where is Joe Merchant?" I knew I wanted to model him on the notorious pirate Edward Teech, better known in the pirate culture by his bad ass name of "Blackbeard". I had seen a movie about Blackbeard when I was a kid and the image of this wild pirate with pigtails in his flaming beard swinging through the rigging from his ship to the one he was attacking, stuck with me. And when I needed a likeable villain for my novel, I knew Blackbeard would be the model. It was in the Key West library where I first discovered the North Carolina connection to Blackbeard, which took me to my aviation charts to figure that Ocracoke lay almost directly on the air route I usually traveled in my plane back and forth between Florida and Long Island. It is always nice when your work and your fun can come together like that. Ocracoke was now on my song line.
On that first "research expedition", other than the library, I checked out several bookstores, where in an afternoon, I armed myself with more than enough factual and fictional information about Blackbeard to help me create my version of the bad ass pirate - Charlie Fabian.
It seems, that all these pirates, probably to their collective chagrin, wound up as tourist attractions, bar names, and the nuclei of a score of cottage industries. There's the Key West Pirate and Torture museum in Key West (always one of my favorite places back in my early days there). You've got the Jamaican buccaneer Henry Morgan's likeness on a rum label, and the Lafitte Brothers blacksmith shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans, just to name a few, and Ocracoke is big time in the Blackbeard "bidness''. I guess if you grow up in Texas, Colorado or Montana, as Willie Nelson says, "your heroes are cowboys", but if you are an east or Gulf coast creature, well hi diddle dee dee, it's a pirate's life for me.
The other big discovery that fit right into my world was the existence on Ocracoke of the oldest working lighthouse in North Carolina. This led to more research, which illuminated the story of the Fresnell lens system, which became one of the main plot points of a later book "Salty Piece of Land". For having spent only one day on Ocracoke years back, it seems that I had dug up a lot of literary treasure in these parts, and I was glad to be back for another quick but timely visit.
I drove past the airport at twilight, stopping for a moment when I saw several wild ponies loping along the beach. I love the fact that as much as we all perceive of the East Coast of the United States as one continuous string of cities, sidewalks shopping malls and endless streams of traffic along Interstate 95, there is still a lot of land left where wild horses rule the beach. I spotted the large "Howard's Pub" sign and pulled the Green Tomato into the parking lot where Sarah, my real estate lady, told me she would meet me. One of the things I always try to find when I am on the road in a place like Ocracoke is authenticity. In too many coastal towns that I have lived in or visited, progress, or what some people call progress, seems to take hold in more ways than some of us not so progressive types would like. To me, that means finding a local cottage or funky beach hotel to sleep in that reminds me of the kinds of places I used to go with my parents down on the Alabama and Florida Gulf Coast when I was a kid, as opposed to a hotel chain or high rise. The same goes for eating. It comes down to one of my simple rules of travel. Sleep local and eat local. Sarah was there and guided me through town and out to my spot for the night.
My "Little Duck" cottage was perfect for the evening and the old Lighthouse was visible to the east above the tree line. The signs of foreboding weather were still not evident in the evening sky, so I unhooked my bent bicycle from the rear of the Tomato, got directions from Sarah through a maze of sand paths that eventually led towards the lighthouse and peddled away, with my trusty Garmin GPS all set to mark my route so I could find my way home in the dark.
For all its pirate history, the town of Ocracoke is one of the most picture perfect harbors I have seen. Summer is of course the tourist season and it bustles like all the other beaches where people go to marinate in salt water, but when the off season comes and the population settles to basically just the locals and a few kids playing hooky from school to catch a wave or a fish, that authentic charm blossoms while the trees and flowers are shedding their leaves. Being off-season even added to the charm as I wobbled along the road that lines the waterfront, hoping my tire would stay attached to the frame and I wouldn't have to walk back to the Little Duck cottage. I peddled all the way through town and down to the ferry dock to check my reservation for the early ferry back to the mainland and see what times the later boats left in case I stayed. There was more night than day in the sky as I started back and it was made even more apparent when the first sweep of the "sword of light" flashed across Silver Lake.
I can see how the harbor got its name, as the next beam shimmered across the water. After spending several years working on a book about lighthouses, I knew Fresnell lens beam when I saw one. If you want to know more about this lens, I suggest you refer to the description in "Salty Piece of Land". Let's just say the short explanation is that they are functional and works of art, like old seaplanes and sextants. One of the interesting things about the Ocracoke light was that Confederate soldiers removed the lens during the Civil War as a defense against a Yankee invasion through the inlet. It would be like turning off the runway lights at an airport at night. I followed the beam and tracked on my GPS down the oyster shell covered back streets that lead me to the wooden plank walkway at the base of the light. As wonderful, powerful and mysterious as a lighthouse beam can be at close range on "terra firma", I think that if you have ever been at sea and really needed it as a navigational aid to keep you from grinding your hull on to a coral reef or find a channel on a pitch black stormy night, then you