Friday, June 12, 2015

A Ride to Rodanthe: Riding North Carolina's Outer Banks

There is a sign as you near Rodanthe, NC that says something like this: "Building Houses Where They Shouldn't Be: Welcome to Lack of Foresight, USA."  Or maybe it was "Nature: Fuck it." Actually, it's this:
Reads "Mirlo Beach: Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream"
Dare to dream the impossible dream.

I saw that sign on a ride last week.  It was just before Pappy Lane. On the left the Atlantic, on the right the Sound. In between a quarter mile of sand and brackish swamp. Into my face an unfamiliar wind: dry as bone, powerful but constant--perfect for lifting a person from the ground and keeping him aloft.  Maybe even sending him a ways off.

In fact, this is the first place the wind did that: the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the wind, mostly, lifted Orville Wright from the sand.

Once I got on the bike, I understood.

I couldn't get away for a ride until mid-afternoon, my plan being to ride twenty-some miles down from Nags Head--presumably from the head to the neck, and gut if possible (although someday I'd like to traverse the entire 200 miles of OBX).

Riding the Outer Banks is actually like passing through the body of a very thin being. There's only one road, Route 12, it's extremely narrow, and riding it is as confining as passing through the guts of something.

I crossed an exceedingly narrow and frightening bridge to Pea Island, which is just about 1/10th of the 200-mile strip of sand 50 miles out in the Atlantic that is the Outer Banks.

The road thereafter was tight, with only small shoulders and traffic sped by at near 60mph, as if there was some place to go out there, other than narrow strip of sand, or maybe because turning was no option; the only place to go was straight ahead.

Rarely topping 20 mph, terrified of the traffic whizzing past--this was no ramble. Drivers there, possibly also sensing the narrowness of the place, are among the least willing to concede any space to cyclists.

I could see water on both sides nearly the entire ride. The strip is almost a baseball toss wide, or so it feels.

It's a dizzying, terrifying feeling to ride for miles on such a narrow strip. Partly it's the lack of choices. There is only forward and backward. Partly also, you feel as if you don't belong there, that it is not for a human being who needs stable ground and infrastructure on which to stand and live. And then there are no bikes and most of the vehicles are huge, overbuilt trucks favored by Southerners and aggressive types.

It's a strange thought, to realize that even the earth sometimes requires effort to stabilize what is not only, literally, shifting sands, it's a very narrow set of shifting sands--30 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean!

It only stays the same on maps because we make it so. As recently as 2003, storms tore Hatteras Island in two, in fact. The state and federal government rebuilt. It is an ongoing, constant effort, with billions of Federal dollars spent annually to sustain the Outer Banks' illusion of constancy.
Hatteras: this image shows the extreme tenuousness of Highway 12--the ocean on the right, the sound on the left.
And the wind...it was not buffeting, like the Midwestern winds of my childhood; it was a constant force, and riding into it a consistent strain, slow going. By the time I reached Rodanthe, I had adjusted the time and distance I'd planned to ride.

Despite the misery of the ride, I determined to keep going. There was still a perverse pleasure in some kinds of miserable rides, as every cyclist knows, and I was hoping this would be that kind of misery. The road led me to place called Chicamacomico, where I decided to turn around.
I'd read about it beforehand. Lifesavers stationed there, all African American men, had saved many lives, including those of 42 British sailors when in 1918 their steamer Mirlo, torpedoed by a German U-boat, sank.

Not that I cared about that--I just wanted to ride to a place called Chicamacomico.

I stopped, snapped a picture, thought about paying some money to actually go into the museum, noticed the darkening skies to the north, and decided to get back home.

What followed were possibly the fastest 20 solo miles I've ever ridden. Into the wind, I'd failed to notice the birds because I'd had my head down, plowing through the wind. With the wind, I was now going to fast to notice anything. It was like riding one of those people moving flat-escalator things at the airport.

The narrow ribbon of sand the road split seemed even less stable to me as the wind picked me up and threw me along.

By the time I returned to Nags Head, the rains were pummeling the sound and the dark stretch of moisture loomed above.

"How was the ride?" my wife asked.

"Wonderful," I said.

It is easy to assume permanency in the tree-covered distant suburbs of the District, in hollows and ancient ravines of Lost River, and on the streets of what seems to be a stable, inviolable cityscape.

What are the Outer Banks but geography sped up? The Earth moves and shifts, usually slowly, sometimes rapidly, but where trees and buildings stand for centuries, its fluidity is hidden. Out there riding a tightrope of sand strung across the sea, the earth moves even as you do.

Dare to dream the impossible dream. Or maybe don't.

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