Friday, July 22, 2011

Outer Banks three day ride: Day 1, Expedition Meander

A three day road loop on the NC coast. Six ferry rides!

This trip was really interesting and a lot of fun, and very different from the landscapes I usually ride in. Following a brief beach visit last month, I had gotten inspired to take my road bike down to the Outer Banks and ride around to get my fill of its picturesque beachy and marshy lands. As there are a number of ferries operating in the area, I could cook up a bike ride with plenty of time spent out on the water. Much needed mental refreshment after a couple hard weeks, and welcome change in scenery.

The whole route at a glance. I mapped it out here, if you want to inspect it in detail, including two detours I made for bridges out. In the follow-up post about this ride, I should write out the entire route road-by-road (with suggestions and tips) for anyone who might think about planning their own ride to this area. I used the DeLorme NC State Atlas to figure out my route and brought the relevant pages of that atlas along with me on the ride. Incidentally, Google Maps would have been completely useless for this ride, since among other issues it refuses to admit the existence of one of the ferries.
SSW winds prevail on the Outer Banks, and I spent a little time puzzling over sailing websites' wind forecasts trying to figure out which days would be easiest in which directions. Conflicting data from different sources made me suspect that perhaps wind forecasting was an imperfect science. Finally I decided to just leave on the day I wanted to and ride in the direction I wanted to, and deal with whatever wind I got. I drove most of the way down from Asheville on Sunday evening, and finished up the drive Monday morning. I parked in Nags Head and packed my bike. It was about one pm by the time I got going, which was kind of ridiculously late.

The sign at the border between the town of Nags Head and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

I didn't have any real idea of how long the ride was going to take, so had no specific time or distance goals to meet. Between the headwinds, tailwinds, detours, waits for ferries, and the ferries themselves, "three-ish days or so" was about as precise as I wanted to be. Which was fine with me. I wanted this to be just an adventure on a bike, with none of the restrictions or concerns of racing and training. I hadn't even brought a bike computer to tell me how much behind schedule I was. I had cooked up a kind of satisfyingly contrary trip: a bike tour where you had to keep waiting for boats. The element of chance was a part of the fun for me.

There was definitely a headwind, and it was definitely hot, about 90, but it was pretty nice anyway. The views were great and it was really fun to be out on a poorly-conceived, casual, solo multi-day ride with so many crazy elements to it. The longest ride I'd done since Kanza was a four hour road ride the previous Saturday, so I wasn't exactly in great shape and was a little bit wondering how much I would be suffering later on. I knew subconsciously that if everything really, really sucked, I could bail out and just do a two day out-and-back to Ocracoke and call it good, but truthfully, there was pretty much no chance I was going to take that option.

 Riding a long bridge over islets and marshes in the Pamlico Sound. Heading towards Pea Island, part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore

About twenty miles in, it suddenly dawned on me that I had parked in a place where the car was going to get towed before my return. It had somehow seemed okay when I was getting ready, but the more I thought about it the more I realized the car would be impounded. Damn. When I got back in a couple days I'd have to go figure out where the impound lot was instead of just hopping in the car and heading home. I thought about this for the next ten miles or so. Since there was nothing I could do about it I knew I should just stop thinking about it until I got back. On the other hand, with this much time to myself I was bound to start worrying about something, so I might as well focus on something that wasn't really all that consequential in the big scheme of things.

I've found not too many people can be as casual as I am about travel. Worldwide, I've proved pretty adept at just showing up places and going with the flow. I am not too wound up about making or keeping exact plans and tend to leave the decisions until I get the lay of the land. It generally works out to my favor and over the years has led to some pretty exciting and unexpected travel experiences for me. When I started this ride, I didn't have a ferry schedule so did not know how often they ran the ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island, which is still part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. More to the point, I didn't know how the ferries ran from the town at the other end of Ocracoke Island back over to the mainland. What would be the point of getting some time fixed in my head, then getting a flat tire on the way and beating myself up for missing the boat?

There are two ferry routes, which run from Ocracoke to the mainland landings of Cedar Island and Swan Quarter. I wasn't sure how late the latest ferry ran, and although I planned on taking one ferry over and the other ferry back, I didn't know if I'd have to base the direction of my trip on which ferry I could catch. So either I would be spending the night on Cedar Island, in Swan Quarter, or in Ocracoke. I had enough gear with me to camp if needed, but also knew that I could rely on the tourist infrastructure of the region to provide. Luckily I did not have any riding partner along who would be worrying about where we would sleep.

For a while, despite my vow not to focus on speed or distance, I tried to determine my speed using the mile markers and my watch. After successive miles in constant conditions clocked at five, three, six, four, and five minutes, I had to conclude that the variance of my sample was not the consequence of my riding style but of the Cape Hatteras roadbuilders placing the mile markers more or less at whim. Anyway, based solely on feel, I was probably at about 12 mph into the wind.

Eventually I made it to the town of Hatteras at about 5:30 pm or so and headed for the ferry dock. The next ferry was at 6 so I spent some time eating ice cream and cooling off from the 60 miles in the heat. The guys at the ferry gave me a full schedule which showed that there was one last ferry leaving Ocracoke for Cedar Island at 8:30. They said I wouldn't catch it, explaining we'd arrive at 6:30 and it was twelve miles to the other ferry dock. Even with the wind, I was probably riding 12 miles an hour, so I wasn't that worried as long as I didn't have a mechanical. They were clearly not cyclists, and kept insisting I'd miss the ferry, and I kept explaining the math of 12 mi X 12 mph = 1 hour, which had no effect on them. It was actually kind of funny. Even so, a night on Ocracoke would have been pretty pleasant too, so I wasn't that worried.

The Ocracoke ferry was not very full, and held about half tourists and half locals on their way home from work. The trip is a short one, along the border between Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic.

The ferry's route parallels the sandy ends of Hatteras Island, then skirts some sand bars and crosses the marked channel for boats heading out from the Sound to the ocean. I was surprised by how shallow and narrow the break between the islands was. It looked like one could swim the distance between Hatteras and Ocracoke pretty easily, with some rest stops on the sands that poked up above the water along the way. I am sure there are some pretty serious currents along there-- they don't call it the Graveyard of the Atlantic for nothing-- but still, it looked like a pretty nice swim.

On Ocracoke island, the riding was pretty similar to what it had been on Hatteras. A little windier maybe, like 15-20 mph headwind, and the surroundings a little more wild, and way fewer cars. 

 There it is! The Atlantic Ocean!

 Sometimes there were some pretty cool sand dunes between the ocean and the road.

Pretending to be all worried about making the ferry. Argh, I need to rush rush rush. Grimace grimace. Redline! Hammer! Wattage! Argh! Note that I am on a pretty nice bike path here, which runs for a couple miles between the National Park Service campground and the town itself.

I made it to the town of Ocracoke in less than an hour, which left me with plenty of time to cruise around waiting for the ferry. It is a pretty little place, with a peaceful sort of sailing-hippie vibe and plenty of good food.

Monument to the HMT Bedfordshire, a British trawler which came to the United States as part of the Allied effort during World War II. Patrolling the waters off the Outer Banks for German Naval activity, it was torpedoed by a U-Boat and all crewmen aboard were lost. Only four bodies were recovered, two of them never identified. All four were laid to rest on Ocracoke, in a tiny, out-of-the-way plot that is the smallest Commonwealth War Graves Commission gravesite worldwide.

The bike in Ocracoke. Yeah, this is kind of an unusual touring setup, with some packs intended for use on a mountain bike pressed into service on a racing-geometry road bike. I suppose panniers and a frame with "touring geometry" (whatever that means) would have been more in order. Who cares, this is my only road bike, it worked fine and I had room for everything I needed. I should do a quick run-down of what I brought in the next post I write about this trip.

 Salt marsh and jetties, and a truly beautiful kevlar-sailed, double-masted sailboat sailing its way back into the harbor. I would see this boat in Ocracoke again on the third day of my ride, so I suspect it is chartered daily.

 The ferry loaded as the sun set. There were not many cars loaded on, a couple contractors' trucks and a minivan of tourists speaking french. This ride would be longer, over two hours across Pamlico Sound to the mainland. After watching the sunset, I intended to pass the time writing in the well-lit passenger lounge. Only to find that somehow I had brought my notebook but forgotten to bring a pen. Oh well, the passenger lounge was sort of excessively bright and air-conditioned anyway. I decided to just stay and hang out on the deck instead. I was on the trip to enjoy the outdoors, so I should soak in the experience. The deck was deserted and windy, but the evening was warm and humid enough to be comfortable with only my wind jacket.

 Sunset, leaving Ocracoke

As the sunset faded and the ship pulled away from all land, the stars came out beautifully bright. It might have been the best show of stars I have ever seen on the East Coast, so clear that I could see the reddish tinge to Mars. Here and there on the edge of the water there were the steady lights of other boats, some in the sound and some out on the open ocean. Looking out towards the ocean, a strange orange haze materialized, then grew to a sliver of light. A fat waning gibbous moon was rising over the ocean. I don't think I have ever seen anything like it. Watching it rise silent and unobstructed on the perfectly flat horizon was like watching a geometrical proof take place before my eyes. Its deep orange color and wide shape evoked the images of the first split-seconds of the Trinity Test, but far away and unheralded.

I watched intently as the earth turned on its axis. Eventually the moon hung fully suspended above the horizon, reflected pink by the waters. I felt privileged to witness such a beautiful occurrence in such a peaceful setting. It occurred to me that in centuries past, many many people would have regularly experienced such a moonrise. Many people depended on boats for transportation, and the rhythm, speed, and atmosphere of water travel was something mostly gone from our lives today. The bigness of the sky, the sound of the water, the wheel of the stars, it was beautiful to be out in that environment.

I moved over to the other side of the bow, looking across Pamlico Sound. Navigation buoys shined here and there, but even in the light of day, the mainland would have been too far away to see. What looked like a spray of shooting stars appeared briefly near the horizon line. Meteors! I thought. A minute later the exact same spray of shooting stars again. And at regular intervals, several more times. Not meteors at all, I realized-- someone was practicing over at the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point. I watched for a while more, but the tracers stopped soon enough. The next day, I would ride my bike right by the edges of that base.

It was about 11pm as the few sparse lights of Cedar Island came into view. In one place on my maps there was a motel indicated at the Cedar Island ferry landing, but in another place Cedar Island was listed as having no services. I wasn't sure what I would be doing after the ferry landing. Although Croatan National Forest is just a mile from the dock, I wasn't sure about camping options, and didn't really feel like riding at night. I figured if worse came to worse I could probably just lay out my sleeping bag on the steps of the ferry building for the night. Luckily, when I rolled off the ferry the promised motel was right there. The motel's night clerk was sitting outside at the front door, waiting to see if anyone from the ferry would want a place to sleep for the night.

I rolled my bike into a decent little motel room at the Driftwood Motel, where the air conditioning was already cranked up high. It was great to know I would be getting a good night's sleep as the next day would be pretty long.

Day two and day three of this ride will be another post! Coming soon!


  1. Insperational stuff! Just starting out on the bike but hope to build up to somthing like this in the future!

  2. That sounds like a wonderful ride! I'd love to do something like that, but I think I'd take a few days in between legs to enjoy chill beach time.

  3. I'm really shocked that I didn't see you out there. Surely I would have easily spotted the Bike29 kit. We were out there the same time, and I even got a photo of the last ferry leaving Ocracoke that night. I bet you were on it. Looks like you had fun.

  4. No kidding! Small world for sure. I knew you were vacationing out on the coast somewhere but did not know exactly where. Hope you had fun!

  5. Great narrative! This is when a bicycle really comes into its own. Dad

  6. Nice change of pace. Did a similar ride down east a few years back.
    Pics here: