Sunday, August 28, 2011

Outer Banks three day ride: Day 2, the Inner Shores.

The path of Hurricane Irene has just passed directly over the area I traveled on day two of this trip, which has inspired me to come back and pick up the narrative. My thoughts are with the people of the area who, as you will read below, were really responsible for making my time there memorable and fun.

I woke up at the Driftwood Motel in Cedar Island, and ate breakfast in the dining room of the motel. The split-level dining area had been fairly elaborately decorated in a nautical theme many years before, and not touched since. It was pretty great, like being in a time capsule. The booths even had port-hole shaped windows!  It was really something else. For a connoisseur of kitsch such as myself, it was worth lingering a bit over a second cup of coffee.

Driftwood Motel, Cedar Island.

By the time I said goodbye to the Driftwood the sun was pretty high in the sky, around 8am. I rode past a couple houses, but Cedar Island is mostly a federal wildlife preserve, made up of a little forest and a lot of salt marsh. Although it was kind of hot, the traffic was low and the wind was not bad. At one point three muddy little otters jumped out of the water beside the road and scuttled across the road in front of my wheel. Pretty cool.

There are straight-line canals dredged throughout the salt marshes, some navigable and some just for drainage, and I don't know enough about salt marshes to know how much that has changed their ecology. I imagine the road would not last long without the drainage ditches protecting it.

Coast guard center on the Thorofare Bay inland waterway at Cedar Island.

The view of Thorofare Bay and the Core Sound beyond was great from the bridge over the waterway. Cape Lookout National Seashore is on the Core Banks islands on the other side of that sound.

 At the next bay, Nelson Bay, there was another nice bridge over another inlet. Windswept pines dot the edge of the marsh.

 Roadside in the old town of Williston, with spanish moss in the trees and a mosquito/miniature-crab/stormwater ditch. 

After a while riding along this nice coastal road, I crossed out of the wildlife preserve and turned inland. The area around North River seemed very poor but people were really house-proud. There was a lot of small-ish homes on large lots with elaborate wooden fencing surrounding them. It was a friendly area, with a few different people waving to me from their porch as I rode by. Also, although I saw plenty of surfer-types on bikes out along the Outer Banks, this was the only place on the mainland I encountered a cyclist, a fellow on his way home from the grocery store.

My road bike, dwarfed by Blackbeard. A childhood of family road trips instilled in me a deep love of the large roadside fiberglas figures of the American vernacular landscape. This was decorating the lawn of either a boat-repair place or a lumberyard, it was hard to tell which.

Riding over the Intracoastal Waterway. And yes, in case you were wondering, I stopped and took a photo on top of every bridge I rode over.

The road I was on was part of a designated state bike route, but there was no shoulder on the road as it went through the Croatan National Forest. The riding was made even less tranquil by the fact that there was active logging taking place in the area, bringing a lot of oversized trucks onto the road. I checked my maps and found a way to skip ten miles of that road for an alternate that was just a little longer.

"Della's Place," falling apart on the side of the road. Interesting to try to imagine when it had been active, and what sort of place it had been. I tried to think about it as a 1970s roadhouse bar where people gathered after work on Friday. Sad to think of the person who had run the bar, then being forced to abandon it in failure. There were fewer of this sort of decrepit ruin than you might expect, actually, and most were quite picturesque. I wish I'd gotten a photo of the series of five old trailer-homes in a row, each painted a different crayola color, the first one inhabited (with its resident in a lawn chair out front with a beer in hand) and each of the next four in the line uninhabited and progressively more decayed and covered in kudzu. The last in the line was nearly invisible under the foliage. It looked like the guy would just live in a trailer til it got really unkempt, then instead of cleaning and repairing it, just get a new one delivered, paint it some insane color, and move in. Slowly, ten feet at a time, he was moving west. I would have stopped for a photo but he looked a little hostile and definitely nuts.

After about seven miles of meandering through a couple villages, some farmland and some weirdly oversized exurban mansions, it reentered the forest-- unfortunately at that point the road was closed!

Oh NO, road closed! Getting back on track took an extra hour of riding, under the full sun from noon til one. I was not super happy about it, and was nearly out of water.

Eventually I made it to my destination, the Cherry Point- Minnesott ferry, right next to the Cherry Point air force base, the location of the nighttime target practice I'd seen from the Ocracoke-Cedar Island ferry the night before. I'd just missed a ferry so waited for about an hour at the picnic tables under some sad little no-shade trees.

These guys had just emptied the crab traps they work on this side of the bay, and were taking the fresh, live crabs across the river to a seafood distributor on the other side. They were pretty worried that the extreme heat and sun would get to the crabs, since they don't get paid for the ones that have died. They had a bunch of wet burlap over them but kept shifting them in the boxes so the same crabs weren't always on the top feeling the hot sun. Chatting with these guys I learned a fair bit about the crab industry in these inlets, which has been on the rise lately. I was surprised how hard it is to keep crabs alive during the transport. Shellfish is a really interesting industry. In a world where most of our food comes through factory production, the shellfish industry is based on these wild animals with really strange behaviors, is extremely localized in production yet also remarkably global in distribution, and is so dependent on the ecological health of the waters. Plus, it is delicious.

I also got to chat with a lady whose husband runs certification classes for various sorts of marine licenses. Jobs dependent on the sea; people who just love being out on the water. I hope all these people are doing okay after Hurricane Irene.

The ferry leaves the shoreline of Croatan National Forest behind and heads out across the Neuse River. There are two pelicans sitting on the end of the pier!

On the ferry, I sat inside the passenger lounge to try to get out of the heat for a little while. I was joined there for most of the trip by one of the guys who ran the ferry, so got to talk to another person whose livelihood is based on the water. He told me what it was like being in the merchant marine and working on a NCDOT ferry, which actually sounded like it was pretty boring, but not all that bad. Surprisingly this guy turned out to really like hiking, even in the heat, which was cool since almost everyone else had been sure to tell me I was crazy for exercising in such weather. We talked a fair bit about exercising and staying hydrated in the summer heat, complete with the standard camelback-vs.-bottles discussion. At the other end of the ferry ride, he let me into the ferry operators' building to fill my bottles with cold water, which was very nice of him.

It was exactly like this for two entire hours. Not the high point of the trip.

The next part of the ride was incredibly boring. Just hot and boring. The road was dead flat, and completely straight, and hemmed in on both sides by thick forest, and the sun beat down on me and the humidity was stifling. Sometimes a ride like this is just about patience, that most basic element of endurance. Over the next couple hours only one thing happened. A giant piece of farm machinery was on the road behind me, which overhung the center line as well as overhanging about three feet over the side of the grassy ditch. Since it was only going about 25 miles an hour, it took a really long time to catch up to me. I occupied myself with wondering what would happen when it got closer. Eventually it was right up behind me and slowed down to my speed. A car or two was behind it, waiting til they could pass it, which was trying to pass me. It was no fun.  The roadside ditch looked pretty treacherous with rocks and broken glass, and I didn't want to flat by pulling into it. I was scared to stop on the road, too. I screwed up my nerve and managed a cyclocross dismount, followed by a leap across the ditch with the loaded bike in hand.

It passed, and after it was gone the roadway that had once seemed sort of annoyingly boring now seemed relaxingly peaceful.

Eventually the road had a bend or two in it, thrillingly, and then I passed the outskirts of the small town of Aurora on the way to the next ferry. I did not at all expect to find that in the few miles between Aurora and the ferry was a gigantic mine. There were open pit mining operations on both sides of the road, stretching as far as the horizon. The still air hung with a slight gray haze and the scent of sulfur. After the green monotony of the forest, the mine was strangely shocking to the eye.

A long train can be seen along the other side of the mine's holding pond, waiting to be filled up from the mine and transported around the country.

It probably took a half hour to ride through this mine. At the other side was the ferry dock, where I had about 25 minutes to wait for the ferry. As I sat at a picnic table to wait, one guy got out of his car and came over to find out what the heck I was up to, riding a bike on this ferry. Every car waiting for the ferry was a mine worker getting off work, so I really stood out. He told me all about the mine operation, and how many workers lived in the towns on the other side of the river (I can understand why those towns would be nicer-- they didn't have a potash mine next door!). All along the part of my trip when I was on the mainland, everyone seemed really happy that I was visiting their area. This guy was quite the booster for Hyde County and its many charms. All the mass tourism is on the barrier islands, where the sand beaches are, and these folks are left out of that industry. Frankly, this guy was right: Hyde County was absolutely charming, even more so because there were not t-shirt shops and kitesurfing concessions all over the place.

On the Bayview-Aurora Ferry. The refining facility for the mine is on the horizon.

Once on board the ferry, I got to talk to a couple of the other mine workers too, who seemed happy to have someone to talk to other than the standard crew they worked with every day. This is what I learned during that half-hour ferry ride about phosphate mining for PotashCorp: a) the mined ore isn't harmful, but the chemicals that they use in the refining process are pretty hazardous, b) mining is a union thing, and c) if you can stand to work there long enough you get a pretty good retirement package. And, d) the phosphate they are mining is fossilized plant life, come from the bottom of a prehistoric seafloor from when these lands were under water. As they mine, they find incredible numbers of small fossil fragments-- shells, bones, teeth-- a useless rubble that they dispose of by selling it as fill dirt. Roads, driveways, and house foundations in this area rest on the crushed remains of this prehistoric seafloor.

I rolled off the ferry into Bayview around five. I was not entirely certain where I was going to end up for the night. There was more National Forest ahead of me where I could camp, as well as a pay campground and a couple bed-and-breakfasts. There are no motels, no grocery stores, not even any fast food joints, none of the corporate infrastructure of modern America that we like to think is so pervasive. There I was, in Real America. The chatty fellow before the ferry had told me he thought one of the B-and-Bs might be closed, but he wasn't sure. I decided to just play it by ear but assume I was going to stay at the campground.

Lovely old historic church building sitting in a farm field. It had no path up to the door, so I guess it is not used for worship, but seemed to be in pretty good repair and sporting a new roof.

A couple miles out of Bayview, at a place called Sidney Corners, there was a bridge under repair. A detour was marked, which was sort of demoralizing. I stopped at the Sidney Corners gas station cafe and bought the last burger left over from their lunch service. As I sat outside eating, a family who were getting gas struck up a conversation with the strange solo bike rider wolfing down cheetos and Coke at the lunch table. They explained the detour to me, which was at least five extra miles, and also told me that there was definitely a B-and-B in Belhaven just after the end of the detour but that they had no idea what existed after that.

As I started to ride, I realized that the weather had finally started to cool down and my speed was picking up. I was loath to stop riding when it was actually pleasant, so I passed right through Belhaven without even checking the bed and breakfast. I had enough food and water for overnight even if I stayed out. My stomach dropped a bit as I rode out of town, wondering what I was getting myself into. But I guess it's all about the adventure, and I figured the worst that could happen was that I have a crappy night's sleep.

This was the junk show out back. Flip-flops, cable lock, red flashy, small auxiliary bag of Swedish Fish, and sleeping pad, all strung through the strap of my trusty seat bag. I was continually maxed out on space, but glad I didn't have a backpack weighing down my shoulders and preventing ventilation in the mid-90s, full humidity weather.

Striking old farmhouse and outbuildings, beside fields and under a canopy of trees.

I can't even really describe how beautiful the hour around sunset was. This richly storied agricultural land was silent and seemed completely unpopulated. The fields were completely flat, perfectly rectangular, and ringed with dense, dark forest made even more impenetrable by a thick understory.  Riding each road that traversed one of these fields felt like riding across the bottom of a giant empty swimming pool. I think of agriculture in the midwestern style of small sloping fields tucked into narrow valleys, or wide open fields with sparse windbreaks. In contrast, these fields were surreally bounded, almost claustrophobic, like rooms without ceilings.

As dusk settled in I found myself riding down an impossibly straight road, under an allée of venerable old oaks hung with spanish moss, flanked with farm fields. Everything around me dated back to the early twentieth century or earlier: it felt timeless because it was timeless. If this road had been in France, in Italy, people might write guidebook entries about it.

 Passing back over the Intracoastal Waterway again. This was a really lovely sunset over the lush pine forest, unfortunately my little camera was unable to capture very well.

It got dark. There were no cars on the road. There were no houses, no lights anywhere. I was all alone.

The mosquitoes came out. I didn't even notice them until I stopped to check a turn, only to find myself immediately devoured by them. Holy crap, I didn't have any bug spray with me. They must grow extra strong and big in the warm waters of the drainage canals of the area, because I swear I'd never been attacked so badly in my life. I jumped back on my bike in the dark, jury-rigging my headlight to my handlebar because I didn't want to stand still for the minute or two needed to strap it to my helmet.

I suddenly didn't want to camp out that night, since with the bugs that bad I wondered if I'd sleep at all. I passed the campground and headed towards the town of Swanquarter, hoping they'd have a bed and breakfast, a motel, anything. It was pitch dark as I rode into town through some shoreline forest. A deer was on the road, and actually froze in the beam of my headlamp. Without knowing it, I was shining the deer. I was confused, kept riding toward it expecting it to move, and finally yelled at it until it finally moved out of my way. Then I startled a heron out of its sleeping place in an oak bough right over the roadway, and that crazy hoarse heron call freaked me out as it flapped away about ten feet above ground level. By the time I got into town I was good and rattled.

I rode into the little downtown of Swanquarter and saw all the lights on at the volunteer fire department. I leaned my bike on the railing and walked inside. I explained my situation and asked them if there was any place to stay in the town? They were pretty great people, really nice and helpful. It turned out some folks were nearly complete renovating an old Main Street house to turn it into a bed and breakfast, and it was only a half block from where we were. One of them called these folks on their cellphone to see if they would be able to put me up for the night, since they seemed to already be renting rooms on a somewhat unofficial basis.

I chatted with these guys about what the Swanquarter Volunteer Fire Department spent their time on. They told me about some of the issues they faced in their jurisdiction, and the sorts of calls that took up most of their time. I am sure right now those same guys have their hands full with hurricane damage. I can't thank them enough for being so friendly to me, some weird space-cadet cyclist showing up on their doorstep after dark, covered in road grime, scratching mosquito bites, and looking for a place to stay.

They got the okay from the folks with the B-and-B and explained to me where to go. It really was just around the corner, in a beautiful old Main Street home with fantastic architecture. The couple who owned it were lifetime residents of the town who were just about done with restoring and remodeling of the house. They had been working all day on the kitchen remodel, but lived elsewhere in town, and since it wasn't all the way done they only charged me $50. As they left me there alone they told me I could pick any one of the three bedrooms to sleep in and that I could eat anything in the fridge. Yes, just like Goldilocks. It was great.

So the second night of the trip I got to sleep in a beautiful antique bed in an empty mansion.

Day three still to come. I promise it won't take as long to get around to as day two did!

1 comment:

  1. Looks like a beautiful place to pedal along for a few days. Love! It's also great how interactions with other people can be. Humans are so amazing.