Saturday, September 17, 2011

Outer Banks three day ride: Day 3, Completing the Circle

Day one post is here.
Day two post is here.

Day three: I woke up in Swanquarter and rode over to the ferry dock on the edge of town. The first ferry left when the sun was still just rising, but it was already pretty hot. This ferry carried the cars of some people who were on their way to work in the tourist economy of Ocracoke, and not many others.

 Sunrise, leaving Swanquarter

In the passenger lounge, a fellow struck up a conversation with me by asking me about my bike. He was a cyclist and told me his story of going through a serious cardiopulmonary illness and slow recovery, thinking always about getting back on his bike. He even had a tattoo of the bike on his arm, an incredibly detailed portrait of a very particular bike, which would have been the state of the art in mountain bike technology in 1994. He finally was healthy enough to exercise again, and was happy just to get to ride his bike. The tattoo was a real testament to bike love, and I wish I'd asked him for a photo of it. It was a cool story to hear, because it really exemplified what I think riding bikes should be about. Not about always owning the newest greatest, or impressing strangers, or buying constant upgrades, but about having a bike that works for you and that becomes a part of your life.

I learned a fair bit about the local vacation-home construction industry from this guy, along with some sort-of-dubious, if entertaining, tales about the area. This guy was on the ferry because he drove trucks for a contractor, and was driving a dump truck full of fill dirt out to Ocracoke for a house foundation. Out on the barrier islands there was only sand, so builders on the islands trucked fill dirt out from the mainland to ensure lasting structures. The fill dirt he had in his truck had actually originated in the mine I had ridden by the day before. The mainland and the island were materially connected, then, because the actual substance of the mainland was physically being transported out and incorporated into the island. The island relied on the mainland in ways I'd never thought of before. I'd seen the airbase target practice at Cherry Point from the Cedar Island ferry, then ridden to Cherry Point, and seen the mining at Aurora, and was now looking at a pile of Aurora mine waste being hauled back to Ocracoke. Somehow this seemed fitting in the symmetry of the trip as a whole, and my experiences on each of the ferry rides touching the mainland seemed connected.


A shrimp boat dwarfed by the vastness of the Pamlico. I was rapt, the sunglow and clouds and sense of vastness was like something from the paintings by J. M. W. Turner. I was sure I could not capture the incredible, hazy brightness of the light with my little camera. As the ferry moved forward and the shrimp boat became caught in the pearlescent glare, I took this photo. It might be up there with my favorite photos I've ever taken. Just like I had on the Ocracoke-Cedar Island ferry, I was struck with the thought that in past centuries many more people would have regular experiences of this sort of sublime view than do today.

Yes, there was a bike lane on Ocracoke, but sometimes the sand dunes drifted over it. Do they have a sand snowplow that shoves the sand back onto the dunes? 
Once back on Ocracoke I hightailed it back to the other end of the island to catch the last ferry of my trip. It was mid morning on a summer Friday, and there was a lot of traffic going the opposite direction. When I got to the ferry landing to catch the ride back to Hatteras, I was surprised at how much more tourist action there was here than before. There were even some TSA agents who were inspecting people's cars, including holding mirrors under the car's undercarriage, before letting them on the ferry. Perhaps emboldened by the fact that I was not in a car, I actually asked them why they were there. They termed Ocracoke a "soft border entry" or something, meaning that people wanting illegal access to the US for smuggling or terrorism could land on the beaches and make their way into the mainland of the US. I was about to launch into some questions along the lines of, "why not check the ferries at the other end of the island that have dumptrucks full of mine talings on them, instead of the ferries full of harmless beach tourists?" or perhaps "why wouldn't these evildoers just land on a less populated part of the shoreline?" but I was headed off on this line of questioning when they started asking me questions about my bike. It was probably for the best as I am pretty sure I would not have been able to resist asking even more annoying follow-up questions about the importance of public relations versus efficiency in the execution of the TSA's mission.

Anyway, thankfully they steered me away from my brattier impulses. One of them was a smart triathlete type, and was interested in my reasons for choosing titanium over carbon because he thought carbon was the way to go. I enumerated some of my reasons for preferring metal bikes to plastic bikes, and we ended up getting into a pretty good discussion of bike building out there waiting for the ferry. They were extremely impressed to find out that my bike was made in the USA. I let them in on some of the various options in the world of small, independent American bike companies. I really believe that many more people would choose local and domestic framebuilders if they had access and information about that possibility. There are tons of people for whom "Made in the USA" is an important consideration, and many just do not get the info from their local bike shops that such choices still exist in the bike world.

A number of cars, potentially containing evildoers of various stripes, were waved onto the ferry without inspection while we had this conversation.

Tourists in minivans, all driving around to the same locations and having the same vacations.

On this last Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, I got my first real dose of super intense beach vacation tourism, with swarms of people all over the place. It was funny how different the mainland ferry rides were from the bored and anonymous feel of the tourist ferry. While the working world of the mainland locals was full of texture and individuality, all the beach vacationers seemed the same, somehow. 

Not to get too judgmental about other people's tastes, but... oh to hell with it, I'm going to be judgmental. This was fucking revolting. These people drive all over the beach of our National Seashore in these absurd jacked-up pickup trucks, and can barely stagger away from their vehicles far enough to lay down in the sand like beached whales and guzzle Bud Light all day as they roast in the sun and yell at each other over the blare of the radio. Where's a rogue wave when you need one?
Back on Hatteras, there was an incredible traffic jam of people trying to get on ferries to Ocracoke. A lot of people looked like they were on the verge of fistfights. I was nearly run off the road when a giant black truck suddenly swerved to leapfrog the lines of ferrybound cars to speed illegally down the opposing lane, which was occupied only by little old me. Scary. I can never figure out why people on vacation act so angry.

I did get off my bike for one stop on the way back, for a delicious sandwich in a little cafe hidden behind one of the 500 kiteboard-rental shops on the outer banks. 

After I got past the idling hordes, things calmed down significantly traffic-wise. I started thinking again about how my car was probably impounded, which made me want to get back well before the close of the business day. If I had to go to a tow lot to get my car back, I would want plenty of time. I had a good tailwind, and decided to just hammer it out back to Nags Head.
Layers of history on Hatteras Island: markers for 1920s Army Air Service field and for the 1860s wreck of the Monitor. I saw markers for events all the way from the 1500s to the 1950s at various places along the route.

People fishing in the shallows at the jetty of the Pea Island Bridge.

Incredibly, when I got back there, my car was right where I'd left it! It was a very welcome surprise.

State bike route sign. This was a nice trip.

This was a really nice little trip. I would recommend it highly, although there is probably no way to avoid having to wait for ferries. They run frequently, but not so frequently that you won't end up cooling your heels once or twice. My only route alteration would be from Minnesott to Aurora: to take 55-304-33, which is a signed state bike routes, instead of 306, which is what I took. That route would take longer, but 306 was so damn boring that I could not recommend it. I would definitely recommend both the Driftwood Motel in Cedar Island, and the not-yet-opened bed and breakfast in Swan Quarter (I bet it would not be hard to find out the contact info for the B&B) as welcoming overnight stops for a bike tour. This route is 100% flat as a pancake, so be sure to wear good bike shorts and bring chamois cream as you will not get any time at all to relieve your position by climbing or descending out of the saddle. I think this tour would be better in the cooler months for sure, especially if you are not comfortable with riding in hot weather. Apparently the winds are less intense in the cooler months too, but the ferries might run less frequently as well. There were a nearly infinite number of food options on the islands, and there were also enough grocery stores and convenience stores on the mainland to make access to food and water no problem. Not counting my small food costs (I ate mostly from gas stations), I spent about $135 total for the three days, on ferry tolls ($3 times six ferries), one night in the motel, and one night in the not-yet-opened B&B. Camping is a possibility, too, so the cost of this trip could easily get lower.

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