Stairs at Hatteras Lighthouse. There are 240 of 'em.
Lake Mattamuskeet, a big honkin' lake
Lake Mattamuskeet, a big honkin' lake
I took a three day weekend and hopped into my friend Cheryl's space-age Toyota Hybrid and together we went out to see the watery parts of the world, or at least the sort-of damp parts of North Carolina. While exploring Google maps, I couldn't help but notice that there's a great big chunk of land on the inner banks that has no towns of any size. Once you leave Washington, NC and head east on 264, you cross about 90 miles of highway with no Walmarts, McDonald's, or even a chain grocery store. Also, no traffic. There was a stretch of highway between Englehard and Stumpy point where we didn't pass a single car going the other way. Nor were there any driveways, mobile homes, or any other signs of civilization save for the highway itself. We passed a town sign for "Leechville." There were no houses anywhere to be seen. I assume the place had plenty of leeches, because it fell somewhat short on the ville. It is good for the soul to spend time in such emptiness.
The highlight of the 264 journey has to be Lake Mattamuskeet. This is the largest natural lake in North Carolina, almost 18 miles long. There are places where you can stand and not see the far shore. (In the photo above, the trees you see are an island... beyond the island, it was water as far as you could see.) Almost every other significant body of water in North Carolina is cluttered by development, but Mattamuskeet is mostly untouched. The southern shore is a federal wildlife sanctuary. The north is presumably open for development, but there's nothing there. No hotels, no restaurants, just miles and miles of open space. We did see one boat ramp, but never saw a boat on the water. One reason the lake is probably undeveloped is that it's shallow--the average depth is 2 feet. I imagine this limits the use of larger boats. I also can't help but think that mosquitoes probably rule the land later in the year, though we weren't bothered on our trip. The wildlife on the wildlife reserve were ridiculously helpful in showing themselves. We saw deer, otters, egrets, herons, snakes, and turtles, lots and lots of turtles. Also, we saw the tracks on the shore that just had to come from a bear. I definitely want to return with binoculars and a better camera. Also, a fishing pole.
For more pictures of wildlife, check out Cheryl's flickr from the trip.
Manteo lies at the far end of 264. It's the start of the "touristy" area, a gateway to the Outer Banks. But, Manteo was still nice. One thing we really appreciated was the work they had put into their public spaces. The waterfront is all one long boardwalk with plenty of places to sit great views. It was very inviting and open. You felt like they really wanted people to enjoy the town.
The following day, we drove down Highway 12, from Nags Head to Hatteras. This is not empty space, devoid of humans. But... it's not without its charm. And, the Hatteras lighthouse is again open to visitors. We climbed to the top. It was something of a workout, but totally worth it for the view.
Afterwards, we took the ferry over to Ocracoke. Ocracoke was lovely--very empty on the northern parts of the island. And, the town itself is quite charming. However, the public space is the exact opposite of Manteo. Every square inch of the waterfront is private property. It's really tough to find a space to stand to watch the sunset. All the people we met were really friendly, but all the "no trespassing" and "keep out" signs gave the town a slightly hostile vibe. The highlight of the island was the star gazing. We drove back up to middle of the island. There were no man made lights for miles. The night was a little hazy, but even with the humidity the stars popped out with spectacular clarity, nearly free of light pollution. We had a guide to constellations and were pleased to spot a half dozen or so. Normally, when I look up at the night sky here in Hillsborough, I'm lucky to even see the Big Dipper.
Monday, we left Ocracoke on the ferry to Cedar Island. It's a two hour boat ride. For about an hour of the ride, you can't see land in any direction. It rained, alas, and the wind was fierce, so we spend most of the ride in the car. Cedar Island had a beach that was one of the uglier beaches I've ever seen. Lots of trash, and dead jellyfish everywhere. But, the drive out of town through the wildlife preserve is gorgeous, just miles and miles of marsh.
When we finally reached Beaufort, it felt strange to see fast food restaurants and grocery stores again. Beaufort isn't a big city, but it felt like a metropolis after three days spent on 264 and Highway 12. A few hours later we were back on I-40, and the star-starved skies of Raleigh-Durham. But, it's nice to know that the wilderness, and the stars, are still out there.