The Outer Banks
Though written more than two decades ago, this simply yet descriptively named book by Anthony Bailey could just as easily have been written last year, for many of the issues he broaches -- storms, fishing, off-road vehicles -- remain today.
First published in 1989, and resurfacing in 1999 when the North Carolina Press reprinted it, The Outer Banks on its face is a travelogue.
Mr. Bailey, a Brit who wrote many years for The New Yorker and has several other books to his credit, decided to mark the 400th anniversary of the first English colony in North Carolina by touring the Outer Banks himself. Autumn, he figured, would be "a good time for walking the beaches and breathing the salt air," and so in September 1985 he set off for the Outer Banks and a trip of unspecified duration.
I recently discovered the book in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Visitor Center in Buxton a short distance from the seashore's namesake lighthouse.
Books, I've found, are good mementoes to take home from park visits, for they quickly summon memories when you glance at them on your bookshelf. But more importantly for someone in my line of work, they can be good reference materials, and Mr. Bailey's effort didn't disappoint in that regard.
Fast forward 20-odd years from Mr. Bailey's visit and the national seashore is deep in controversy over small birds, sea-going turtles, and, in some cases, hulking (and not so hulking) pickup trucks. Deep in the controversy is the federal government -- in this case represented by the National Park Service -- with its legally mandated obligation to protect piping plovers, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and several varieties of sea turtles, including the loggerhead, also threatened.
In his book Mr. Bailey draws the Park Service's parent, the Interior Department, as the antagonist of 26 years ago. Within the first 50 pages the author takes us to the northern end of North Carolina's Outer Banks, practically within eyesight of Virginia, to recount the plight of locals who wanted a road stretched from Carova, North Carolina, north to Virginia Beach, Virginia.
The problem was that the Interior Department, through its U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, didn't want to see a paved road for motorized traffic to travel south from Virginia through the 9,062-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and into North Carolina to Carova.
The issue had become even more complicated when, in August 1983, the federal government was given permission to buy up acreage on Currituck Banks from The Nature Conservancy to form the 6,000-acre the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, which lies just south of Carova. The Fish and Wildlife Service then decided that the only way to travel by vehicle through the refuge -- outside of emergencies -- would be on the beach, something controlled by the tides. During emergencies, the agency decided, traffic could utilize a backroad known as the Pole Road.
During a conversation with Norris Austin -- the postmaster of the Corolla post office back in the 1980s -- the author learned how some of the locals felt about the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"A lot of us round here reckon the Department of Interior is trying to depress property values. They're trying to stop the development of the area by keeping people guessing -- is there or isn't there going to be access? I agree it isn't a simple problem -- a lot of people, maybe too many people, want to live here.
"But we believe that Outer Banks residents have certain inherent rights. And the Fish and Wildlife people just aren't logical. They say they're worried about loggerhead turtles, which lay their eggs on the beach. You'd think they'd want to keep traffic off the beach and have an inside trail. If you call Back Bay Wildlife Refuge and say you've found a wounded bird or animal, they'll tell you to put a plastic bag over its head or hold it by the exhaust pipe of your car."
These days the hard feelings and debate over access between locals and federal government employees have moved farther down the Outer Banks, closer to Buxton and Frisco, but that's another story we'll revisit in the near future.
For his part, Mr. Bailey does indeed traverse the entire Outer Banks, from Carova all the way south to the southern tip of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Along the way he shares what he learned of the Wright brothers and their efforts to fly from Kill Devil Hills, weathers Hurricane Gloria at a Wanchese restaurant, climbs the Cape Hatteras Light with a U.S. Coast Guard officer inspecting the structure, visits Cape Point, where the off-road vehicles catch his notice ("On the margin of the beach the vehicles of the surf fishermen are spread out in a thin line as their owners patiently attack the sea, generally standing one foot forward, and sometimes with stomachs well forward, too; a few in swimsuits and one in high rubber wading boots as a vanguard out in the water. I have the impression that Americans want to drive their cars to the very edge of the continent. If Diamond Shoals got shallower, they'd drive out there."), endures the mosquitoes at Portsmouth Village on the northern tip of Cape Lookout, and spends several days hiking the length of Cape Lookout with a newfound friend.
He makes no great declarations about the federal government, or the locals, about the ORVs, or the fishing. Rather, Mr. Bailey crafts a portrait of the Outer Banks as both a place to visit and one to settle on for life.
But along the way he does from time to time tap into the sentiments of many of the locals who make their lives, and their livelihoods, on the Outer Banks, and the frustrations that inevitably arise over land management.
Evan Wilson, at the time the general secretary of the Wanchese fishermen's association, drives that final point home to Mr. Bailey during a discussion about building jetties to keep Oregon Inlet open.
"Sure, they make mistakes," Mr. Wilson says of anglers. "They don't always do the right thing -- but they make a living out of their understanding of wind and tide. Fishermen were here before the National Park Service, before the condo developers. Fishing is just about the only thing -- apart from house building -- that keeps this area going in the non-tourist season. You hear people say it would be cheaper to give Wanchese fishermen a million bucks apiece rather than build the jetties -- let the old ones die rich, and let the young ones sell insurance or goggle at computers! Some people think food grows in supermarkets. They look down on men who work with their hands. Well, I say an American has the right to try to earn a living doing what his father did, in the place where his father lived."
The controversies seemingly have changed little on the Outer Banks since Mr. Bailey made his grand tour. In truth, they've only moved south. In that regard, his book provides some historical context for what's transpiring now between the National Park Service at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and those who believe the agency is greatly overreaching in its efforts to protect piping plovers and sea turtles.
But the book also touches on what makes the Outer Banks both a great destination and a wonderful home. It's that affection that can quickly bond visitors to the Outer Banks that grips Mr. Bailey when, after hiking the length of Cape Lookout, he considers moving on to Beaufort, North Carolina, for a night in a motel with a hot shower, a comfortable bed, and no sand.
"But at the moment, looking out at the arrowhead of tumbling waters, turning up my face to a sprinkle of rain, I dig fingers and toes into the fine sand, anchoring myself to the Banks through this gritty contact and the memory-making power of sensation, however transient. Although the Banks end here, I don't want them to slip away."
Four hundred years after the first English colonists struggled to gain a foothold on the coast of North Carolina, British writer Anthony Bailey made a journey along these same barrier islands. In this popular book, highly acclaimed since 1989, he combines keen observations of the Outer Banks' natural splendor with a genuine appreciation of the people who live there.
Whether describing his experience waiting out a hurricane in a Wanchese restaurant, his mosquito-plagued visit to an abandoned village on Portsmouth Island, or his trip to the top of Cape Hatteras lighthouse with a Coast Guard lieutenant, Bailey captures the spirit of a unique and much-loved region, its history, and especially its people.