Having moved to North Carolina nearly nine years ago, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that we have not yet traveled to the Outer Banks, the string of barrier islands off the eastern coast. I had been there once, 37 years ago: I had just finished writing my dissertation and distributed it to my doctoral advisory committee, and – for the first time since I had started graduate school – truly had nothing to do! So during that short period before my scheduled final defense, I visited the Outer Banks for the first time. All I’ve got left to remind me about that trip are some 35 mm slides packed in a box . . . somewhere.
It’s clearly time for a re-visit, but timing and commitments have conspired against our plans for that. Rather than wait for another window when I would truly have nothing to do, I seized an unexpected opportunity while Virginia was unable to travel with me and drove our motorhome to the Outer Banks for a short solo exploratory trip. I confess that I was a little nervous to see what might have happened to this area during the last four decades, but much of it has avoided commercialization thanks to a combination of geography, foresight, and the U.S. National Park Service.
From the mainland of North Carolina, the Outer Banks can be accessed by only two roads. I took the shortest route from home (about a 3½-hour drive), connecting at the middle of the island chain. Nearly all the RV campground opportunities are on the southern half of the chain, as well as the entire Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which has been protected from development for the last 80 years. The seashore itself is open to the public, and miles of unspoiled beaches are visually separated from the main access road (NC Highway 12) by large sand dunes. So I decided to drive south for about an hour on Highway 12 to Frisco Woods Campround on the Pamlico Sound side of Hatteras Island. Although there are a number of campgrounds on the Atlantic side, dunes block the view of the shoreline. I got lucky at Frisco Woods and was able to reserve a campsite on the edge of the water, with good timing for a couple of spectacular sunsets and even a view of the Milky Way a few hours later.
The bicycle in the photo above is new, and it’s worth a little explanation. It’s a Specialized Turbo electric bike with a rear hub motor. The design is “pedal assist,” so the motor helps propel the bike based on sensing torque from your own pedaling effort. In other words, the harder you pedal, the more the motor will contribute to your forward speed. Because the motor is silent and engages seamlessly, you have the sense that you are riding a normal hybrid bike – but propelled by the legs of a professional athlete. You can set your personal fitness goal by dialing back the motor assist, giving you the option of a more vigorous workout and more miles from a single battery charge. When set to the motor’s maximum thrust, the net effect seems to be about 35-40% greater speed and distance for the same amount of pedaling effort. With a fully charged battery, the range is about 35 miles when using the maximum motor power setting.
All of this may make it easier to understand why this is the perfect bike for exploring unknown territory. For sightseeing, this takes the fear out of tackling new terrain – uphills are leveled out and headwinds are neutralized by the motor’s contribution. My regular road bike’s narrow tires limits me to paved roads and trails, but this heavier (and faster) electric bike is equipped with wider knobby tires that can accommodate unexpected gravel roads and unpaved trails. Most importantly, the electric bike allows me to go much further in the same amount of time with the same amount of pedaling energy, and that expands exploration range.
My bicycling at the Outer Banks is a great example of how helpful this can be. One of the most famous features of these islands is the steady strong wind, the main reason why the Wright Brothers chose this area to test their designs for gliders and airplanes. But the same wind that made the first powered flight possible also creates a relentless headwind for bicycling. Still, I was able to ride a 43½-mile roundtrip between my campsite and the village of Ocracoke, a trip I never would have planned on my standard road bike knowing that half of it would be against a steady 15-20 mph headwind.
That bike trip to Ocracoke was the highlight of my short Outer Banks visit. I rode to the town of Hatteras and took a one-hour ferry ride to the tip of Ocracoke Island, which is also part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Since the island can only be accessed by ferry, there is virtually no traffic, and this part of Highway 12 feels almost like a dedicated bicycle path. I stopped a couple of times to cross over the tall dunes at beach access points, the only way to see the Atlantic Ocean as I traveled the length of the island. Even though it was a summer weekend, this is what a typical Ocracoke beach looked like:
At the opposite end from that ferry port is Ocracoke Village, the only inhabited area on the 16-mile-long island. The streets are lined with charming inns, shops, galleries, and restaurants, and I stopped for an outdoor lunch at SmacNally’s, a harborside restaurant. Then I got back on the road, this time with the wind at my back. That was a good feeling, since I had already used up more than half my battery; I dialed back the motor and was able to conserve enough battery power for the ride back to my campsite.
Usually, this sort of sightseeing is done by car, and the vast majority of people who own a Class A motorhome travel with a towable car (or "toad"). In fact, I think the most frequent question I'm asked by campground neighbors is "when are you going to buy a toad?" After this experience with the electric bike, it is easy to imagine never dealing with the hassles of towing a car as well as the costs associated with the towing gear, maintenance, insurance, and depreciation. While I’m sure I will sometimes want to rent a car at my destination, I found it easy to use the bike for exploring the surrounding area (including the lighthouses shown below), checking out other possible campgrounds, and making a grocery store run.
Of course, this was just a quick trip, the weather was nearly perfect, and I didn't have to do any nighttime traveling. Despite the short time frame, the Outer Banks provided a refreshing change of scenery, some great outdoor exercise, a bit of a mental break, and a taste for what we might be able to plan when Virginia and I have more time. Hopefully that can happen this Fall . . . I certainly don’t intend to wait another 37 years to return.