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Report From Cape Hatteras: It's The End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine

Jaqueline and I departed Cape Charles, Virginia for Buxton, North Carolina about noon after enjoying yet another insanely tasty breakfast at the Cape Charles House.

A couple who had checked in the night before joined us at the breakfast table. They were on their way from Florida headed across the Chesapeake Bay to a cabin in the mountains of Appalachia. The boyfriend mentioned he sailed. I asked him about the kind of equipment he had, curious because some of the best practical, off grid technology has been developed for people living on boats and in RVs. He said he had a water desalinator to make drinking water. However, he casually mentioned he could not use it once he entered harbors because the waters were generally so polluted that it damaged the device.

Hearing this unexpected morsel of information at the start of a new day was a jolt to the brain. Smack, there it was again, pollution from runoff. We did not have to look for the story. The story found us.

Sign behind wild rosemary, Outer Banks, North Carolina

How serendipitous to meet this couple who opened our eyes even further to such an important message about the immediate danger to our drinking water and the environment and the coastline of the Atlantic. The gentleman's parting words before heading to the hills: "Those living alone off shore, need to come home eventually and, no matter how much you try to cut yourself off from the mainland, you're part of an ocean of humanity."

We met up with the nor'easter headed up the coast as we made our way to Kitty Hawk, yes, where the Wright Brothers first took flight. The weather on our way south deteriorated from subtle gray calm to a full fledged storm with little transition. With Lady Luck on our side, we made it safely to Buxton before the tempest. Happily, we were safely off the road when the worst weather kicked in.

Most inlanders like us would consider the weather somewhat extreme. But, I soon learned from the locals that this kind of weather and driving conditions, literally, comes with the territory.

Route 12, the Main Road on Cape Hatteras, during a recent storm

Somewhat surprising to us, the locals did not seem to think it was all that severe. Their take was curious, to say the least. Sunny, no it wan't. But, a hurricane with evacuation warning, not yet! Driving over water slickened roads, slowly, carefully, not wanting to take any unnecessary chances, our trusty C-MAX Energi Plug-In Hybrid fared well. It was solid. This "typical" Outer Bank's weather was something to definitely learn about and get used to.

Navigating water covered thoroughfares that seem impassable has become more and more common for Outer Bankers who seem to just go with the flow, pun intended. Whole parts of the main road traversing the Banks in fact have been permanently washed away, forcing the building of bridges to connect what land remains.

Dave and Jan, the proprietors of the Cape Hatteras Motel, warmly greeted us upon our arrival, despite the moody weather, with their sunny personalities. The fact that Dave's family had owned the place for almost 50 years made us feel like we were in good hands.

Dave and Jan at Cape Hatteras Motel with pumpkins we gifted to them that were grown on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Dave and Jan warned us to park our car on the bay side of the main road. The Motel property covers both sides of the thoroughfare and we were gratefully cautioned to stay clear of the churning ocean side. When we checked in, the storm seemed to have quieted down, as if the worst was over. The sun was periodically peeking out from behind the clouds, fooling us into believing the storm had passed. Ah, wishful thinking!

View of Ocean Front Buildings at Cape Hatteras Motel from across the road

We were slightly startled upon discovering that the ocean was, literally, flowing underneath the building we were staying in. Hmm, this was serious stuff that required a moment to absorb. We could only wonder what this place must be like when a "real storm" hits. To find out, we only had to look at a picture hanging right in front of us in the office which depicted damage resulting from a 1993 hurricane.

In 1993 flooding wiped out a large swath of the Motel's property on the ocean side. Whole buildings were swept to sea along with the ocean side pool. Is it just a matter of time before the building we we were staying in would meet a similar fate?

View of Ocean from underneath a building at Cape Hatteras Motel

Due to the unpredictable weather, Jacqueline and I decided to stay close to "home" for the two nights we spent in Buxton before heading to Ocracoke Island. For most of our first day and night, we enjoyed some down time in our two level, two bedroom, two bath, ocean front suite.

We hunkered down for the night after gathering supplies at Conners, the local supermarket. The town was super friendly. Immediately upon entering the family owned retailer, a cordial voice offered assistance. We were probably looking a bit scattered from our journey, like a fish out of water, another pun intended. Still, we felt welcome, our new/old friend assuring us: "You just let us know if you can't find what you want. We have everything from PB & J to caviar."

Interior Ocean Front Suite at Cape Hatteras Motel

Till late in the evening, Jacqueline and I spoke about the way the current weather and environment helped us to see how much we take permanence for granted. The Pope was on TV at the United Nations calling for joint action to combat climate change. He was talking to us as if we were there. We ruminated about how important it was to live with purpose and in the moment and to be aware of your intent and how our actions affect ourselves and others.

Maybe it was easy to get so philosophical because of the intensity of the ocean waves and the heavy rains which came and went, stopping sometimes for an hour, then coming back with such ferocity you thought it would last forever.

Sunset View of Ocean from Balcony at Cape Hatteras Motel

Standing on our balcony was trippy. Whether it was day or night, it felt like we were on the bridge of a ship. The water was not "over there", but underneath us, around us, everywhere. Yes, there was great beauty to behold, but the sheer power of it was palpable. Thousands of ships have been lost off this coast during storms which is why the area is called "The Graveyard of the Atlantic."

We felt somewhat insignificant, staring out at the end of a limitless world beyond our comprehension.

On the second day of our stay in Buxton, we cruised slowly up road to Salvo, a small collection of homes about twenty minutes from Buxton. The water had receded enough to safely proceed, but you could see how the sand had encroached on sides of the road.

Route 12 after a storm, Cape Hatteras Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina

While walking to the beach, we met a wedding party. The couple had just exchanged vows in a little church. They were fortunate to find a sanctuary from the storm for the high winds and rain had prevented the ceremony from proceeding as originally planned at the ocean's shore. In between rain showers and before the reception, they did walk onto the beach and we had a moment to speak with them.

Wedding Party walking to Beach in Salvo, North Carolina

We learned that groom and bride met while working with endangered species. Her specialty was polar bears. I joked: "You had me at polar bear." The groom recounted that he was recently in Alaska working with the local community to prepare for wildlife rescue when an oil spill occurs. He was one of a select group of experts employed to minimize the impact on local animals and their support system when there was an oil spill or other disaster. The oil and gas companies, he told us, pay for this work. BAM! There it was again, another story about the environment unexpectedly appearing during our trip.

I mused that it seemed a major irony that the oil and gas companies say drilling is safe, but pay in advance for such work, knowing that spills will happen. It is a fate accompli.

Another couple at the wedding party was from Raleigh, North Carolina. When we mentioned to them we were writing a story, without any prompting, they brought up the proposed drilling off the coast of North Carolina and summed up their thoughts in one word: “Crazy!”

Connecting with these souls on a wind swept beach was another sign. We were here for a reason. To tell this story. A daisy chain of good energy was being connected.

Wedding Couple on beach, Salvo, North Carolina

Upon returning to Buxton from Salvo, the storm had picked up again. It was dark. We parked safely in the lot nearest the motel office. However, across the street we had to wade through over a foot of water to get into our town house. Though built 13 feet above sea level, we wondered if that was high enough during bigger storm surges.

A guest staying next door informed us that the ferry to Ocracoke Island, our next planned destination, had been canceled that day. They had driven to the ferry only to turn back for another night in Buxton. Flooding on the island was preventing cars from driving the 13 miles from where the ferry landed to the small Ocracoke Village where the Island inhabitants lived and visitors stayed.

Jacqueline was determined we would get to Ocracoke the next day. It was meant to be. The rain would stop just long enough for a few ferries to get people across. The next high tide was not till later that night. The water would pull back just enough for us to get through. The forecast was not certain, but we had to get to Ocracoke.

Parking Lot at Cape Hatteras Motel

When we left Buxton to go to the ferry, the ocean was still flowing under the ocean-side buildings. The parking lot on that side of the road was completely flooded. Dave was digging sand out of a storm drain, nonchalantly, as if he had done this so may times before. One of his crew operated a backhoe, pushing the ever-encroaching sand brought up by the ocean's surge out of the road so cars could pass. A typical day in this neighborhood.

And then, magic time! Just as we were packing the car to leave, the sun burst through the clouds with a celestial ray. Jan emerged from the office, smiling, snapping pictures to Instagram so their concerned friends, family and past guests can see that they are, once again, okay.

Jan beamed like the sun, making me feel she and Dave understood the fragile and precious and tenuous nature of what they had. Perhaps, without wanting to openly admit, there is the constant fear that the delicate spit of sand that is still the Outer Banks, that is Cape Hatteras, will one day be swept away in a sea of change, whether it be due to climate change or not.

Jan and Dave saying goodbye to us as we left for Ocracoke Island

We found our inner selves on the Outer Banks. Go there while you still have the chance.

Frankly, I would not want to be there during a hurricane. But, even in inclement weather, like what we experienced, the end of the world feeling of the Banks will lift your spirits and make you feel fine.

Next stop Ocracoke Ferry! As my grandmother used to say, “we're gonna get there, come hell or high water!”

Text Copyright 2015 Paul E McGinniss. Photos Copyright 2015 Jacqueline Lyoussi.

NOTE: This post was written as part of the series about our Eco Road trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina from New York City. Thanks to Ford Motor Company for lending us the C-MAX Energi Plug-In Hybrid for the journey. Many thanks as well to our hosts along the way: The Cape Charles House, the Cape Hatteras Motel and the Anchorage Inn. And, thanks to Kerry Allison, Executive Director, Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission and Sundae Horn, Director of Travel and Tourism, Ocracoke Civic and Business Association. And, many thanks to my travel companion, Jacqueline Lyoussi, who took so many great pictures and my partners Joe and Chris who help edit the text and images for New York Green Advocate.

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