Ferries, bridges, tunnels – and cops (2012.3)

As the Little Beast (LB) rolls off the Cedar Island ferry we can see that this part of North Carolina is buckling under the weight of a post Bush – GFC fuelled patriotism, and the island sea town of Ocracoke is bearing the full brunt. It’s the fourth of July, and we’re wondering aloud about the extent of tonight’s fireworks display when a local leans into our conversation and informs us that there will be no fireworks this year, or any year soon.

LB11Wind sock flags in Ocracoke, North Carolina

We tentatively enquire as to what could possibly prevent fireworks on America’s biggest day of the year, and in a hushed tone that Americans prefer when delivering bad news or discussing poor hygiene, we’re informed that several years ago the fireworks delivery truck exploded, causing injury and death.

Feeling like we’ve somehow wandered onto the set of the Simpsons (and we have our very own version of Lisa “lion heart”) we listen as the rest of the story unfolds. It turns out this tragedy couldn’t have been scripted better (or worse) than Matt Groening himself.

On July 4th 2009, the delivery truck arrived by ferry and parked at the Ocracoke
terminal. This day provided the perfect storm for disaster – forty degree heat, sub par transport and storage systems, and lack of attention to duty of care. A few minutes later came the critical moment – boom! Up it went, taking lives, and a few limbs with it. The results of the investigation affected regulations regarding fireworks on the island, and there have (officially) been none since that day.

With this not so happy thought fresh in our minds, we wander off into the heart of quaint Ocracoke and find a town that is, in fact, happily going about its business.

LB14Fourth of July festivities, Ocracoke

There’s fun for all the family at the festive little marina, which among other activities, offers us the once in a lifetime chance to make a T-shirt imprinted with a freshly caught fish dipped in paint, watch crabs devour a massive tuna carcass, and drink mint and lime iced tea. Each is disgusting in its own way, but we take the memories away with us like little trinkets on a shelly holiday bracelet.

Curving up and away from its only settlement, the 15 mile island is as thin and straight as the crusts cut off an all American PB and J sandwich. Heading north to the Hatteras Island ferry, our line of sight barely extends beyond a swampy coast on our left and wind beaten sand dunes to our right, in all only a couple of hundred metres across at any point. Natural isolation and a simple rustic charm makes the island an appealing prospect for an extended de-programming.

LB13Hatteras Island heading north

We’re gradually heading into beach “Noddy Land”, with rows of dwellings in shades of duck egg blue, yellow and salmon, all of which look like the house owned by the little old woman who lived in a shoe – just 10 times bigger. They are a jumble of doors, windows and attics jutting out of all corners, many looking like they will be devoured by the sea at its earliest convenience.


Outer Banks opulence

Roanoke Island is our destination, though I’m yet to tell the girls the story of the early settlers who vanished without a trace more than 400 years go. If those poor souls were lucky, the mystery can be explained away as a combination of hunger, homesickness and bad timing. Or there’s Seth GrahameSmith‘s version, in which a cunning vampire eats them one by one.

Fireworks in stereo, thanks to the nearby town of Manteo and the popular Jeanette’s Pier, is a great way to end the day as an eerily unnerving bronze full moon slides in and out of wispy clouds. Without the young Abe Lincoln to protect us, we’re at the mercy of any creatures of the night. A strange rustling in the reeds near our viewing platform turns out to be a fellow RV-er’s poodle, but it gives us all a fright nonetheless. I note in the dim light that it does have a pretty mean set of teeth on it.

The morning after Fourth of July celebrations is the wrong time to head off on a pancake mission, and every greasy spoon on the Nags Head strip is packed with bleary eyed revellers looking to hook up with a plate of fried varmint, bacon and a strong coffee. We settle for take-away scones, and steer our chariot of steel and laminate towards our next stop. Unless frozen yogurt and cheap t-shirts are your number one priority in life, the Wright Brothers Memorial is the prize attraction of this region.

LB15Firestorm over the Wright Brothers Memorial

Kill Devil Hills sounds like the birthplace of heavy metal, not the site of man’s first powered flight, but a friendly National Park volunteer assures us we are in the right place as she waves us through the boom gate.

In the excellent museum we trace the story of the brothers, from their early beginnings in Ohio and their fascination with aerodynamics, through years of trial and error, legal and patent headaches, and struggle for recognition as the founders of flight.

Unfortunately for the Wright Brothers, at that precise moment an infinitely more compelling situation is playing out in the skies above – dark smoke clouds billowing thousands of feet into the air signal the arrival of the apocalypse, or at the very least a really big burn-off gone wrong. History can wait – it won’t change – and cameras are turned to the fast approaching smoke storm, giving me a quiet moment to enjoy with the highlight of the memorial – a set of bronze statues celebrating THAT moment, when everything I love and take for granted become possible.

LB16A bronzed figure captures a moment in history

The Chesapeake Bay crossing is one of man’s great engineering achievements, spanning almost 30kms of connecting bridges and tunnels that allow us to stay on the coast, saving days of driving and unwanted urban encounters with Washington DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Though to be fair Baltimore is kinda cute and I never did get to see “Miss Baltimore Crabs” when I was there in ’92.

The heat persists, making traditional sight-seeing difficult, so we admire much of Virginia’s Delmarva Peninsula and Eastern Shores from the air conditioned comfort of the little beast, as pines trees are gradually replaced by oak and elms. We’ve left the South and have arrived in the North.

After a quiet night on Chincoteague Island, we stick with our plan to stay on the coastal route, driving through the kitsch 60s resort strip of Ocean City, with it’s rows of art deco high rises, ferris wheels and boardwalks.

From Lewes we have our last encounter with the sea, our third ferry ride is a pleasant hour and a fifteen minutes across Delaware Bay to Cape May at the tip of New Jersey, accompanied by playful dolphins and a welcome breeze.

LB17Dolphins accompany us across Delaware Bay

Our New York apartment and all the wonders of the Upper West Side await, so we push ahead, skipping the Atlantic City strip and Jersey Shore, which, if anything like the 4 seconds I saw of the TV show of the same name, is a tactic that will keep our respective IQs at their current levels.

Working our way through the labyrinth of New Jersey’s freeway system, the pressure mounts as we must find a) the RV drop off office, and b) more importantly, fuel. Finally, as we near our final destination I see a gas station, and tear up rubber and asphalt crossing 7 lanes and leaving a 12 car pile up in my wake…

Well not quite, but as I jump down from the RV cab and inspect the fuel pumps, I notice that a New Jersey highway patrol vehicle has pulled into the station and positioned itself across our starboard bow. It’s clear soon after that the officer within was none too impressed with my maneuver. The ensuing conversation went like this:

“Licence and registration.” (He’s all business)

“Oh hi, yeah, we’ll what happened was…” (I try to lighten the mood)

“LICENCE AND REGISTRATION”. (OK so he’s not in the mood for chit chat.)

He radios in our RV’s registration, checks over my Victorian drivers licence and eventually seems satisfied we are not wanted for any other crimes against humanity. Just this one.

Finally he lets out a large sigh, and says, “so your from Australia? Look do you realise how dangerous that was.” (He’s going to let me off)

“Officer in hindsight I agree, in fact in 1641 miles – with less than one lousy mile to go – it’s the only remotely stupid thing I’ve done on our entire trip” (There it is, I’ve done it – lied to a Policeman)

“OK look, can you just be careful please – take it easy.” (Phew).

LB18New Jersey’s finest

The RV drop off point is just around the corner, but its enough time for us to see sign posts mentioning that were actually in some kind of designated “Safety Lane Zone” and that not only are regular fines doubled, serious driving offences attract a penalty of $2000 fine or “30 days”.

The thought of 30 days free accommodation is tempting, but I think of the leafy green of Central Park, the hustle of Broadway and the decadence of Fairway’s market – plus I’m pretty sure they don’t have EJ’s Crunchy French Toast in prison, so on this occasion I must graciously decline.

Maybe next time.

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