Re-Discovering The Outer Banks
Growing up we didn’t have a lot of money. My dad worked in a factory – a blue collar job in the blue-collar city of Cleveland, Ohio. There were layoffs and strikes that my parents had to contend with while raising five children. Though there may not have been a lot of “extra stuff” in our house, there were always the family vacations that first week of August every year.
That week was precious to all seven of us.
As kids, we may not have appreciated what it meant as much as our parents did. We were a family of swimmers and pool rats but each August, the Atlantic’s shoreline was our destination. One year it was Cape Cod. Another it would be Virginia Beach or Chincoteague Island. You get the picture.
But in 1976, just prior to me turning 15, that magical age when you know more than everyone else (especially your un-cool, un-hip parents), my mother announced to the family that she had heard about this place called Kill Devil Hills and that, she affirmed, would be this year’s spot.
“North Carolina?” I recall yelling, first in my head and then out loud. “I thought we always go to the ocean for vacation,” I said disgusted, proving once again that a soon-to-be 15-year-old didn’t exactly know everything there was to know about the world.
But my objections fell on deaf ears and the down payment was made. The family was headed to North Carolina that first week in August during the summer of 1976.
On the ride down from Cleveland, I was bound and determined to hate the place with the bizarre name that sounded like it was out of some ghost story. And besides, my feeling at the time was that North Carolina was a state inhabited by hillbillies so, really, how fun could it be?
While the tarpaper shacks that lined U.S. 158 in Currituck County have since been replaced by gift shops, fast food joints and massive billboards, that stretch of road back then only cemented my feelings that North Carolina was hardly what you could consider a vacation destination.
But I remember that my attitude began to shift dramatically on the Wright Memorial Bridge as we crossed that blue water of the Currituck Sound.
The sand. The windswept beach houses. The vistas that were not impeded by high-rise hotels caught my attention immediately. As my dad pointed our red Mercury station wagon south toward our final destination, a house named “Skipper” on Clark Street at milepost 9, I had already made up my mind that I would someday live here.
Forty-one years later, I still drive by that house and remember how it made me fall in love with the beautiful, magical place called the Outer Banks. Our first day there, I remember running out of the house barefoot across the yard only to make it about six feet before coming to an abrupt halt from what felt like needles nestling into the bottom of my feet.
In Cleveland, there was no such thing as sand spurs, but I learned quickly that a good pair of flip flops, or shoes, would be required on our walk down to that beautiful Atlantic Ocean.
All these years later, I still remember sitting on the Skipper’s front deck, and just staring at the lit up Wright Brothers National Memorial. I had always been an American history buff and being able to see a part of history as I sat on my vacation roost, even for a full-fledged teenager, seemed like the coolest thing ever. Then came The Lost Colony, and Perry Turner’s hilarious performance as Old Tom.
It wasn’t even mid-week and I was already hooked on this place I so wanted to hate.
The laidback lifestyle of the Outer Banks, with its friendly people and southern hospitality, appealed to me even as a nearly 15-year-old. It clicked instantly in my soul.
As I crossed that bridge in the summer of 1976 as that awkward, defiant teenager from Cleveland, Ohio, I was coming home to a place I had never even known existed.
Life has so many niches and finding one’s own can be a lifelong journey. Mine came early – it was the “ribbon of sand” in Dare County. Unfortunately, for various reasons, life has taken me physically away from the Outer Banks, but it has never been able to spiritually take me away.
As I enter the latter part of my fifties, with more of my life in the rear view mirror than outside my windshield, I am as much a part of the Outer Banks as I ever have been.
That ribbon of sand in Dare County remains a large part of who I am and its lure has taken hold of others in the Smrdel family, including my brother, who has lived in Kitty Hawk for 33 years and my mother, who retired to Manteo several years ago.
I’m sure my family is not the only one who has been lured by this island’s beauty. After all, the Outer Banks is a magical place. ♦
Greg Smrdel, while his physical body lives in Ohio (for now), his soul will always remain on the Outer Banks.