- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

Piracy on the high seas, the birth of aviation, the unsolved disappearance of 110 persons. All true historical events spanning a period of 400 years. What do they have in common? They all happened in a place that’s just a five-hour drive from Washington — the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

One April night, I was home watching “Space Cowboys.” Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland play four old astronauts who con the National Aeronautics and Space Administration into letting them take one last space flight to fix a damaged Russian satellite. It’s far-fetched but entertaining — with the boys orbiting thousands of miles above Earth.

Right after the movie, I turned on the TV news, and there was the story of a millionaire who had become the first paying space tourist — probably the first of many to come in the long future ahead. Suddenly it hit me that mankind’s love affair with flying has really come a long way in a very short period of time. In less than 100 years, we have gone from the first airplane flight on Dec. 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, N.C. — which lasted just 12 seconds and went just 120 feet — to sending space stations into orbit.

What many of us here in the nation’s capital fail to appreciate is that the place where it all began is such a short distance away. I decided I needed to take a trip down to the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks.

During the past 400 years, the Outer Banks — a string of narrow islands running along the coast of North Carolina — have provided the backdrop for some of the wildest events in our nation’s history. Not only were the Wright brothers there, but so were Blackboard the pirate and English explorer Sir Francis Drake. In addition, one of the biggest missing-persons cases in history occurred near there — the Lost Colony.

To get there, take Interstate 95 south, go east on Interstate 64 to Virginia 168 south, which becomes U.S. 158 south, and the Chesapeake Parkway.

I checked into the Comfort Inn in Kill Devil Hills, and as the sun started sinking in the west, I went out and walked on the beach. One of the first things you notice on the banks is the wind, which was one of the reasons the Wright brothers went there to try out their experimental airplanes.

It seemed the whole week I was there at least a 5- or 10-knot wind was blowing all the time. This breeze is a saving grace in the summer. No matter how hot it gets in July and August, you usually can count on the breeze to keep you from feeling too hot.

After my stroll, I dined at Kelly’s restaurant on Croatan Highway, the main drag running from Corolla in the north all the way down to Hatteras in the south. Kelly’s is at milepost 10.5, in Nags Head. (All locations along the banks are designated not by building numbers, but by their proximity to the nearest milepost.) Kelly’s is reasonably priced, and the flounder is superb.

The next morning, I drove over to the Wright Brothers National Monument and its museum, built at the very place where the brothers took their first four flights on the sands of Kitty Hawk. The sand has been replaced with grass, but four stone markers along a narrow runway indicate the landing points of the first flights.

Inside the museum are replicas of the planes they designed and built, with mannequins of the brothers onboard the planes.

Until you see them, you don’t realize what an insane thing the Wright brothers did. Here are these two guys, wearing dress pants and white shirts with collars, lying prone on these winged contraptions with no seats, trying to get up into the air.

The amazing thing is, they did it. They would have worn their derbies while flying if it hadn’t been for the wind, 84-year-old National Park Service volunteer Tom Curtin told me.

Mr. Curtin said another reason the Wright brothers came to Kitty Hawk was its remoteness. Competitors were constantly spying on them back home in Dayton, Ohio. The race to be the first in the air was fierce. So Orville and Wilbur decided to pick a wide-open place on the Carolina sand dunes where they could see if anyone was sneaking up on them.

Outside the museum is a re-creation of the shack in which they lived and also a wooden hangar where the planes were kept. The museum also has a portrait gallery of aviation greats, including Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and many others. The bookstore has copies of authoritative books on aviation in general and the Wright brothers in particular.

Wednesday’s 100th anniversary celebration of the Wright brothers’ first flight promises to be a huge event, with participants coming from all over the world.

Though it was the Wrights who had inspired me to visit the Outer Banks, other attractions soon began calling.

All along the Outer Banks from north to south are small villages — all with interesting names such as Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Whalebone, Hatteras, Frisco and Ocracoke. The stories of how some of these places got their names are fascinating.

For example, back in the 18th century, land pirates operated out of what is now known as Nags Head. These pirates, working from the shoreline, lured unsuspecting boats into shallow water and reefs and then rushed out on foot or in small boats to board and plunder the cargo onboard.

It is said that one of the land pirates’ favorite ruses involved hanging a ship’s green running lights on the head of a horse (a “nag’s head”). They would walk the horse along the beach, and the unsuspecting captain of the vessel out on the water would think he was headed for open seaway, only to find his ship caught in rocks and to be knee-deep in marauding pirates.

Kill Devil Hills got its name, the story goes, from the same pirates, who were fond of their demon rum. They would go up into the sand dunes to meet for rum parties, telling their wives they were going up to the hills to “kill the devil rum.”

One of the benefits of being there off-season, in addition to the cheaper hotel rates, is the absence of traffic. In season, it is difficult to get anywhere along the banks, and most vacationers stick pretty much to the area where they have rented a cottage. However, with no cars on the road, it was an easy drive for me to go from Kill Devil Hills to the northernmost part of the banks to visit the lighthouse at Corolla.

A lighthouse, any lighthouse, has a mystique about it, and Corolla’s is no exception. Seen from a distance in daylight, it seems to stand like a giant guardian angel, a friendly big brother looking out over the ocean. At night, it sends its protective beam of light over the water, helping provide safe passage for lonely sea travelers.

I climbed the black spiraling metal steps that corkscrew up the inside of the lighthouse, and along the way passed windows, each one higher, with the view outside becoming broader and broader.

At the top window, I looked out high over the beach and the ocean. The tiny houses below seemed like toy models in a department-store Christmas display window.

After the lighthouse, drive around the back and go down a small dirt road, and you will find the Corolla Village Barbecue. It’s just a small carryout in a wooden shack, but there you will find true, mouthwatering, genuine North Carolina barbecue. It’s not a place where the tourists go. Bring cash. They don’t take credit cards. Highly recommended.

Driving south from Corolla, you pass through Duck and Sanderling. This area, of course, is where you come if you want the elite version of the Outer Banks. The Sanderling Inn is one of the area’s best resorts, with very nice rooms and a great restaurant.

The next day, I drove down Croatan Highway to Manteo and west on Washington Baum Bridge to Roanoke Island and the Lost Colony — the site of the big missing-persons case.

In 1586, Sir Walter Raleigh, an English adventurer, courtier and poet, got permission from Queen Elizabeth I to establish a colony in the New World on Roanoke Island in Virginia. A colony of 110 persons, including 17 women and nine children, was established on the island. Life was hard for the colonists, but in August 1587, the first English child was born in the New World — a girl named Virginia Dare. She was the granddaughter of John White, an artist appointed governor of the colony.

Shortages of supplies and hostile relations with the Indians on the island caused White to return soon to England for help. Because England was at war with Spain, it took White three years to obtain passage on a privateering voyage for the return trip.

When he got back to Roanoke, the entire settlement in the lonely woods had vanished without a trace. All of the houses had been taken down. A wooden palisade had been constructed. Mysteriously, White’s party found the word “Croatoan,” the name of a nearby island, carved on a palisade.

White wanted to go to Croatoan, but low provisions and the loss of sea anchors in a storm, plus the impatience of the privateers, prevented him from going there. Raleigh made several attempts to locate the lost colonists between 1590 and 1602, but no trace was ever found.

All of this is described beautifully and re-enacted in authentic detail in an outdoor theater at the Lost Colony National Historical Site on Roanoke.

Going back over the Washington Baum Bridge the next day, I drove south on Croatan Highway, headed for Hatteras. One of the most inspiring parts of the drive is crossing the vast watery expanse of Oregon Inlet over a beautiful bridge and causeway.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the largest on the Outer Banks and another place worth spending a day. The lighthouse actually was moved inland last year because of beach erosion. It took a year to move it inch by inch, day by day, a remarkable feat of engineering. I didn’t stay long at Hatteras, though, because my destination that day was farther south — Ocracoke, the home of Blackbeard the Pirate.

They say Ocracoke was named by Blackbeard. On the morning of Nov. 22, 1718, the day Blackbeard was killed in a sea battle with Lt. Robert Maynard of the British navy, the pirate, anxious for the battle to begin, cried, “O crow, cock; o crow, cock,” pleading with the rooster onboard to announce the light of day.

Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, had a remarkable pirate career, starting in Jamaica in the early 1700s. In 1718, he sailed up the East Coast of America. Along the way, he encountered several ships that joined forces with him. By the time he reached Charleston, S.C., he had nearly 700 men under his command. He blockaded Charleston Harbor for a week, stopping all ships from coming and going.

He was granted a pardon later that year and bought a house in Bath, N.C., and was married by the governor to Mary Ormond, his 14th wife. He committed one more act of piracy, however, and the governor of Virginia sent Maynard to capture him.

A bloody sea battle ensued near Teach’s Hole, Blackbeard’s hideout. Blackbeard received 20 sword wounds and five gunshot wounds before he was killed. Maynard ordered his head cut off and his body thrown overboard. His head was tied to the bowsprit of his sloop, the Adventure, and taken back to Virginia.

Ocracoke Island today is a quiet, remote little place whose 700 inhabitants make their living either from the water or from tourism. You can get there only by ferry, and the half-hour ride is free. The village of Ocracoke, at the island’s southernmost end, has a few motels, bed-and-breakfast inns, souvenir shops and marinas. You can park your car in a free lot and rent a boat and go out on the water or spend the day walking around its quaint old roads.

That April day was perfect for strolling. Back Road led me to Teach’s Hole, a tourist attraction with a Blackbeard exhibit and pirate souvenirs and literature for sale.

Walking farther down Back Road and turning off another side road, I came with surprise upon the Ocracoke Elementary School and Community Library. I stood by the side of the road under a shady tree, sort of knocked out by the simplicity of the scene. The schoolhouse was a modest wooden building, the kind you might see in a movie set in America’s past. It was a peaceful, quiet sunny afternoon, and from inside, I could hear the voices of children reciting the alphabet.

Standing there, listening to the recitation, I thought how 400 years ago, not far from here, English colonists had battled the elements and hostile Indians for survival; 200 years later, pirates had fought bloody battles close by; and 100 years ago, a little farther to the north, two bicycle mechanics from Ohio had taken the first tentative steps toward powered flight. Today, Clint Eastwood is playing cowboy in outer space.

The little children of Ocracoke, reciting the alphabet, live in this remote spot where time seems to have stood still. How lucky. Yet I wondered: What changes would they see?

• • •

For more information on the Outer Banks, visit the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce Web site, www.outerbankschamber.com, or call 252/441-8144. For information on the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, contact the First Flight Society, 252/441-2424. For information on Blackbeard, visit Teach’s Hole’s Web site, www.teachshole.com, or call 252/928-1718.

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