A September weekend in the Currituck Outer Banks, which is the northernmost portion of this string of the barrier islands off of coastal North Carolina, is from what I understand often a splendid thing. It’s a little less crowded than during the summer season, but the water and air are usually still warm and mild and swimming, kayaking, or simply lying on the beach are all lovely and relaxing ways to pass the time.
However, when we woke up on our second mid-September morning in Corolla this is what it looked like out the car window:
Not too pretty – and what you can’t see is that the wind was whipping fiercely and the ocean was a teeming mass of gray water. Now, there are other beach towns where this might be a problem. But happily in Corolla, there are numerous fun and interesting things to keep you occupied when the weather isn’t cooperating. One of these activities is taking a visit to see the wild horses that inhabit a refuge north of town, along miles of Carova Beach that stretch north to a bird sanctuary on the Virginia border, accessible only in a four-wheel drive vehicles.
We had scheduled a tour with Bob’s Off-Road Wild Adventure tours, which came highly recommended by friends who had visited the Outer Banks this past summer. I wasn’t sure we’d still be able to go, since normally the tours are giving in an open-sided vehicle, but when I called I was told they would be happy to take the four of us out in an SUV where we’d be protected from the elements. I’m actually kind of glad we got to take this route, since it meant a lot of face time in the car with our barefoot, affable, red-headed guide Davis.
Davis grew up in a house on the beach, which lies directly north of Corolla, and clearly knows every inch of it. He is quite the raconteur (and the only person that I’ve ever known to use the word “tomfoolery” in conversation) and kept us all entertained for the nearly two hours we were driving around. He grabbed the boys’ attention almost immediately by pulling up to this sign on the near edge of the beach and asking us to read it.
He then explained that the United States government, worried about a German invasion during World War Two, had mined the beach and that an undetermined number of unexploded munitions still remain in this stretch of sand.
“In fact,” he said “about fourteen years ago a 12-year-old boy was sittin’ on top of one of these dunes watching some fireworks go over the Whalehead Club, when one of those mines decided to explode in the dune underneath him. The dune protected him from the shrapnel but the charge ruptured his right ear drum.” Here he paused for effect, and looked at the big-eyed boys in the backseat.
“How do I know that story? That kid was me.” He then explained how the charge took the top off the dune and sent him rolling down onto the beach. Shortly afterwards, a deputy came along and stopped to ask Davis if he was alright. “I said I was fine,” Davis said, “And he hopped back in his truck and kept right on going.”
And so we also continued along the beach toward a group of houses now visible above the dunes to the left, while Davis continued to share stories and opinions. He told us how he used to go to middle school in Duck, which is the next town south of Corolla on the Outer Banks, by driving a VW Beetle all the way down the beach. The sheriff, he said, overlooked anyone driving without a license as long as they didn’t go for more than a mile on pavement. This worked, since it was exactly mile from the beach to the school parking lot. Growing up in such a small remote community had its virtues – he clearly has a lot of affection for it – but meant that the grownups around him paid lots of attention to what he was up to.
“I can’t tell you how many beatin’s I got from my neighbors,” he said good naturedly, “and I deserved every one of them too.”
I hadn’t realized how many houses were back on this beach, accessible only on the sand. Davis referred to various clusters of them as “villages” which amused the boys no end, since the “streets,” although named, are just sand and puddles and beach grass and scrub. The horses wander in and among the houses, eating wild grass and “poopin’ in the carports” as Davis told us. He seemed to know the individual animals and where we would find them, even in the rain. Sure enough, after about ten minutes of driving around we found two groups, including one with a nursing baby.
It was so much fun to see these romantic and beautiful animals, mostly likely descendents of horses abandoned by 17th-century ships that were beached on sandbars and needed to get rid of some of their ballast. Protected in their sanctuary, they are completely used to people and just stood calmly while we ogled and took pictures.
After we’d had a good look, our next stop was the former coast guard station (“where my granddaddy was on patrol during the war,” Davis said) which has been reconstructed and renovated by a local real estate company. Then it was past more houses and on to the edge of the beach, through enough deep, deep puddles to delight both the boys no end – “Can you imagine if we rode through those on our bikes Mommy!” was the constant refrain.
Davis talked continually about the villages and their inhabitants. Back in among the houses and the bird sanctuary, an entire community exists apart, where, according to Davis anyway, there’s still moonshine being made, wild pigs being hunted, and other shenanigans designed, as he put it “to fight the man.” Right now these independent-minded folk are fighting any attempt to pass a permit law that would potentially limit the number of vehicles on the beach. This in spite of the fact that in the summer it turns into something akin to a highway with thousands of cars driving up and down it daily. In fact, it actually has mile markers.
But on this cold rainy day, we had the place mostly to ourselves, with the occasional truck passing us by just as if we were driving through town. We watched the sandpipers and the swirling water and knew that this was really a special place, with its own beauty and its own unique story.
I would tell anyone visiting Corolla in any weather to make sure to take one of these tours, not simply for the chance to see the horses but to get a taste of what the Outer Banks were once like – a remote and beautiful place, with a distinct culture, and a different set of rules.