By Stan Purdum
I recently happened to see an announcement that the eastbound lanes of North Carolina’s Wright Memorial Bridge, the twin spans across Albemarle Sound between Point Harbor and Kitty Hawk were going to be closed this winter to resurface those lanes.
The bridge is the northernmost of only two bridges that enable one to drive — or cycle — to the Outer Banks, the rim of slender barrier islands on North Carolina’s coast. The closure for repairs was wisely scheduled for winter because the Outer Banks is a popular vacation area, and in summer, the three-mile long bridge is heavily traveled in both directions. During the repairs, traffic has been shifted to the westbound lanes in a two-way pattern.
The news caused me to recall how that bridge had figured into a week-long bicycle tour my daughter and I rode in the late 1990s that included the Outer Banks. It was the summer between her junior and senior years in high school. We both knew that the next summer would be busy with college preparations. So this trip was one last opportunity to enjoy a bicycle journey together, an activity that we’d done several times before. We rode 400 miles that week and got acquainted with a state we’d not visited before.
We had driven to South Mills, North Carolina, where we intended to begin our loop ride. We planned to pedal to the Outer Banks, ride south on the islands until the road ended at Ocracoke, and then take a ferry to the mainland where we’d ride north back to our starting point.
We got the first warning about the bridge before we even left South Mills, and it was unsolicited advice at that.
The warning came from a man in the store where we’d inquired about where we could leave the car. He expressed interest in our route, and then cautioned us about the Wright Memorial Bridge, which was still 60 miles distant. “It’s got no shoulder,” he said, “and the traffic is heavy this time of year. You should try to cross it in the early morning.” I glanced at the map and realized that we’d probably arrive at the bridge about noon the following day. So much for that suggestion.
The second warning came the next morning at the campground where we’d stayed overnight. A long-term camper asked the usual questions about our journey and noted the bridge. I said, “We’ve been told we should try to cross it in the morning.”
“It wouldn’t make much difference,” the camper replied. “The traffic is almost nonstop all-day long. But I think there’s a wide shoulder.”
“A shoulder?” laughed our third advisor two hours later. “Maybe this much.” The young man held his hands about 14 inches apart. Once again, the advice had come unbidden. This time, however, I was inclined to put a little more stock in the report, since the chap giving it was mounted on an old, single-speed bicycle and claimed to have personally ridden the bridge one time. Still, some of his stories seemed exaggerated — preening tales designed, I assumed, to impress my 17-year-old daughter. Clearly, she was not buying his line, but like me, she was now concerned about the traffic on bridge.
Another opinion came from an older man in the store where we used the restrooms. “There’s a wide shoulder,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.”
The reports were now two against two, and the deadlock was not broken by the data supplied later when we stopped to refill our water bottles. “There are actually two bridges, one for each direction,” the lady behind the counter of the tour center said. “I drive across them every day, but I can’t recall if there’s a bike lane or not.”
Back on the road, Becky said, “It’s kind of funny that none of the local people actually know. I guess you look at things differently when you’re a cyclist.”
When we finally got to the bridge minutes later, we found the explanation for the conflicting reports. There were two side-by-side spans. Both directions offered two transit lanes, but only the return link, which was the newer of the two and used by westbound traffic, had a ridable shoulder, about six-feet wide. The shoulder of the older bridge, the one we needed to use as we crossed eastbound, was barely a foot wide.
Nope, No Shoulder
Becky said, “Oh well” and then started across. I fell in directly behind her. The traffic was unrelenting and moving quickly, but most drivers veered partially into the passing lane to give us a wider berth. But, of course, one driver chose to pass close with his horn blasting.
Our crossing took about 15 minutes, including riding up and over the hump in the middle, which allows boats to pass underneath. Once on the other side, we pulled off the road to regroup. Becky said, “I wouldn’t want all of our riding to be like that, but I’m glad we did it.”
It pleased me now to see my daughter discovering new dimensions to her confidence — thanks in part to her bicycle. And she would need that confidence. On our continuing journey, we would ride over the high Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, which carries N.C. 12 over Oregon Inlet between Hatteras and Bodie islands on the Outer Banks, and later, on the mainland, over another long span with only a low side rail between us and the water far below. Becky expressed some uneasiness at both crossings but pedaled the spans nonetheless.
For this tour, though we camped out at night, we’d decided not to carry cooking gear but instead to eat out. On this particular route, however, this plan made for a series of meals that were either excessively expensive or of boringly similar and limited menu. The pricey ones were in the tourist areas of the Outer Banks around Kitty Hawk and Nags Head. The limited choice meals were the primary fare available on the back roads of the coastal mainland, but we made do.
Microwave Sandwiches and Standing Lunches
Many of the tiny communities we rolled through on the mainland didn’t have enough population to sustain a restaurant, but did manage to keep small, multi-purpose establishments in business. Thus, the only place in a town offering food might be the Texaco station, which also doubled as a convenience store with microwaveable sandwiches available, or, more rarely, grilled hot dogs.
The best of these places had a couple of tables where we could sit down to dine on our fresh-from-the-microwave lunch and, once, enjoy some cole slaw from the cooler. More commonly, the only side dish offered was potato chips
But most of the time, we either carried the food outside to eat in a shady spot, or, in the case of rainy days, ate standing up in the store. So when we came upon a little building with a sign proclaiming “Diner” in front, we entered with an eagerness usually reserved for fine-dining experiences. But it was a loose use of the word on the sign. True, there was a grill from which two women served hot dogs, hamburgers and barbecued pork sandwiches, and french fries were available as a side dish. But beyond that, the similarity to what we usually thought of as a diner ended.
For one thing, there was no place to sit down. For another, every meal was placed in a paper bag for take-out eating. For a third, with its coolers of cold pop and racks offering potato chips, batteries and work gloves, the establishment made an attempt to be a convenience store. But its mostly empty shelves testified that just as it hadn’t gone fully toward being a restaurant, neither had it entirely embraced the concept of “store.”
But the standing-around-eating technique proved to be a discussion starter. Some interesting conversations with local residents began as they came to the store to make their own purchases. In one dialogue, a farmer filled us in on the history of the area and pointed us to a shortcut road we’d heard about.
In another store, some local folks let us in on the laugh as one of their own played the fool.
Still another of these encounters took place on our last day, which was drenched with continuous showers. We’d hoped to eat supper in the previous community, but we found that the store there had gone out of business, so we pushed on, thoroughly soaked. By the time we got to the open grocery in the next town, we’d gone too long without eating and were feeling the effects. Inside, we found the aisles full of canned and packaged foods. A microwave sat on the end of the checkout counter, installed there to heat the commercially prepared sandwiches stored in the nearby refrigerator. Feeling ravenous, we warmed and gobbled a couple of sandwiches each, and then purchased other immediately eatable items from the shelves.
Because of the rain, we ate inside, standing by the checkout line, talking with the elderly woman working the cash register. She and her husband, we learned, had owned and operated the store for 53 years. When we mentioned our difficulty in finding restaurants, she explained the economic realities of running eateries in crossroads communities. She had, in fact, looked into adding a hot-food service in the store, but had projected the profit margin to be too slim for feasibility.
By the time we left, we were again fueled for our journey. We also had a little more understanding about the life of the people in the places we cycled through.
The tour left us with good memories and for Becky, a powerful sense of accomplishment.
When we got home, Becky’s report to her mother about the ride was “It was great.”
I heartily concurred.