Oct 28th, 2019, 10:04 AM

Along the Outer Banks

By Caleb Lemke
Bodie Lighthouse. Image credit: Caleb Lemke
Discovering OBX, the Carolina Coast

I've had an obsession with the Outer Banks for years, an infatuation and fervent longing for this fabled land since I was a young kid. That was when I first read David Alan Harvey's article, where he wrote about the sandbar along North Carolina's coast, and the life he saw there. I wanted to join the locals he described as having "perfecting the art of hanging out," to see the sandbar that served as an escape from the real world for so many. Then providence smiled down upon me - I was moving to North Carolina. Though I lived in the center of the state, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would have the sand between my toes. It seemed everyone around me had been there, boasting of summers in beach houses, showing off their "OBX" shirts, and it seemed almost every car around had an OBX decal on it. In the end though, my hopes and longings came to naught - I was never able to go. Then providence offered one more chance, as my family moved to North Carolina once more. Over my summer visit, I knew that this was the time to go to my promised land.

Aside from the beautiful, anticipated beaches, the Outer Banks is home to fascinating history. The Roanoke Colony, one of America's enduring mysteries and the first attempt at colonization of the Americas by the English, was on the Outer Banks. This portion of Carolina cost later became a hotbed of pirate activity because of the the dangerous shifting sandbars, inlets and islands that pirates could use for cover, slipping in and out of the Outer Banks to attack and evade. The waters themselves were so naturally dangerous to ships that the area was dubbed "The Graveyard of the Atlantic." Many famous pirates, such as Calico Jack and Mary Reed, were known to sail through, but the most famous was undoubtedly Blackbeard, who met his end in the Outer Banks. There was a small Freedman's Colony on the Outer Banks during the Civil War, and markers from various skirmishes and minor battles from the Civil War. The Outer Banks even boasts the first flight - it was in Kitty Hawk (present day Kill Devil Hills) that the Wright Brothers first flew, and a national monument now commemorates them. 

The beach and woods on Roanoke. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

The remains of the Roanoke Colony still stand and are now located in a National Park,on the north side of Roanoke Island. The park is rather small and features a nice information center, helpful guides, and picnic tables under the trees. The paths are well maintained, lined with red cedar chips, and the area is covered in the typical mix of Carolina pines and coastal fauna, with Spanish moss hanging from most everything. The remains of the settlement have all mostly been washed away, but a few things remain to mark the failed settlement's presence. Placards and informational signs inform visitors of the history around them, as one could otherwise miss the importance and evidence of the Colony. A giant headstone along one of the paths also tells of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas. Nearby, the Elizabethan Gardens draw a lot of visitors, and there is also The Lost Colony, a small outdoor theater that hosts events. I enjoyed wandering the short trails, one of which leads straight to a beach on the sound, though I doubt anyone would want to swim in it since much nicer beaches, with fewer critters, are just across the sound.

A headstone telling about the colony. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

Manteo is arguably the hub of Roanoke Island, and isn't far from the previous park. It's still a small, charming village, with main tourist drags that tend to attract people to the souvenir shops and the restaurants catering to weekenders. I stopped at one ice cream shop for a few and chatted with the vendor, who corrected my pronunciation of the town name: true locals call it "Man'eo," and only weekenders pronounce the T. Afterwards, I strolled through the town once more, looking for something to do. That is how I discovered the highlight of my trip: Kill Devil Rum.

Outer Banks Distilling lies tucked away from the main drags, in a nice, unassuming brick building covered in white paned windows. Curious about the business, I signed up to take the hour long tour that they offer, joining a small group of weekenders who may have attended another "tasting" before coming. Our guide, Matt Newsome, was one of the four founders,  who led us on the tour through the few rooms that comprise the operation. He began his tour by launching into a history of rum and its influence on the area. Newsome explained that most rum came from Caribbean, and that when rum first became popular, it was colloquially know as '"kill devil," since it was such strong hooch it was thought to kill anything living inside you - even the devil. A major trade route for these rum distillers in the Caribbean ran up the East Coast of North America to New England, which took them along the Outer Banks coastline. The dangerous, moving sandbars, which made the Outer Banks the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," claimed an untold number of these ships - either stranding or destroying them.

When rum first became popular, it was colloquially know as "kill devil," since it was such potent hooch it was thought to kill anything living inside you - even the devil.

The ships were quickly pillaged by opportunistic locals, all of whom tried to find and make off with the barrels of rum on almost every ship. But making off with a barrel of rum is not so simple: the looters soon realized they could more easily roll them a little ways away down the beach and simply bury them in the sand, so that they could hide their stash, coming back to slowly drain their supply. The dunes along the beaches were popular hiding places, which is how one of the local village earned its name, Kill Devil Hills.

The Kill Devil Rum logo and motto. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

Our guide then began the tale of how Outer Banks Distilling came to be. The four locals mentioned, Matt Newsome, Scott Smith, Adam Ball and Kelly Bray were all friends who had been working in bars and breweries in the area for years. Seeing the over saturation of the micro brewing market, inspired by local history and unsatisfied with the quality of many rums, they decided to strike out on their own and open their distillery, focused on crafting excellent rums. Since they were so determined to avoid selling the "well-marketed swill" that they detested, they buckled down to see how they could make truly fine products from quality ingredients. Between them, they began taking distilling classes, including college courses on the science of distilling, trying every vintage and flavor of rum, and closely coordinating with the company that made their distilling equipment. While they attempted to find a location in the eponymous Kill Devil Hills, they were forced to settle in Manteo for its superior sewer system that could handle their processes.

The guide showing us the distilling process. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

We toured the main room, where our excited and passionate guide gave us an overview of the distilling process, walking us through the minutiae of it. Complicated valves and pipes, meters and sensors, vats and tanks were arranged in the center of the room, as Newsome led us along the distillation process. He also mentioned that Outer Banks Distilling is locking into buying more and larger equipment, as their rum is becoming more and more popular and they are trying to keep pace with growing demand. The walls were lined with barrels that aging their rums, featuring a variety of years of refinement and ingredients. He explained that many of the barrels were filled with special batches that they periodically release, limited edition rums where they've tinkered with the exact formulas. 

Finally we came to the highlight of the trip, the tastings.

We were brought into a tasting room, with a long bar that our guide boasted was cypress saved from when they renovated their current building. The tastings included in the tour, the Distillery's three most popular rums, lined the bar. The first was their youngest, a white rum they refer to as Silver. This was predominantly used in cocktails, and seldom had straight, but I have to say it was still wonderfully smooth. The second glass only got better, a gold hued, eighteen-month aged, magical liquid. It was appropriately named the Gold, and it was my personal favorite of the three, incorporating more of the oak and bourbons flavors from the barrel. The final one was the Pecan rum - intriguing. Using local pecans and honey in the recipe, the rum was aged with the nuts in the barrel. This was the darkest of the three, and definitely the sweetest. The rest of the tour groups preferred this variety, and especially loved that the leftover nuts from the barrels were candied and left on the bar for us to eat. After the tour, Newsome took us to a little gift shop, where Outer Banks Distilling sellls their merchandise and rums at decent prices. Our guide proudly reminded us that once any bottles we bought there had been drained, we could also find Kill Devil Rums in state liquor stores across North Carolina.

Twenty-one villages lie up and down the Outer Banks, squished along the narrow sandbar. There are few people who actually live there year round, but during the summers there are many more people, a mix of people on vacation, weekenders, and people coming to live in the summer homes. One major road runs up and down the strip of land, North Carolina Highway 12, a nationally designated scenic byway that stretches some 130 miles. Driving along it is spectacularly beautiful, as you pass over marshy inlets, and cruise between sand dunes. At a few points you can look to your left and right to see beaches on both sides.

The boardwalk over the marsh. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

I cruised for only a short period before I came to Bodie Lighthouse. I stopped for just a few minutes, struck by the scenery along the marshes. The lighthouse stands tall and alone, solitary in a well manicured lawn with black and white stripes winding around it. From the parking lot, a wooden boardwalk leads around to behind the lighthouse, to a better lookout point over the marsh itself. Signs warned to stay on the path, as the reeds held unseen cottonmouths, and false land through which one can fall. The clouds hung low, and I could smell the coming rains, so I didn't tarry too long. While it was a nice little stop, and I knew you could go up the lighthouse, I thought it best to save that excursion for some other time on a clear day. I continued down the byway, fascinated by the narrow two lane highway with water on both sides. I drove for a while, enjoying the views after the rains had passed, cruising between giant dunes. Before returning to my lodgings for the night, I stopped once more, determined to at least get my feet wet. I was lucky, stopping just in time to catch the sun setting as a fisherman reeled in his last catch of the day, with his dog on shore barking happily.

A fisherman wading in the Sound. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

The next day, with the skies bright and clear, I knew I was destined for the beach. I loaded up and headed for Nags Head, one of the larger villages on the Outer Banks. Before reaching the beach, one nagging thought plagued me... where's the beer? As if conjured by thought, I passed a business that made my heart soar with unbridled patriotism: the Brew-Thru. The simple concept was to have people drive through an old, renovated carwash station, where they're able to order beer from the comfort of their cars, as carhops bring it to you. I later learned that there are a few of these up and down the Outer Banks, and that they're a well-known business in the community. They have been around since the 1970s, and have yearly psychedelic t-shirts they design that are popular local apparel. After careful consultation with the carhop, I ordered a pack of lagers from a Hawaiian brewing company, which I was assured were excellent for the beach. My taste buds confirmed this declaration. 

The overgrown path. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

The beach itself was busy, but it never felt crowded. In fact, it actually helped to set the atmosphere, with the sounds of families playing in the surf and sand, and someone playing the obligatory music of Southern beaches, the Zac Brown Band. Far down the beach a major pier jutted out over the ocean, supporting a bar and restaurant. I settled in a spacious plot, close to others, yet not encroached by them. There were families and couples, lifeguards reclining like Greek deities in their towers, and a few fishermen who had cast their lines in breaks of shore without swimmers. The water was fantastic, cool and fairly clear. By following the sandbars I could see beneath the waves, walking out into the ocean some fifty feet before the water got to my waist, with the sands shifting beneath me. The waves are constantly remolding the sands even there, along this innocuous little stretch of beach.

As the day continued, I felt compelled to visit at least one other beach along the coast. Knowing that it was an uninhabited wildlife refuge, I chose to drive down to Pea Island, just down the byway. Before walking over to the beaches, I did take the nature path by the information center, just as a short jaunt out of curiosity. The first section is a wooden boardwalk, walking you over a small pond of what I would guess is brackish water, full of turtles lazily swimming around in the sun. When I first came to the next, cement portion of the path, my heart leaped into my throat as I watched a cottonmouth slither out from one section of brush and cross the path. While the little guy did give me a good scare, I continued along the path, albeit carefully and loudly to ward off any other water moccasins I couldn't see. Along this portion, the shrubs and other fauna were encroaching on the path, with it growing over into a nice little archway at one point. 

The beach on Pea Island. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

But the beach on Pea Island was what I truly remember. More than at Nags Head, the beach was astonishingly flat and wide, including well out into the surf. I didn't test how far into the waters the sandbars could lead me, though I imagine that the slope into deeper water was incredibly slight. The beach was practically empty, with just one or two couples, a few people fishing in the surf, and a game warden watching us all from his ATV. Sitting in the surf, I realized that I ought to have left Nags Head earlier to come out here and relax on the gorgeous stretch of sand. After a couple of hours, though, storm clouds chased me off, marking the end of my short weekend excursion to the OBX. 

I won't have the life along the beaches there that David Alan Harvey had, which had inspired me to take the trip. Too much has changed. The strip is growing more popular, attracting visitors from further away, and real estate prices are starting to cause issues with locals who have lived there for years. Hurricanes come more frequently and with greater severity, seemingly leaving more damage every year. Nevertheless the pace of life endures, as does the natural beauty and the appeal of living there. I am not done with the Outer Banks after this. My trip did not fulfill what I wanted, but only teased me with what life there can be. I'll continue to slip away to the OBX when I can, hopefully more often, until I have truly perfected the art of hanging out.