FLYING HIGH AT KITTY HAWK, NORTH CAROLINA
By Chris McBeath
“Run” said his voice, “run hard”. My feet squirmed into the sand, desperate for traction, my body tensed in anticipation. “Relax” said the voice “feel the air. But keep running”. How could I refuse this Adonis, his blonde curls cascading down the nape of his neck and his blue eyes sparkling like cut glass? So run I did and then, quite suddenly, the wind gusted beneath my wings, and lifted me up into its embrace. Up, up I went - a kindred spirit of Jonathan Livingston Seagull soaring on a thermal that lifted me higher and higher. The voice of Adonis grew distant and as the sun bounced off the dune filled landscape, the thrill of human flight took hold. And what better place to experience it than over the ever-changing, windswept dunes of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
It is here in Kitty Hawk, on December 17, 1903, that Wilbur & Orville Wright gave the world the gift of flight, when Orville lifted the fragile airplane into a 20mph headwind and covered just over 120 feet of sand in 12 seconds. And as might be expected, the aura of the Wright Brothers inspires many a wannabe bird with dunes that are scattered with colorful wings of gliders, stumbling, soaring, and maneuvering. Flying here comes with a virtual guarantee. In just one three-hour lesson, Kitty Hawk Kites, the biggest hand-gliding school in the world, will have you up and over Jockey’s Ridge State Park (the largest natural living sand dune on the East Coast) and soaring just as Orville and Wilbur once did.
Culturally, the instructors are air-borne counterparts to California’s surfers all sporting white, toothy smiles, an enthusiasm that’s eminently contagious, and a charm that melts even the most hardened heart. I quickly named my teacher, Adonis, as he led me back up to the top of the shifting sandy slope after my first flight. Exhilarated and totally unscathed from landing on the soft, forgiving sand, I was soon lying at his feet once again, suspending myself in my harness only a hair’s width from the sand. This was how Adonis checked to ensure I was rigged to my wings safely, before challenging me to face the headwinds once again.
While the airstreams of the Outer Banks are the lure for many a wind-surfer, para- and hang-glider, this coastal community actually offers a myriad of other activities from fishing and kayaking to beach-combing and simply ‘hanging out’. Stretching for 130 miles, Outer Banks comprises a series of barrier islands Roanoke, Colington, Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke, which are separated from the mainland of North Carolina by vast expanses of shallow sounds and wetlands (over 30,000 square miles) which team with birds and other wildlife.
Accessed only by bridges and ferries, Outer Banks is relatively isolated from mainland spoils, and has retained a laid-back charm of yesteryear. Many visitors rent one of the self-catering clapboard cottages which line the shorefront, where, from wrap around balconies, they can muse the sand’s surrender to the incessant pounding of the Atlantic Ocean. Family reunions are such big business in this part of the world that some of the newer, larger cottages boast up to a dozen or so bedrooms, and can comfortably host everyone from granny to great grandchild, and everyone in between.
The history of Outer Banks, too, is of broad appeal. Settlers from England first set foot on Roanoke Island in 1587, and while they mysteriously disappeared, these 117 lost souls paved the way for future colonization of the Americas. Visitors of all ages will enjoy Roanoke Island Festival Park which traces Outer Banks’ history with costumed interpreters, a working Elizabethan sailing ship and much more.
There’s also poignancy about this stretch of coastline, beyond the child-friendly beaches and fish-rich surf. The waters of the Atlantic are treacherous, and throughout the years have wrecked over 2,000 vessels schooners, sloops, steam ships and U-boats all trying to navigate the ever-shifting shoals and sandbars that lie just under the water. The lighthouses along the Outer Banks are landmarks (standing at 208 feet, the brick lighthouse at Cape Hattaras is the tallest of its kind in the United States), as are the widow’s walks that crown several of the older homes.
For all its history, quaint shops, and surprisingly good restaurants, Outer Banks is ultimately a chill-out place. The sunrises are filled with the promise of each day, the sunsets are magnificent, and in between it’s a given that you kick off your shoes, and bask in the simpler pleasures of life. And if the wind inspires you, Adonis is always there to take you higher.
IF YOU GO:
The Outer Banks
One visitors Center Circle
Manteo, NC 27954
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