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Wanderlust: Road-weary travelers log 3,646 miles to see North Carolina's Outer Banks

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WORTHINGTON -- I remember as a kid, sitting in the front yard at home, watching the cars, trucks and Sathers semis drive by on their way to who knows where. I'd think about all of the places they must be going -- places like the sandy beaches of California, the mountains of Colorado or the wide expanses of Texas.

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What fun it must be to travel, I'd think to myself as my mind drifted off to adventures yet to come for these passersby.

What fun it must be to just get on the open road and go wherever it takes you. No appointments, no schedules, no worries -- just freedom.

I suppose one might say I have a classic case of wanderlust. My parents are not only lucky enough to have a daughter so inflicted, but are willing accomplices when I get the urge to roam.

For more than a decade I've hinted about the desire to travel to the Outer Banks of North Carolina -- miles of sandy beaches accessible by bridges from North Carolina's mainland over the narrowest expanses of Currituck Sound and Croatan Sound. The southern Outer Banks, Ocracoke Island, is only accessible by ferry.

The Outer Banks are about 120 miles in length, stretching from Corolla on the north to Ocracoke on the south. With the exception of a four-lane highway stretching from Kitty Hawk to Nags Head, there is only one option of travel, the two-lane Highway 12. The locals don't talk about how many miles it takes to get somewhere. Everything is referenced in minutes and hours.

Fortunately for us, an early October vacation meant the kids were back in school and the family vacations had pretty much ended. We had our choice of hotels, virtually abandoned beaches and no waiting at any of the vast array of restaurants. And the weather? Except for a rainy Monday (spent traveling through Virginia) and a somewhat drizzly Tuesday, we had beautiful sunshine with 60- to 70-degree temps.

I should mention the timing of our trip was one of the greatest debates of visiting the Outer Banks. I wanted to go in the spring; my mom wanted to travel in the fall. The fall of the year is hurricane season in North Carolina, and that was one adventure none of us wanted to experience.

Now, as I compile my notes for this story, the East Coast is cleaning up from the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. Three weeks ago I was walking the beaches of Kill Devil Hills, N.C., soaking my feet in the frothy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Today, those waters have wiped out sand dunes, destroyed a fishing pier near Nags Head and caused flooding in the village of Ocracoke -- and those are just some of the reports I've heard from the Outer Banks.

The long drive

While the Outer Banks was our ultimate destination, one can only handle so much time in the car before needing to take a break. Ours came on the second day of travel with a stop in Louisville, Ky., to visit the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory and Churchill Downs.

It was my mom's wish to see Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, and the Louisville Slugger Factory proved to be a hit for us Minnesota Twins fans.

I've written blogs about both of these attractions in The Farm Bleat (www.farmbleat.areavoices.com), so if you want to learn how billets are turned into baseball bats or see photos of Churchill Downs, please check it out.

Our break in Louisville lasted a mere five hours, and then it was back in the car for the final leg of our journey.

As I drove down the long road ahead, I imagined the most annoying part of the movie, Shrek II -- the scene where Shrek and Fiona are on their way to see Fiona's parents in the kingdom of Far, Far Away. Donkey, in the back of the carriage, is bored and keeps asking, "Are we there yet?" He repeats it over and over -- and over again -- to the point that Shrek and Fiona lose their cool and yell, "Nnnnoooooo!"

Thank goodness there was no one in our car to ask, "Are we there yet?"

Thanks to Greta Garmin, my GPS, we could finally breathe a sigh of relief and inhale that salty coastal air at about 4:30 p.m. on Monday. By that point, we'd logged some 1,550 miles and were ready to book a motel for the next four nights.

We found a deal at a motel right on the beach, and though our room looked out over the swimming pool and parking lot, we had easy access to the hotel's private deck, complete with Adirondack chairs, and a short staircase leading right to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It was my first opportunity to get my feet wet in the Atlantic. (I dipped my feet in the Pacific Ocean at Seaside, Ore., when we traveled there in 1998.)

What to see, where to go

Those who know me well know I have a fondness for lighthouses. While that sparked my desire to travel to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it certainly wasn't the only thing we visited on our travels. In fact, our "hands-down, all-time favorite" had nothing to do with the four lighthouses we visited on Highway 12, but instead was a safari-like ride we took along the beaches near Corolla and Carova in search of the Banker horses.

These feral horses are descendants of those brought by Spaniards in the 1500s. While the herd has dwindled to about 140 horses today, they remain in the wild, free to roam thousands of acres in a national preserve and throughout the secluded community of Carova on the far northern reach of the Outer Banks.

The entire experience is one we never would have been able to do on our own. For starters, beach driving requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and our family sedan wouldn't have made it more than a car's length off Highway 12 at Corolla before getting stuck.

Strapped onto bench seats behind the cab of the truck, we could see in all directions -- from the sandy beaches and dunes along the Atlantic Ocean to the extravagant homes and rental houses. This was a place that, if I really wanted to get away from it all, could be considered a little slice of Heaven on Earth.

Seeing the horses in their natural habitat was pretty cool, but what was even better was having a two-hour-long escorted ride on the beach, breathing in the salt air, hearing the waves crash toward shore and taking in the beauty of the sand dunes.

Unlike many of the other things we saw on the Outer Banks, there was a cost to go on the quest to see Banker horses, but my parents and I agreed it was definitely worth it.

Besides, we didn't have to pay anything to see any of the four lighthouses -- Currituck Beach, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke -- and we even had a free pass to visit the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, thanks to my parents' Senior Pass, a lifetime membership to the National Park Service.

The Wright Brothers Memorial includes a museum filled with artifacts from Wilbur and Orville Wright's quest to complete the first airplane flight, as well as paintings and short stories of individuals who influenced flight in the years since.

Outside the museum, markers signify each of the brothers' first four flights and, at the top of Kill Devil Hill, which was their take-off point, a large monument stands in honor of the aviation pioneers. My parents opted to stay in the car while I walked the long, paved path to the top of Kill Devil Hill.

From the monument I had a great view of the Wright Brothers' historical flights -- not to mention my first panoramic view of the Outer Banks coastline and the Atlantic Ocean.

With the weather starting to clear by late afternoon, we drove to Manteo, located on Roanoke Island and accessible from the Outer Banks by bridge, to visit the North Carolina Aquarium. Filled with fish species from the coastal and fresh waters of the state, it was neat to see so many species you won't find in Minnesota.

It wasn't until the next day, however, while taking the free ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island, that we learned more about the fishing industry of the Outer Banks. On the ferry with us was a commercial fisherman, and on this particular day he was headed to Ocracoke for some "surf fishing."

He told us he was still tuckered out from his previous day's adventure -- he caught an estimated 60-pound stingray. Determined to save as much line as he could, he reeled it toward his boat and then clipped the line.

For his day of surf fishing, he was using cut up pieces of mullet fish for bait in hopes of catching some freshwater drum. The way he talked about the fish, I likened it to how we Minnesotans worship the walleye.

Lights along the way

From the time we arrived on Ocracoke Island Wednesday morning until we returned to Kill Devil Hills that night, we visited three of the four lighthouses that lured me to these Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Actually, it was one lighthouse that lured me -- Cape Hatteras. The other three lights on the Outer Banks were simply bonuses.

Cape Hatteras Light is the tallest brick lighthouse in the world at 198.5 feet. It's the equivalent of a 21-story building, and is open during the summer months for people to climb to the top for a mere $7 fee. We visited the museum and took in the short movie about the climb to the top, but missed out on the short film that told of the light station's historic 2,900-foot move in 1999, which was done to save the buildings and lighthouse from an eroding shoreline.

While Hatteras is the tallest lighthouse, the Ocracoke Lighthouse is North Carolina's oldest operating light. It was built in 1823, about 47 years before Hatteras was completed Not open to the public for climbing, the lighthouse grounds were rather quiet while we were there -- the only one around was a very friendly, large tabby cat.

Catching the ferry back to Hatteras Island, we took in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum (it houses the first Fresnel lens from the Hatteras Light) and had lunch at a local hangout where fresh fish was the dish of the day.

We made one final lighthouse visit that day, the Bodie Island Light. The late-day stop offered just the right sun angle for me to get some excellent photos of this lighthouse, which is currently undergoing renovations. Built in 1872, this lighthouse still has its original, first-order Fresnel lens.

On Thursday, we traveled north to Corolla for the Banker horse adventure tour and visited the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.

Peanuts, cotton and tobacco

As a farm reporter with retired farmers for parents, we're always interested in seeing agriculture in other parts of the country. So, when I found a peanut farm during my pre-trip research, I noted the address and put it on our general itinerary.

Our stop in Bertie County, in North Carolina's peanut belt, included a visit with a peanut farmer and peanut buyers as well as an opportunity to watch a short video about peanut harvesting. We'd missed the peanut harvest by a day. In fact, the last farmer to finish his harvest stopped in while we were there, and he and my dad had a long talk about peanut production. (They generally get about 2 tons of peanuts per acre but this year was an exceptional year for them and some farmers harvested closer to 4 tons of peanuts per acre.)

While we missed out on seeing an actual peanut farm, we were quite intrigued by a couple of other crops we saw along the road. A couple of farms were growing turf grass, and my parents and I saw our first-ever cotton fields.

Later that day, we arrived at the North Carolina State Fair (a sudden addition to our excursion when we learned it would be the first full day of the fair on the day we'd be passing through.)

The fair offered us another new experience. They were doing a tobacco-tying demonstration while North Carolina's agriculture secretary talked of how the tobacco crop fueled the survival of North Carolina farmers.

Dad spent the afternoon watching the demonstration, even helping out when they needed a volunteer from the crowd to help them soak tobacco leaves. He was disappointed we didn't get a picture of him doing that, but Mom and I walked around the entire fairgrounds especially admiring the crop exhibits that featured a 10-pound sweet potato and a 196-pound watermelon, and entries you wouldn't see at a Minnesota fair, like persimmons and tobacco leaves.

Several hours later, after experiencing the true, rural feel of North Carolina's culture, we took the shuttle back to our car and headed out of Raleigh.

Our trip was still three days from completion, and though we knew we'd spend much of that time driving we made a few more stops along the way. On Day Nine we toured the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., in the morning and admired the exhibit at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Ky., that afternoon. On the 10th day, our final day of this incredible journey, we logged the final 700 miles.

Mom snapped photos out of the passenger side window as we passed the St. Louis Arch (I'd never seen it before), and we spent about an hour in Mark Twain's boyhood home of Hannibal, Mo., getting one last lighthouse marked off my list (the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse stands high on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River).

We made it back to Worthington at about 8:30 that night. With the exception of Dad doing a bit of Iowa driving on the way out, and Mom doing a bit of Iowa driving on the return home, it was me behind the wheel, getting us through several major cities, over two very scary bridges (both crossing the Ohio River -- entering Louisville and exiting Paducah), through one underwater tunnel and onto two ferries.

The journey has pretty much cured my wanderlust, at least for a little while.

It was a fun-filled, exhausting journey, but what an adventure it was!

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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