Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Outer Banks to Oklahoma

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Road trip hills.
Pea Island birds.

Because I know how long you’ve been sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for action to be taken to restore the beach sand along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, wait no more. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has finalized an agreement with Outer Banks’ Dare County, granting access to 6.6 million cubic yards of sand from the Outer Continental Shelf. This sand will supplement the 11.6 miles of beaches off Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills.

Orville and Wilbur Wright experimented with aircraft for four years before their first successful flight took place at 10:35 am on frigid, windy December 17, 1903 near Kill Devil Hills south of Kitty Hawk. Orville flew the motorized aeroplane 120 feet in 12 seconds. Only five locals witnessed the historic event. Three more flights were made that day, with the longest at 852 feet in 59 seconds. Celebrate this Friday by flying paper airplanes, watch planes land and take off at an airport or visit The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. where the 1903 flyer is on display.

It wouldn’t have been possible without the sand and trees. All the straight parts of the plane frame were built of spruce wood and the curved bits of ash. A 12-horsepower gasoline engine powered the sprocket chain drive (as on a bicycle) that turned 8.5-foot-long contra-rotating twin propellers made of spruce with tips covered in duck canvas. There was enough power to lift the 21 foot long, 700 pound (including Orville) plane into the air.

Protecting the coast has become paramount as sea levels rise and the strength and frequencies of hurricanes and storms increase. One company has already submitted a bid of $27,9232,050 for sand pumping projects extending from Duck to Kill Devil Hills. Hotel/motel, vacation property, and property taxes will help fund the projects. The towns will need to pony up over $11 million. The beach nourishment fund will add over $8.7 million. FEMA and state grants will contribute an additional $11.7 million. $25,870,000 has been bid by another company for projects further south along the towns of Avon and Buxton.

My family’s stay in Avon was just a drop in the bucket as tourists go that visit the area. The average population of 37,000 shoots up to nearly 300,000 during the summer. Tourists pump $1.4 million into the Dare County coffers. The serious threat from erosion of beaches, dunes, wetlands and the entire barrier island system will not simply disappear. Either let the Outer Banks go back to nature or invest in a sand-filled future to try to stabilize and maintain the vulnerable strip of sand for the people.

The day after Thanksgiving we loaded the car and began the return trip to Shawnee, only 1,420 miles away. The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was way too crowded. Vehicles filled the parking area and also had parked alongside the road. Waves of people were trundling onto paths into the refuge. We continued driving north toward the Oregon Inlet. I attempted to take a few pictures of dense concentrations of birds in sand dune lined ponds, but at 50 mph, the sand and birds turned into abstract blurs. I had to content myself with looking at the eBird Trail Tracker on the cell phone. The Nov. 25th bird count done by citizen scientists/bird lovers: Tundra Swans 3000+, Snow Geese 40+, American Wigeons 230, 1000 Coots, 300 Northern pintail ducks, 300 Double Breasted Cormorants, 300 Green Winged Teals, and 100+ Brown Pelicans, among dozens of others. Thousands of migratory and overwintering birds were taking refuge at the refuge.

Pea Island, a humid, subtropical coastal prairie, was named for the wild peas/beans (Strophostyles helvola) that cover and stabilize the dunes. The refuge was established in 1937. For years the area had been farmed, grazed by livestock, commercially fished and used for waterfowl hunting. Today over 420 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, including 12 threatened or endangered species, are here.

We drove through Plymouth NC, but saw no pilgrims. The Alamance County Rest Area proudly presented their permeable cement pavers. The strategically positioned bricks allow water to slowly enter the soil when it rains rather than rapidly run off. Some of the rest areas in North Carolina had trickling waterfalls landscaped with native plants.

Saturday, we missed the detour past Ashville to Knoxville. SSSLLOOOWWW traffic through the Smokies. Flying through the hills at 5 mph. About an hour later we crawled past road construction and resumed regular speed. While creeping along we noticed wild rhododendrons growing in the crevices and nooks, frozen icicles hugging wet rock faces and soapberry trees loaded with fruit right alongside the road. Listened to Christmas songs while eating popcorn.

The 68 Weigel stations, all located in eastern Tennessee, only sell milk produced in Tennessee! At the Weigel’s Gas Station in Kingston, TN, a pickup pulling a trailer loaded with a 4-wheeler was parked. Stacked inside the pickup bed and alongside the 4-wheeler were six deer. A deputy drove up and started questioning the man. “They belonged to some buddies.” Deputy asked for the tags. “All the tags had blown off.” Deputy noted there were bucks and does, asked the guy to move his truck to the edge of the parking lot. The deputy was calling the Game Warden.

Tennessee rest area.
Closed sand dunes.

Entered Central Standard Time west of Kingston. Tiny red cedars were sprouting in gravel along the wire barriers of the Interstate. Tough trees. The first three hotels in Forrest City, Arkansas were full. The town is, after all, only 46 miles to the west of Memphis. We watched firetrucks rush to Day’s Inn and decided to continue down the Interstate to Brinkley. Their Day’s Inn was being renovated, but we snagged the last available room.

Sunday was mild and windy. The Day’s Inn breakfast of chocolate chip muffins, juice and coffee was not the breakfast of champions. In Shawnee about 3 pm.