The drive to North Carolina’s Outer Banks - a series of barrier islands out in the Atlantic Ocean - can really take the "vacation" out of vacation. Arrive midday Saturday on muggy July afternoon, like I did, and you just might consider bashing your brains out on the steering wheel. The gridlock was inhuman. I must've spent an hour on the bridge to Outer Banks in the worst stop and go traffic known to man.
And when I finally did cross the bridge, the car behind me was rear-ended, causing it to then rear end MY car. Mentally exhausted, we all got out of our cars, saw the minor scratches on our bumpers - glanced at the witless teenage culprit - and decided to say fuck it and drive on.
I was already regretting the whole trip. The main drag, Croatan Highway, was choked with endless low density sprawl fashioned halfheartedly to resemble the quaint cedar-shingled cottages of yesteryear. With illustrious businesses like Try My Nuts and I Got Your Crabs lining the streets, my hopes dimmed. To think someone had bragged about the Outer Banks being less developed than Virginia Beach. This wasn't my idea of pristine.
I hemmed and hawed. Only a cool breeze from the Atlantic promised any relief from my frustration.
I parked in one the small public lots sandwiched among the plentiful rental condos. The scent of a thoroughly abused Port-A-Potty hung languidly in the air. A sandy hill blocked any views of the ocean. What could possibly be so great about this beach? I wondered.
My mounting cynicism melted away when I crossed over the beach grass to the other side of hill. Despite decades of rampant development, the Outer Banks coast remains as beautiful and entrancing as ever. The drive was worth it, after all. It brought home a lesson I'd soon learn about the East Coast - it's crowded, sure, but for a good reason.
Somehow, someway, the Outer Banks manages to retain the feel of undisturbed nature. The black, oval eyes of yellow "ghost crabs" poke out of holes in the sand. Pelicans fly in V formation, hovering effortlessly on drafts of air. In the distance, dolphins surface for precious oxygen. Waves pound the shore, leaving elliptical prints in the soft sand.
It's beautiful, humbling.
The pelicans, in particular, are captivating. On land or sea, the pelican is a homely creature. The long beak, unkempt feathers, fleshy “throat pouch” and bugged out eyes - it's a bird only its mother could love, and even then barely. But in the sky the pelican is transformed. It's majestic. It soars effortlessly, inert but mobile, its outstretched wings in complete command.
No doubt such sights must've inspired the Wright brothers Orville and Wilbur as they toiled on their newfangled glider in Kitty Hawk, a small village on the "sound side" of the Outer Banks. The two immaculately dressed city slicker brothers from Dayton, Ohio were avid birdwatchers, and on especially frustrating days there's little reason to doubt that they may have taken break or two to observe their avian contemporaries.
In fact, almost two decades after the first Wright Flyer flew over the Outer Banks town of Kill Devil Hills, Orville recalled the birds of the Outer Banks with crystal clarity in a letter to a friend (broken into paragraphs for readability):
“The most remarkable example of soaring that I have ever seen was witnessed by Wilbur and myself near Kitty Hawk in 1900. The remarkable feature of the flight was in the intelligence or the instinct of the birds which led them to create for themselves a soaring condition where it did not already exist.
One morning after a cold night we saw a number of buzzards, probably fifteen in number, and several fish hawks, begin by flapping their wings vigorously and flying together in a small circle, not more than fifty or seventy-five feet in diameter, at a height of twenty-five or thirty feet from the ground. They all kept well together in the circle, gradually working upward.
When at an altitude of approximately fifty feet they suddenly quit flapping and then rose rapidly on stationary wings. As they rose higher they spread out into larger circles. When they reached an altitude of about one thousand feet they began to separate, each gliding off in a straight line.
After leaving the circle they all lost altitude. In fact the gliding angle of the buzzard is not better than that of an aeroplane. The warm sun had no doubt created a warm stratum of air immediately above the ground, which was a sand plain.
The birds through concerted action made an opening through the cold stratum above and started a rush of warm air upward, and then used this upward rush of air to gain altitude.”
The final design of the Wright Flyer's wings was modeled after the wings of birds. A complex system of cables and pulleys was rigged up by the brothers to allow the pilot to bend or "warp" the wings while flying in a way similar to birds, a concept known as “wing warping”. Wing warping was vital to maneuverability and achieving lift, and a variation on that technology is still used by today's planes.
How much the Wright Brother's casual observation of birds on the Outer Banks inspired those last design tweaks on the Wright Flyer is impossible to say. But as I bobbed like a sunburned cork in the aquamarine waves, that there was indeed a link didn't seem - to me - out of the question.