Outer Banks, NC: Pelicans and Wright Brothers

The drive to North Carolina’s Outer Banks can be awful. Visit when I did, midday Saturday on muggy July afternoon, and you just might consider bashing your brains out on the steering wheel once and for all. The stop and go traffic on the Wright Memorial Bridge – the slim barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks in plain sight – was like Chinese water torture.

Of course, just when I’d finally crossed the bridge, the car behind me was rear-ended into my car. Cranky, tired, we got out of our cars, saw the minor scratches on our bumpers and the witless teenage culprit, shrugged, and drove on. I was beginning to regret the whole trip, almost wished I’d hit Virginia Beach instead. The main drag, Croatan Highway, was choked with endless low density sprawl modeled halfheartedly after the quaint cider-shingled cottages of yesteryear. Try My Nuts. I Got Your Crabs. All winners, and even better as aerial advertisements.

Only the cool breeze promised relief from the hassles of the everyday world.

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Holy sprawl, Batman! And the scary thing is, it looks a lot more interesting in this picture than it is in real life. (Edited. Original photo by James Willamor.)

I parked in one of the cramped public lots, between two obnoxiously large SUVs. The scent of a thoroughly abused Port-A-Potty wafted in the humid air. And they told me this was better, less developed than Virginia Beach…

Yet my sneering cynicism quickly turned to unbridled enthusiasm as I ventured across the tall beach grass. The coast of the Outer Banks remains as beautiful and entrancing as ever. No amount of development can take away from the mystical sense of isolation it imparts upon the mind and soul. It’s worth the hell.

This is nature.

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Every carrot has its stick. Every rose has its thorn. (Edited. Original photo by James Willamor.)

Ghost crabs poked their eyeballs out of tiny holes in the sand, pelicans flew above me in V formation, and dolphins surfaced for air. Wave after wave pounded the shore, leaving elliptical prints in the soft sand. We were all – perhaps without realizing it – at one with its steady, hypnotic beat. The oceans is limitless, expansive, humbling.

Stamp a big fat rainbow permanently on the horizon and you’d have paradise.

The pelicans, in particular, captivated me. On land or water, they’re homely creatures. Sporting s freakishly long beak, fleshy “throat pouch”, bugged out eyes, and unkempt feathers, the pelican is a bird only its mother could love. But in the sky – yes – the pelican becomes majestic, soaring effortlessly on its long, outstretched wings, inert but mobile.

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So wait, that’s what Gene Simmons tongue is for! It’s a throat pouch. (Edited. Original photo by Vegan Feast Catering.)

I couldn’t help but think that such sights inspired the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, as they worked tirelessly on their gliders in Kitty Hawk, a small “soundside” village also located in the Outer Banks.

As per usual, turns out I was right. The brothers, toiling away on windswept dunes in their overly formal city duds, frequently looked to their wild feathered friends for clues.

Wilbur wrote in a letter sent from Dayton, Ohio in May, 1900:

“My general ideas of the subject are similar to those held by most practical experimenters, to wit: that what is chiefly needed is skill rather than machinery. The flight of the buzzard and similar sailers [sic] is a convincing demonstration of the value of skill, and the partial needlessness of motors. It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge & skill. This I conceive to be fortunate, for man, by reason of his greater intellect, can more reasonably hope to equal birds in knowledge, than to equal nature in the perfection of her machinery.”

The brothers believed the science of aerodynamics contained the mysteries of flight. The engine was almost secondary in their opinion.

And a few months later, the brothers took a trip to Kitty Hawk to finally put their wild-eyed ideas into practice. In a letter written by Orville almost two decades after the fact in typical “wall of text” fashion, it’s evident the birds of the Outer Banks had left quite an impression.

“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.”

For the famous Wright Flyer – you know the one, the first real airplane  – a byzantinesystem of cables and pulleys was devised to allow the pilot of the plane to bend the wings at will, a concept known as “wing warping”. Wing warping enhanced lift and maneuverability and was modeled after the way birds curve their wings to sustain flight. It was like something out of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, and proof that bird watching can be more than just a hobby for elderly oil tycoons.

Heck, it can help you write a nice blog post, too. But hey, what do I know?

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A model of the 1903 plane.

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2 thoughts on “Outer Banks, NC: Pelicans and Wright Brothers

  1. I absolutely love the timeless experience of shimmering waves rhythmically crashing on shore. This looks like a REALLY cool spot.

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