I really, really needed this trip. I needed to get out of town, to put on my pack and walk into the woods. I needed to spend a few hours in the car, music up and windows down. I needed to be alone in the woods, to take myself to dinner, to drink new beers, to catch up with one of my oldest friends. I just needed to go.
There were probably other light houses before this light house, but this is the one that I remember. This is the one I was first captivated by.
I can’t explain it, really, the lighthouse thing, why I find them so delightful, fascinating and intriguing. There’s just something about them, something special.
Maybe it’s the scene they set, the pop of interest they add to an already stunning shoreline. Maybe it’s the drama, the tales of pirates and shipwrecks, a fascination evoked early in me with countless playings of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Maybe it’s just their association with the shore and the sea, an association that makes them feel exotic no matter where they are, Ohio or some godforsaken craggy coast in a faraway land. Maybe it’s the mystery and intrigue they invoke, this power they have to make me wrinkle my brow and wonder about them, wonder about the people who manned the station, who sailed past it, who built it.
I can’t look at a lighthouse without wondering about its story.
The northernmost lighthouse along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina’s Outer Banks is the Bodie Island Light Station. Legend will tell you that Bodie, pronounced like “body,” is named after the bodies that washed ashore after shipwrecks. The waters off Cape Hatteras have claimed more than 5,000 ships since record keeping began in 1526 and the area is called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
By 1837, the Cape Hatteras Light Station, now the tallest brick lighthouse in the country, was already built to the south of where the Bodie Island Light Station would eventually sit.
By order of the federal government, Lt. Napoleon L. Coste searched for potential sites for an additional lighthouse along the cape. Of Bodie Island, he claimed, “more vessels are lost there than on any other part of our coast,” and determined that ships heading south needed a beacon on or near the island to help them navigate.
Congress provided the funds for a lighthouse the same year, in 1837, but land purchase complications delayed construction by a decade. An unsupported brick foundation was laid at the behest of the project overseer, who had no lighthouse experience, and within two years the tower started to lean. By 1859, after several attempts to fix the tilted lighthouse, it was abandoned.
A second lighthouse was constructed nearby in 1859. Then the Civil War started. Confederate troops feared it would be used by the Union, so, in 1861, they blew it up.
Bodie Island remained dark until 1871, when construction began on the third Bodie Island Lighthouse, this time on a new 15-acre site purchased for just $150.
On Oct. 1, 1872, the Bodie Island Light Station exhibited its light for the first time.
Sixty years later the light was electrified, in 1932, and then, in 1953, the majority of the site was transferred to the National Park Service. Historic renovations have been completed on both the keeper’s duplex, which now serves as a visitor center, and the lighthouse, which still serves as a functioning navigational aid and is open for public tours.
As I drove past the entrance sign for Cape Hatteras National Seashore I tried to remember if I’d ever been inside of a lighthouse, if I’d ever had the opportunity to actually climb one. There are plenty of tight-spaced stair climbs in my memory, but none that I could positively identify as lighthouse related.
So this one, Bodie Island, would be my first.
I arrived early, like usual, purchased my ticket for the first lighthouse climb of the day and at 9:10 a.m., I followed six other visitors up the spiral stairs to the top of the lighthouse.
There are nine landings on the way up, only one person is allowed on each flight of stairs at a time and only eight visitors are allowed entry per climb. It’s slow-going as you stop and wait for the person in front of you to make their way to the next landing, but there’s plenty to admire on the way up.
“Hold on to your hat,” the ranger at the top said. “It can get pretty windy up here.”
And it was.
“You can stay as long as you like,” she added.
So I walked around the gallery deck maybe five times taking in the view from all angles, listening to the other visitors talk about what they could see, the places they were going or had already visited and could spot from the air. I listened as the ranger answered questions about the lighthouse, about the amount of visitors it gets, about how busy it gets up top, about where else she’d worked and how she was enjoying her time at Cape Hatteras.
I watched as an older woman tucked herself just inside the lighthouse and peered out onto the gallery platform, hand firmly placed on the door frame. She said she appreciated the view very much, just not the heights and was fine looking out from within, thank you very much.
The ranger pointed out the line where the the National Seashore begins. It’s easy to see from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It’s where the giant beach houses stop, where the coast goes wild. There’s some 70 miles of wild coast after that, all protected by the National Park Service.
“It just goes on and on,” I said to the ranger. “That’s great.”
I made my down slowly, pausing at each landing, peering around the twist of the stairs to see if anyone was heading up, careful to follow the rules, like always.
I stood outside and looked at the lighthouse for a while, leaning into my car trying to imagine all that happened before I showed up and climbed the 214 stairs to the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
What was it like, I wondered. What was it like to live in this place, in the duplex below a lighthouse that helped stop ships from wrecking?
The Bodie Island Lighthouse at Cape Hatteras National Seashore is open from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day and climbs are available every 20 minutes, starting at 9:10 a.m. every day. Tickets are required and can be purchased for $10 from the visitor center starting at 9 a.m. Tickets are available on a first come, first serve basis and go quickly on weekends and holidays. The light is not air conditioned and can be hot and cramped, especially during the warmer months. Climbers must weigh less than 260 pounds and be taller than 42 inches and be able to climb the stairs on their own. Only eight visitors can climb the tower at one time, however there’s no time limit once you’re inside the lighthouse. The Bodie Island Lighthouse is one of three lighthouses within the boundaries of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
That – the flight stuff – is something you’ll definitely notice if you visit the Outer Banks, home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the site of the world’s first successful, manned & powered flight.
It all started in 1900, at least the part that includes the Outer Banks.
Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, wanted to conduct some manned gliding experiments and, after looking at some data from the U.S. Weather Bureau to find the most favorable and consistent winds for their flying adventures, headed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They’d been thinking about flight for a few years at that point and were finally ready to test some of their theories and creations.
They tested a glider that first year in Kitty Hawk, launching it from the Kill Devil Hills, a spot they’d continue to use as the base of their aviation experimentation for the next several years and the spot where, today, the Wright Brothers National Memorial sits.
After a few years of experiments and near-constant tweaking of their gliders, the brothers built the Wright Flyer I, their first powered machine. On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville climbed aboard the flyer. The wind was cold and hard at 27 mph. At 10:35 a.m., Orville released the wire, the flyer rolled down its rail and lifted into the air for 12 seconds while Wilbur ran along beside it.
According to the National Park Service, it was the first time “a manned, heavier-than-air machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started.”
That same day, the Wright Brothers conducted three more test flights, taking turns piloting the flyer with each flight. When Wilbur flew his second flight, and their fourth and final attempt that day, he managed 852 feet in 59 seconds, a considerable jump from their first 12-second flight.
Today, a marked flight path shows the end of each of those four first flights attempted by the Wright Brothers in 1903.
The Wright Flyer I never flew again. A gust of wind caught it just after its fourth flight, flipped it over and damaged it beyond simple repair. The brothers sent a telegram to their father reporting on their success.
On March 2, 1927, the site of the Orville and Wilbur’s first flights was dedicated as Kill Devil Hill Monument. A few years later, in 1933, the War Department handed it over to the National Park Service and 20 years later, on Dec. 4, 1953, fifty years after the first flight, the site was designated as the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
Today, the 400-acre national park includes a 60-foot memorial that sits on top of the now-stabilized Kill Devil Hill. It was dedicated in 1932, on a cold, windy and stormy day, and Orville Wright himself was the guest of honor. There’s the flight line to explore too, reconstructed camp buildings and a sculpture that serves as an artistic rendering of the first flight.
I visited the park on the last day of my last minute beach vacation back in May. I’d driven past the entrance to this park dozens of times over the years on various Outer Banks adventures, but had never taken the time to go inside the park. I got there early, right after they opened and just as a school bus full of screaming, racing, scampering children poured into the park. I was ahead of them for a little bit – it takes time to organize a gaggle of school kids – but they caught up to me as I walked the flight line, racing their way from point to point, screaming, laughing and yelling the entire way.
As it turns out, history can be real fun for kids, so long as they can barrel through it at full speed and maximum volume.
Every time I visit North Carolina, I’m reminded of its flight-related feud with Ohio.
The Wright Brothers lived in Dayton, Ohio, and Ohio has taken credit for their accomplishments, adorning their license plates with “Birthplace of Aviation.” In 2003, Congress even declared Ohio as the birthplace of aviation since that’s where the brothers were from.
Still though, North Carolina’s plates claim the state at the “First in Flight.”
It’s also possible they’re all wrong, that the first flight had nothing to do with the Wright Brothers and that neither Ohio nor North Carolina can claim it as a license plate-worthy highlight.
Wright Brothers National Memorial is located in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, in the state’s Outer Banks. It’s open daily (except on Christmas Day) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission to the park is $10 per adult, while kids under $15 can visit for free.
Summer was calling. I felt it in my bones, a bodily longing for sunshine, for the crash of waves, sand squishing between my toes, the tropical fruit stink of sunscreen.
What I needed was the beach.
I packed up the dogs, some clean clothes and some road snacks and we all headed to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where the Wright Brothers flew the first successful flight in 1903 and where a colony of Englishmen and women mysteriously disappeared between 1587 and 1590.
I’ve had a long-standing love affair with the Outer Banks, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been and even longer since the dogs went with me on any sort of adventure, especially one that included an ocean.
The Outer Banks are different. There are wild horses and dunes, crabs that terrorize my dogs as the sun rises and a low-key sort of feeling that validates any desire to do absolutely nothing.
It’s not like Ocean City, Virginia Beach or Myrtle Beach. There’s no boardwalk, no bustle. There’s mini golf, and some outlets and a bunch of good food, but mostly it’s just beautiful beach, 70 miles of which is preserved as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The wolves and I spent three days at the beach, catching the sunrise each day, chasing crabs across the sand as the sun came up, drinking wine from cans, reading books and visiting the three national parks in the area, of course. I took a multi-hour nap, spread out in bed and watched trash TV while the dogs snuggled on their own queen-sized bed. I took myself and my book to dinner, made friends with retirees both new to the area and exceptionally local. I had chicken wings for dinner and key lime pie for dessert then walked the beach with the dogs as the moon came up.
The dogs reacted differently to the ocean, as they always have. Sadie, the white wolf of wonder, pounced into it, barked and tugged when I wouldn’t let her throw herself into the water to bite and snap at the waves. We went in a few times, mostly just to wet our paws, but she doesn’t know how to contain herself at the ocean and will inevitably consume too much salt water and make herself sick if left unchecked biting at the waves.
Luke, the master of anxiety, cried and pulled himself away from the ocean. It scared him, just like most things scare him. But then he noticed the crabs side-walking their way out of their lairs and was at once terrified and fascinated. I let him off-leash and he went after them, pouncing into their holes, digging when they crawled back inside and returning to me when they disappeared. He caught a few too, and engaged in a serious battle with one good-sized creature who would not retreat, no matter how many times Luke snapped and barked and bit the thing.
On the way home, I thought about how much my life has changed. A few years ago, even a single year ago, I wouldn’t have considered a spontaneous solo trip to the beach, with or without my wolves. Going to New Mexico by myself last year felt like a radical act, like a personal revolution of realization that such things were actually, really and truly possible. Seven months and a handful of solo adventures later and it was a given.
Somewhere between New Mexico and now, my thinking changed. The dramatics are gone. I don’t call it “going alone” anymore, now it’s just called “going.”
“It’s on the way, which means we have to go,” I told him. By that point, he’d grown used to my map-scouring and park visit-plotting ways, and while he cared little for history, he was a good sport about it, especially if there were comfy benches for him to sit on while I chattered about random pieces of history or artifacts in a display case.
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park commemorates the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, fought during the Revolutionary War on March 15, 1781. There, around 2,000 British troops, under the command of Lt. Gen. Charles Corwallis, defeated 4,500 Americans, commanded by Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene. After two and a half hours of battle, Greene retreated to preserve the strength of his army. Cornwallis had lost more than 25 percent of his force, while damages to the American force were much less, around six percent.
After Guilford Courthouse, the British gave up on the Carolinas and, seven months later, Corwallis surrendered in Yorktown, Virginia, to the French and American forces mustered there under Gen. George Washington. The surrender effectively ended the hostilities and even though Greene technically lost at Guilford Courthouse, he was still lauded as a hero and is considered one of Washington’s most dependable and gifted officers.
At Guilford Courthouse National Military Park, we first wandered through the museum. The collection there is exceptional and, at the end, there’s a small plaque dedicated to the park ranger who donated his personal collection to the park after his death.
After the museum, we drove the battlefield tour road that includes eight stops and 26 interpretive panels that help to explain the battle. The park itself is lovely, with rolling hills and tree-lined roads and a bunch of walking trails that meander through America’s history.
During our visit, I felt a little silly. I live in Richmond, Virginia, and can tell you all about the Civil War. Fifteen years in the Army has provided me with a wealth of information on the World Wars and yet, I live in Virginia and can’t tell you much about the Revolutionary War, aside from the very basic of basics, that it was for independence, that George Washington was there, along with the British who were wearing some ridiculous red coats.
It occurred to me, as I wandered through the museum, that my knowledge of the American Revolution comes from my high school history lessons, numerous viewings of the The Patriot and not much else.
So, I did some research. Because I don’t like feeling silly.
FIVE THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
1. THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION WENT ON FOR ALMOST 20 YEARS.
While America’s thirteen colonies declared themselves independent from the Kingdom of Great Britain on July 4, 1776, the American Revolution officially ran from 1765 to 1783. It included all the crazy shit we learned about in high school, like the whole, “no taxation without representation” thing (1765) and the Boston Tea Party (1773), plus the Revolutionary War which started on April 19, 1775, with the Battle of Lexington and Concord. While fighting ended after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, it wasn’t all officially over until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.
2. THERE WAS A SECRET PLOT TO REPLACE GEORGE WASHINGTON AS COMMANDER OF THE CONTINENTAL ARMY.
Benjamin Rush wrote an anonymous letter to Patrick Henry in 1777, suggesting that Thomas Conway or Horatio Gates would make a better leader for the new nation’s army. Rush was pissed because Washington had denied him a promotion after the Battle of Brandywine, so he went around George to the Continental Congress and managed to secure a spot as Inspector General of the Army. When Washington heard about the letter, he confronted both Rush and Gates and they both backed down. Gates ended up resigning from the Continental Army in 1778 and was later shot in the face during a duel.
3. TO AUGMENT THEIR ARMY, THE BRITISH HIRED 30,000 GERMAN SOLDIERS, OR “HESSIANS,” TO HELP THEM FIGHT THE PATRIOTS.
These men were, at least in the beginning, from Hesse-Cassel, and were regular soldiers who were basically rented out to British for the war fight. They fought in every major battle of the Revolutionary War, from Quebec to Florida, and once the war was over several thousand opted to stay in the new United States of America rather than return home.
4. AFRICAN AMERICANS FOUGHT FOR BOTH SIDES ON THE CONFLICT.
At least nine African American Soldiers fought at Lexington and Concord, but when the Continental Army was organized in 1775, there was much debate between north and south over recruiting black Soldiers. A majority vote opted to exclude blacks from military service, but by 1777, that was pretty much forgotten. Some white men who didn’t want to serve actually hired African Americans to serve for them. The British, meanwhile, recruited slaves from the very start of the conflict, offering them their freedom if they were willing to fight. Ultimately, about 7,000 African Americans served on the Continental side, while about 20,000 served with the British.
SEVERAL NOTABLE WOMEN HELPED WIN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION.