Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

As road ends, beach life begins


CAROVA BEACH, N.C. -- Life on the northern neck is life beyond the end of the road.

It is past the tree stumps of storm-ravaged maritime forests. Beyond the dunes and sand fences. Within footsteps of the ocean. For only a few families, this part of the Outer Banks is home. The civilized world is a 12-mile ride down the beach in a four-wheel drive vehicle. At low tide.

"Domino's doesn't deliver and there isn't a video store around the corner," Cindy Rhodes tells visitors to her home.

That's why she moved six years ago to Carova Beach. Life on the northern neck of North Carolina's northernmost barrier island revolves around sea, sound, sand. Fishermen earn their living in the waters off Currituck County. Some children commute to school by boat.

"The biggest mistake my husband ever made was bringing me up this beach. This is where I wanted to be," says Mrs. Rhodes, a one-time real estate agent who works at a gift shop in Corolla, the last town on the paved road. "I do love living here."

She discovered Carova Beach in 1971. It was still possible to reach the community from Virginia, by driving through a federal wildlife refuge.

Larry Riggs' father was a Virginia Beach dentist and among the )) developers who bought the beachfront land. They marketed the various parts of it as Carova Beach, North Swan Beach and Swan Beach.

"At that time, the state of Virginia and the state of North Carolina had as a part of their state highway plan that there was going to be a road, down from Virginia Beach, and up from the Kitty Hawk area to the North Carolina line," says Mr. Riggs, a Realtor in Corolla.

The road never materialized. Plans for a ferry across Currituck Sound failed because the water wasn't deep enough.

Residents of Carova Beach were left with two alternatives.

They could travel from the south, along a two-lane paved road that ended in Duck. From there, they drove a gravel road, crossed over Earl Slick's property known as Pine Island and passed a guardhouse. Only residents and their guests were permitted beyond that point.

Or, they could travel from the north along the Virginia beach. That remained possible only until 1973, when federal authorities banned traffic because of its impact on the loggerhead turtle and the peregrine falcon. Today, only a few longtime residents have permission to travel that route.

So, nearly all the cars arrive from the south, and the traffic has increased. No longer are there only modest bungalows but also beach houses of glass and wood with decks, the better to accommodate vacationers. And yet, the area is scarcely populated; after two decades of development, the beach communities have, altogether, 99 houses.

Ernie Bowden has lived along this stretch of ocean for most of his 70 years.

The Bowdens have owned much of the beach corridor since before the Civil War when, he says, Northern industrialists won the land for use as hunt clubs.

Mr. Bowden was born on Penny's Hill along Currituck beach. He lived for 20 years in the old Wash Wood Coast Guard Station -- where his father once served -- before moving to a rancher on Carova Beach.

"I've lived here when you would go for several days without seeing another person," says Mr. Bowden, a rancher and county commissioner. "We didn't have electricity until 1968. We didn't have telephone service until 1974, except for the few accommodated by the Coast Guard telephone line that ran from Virginia Beach to Cape Hatteras."

That has all changed.

Residents have telephone service, septic tanks and mail delivery. They haul trash up the beach to a Dumpster in Carova that Mr. Bowden empties.

Larry and Claudette Keeney of Severna Park found their little piece of paradise in 1986 while visiting the Outer Banks. The couple spotted a girl driving down the beach, wearing what appeared to be a McDonald's uniform. It was a curious sight. They wondered what they would find if they traced her route.

"So we followed her tracks," says Mr. Keeney, a printer.

The tracks led them to the sand trails of Carova Beach. They saw a fire station and the simple houses the natives call "beach boxes" tucked among the myrtle wax and pines. They bought a parcel for $6,000. In 1990, they built their cottage, Tide Watch.

"Everybody wants to go somewhere where there is no one," says Mr. Keeney, who plans on retiring in Carova Beach. "And then once they get there they want all the conveniences of civilization that they left. And they're not there. You're on your own. You feel like an explorer."

For Cindy Rhodes and others who live on the beach year-round, getting to and from work can be an expedition. Like the August week Hurricane Felix churned off the coast. Mrs. Rhodes and her neighbor headed to Corolla in Mrs. Rhodes' Ford pickup.

"We were riding high," Mrs. Rhodes says, referring to their proximity to the dunes. "I came across the dune and the water was up the dune line."

The women arrived late for work that morning.

"There are some days when you have to wait for the water to recede, time it and fly around," Mrs. Rhodes says.

But where else can a commuter chart her course by the tides, keep pace with the sandpipers, count the horseshoe crabs on the beach and dodge stumps of live oak and red cedar, the remnants of storm-ravaged maritime forests? Along this thoroughfare, pelicans dive for fish, golden sea oats line the sand fences.

"People say you all don't have anything to do," says Mrs. Rhodes, president of the ladies' auxiliary of the Carova Beach volunteer fire company. "But we do. If we feel people have gotten apart, we'll have an oyster roast, a spaghetti dinner, pot luck."

Although the volunteer fire company has five bays of top-flight rescue equipment, the quickest way to the hospital is by helicopter -- in good weather. Housewives shop for two weeks.

Broken shells, not concrete, create driveways.

Now that summer has spiraled into fall, residents along Currituck beach have reclaimed the shoreline from the lingering tourists. The tracks on the beach are fewer. And the harbingers of life beyond the end of the road will soon return.

"We start seeing cormorants flying south, we know winter's coming," says Ron Gibson, a resident of North Swan Beach who runs a tackle shop in town. "We know the swan and snow geese are right behind them."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad