Empty Beaches Full of History

One of the best places to camp is at the beach, but it isn’t that simple. Before our RV, when we were tent camping on Florida’s beaches and islands, we had to find the sweet spot when the weather and water temperature were warm enough to want to swim, yet still cool enough at night to sleep. And with how quickly sites fill up, you need a Farmer’s Almanac and a lot of luck to predict when to tent camp at the beach. We were successful a few times, at Fort DeSoto, Key Largo, Anastasia Island, and Key West and not as successful when our first trip to Key West coincided with a “cyclone bomb” (although it was still a great trip). 

With the RV, we’re free to book a beach campground anytime. We can crank up our Coleman Mach AC unit and freeze our butts off no matter how hot and humid it is outside. With that in mind, our first destination on the second leg of summer 2020 was 4 nights on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which has a rarity in campgrounds run by the National Parks: electrical hookups. 

But before we left the Sunshine State, we had one important pitstop to make. School was starting (keep in mind we are homeschooling this year) so we pulled the camper up to the venerable Book Mine. The Book Mine is a Jacksonville institution, just a mile from where Monica grew up, which explains a lot about the person she is today. She was a regular there starting around age 9. They let you trade in old books for a generous credit toward different old books. Thirty-odd years later, her account was still active. We donated a pile of books and dove into the stacks.

They call it the Book Mine because it was once just a giant mountain of books which they’ve since tunneled through. At least, that’s how it appears. It’s immense. Whatever we saved by buying used books will be paid for in lost gas mileage.

After a night driveway-camping in Jacksonville, we just had to hop up the coast to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. Just two little states away – how far could it be? I hadn’t even bothered to look. It turns out that Cape Hatteras is way out there (that’s a fancy navigational term). Like – half way to the Virgin Islands. Okay not quite, but it was a lot further than I expected. Facing a 10+ hour drive and a very late arrival, we did something we’d never done before. We “boondocked.”

Overlanding pros pride themselves on not paying for campsites. They call it boondocking, although they might have moved on to a newer phrase so middle-aged dads like me don’t make it seem lame. They use apps and message boards to find out-of-the-way places to camp for free. Then they post pictures on Instagram of themselves drinking kava under a natural arch or beneath a waterfall. Where is this magical land of undiscovered natural wonders reachable only by modified Mercedes Sprinter? We may never know, but I’m happy paying $20 in a National Park versus sleeping for free behind a Waffle House. Camping is already pretty cheap.

As it got late on the way to Cape Hatteras, we had a choice, drive 15 miles out of the way to a KOA and pay $80 – or boondock. I’ve already left two KOA’s without staying the night (Mount Rushmore and Harper’s Ferry), so I really didn’t want to pay motel rates for a place to park for 8 hours. Everyone knows that many Walmarts will let you park overnight, but not every Walmart is in a place you want to sleep. It turns out that Cracker Barrel restaurants are also friendly to RVers. We decided to give it a try.

The Cracker Barrel was a perfect place for first-time boondockers. We arrived near closing time and no one batted an eye at us. In the morning, I pulled up their app and ordered breakfast delivered curbside. Their food isn’t particularly special, but I felt like we should patronize the place that lets us camp for free. We also started our homeschooling right there, beginning to learn about Colonial America as we approached one of the earliest settlements.

Refreshed, we reach Cape Hatteras by mid day, ready to explore. It wasn’t what I expected. I grew up in Southern California, where the idea of an empty beach is something out of fiction – something only seen in movies. But there we were on Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, with miles and miles of beach with hardly a soul in sight. The only reason we saw anyone, was because the campground was nearby, along with a beach access road for cars – yes you can pull your car up on the beach if you think it won’t get stuck in the sand. Imagine that in California.

We jumped right in to the history lessons. Those of you who paid attention in school might remember the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, which settled there in the early 1600s, and when ships returned to look for them a year later, they were gone. Theories of what happened to them are varied: They were killed by the Croatan Indians. Or they assimilated with a local tribe. Or they all starved to death and their bodies were somehow never found. Or they were abducted by aliens (yes, someone has posited this idea.) Whatever the story, it’s fascinating and archeologists recently began a new dig that might contain some answers. Unfortunately COVID has stalled that dig, and to no one’s surprise, locals weren’t willing to give up the location to our curious family.

Bring your own shade to Cape Hatteras. This beach is swept by a steady wind and the occasional hurricane so there aren’t many trees to be found. We stumbled upon an actual shipwreck – a piece of equipment that ran aground sometime in the last year, but looks like it’s been there ten. Our son played the role of shipwreck survivor until, to our amusement, he was struck by a rogue wave. I suspect that the captain of the vessel was distracted by mermaids like Monica in shell bikinis.

Do these pictures really need a caption? No need to be jealous. Cape Hatteras is open to the public. God made weekends for a reason.

It wasn’t all beaches and rainbows. There was some learning going on. We found the beach littered with all these little black things that looked like there were some kind of burned paper or plastic. Our son quickly, and nonchalantly identified them as “shark eggs” – a claim that seemed dubious until Google confirmed what we already knew: All those nature books we buy him aren’t going to waste. The blacksmith re-enactor (a Scotsman) at Roanoke Island Festival Park was a true pleasure. In non-pandemic times, an outdoor amphitheater hosts a dramatic play about the Lost Colony. Instead, we wrote and acted out our play (video not included for the sake of our dignity.)

Before we left the area, we worked in a science lesson on the Wright Brothers, visiting Kitty Hawk. There’s a lot of history on this little strand.

Leaving Cape Hatteras, I had the feeling we’d only scratched the surface of this unusual place. We skipped towns and lighthouses, and museums were closed. There will be lots to see when we return. But we had more to see as we headed toward Virginia and Maryland. The next post is going to be a little different because I’m going to turn the keyboard over to Monica! (If she gets more clicks there’s going to be hell to pay.)

“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at jkilewrites@gmail.com. Monica is a non-profit consultant, grant writer, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.

4 thoughts on “Empty Beaches Full of History

  1. Good to hear you guys are doing well. Please keep documenting your trip so we can follow you and the family on another adventure. It sounds like its going to be a great year. Just don’t talk to Nina as she has visions of getting an RV (this topic has recently come up, out of the blue!). Stay safe and healthy!


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