29 March 2010

Nags Head, to start with

One thing about the Outer Banks: the town names are amazing. Have you ever imagined there would be a town named Duck? I suppose there might be a Chicken or Turkey somewhere, in some state. Then there's Nags Head, North Carolina. I have always thought in my mind that the name alluded to a horse's head.

But it probably doesn't. There's no apostrophe. "Head" probably derives from "headlands" — a high point of land on the sea — and nags or horses probably lived there after swimming to shore when sailing ships from Europe wrecked off the coast or were grounded near the beaches. English people arriving later probably named it Nags Head, with the stress on the second word. Nowadays, we put the stress on Nags.

The beach at Nags Head on a quiet spring morning

Other towns are Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. Whalebone. Caffys Inlet Hamlet. Manteo (stress the first syllable), Wanchese (think "pale cheese"), Rodanthe (three syllables) and Little Kinnakeet. Salvo. Avon. Buxton. Frisco. Hatteras Village. Ocracoke ("okra" + "coke"). There's Pea Island. One town that did not survive to the present day, and which was a big port in its own day, had a classic English name: Portsmouth. It's a ghost town now, with just a few old wooden buildings still standing, nearly covered in blowing sand.

A tavern at Nags Head

Actually, the Outer Banks are not land. They are sandbars covered with dune grasses, mostly, with just some wide spots where trees have been able to take root. At the narrow points, during hurricanes and violent winter storms the ocean often washes over the dunes and stretches of sand and on into the sounds. That of course washes out the only road down the banks and isolates communities like Frisco and Buxton even more than they usually are isolated.

Typical houses along the Outer Banks beaches

Many of the newer houses up and down the Banks are built on the non-land that is dunes and sand. To protect them from storm surges, they are built up on high pilings. When the water rises, it just flows under the living space and in theory doesn't damage the house. However, if the wind blows hard enough, say in a hurricane, the elevated house risks going airborne and crashing down into the water or onto the sand — or into the house next to it. In some places, the structures are really packed together.

Sea birds are abundant— the Banks are their home,
and it is also on a major migration route.

In the olden days, only poor people lived at the edge of the water. It was too dangerous, what with flooding, storm surges, and crashing waves. Besides, people didn't routinely have insurance to cover the cost of repairs. The shore was lined with modest houses, not to say shacks, if there were houses there at all. People with more money built their big houses farther away, where they had a better chance of surviving the hurricanes of summer and fall and the "nor'easters" of winter and spring.

The houses protection from ocean waves are the stilts
they sit on top of and a line of low dunes behind the beach.

Cape Hatteras is know as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, because so many ships have wrecked on its shoals and beaches over the past 400+ years. The cape exists because it is located at the point where two major ocean currents collide. One is warm (the Gulf Stream) and the other cold (the Labrador Current). The waters off Cape Hatteras are turbulent, and shallow shoals form and shift offshore as tons of sand are moved around by fast-moving waters.

Here's what a typical U.S. motel room looks like.
It's large, with two double beds.

Speaking of blowing sand, yesterday it was very windy and I had a horrible allergy attack. I sneezed and sniffed all day, and the skin around my eyes is sore from my dabbing at them with paper tissues all day. This morning, it is raining and windy outside, with lightning and thunder, but the wind has shifted to a different direction and I feel better.


  1. Wonderful pictures. I think some of the place names may be of American Indian origin?

  2. What an interesting post! Thanks for the list of terrific names, and a little natural and human history.

    That's a fine bird--such intense shades of gray, white, and black.

    The verification word is "cessessa," which sounds to me like a nice town in Italy.

  3. Nags Head to me says 'pub'... ask Simon what it means to him as an Anglostralian.

  4. Somewhere along the Alaska highway is a town called Chicken. The story goes that the locals couldn't spell "ptarmigan" so...

  5. Yes, my first thought was an English settler nostalgically naming a place after the "local" he'd probably never sink a pint in again. "Here's another headland, what shall we call this one?"

  6. You are taking some excellent bird photos!

  7. (Commenting while watching "Dancing With the Stars", where Nadege was seen momentarily on the screen last show :))

    Ken, I love the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. :)) Thanks for these fun photos, and the info.


  8. One assumes it takes a bit of money to keep re-building after every storm that floods houses along the Outer Banks beaches.

  9. Enjoyed your post! have you seen the photo of the Nights in Rodanthe house that was recently moved out of the ocean? check out http://www.marsheslight.com/blog/index.php/2009/11/nor-ida-and-the-outer-banks/ for a neat photo. I've got some other great photos of the Outer Banks in different posts.

  10. Great photos! Sorry to hear about your allergies
    What a beautiful bird!


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?