Jockey’s Ridge: The Sands of Time

 In Back In The Day, Coastal Life, OBX Milestones, OBX Nature

“What would happen if history could be rewritten as casually as erasing a blackboard? Our past would be like the shifting sands at the seashore, constantly blown this way or that by the slightest breeze. History would be constantly changing every time someone spun the dial of a time machine and blundered his or her way into the past. History, as we know it, would be impossible. It would cease to exist.” - Michio Kaku

This place, the Outer Banks, has a precarious relationship with time. The weathered shakes and hobbled piers seem frozen in some far-off time, the land of nags yoked with lantern light leading ships to shore for those who have returned to these shores year after year. Ask a local about time here— things are changing faster than they care for; nothing is as it once was when tourists took their final trek northbound across the bridge, turning the land back over to its real inhabitants. There is a beautifully damned impermanence to the island. Each breathtaking view could be swallowed by the next storm whose indifference to the scape has been evidenced, in some capacity, with each passing hurricane season. The island is filled with dramatic nature, from the maritime forests to the boot-swallowing marshes and gurgling tide pools. But no terra firma represents this place as the monstrous dunes of Jockey’s Ridge, whose tons of sand have been the gladiatorial sites of matters political and preservative, splendrous and sacked over the years. 

jockey ridge sos
Phyllis Clifton Yodlowski - 1950 (Main pic), Tom Kalina (SOS pic)

If the dunes of which I speak are a natural attraction you have never taken the time to explore on foot —though hoof would likely be the easiest a way to travel up the sometimes hundred-foot shifting face— allow me to introduce the most frequently visited park in the North Carolina parks system. Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast — “living” because of its ever-shifting nature, not its short (read nonexistent) list of flora and fauna on the actual dunes.

Jockey’s Ridge, as a whole, boasts three vastly different biomes: the dunes, the maritime thicket, and the Roanoke Sound estuary. The dunes, or medaños, are hospitable to neither flora nor fauna. However, barrenness would be an unfair and broad stroke with which to paint the Ridge. The maritime thicket is bursting with life: scrubby and wind-bent lives oaks and persimmons protected by the sheer height of the dunes house foxes, deer, raccoons, and a slew of avian guests. Maritime trees and brush give way to cattails and giant cordgrasses at the shore of the estuary, teeming with blue crab, large fish nurseries, and a collection of waterfowl. 

The dunes are the most characteristic feature of the 400-plus-acre park. The quartz sand has been pushed from the Northeast in winter and Southwest in summer for some four-thousand years, keeping the dunes in the same relative location all the while. Where we know the dunes to be today is not the fullest extent of the medaño structure, however. Historic maritime records mention great dunes that ran all the way to Southern Virginia, aiding in coastal exploration dating back to at least the sixteenth century. Today, the park boasts a 360-foot boardwalk system, a visitor center and mu-seum, a hang-gliding school, launches for kayaks and windsurfers, and a primo location for kite flying. The sandy peaks offer one of the best spots on the island to view the sound and ocean in tandem, making for a sunset locale that indeed looks painted by the gods. 

jockeys ridge old picture
Nettie Lightfoot Lamb

As is so often the case with environs here, the name Jockey’s Ridge comes with some elements of cloudy local lore. First, it is said that the “Bankers” (those who called this place home) captured wild Spanish mustangs (horses turned up on shore from wrecked ships) and raced them on the flats at the base of the dunes, using the peaks as a sort of bandstand to onlookers. Then, in the 1840s, a grand hotel was built at Jockey’s Ridge, the Nags Head Soundside Resort. The structure brought to mind images of a desert oasis, a sprawling structure plucked from the clutches of civilization and dropped into the sand for the genteel. Holding nearly two hundred guests, the Nags Head Soundside Resort, with its wraparound porches and half-mile wharf into the sound, broad-ened its network to include a horse-drawn railroad connecting the wharf to the ocean and cross-hatching of boardwalks spanning the property. However, not long into the splendor’s infancy, the Civil War wreaked havoc on the coastal mirage.

In 1862 the hotel served as headquarters for Confederate General Henry A. Wise. Upon losing the Battle of Roanoke to Union General Ambrose Burnside, Wise torched the establishment and retreated. The hotel was rebuilt and no sooner than occupied within the next ten years, buried beneath the dunes. Since then, this sandy fate has been somewhat of a theme for Jockey’s Ridge.

Jump ahead two hundred years, and the marble

jockeys ridge old putt putt
Putt Putt - Mid 80’s. Jennifer Caruth Cheatham

floors have turned to astroturf, the white table cloths to windmills, and the ballrooms to chipping neon golfballs. Not exactly where the hotel once—and still— stands, a putt-putt course was erected in true Outer Banks fashion, all concrete sand castles, and paper maché octopi. The park system purchased the course before it was engulfed en-tirely, but its fate was a sandy one nonetheless. Those who have lived here over the years or have vacationed before 2010 may have caught a glimpse of the stone turrets of the course’s sandcastle hazard. 

There is something all too familiar about the swallow-you-up nature the Ridge presents to us. Its alluring beauty, the all-encompassing ways of the wild that at once draw you and trap you. It is reminiscent of a certain Outer Banks phrase, muttered by natives, transplants, and the occasional bumper sticker on the daily: stuck here on purpose. It is oxymoronic, paradoxical, and a tad whimsical at face value. But spend more than a few summers here, and you will understand the meaning of this salted dogma. The conviction to stay here when professional prospects misalign with uni-versity degrees, the endless search for housing, shrinking space as coastlines are eaten by the sea, and what property remains skyrockets in value, leaving the working class to trade spaces until retirement— all factors that typically drive one away are somehow part of the spell this place casts upon us. We put ourselves in harm’s way just to be swallowed up by this island, sucked into the depths of the dunes. The Ridge shifts as the tides do, but this feeble line walked between the eternal and ephemeral is that of our coast. 

jockeys ridge sos banner

Allow me to finish this piece on Jockey’s Ridge with a slice of its history whose moral rings true today, which left a legacy to this place that keeps people returning over and over. On a balmy Au-gust day in 1973, three young children ran home from their usual play place around the dunes and gnarled pines of the Ridge to their mother. Carolista Baum listened as her children panted their way through a story of bulldozers ready to level the site of their swashbuckling and steer roping, boiling with the idea of such thoughtless destruction. Baum was on the case without a moment’s hesitancy, hightailing it over the hills and through the brush straight to the machinery operator. In no time, she had talked the man down from beginning the sand displacement but knew that the fight did not end there. With the help of many other concerned Bankers, Baum organized what became known as the People to Preserve Jockey’s Ridge, driving to Raleigh for thirteen days straight to keep the preservation efforts on legislators’ dockets, rallying signatures for various petitions, and fundraising at the local and state level. The Division of Parks and Recreation established Jockey’s Ridge as a state park within a year. The dunes were deemed a National Natural Landmark. 

The spirit of Carolista lives on in more than just her streets’ namesakes. This undying love for the land in its natural beauty can be seen on the sun-kissed faces of children who play where her children once walked the plank, on the creased brows of Wanchese fishermen, and on the freckled backs of day laborers with sand in their boots. This supreme caring for one home drew me back to the beach from the city, a special tenderness for being humbled by the sea that exists only in coastal towns like ours. Yet, though the sands of Jockey’s Ridge may shift and our sandbar trails lazily back to the sea, one thing remains permanent here: its draw.

jockeys ridge carolista
State Archives of North Carolina
Emily Moliken
Author: Emily Moliken

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