Pedaling on Sand
I got out of bed at six, the earliest I could convince my eyes to open. The father of my WarmShowers host family set out yogurt, coffee and bananas for breakfast and plied me with protein bars for the road. With thanks and goodbyes, I slid onto my saddle and pedaled out of the driveway.
The quiet suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Virginia Beach gave way to small farms, and the sun slowly appeared over low brick houses and pine trees. Nearly alone on the road, I rolled past drowsy horses and pick-your-own strawberry fields, ready to finally say hello to the Atlantic.
I was two weeks into a solo bike tour from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Wilmington, North Carolina and today I would cross from Virginia into North Carolina via the coast, something that wasn't in the original plan. About a week earlier I had decided to deviate from my Adventure Cycling Association maps and get to the ocean earlier than they advised. Or, as I had so charmingly written in my journal, “f**k the route.”
There had been a bit of a surprise the night before when my hosts told me that the paths I'd planned to take near the border as well as the roads extending south of it were made of sand. As in loose, dry sand that is completely unrideable to anything but a fat tire bike. But they explained that I could bike along the beach instead, on the hard-packed sand next to the water. This was only possible in the hours surrounding low tide, which had been at 5:45 that morning. There was no way I could wake up early enough to reach the water by then so I got up when I did and hoped for the best. My stomach bubbled with that funny, slightly excited feeling you get when you’re not sure exactly what it is you’re doing.
As I rode I felt my eyes open a little wider than usual. I was a little bummed to miss the Great Dismal Swamp, probably one of the best-named natural features I’d ever heard of, but not enough to make me turn around. There was a new heft; a responsibility to observe that came with biking somewhere completely of my own volition.
Eventually the fields and swampy forests led me out to the oceanside town of Sandbridge. I stopped at a beach access path and ran out into the sand and waved my arms hello to the ocean as the low morning sun danced on the water. As I walked back to my bike to start following the coast, I was giddy. The Atlantic peeked out between pastel beach houses, keeping me company on my left.
Sandbridge petered out and I entered Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the first of the two parks layered above the North Carolina border. I chatted with a female park ranger who said she had never biked on sand nor, she added thoughtfully, had she ever been down to the state line. She wished me luck and I took off through the empty parking lot onto the gravel park road.
The ocean slipped from view but as Back Bay unfolded in front of my wheels, threads of worry about the day unraveled and turned to calm. A mix of wetlands and forests, the refuge serves as a sort of wayside rest stop to migrating birds. In the fall, I was told, you might spot the bright white of tundra swans or snow geese on their journey south. But my fowl knowledge ended there so I just enjoyed the views; the unnamed creatures in their marshy home. The grasses glowed in early morning light and crunching gravel mixed with birdsong.
As the path led through sun-striped forests and back into marshes I found new reasons to be anxious. What if something on my bike broke that I didn’t know how to fix? Twenty miles to a town on sand might be one thing on a bike but means something very different on foot. Reminding myself that the worst case scenario - that I camp in the parks overnight - was not bad at all, I tried to focus on the bird calls and shimmering reeds.
Back Bay ended and I rode into False Cape State Park, which sits right up against North Carolina. False Cape is only open to hikers and cyclists - if you have a car, you have to leave it in Back Bay - making it one of the least traveled state parks in Virginia. Besides another ranger, the only humans I ran into were a father and two sons packing up from their yearly camping trip. They cordially warned me to watch out for cottonmouth snakes. As they headed out, I marveled again at how long I had spent researching a new route but how much I had missed. It sort of tickled me - the thought that despite the magic of the interwebs, you can’t know everything until you get where you’re going.
But I met no snakes and sadly no feral pigs either, which also roam False Cape. I pedaled through dappled shade past loblolly pines and twisty live oaks, singing any songs I could remember about the South. I wish I was in Dixie, hooray, hooray… Carry me back to Virginia!... When I neared the end of the dirt path I turned off toward the ocean to begin the sand slog - out of the forest, over the dunes, and onto the beach. Stopping to offload my panniers, I spotted a little black and yellow box turtle resting in the shade just off the path. He seemed to approve of my plan, so off came my shoes and into the sand I went.
Gracie, my blue Trek hybrid, sank down and offered no help as I dragged her up and over the dunes. Then after one more trip, there we were - my bike, gear, and me - on a wide, undeveloped, Atlantic beach. Dusty white and foamy blue extended north and south, without another person in sight. Being alone wasn’t always a comfort on a trip like this. It certainly hadn’t been in a river valley in Pennsylvania, when a huge man in a ripped shirt had driven back and forth, passing me again and again for what seemed like an eternity. But here, I felt good.
For a few minutes, I ditched my gear and ran around in delight. I ran into the ocean, letting the morning waves lick my knees. I skipped around in the sand, stopping to squat and inspect a dried-up horseshoe crab. I rubbed tiny, bleached shells between my fingers and left them behind for the next visitor.
There was still a wide strip of dark, hard-packed sand next to the water so I packed up Gracie and tested it out. As I successfully rolled forward through sun and salty air, the novelty hit me like a tidal wave. To be on a beach and a bike at the same time, what fun!
Two lemon-colored butterflies flitted around my handlebars, following me down the beach, and I started to giggle. To think that you could combine so many lovely things into one activity. I wanted to bike the beach forever, I wanted to never return to pavement, I wanted to do an entire bike tour based on shoreline rides. I was a happy three-year-old, testing out her trike for the first time. I could barely think about how this day might have slipped so easily through my fingers if I hadn't veered off course.
With a disco playlist on top volume I rode down to North Carolina, smiling at no one. A fence marked at the state border and I walked my bike through. Soon, massive beach houses began to peek over the dunes and families on beach towels appeared. I laughed at myself and my earlier anxiety. The great wilderness this was not. Down my sand path I went, dodging little kids and absorbing the sunshine, a welcome contrast to the past four days of rain. The tricks to riding here soon made themselves clear: pedal steadily in a low gear and avoid the lighter patches of sand, lest you lose all grace and topple over.
After another few miles, I dragged Gracie a little ways from the water and plopped down to have lunch. I rummaged through a pannier for tortillas and peanut butter, but nearly dropped it all in the sand when I looked up again. A group of wild horses meandered along the water. They nosed each other along and stepped slowly through the surf, their manes tangling in the breeze. These were part of a herd of about 100 that roam the area. No one is exactly sure which group of settlers left them behind but it is agreed that they’ve been around since the early 1500s, and are genetically confirmed descendants of Spanish mustangs. These days they wander the beaches and housing developments, nibbling on sea oats and acorns. I licked peanut butter from my fingers and watched them drift along.
Refueled, I started out again, giving the huge animals a healthy berth. Just a minute later a much less graceful beast motored toward me. I gawked at the black Escalade as it passed. In the ‘undeveloped community’ of Carova, the beach is considered just another road of sand, and tire tracks and speed limit signs decorate the shore. From then on I wove between Jeeps and mustangs, my strange companions for the day.
The day stretched on, bright and hot. As the tide rose I alternated between walking my bike in shallow water and resting in small patches of shade under the weathered staircases leading to beach mansions. A kind family showed me to their own rental to use the restroom, then sent me off with a handful of apples. I munched on the gift from my trail-angels, enjoying the sugar like you can only if you spend all your days on the seat of a bike.
When the tide receded enough I climbed back onto Gracie and rode the last stretch, legs starting to burn from the extra resistance. Another fence rose out of the horizon - possibly more to keep the cars in than the horses - and I spotted a dark patch of asphalt to the right. Pavement!
It was a new kind of freedom to fly down a smooth surface again. In Corolla I sniffed out the nearest ice cream shop and five minutes later I was sitting outside under a shade umbrella with giant scoops of strawberry shortcake and chocolate. Two guys and a girl approached me.
“What are you doing there all by yourself?”
I explained myself: why there was so much stuff strapped to my bike, where I had come from and where I was going, why someone might want to travel 600 miles with their legs as the only motor. They approved with smiles. They were all about my age, working seasonal jobs in beautiful Corolla, and in the open nature of beach-dwellers, invited me to their house. It was big and sun bleached, surrounded by trees and made complete by a hammock in the living room. We cooled off with strawberries and frosty beer then made our way down to the beach.
I listened to my new friends tell stories of where they came from and how they had met and we played with hula hoops as the sun sank. An east coast sunset was a new animal to me, having lived next to the Pacific for five years. Our shadows lengthened toward the ocean instead of away from it and the sky darkened in reverse. I got muddled, trying to explain to the group what I’d seen and done that day. As if it had all been in high-definition for me but came out out my mouth a little grainy. That was fine - I could still see it in my head.
We stretched out, letting the sand get into our clothes, our scalps, our toes. Dusk approached and I turned down the generous offer of a place to sleep; I already had another kind stranger waiting to host me for the night. After hugs and goodbyes, Gracie and I wiggled our way through the neighborhood of cottages, back to the highway, and pedaled on.