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Monday, June 2, 2008

Post Apocalyptic Pool Hall at the End of the Outer Banks

No, it's not the title of some B grade science fiction movie, this is the recounting of a tale from a few years back. Since we are now full into the summer season according to the public pool schedule, I figure it's time to have old Uncle Mongo give you some advice. I've been taking vacations down in the Carolinas for a few years and I've come to learn a few tricks and tips and I always like to pass them on if I can. First and foremost, never, under any circumstances back up on the beltway around Washington D.C. They don't like that. If you miss your exit, you either take the next exit and double back or it's "Big Ben Parliament, kids." If you have to pass around D.C. in any of your trips, I highly suggest hitting the beltway before dawn or after dinner. Traffic tends to get hairy once everyone heads to or from work. Do not mess with them. These people are professionals and will put you into the barrier without a thought.

If your destination is Myrtle Beach, here are some suggestions to help make your stay enjoyable. With rising costs just about everywhere, you really need to take a look at your priorities. What is important to you on your trip? Do you want a full service hotel to wait on all your needs that costs a lot of money? Do you want to just have some place nice and quaint to sleep at and spend your money on other things? If you want to just have a place that's clean but not full service, I can only suggest one place as I stayed there nearly every single trip I've taken to Myrtle Beach. It's not a flashy, four star joint, but it has clean rooms and it's ocean front for not much cash. It's called The Gazebo Inn. It's right on 16th street South. They are a family hotel so remember a couple of things. They are catering to kids and that means that there will be plenty of them in the pool area. I suggest going there in May or September when the rug rats are in school. I also don't suggest getting a room on the ground floor as it opens into the pool area and can be loud if you are a late morning sleeper. I suggest the Gazebo Room on the third or fifth floor. It's a little more but it comes with better amenities. With Dining there are tons of buffets and Calabash dining, but few actually are great and aren't just a polished turd. Three places I highly suggest.

Crabby Mike's
Angelo's This place is a diamond in the rough. Not your usual buffet, it's Italian food. The staff serves you your choice of excellent food from behind a wall of glass away from kids and the green mustache brigade. Top notch dining and not too expensive. I highly recommend going more than once. And, for those of us who love the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are a Steeler Friendly environment and decorate their bar as such.
Preston's Another large seafood buffet place with a lot of good food and interesting decor. Located near the entrance of Bearfoot Landing.

Of course, I have to end my trip with a stop into the International House of Pancakes. Accept no substitutions.

Here's another tip about dining. This goes for wherever you decide to vacation along the coast. Usually, outside the restaurants you will see a little podium. These are those scammers who try to get you roped into seeing condos or time shares. Avoid them at all costs. Usually, a polite no will suffice, but sometimes they get persistent. The standard, "We're on our way home, right now." doesn't always work. Without resorting to violence as so many of us wish we could just pummel them into goo, there is one tried and true method to escaping their assault tactics. Find a buddy to run cover for you. By buddy, I mean a complete stranger that is leaving at the same time you are and by cover I mean put them between you and the podium so that they will get nabbed and you will be free to keep hurrying to your car. Don't look back and don't run. Just walk briskly to the car.

Now, if your tastes lie along the OBX and you aren't a seasoned island adventurer, here is my cautionary tale of how not to attack a trip to the Outer Banks. In 2002 my wife and I decided to take our usual trip to Myrtle Beach. This was the third year in a row and by Thursday we had felt a little burnt out from the beach. We wanted to be spontaneous and impulsive. We started looking into maybe stopping at the Outer Banks on the way home for a night. We were big lighthouse fans and I always wanted to see the one at Hatteras. We figured it was on the way home and couldn't be more than a couple of hours drive and we'd get a chance to check out the sights. We also didn't have any reservations for any lodging and figured we would wing it.

From the get go I knew this would be a bad idea. I don't mind being a little spontaneous with road trips, but the ones that involve staying somewhere overnight and are in other states than my own worry me if I don't have a plan. I didn't exactly have an available Internet connection in my hotel room so I couldn't research any of this. We did this like the pioneers did. Those pioneers being my parents who spent their honeymoon in Delaware during the pouring rain without any reservations and only a truck to stay in overnight. After all, who could have known that geography and driving distance have no real correlation. That old adage about the shortest distance between two points is a straight line only works if you don't have to cross water. You basically have two choices in getting to the Outer Banks by car. You either go in on the two main roads that lead into Kitty Hawk (158) and Whalebone (64) or you take a ferry. If you're coming from South Carolina, driving to either land routes is pretty much an all day trip, so ferry is the quickest trip. However, if you do not plan your trip, like we didn't, you may find yourself trying to drive from one ferry port to the other trying to make it. Unfortunately, you have to go West to go North which takes time. While Myrtle Beach doesn't look that far from Cedar Island, let me tell you, it is. It's about a five hour drive. Not to mention you tend to question your sense of direction and safety for that matter when you find yourself in front of a tank. Yes, I said tank. Apparently, you drive through parts of Camp Lejeune on your way and for a minute I thought we were trespassing into a blasting area.

After we finally reached the ferry, we realized that we had just missed it. The next one would be around for two hours. Now, it's around 4pm and we're starving. We filled up on vending machine food that expired sometime around the first George Bush's administration and had a revelation. Perhaps we should call and see about getting a room as we are definitely going to make it home tonight. I grabbed a phone book and began searching the yellow pages.

TIP #45: Do not expect to get a room on a Saturday night in August at a hotel in the Outer Banks.

I called four places, two of which were not answering probably because the phone book wasn't current. The others were completely booked up and I was beginning to lose hope. Finally, we got some luck on our side. A little place called the Castaways Inn in Avon said they had one room left. I should have suspected something was not right but I was just thankful that we found something. We booked the room and the ferry returned to shuttle us to Ocracoke Island. Two hours later we reached Ocracoke and wondered how to get to Hatteras Island. Apparently, there is only one road along Ocracoke, so it was pretty easy to figure out. What we didn't realize was that we had a very short amount of time to reach the other end of the island to catch the next and last ferry. Little thing about driving on Ocracoke Island at night. There is nothing outside of Ocracoke but a two lane blacktop in between rows of sand dunes. You couldn't see five feet off the edge of the road because of the height. I guess this is to keep it from washing out. Once we reached the other side of the island we were fortunate enough to catch the last ferry. It was dark and foggy and straight out of a bad swamp movie. The ferry moved along at a crawl among the eerie looking marshes. Reeds and grass slapped against the side of the small boat. It was like waiting to hit something in the dark for a half an hour.

TIP #56: Any place that tells you they have one room left is lying. Don't stay there.

Reaching our destination we now had some room to breathe. The first ferry took us from 6pm to 8pm and now we were going on 9pm and still hadn't made it to the hotel, but at least we didn't have to travel by ferry and at least we had a reservation. What we didn't have was a full stomach as those decade old funyins were beginning to disintegrate the inner wall of my stomach. In the middle of a flat piece of land devoid of any life stood The Castaways Inn. It was dark and looked like the bar from the move From Dusk to Dawn at this point a run in with vampires would not have been a surprise or that scary. We approached from the main road and passed a duck crossing sign. Previews of coming attractions. Considering the place was "full" there was ample parking and the place reminded me of what the Hotel California would have looked like if it had been vacant for a hundred years. It was a family run place and by the looks of the staff it was the family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wondered if Leather Face was going to get our bags for us. We inquired about food but at that moment the diner sign wen t dark so we kind of figured that was a no. Tall and wide concrete hallways lead us to our room. I was beginning to realize that they had a lot of vacancies and every person who called was told there was only one room left.

We entered our room and were just thankful to have a place to sleep for the night. Our relief turned to heart burn as we entered our room. Navy blue shag carpeting went from coral colored stucco wall to coral colored stucco wall. A little sink and faucet in one corner had nice marble looking counter tops flanked by cobwebs and dust. I didn't even try the water. I was afraid to. I fell back onto the bed in exhaustion and nearly ended up with a concussion as it was a step up from a wooden plank in softness. I highly recommend it for anyone who can't find a really firm mattress. While my wife, then girlfriend, checked the bedding for bugs, I did a little investigating. You know those little envelopes that the housekeeping staff leave for you if you should feel they deserve a tip? Well, they are a handy little indication of when the room was last cleaned. This one was done in May, of the previous year. Turning my attention to the balcony I could see that not only was there no light on it, there wasn't a view anyway so saving money on electricity was a good idea on their part. Of course, it made my wonder why being on a higher floor still constituted having a wooden 2x2 wedged into the sliding glass door track. I guess people forget their keys......a rooms other than their own.

The pangs of hunger were now in full force and we really needed to get some food. We hopped in the car and headed south again on really the only road there is in the area, route 12. We passed closed business after closed business. After 9pm, the island must shut down because nothing was open. Then, like the Parker family on Christmas after the Bumpuses' dog had eaten their turkey, we found that the only place open for business was a Chinese take out joint. Going with the safe bet we ordered chicken and noodles. We hurriedly rushed back to our palatial ocean side palace to dine on pure decadence. Like everything else in the OBX, it was pretty bad. I couldn't make out what the flavor was but, it certainly wasn't chicken. Afterwards we decided to maybe get a look at the ocean before bed. We had come this far, why not?

TIP #76: While a very large dead spider is nothing to fear. Not knowing what killed it and whether it's still around is.

The answer to that question lies in the title of this post. We had come down to the back entrance and walked directly into something that looked like it was out of Blade Runner or The Terminator. It was a dingy old breezeway with a cigarette machine and a snack vending machine. Off to the right was what looked to be a game room with a pool table. It looked like it hadn't been used in years. Inside the snack machine was void of food except for a pack of Toasted Cheese which had seen better days. The cigarette machine wasn't empty but it was odd. Considering this was 2002, the prices were less than today's standard of $4.15 a pack. However, I think $2.00 a pack is a little telling of the last time it was filled. Then we saw it. It was on top of the cigarette machine. I think it was a spider but I don't know. Frankly, I've never seen something that big up close. I assume it was dead as it was curled up on its back but I probably should have run. It looked like a dead face hugger from the Alien movies. The fact that it was dead wasn't so bothersome but wondering how it died sent my imagination into overdrive. We proceeded out the back of the hotel and headed for the shore. From the back entrance there was about 100 yards of grass and then huge dunes that rolled down into darkness. A wooden bridge connected the hotel to the water and went through a valley in the dunes. We took a few steps out onto the rickety bridge and then retreated. We could hear water but there was only darkness. The closer we got the more of an angle the bridge sloped to one side. We began to question whether this was a bridge or a pier. In fact, I would have rather walked that bridge in Temple of Doom, blindfolded, before walking any further on that death trap. Fearing we'd fall off into the water or that we would find the killer of the spider we decided to just go back to the room and put an end to this miserable trip.

Once back in the room, we tried to get sleep but found it hard on the mattresses. Eventually, I drifted off but was awoken by the sound of my wife asking a rhetorical question. "Are you kidding me?" She had gotten up to go the bathroom when she noticed a bug taking advantage of the owner free toothbrush on the vanity. "I want to go home, now." She cried. I wanted to oblige her but it was three in the morning and I was exhausted. I promised her that we'd leave as soon as we got some sleep.

TIP #90 When beauty is struck down in front of you. It's time to get the hell home.

The next morning we left without brushing our teeth. We made a quick stop at the three light houses in the area and snapped some pictures. A hellacious thunderstorm rolled through and I was about to step off the back porch of the Keeper's Quarters at the Bodie Island Lighthouse to get a great picture when there was a flash and crack of thunder. A bolt of lightning struck right behind the lighthouse and I slowly brought my left foot back onto the porch and turned around. We finally had enough and decided to just cut our losses and go home. We managed to get to a rest stop just south of the Virginia border and needed to stop for a bathroom break. We returned to the car to leave and stopped at the exit to watch a lone butterfly flutter across the road. Realizing that this was the most beautiful part of our hellish excursion, we wanted to enjoy this innocent creatures flight. Just then, an eighteen wheeler drove by causing the butterfly to be sucked into its trail and subsequent vehicles just hammered into it and fell to the side of the road, lifeless. That was it. We just sat there, stunned at this cruel reminder of how bad this little side really was. We left, vowing to never return to the Outer Banks again.

We stayed away for three years.until September 2005 when we decided to give it another try. We rented a house in Duck and spent most of our trip in the house due to the high surf from hurricane Ophelia which was bearing down on the Outer Banks. Why do we bother?

Actually, renting a house is not a bad idea. If you can gather enough trustworthy and tolerable friends, renting a beach house is a fun way to enjoy the Outer Banks. Remember the following when trying to set up a rental.

To make money, they need to rent out the house. That doesn't mean it has to be to you. Be willing to walk away and you may get some discounts.
You probably won't get them to drop the base rental fee without consulting with the owners. However, work them over on the fees and other charges. They can do those on their own.
Play good cop/bad cop. I'm always good cop and I tell the agency how much I like the place and then my wife becomes the bad guy and they want to help the poor husband out.
May and September are always better priced months but the weather isn't. Hurricanes are more likely in September. It's a trade off of money vs. safety.

Well, that's the long and long of it. Have fun out there and be careful. And remember, if you see a big dead thing, drive all night if you have to, but get the hell out of wherever you are. Its killer may be coming back.

Here is a picture of what a live version of the spider might have looked like. I found this in my yard last night. Notice the circumference of the red peanut butter jar lid and the size of the Chapstick as a point of perspective.

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