Gary Oliver, who runs the Outer Banks Fishing Pier just south of Nags Head, N.C., still gets a chuckle out of this one.

There were two backpackers, you see, who came down to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore a few years back with the idea of spending a few days on the beach checking out the peace and quiet, communing with nature. They set up their tent in the lee of one of the massive, shifting dunes, with the surf roaring a hundred yards away to the east. Along came dusk and the campers packed it in, cut off the Coleman lamp and snuggled up in their bags.

About midnight came a roar and a crash and the roof caved in. The campers crawled out in a daze and there, smack over the middle of their shattered little tent, sat the ubiquitous bane of Carolina's sandy paradise, a two-ton bundle of laughs and thrills - the four-wheel-drive vehicle.

"Nobody got hurt," Oliver said. "The guys were drunk and they plowed right over the dune. But the wheels landed on either side of the tent."

Welcome to surf city, 1970s style.

Time was when you could walk the length of Hatteras and see nothing but sand, sea and the weathered skeletons of wooden sailing ships that had fallen to the pounding waters. The wrecks remain, but today they only serve as littered traffic islands for the macho machines that ferry fishermen to and from the delights of the shore.

It's a mess. Last week at dawn a fishing party rode down the narrow streets of Buxton with Ken Lauer, the dean of surf-fishing guides around the fabled point at Hatteras. They turned off at ramp 28 to ride over the dunes and out onto the point.

It was warm, Indian summer day, clear and calm, relief after two weeks of bitter northeast storms. They crested the dune and looked to sea, expecting a scene of serenity and grace, surf pounding on endless white beach.

What they saw looked more like Indianapolis race week. A hundred jeeps and buggies crammed the narrow spit of land. Beer and pop cans heaped in piles; fishermen jammed shoulder to shoulder, heaving lures and bait after the flounder that couldn't have gone more than a pound apiece.

The air crackled with "10-4s" and "good buddies" as the CBers tuned in to the latest word on where and how the fish were biting. As the news rang out that the false albacore were in offshore on the south beach or the blues were feeding at Avon, little packs of anglers roared off. Up and down the beach they buzzed, like commandos on maneuvers. Everywhere the sand was torn and rutted; egrets and terns scattered before the rush of high-powered humanity.

The National Park Service, which operates the 50-odd miles of narrow sand bar that is the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, has made a few attempts to oversee the crush of beach buggy enthusiasts that has developed over the last 20 years, but so far only one regulation has developed: Beach vehicles must carry license tags. That's it. Beyond that anybody driving any vehicle can go anywhere he chooses on the fragile landscape.

It's not as if the beach is inaccessible without buggies - the park is no more than half a mile across at Hatteras, and the main road is never more than a five-minute walk from the surf. But today's outdoorsmen cherish their comfort, and with a buggy and a CB you never take the risk of having to figure out fish patterns on your own. Blanket the beach and wait for somebody to hit them; then off you go.

Which is, of course, exactly what fishing is not.