DUCK, N.C. -- For generations vacationers driving from the north to this state's Outer Banks crossed Currituck Sound via the Wright Memorial Bridge and then turned right, heading due south on Highways 158 and 12. Their destinations were Kitty Hawk and Okracoke and points in between: Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Hatteras. That was where everybody went; the rest of the Banks was terra incognita.
But now streams of cars turn left off the bridge, driving north to Southern Shores and Duck and Sanderling and even all the way to Corolla. A quarter-century ago, when first I saw the Outer Banks, the paved road -- such as it was -- ended at Duck; if you wanted to travel farther you needed a Jeep, if not an amphibious tank. Today not merely is the road paved all the way; in Southern Shores there are four traffic lights, all erected within the past year, and in the heart of beautiful downtown Duck there's sometimes gridlock as motorists fend for parking spaces at Wee Winks and Tommy's Market.
The 25-mile stretch of barrier reef from Kitty Hawk to Corolla -- the North Banks, or Currituck Banks, as it is known -- is the latest hot spot in the never-ending story of coastal development in the Tar Heel State. With the rest of the Outer Banks either overbuilt or preserved as national seashore, and with the famous old beaches to the south -- Atlantic, Emerald Isle, Topsail, Wrightsville, Carolina -- long ago transformed into quasi-urban outposts, the North Banks were the last piece of unspoiled Atlantic shoreline; these days, though, they're wasting little time in getting spoiled.
Here in Duck the cry is, "The yuppies are coming! The yuppies are coming!" but it's a cry of pleasure rather than pain. This little spot in the road -- you can't call it a crossroads because there's only one road -- was a quiet little fishing village as recently as a decade ago, not exactly impoverished but not exactly prosperous, either. But now that the big spenders are pouring in from Norfolk and Richmond and, yes, Washington, merchants and landowners hereabout are cashing in. Overnight, Duck has become a growth industry.
About 2 1/2 years ago, when I first stayed at the inn a few miles north of Duck proper, early-rising guests found copies of USA Today and the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot next to the coffeepot in the lobby; USA Today still awaits them, but now the other newspapers of choice are the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. This is good news for an employee of the latter and a habitual reader of both, but as one of innumerable signs of what's happening to the old fishing settlement, it sends at best a mixed message.
The good part, at least to my eyes, is that the individuals and companies who are so busily building up the North Banks are doing so with surprising subtlety and restraint; there's not much of the ticky-tack so characteristic of American seashore resorts, and there's a lot of pleasant shingle architecture. But the bad part is that the customs of the city have been brought to the coast, and the truth is that those customs aren't always as attractive as we city folk like to believe.
In Duck, where not so long ago the principal business was trawling for mullet and menhaden, you can now eat blackened mahi-mahi and sip Amstel Light at a little restaurant on Currituck Sound, or buy pasta salad and white wine at a deli a few steps down the road. The Caffey's Inlet lifesaving station has been turned into a restaurant where the waiter tells you his first name and where the food, though certainly good, is Georgetown-trendy. At an elaborately quaint shopping center called Scarborough Faire -- yes, F-a-i-r-e -- you can buy polo shirts and "gourmet" kitchen supplies, not to mention dresses from India and quilts from Indiana.
It's all just as tasteful as you please, and twice as expensive. My wife and I have been here a half-dozen times, but always off-season and always at the inn; in-season room rates are beyond our means, weekly or monthly house rentals rival those at the most exorbitant Delaware and New Jersey resorts, and as for buying a place, well, forget it. The beach itself may belong to us all, but the places with a view of it are strictly for what passes as the elite in this post-Reaganite era, and for that matter even a place with nothing to look at except saw grass would strain the financial resources of a venture capitalist.
This is good for the merchants and real estate agents of Duck -- and, believe it or not, for those of distant Corolla as well -- and it probably isn't really bad for anybody else, yet like most of life's blessings it's been gained at considerable cost. The old North Banks was a distinct, discrete place, with its own culture and character; the new one, for all its charm and comfort, is just another cookie-cutter playground for the unduly privileged.
Oh well. In his excellent history, "The Outer Banks of North Carolina," David Stick writes: "Already, people were complaining that the resort was changing and that it was not like the old Nags Head. They longed for the days when Nags Head was 'but another name for happiness; lovers walked on the sea-shore; Doctors practiced without fees,' and it was 'respectable to be seen in homespun.' "
That was in 1849. Nearly a century and a half has passed, and the Outer Banks have changed beyond the most lunatic dreams of any antebellum developer, yet they're still the Outer Banks. Yes, now you can buy a six-pack at Brew-Thru and spandex swimwear at Birthday Suit, but you can also watch porpoises play in the Atlantic and swim in a thundering surf and wake up to a sunrise that leaves you breathless, and so far we've somehow managed not to botch that up.
We make a mess of some things, but others endure. That's one of the themes of a book I read here last week, in between looking out to the sea and soaking up the sun. In "Titmuss Regained," John Mortimer tells how the Thatcherites manage to replace a lovely bit of countryside with a hideous "new town," and though he's plenty angry at Mrs. Thatcher, in the end Mortimer regains his balance:
"Fallowfield Country Town was there and the Rapstone Valley was gone forever. People in Fallowfield would continue to fall in love, give birth, play with their children, lie in bed together on Sunday mornings, make up quarrels, come home singing from the pubs and enjoy occasional happiness. Sometimes, seeing its familiar glow in the sky as they crawled home along the eight-lane motorway, they would think of Fallowfield as home and perhaps find it beautiful."
The man to whom this thought occurs "told himself all this, but was not entirely convinced." Right. In Fallowfield, as here on the North Banks, the new world is neither as lovely nor as rich in character as the old one it replaced. But at the risk of heresy I'd just as well admit: Down here in Duck, it's all right with me, Jack.