I have almost 100 miles to go, the entire freezing windswept length of the Outer Banks, from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Okracoke, North Carolina. Snow is in the headlights, mixing with the thick white foam on the borders of the waves, falling into water that is so black it looks like space. Every once in a while an extra-large wave shoots the foam further up the beach than usual and I have to swerve into the soft dry sand to get around it. Then the jeep lights shine on the dunes and they look like even larger waves, coming down from the land to meet the sea. In between is the only highway in these parts: a broad ribbon of damp gray hard sand.

Night comes early on the Outer Banks in winter; not chronologically earlier, of course, but psychically. It is only about 6:30 now but it fells like two or three in the morning, funky and played out. It is night. It has always been night. Darkness is truly upon the face of the waters.

You can appreciate what real and total darkness is here by turning out the headlights for as long as you dare, maybe a slow count of ten, as the jeep rockets along at thirty or forty miles an hour. You're suddenly in a space capsule, moving through absolute zero, complete emptiness. There is even a growing hint of weightlessness, as if in a few more seconds you would be in free-fall. But it's too scary, your hand goes to the light switch, holds it until the last possible instant . . . then . . . BLAM. The light, in a soundless explosion, creates the world.

In the first incredibly moment, while the light travels down the prehistoric beach ahead of you at 186,000 miles a second, you would really not be surprised to see . . . anything. For this reason, the few people left here in the depths of the off-season prefer to stay off the beach at night, after the high tide has washed away all traces of civilization and you are more alone than it is really sensible to be.

Signs of life. For the next eleven miles I have to watch out for the remnants of an ancient cypress forest, black stumps poling up two or three feet above the sand that cna rip the bottom out of the jeep like a ship hitting a snag. Above the high water mark the beach is lttered with the shells of a million horseshoe crabs that crunch under the wheels like dry leaves. Sometimes the headlights pick out flocks of tiny white sandpipers that fly away into the blackness in perfect formation like squadrons of snowflakes. I learn to slow down as I pass seagulls; they seem clumsy and confused and look like they might fly right into the radiator. I have a following northwest breeze that slants the snow out in front of me and sends the loose dry sand rushing in light streaks and sometime I can get the jeep up to fifty and outpace it.

I'm here, in case you're wondering, because the Outer Banks in winter is . . . hands down . . . the most remote and desolate place on the East Coast. And it's only four hours, at the nearest point, from Washington's fleshpots, scandals, Inaugurations, maitre d's, back rent, and any number of psychic debts and favors.

I am getting away not a moment too soon. The telephone was ringing insanely even as I loaded the jeep with all the gear I imagined I'd need to survive down here, including an inflatable mattress (I forgot the pump). I had a shovel, a plank, a jack, a tire pressure gauge and a heavy rope prescribed by the U.S. Department of the Interior for sand driving. I got new lenses for my glasses.

In Norfolk and Virginia Beach it was the coldest winter anybody could remember and kids were getting drowned when the strange new surface of the water broke under their feet. The night I got there I sat in the bar of the Holiday Inn in "America's largest resort town" while the snow fell outside, the Magic Rhythm Band from Washington performed, and exactly three other people watched.

The drummer on stage played a slow roll, the magician pulled a white pigeon out of a stand, the men turned to watch. "I've seen better magic shows," the guy next to me said as the pigeon flew circles in the gloom. A Navy man, he'd seen it the night before, too, and the night before that. And the night before that.

"Welcome to the Magic Rhythm Band's Evening of Magic," one of the performers announced to the three of us. "All you people." He snickered into the microphone. "You people are about as crazy as we are."

A waitress, standing at the picture window watching the snow fall on the beach, didn't move even when the magician turned the pigeon into a rabbit.

Well, you do feel a touch crazy, watching snow fall on a beach. Like finding a palm tree at the top of the Matterhorn.Better than magic. And so driving down the beach the next night in a slightly schizoid cocoon of darkness, snow and sand, I'm thinking that nothing would surprise me, that the Old Man of the Sea himself could walk out of the ocean ahead of me and I would probably just stop and ask him directions.

Nothing, that is, except a traffic sign.

It is stuck in the sand up near the dune line, as plain and unmistakeable as the nose on my face: STOP. I stop, feeling utterly ridiculous. Farther back in the dunes are other signs: SOFT SHOULDER ICE ON BRIDGE, KEEP RIGHT. A trailer is back there too, a school bus, a couple of four-wheel drives. Smoke from the smokestack, a light in the window . . . a face . . . people!

Come in and set a while, stranger.

I leave the snow and the Pleistocene beach behind and walk back into the twentieth century. In front of a warm fire, a fat gray-haired woman is watching a thirty-six-inch TV. Some kids are cleaning dishes in the kitchen. It's the Murphy family at home in two doublewides: old Mrs. Murphy, her husband and three grandchildren. Residents of this dune for more than ten years, they "collect" road signs as a hobby.

The schoolbus outside is a four-wheel drive. Every day old Mrs. Murphy drives her grandchildren to school in it along the beach, with other kids from neighboring dunes. There is a whole community of dune people here, in fact, forty-three fulltime resident families and about eighty weekenders, living mainly in trailers like the Murphys, collecting traffic signs, talking to each other on their CB radios, riding the beach . . .

And waging a kind of rear-guard guerrilla warfare on the federal government. The dune people, who live in what has to be one of the wildest environments in this country, are calling themselves "federal prisoners."

The bind is, there's no direct way off the beach to Norfolk except through the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. A few years ago the wildlife people, trying to save the ghost crabs, the shorebirds and the turtles from an avalanche of beach buggies, sealed off the beach to all traffic except for "permanent residents who were living there before 1972." Only one vehicle per family is allowed the privilege of buying a $90 permit. Up until a few weeks ago the transits had to be made between six and mine in the morning or five and eight at night: too bad if you wanted to see a late movie or anything else after hours.

New 1977 rules drop these limitations on permanent residents but ban short-termers and weekenders completely. They must now take a much longer inland route.

Paranoia in the dark dunes! Everybody, according to the Murphys, is sure that various interests, such as oil companies, the Mafia, real estate companies, the government itself, are banding together to force them off the beach.

I find myself back out in the snow and the sand, following the twinkling tail-lights of the Murphy Blazer across the black, prehistoric wasteland that's their front yard. A Murphy kid was detailed to take me to Charlie Gertz, a former WTOP weatherman who has settled in the dunes and is a leader of Currituck Outer Banks Presidents for Action (COBRA). But out here, guerrilla action, any kind of action, seems as ridiculous as the stop sign.

I follow the Blazer through a chink in the dunes and onto the gridded sandy tracks that serve for streets in the dune community. Hundreds of traffic signs glitter back through the snow: TENNESSEE STATE LINE, SPEED LIMIT 10 MPH, NO PARKING. Traffic arrows point straight down into the ground or up into the sky. Looming palely out of the gloom, we pass a twenty-foot-high figure of a women in a bikini. The houses and trailers are all on stilts, as per a state law introduced after the famous Ash Wednesday storm in 1962, the theory being that in the next one the crashing white ocean could just flow by underneath instead of leveling the place. An interesting little community. Most of the raffish settlers moved here in the late Sixties, when subdividers began selling off lots for as low as $900 an acre, and eeeeasy terms. "To tell you the truth, a lot of the people who came in were runaways from society," says a friend of Charlie's. "Running away from their wives or God knows what all. But we got along well together."

Long thin Charlie Gertz and his short heavyset wife Lucille see the conflict in classic terms: Americans are being denied their constitutional liberties by a repressive government. Fighting for total beach access, he has had an audience with Jimmy Carter and appeared on national TV. His group has drawn letters from all kinds of bizarre sympathizers, including the Ku Klux Klan. Lucille, from Brooklyn, New York, likes to think of herself as the Bella Abzug of the dunes.

"Turtles?" she bellows. "Crabs? We love them all. We take better care of them than the refuge people. Why, I've got a refuge in my backyard." Her voice echoes off the walls of the house on stilts, carries out into the black night itself. "I'm like the pioneers. I'm not going to let them destroy this country."

Deputy Sheriff Griggs O'Neal, who was living on the banks before Lucille Gertz was born, couldn't even get a permit for a long time because he was not a landowner. A wizened, turtle-like man, he's taken up his father's old guitar and written a song about the whole mess that he hopes to sing on the steps of the Capitol, if he can ever get off the beach to do it.

The Curry-tuck Curtaaaaain

Tak' her down please Uncle Saaaam.

Don't tell the people at Corollaaa

Thet you don't give a daaaamn.

If it haaapens to them, frien's,

It could haaappen to me an' you!

Let's clean these staaains o'shaaaame

From the Red, White an' Blue.

You have the feeling, though, that even if the federal prisoners are able to sing their way out, sooner or later another Ash Wednesday storm will wipe the whole slate clean anyway. Or it will be all covered up with a dune, the way the nearby town of Sea Gull was in the Fifties. Dunes move like clouds around here and constantly reaffirm the First Law of the Outer Banks: the only permanent thing in these parts is change.

Indeed, under the strong northwest winter winds, the huge dunes that dot the center of this narrow bridge of land become living things. They have covered other towns beside Sea Gull, have filled up inlets and cost the city of Nag's Head hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in sand removal. From a distance they have an other-worldly look, bulging bare and round above the scrub oaks and loblollies. Up close, their surface is tawny and lion-like and ripples as you walk on it like flexed muscles.

Englishmen, with their odd passion for deserts and out-of-the-way corners of the earth, have always been fascinated by dunes. T. E. Lawrence and Charles Doughty (in Arabia Deserta ) have done the best writing on them. Ralph Alger Bagnold, an Englishman, authored in 1941 the world's most exhaustive study of dunes. He describes them in almost frighteningly animate terms:

"Dunes may exist alone or attached to one another in colonies," he wrote in The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes. "Although capable of movement from place to place, they are able to retain their won characteristic shape." You can "kill" a dune, he observes, even make it shrink, by "sprinkling pebbles over it." A baby dune, in the form of a little patch of fine sand, has "the power of collecting like material for its growth." The dunes of the Outer Banks are what Bagnold describes as Barkan dunes, building up gradually in a breast-like mound until the strain is too great and the sand-flesh falls away on the windward slope to form a hollow crescent.Jockey's Ridge, at 130 feet the tallest dune on the East Coast, is just west of Nag's Head, about forty miles down the beach from the Gertz's, across the road from Kill Devil Hill, where the Wright Brothers hung out in 1903.

Nag's Head residents are of two minds about their dunes. One set would like to tame them, stabilize them and finally kill them with pebbles and grass to make room for housing developments. The other, which scored a major victory recently when all of the huge Jockey's Ridge dune colony was bought for a park, wants to preserve them in their wild state, be damned to the consequences. So what if they gobble up a miniature golf course or two, or a gas station. And they're still great for hang-gliding: soft to fall on.

There are even some people in Nag's head, dune radicals, who secretly hope the dunes will eventually engulf the whole place. It will happen in winter, they feel sure, when the ticky-tacky wasteland of beach bungalows is deserted.

Around sunset (it's a mackerel sky, with great swatches of light and dark; a storm's probably coming) I pick up a sufer on the straight narrow beach across Oregon Inlet south of Nag's Head, where the Hatteras National Seashore begins. He is all alone in his wet suit in the falling subfreezing temperature with no apparent means of transportation, but he's insanely happy. "Twelve-foot walls today, man, and I haven't seen a human being since breakfast. Just me and the dolphins, tearing it up."

Dolphins?

"Sure, they just tear it up. And the pelicans, man. The pelicans surf on the air currents up the fronts." He had moved here from California to get away from the crowds.

He tells me that the celebrating Christmas that night, and I should go.

Christmas in January?

"Old Christmas, man. The people in this town, Rodanthe, are so spaced out they've got their own calendar. They got this dude, Ol' Buck. Comes around with presents, instead of Santa Claus. There'll be a lot of midgets there."

Yes. That sounds interesting.

Around 8:30 p.m. with the flickering mackerel sky moon making the icy waves into a rumpled satin bedsheet, I turn off the beach toward Rodanthe, a tiny oasis of a town in the middle of the Seashore. There is one main road in Rodanthe and Old Christmas is hard to miss: a whole white frame building full of people high on brotherly love, oysters and Old Fitzgerald. They are so spirited and friendly I'm sure it's some kind of massive put-on, that Old Christmas will turn into Get the Yankee and I'll end up as Ol'Buck, riding a rail in a nice warm suit of tar and feathers. It's just not that easy to drive for miles down a moonswept beach and then suddenly walk into a roomful of Outer Bankers whose psychic RPM is on the verge of spinning out of control. What is this music here? An incredible clodhopper conglomeration of Blue Suede Shoes and Wildwood Flower . . .

And where are the midgets?

I wait until a guy walks past who's so blasted I can probably ask him anything. "Where are the midgets?"

"All over, son, Whole room's full of 'mmmm."

"Well, everybody here's pretty big . . ."

The guy just stands there, rocking a little on his feet like a sleeping elephant and looking at the place where my neck joins my shoulders. Oh Jesus. "Sure they're big. Why I seen Mack Midgett over there take on two state troopers with his hands cuffed."

I'm saved by a fitht that breaks out on the dance floor. Soon there are at least ten people flailing away at each other - factions of the Midgett family, I figure - and in the center is a burly, bushy-haired guy in overalls I learn is Larry Midgett. His cousin, in a faded blue jean jacket with Midgett stenciled on the back, is trying to calm him down.

But the band just plays faster. For the next hour or so there are flareups involving people in the original fight until a huge number of Midgetts are walking around bloody and satisfied. Mack Midgett, six-feet-four, 250 pounds with a black beard up to his eyes and a quart bottle of bourbon in his hip pocket, loses a two-by-four inch patch of skin off his cheekbone.

"Don't worry about it, there'll be more," says a man next to me, gaily. "But it don't mean nothing. Why don't you all come out to our trailer and have a drink with us." Which I do. There are people in the trailer from all over North Carolina, not just from Midgett country, but all of them seem to share the Midgett family's basic philosophy: Everybody in the world is a drinking buddy, until he smashes you over the head. Or you smash him. Then you're friends.

I got of there about 1 a.m., high as a good ol'kite myself. Too high for bed even though there is obviously quite a storm coming up now: no light in the sky at all and a few raindrops. Back out on the beach a forty-knot breeze is blowing out of the Southwest and the temperature is up to fifty. But the tide is down, luckily, and the beach is still hard.

In a heavy downpour about half an hour later I begin to see the Hatteras light combing through the rain and the spindrift. The big candle for the graveyard of the Atlantic. I am high enough to turn off the headlights again and suddenly I am rounding Diamond Shoals twenty miles offshore, instead of twenty miles up the beach.The jeep rocks like a ship as I drive up and down the irregularities in the sand . . .

Captain, it's not a fit night out for maaan or beast!

The wind rises to sixty knots. With the rain and the spume mixing in a heavy, wet atmosphere that almost hurts to breathe, I find myself by the will of God up in the house of light itself, the fourteen-sided, glass-walled room at the top of the tower. Light from the slowly revolving double-faced spot sweeps out through the thick glass in opposite directions to infinity, transecting the panes but refracting from them too in a thousand different angles and slivers. Odd pieces of flying light constantly dance in the corners of my eyes. I don't dare to look the thing straight in the face, though; in fact, it's against the law because the shadow of your head in the narrowly focused mainstream of light could confuse mariners offshore. They rely on seeing the full beam flash every seven and a half seconds.

The whole tower hums in the gale, a low resonant noise like a stick being whirled through the air. Bitter rain washes against the windward panes like windblown diamonds that become rubies, sapphires, emeralds in the beams. Not just one rainbow but hundreds, all shifting and dancing. On the leeward side the wind has jumbled the rain into a heavy smoke.

The metal door to the balcony is in the lee so Marcia Lannon 'the ranger' and I can open it. For the first time, looking out into the flying diamond-filled air I'm aware of how old this tower is. Built 100 years ago, the wrought iron benisters twist in all kinds of baroque curlicues, decorations that just don't look strong enough for a full-fledged twentieth-century storm. We take a breath and step out. Around front on the windward side, the rush of air is so strong that the little ranger's feet blow out from under her for a second and she flaps from her handholds on the banisters like a flag. I feel, suddenly, that we've lost all connection to the ground, that somehow we're falling or flying . . . falling, probably. The hum of the air shakes my bones. It's on nights like this, according to the legend, you can hear the phanton crew of the wrecked schooner Carroll M. Deering calling "Fiiiiinnnnd ussss."

There are other ghosts out there. Anyone you're ever known who's been lost at sea is out there.

The shell lady is a bit ghostly herself out on the beach near Okracoke the next morning; pale face, damp grayish hair, a gray sweatshirt over blue jeans. The morning after a big wind is a good time for shells . . . and bodies. Almost all the hard-core beachcombers around here have found a body or two.

I'd caught the dawn ferry across Okracoke Inlet and for the last fifteen miles of my trip had been alone on the beach as usual, with the seas so high it looked as if the entire ocean was avalanching toward me from the horizon. The shell lady was the second person (other than those in occasional passing cars) I'd seen on the entire 130 - mile stretch. Cloud shadows roll down the ribbon of hard wet sand she stands on. Fat gulls and thin, wiry sandpipers with striped wings come hurling down the wind past her.

Her name is Alta Van Landingham (nee Burrus) and her grandfather kept the Okracoke Light when there still were lighthouse keepers. The shell lady has always liked to watch the phosphorescence at the edge of the waves glowingly outline her footprints as she walks at night. "The beach is the most amazing thing," she says in a strange, unplaceable accent. "It's always amazing everytime I go out there."

In her living room the shell lady kneels beside an aquarium and picks up lady, her pet spider crab, which nestles in her hand without struggling or trying to pinch. On a shelf near the aquarium is the crab's whole existence in outgrown shells. The shell lady picks up a scallop that's so tame it doesn't bother to close. She has a carnivorous textile cone she feeds regularly with fish. She's noticed it can throw its harpoon around a corner.

She opens the door to her shell collection and stands aside with a small smile. Inside is merely the ocean and the beach in a thousand different forms. Ten thousand. She corresponds with divers all over the world, with museums, with dealers. In a gradual kind of beach magic, it has all come together here. Shells.

"It's funny," she says in her strange accent. "I've taken swimming lessons, everything, when I was a girl. Swimming would help my collecting immensely. But I was never able to learn. I have trouble floating. I sink. I've always sunk."