Fifty years ago, 17-year-old Kevin Duffus and his two high school buddies set off in the early morning of Aug. 18 from Greenville on their 10-speed bikes, launching a 425-mile circuit to the Outer Banks. .
While it lacked the death-defying drama of road trips to the movies, the five-day trip was a classic example of a fearless teenage adventure that can chart a young man’s path through life. For Duffus, who later became a researcher and columnist of Outer Banks maritime history and a contributing writer for Coastal Review, the journey fueled his curiosity for the coast and his relentlessness to uncover its secrets.
“So overall when I look back and think about it, it’s pretty remarkable to me that this is my first experience with the Outer Banks,” he said in a recent interview, “ but it kind of became, you know, my future. “
It’s also remarkable because at the time, long-distance biking was almost non-existent, certainly in rural northeastern North Carolina.
In 1971, Duffus was a senior at Rose High in Greenville, where his family had moved two years earlier from Missouri. Even before arriving in North Carolina, he had been intrigued by Ocracoke since watching the movie “Blackbeard’s Ghost”, loosely based on the famous pirate who was killed in the waters off the island.
Soon after moving, he read Outer Banks author and historian David Stick’s book “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” and was captivated by the story of the shipwrecks off the coast.
Duffus wanted to see the Outer Banks, so he persuaded his friends Gary Snyder and Bob Thurber to take them on a bike expedition. The three young men already knew each other well from scuba diving together, including on a trip the year before where – at the suggestion of Duffus – they snuck to Florida over Christmas vacation to do some snorkeling. cave diving. They also devoted considerable time to the search for the German WWII submarine U-352 off Cape Lookout.
“Kevin had a very distinct love of adventure,” Thurber recalled in a recent phone interview. “He was just very energetic and always wanted to go do things. He thought it would be a physical challenge and a rewarding week spent on the road. “
Thurber had a yellow 10-speed Schwinn bike that he fitted with toe clips and saddlebags.
“We weren’t trained cyclists,” he said. “We just had a few bikes, they weren’t ultralight road bikes either. They were quite big.
Snyder also had a 10 speed. Between them, Thurber recalls, they packed two tents, sleeping bags, food and water, with refills obtained along the way. They wore their everyday clothes and shoes, but no sunglasses or even hats. Sunscreen didn’t really exist and of course there weren’t any cell phones.
“Imagine – we were stupid – I mean I was wearing silly sandals,” Thurber recalls with a laugh. “No bike pants, probably just cargo shorts. We weren’t at all smart about it.
Thurber, who is vice president of engineering for Raycom Media outside of Montgomery, Alabama, said they were all sunburned and tortured by bugs, but they kept going and never did. considered giving up.
“Oh yeah. The bugs that came up to the Outer Banks were tough,” he said. “We were kids. We were bulletproof, you know?
The trio decided ahead of time that each had to follow their own pace, said Thurber, which meant that for much of the race there wasn’t a lot of talking but a lot of thinking. When they were together, he said, they had an easy camaraderie and he said he didn’t remember any arguments.
“I remember well that the trip itself was a pretty determined goal, a little myopic,” he said, adding that no one was running a dairy. “You know, we’re going to run those miles and write down in the book that we did it. We were just blowing the miles.
Which relates to what Thurber said was his best memory from the trip.
“In general, it was the requirement for perseverance,” he said. “You know, going along the marsh, I was tempted to throw the bike in.”
The biggest mistake they made was going north to south, he said, which forced them to roll all the way into a headwind. But just being on the bike made every detail of their surroundings visible. As often happens after high school, the friends lost sight of each other, although Thurber and Duffus have recently reconnected.
“We got to experience the smells, the sun, the wind,” Thurber said. “This kind of macro lens was amazing to me. I really enjoyed it. “Even the long stretch of miles next to the bombing zone was so much more interesting because he could see the birds and the environment.” It was like walking a nature trail , really.”
There is no doubt that the bike trip was “physically brutal,” he said, but it changed his life in a positive way.
“I think it was an incredible source of self-confidence for me,” he said. “You know, ‘I can do this!’ Do it, finish it – I felt good about myself, I felt it was a victory.
Duffus, who had mapped out the route and determined the stops along the way, had focused on achieving two main goals: scaling Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and then taking the ferry to Ocracoke.
The first stop was at Pantego, where they took a brief nap on a church porch. Then on to Little Washington, where they had breakfast and another short nap, this time on the school porch.
After resuming their hike, they reached Lake Mattamuskeet Lodge at sunset and started pitching their tents along the road, Duffus recounted, “which was really kinda crazy – I couldn’t imagine doing that. today”.
Soon a friendly ranger stopped them and told them this was not a good place to spend the night, and instead reserved a room for them at the lodge, which was then still open. The young men even received meals, as well as the guests of the lodge, and were able to take showers.
The next day’s ride from Engelhard to Manns Harbor on the US 264 was sorry, Duffus recalls. As they pedaled along the open road, military planes flew over the adjacent bombing zone at low altitude, dropping test bombs on targets.
After passing through Manteo, the trio turned to NC 12 and the northern border of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Finally, around 7 p.m., they drove to the Oregon Inlet Campground, where the exhausted boys were turned away by the park ranger because they did not have a reservation. Fortunately, a nice man overheard their conversation and let the boys pitch their tents on his campsite.
“At the time, I couldn’t say for sure, but I don’t think anyone has ever taken a bike ride like this, at least to the Outer Banks while camping,” said Duffus. “Now you see people doing it all the time, but it’s pretty revolutionary in 1971.”
People were generally very friendly and quite surprised to see three teenagers from Greenville traveling by bike, he said. Many people, especially on the ferries to Ocracoke and Cedar Island, were curious about them and came to ask questions.
At the time, the ocean was visible from the highway on Hatteras Island because the dunes were lower, Duffus recalls. The villages were mainly houses with a few shops and a few motels. The few tourists they saw were mostly there to fish.
The barrier islands were still relatively undeveloped and uncrowded, and traffic was light.
“I convinced my friends that it would be an easy walk since there were no hills, but I didn’t consider the Bonner Bridge to be a hill. Also, it was August and there was a southwesterly wind blowing between 25 and 30, all the way to Hatteras, then to Ocracoke. The headwind was just brutal.
“We parked our bikes with all our belongings without thinking and got on this lighthouse. I mean today you could get off and your bike wouldn’t be there. We didn’t have a bike lock or anything.
Duffus said his great-great-grandfather was an 18-year-old Union soldier who was part of an amphibious landing on Hatteras, and he’s fairly confident his ancestor’s unit discovered that the lighthouse his Fresnel lens was missing.
“You know, 110 years later, I stand in the same place as my great-great-grandfather,” he said, noting the coincidence of their crossed paths and their roles in the history of the ‘goal.
Years later, Duffus found the missing lens of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and wrote a book about it.
That evening, they ate at Channel Bass in the village of Hatteras. They took the ferry to Ocracoke, then Duffus told his friends they had to travel 13 more miles to the village of Ocracoke.
“‘What they said.” They thought the trip was going to be over. “
At the community store in Ocracoke Village, Duffus innocently asked local men on the porch where he could find the 100-foot-high cliff he saw in the movie overlooking the bay where Blackbeard was killed. .
The men stopped and smiled a little, then one of them spoke in a rich island brogue:
“My boy, you are in the wrong place. The highest point on this island is 8 feet, ”said Duffus. “It was kind of my indoctrination that you shouldn’t get Hollywood movie history.”
After high school, Duffus developed a passion for sailing and worked at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, where he ultimately produced an award-winning documentary on the history of state lighthouses and lighthouse keepers. Duffus has since established himself as a maritime historian, producing several documentaries and writing numerous books and articles, including for Coastal Review, on North Carolina lighthouses, shipwrecks and Blackbeard the Pirate.
In 2004, the late David Stick, who over the years had become Duffus’ mentor and friend, wrote in a letter: Because at that time I was considered an authority on these matters. Years later, he’s the authority I must turn to.
According to Duffus, his career path was defined before he graduated from high school.
“You know, none of this would have happened, I think, if I hadn’t read David Stick’s book and taken this bike ride. None of this would have happened.