Hang Gliding, Wild Horses, and Solitary Confinement in the Outer Banks

Jaime Conlan

© Copyright 2020 by Jaime Conlan

Photo of horses on outer banks.

Crumbs of doughnut cascaded into my lap as I sped down the highway, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and on hour twelve of driving on my spontaneous quest to see wild horses and make it back in time to take a Kitty Hawk flight lesson.

My New Years Plan, ever since turning 18, had simply been to leave, to get out of wherever I had been before. A loose definition that could mean leaving my house but usually meant leaving my state.

In 2018, the need to leave led me nine hours east to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and then seven hours north from there on the next day to chase the wild Assateague horses in Virginia and Maryland before ending in Delaware. I spent an additional two hours exploring abandoned houses and coastline, only to embark on a seven hour drive back to the Outer Banks to try my hand at hang gliding.

The premise of my trip was to try to control my fear and my worries to discover something new, though at first glance it just appears like a strange form of punishment to drive 30+ hours in 3 days all alone.

I was a young woman traveling entirely in solitude, and there was a certain amount of doubt that clung over me that sounded, eerily, like my mother’s voice. I checked all locked doors and tried to limit my time out at night, but limiting was difficult.

I arrived at the Outer Banks well past dark on my first day. The ocean at night is an irresistible lure. The waves crashing upon a shore that I’ve never seen before, their foam spewing fresh salt into the air. I found myself alone on the beach, wanting to venture out and explore, but also wanting to return to safety.

I battled this dynamic frequently. Having considered myself a historically timid girl, I longed to grow in my confidence, but I wanted to be as safe as possible, and I found it difficult to strike a balance. I existed outside of my comfort zone in some ways but still inside in others. In hindsight, everything I did while I was alone on that trip helped solidify my confidence on my own. I needn’t have tried to do anything more or worry if I was doing enough. There was no burden to carry, though I constantly imagined one.

Besides embarking on this trip alone, I also vowed to not use my phone to check texts or phone calls. My phone would be strictly for GPS and posting the occasional update so no one would worry.

In the absence from the constant stream of news and messages, I found a new silence to sit with, one with which I wasn’t already familiar. It felt uncomfortable at first, and my legs jittered with an anxious energy. It is odd to sit with yourself in the absence of the comforting presence of people inside of a phone, especially during a time when I typically would travel with others. The juxtaposition at times grated me, and all I could do was turn my music up a little louder, try to sing with the song even if I felt like crying.

I felt broken-hearted when I left on the trip, still reeling from the loss of a previous relationship and struggling to find my place with new people. Though travel seems like the perfect solution for a broken heart, the forced solitude causes the unrecovered heartbreak to feel even more jagged. I felt the sharp edges prick my insides with unwanted memories tied to a specific song or intrusive memory. The hours in the car felt even more weighted, and I began to doubt the power of a road trip.

For the first time in my road trip experience, I debated returning home.

There was too much time to second guess and let my emotions swirl around me. There was no one to save me, no one to decide for me, and all I could do was wait for the chaos of my emotions to settle around me and attempt to keep going forward. The sun set around me, and I carried on.

When I pulled into my airbnb for the night, a simple private room in someone’s house, I felt like a teenager sneaking around, as I tried my hardest to stay silent even when I fumbled with the unfamiliar keys.

The room was beautiful with lights that cast an amber glow, making everything felt warm, like stepping into a sepia photograph. I pulled out my bag of books and laid them across the bed, five or six of my journals, one fiction novel, two books of poetry: all books I thought would be helpful for my spiritual solitude over these few days.

(I ended up hardly reading any, but books provide good support to weight down the second half of the bed.)

The door groaned open when I peeked outside to find the bathroom. It was down the hall, split between the kitchen where a radio droned on and the living room where a hallmark movie fought for space. I don’t think anyone was down there, but it felt like home to me.

In the morning, I woke up before the sunrise. It was officially New Years Eve, and I already had plans for a day trip. To most of my friends, driving seven to fifteen additional hours away from a place you drove nine hours to the day before would not be a day trip. Luckily, I had no one to contend with, except my own exhaustion, to which I paid little mind.

I began at the beach, watching the soft lavender sea burn red as the sun rose. The drive north along the Outer Banks was spectacular even under the grey mask of winter. It was scenic in its subtlety, the road straight and continuously flowing, seeming almost naturally bright along the edges from the warm sun shining down. I treated myself to a classic road trip staple for me, Dunkin’ Donuts, and continued with my morning. My playlists for solo trips were mostly upbeat, sometimes even verging on annoying, to keep my morale high for endurance driving.

On previous road trips, I occupied my time with calling friends, but I still felt that my mind needed some silence. I let myself become enveloped in the quest at hand. I had decided the night before as I fought for sleep at 3 a.m. that I would venture north to see the wild Assateague horses. Even better, I’d chosen a route that would take me under the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel, an engineering marvel where the highway actually runs beneath the water.

I loved every second of the drive as I sped into the water on a tall bridge, seagulls flying directly by my drivers side window. Then, gradually, I submerged, and though the tunnel felt normal by all accounts, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like an aquatic explorer in my custom submarine.

Eventually, I made it to the beach where the wild horses were supposed to gather, my eyes scanning every inch of land. I saw nothing but marshy green grass nestled beneath trees on the edge of the beach.

Then, something moved out of the corner of my eye. I turned to catch it, cursing my bad eyesight, before the vision swam into view. As my car ascended over the cusp of a hill, I noticed two beautiful copper horses in the marshy grass. I marveled aloud to myself in the car and anxiously sought parking but found none, having seen the horses from a busy main road. I drove the rest of the swirling park road and thought about those horses, freely roaming.

I found parking and decided to wander. The overcast day created fresh vibrancy on the marshy beaches below as I navigated puddles on the board walks. At one gravel walkway, I found a clue.

There, in the middle, sat a pile of horse poop. It looked recent, and I giggled at my joy at seeing this little clue. To me, it just meant I had a better chance of catching horses, so I snapped a picture and continued on my way.

The more I walked, the more I felt like myself, overcome with joy at being alone and being happy anyway. Nature is helpful that way.

I never did see more horses, but I did drive in loops to keep stealing glances at the horses from the first marsh. Throughout the park, I followed signs that gave information about the horses and pulled up a website where you can even track their latest movements. Still, with no further clues and the day getting late, I had to leave to head back to my Outer Banks home soon.

Bye,” I said aloud to the horses, and it felt good to break the silence around me, even if I was the only one who could hear.

The drive home felt like a marathon. The exhaustion I had denied earlier now descended over me, and I screamed along to old pop music to try to overcome. The power of pop and punk is no match for driving exhaustion.

Coming “home” to the airbnb that night felt like docking at a port after a storm. It felt late, but in the dark of winter it was only 7 p.m. Five hours until the New Year. I rested, journaled, and got myself dressed up to head into the city for a New Year's Eve celebration. I read online that there was a town celebration just 45 minutes away.

I felt brand new after a change of clothes and a new playlist to drive into the city at night. I found myself excited at the prospect of celebrating with strangers while still being all my own.

The town greeted me fondly, narrow streets with holiday lights strung up, and open parking by a beautiful bridge. People scattered across the bridge and the banks, looking outward and over the water. Lights blinked above the rooftops and muffled music leaked out from behind them as I weaved my way toward the center. I was surprised to find people of all ages, with friends or siblings or partners, and everyone smiled.

I danced by myself to some music and delighted in being alone. My notorious self consciousness faded away in the magic of a moment I had created myself. I had traveled all the way here and made it happen just because I had dreamed it would. Like my other travels, this was proving to me how powerful I could be with the right amount of open-mindedness and exhaustion denial. And when the fireworks ultimately rained across the sky, I didn’t even mourn that I had no one to kiss at midnight. I delighted in racing off before the other crowds could catch up, onward to my next adventure.

I sang all the way back before landing at the beach, spending the first hours of my new year reflecting on my gratitude beneath the stars. When I closed my eyes that night, the images of the last few days burned on my eyelids, so much driving, the waves as I drove beneath them, the horses as they explored the marshes, the stars that felt like they appeared just for me that night.

I had planned to drive the nine hours back west to my home - another place I would end up leaving more permanently in only a few short months - but I wanted to squeeze every last drop of my trip. I couldn’t leave the location of the first ever flight by the Wright Brothers without paying homage in some way.

It was only a five minute drive down the road before I found myself in a plastic chair in a sunlit-classroom, beads of sweat bubbling behind my knees. It was chilly outside, but I found myself nervous and excited. I was going hang gliding at the famous Jockey’s Ridge sand dunes.

After a couple hours learning the history and basics, we took to the dunes. I was handed a helmet that looked like Evel Knievel’s, and I reveled in my classmates’ joking comparisons of me to him. I had always been the girl that was too scared to go above 5 miles per hour on a jet ski, I was still the girl who hated roller coasters.

But on my own, I wanted to prove to myself that I was strong, that I could try new things. I found myself in a group with two families. We chatted happily as we walked out to our fly point, walking slowly across bright sand dunes, a hint of deep blue water in the distance.

I flitted in and out of polite entries into the families’ conversations, and I found myself growing invested in the lives of this one mother daughter duo. Recently divorced, the mom had decided to make travel and road tripping with her daughter a priority to give her a source of fun and adventure for her whole life. I marveled at her daughter, wishing I had traveled earlier on in my own life.

We took turns strapping in to take off for a brief flight. Though it was a beginners’ course, the few moments spent in the air were ones that sparked a source of gratitude I continuously dive into. When I first leapt into the air, the mom I had been speaking to snapped some photos. I felt a strange sense of family, even if only for this moment.

We arranged for her to share the photos over email, even leaving with the promise of perhaps seeing each other in our home states sometime, one travelers’ promise to another. I did end up asking if I could park my car at her place in New Jersey during a future trip, but our schedules ended up falling through last minute.

Immediately afterward, I scrubbed the sand haphazardly from my feet and leapt into my car. It was time to return back to society.

The drive back was the most grueling nine hours yet, not wanting to leave what I viewed as my newfound independence and battling the remaining embers of heartbreak that are too hard to shake out.

Though I arrived home with quite a well of sleep deprivation, I fell asleep smiling, ever more comfortable in my own skin than I had been before. I had battled my own mind’s attempts to make me sad, minor inconveniences and exhaustion, the chilly winter ocean water - all on my own. I fell asleep with the knowledge that I had accomplished a beautiful feat for myself.

Jaime Conlan is a Public Relations professional in her twenties. Though she's always dreamed of being an author, in recent years writing has taken a backseat to travel and work. Jaime has road tripped to over 39 states so far and occasionally travels out of the country as well, and she aspires to share her travel tips to other young travelers who think traveling may be unattainable. 

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