The Outer Banks’ Jockey’s Ridge, the East Coast’s largest sand dune, is a force of nature that never stops changing and never ceases to envelop those in its path.
Every year, the dunes grew. With each nor’easter, wind carried sand from the beach. The sand swirled around Bodie Island and Nags Head and piled on top of already existing piles.
In 1838, the first hotel was built in the area, right among these dunes. The owner thought the structure would stand against the sand. The trees and shrubs would protect his building.
By 1850, the hotel was leaving shovels in each room, an amenity like soaps and shampoos, so guests could scoop out the sand. The wind blew the sand into small mountains behind the hotel. Like a cake in the oven, the dunes kept rising. The sand crept to the roof. And eventually, with the winds flinging the particles about in surges, the sand billowed over the hotel in a grand wave.
There was nothing visible but a great, living dune.
From west to east, North Carolina transforms from craggy mountaintops to rolling foothills to flat tobacco fields to jagged rivers and sandy beaches. Just 600 feet before the state ends, the largest sand dune on the east coast breathes and shifts. It is soft, grainy, white, tan, bare, and full. It seems to argue with itself. It is vegetated. It is naked. It is bone dry. It is damp. It is immovable. It is vulnerable. It sinks as low as the water table and grows as tall as a lighthouse.
If you filled dump trucks with its sand, there’d be nearly enough trucks — about 6 million — to line up around the equator. If you lined each grain of sand side by side, all those particles could reach the sun 1,280 times. About 118,983,680,000 miles.
The dune field that includes Jockey’s Ridge, for all its first-glance simplicity, is a complex pile of sand. A century ago, geologists wanted to plant loblolly pines to stabilize its growth. The dunes were dangerous. They were “undermining houses, laying bare the roots of trees, and exposing the bones of the dead,” read a story in National Geographic in 1906.
Some residents threw caution to the wind and built homes in the sand. Others lifted their houses and rolled them away. But the dunes kept moving and the homes kept retreating. The sand, it seemed, always won.
The 426 acres of Jockey’s Ridge have devoured a hotel, a miniature golf course, and homes. The dunes nearly swallowed a busy road. And this pile of sand has consumed the lives of many who’ve found themselves mesmerized by its wonder — people like Carolista Fletcher Baum who stopped a bulldozer, Peggy Birkemeier who made it special, professors Stanley Riggs and Helena Mitasova who dedicated decades to its study, George Barnes and Debo Cox who made it their fulltime jobs.
It is the only state park that moves. It’s also the most visited.
The dunes have a way of breaking down barriers. When adults see the sandy ridges, they can’t help but climb, just like children, and roll or run down the steepest slope. “Everywhere else is hard,” explains Birkemeier. “Jockey’s Ridge is soft.”
Over the years, the hill, as locals call it, has moved from something considered dangerous to a sometimes endangered wonder that the community treasures. It’s soft and hard, and as it turns out, that’s why the dunes have survived for more than 5,000 years.
On a sticky summer morning in 1973, three kids belonging to Carolista Fletcher Baum raced across South Virginia Dare Trail toward Jockey’s Ridge. Their feet sank as they barreled up the hill, and they knelt to catch their breath at the top. They saw Albemarle Sound. They saw Bodie Island Lighthouse, the Atlantic Ocean, and the mainland. They also saw a yellow bulldozer scooping the sand below them into its clutches.
After they ran down the hill and returned home, they told their mother what they’d seen. Baum marched across the street, and the three children watched their mother stomp up to the bulldozer. Baum stood tall, shoulders back, her wild hair straying in the wind from her bun — the chestnut bun that people knew her by, wrapped loosely around a bandana, that she’d burrow pens, pencils, and sunglasses inside of. Ann-Cabell Baum Andersen, the oldest daughter, doesn’t recall now what her mother said. She just remembers the driver shut down the engine. And later, when Baum was certain the driver had retreated on foot, she snuck back and twisted off the bulldozer’s distributor cap so the engine couldn’t start back up the next day.
Baum was a statuesque woman known for her beauty, charm, and flair, with a raspy voice and warm, brown eyes. “My mom was hot pink, fuchsia, purple, bright blue,” Ann-Cabell says. “Not white.”
The morning after standing in front of the bulldozer, Baum paraded around Nags Head and began gathering signatures to save Jockey’s Ridge. Store owners set out collection jars to buy property. Baum formed a nonprofit, The People to Preserve Jockey’s Ridge, which mailed more than 10,000 letters.
Baum walked every day to her store, Carolista’s Jewelry, and painted signs that said “Save our Dunes” with faint sand hills in the background. She stacked pamphlets and bumper stickers in her shop for customers. When people called her disorganized, she said, “Everything’s organized in my mind.”
She installed a telephone next to the counter to call legislators and raise funds while she worked. When frustrated, she coiled its cord around her fingers until her arm was a lump of wire.
She painted a small shack watermelon pink and sat it on the dunes. Ann-Cabell, her sister Inglis, and brother Gibbs stood in the hut and sold bumper stickers, notepads, kites, stationery, and square feet of the dunes for $5 each. The three kids got no sweet tea until they were finished at the hut.
When Baum severed her right two middle fingers making jewelry, she taught herself to write letters left-handed. When Ann-Cabell developed pneumonia, Baum’s phone calls and letters continued from her daughter’s bedside.
Jockey’s Ridge had consumed her life.
Her magnetism wasn’t lost on reporters. News stories bordered on outright admiration. “Carolista Baum must surely be the reincarnation of an Olympian Fury,” wrote journalist Alan Murray. The Chapel Hill Newspaper wrote: “She has built a state-wide reputation for bothering people until they do what she wants.” Others noted her energy and “worldly” methods, and called her a “formidable crusader.”
For three weeks, Baum drove daily to Raleigh to pester politicians. She persuaded songwriters to sing about Jockey’s Ridge and invited filmmakers to the dunes. Her efforts even motivated poet Carl Sandburg. “Save the dunes,” he said. “They belong to the people. They represent the signature of time and eternity. Their loss would be irrevocable.”
Eventually in 1975, North Carolina listened and declared Jockey’s Ridge a state park.
That summer Ann-Cabell, Inglis, and Gibbs walked triumphantly to the ridge before sunrise. They tromped around the highest slope, dragging their feet through the sand in organized lines. When they returned to the house, they woke their mother. Baum walked to the door and saw a message drawn in the dunes that she’d saved. “Happy Birthday, Mom.”
For 10 years after Jockey’s Ridge became a park, no one paid much attention. There was a park ranger, George Barnes, but his truck didn’t run and he spent a lot of time plucking cigarette butts and beer bottles from the dunes.
Peggy Birkemeier, who’d relocated from Washington, D.C. to Southern Shores, would take her daughters to the dunes and watch them tumble down the slopes. Sometimes she ran down, too. She wanted to teach her girls about Jockey’s Ridge, but there were no resources.
“We can’t just have a state park if no one’s doing anything,” she said. Before she knew it, Birkemeier — a short, bespectacled woman with strawberry-blond hair — was taken over by the dunes, too.
She called friends. She formed a Girl Scout interest group called the Junior Park Rangers. They researched the dunes and wrote two brochures about the habitats and history of the ridge. They raised $12,000 and built a boardwalk so handicapped visitors could be overwhelmed by the splendor, too.
The People to Preserve Jockey’s Ridge disbanded in the late ’70s, and in 1990, Birkemeier formed The Friends of Jockey’s Ridge, which other state park groups used as a model. It lobbied for a visitor’s center, which was built in 1996, and invited scientists to study the dunes. The resulting research is posted in the visitor’s center museum today.
Over time, Birkemeier became the new face of Jockey’s Ridge. The dunes were changing again.
Birkemeier began working with Barnes and other rangers to build nature trails. She found the perfect marker for one of the trails — a cherry tree with brilliant, cotton candy-colored blooms. A month later, she visited the ridge and searched for her tree. She walked the dunes, back and forth. Finally, she spotted some limbs. Only the very tops, bare, were visible. The sand had swallowed her tree whole.
Long ago, glaciers covered two-thirds of North America. When they melted, the massive, stormy Roanoke River (now Albemarle Sound) carried sediment to the continental shelf, which was then land. The climate warmed. The ice melted. The rising ocean covered the shelf and created our barrier islands and dune fields. As storms thrashed the island, the wind carried in more sand. The dunes grew.
Over the last thousand years, the dunes went through periods of vegetation. The sand disappeared and reappeared after forest fires wiped out the trees. The dunes rose and fell. Today’s largest dune has shrunk from 140 feet to 90.
Scientists can’t pinpoint exactly why the dunes are shrinking. Development and vegetation cover much of the original dune field and obstruct wind from feeding the dunes new sand. Stanley Riggs, a distinguished professor of geology at East Carolina University, believes the thousands of visitors who come to climb don’t help, pushing the sand down. “It’s a case of loving it to death,” he says.
Helena Mitasova, associate professor in the department of marine, earth, and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University, has studied the dunes for 10 years. She thinks the dunes are simply evolving to a forested state. Vegetation has begun to pockmark the ridges. And in time, she says, the hill will be filled with shrubs and grasses once more.
Debo Cox’s tan shirt and shaved head blend in with Jockey’s Ridge. Every day, visitors glimpse his tall silhouette crisscrossing the dunes. Cox, who has been the park superintendent since Barnes retired in 2008, spent 11 years in the music industry in California and Texas before moving back to North Carolina and becoming a park ranger. Since, he’s helped men surprise girlfriends with proposals, taken requests to spread people’s ashes, and strung up Christmas trees. All on Jockey’s Ridge. “Sometimes I wonder why so many people are drawn to this place,” he says. “Why do 1.5 million people come to this same spot?” But Cox gets it. He loves this dune, too. “I think the answer is something universal. It’s beauty, community, love, nature, relationships.”
Part of Cox’s job — reining in a state park that is constantly shifting and threatening to burst from its boundaries — is not an easy one. Before Barnes retired, he supervised the relocation of about 10,000 dump truck loads of sand from the south side of the dunes to the north. The wind had built a 40-foot wall that nearly spilled over homes next to Soundside Road.
Barnes taught Cox some tricks. Every year, townspeople bring their Christmas trees to Jockey’s Ridge, and Cox ties them to a sand fence in 50-foot stretches. When the wind blows sand into the trees, the particles fall and build a new dune, burying the trees within weeks. That helps to bottle up Jockey’s Ridge.
“It changes so much,” Cox says, “to the point of me going out there eight hours later and I’m not sure it’s still going to be there.”
In 2004, Cox and his crew made a time capsule from PVC pipe. They carved the GPS coordinates of Jockey’s Ridge into the pipe. They stuffed the pipe full of photos, park staff nametags, and a story that illustrated what the dunes were like then. When Cox crafted his story, he imagined how this place would look in 200 years. It could be forested again. It could be ocean. A fisherman could find the capsule and donate the story he was writing to a museum.
One evening, Cox and the other rangers buried the capsule at the bottom slope of the highest dune. Then they stood back and waited for the wind to blow.
U.S. Highway 158 Bypass
Nags Head, N.C. 27959
Sarah Perry is an associate editor at Our State. Her most recent story was “Raleigh Little Theatre” (November 2012).