A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Editor’s Note: Click here to learn about off-road vehicle permits required at Cape Lookout National Seashore. One at a time, they sat in the driver’s seat, perched on a boat

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Editor’s Note: Click here to learn about off-road vehicle permits required at Cape Lookout National Seashore. One at a time, they sat in the driver’s seat, perched on a boat

Tracks in the Sand

Cape Lookout Beach with tire tracks on it

Editor’s Note: Click here to learn about off-road vehicle permits required at Cape Lookout National Seashore.

One at a time, they sat in the driver’s seat, perched on a boat cushion so they could see over the steering wheel. I slid over close to work the brakes and gas. At their ages, maybe 11 and 8, Markie and Jack couldn’t yet reach the truck pedals in their flip-flopped feet. In my defense and theirs, let me say that they weren’t technically driving — but don’t tell them that. To this day, my kids will swear that they learned to drive on the beach at Cape Lookout, with the headlights slashing through the night as the truck bounced and jounced in the sand, all four windows wide open, the stereo blasting Bon Jovi. To this day, I can’t hear “Livin’ on a Prayer” without being carried back to Cape Lookout and thinking: Those were some of my finer parenting moments.

I suspect that many of us bent the rules a bit. Whether you drove on a farm path or a lonely gravel road or a wide-open parking lot after hours, I’d bet that most of us were behind the wheel a bit before the legal age. Just to get the feel of things. For me, my first chariot was a chartreuse Ford Pinto hatchback. Stick shift, of course. A family friend took me out when I was 15, maybe, and signed up for Driver’s Ed. I lurched and stalled and ground the gears. When I finally got the hang of the clutch and barked the Pinto in first gear, I thought I was a freaking astronaut.

Cartoon of author's daughter driving truck on the beach

illustration by Jui Talukder

I loved to drive. A few years later, when I was good and legal, my buddy Phil Gulledge and I devised a Friday night ritual that still resonates through my love of back roads and shortcuts. Phil had a red VW Bug, and I’d graduated to my family’s Pinto station wagon — royal blue with genuine synthetic wood paneling on the side. We would take off from a fixed point and navigate by two rules: We’d drive to the end of the road, and then alternate with a left turn or right turn. If the road hadn’t T-ed within 10 minutes at the wheel, we’d take the next corresponding right or left.

We cruised through Guilford and Randolph and Davidson counties with only discovery in mind. We weren’t rocking to Bon Jovi in those days. More like Boston and Styx. But that sense of freedom and possibility that fueled me down dirt roads and county highways — I could see it on Markie’s and Jack’s faces in the glow of the Silverado dashboard lights.

• • •

The two-track sand road at Cape Lookout National Seashore was little more than a trail, really, a winding route behind the dunes. These days, the island is far too popular for such shenanigans, but 15 years ago we could drive for miles and not see another vehicle. Especially at night.

Even then, the outlines of the kids’ future driving personas were apparent. In the sand, Markie was restrained and controlled. Brown as a berry, with a conch-shell necklace and sun-bleached hair, she steered the truck along the ruts, slowing down at each curve, intent and focused.

Jack was all testosterone. Wild-eyed and howling, he jacked the steering wheel back and forth like a starfighter with Darth Vader in his sights. He was convinced that he was in control, although the kids didn’t realize that they were hardly driving. You had to work hard to get the truck to hop out of the ruts, but Jack did, of course. Mired the truck in deep sand. Always pushing the limits, that one. Which is why, years later, Markie got to drive the ragtop Jeep Wrangler and Jack didn’t.

Cartoon of author's son driving on the beach

illustration by Jui Talukder

Those miles on the Cape Lookout beaches kicked off a tradition for the kids and me. At my hunting camps in Johnston and Nash counties, as soon as the truck tires left the blacktop, they were jonesing to get behind the wheel. Out came the boat cushion. Eventually they could reach the pedals unassisted. And eventually they would, indeed, be in control.

For the most part. Once, within weeks of my buying a new truck, Markie and I were down on my hunting farm, checking out the turkey woods. She was behind the wheel, of course, when we crossed a small creek that ran through a culvert under the road. A tall piece of rebar had been pounded into the side of the road to mark the creek, and Markie steered too close, raking the metal pole. The scratch ran along the driver’s side from headlight to taillight.

Markie was distraught. A brand-new truck, gouged and gouged good. The screech of rebar on metal had been like nails on a chalkboard. We got out to take a look at the damage. Yowza.

She was on the verge of tears, so I bundled her up in a hug. “Sweetie,” I said, “if a man is going to let his 12-year-old drive his new pickup truck, he’s got to be ready to handle the consequences.” I let her back in the driver’s seat, and she continued, haltingly, through the woods.

I never got the scratch fixed.

Markie couldn’t know then, nor could Jack, what was really happening on those Cape Lookout sand roads and eastern North Carolina farm paths. They thought I was letting them drive, but sitting there, shoulder to shoulder with my children, their hair blowing in my face, letting them color just outside the lines, whooping and laughing, they couldn’t know: I was the one having the ride of my life.

This story was published on May 27, 2024

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.