Most casual stamp collectors are suckers for postage stamps depicting lighthouses. It brings a certain comfort knowing these sentinels stand on the shoreline and guide ships safely to harbor. That is, unless they use maps and Global Positioning Systems, and other modern navigational aids. The Cape Hatteras stamp pictured here is about 1.25 inches tall. The real Cape Hatteras lighthouse stands 193 feet above the sea, protecting ships far out beyond Diamond Shoals on the Outer Banks.
North Carolina’s Outer Banks are a narrow spit of sand that protect the inland shores from Atlantic gales. Lighthouses were built at key locations along those sandy banks to protect ships from running aground. These sand dunes wrecked so many ships that the area off North Carolina’s shore is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Tourists fish and swim among the beached ribs and bones of dead ships along the shoreline. Lighthouses did as much as they could in that harsh and wild landscape to keep ships and sailors safe. You can still visit most of the lighthouses in North Carolina, and some still allow you to climb to the top – if you are brave enough.
Some say that a fear of heights is nature’s way of making sure that the smartest humans survive long enough to reproduce. I agree. Being slightly nervous in high places makes you less likely to do something reckless or stupid. The goal is to enjoy the view from the lens house, without being the feature of a memorial service.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse was built in 1875 and was left in its original red brick color. It was the last one built on the Outer Banks to warn ships of the dangerous shoals off Nags Head and Corolla. In the lantern room, 158 feet above sea level, a first order Fresnel lens emits a three-second light signal every seventeen seconds, visible for 18 miles, to remind seafarers where they are. Climbing to the top of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse requires some physical effort. It is 214 steps to the top gallery, but there are several landings along the way to rest.
The hardest part might be stepping out onto the walkway that encircles the lighthouse just beneath lantern room. The iron railing is sturdy, and you can get some great photographs of the banks. The self-guided tour inside the lighthouse costs $8.00 and is well worth it. The exhibits in the base of the lighthouse explain the history of the work of the lighthouse keepers.
So, you pay your eight bucks and start the climb. You get to the top, take a walk on the exterior walkway encircling the lighthouse just below the lantern room, and climb back down. You can do it all in about 15 minutes or less.
To be honest, aerial views of the North Carolina beach are not interesting, and often disappointing. Miles and miles of prefabricated, poorly constructed plastic and fake stucco beach housing occupy your vision. During the summer, a humid haze blurs out noteworthy objects at any appreciable distance. If you are climbing this lighthouse for the view only, you might be a little disappointed.
I think people climb this lighthouse, and many others like it, because it is a bit of a challenge in an otherwise unchallenging world. In the United States, we have built our society on the idea that “easy does it.” So, we have drive-up teller machines, computerized motorcycle games, and the internet for comfortable vicarious living. Easy credit, plea bargains, and GPS eliminate the need to think any further than the end of our noses.
I climbed that lighthouse with two friends because we have a fear of heights, and wanted to see if we could do it. The only bad moment in the climb up the inside of the brick tower was when we reached the doorway to the exterior walkway. A brisk wind was blowing through the doorway. The height made us uneasy at the thought of going out on the catwalk. We were willing to stand in the doorway and take photos from there, when a man and woman appeared on the walkway to our left from around the curving wall of the lighthouse. We were wedged in the doorway, and they needed to pass. So, we turned and started back down when the lady spoke up.
“Aren’t you going to go around? The view is great.”
My two climbing partners and I looked at each other and back at the lady. She said, “You know, you have to go around at least once. Otherwise, you’ll really miss out on the fun.”
Obviously, my two companions and I were not about to chicken out at this point. We knew she was right. If we went back down the stairs, we would regret it. So we eased out onto the walkway and headed to our right. The photographer in our little team handed me his camera and said, “Keep shooting.” I pressed my back against the brick wall of the lighthouse and inched forward, shooting photos every two or three seconds. My two partners were wedged against my left side the whole time. We must have looked like Siamese triplets. Finally, the doorway appeared ahead, and we all darted inside the lens house.
We three brave and hardy souls climbed down the inside stairwell, feeling pretty good about ourselves.
The fear of heights is a learned thing. Somewhere in our past, we had a traumatic experience that led us to an unreasonable fear of heights. Bravery, on the other hand, is so rare among humans that we feel the need to recognize and reward it when it happens.
Everyone ought to go to the top of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse at least once. If for nothing else, it gives us a chance to learn how to be brave again.