Back in the 1930s, the story goes, a city fellow drove off the Oregon Inlet ferry and approached one of the Works Project Administration workers who were erecting sand fences for the dune construction program on Hatteras Island.
''How do I get to Hatteras?'' he asked the young man.
The WPA worker motioned south with his hand. ''Take road 108,'' he said.
The city fellow nodded and drove off, only to return a half-hour later. "Which road did you tell me to take to Hatteras ?'' he asked the worker.
''Mister,'' he said, ''there are 108 roads to Hatteras.''
Pointing to the most recent tracks in the maze of ruts that disappeared into the distance, he said, ''Take road 108.''
He wasn't kidding.
Sixty years ago, Hatteras Island had 108 roads. Today, it has one. Sometimes during bad weather, none.
Highway 12 runs the length of the Outer Banks. From Ocracoke to Corolla, it skirts the dunes and marshes, towns and villages, offering travelers some of the prettiest views on the East Coast.
The old road is nearly 50 years old along some sections. It's an often-thread-bare ribbon of asphalt that is the backbone of the Outer Banks. It's known as the ''Beach Road'' in the northern towns of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. It's the only highway on the islands of Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Old cottages and tumble-down gas stations still stand as testimony to times past. Hidden in bushes and behind new developments, they trace the routes the highway has taken over the years. Abrupt curves in the otherwise straight road tell the tale of the constant fight to keep the highway one step ahead of the hungry ocean. The bends are the result of rerouting the road after erosion and storms gobbled up dunes and pavement.
As the Outer Banks moves, it is said, so moves its highway.
With World War II drawing to a close and the downsizing of the coastal defense network, many believed that Hatteras Island would disappear back into the shadows of seclusion. There was no highway along its 60-mile length, only sand tracks disappearing into the distance. A ferry transported passengers and vehicles across Oregon Inlet, and another crossed Pamlico Sound from Hatteras village to the mainland.
Promises of an all-weather road from Hatteras village to Oregon Inlet were made, and yet the first strip of asphalt was still to be laid.