For many longtime visitors to Hatteras Island, the famed Mirlo Beach sign at the northern edge of Rodanthe was always a sign that a long car ride was almost over, and an Outer Banks vacation was about to begin.
Well known as the unofficial welcome to the island’s seven villages, the large wooden sign has been through countless hurricanes, nor’easters, and flooding events, and has still held its ground for four decades.
The sign has been photographed thousands of times over the years, from visitors who excitedly captured their Outer Banks arrival, to news outlets that documented ocean overwash on this vulnerable section of the island, with the “Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream” text serving as an ironic-but-true caption.
But with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) currently removing the old stretch of N.C. Highway 12 known as the S-Curves – a roadway that is now bypassed by the Jug Handle Bridge – the Mirlo Beach sign is a lot less visible these days.
Today, a visitor has to take a second exit on the new roundabout, cruise to the end of the road in Rodanthe, and peek over massive piles of sand to catch a glimpse of the sign.
And, unfortunately, the sign is not as impressive as it was when it was first constructed roughly 40 years ago. Regular flooding has caused plenty of wear and tear, and the moniker “Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream” was unceremoniously removed over the summer by vandals, along with the “Mirlo Beach” headline.
But there’s good news for visitors and residents who have a lifetime of memories that intersect with this famous sign, as the Mirlo Beach sign is getting a makeover, as well as a new home.
Dan Richards is the President of the Mirlo Beach Homeowners Association (HOA), which includes roughly 75 homeowners in this northernmost Hatteras Island community. His wife, Jan, is also active in the HOA, and she is spearheading a committee to examine the options for saving the Mirlo Beach sign.
“Someone recently asked me about the ‘ratty old sign,’ and if we were just going to leave it or throw it away, and I said, ‘Oh no, it’s an icon!’” said Jan. “I have pictures of my kids playing near the sign, so it’s definitely important to us.”
The project to restore and move the sign is in its very early stages, but there has already been some significant progress.
The Richards have found a refurbishing specialist who will help bring the sign back to its former glory, from the signature wooden boat to the missing letters on the north-facing side.
“The plan is to keep the sign intact as much as possible, and looking just like it was,” said Dan. “That’s the goal.”
And while the refurbishing process will be slow-going due to the intricate work, one of the biggest expected challenges will be moving the sign itself from its very secure location.
“The Green Lantern house and the old Serendipity house were built in 1981, and the sign has design elements that [mirror] the Green Lantern home, so we are guessing it was built around then,” said Jan, referring to the two homes that originally bordered the sign. (The Serendipity home was moved to a new location in 2009, but the Green Lantern home still remains.)
“And since then, the sign has weathered every storm. It has stood through [2011’s] Irene, [2012’s] Sandy, and every storm I can remember since we started coming here in 2007.”
“So the hard part is going to be removing it, because those pilings are very deep,” she added. “No matter what [the weather brings], the sign has never moved.”
Once the sign has been removed, however, the big question is where it will go from there.
Its current locale just past the literal end of the road is not ideal. Now that the highway no longer exists in this area, the sign is not visible, and is more at risk to the elements – especially if a small inlet eventually forms in this narrow stretch of the island.
But there are plenty of options on where it will land. The Mirlo Beach community has a soundside beach, a community greenspace in the center of the neighborhood, and a southern entrance where the second, (although less famous), Mirlo Beah sign currently stands.
“We will be having our annual homeowners meeting in November, so we’ll decide on a location then,” said Jan. “We may put it in the community area, near the tennis courts, or along the soundside beach… But we want our [homeowners’] input, so we’ll ask our community and go from there.”
The endeavor to restore and move the sign will likely be paid for from the Mirlo Beach HOA’s funds, and expenses are currently being evaluated.
But for the millions of Hatteras Island visitors who are used to seeing the sign as their unofficial welcome when they hit the home stretch of their journey to the Outer Banks, the onset of the project is good news, and well worth the effort.
“I think everyone has a memory of seeing that sign when they first arrive,” said Jan. “It’s a landmark for us, so we’re making [every effort] to keep it.”