VIRGINIA BEACH and CAROLINA
It was like leaving home, after eight weeks in Norfolk. I stayed up late packing, organizing, and staring groggily at internet maps. In the morning I stumbled to Fair Grounds for one last momentous cup of joe, and to meet my good friend Berry one momentous last time. I gave Diana, my barrista, a goodbye hug and gave her a collage I had made, and Berry and I took some photos for posterity. He gave me an apple, and orange, a crystal(“Bury it in the ground for three days, to attune it to yourself. You’ll know what it’s for then.”), and a copy of Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” complete with an uplifting personal dedication. No rough goodbyes there; Berry’s nothing but solid.
I got all the gear together, and Cheryl helped me carry it downstairs to my awaiting steed. Nathan was asleep but I woke him up to shake his hand. I hugged Jason goodbye, but I missed saying goodbye to crazy Mark Loi, the most chauvinist feminist I’ve ever met. Must’ve taken his hangover to his army job at the crack of dawn, as usual.
Loaded down again, finally, I rode the new wheels down to South Norfolk, to say goodbye to Mike and return a history book he had loaned me. He had some advice on the route out of Virginia; good luck, an ear-chuck for Kit Kat, and I’m gone.
On my way to Virginia Beach, I passed some semi-rural areas for the first time in months. It was actually refreshing to see that roadkill possum! And the living wildlife too, of course. I made it to Skye’s parents’ organic farm by about four o’clock – she had convinced me it was a great place to really take off from. Indeed, it was – not only is Skye’s family very generous and freshly conscientious, but there were like eight stray cats, including an all white long-hair named Spirit with a wise distance in his eyes. I sipped coffee and chatted with her mom, Kathleen, while we waited for the others to arrive. Eventually people started showing up, and we had a delicious dinner of (organic) beef patties mixed with BBQ sauce, brown rice, sauteed kale and carrots. The cycling Hunger was back, but I waited patiently for everyone to have their fill, and then, just when they tried to clear the extra food away, I said, “Uh, actually, er… I’ll finish that. All that, yeah.” Whoo! Delectable. I’m afraid I was in a bit of a food coma by the time we all retired to the living room for conversation – sorry guys! I broke out of it when some more people showed up – must’ve been the words “beer run” that snapped me awake.
The parents went to bed, and us kids went out into the 21-degree night to have a bonfire. A grip of my campfuel got the huge pile of wood started real quick, and soon we were toasty-but-nippy and partying around the flames. I taught some folks how to open beer bottles with a lighter, and we all got a kick out of the rhymes they print under the caps of Magic Hat microbrews. “Think Before You Wink.” Skye came out with her final gift – a Hohner harmonica in the tune of “C.” The perfect instrument for a lonely traveler – I’ve been practicing during all those lonely nights in front of my own campfires ever since. We finished the bonfire with stunning guitar and singing, and even some ukulele, performed skillfully by Skye, and not-quite-as-skillfully by her stepbrother Jacob. I pretended along with them on the mouth harp – I don’t sound half bad when there’s also a guitar!
We finished the beer inside, over a game of Apples to Apples. The old stray cat that normally sleeps on the driver’s seat of Kathleen’s car, sat outside the window, plainly pitiful and mewing to get in to the warm ambiance of laughter and rosy cheeks. Poor kitty! Apparently it was against the rules, but finally they let her in, and she found a good spot to curl up on top of the (motionless) passed-out dude.
It was nice to be inside with Skye as the temperature dropped below 20 degrees. Sure, whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger… but there’ll be plenty of chances to freeze my bits off later. This was the last night of comfort and touch I’d have for… who knows? I’m forever glad I let her convince me to stay, despite my illogical urges to go-Go-GO. In the morning we shared coffee and (organic) eggs, and I was on the road by noon, after a photo in front of the New Earth Farm sign and a bittersweet goodbye kiss.
What now? Where to?
Once again, I had no idea where I’d lay my head, except for “somewhere in North Carolina.” That night I found a construction site to post up behind, and soon I was back in the swing of ditch-camping and life on the road. It truly is a healing thing. I’ve received messages to the tune of, “Don’t let the miles get you down,” and thank you for the good words, but it’s the miles that put me back up, and the downtime, when I’ve got other goals besides pushing pedals, is when I start to lose touch, to fret and fray around the edges. It’s when I can’t ride that my soul starts to beg.
My plan had been to ride down the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a narrow land bridge of swampy nature preserve and tourist beaches on the coast. But I had received some foreboding advice from three different sources – “Don’t go that way, they’re re-doing the bridges, and the detour goes onto the beach – 4×4 only.” “Oh, you’ll never make it that way – you can’t bike through the sand.” “If you ride all that way and get to the detour, you’ll just have to turn around.” Of course, being a consummate explorer, I decided to take my chances. The Universe will provide.
The Outer Banks turned out to be pretty desolate in January. There were a couple of mornings when the ocean mist was enchantingly surreal, and the waterfowl was plentiful, but the tourist towns were a drawback. They would’ve been bad if it had been in-season, full of vacationing consumers and traffic – and I’m glad I missed all that – but in the winter these towns just shut down; all the restaurants and all but one of the gas stations are closed for the season; they’re like Scooby Doo ghost towns, complete with the suspicious fisherman proprietor that says, “You ain’t from ’round here, are ye?” Xenophobia: the fear of that which isn’t like you.
I passed the towns of Kittyhawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nag’s Head(lunch stop at the Hammock Store!), and Hatteras, and finally came to the free ferry to Ocracoke Island. Somewhere ahead, on that eight-mile island, was this impassable detour I’d been warned about. I pulled up to wait in line for the ferry, wondering just how long it would take to push my bike five miles(three?six?) through the sand. But I wasn’t going to have to go through all that, I realized – the first person that saw me offered me a ride; then the ferry operator, who was concerned for me, asked a redneck truck if they could take me, and they agreed; and even a third guy, traveling with his wife, baby, and two dogs, also offered me a ride. The good ol’ boys were out fishin’ for sharks, and didn’t really seem too agreeable, so I went with the family man. He was a surfer named Dan, down for a little drive to check out a brick-laying job. It was only three miles, now – don’t lynch me for cheating! I figured that I’ve gotten lost enough times, and gone through enough detours under my own pedal-power, that it wasn’t a disgraceful travesty to accept this ride. And I’m sure I’ll have reason to “compromise” again some day. I did have to wrestle with the idea, though. It was pretty weird to be riding in an SUV with my bike strapped to the roof, but the sun and ocean were beautiful, and it was pretty exciting to off-road in four-wheel drive on the beach.
And then we were back on the highway, a half mile from the village of Ocracoke, and right in front of a county park entrance. I said goodbye to Dan and pushed past the gate into the deserted campground. There were a few guys hitting golf balls in the field(they didn’t have any extra beer) but they left before dusk, and I was alone – not even any traffic, what with the bridge work on the only highway.
That night, I decided to shed the weight of the remainder of my campfuel, having already sent my MSR stove home(it weighed too much and I rarely use it). I also happened to have a huge smoke bomb that Nate gave me, and decided(with the help of some whiskey nips off my flask) to venture down the road and have a little pyrotechnics display on the fire-proof concrete. It was a little bit risky because I had to go past the flood-lit bridge construction staging area that may or may not have had people inside its trailer. But I’m stealthy, so I sneak up in the shadow and observe from a closer distance (wishing I hadn’t shipped my binoculars home already – also too heavy and rarely used) and deem the area deserted. Then, just as I am making my move from shadow to shadow, through the corner of the light, I see headlights coming! Oh, great… maybe someone had seen me an hour ago or something, and the cops are just now coming to investigate; and me smelling like whiskey, with a bottle of flammable liquid and a bomb, headed for the precious Ocracoke bridges. I froze, watching the headlights with one eye, and making sure my own shadow stayed within the darkness with the other eye. The car stopped at the barricade, hesitated, then did a U-turn… and waited. I couldn’t tell if it was a cop or not, but it just sat there. Soon another car drove up and sidled up to talk with the first driver. I could tell this one wasn’t a squad car; maybe it was a drug deal, or maybe some people that didn’t realize they couldn’t go onto the beach without a 4×4. I stayed hidden for ten minutes, by which point I was getting impatient. I kept looking at the strip of light I had to cross, thinking, “I can make that – they’re not even looking over here.” Another five minutes – “What are they doing?” – and I went for it. Zip! I ran, crouched to the ground, for a few harrowing moments, exposed. Maybe I should’ve been more careful, but I am always careful – this escapade to burn off some weight was supposed to be a risk! Anyway, within seconds I was on the road, in the safety of the shadows. No change in activity from the loitering vehicles.
Once they were safely out of earshot, I was alone again. I prepared my display under the moonlight, stood back, and flicked my Bic. The gas blossomed in the night, into the pattern of a huge ankh, and the smoke bomb was positioned in the middle, so that the fuse lit when the fuel caught. It was spectacular. I tried to get a video but it all happened so fast! It was an awesome use for my flammable provisions, and I returned safe and sound to my campsite(the cars had gone), slightly buzzed and a few pounds lighter.
The next day it was on to the quaint village of Ocracoke, one of North Carolina’s little gems. Dan had told me that the waves on the island had been voted the best in the country for surfing, and those good ol’ boys in the fishin’ truck had recommended a certain bar in town. I forget the name, because it was closed for renovations for the off-season. In fact, almost everything was closed, much like the rest of the Outer Bank towns. At the food mart I asked an employee where the library was, and he points to a blonde woman standing in line – “She’s the one to ask.” The librarian was in the same store as me! But the library didn’t open until 2…. So I found the post office, and next to it, the only open restaurant in town, Jason’s. I sauntered in and sidled up to the bar, half dreading the cost of a beer, but down to taste some local flavor. I put down my $3, and as I sipped it slowly, I mentioned to the bartender(who also happened to be the owner, Jason) that I had pedalled all the way from Wisconsin. Yes, I made it through the detour on the beach. Another bartender, Donna, proudly told me how small the village was, and proved it by showing me the Ocracoke phone book, which was the same size as the Ocracoke map – a single tri-fold page. She gave me the map, and with the help of Harry, a white-haired beer biker in a Harley bandana, pointed out the local “hotspots.” Donna donated her shift beer; Harry let me polish off his french fries and commented on how I folded my road map, with the useful part on the outside – “You ever been in the Army?” Got the wrong guy, pal – but I guess I do have some things in common with a soldier.
While I was sitting there chatting with Donna, the power suddenly went out. Apparently this happens relatively often – “Sometimes only for ten minutes, sometimes up to four hours if they can’t get their shit together. With the bridges out, it may be a while.”
No electricity? I was confronted with how much I actually rely on the stuff – suddenly my plans for the public library, and their computers and xerox machines, shut down just like the lights in Jason’s Restaurant. At least I can still survive without it.
After ten minutes, Jason called it, and they closed early. Donna sat down next to me while she counted her tips. “Do you smoke?” she asked, and invited me to her trailer for a session while I waited for the power to turn back on. She marked it on my new map, and I found it easily.
It was a trailer, yes, but don’t think run-down trailer park filled with white trash and rusty cars on cinder blocks. Think slightly worn driveways lined with refreshingly prevalent gnarly bright green bush-trees, potted plants, bird feeders, and the type of peace and quiet that only comes from a hamlet in the middle of an electrical blackout. And free-range chickens. And she had some cats! The white siamese couldn’t get enough of the smell coming from my bags, but wasn’t into being petted like the long-haired calico mutt was.
One of Jason’s cooks came by too, and we hung out in Donna’s yard trading stories, drinking apple juice and smoking. I got a chance to peruse her atlas, and was able to form a slightly more precise plan than I normally travel with. Donna collects interesting stones from everywhere she goes – some of them were really cool. I wish I could carry stones! Most places, I only have the weight capacity for memories.
Eventually the power came back on – Donna could tell from the lights in her trailer – and I said goodbye. I rode slowly, now, enjoying the small-town beauty of Ocracoke, to the library, which was attached to the elementary school. The first-graders were having a class on the veranda. Inside I met Inge, the librarian I had talked to earlier, who was quite Dutch. She spoke with a heavy accent, and hearing that I was from the frozen North, inquired eagerly about the ice skating up there. Apparently in Holland they can skate and skate for miles and miles without turning around. I was sorry to disappoint her – rinks only, up in Wisconsin, as far as I know. We chatted amiably for a long while; I had kind of lost track of time. Eventually I checked my email, and while I was sitting there, Donna came in to pick up some tax forms, carrying a super-dank raspberry brownie, neatly travel-wrapped, and three dollars for my passage on the Ocracoke ferry. Thanks Donna!
After the various delays of the day, I only had about half an hour before the ferry departed for Cedar Island, but I used it well, checking out the local nature trail. It was inside the town, but I felt like I was really out in the Carolina wilds. Very soothing. I wish I could’ve spent more time there, but I was infected with the make-mileage bug, which was hungry since I had spent the whole day in town without really clocking any miles at all. As I rushed to catch the boat, I wondered exactly why I was hurrying. Hurrying, for me, usually means somethin’ ain’t right; worse, even, because I knew I’d be arriving on the mainland well after dark, with no place to stay. But I went through with it, and it’s probably best – I could’ve quite easily spent too much time in that little Carolina oasis, instead of too little. Actually, it was just right – I spent $3 on a beer, and from that initial nervous expenditure, I ended up receiving a second beer, half a basket of french fries, a map/souvenir, a serious headset adjustment, a bud for the road, some apple juice, a delicious brownie, and, to top it off, $3 in cash. Not to mention new friends and an unforgettable memory. I guess you gotta have faith!
Cars had to pay $15 to get on the ferry, bikes had their own $3 price tickets – nice. Under way just before dark, I munched on that brownie(divine) and watched the sunset from the gently swaying bow. The temperature chilled off a lot though, so I went inside, where some guys had hooked up a portable DVD player to the TV, and laughed at Chris Farley for the rest of the two hour trip.
And whaddya know, when I disembarked and got on my bike, ready to hunt for a bed in the dark, there was a campground right there. I inquired at the hotel across the street that doubled as the campground office, and learned that it was $21 per night, no matter what. No matter that I’d be gone by dawn, that I didn’t need a fire or a shower; no matter that there wasn’t a single other camper there. I continued protesting, including the fact that it was now drizzling outside, for a pity factor, and convinced the office lady to say, “I’ll just act like I never saw you.” I told her I was going to head down the road and stay somewhere else, for her own deniability purposes, then crossed the road and posted up in the rain, my first night of many in the mostly marshy coastal wilderness in January browns. There was a serious lack of trees to block the insistent headwind, but at least it wasn’t very touristy.
The town of Beaufort was interesting, another quaint coastal boating town. I was directed to the pool hall by a grey-bearded fellow with a cigarillo and overalls(“Don’t you know where you are? This is a magical place – the only place you can see dolphins and wild horses at the same time!”), where I met a young guy with a broken sailboat who was stranded there. I came out of that conversation thinking, “Maybe I don’t need to go all the way to Miami to get a ride.” Maybe try Charleston or Savannah…. The bartendress also gave me a free beer and played the Cure after he left – “I can only play this music when it’s empty in here.” That, or when the only guy in the joint is a Cure fan….
I tried to pass through the Camp LeJeune Marine Base to shave off some distance – on my map, the road through the base looked public, but after a twenty-minute detour, I was firmly denied at the checkpoint by a uniformed & armed US marine in a Jamaican accent: “You can’t joost ride troo de base.” It was a unique opportunity to practice my fast-talk persuasion, but also a unique opportunity to visit a military interrogation room, so I just turned around and went through the city of Jacksonville instead. Someone had told me not to even drive through that town, much less ride a bike, and that it was all asshole marines, but I didn’t really have a choice. “Besides,” I thought, “I’ve probably been through worse.”
And I certainly have. Nobody pulled a knife on me in Jacksonville. I didn’t even have a decent map of the place, but my direction (and common) sense got me through without issue.
In the high-tech and popular public library of downtown Wilmington, NC, they charge $2 for internet access. I’m afraid I might’ve unfairly given the cute sandy blonde chic that told me that a bit of a hard time – it was the first I had heard of libraries charging for email. But she was quite helpful, and when the express computers she originally suggested prompted me for a password, she appeared behind me, offering her personal log-in so I could do a quick check on some continuing bike-rim credit card hassles and email moms with my latest location. I was impressed, even more than I usually am with library employees. It turns out she’s an artistic DIY bike babe. Yay! Thanks again Emily!