Hurricane Fodder

NC Coast-110As far as I can recall, I have never spent any time visiting or thinking about Wilmington, North Carolina.  Yet, I must have thought about it at some point, because it was not at all what I expected.  For some reason, I had a vague vision of a slow-moving, sleepy place, evocative of an earlier era, dark and overhung with Spanish Moss.

Wilmington is anything but sleepy–it’s bright and buzzing with lots and lots of people.  It has the feeling of a town struggling to handle its burgeoning population—the same feeling we had in Kelowna, British Columbia and Bend, Oregon.  They all had similar clusters of every imaginable chain store and restaurant–newly built with the latest village-like architectural style–and nightmare-inducing traffic.  In Wilmington, except in the early morning, it was nearly impossible to take a left hand turn out of our campground.  We had to take a right and then turn around at the next convenient road.  Ridiculous.

I have never seen so many political signs in my life.  The Hickey guy had the most.  I was dreaming Hickey signs.

I have never seen so many political signs in my life. They were everywhere.  Hickey outdid everyone else on signage by a big margin.  I intend to follow up and see if he wins.  Just curious.

The area was too crowded for us, but provided a convenient stopover to our next destination and a place for some beach time with our grandkids before we left North Carolina.  Our first morning there, we woke to brilliant sunshine and the combined smell of ocean and paper mills.  Not necessarily a bad combination to me, because it reminded me of St. Simons in Georgia, one of our favorite getaways when we lived near Atlanta.  The paper mill smell is unique and unmistakable, almost as if you are baking something sweet and chemical-laden, with sulfur overtones.  It comes and goes, depending on the wind direction.

We arrived in Wilmington a few days before the grandchildren.  On our first day, we checked out dog-friendly Kure Beach, about half-an-hour drive south.  We maneuvered heavy traffic through streets that alternated between a tacky 1960s beach town feel and newer mostly upscale beach houses jammed together as closely as possible.  Kure Beach is at the end of a barrier island, with Cape Fear, a treacherous headland for ships and part of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, on an island just offshore.  The island peninsula includes an old civil war site, Fort Fisher, an aquarium, and a state recreational area with undeveloped beach.

Beach bums

Kure Beach bums

It was a weekday and the beach was uncrowded, except for the area allowing 4-wheel drive vehicles on the beach.  Big trucks bristling with fishing poles arrived steadily, staking out their territory for the day.  For some reason, there were no women fishing and it felt like a man-only zone when Zoe and I ventured into it.

The high testoterone area of the beach

The high testosterone area.

The non-vehicle part of the beach.

The non-vehicle part of the beach.  Zoe’s carrying a piece of driftwood in her mouth.

Zoe has become a total beach hound.

A total beach hound.

Pelican acrobatics

Pelican acrobatics

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We spent another morning in downtown Wilmington on the banks of the Cape Fear River.  It has a smallish downtown, wide, tree-lined streets with lovely old houses, and a riverside area with old warehouses now converted to shops and restaurants catering largely to tourists.

Beautiful brick warehouse

Beautiful brick warehouse

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Street after street of meticulously maintained old houses

The rooster weather vane seemed a bit  incongruous on this church steeple

There is a rooster weather vane on the church steeple.  It seemed a bit incongruous.

It was a chilly day and the river was a gorgeous deep blue and running fast.  We had lunch at The George restaurant, based on its name and dog-friendliness.  We sat on the outside deck with Zoe, watching the river and tourists on the boardwalk.  The food and service were nothing special, but the setting made it worthwhile.

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Our view from The George.  The USS Carolina, now a museum, is across the river

Our view from The George on the Cape Fear. The USS North Carolina is across the river.

The USS North Carolina was a WWII battleship in the Pacific fleet.

The USS North Carolina was a WWII battleship in the Pacific fleet.  It’s now a museum open for tours.

When the grandkids arrived, we headed to Wrightsville beach.  It also was dog-friendly, which doesn’t mean that dogs can run free—they must be on leash.  The dog laws apparently are strictly enforced with high fines.

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The beach at Wrightsville was beautiful and broad, with a long stretch of fine sand, a fishing pier, and what looked like some decent surf breaks.  But it amazed us that, in such a hurricane prone area, there was so much building right on the water, at sea level.  The area was absolutely packed with houses that looked like they would be devoured by a serious storm surge.  Flirting with disaster.

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Our middle munchkin ecstatically running in the waves.

One of our munchkins ecstatically running in the waves.

Another worked on a sand castle.

Another working on a sand castle.

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Superman and his sister

There was a beach photo session underway by the pier—something we’ve encountered before on the trip.  This one was a video of a teenager performing some awkward pop and lock-style dancing to the accompaniment of “Landslide.”  It did not look like it was going too well.

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Lifeguard Tower 6.  Only tiny dunes left and beach houses covered every square inch of available land in the area.

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After the kids and Zoe had their fill (well, almost) of the beach, we found our first restaurant of the trip that allowed dogs inside.  Tower 7 (named after the lifeguard tower on the beach behind) had two sides, one dog-friendly, one dog-free.  The food was surprisingly creative.  I had a grilled shrimp, bacon, and pineapple enchilada, a delicious combination that I intend to recreate in the RV.   We headed home full of food and sunshine.

Zoe loved lying on the cool tiles inside at Tower 7.  She's a restaurant pro now.

Zoe loved lying on the cool tiles inside at Tower 7. She’s a restaurant pro now.

This did not inspire confidence in the ability to keep the power going in a hurricane

Would you want your power to be dependent on this tangle in a hurricane?

Rusty wind bells

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NC Coast-113As an addendum to my last post, in which I noted that two ducks at our interstate campground appeared to watch the sunset every night, here a two photos taken after I wrote the post.  As you can see, most of the ducks were going about their business.  But in the second photo on the right you will see the duck couple I mentioned, sitting on their spot on the shore looking out toward the sunset.

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Strange Bedfellows or Life Slices

NC CAMPGROUND-100Travel shakes up habits and preconceptions.  I have strong opinions, likes, and dislikes—a tendency likely to get more pronounced in geezerhood.  That’s a scary thought.  Fortunately, this trip may slow that progression in causing me to reconsider old opinions and take more care in my judgments.

There was a time when I would have been appalled to stay for several weeks at a campground in full view of an interstate highway.  Who does that?  Noisy, crowded, what’s the point?  I like space and nature.  But we stayed in such a campground, and it was (mostly) a pleasure and an education.

Aaah, the interstate.

Aaah, the interstate.

It is not easy to find a good campground in North Carolina’s upscale region.  The Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill is full of universities, smart people, tech jobs, good restaurants, large subdivisions, and acres of shopping opportunities.  Not much room for campgrounds.  But we wanted to spend a few weeks there to visit our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren and their neighborhood does not allow trailers in driveways.

We made reservations in a campground that appeared to be the best choice in the area.  We knew it was near the interstate.  In fact, it turned out to be within waving distance of the passing cars and trucks.  When we arrived, we were told that we had been bumped from the quieter area that we had requested to a space near the highway, next to a rusty trailer that looked like it had not been moved or had the shades opened in a decade. When we drove back to the office to request another space, we were scolded for going over the 8 mph (strictly enforced!) speed limit.  I looked at George.  “Should we just leave?”  I wanted to, but there were no ready alternatives.

Our personal live oak tree

Our personal live oak.

After some discussion with the management, who turned out to be very nice, we ended up in a lovely space, under an acorn-bombing live oak tree.  Closer to the traffic noise than we would have liked, but—and here’s my first assumption smashed—traffic noise is not so bad.  I always assumed that people who live near interstates had no alternative and simply learn to put up with the noise.  Maybe not.  They may like it.  Because, believe it or not, it can have a soothing quality, especially at night, a sort of traffic white noise lulling you to sleep.  Add varying levels of train whistles and you have a symphony.

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Nighttime highway

And–second assumption smashed—the people sitting in front of their trailers watching the interstate aren’t odd or starved for entertainment (well, they may be, but not necessarily).  Interstate watching is like sitting on your front porch and watching the street activity—but on steroids.

Watching the trucks roll by

Watching the trucks roll by

Sunset and the traffic keeps moving

Sunset and the traffic keeps on

It’s fascinating to see this East Coast road artery pulsing with varying degrees of activity throughout the day and night.  It’s always moving except for a few periods of dead quiet in the early morning hours.

NC CAMPGROUND-38Then you will hear the sound of a truck approaching, swooshing by, fading into the distance, followed by dead quiet again.  Traffic gradually picks up in the predawn and reaches full force when the sun comes up, ebbing and flowing throughout the day, with occasional breakdowns on the side of the road.  It is almost musical in the tempos, tentative and quiet to swelling, pulsating energy.

NC CAMPGROUND-42All those lives passing by at 70 miles per hour—it’s fascinating and hypnotic.  Who are they? Where are they going?  What is their story?  So many people, each with a unique pattern of connections and—what is for them—the all-consuming business of their own lives that we will never know.  It’s mind boggling.

Some of those people stop off at the campground for a night or several.  And we got to hear about their lives.  A woman across from us sat out at her picnic table with her little white pup.  She just sat, doing nothing.  It turns out she had a gas leak in her new RV and was waiting for a repair person.  She was 68 years old and by herself.  Her husband had retired some years ago and then had taken on a second career.  As he again neared retirement, they picked out their ideal RV for retirement travel.  Then he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  He died six months ago and she bought a puppy and the RV she and her husband had picked out.  It was brand new and she was taking this trip, only 37 miles from her home, because it was her anniversary and she needed to get out of the house.

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Another woman came out of her trailer specifically to see Zoe.  She sells knitted hats at venues throughout the South.  Last year, a wind shear blew her trailer off the road and “into a mountain” on her way to a show, banging her up, destroying her trailer, and letting her dogs loose on the highway.  She was headed to the same show this year, but leaving her trailer at the campground, and just driving her truck, because she wasn’t quite ready to drive that stretch of road with a trailer again.  She was delighted to have a spot in front of the campground’s little lake, so she could look out her window while she knitted her hats.

Sunset over the campground lake and interstate

The knitted hat woman’s view from her trailer.  If you look carefully, you can see the traffic on the right.

Nice women, both.  They brought home how ridiculously fortunate we are to be able to do this trip while we are still healthy and kicking.

Other folks presented living theater.  Our first weekend, we were surrounded by an uninhibited multi-RV group, chain smoking, chain drinking, chain eating, ignoring everyone else while they socialized in happy clumps near one RV or the other.  On Sunday morning, they all started hitching up, and we were presented window-side with a view of an ample beluga-white plumber’s crack bent over the hitch for what seemed like ages while its owner let loose with a deep and resonant smoker’s cough.  It was a charming breakfast accompaniment.

We had less neighbors during the week

We had fewer neighbors during the week

But the ducks were permanent residents

But the ducks were permanent residents

These two appeared to watch the sunset from the same spot on shore every night

These two appeared to watch the sunset from the same spot on shore every night

This RV park was like a stagecoach stop.  For most, it was not a destination, just a temporary stop—unhitch, rest for a bit, hitch up again.  People of every economic level and background were thrown together for a night or two, mingling or not, and then moving on.

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I won’t be shopping for a house next to an interstate, but I’m glad we stayed there.  It’s easy to surround ourselves with people like us and to seek out idyllic places.  But it’s nice to break out of that mold and stay in places that are not so pretty with people who are not like us.  I’m hoping to expand experiences as we age, not narrow them.

The skies at our interstate campground were amazing

The skies at our interstate campground were amazing.

The full moon as beautiful as anywhere else

The sunsets were gorgeous.

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And we grew fond of the tiny neighboring town

And the neighboring area had its own kind of beauty, too.

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Tar heeled

IMG_3250We have been staying in the North Carolina Piedmont region.  It’s mostly flat, a mixture of farmland and woods, with some rolling hills and slow flowing, muddy rivers.  The area is conducive to slowing down—especially with temperatures in the 80s and humidity to match.  We have been enjoying ourselves in a leisurely way.

It has been a rare pleasure to spend extended time with our family here.  We also caught up on all of our chores—the things that pile up when you are on the road.  Our only tourist excursion was a visit to the nearby Tobacco Life Museum.

Zoe made herself at home at the museum.

Zoe made herself at home at the museum.

The Piedmont is tobacco country and, not surprisingly, we have encountered a lot of smokers here.  The museum was small—a little gem—with a very thoughtful and thorough presentation of life in rural North Carolina when tobacco farming dictated the rhythm of things.

Curing shed

Curing shed

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The spinning wheel in the foreground is for flax, the larger one is for wool.

I am a sucker for antique spinning wheels.

There was supposed to be a full slate of bluegrass music throughout the day at the museum, but we found only two musicians doing sound checks.  No music until 1 pm, so we decided to have lunch and check back then.

Curing tobacco

Curing tobacco

We asked the museum folks where to find the best barbeque.  They sent us down the road to Stormin’ Norman’s.  Zoe was able to sit outside with us while we ate our lunch of a pulled pork sandwich (me) and fall-off-the-bone tender barbequed chicken (George).

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The pig is next.

As we were eating, clouds piled up and the trees started to whip around.  We checked the radar and thunderstorms were moving in, so we headed back to the campground to pull in our awning and button down for the storm.   Missed out on the bluegrass.  Oh well.

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A few days later, I decided to take a bike ride on the Neuse River trail.  It’s a lovely, well-constructed and maintained trail running from an area northeast of Raleigh to the town of Clayton in the next county.  I have no clue how long it is–anywhere from 27 to 49 miles, depending on what is considered part of the trail–but it is supposed to eventually become part of a larger trail system that will run from the Smoky Mountains to the ocean.

I enjoyed the ride immensely, but was frustrated from start to finish with the lack of readily-available information about access and mileage.  The information on the internet was not very helpful—it was impossible to tell which parts of the trail had been completed.  Sure enough, when we got to our planned drop off point, the trail was still under construction and there was no access–we could see the trail, but could not reach it.  Thanks to a woman at the local Walgreens, we eventually found access at the end of a subdivision road.  Nothing was marked–apparently you have to ask.

Setting out on the trail, I wasn't even certain if I was heading in the right direction.

Setting out on the trail, I wasn’t even certain if I was heading in the right direction.

Beginning of fall colors

Beginning of fall colors

George was set to pick me two hours later at an access point near our daughter’s house in the next county.  Stupid me, I had expected maps on the trail with mileage for the whole trail system.  No such luck.  All of the maps abruptly ended at the county line–as if anything past there was terra incognita–here be dragons–you will drop off the edge of the earth.  I guess the different counties don’t speak to each other.  So, I had no way of knowing how far it was to the meeting point with George.  It was about five miles longer than I expected.  But George and Zoe were patiently waiting, watching a parade of sometimes questionable people coming in and out of the trail parking lot.

The trail crosses the Neuse river several times

The trail crosses the Neuse River several times

Old mill dam

Old mill dam

I saw lots of cardinals and mockingbirds and one gorgeous pileated woodpecker.  I must have seen fifty turtles, sunning on half-submerged logs.

Turtles of all sizes.  I half expected to see an alligator snout poking up

Turtles of all sizes. I half expected to see an alligator snout poking up.

My heart stopped when I turned a corner and saw what looked like a bear grazing by the side of the path.  I am conditioned to think BEAR when I see a brownish hump like that.

Without my glasses, I thought this was a bear.

Without my glasses, I thought this was a bear.

Fortunately, it was a friendly pony.  In any case, I had bear spray with me.  No bears, but I was glad I had it because a man with gray teeth kept stopping and talking to me every time I stopped to take pictures.  He was probably very nice but it felt a bit like he was stalking me.  Despite the lack of maps and the gray-toothed stalker, it was a good ride and I enjoyed it.

horse

This praying mantis was the only other wildlife I saw, his eyes followed me everywhere I moved when I took his picture.

This praying mantis was the only other wildlife I saw, his eyes followed me everywhere I moved when I took his picture.

 

Down the Road

Selma NC-41Some places immediately feel like home and others never do.  We lived in the South for about ten years and I loved many things about it.  But I never truly felt that I belonged there.  It almost seemed as if we were in a foreign country—a place that I had to learn to understand.  While it eventually became familiar and comfortable, ultimately, it was not my country.

We are back in the South now and I again have that sense of dislocation.  If I were to live here the rest of my life, I might—maybe—come to feel to that it was my place before I died.  But getting there would be a process, not an instinctive, in-my-gut feeling of home.

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Home or not, the South is intriguing.  And it’s not bland.  Barbeque, gumbo, mockingbirds, trains, complicated race relations, amazing writers, cotton, tobacco, collard greens, magnolias, gardenias, slow drawls, bible-belt religion, insects, tall pines, hot nights—it’s a far cry from Alaska.  It’s easy to lump the whole region together as “the South,” but that’s like calling everything west of the Mississippi “the West.”  Each southern state is unique and there are regional differences within each state.

Selma NC-12We spent our first southern night in a Charlottesville, Virginia campground set in a patchwork of dense woods and open fields several miles from town.  Unbeknownst to us, an aggressive search was underway for Hannah Graham, a student who disappeared from Charlottesville in September.  A suspect in her disappearance (and that of other women) had recently been arrested in Texas and there was a very visible presence of police, helicopters, and a drone searching the area near the campground all evening.  Apparently, they still have not found her.  It makes me spitting mad and unspeakably sad.

On that somber note, we drove to our destination in North Carolina, to stay for a few weeks while we catch up on things and spend time with our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.  We headed into Raleigh soon after we arrived to check out Wide Open Bluegrass, a week-long festival in Raleigh sponsored by the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association).  The city did a nice job of incorporating the festival into the downtown, with multiple stages and roped off pedestrian areas. Although for anyone going about their daily business, it must have been a disruptive pain.

IBMA-103There were ticketed and free concerts throughout the week.  We spent an afternoon wandering around.

IMG_3127After about five minutes, it was apparent that this was not a diverse crowd.  Almost everyone was over (often well over) fifty-five and white.

IMG_3129No one was jamming on the sidewalks or dancing by the stages.  People politely set up their folding chairs in front of a stage and sat and listened.  It was genteel, subdued, and a little grim and depressing, actually.  Maybe they should scatter some children and liquor along the sidewalks to liven things up.

Some light fare for easy listening

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The sparrows were young.

The sparrows were young.

Our campground was about a half an hour drive to our daughter’s house, and we took several different routes, which gave us a good view of the area.  It was typical North Carolina countryside.  Not the Deep South, but definitely the South.

The cotton looked like it was ready to pick.

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Cotton fields

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Cotton bolls up close

Tobacco was turning golden.

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Selma NC-26Trains were constantly coming, going, and whistling–lonesome and sweet.

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New subdivisions were carved out of old farms, creating a visual juxtaposition of old and new North Carolina.

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Subdivision in soybeans

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Raleigh was booming with construction.

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And the sleepy little towns continued to be sleepy.

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Antique coca cola

Antique coke and pepsi

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No Spam or plate lunches, their specialty was the “Hula Hunk,” a thick-sliced bologna sandwich. We did not try it.

Pine Level water tower

Pine Level water tower

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Selma NC-100We have not seen one Confederate flag since we have been here.  We saw several in Massachusetts.

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