a special encounter

You guys, I got to see otters!! It was so exciting! I walked down to the dock and lifted my binoculars to my eyes and in that very moment, in their frame, were two otters swimming. It was truly unbelievable, that instant. They swam and played and ate fish – crunch, crunch, crunch – while I watched for a full 15 minutes before they turned a bend in the river out of sight. I saw them climb out onto fallen trees a few times. It was magical. It was one of the best things that has happened to me on this trip.

(I’m sorry, no pictures. What the binoculars catch the iPhone absolutely does not.)

All this, on a very fine day. I started early in the morning with speaker-phone remote yoga with a dear friend back in Texas, who was once my yoga teacher. I had a quiet day working, and then the otters at dusk. I had good conversations with both my dad and my good buddy Liz, and in the dark there were fireflies and also fireworks out my front door (don’t ask me why). It was a lovely time, aside from Hops’s fireworks-related trauma.

But lest you count your chickens: that night there was rain, and Foxy started dripping more water than usual and from more places, and there I was at 1 and 2 AM crawling around in the rain in the dark with a tiny folding screwdriver on my multitool, trying to take the van apart to see where the water was coming in. That was a dark time, counterpoint to the day.

Next day, in dry and light, I was able to take my van-dismantling a step or two further, see how she’s put together a little better than before, and put some parts back and discard others. I still don’t know where the water comes in, but I have a plan for the next effort. And I observe that problems look very different in the dark versus in the light. There’s a powerful metaphor at work here. At 2 AM, I despaired. At 4 PM, I felt again like Foxy and Hops and I will take on anything: slowly and limping, maybe, but moving on down the road.

In lieu of otters, please enjoy these scenes from the last day or two.

Post-script: I also just ID’d my first bird from its birdsong alone. It’s a brown-headed cowbird. I had been noticing this distinctive, two-note, liquid burble. I just Googled “liquid birdsong” and came up with a few offerings; the cowbird was unmistakable. I checked its range map, just to be sure (thank you as usual to Cornell), and have added it to my list!

tenth state

It has been a good six weeks or so since I hit my ninth state (Georgia), because I’ve spent so much time circling Tennessee-Georgia-two-Carolinas. Finally my tenth state: Virginia. This is a beautiful place! All the driving has been perfectly lovely, and I could scarcely keep my eyes on the road for admiring the bike path that ran alongside state highway 5 into Richmond for some 40 miles. I stopped off to see another significant tree: the Emancipation Oak in Hampton, where newly freed slaves learned to read and write under its branches before a school was built, and where they gathered in 1863 to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read aloud. The tree is now on the site of Hampton College, an HBCU whose forerunner was that first school under the oak, led by free-born African American Mary Smith Kelsey Peake.

I made a very brief visit at a friend’s house in Richmond to pick up some books – I’ll be back to see them again, but very much regret that I didn’t get a picture! (Thanks for the mail service, Beasa!) And they live in a really neat-looking, eclectic neighborhood. I didn’t really spend any time in the city, but what I saw, I liked (for a city). And then back out to the sticks.

Confession: I have rented a home for the week via Airbnb. Yes, this is cheating. But hear me out. I needed to say in one location for a week, and there is little to no free camping in these parts. It is getting very hot, daytimes. Having a home base–with air conditioning–allows me to leave Hops and go off on adventures (like riding my bike, which I have done very little of lately, because of the heat). I got a great deal on this place that’s actually less than campsites around here cost. So, there’s good and bad: the house reeks of cigarette smoke, and the bed is terrible–I just sleep in the van, which is fine. I like to sleep in the van! We have a little dock on a creek off the Rappahannock River. We have a kitchen, a bathroom, and a couch in the air conditioning. I’ve been doing early-morning yoga outside on the lawn, and riding my bike on the quiet country roads while Hops stays somewhere safe and cool. I bought lots of groceries that needed refrigeration, and fragile produce like pears!, and I’m doing a bunch of cooking. This was my birthday present to myself. And, again, cheaper than camping. That’s weird but true.

I’ve seen killdeer, hawks, buzzards, cardinals, Eastern bluebirds, a huge snapping turtle, deer, wild turkeys, a bald eagle, and Hops. Previous guests of this Airbnb have seen beaver; my fingers are crossed. (Have I told you how many beaver I’ve seen on this trip already? I’ve been lucky.)

So, an interlude. It’s cheating, but what the heck. This is my trip.

Kill Devil Hills

From the Beaufort area, north to more Outer Banks in the Nag’s Head/Kill Devil Hills region. (These names!) I spent a night in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where a whipping, blustering wind rocked Foxy all night. I didn’t feel so much disturbed as stimulated, and stayed up late that night reading as we rolled in the weather.

Cape Hatteras camp

We had some invigorating runs (Hops) and walks (me) on the beach. Here’s a video – I’m sorry I can’t figure out how to make it smaller…

And we visited the Bodie Island Lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

I climbed to the top of the lighthouse, 164 feet: about triple the height of the lighthouse I climbed at Port Isabel. It was very breezy up there, but I was brave. The Wright Brothers Memorial is of course about that first flight, beginning on Big Kill Devil Hill. There were some pretty good didactics, but Hops & I were more interested in the nice long walk around the hill and up to the monument.

It was another shining, beautiful day as we headed north again, for Virginia.

they’re everywhere, once you start paying attention

I guess I’ll go ahead and call myself an amateur birdwatcher now. I bought a pair of binoculars, for one thing. I find that the more birds I notice, the more the birds come to me. There have been so many encounters. Some weeks ago (time becomes so meaningless out here) I was pulled over at a cemetery down a dirt road for a phone call with my father when a great big black vulture came stumbling down the road at us, staggering like a drunk, straight for the van. Recall the roadrunner in Palo Duro who wanted to get in my van. There was also a Carolina wren in Poinsett, absolutely mad to get in the van with me through cracked windows, even though I kept discouraging it: my dad says they seek out old barns and such, and Foxy must have looked like a perfect nest. (I don’t disagree.) And then the cardinal who wanted in in Charleston.

remember this guy?

I’ve kept a list for a few of my last spots:
brown pelican
little blue heron
Canada goose (& goslings!)
double-crested cormorant
Eastern bluebird
piping plover
laughing gull
red-winged blackbird
always red-tailed hawks and buzzards – I think I’m seeing more black than turkey vultures.

The binoculars are a boon, if I can remember to keep them on me. Eyes open, friends.

Cape Lookout National Seashore, Beaufort, and horses

Whew. I’m having trouble keeping up with all of this, myself. Shan’t wait so long next time.

Carolina Beach/Kure Beach/Wilmington were a single location, I’m calling it, with hikes and beach time and bars and several breweries, and I picked up my packages (binoculars and solar!), and then I moved north to the area of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Weather warming and free parking getting a bit scarce, but we make do.

I had a few nice days up and down this short piece of coast. And we took a boat ride! I found a passenger ferry willing to carry Hops, and we rode across from the mainland to Shackleford Banks, one of the islands in the National Seashore–and one of several that are home to wild horses. These horses (I was told by ferry staff) have been DNA-tested and are descended from Spanish mustangs. Their forehorses were either tossed overboard from ships that were stuck on shoals and sandbars, to lighten the load, or were passengers on shipwrecked vessels. There are about 118 horses on Shackleford Banks now (rumors of a new baby are unconfirmed). Nobody feeds or waters them; they take care of themselves there on the island. Some people call them ponies, but they are genetically horses–just undersized because of nutritional limitations there on this 9-mile stretch of land.

I had my new binoculars with me, and enjoyed some very good views of the horses, which are shaggy and variously colored–some of them have white-blond manes and reminded me a little of punk rockers. But the photos, with my aging iPhone, are not nearly so nice.

If Hops is ever to ride on a boat again–a small one, where he can tell he’s on a boat–he’ll need sedation.

From the sweet Cape Lookout/Beaufort* area, we headed north again…

*Beaufort, North Carolina is BOW-fert. Beaufort, South Carolina is BEW-fert. I asked.


I have heard from a few different people that cardinals are the souls of people we’ve lost come back to visit. This guy was fairly clear about wanting to come sit with me for a few at my campsite outside of Wilmington, North Carolina.

And the very next day, as I read about bluebirds in backyard nesting boxes, I looked up to this.

What a world.

Myrtle Beach to… Carolina Beach

this one is a leftover from Myrtle Beach. sorry

It’s all beginning to run together a bit, I confess. Especially with nothing like an important museum or landmark or important trail to tie it all together. I’m working on those things.

Hops and I have had some wild walk/runs (me/him) on the beach, even under tornado watch – we got sandblasted, but we were still happy to be where we were. What do you do about a tornado watch in a van, anyway? You hope. And we got through it all fine, although wet.

I called it homesickness at first, but really I was just missing a Lone Star beer (sniff). So I put a Pabst in a koozie and did my best at a local beer bar. Which was fine.

And then we headed north to Carolina Beach State Park – in the state of North Carolina, now – where we are camping and dawdling. We did a longish hike (nearly six miles, longer than usual) and looked for the Venus flytraps that are indigenous to these parts, but didn’t see them. I did admire the pitcherplants, though. And Cape Fear River. Ritchey would have loved it. We visited Sugarloaf Dune, where, I’m told, American Indians lived from 6000 BC until the 1700s (when, one suspects, white folks may have had something to do with their demise).

Then there was Kure Beach, which is pretty much the reason we are in these parts – remember Larry from Johnson City? This is one of his and Karin’s favorite spots. We visited their home bar; and of course the brewery down the street which is named after my dog.

We’ve also checked out the city of Wilmington, for its beer (whew) and its lovely enormous Greenfield Park, and its Amazon lockers, where I have finally picked up a pair of binoculars and a set of solar panels. [I’m really regretful that I waited this long – more than halfway through my trip, at least for 2019, now. But better late than never. I can always use the binoculars in any life I lead (I think), and the solar panel I will hope to keep using on future van trips (2020), or I have a friend who’s interested.]

I have no idea what’s next, you guys. Stay tuned and we’ll find out together.