still on the horse farm

It’s quiet and easy here. I may accompany my hosts on an errand or two, or help out with some gardening, but mostly I loaf around, reading and writing, and I’ve watched a few movies. The place is rich in birds: mostly common ones (bluejay, cardinal, robin, house sparrow, common grackle), but so plentiful and active and vociferous: I am awakened each morning by birdsong. I especially like the barn swallows, which swoop quite aggressively, and although they are small, they are an easy ID, with their red throat, blue back, pale chest, and split tail. I also spotted a red-headed woodpecker – or possibly pileated, it’s hard to tell. (My host says red-headed, and I agree that looks more likely from pictures, but the pileated is more common in this area.)

On a Sunday morning I took a short audio recording of the Amish singing at their home worship, accompanied by birdsong. It was lovely, I think. I’ve decided not to post it here, because that feels a little intrusive. But if you drop me a line, I’ll send it to you, how’s that?

I have not bothered the horses too much, having no expertise there, but I’ve helped walk them to and from pastures and feed them a little. I had forgotten how big horses are! I think my hosts are probably a little disappointed that I can’t appreciate more what they are trying to show me. Oh well.

On my last night here, I’m going to see a play, and that will be a real treat – it’s the kind of thing I’d do more of if I had better accommodations for Hops. Stay tuned for that review, eventually.

I have taken precious few pictures, for which I apologize. I think I left tourist mode when I got so relaxed and settled here. It’s a beautiful place…

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.

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.


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.

be still my heart in Muscle Shoals (part 2)

After leaving FAME I was really losing my mind, you guys. I had to go park and have some quiet time before I could move on, to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, and Barry Beckett started their careers as studio musicians at FAME, but left in 1969 to open their own studio, where they served as both owners and studio musicians; this is where they became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame as such). They were hailed as some of the finest studio musicians out there, with acts as big as the Rolling Stones coming into town to record in their studio. An anecdote from the documentary:

Paul Simon called Stax Records, said “Hey, man, I want those same Black players that played on ‘I’ll Take You There.'” They said, “That can happen, but these guys are mighty pale.”

(The joke here is that the four of them are white.)

I first learned about the Muscle Shoals Sound from a song.

Here, the tour was $15, and presented in a style much more suited to beginners: where Spencer at FAME is a sound engineer and apt to speak a bit over our non-professional heads (though happy to explicate where asked), the unnamed young man at Muscle Shoals Sound expected much less expertise. By this time, at my third stop of the day (and having some pre-study time put in, as a fan of these bands and having watched the documentary), Spencer’s style suited me a little better. But being in the place was, again, heady and nearly overwhelming. Here we talked a lot about the Swampers (nickname for the Rhythm Section, as immortalized in “Sweet Home Alabama” – go listen again and you’ll hear it), as well as Cher, the Stones, and Linda Ronstadt, among many others. I was amazed to hear we’d just missed David Hood, who’d been in recording just this week.

On my way into and out of town, I saw signs for places I’ve been hearing about in Truckers and Isbell songs for years: Russellville, Tuscumbia, Seven Mile Island; Lauderdale, Colbert, and Franklin counties. Wilson Dam, immortalized in a pair of Truckers songs by Cooley (“Uncle Frank“) and Isbell (“TVA“), respectively.

I’ve seen some birds, particularly around the dam: American white pelicans, great blue herons, Canada geese, a few Eastern bluebirds, and throughout the area, lots and lots of American robins.

I am now exhausted and reeling from this brush with greatness. How will I recover? I just feel so lucky that there’s such good music in the world, and that I get to know about it.

If I have not entirely killed my audience with these two gushy posts, let me leave you with a Jason Isbell Tiny Desk Concert that you will not regret.

You’re welcome.

Oak Mountain State Park

I’m lucky to have happened upon this place as I looked for camping spots along my route. The name was familiar because, oh yes, Oak Mountain is some famed mountain biking! (Site of the Bump-n-Grind race, and home to an IMBA epic trail.) The camping here was not cheap, which I regret. But the facilities were excellent – there was even coin-op laundry, which I took advantage of – and the park was enormous, just going on and on, always more to see. I highly recommend it, but $$$.

I mountain biked some truly rad trails, Hops and I did some hiking – the deal we’ve developed is, every time I leave him to ride, I owe him a hike.

We also checked out a short trail that advertised “live raptors!” Are you kidding, yes! This was a very cool series of cages – big ones, in the woods – holding nonreleasable birds: red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, turkey vulture and a rare albino turkey vulture, barn owls, black vultures, and barred owls. All of my pictures came out pretty poorly, what with the mesh; but here’s an albino turkey vulture for you.

her name is Princess

We later visited the Alabama Wildlife Center, where I saw the largest bird I’ve ever seen that wasn’t an emu or an ostrich: a Eurasian eagle-owl.

like three feet tall

We drove around for hours. The park is almost 10,000 acres! We visited multiple lakes, obviously multiple trails, encountered surprise birds of unusual size, sat in the sun and hid from the rain. A beautiful spot. If it weren’t so spendy I’d circle back. Hey, those trails are so worth it, y’all. Leaving a little bit of my heart in Oak Mountain…

good night

McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge: birds, more birds

We had the most amazing day at the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge! And as I’ve done before, I wanted to list a few birds here.

Not a lot of pictures here, because birds are hard to photograph. But would you look at this list! My friend Barrett and I counted twenty-three species, including: European starling, osprey, mottled duck, lesser scaup, red-breasted merganser, Wilson’s snipe, tri-colored heron, American coot, northern harrier, great egret, brown pelican, tropical cormorant, double-breasted cormorant, great blue heron, turkey vulture, black vulture, blue jay, killdeer, little blue heron, great-tailed grackle, boat-tailed grackle, rock pigeon, and snow goose. We also saw four little alligators. Maybe two to three feet in length; not so little that I didn’t watch Hops carefully.

But the part I was most excited about were the roseate spoonbills, the bird I most wanted to see, and sure enough, we rounded a bend on a gravel road and there they were, six or eight of them. They are so pink, and I was so excited. I didn’t get a great picture or anything, but we can call this proof.

The next day, driving east, I added a red-winged blackbird and belted kingfisher to my list. Coming up: Louisiana.

Sea Rim State Park: birds

My birds list is pretty haphazard so far, but I did want to note a few spotted in a southeast Texas coastal park. In a very brief visit, I saw: great blue heron, herring gull, willet, brown pelican, great egret, and, of course, plenty of vultures (I think all I saw were black vultures).

While still in the DFW area, among others, I saw a bunch of Canada geese.

Here I should plug my bird ID app, which I’m crazy about – they pay me nothing for this: check out Merlin Bird ID from the Cornell School of Ornithology. It rarely fails to help me feel confident in identifying the birds I see. Mine are almost always big birds: they’re easier to spot, especially when I’m not wearing my spectacles (which I rarely am). But I think I like the big birds the best, anyway. They feel easiest to identify with, have observable personalities. (Look out for a bird book review to come over at pagesofjulia any day now!)

addenda: wildlife and driving

My bad: I left some things out of the posts of the last few days.

I wanted to also tell you all that when Hops and I hiked up above the lodge in Davis Mountains, and back down via Montezuma Quail Trail, we saw a trio of mountain goats. Hops was so stimulated that he nearly pulled me off the mountain, at a steep and loose-rock part of the trail. I was thrilled, too, too thrilled to think of my camera til they were gone.

The next morning, stumbling out of the van so that we could both pee, we were startled by a pair of mule deer standing within a dozen feet. One of them retreated to a safe distance, but the other was so enamored of Hops that she did not leave. In fact she was approaching, head stretched to meet him, with such enthusiasm that it made me nervous. I didn’t quite want to break up the party, but every time she got close–mere feet!–I spoke to her, and she remembered me, and backed up a step or two. This went on for minutes, until another human happened along and she finally ran away. I still don’t understand what this deer wanted so much with my little dog. To snuggle him? To eat him? Whoever heard of such a thing?

Days later, I would stop the van on a state park road to admire wild turkeys: a dozen or so that ran off into the bushes, but a group of four who stuck around, pecking gravel and looking back at me. Big, fat, stately birds, they are. And such strange appendages, these “beards” hanging off their chests.

I am disappointed that while in the Big Bend region I saw no big predators living–coyotes, bobcats, black bear–though all are present. I did see several roadkilled coyotes, and a stuffed bear in the Museum of the Big Bend who was hit by a car and killed two miles from that site, in 2009. At the time (I was told by the museum man) he was the largest bear on record in the state of Texas. That wording implies that a larger one has turned up since.

I am reminded by all of this of my lifetime’s two bobcat sightings: one on the mountain in Bellingham, Washington where I used to mountain bike, and the other just weeks ago, in West Virginia, while driving in the mountains at night. I had my brights on and it dashed across the highway in front of me, and I got a good look.

I also wanted to remark on the drive north from Ft. Davis to Monahans. The first leg, from Ft. Davis to Balmorhea, was gloriously beautiful. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic headed my way, so I took it as slow as I pleased, and looked around and enjoyed the multicolored mountains, a fresh vista around every turn. I stopped at Balmorhea State Park, where the famous pool is closed indefinitely for renovations, but I’d never seen it before and wanted to look around. Hops and I walked up to the chained-link to see the pool from a little ways off; it looks like a lot of fun. We spotted several black-and-white water birds enjoying it, which might have been bufflehead, but it’s hard to say from that distance and without my spectacles.

The drive from Balmorhea to Monahans, however, was a great change. From little-trafficked, rolling, multicolored, wild beauty, the transition was quick to oil pumps, flat expanses, and roaring traffic of big trucks (big pickups as well as big rigs), all of them in a great hurry and very suddenly none of them returning my steering-wheel-wave. High winds and the smell of oil towns (sulfuric and chemical) completed the experience: no fun. For that matter, Monahans on to Odessa and beyond continued in the same spirit; not until getting outside of Amarillo did things turn pretty again, but that’s a story for another blog post.

catching up with my time away from Foxy

I have neglected this site as I have neglected my van and my dog.

On Christmas morning, I was with three generations of old family friends; by Christmas night, I was with my friend Abby’s family, none of whom had met me before but who welcomed me nonetheless. Meanwhile a dear family of friends watched over Hops and Foxy for me. I feel lucky.

I left Foxy and Hops in the Texas Hill Country. I traveled to Houston, to fly to Atlanta, to join Abby there. We drove up into West Virginia together, to West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, where we are both in the MFA program. I graduated; she has a little time left still. We spent 10 days or so there, then backtracked (with a stop at a state park a little out of the way), through Charleston, WV, to Atlanta, on for me to Houston and back to the Texas Hill Country to rejoin dog and van. Whew.

Here are a few photos to tide us all over til I’m back in the van.

Not pictured: at Abby’s we saw three coyotes trotting down the dark road behind her house; when we got back, we saw a group of four or five eastern bluebirds (my first!) AND a blue jay, who kindly appeared to show us the contrast. On our trip home, we stopped at the lovely Taylor Books in Charleston, where we squealed over the books of our friends like Mesha Maren, Jessie van Eerden, Katie Fallon and Doug Van Gundy. I swore I would buy no books and then bought two books.

I’ll be back with regularly scheduled programming eventually, I promise. In the meantime, we follow the twisting road. Thanks for your patience.