I’m driving north to meet my buddy Barrett, who is flying up from Texas to meet me in Delaware for an item of tourism that is long, long awaited. On my way, in the final moments in Virginia, I saw a tiny brown bird that I think might be a field sparrow. Foxy crossed the Chesapeake Bay! via a long bridge that occasionally dipped down into a tunnel (and up again, and down and up, diving and surfacing like a submarine), which cost us $14 but saved us an hour and fifteen minutes of drive time and gave us beautiful views of the ocean all the way. We stopped at the entrance to eastern Virginia and then drove up through Maryland, seeing laughing gulls, brown pelicans and another bald eagle. Then we pulled into a state forest campground in Delaware that was free and lovely, and filled with beautiful blue-and-black butterflies, among other things. We took a short walk that gave up an eastern fence lizard and lady’s slippers, and I picked nine ticks off Hops and one off me, so beware those short hikes in the Delaware woods in May, folks.
It was a long day – 12 hours round-trip – but it was worth it.
Hops and I got up early for some yoga and then headed into the city. I had errands to run: fuel for the stove, dog food, oil for the van, boring things like that. I accomplished everything pretty easily in the outskirts, and then into the city center via Monument Avenue, which reminded me very much of Houston’s Heights Boulevard, with its width and broad esplanade, its old stately houses, and its public art and statuary. Several intersections felt so familiar that I felt a little disoriented. I walked around (the outside of) the Holocaust Museum and Edgar Allen Poe Museum, and a bit of the floodwall at the James River, including the site of Libby Prison, where Union prisoners of war were held during the Civil War in apparently horrendous conditions. The prison is gone – moved to Chicago where it served as a war museum until it had to give way to a coliseum – but there remains a plaque, “re-erected 1980 by Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.” One wonders about the motivations of the two groups.
Then I made my way to the state capitol grounds for the Virginia Civil Rights Monument, which was my main goal.
For a destination, this is a diminutive thing, and one of 8 monuments and statues on the capitol grounds. I made a walk of it, seeing these beautiful grounds and all 8 monuments. You should go read more of the story here, but the monument honors Barbara Johns, who at 16 led a student walkout from a criminally underfunded Black high school in Farmville, Virginia, as well as the other students, activists and lawyers involved. While the civil rights monument is well done, I was left with a sour feeling, the feeling of tokenry: there’s the civil rights monument, a monument to women and one to Native Americans; the rest are old white men, including George Washington, several Confederate “heroes,” a doctor, and Edgar Allan Poe. Martin Luther King, Jr. gets a tree. It all feels a bit out of proportion, as if white men have done 85% of the work of Virginia and women, Native Americans and Blacks added a little bit here and there. I do appreciate the civil rights monument.
And I want to pull out the women’s and “Indian tribute” pieces as well.
Mantle is an earthwork monument by Mohawk artist Alan Michelson, based on the deerskin mantle in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, catalogued as follows in 1656: Pohatan, King of Virginia’s habit all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke. Historians believe the 34 embroidered shell disks, each sewn in a spiral pattern from which the shape of the tribute derives, may represent the nations of the Powhatan Confederacy, whose traditional homelands, Tsenacommacah, include this site.
One of nature’s fundamental forms, spirals are present not only in shells but also in the growth pattern of plants and trees. The tribute’s terraced design and elemental materials, including indigenous stone and plants, honors the land now known as Virginia and its original inhabitants and keepers of the land – the Indian nations – and celebrates their active presence and enduring culture.
Visitors are invited to follow the winding path to the fountain at the center, inscribed with the original names of Virginia waters.
Echoing the indigenous spiral sense of time, from which one may look backward to the past and forward to the future, Mantle is a welcoming space inviting contemplation of the four “r’s” of the indigenous worldview – respect, relationship, reciprocity, and responsibility.
And here’s the rest of the stuff.
From there I went on to see my buddy Beasa from my MFA program and their partner Diane. It was a great visit! We hung out in Foxy and had wonderful Jamaican food for dinner, and Beasa and I sat and talked and I could have done it for hours and hours more because they are wonderful, but Hops and I had to make the drive back to our riverside oasis.
I love these people so much. Foxy never looked so good!
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!
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.