Week 31 - Columbia, Hadley, Chapel Hill

After a leisurely early morning at the M-S house, I packed up and headed inland for Columbia to visit family friends. The green fields were brushed with swaths of rust-red grasses and pale purple wildflowers, and the masses of wisteria vines hanging by the roadside gave off clouds of their sweet scent. It was a sunny day but the air was cool and dry from the recent front, adding a sharp edge to the lush atmosphere of spring. I stopped for lunch at an interesting-looking place called Gypsy's Village, which also advertised blacksmithing, herbs, and "spiritual items", but it turned out their restaurant had been closed because of the pandemic, which was a shame, they said, because it had been the only swamp kitchen in the area. Apparently a swamp kitchen serves gator meat, frog legs, and that sort of thing. The place definitely had character, and reminded me a little of what might have become of the establishment in Tom Robbins' novel Another Roadside Attraction if it was in South Carolina and had been allowed to grow old and go to seed. I ended up eating lunch in Lake City at a barbecue joint called Slabs, where the food was delicious, plentiful, and cheap, the owners were extremely friendly, and the outdoor deck was peaceful. Over most of the coastal plain, the monotonous landscape and the chilling wind lulled me into a trance, and I struggled to stay alert and engaged, but finally I reached the rolling hills of the Midlands and was soon in the leafy old neighborhood of Shandon, where my "aunt" PF and "uncle" GF have lived for as long as I can remember.

I was joining a small Easter gathering, with my parents visiting for a few days, as well as the F's daughter LF with her husband PS and two children down from Virginia, their son NF with his wife LS and child who live nearby in Columbia, and PS's mom and step-dad who'd just returned from a long stay in Arizona. I pitched my tent in the immaculately landscaped backyard, and we had a dinner of Mediterranean takeout on the screen porch. Sunday was leisurely. Going to get some groceries, I walked down Blossom Street, which for the moment was aptly named since every yard was overflowing with blooming perennials. The churchyards I passed were filled with well-dressed parishioners singing Easter hymns. Back at the house, the three kids hunted for eggs, the eldest being nearly too old for it and the youngest nearly too young, but the problem was solved by the one cousin helping the other. My mom and I talked about literature on the sunny lawn and took afternoon naps, and later she sang some songs for GF, who's recently been confined to a wheelchair by Parkinson's. Despite having some trouble speaking, he was able to sing along with every song. After dinner I read on the lawn until it was too dark, half-listening to the conversations on the porch.

On Monday morning I got on the road back to my family's land in Hadley, where I'd started the trip, planning to spend a few weeks seeing friends, exchanging gear, and working on Punkin in the garage. It was a pretty uneventful ride. I amused myself by imagining that the signs saying PLANT ENTRANCE were warning about fast-moving plants that might grow into the road. In a gas station bathroom stall there was a graffiti dialog about racism, much like what you might find on social media, while at the urinals I could hear two men of different races finding common ground in complaining about whoever had pissed on the floor. Truly a microcosm of our great nation. I stopped for lunch in Cheraw and briefly met up with my parents, who'd gotten a later start, took a scenic route through Goldston, bought a towering load of groceries in Pittsboro, and finally arrived back at the big field where I'd spent the winter.

Spring had definitively arrived and everything looked different. Soft new grass had sprung up, the forest was punctuated by the white blooms of dogwoods and fruit trees, the redbuds were dressed proudly in pink, and a chorus of frogs sang out from around the pond. I pitched my tent at the old campsite, splashed myself clean in the creek, and settled into the peace and quiet. Most days I worked by the pond or in a shady part of the field, but one day I went into town and worked the morning from the NC Botanical Garden, where I had to periodically wipe a thick layer of pollen off my screen, and the afternoon from the banks of Morgan Creek, where I took a late afternoon walk with HW. I spent one evening at the garage overhauling Punkin, mainly changing the oil and replacing the chain, and hanging out with RM and a woman named A who were working on a sweet Toyota Corolla wagon from the 80's. One night AP and GB grilled burgers on their porch and my parents brought a grapefruit and avocado salad. GB and I had Impossible Burgers, and little A had an Invisible Burger (which was an extra bun). There'd been vague talk of watching a movie, but we were all too tired, though I did get to tour the nearly-finished addition that AP has been busting ass on for many months.

On Saturday I took a long walk down to the river and visited along the way with my neighbors MH and TH, who were fixing the tire on a riding lawnmower, AH who'd just gotten back from a turkey hunt (getting no turkeys but finding a beautiful deer antler that had just been shed), KC who was working on the piece of land she'd recently become the steward of, and BM who was taking a break from making sculptures that look like totem poles of large ceramic diatoms. I reflected on how the place has become more developed since I was a kid, but then again there was a time before I was born when the land was covered in farm fields instead of forests. Where I'd gone down to the river, there are old wagon roads winding through the woods, and out in the stream stands a battered brick pillar that once supported a bridge. On my way home I stopped to talk with my neighbor JM, who recounted how there used to be a thriving community down there with a grist mill and a post office, but then about a hundred years ago a tornado destroyed it all in an instant, killing every inhabitant except a single baby boy. As Octavia Butler wrote, "the only lasting truth is Change."

Things I Learned

  • Getting sand in a motorcycle chain makes it wear out a lot faster.
  • There is still a huge demand for outdoor gear. I overheard a saleswoman telling some customers that if they were thinking of buying a kayak they'd better act fast because the store was projecting to sell out company-wide within the next few weeks. Last year kayak sales were up 140% and the manufacturers are still scrambling to meet the demand.
  • Big trucks have a kind of brake that works by choking off air to the engine, which makes a very loud sound. I've been seeing a lot of signs in small towns that say "engine braking prohibited", and RM and A (who has a CDL) explained it to me.
  • Earthseed, which is a fictional religion in Octavia E. Butler's "Parable" series, has become a real religion, which is quite a testament to her thinking and writing. I'm not sure if it's big enough yet but if they have a church or community somewhere, I'd really like to visit it someday.

Wonderful Things

  • Sunlight shining through new leaves, like fresh jewels against the darkness of forest shade.
  • Honking geese flying northerly.
  • Rain washing away the pollen in yellow rivulets, and the next day the wind from the woods smelling like a pond in the summertime.
  • Lying naked in the field watching massive thunderheads roll by and feeling the occasional drop. Then remembering the cloudbusting scene in The Fisher King and that I happened to have it saved on my computer, and enjoying the film one more time.

Week 30 - Osceola NF to North Myrtle Beach

Friday night was difficult. I felt achy and sensitive to the bright moonlight, the smell of bug spray drifting on the wind, and the sound of a generator running through the night. I got up to pee just before dawn and saw a fire over at PP's campsite, so I decided I might as well get up. I went over and sat by the fire swatting mosquitoes and listening to stories: piglets from the family hog farm sitting in rocking chairs and watching TV with his sisters, a work crew tossing stunned horseflies up to be caught in midair by dragonflies, riding a go-cart at 68 miles per hour, putting a van in neutral and killing the engine so his buddy could change out the spark plugs in the center-mounted engine as they rolled down the mountain. PP sang me the latest verse he'd written for his epic song "Hillbilly Holiday", which went something like "Pack like a bicyclist, camp like a motorcyclist, drive like a trucker, and then you'll be free". He said after 20-some years the song might be approaching the length of a book, and I said his stories would make a hell of a memoir. "Yeah I could get me a ghostwriter," he said, and I immediately volunteered if we should cross paths again, or if JT could send me recordings to work from. I regretting not recording his stories when I had the change, and resolved to get a recording device, like William Least Heat-Moon used for Blue Highways. Sure, I could use my phone but somehow a little voice recorder seems less obtrusive. PP and JT were heading for Idaho, he via Tennessee and she via Missouri, so perhaps we'll be able to meet again in that area. The sun rose, I listened to a few more stories, packed my camp, said my goodbyes, and hit the road around 9:30.

I savored the last of the Florida roads: the fragrant air wafting from the pine barrens and the damp air emanating from swamps of emerald shade. I stopped for lunch in Jesup, Georgia, at a little Japanese place called Oishi that had a good feel about it. Walking in, the decor was surprisingly tasteful. The chef was in the back and what I assume were his two daughters were working the front. At first I was the only customer, but soon a couple came in, then a good ole boy who was clearly a regular dropped off a couple beers for the chef at the front before sitting down. "I'll take that Black Samurai," he said, "and one of his Kirins. Then maybe I'll get some of those noodles I like." Two local cops came in and sat down, and the good ole boy, on his way to the bathroom, figured out that one of them had helped his elderly mother at one point. My food came out, and maybe it was my week of living on canned beans and such, but it was incredibly delicious. The green tea wasn't a bag but loose leaves in an infuser, and served with a lovely ceramic mug. I basked in the good vibes of the place and the buzz from the dense nutrients of my meal. The good ole boy paid for the cops' meal and determined that the noodles he liked were soba. I asked him what a place like this was doing in a town like Jesup, and he said he had no idea but he was mighty grateful. After finishing the second brewing of the tea, I paid, complemented the chef, and got back on the road.

Punkin was definitely starting to act funny. The most noticeable symptom was that whenever I slowed down quickly, like at a traffic light, the engine would backfire a bit like an out-of-tune Harley. I wondered if I'd made the mix too rich, so I stopped at a gas station, adjusted the carb to be leaner, tightened the chain, and checked the oil. The backfiring seemed slightly better but still noticeable. It wasn't until I got to the edge of the ACE Basin in South Carolina and stopped to check out a nice-looking motel I had thought of staying at that I figured out the problem. I had taken my earplugs out to call the motel owners, and when I started the engine again I could hear that it was making an awful, strident noise. Looking for the cause, I noticed that both nuts holding the exhaust onto the engine had fallen off, and while it was still being held in place by the rear mounting screws, there was a small leak which was bypassing the muffler and making a racket. I immediately shifted my goal to getting to the nearest auto parts store, about 12 miles north on the outskirts of Charleston. The first one I stopped at didn't have what I needed, and when I got to the second one I turned a bit early and wound up in the parking lot of a little restaurant called Harvest Moon. The store had the right parts and I hurried to remove all my luggage, take off the exhaust, and remount it in the last of the fading light. I put three nuts on each stud, jamming them hard against each other to prevent a repeat of the problem. When I got everything back together it was getting dark, and the engine was purring again.

Since I'd already parked at the restaurant, and it smelled good, and I was hungry, I decided to go ahead and get dinner there. It was a southern place and I got another unexpectedly delicious meal, just a vegetable plate with a cornbread muffin, but everything was clearly made with love, skill, and good ingredients, and everyone was friendly. Two teenage boys that were working there went out to look at my bike and we geeked out about old motorcycles. One took a picture for his sister who's also a vintage Honda fan. When I finished, it was fully dark except for the moon, and I had no clue where I was going to stay. I set my sights on a cheap Motel 6 further into Charleston, since that would take me toward my destination. But when I got there and tried to check in, they said they'd just sold out, and that apparently something was going on that night because all the places nearby were booked as well. Feeling the scarcity mindset, I jumped on my phone and booked the first available place I could find, up in North Charleston, even further along my route.

When I got there and went into the lobby, the guy at the desk was on the phone, and I noticed that he was behind a thick glass partition with a stainless steel tray to pass documents in and out. Oh, I thought to myself, they're taking the pandemic really seriously! Then it started to dawn on me that the glass was bulletproof... viruses were not the most relevant danger here. This impression was confirmed as I tried to go up the outdoor stairwell to my room, and had to wait for a drug deal to finish before I could make it past. There was a crowd of people around the stairwell, and a guy said, "No doing drugs on the stairs now, go somewhere else." The stale air in my room had a strange chemical smell with a hint of napthalene, the plastic floor was slippery with grease and smelled like dirty socks, there were holes punched in the wall, and the shower dripped constantly. Out front where I'd parked was a table with people around it playing cards and talking. One of them, named B, an older man with a squint, came over and asked if I was military or had ever been military. When I told him no, he said that was good, the government would chew you up and spit you out, and launched into a long story about how the VA had botched his cataract surgery and ruined the vision in one eye, which caused him to lose his trucker's license. He advised me to lock Punkin to something, so I locked the back wheel to the fence around the dumpster. Another guy at the table spoke up and said I'd better lock it to one of the pillars. So I tried to, but the chain wasn't long enough. He introduced himself as J and said he worked maintenance for the hotel, and I could park Punkin in his room for the night, outside it was likely to get stripped. "They'll take off anything they can," he said, and seeing the chaos going on all around, I couldn't argue. After we'd moved the bike inside, they invited me to sit at their table and hang out. Even though it was now 9:30 and I was pretty tired from riding, they seemed like interesting people so I agreed.

Along with B, the Vietnam vet, and J the maintenance man (nicknamed Gator), I met J's sweet little dog Harley, a large and silent man named W who also lived and worked at the hotel, and W's mom L and girlfriend K. B was crashing in J's room while he waited for his RV to be fixed. J himself had only been there for two weeks, before which he'd been homeless for a while after losing everything to medical debt, and got addicted to meth as a mental escape from the stress of homelessness. He was clean now, and had even successfully resisted a relapse after finding $400 worth of crystal while cleaning out one of the rooms. On the balcony across the way, a woman in her underwear stood in an odd pose, maybe it was advertising. Another woman braided someone's hair while having a shouting fight with a young man. I heard a window get smashed and wondered out loud if it might be mine. "Nah," J said, "you're two doors down from O, he's a big dealer, he won't let no shit go down up there." Things were actually relatively quiet right then, they told me. Sometimes it would suddenly get really crazy: screaming, gunshots, the parking lot filling sometimes with gangsters, sometimes with the whole North Charleston Police Department. "People leave me alone though," J said, "I told them you can hurt me or you can kill me, but you should probably pick option two. I'm not afraid to die, I died a long time ago, now I started living for real."

K was calling the phone company to help J transfer service to a new phone, and J started chatting with the guy on the other end. "I hear chickens in the background, you working from home?" The agent said he was. "Where's home?" The agent said the Phillipines. "Are those chickens I hear in the background?" The agent said yes and apologized. "Nah dude, don't apologize, that's cool as shit. I'm from the country too. That's cool you can stay home and work in your boxers." The phone transfer didn't work, but I savored this surreal globe-spanning dialog as midnight approached. A 22 year old Gujarati kid from Ahmedabad came over to bum a cigarette. "You eat Subway again?" J said. "You're gonna turn into one of them sandwiches." We talked about music, and B joked that with self-driving cars, you could now write a country song where not only does a guy lose his wife and dog, but his truck leaves him too. We talked about religion and spirituality and got into some deep questions surprisingly quickly. I floated the "God is change" idea from Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. We agreed that it was best to face whatever life was dealing out, however uncomfortable. When I finally got into bed it was almost 1:00 in the morning, and the noise outside hadn't died down much. I reflected on the trajectory of the day: I'd ridden nearly 300 miles from an intensely rural world to an intensely urban one, along the way fixing a major mechanical issue, eating two fantastic meals, and meeting some very sweet people in the midst of what seemed like such a hardboiled wasteland. And squalid as this place was, I was surprised not to feel the kind of forlorn lonesome feelings I've had in similar situations in the past. Maybe it was because I had new friends nearby, or maybe something in me was changing. Tired as I was, it took some time to get to sleep.

I woke up at 5:30 on Sunday morning and packed quickly. B was still sleeping on his cot, but J came to the door in boxers and T-shirt and together we maneuvered Punkin outside. I thanked him again, loaded up, and rode away, relieved to have avoided any interactions with organized crime or the law. It was quiet in the predawn darkness, and a fresh breeze blew off the water. A man on a bicycle silently crossed the beam of my headlight, carrying a small bundle of long sword-shaped leaves under one arm. I fought the buffeting wind across a big bridge and rode north on 17. When I saw a brown sign pointing to the water, I turned right. Out on the sound, surrounded by quiet and gray fog and water plants, I breathed the cool clean wind until there was no trace left of the fetid air of that hotel room. The sun was rising, a fisherman slipped his kayak silently out through the reeds, and a solitary goose paddled by. The aluminum signs were riddled with bullet holes and someone had put a love padlock through one of them. Refreshed, I rode up through Francis Marion National Forest and passed the Santee Coastal Reserve again. I'd originally planned to camp there for another week, but some family plans and an approaching cold front made me decide to spend the week back in North Myrtle Beach instead. I stopped in Georgetown for breakfast and hot tea, watching sailboats and listening to the seagulls. Afterwards I needed a rest before I hit the road, so I headed over to East Bay Park and did some reading down by the water. I struck up a conversation with an elderly man who was picking up litter and sorting through the trashcans, covering the fluctuating market value of aluminum, the minimum wage, climate change and its attendant flooding, local history, and the origin of the nearby metal sculpture of a large shrimp with a bellyful of trash and a gut-punched facial expression. The sculpture was intended to deter littering but in his view it hadn't been very effective.

I got back on the road and made one more stop to buy some gear, because at some point on Saturday's epic journey I'd lost a bundle containing my rain pants, a ratty old fleece, a jacket, and a vest. Some of these things had been due for replacement anyway, so it wasn't a huge tragedy. I stopped at the Orvis store in the Market Common development of Myrtle Beach, one of those mixed-use developments that attempts to look like a real downtown but fails by being too perfectly planned. Like the day before, this journey traversed another contrast: from poor-space to rich-space. I got a warm jacket and vest (on sale because of it being spring), and headed for the M-S household in North Myrtle Beach. I rolled the pieces of carpet back out, set up my tent, and slipped back into family life. A refreshing swim in the pond with the two younger boys washed away the road grime, and sitting on the sunny deck left me warm and dry. The M-S family was having their weekly dinner with the grandparents, so I got some Chinese takeout and took it down toward the beach. I was within sight of the ocean when it became clear that a thunderstorm was rolling in, so I ducked under the awning of a closed restaurant and ate my dinner while watching the sky change and the rain come down. When the front had passed, I walked home perfectly dry despite not having packed a raincoat.

After such an action-packed weekend, it was good to have a restful week of napping, eating lots of fruits and veggies, swimming in the pond, and soaking up the sun. There were also lots of great conversations about relationship dynamics, how we find meaning in life, how to walk the middle path between overwork and underwork, Catholic mysticism and sacrifice, the origin of the soul in deep evolutionary time, the likelihood of the singularity, and much more. One morning EM, age six, showed his devotion to Meher Baba by being silent for intervals of five, then ten, then twenty minutes. When his dad and brothers tried to get him to break his silence, he responded with a cherubic smile. Unfortunately for the peace of the household, subsequent attempts to get him to repeat his feat did not succeed. On Friday, LS took me back to the Meher Spiritual Center and we walked around the house where Meher Baba had stayed, which was built in the 1950s from a design which Life Magazine had said was the perfect house. We sat on a bench looking overlooking the pond through sinuous pines, and talked about reincarnation, Baba's encounters with God-drunk masts, and LS's memories of growing up in and around the Center. It was a beautiful fresh sunny spring day to appreciate the landscape, and shifted my mind to spiritual matters. Meher Baba wrote that "true mysticism ... is so practical that it can be lived every moment of life and can be expressed in every-day duties; and its connection with experience is so deep that, in one sense, it is the final understanding of all experience." I feel like this is connected with the essence I've been looking for in Walt Whitman's poetry: the ordinary made luminous by paying attention closely and clearly.

Things I Learned

  • PP told me it's very hard to find a hotel that will take cash anymore. His theory was that they assume you'll trash the room and leave and they won't be able to bill you for it, but to me that seems like a perfect use case for insurance. The cynical explanation is that it's an easy way to discriminate against the unbanked, who are actually not such a small group; there are tens of millions of them in the US alone.
  • When staying at a multistory motel with a two-wheeled vehicle, it would be smart to request a room on the ground floor.
  • When thunderclouds are high enough and there are few obstructions, you can actually match the shapes on the weather radar to the clouds in the sky, like a moving map.
  • Black squirrels are actually just a variant of "normal" squirrels, and apparently the gene was passed from fox squirrels to gray squirrels via interbreeding. I saw some black fox squirrels with white noses on a golf course in North Myrtle Beach, and with their hefty build and unfamiliar coloration it took me some time to even figure out what kind of mammal they were.
  • Hail forms when there's an updraft in the middle of a thundercloud, which causes droplets to freeze and pick up shells of ice until they become too heavy for the updraft to lift, at which point they start to drop, pick up even more ice on the way down, and fall as hailstones.

Wonderful Things

  • Riding down a boring highway and suddenly passing into a shady tunnel of ancient live oaks.
  • Crossing a bridge before dawn, sodium vapor lights voluminous in the fog against a steel blue sky.
  • Snuggling down into a warm sleeping bag on a cold night.
  • The smell of confederate jasmine.

Week 29 - Osceola NF to Ocala NF and back

It was Friday night at Cobb Camp and the weekenders were rolling in with massive trucks and tents, hauling multiple ATVs on trailers. Hard as it was to leave my new friends, it was time to go. After I'd packed up on Saturday morning I visited a little more with PP, and read him and L the kayaker a poem that had come to mind while hearing PP's stories. He said it was deep and he'd need to spend some time translating it into hillbilly, but that he got the gist and enjoyed it. As I was about to ride off, he spotted a snarl of fishing line I'd got wrapped around the back wheel while offroading. I had to remove the axle to get it off but was really glad he caught it before it turned into something more serious. Clearly I need to do more thorough pre-ride inspections. But after that I said goodbye for real and was back on the road, heading south to Ocala National Forest down boring highways with occasional backroads through pretty farm country.

Campsites in Ocala were a bit of an unknown. All the paid campgrounds were too full for me to stay the week, and there was only one established "dispersed" (aka free and no reservations) campground. Also I'd heard rumors that there was a lot of methamphetamine-related activity in the area as well, so I wanted to avoid the kind of place that was so off the map that a meth cook would choose to set up there. I figured I'd just spend the afternoon scouting around and see what I could find. I stopped in Salt Springs to do my laundry and gorge myself on a stromboli, and liked the place so much that I decided to camp nearby if possible. The other locations I'd considered further south were a lot more remote and wouldn't have any services nearby if I needed them. I went to check out one site that had been posted on iOverlander, but quickly found out that it's really hard to ride a fully loaded motorcycle through deep, loose sand. Maybe it would be easier with more skills, or really wide tires like the TW-200 has. But anyway, by the time I got back to the main road my arms were a little sore, and I was hoping all the Forest Service roads weren't like that one, which on the map wasn't even marked as the roughest kind of road.

Luckily the next road I tried, FR 33, was made of a hard-packed clay/sand mixture that was mostly easy to ride on, except for stretches of rolling washboard that made Punkin's creaky old suspension cluck like an agreived chicken. I passed the $8/night Shanty Pond campground which was closed for the pandemic (why USDA, why? pretty sure nobody was planning to throw a party in the pit toilet), and took a road that appeared to lead to a small pond. Lo and behold, there were fine campsites all along the road, and at the first one was a guy napping in his Jeep with a dog in the passenger seat that looked just like Lassie. He sat up and said we was thinking of camping there for the night. I took this as a good sign and found myself a nice spot a bit further in, with two big longleaf pines for my hammock, a shady live oak for my tent, a southern exposure for my solar panels, and a view out over the pond at the back.

After setting up camp, I explored a little and found another site at the end of the road, where a group of 20-somethings had set up camp. They were from Port St. Lucie, friends from high school, four men and three women (two of whom were passed out drunk in their tents, snoring audibly). It was a bit cold and rainy, and they invited me to sit by their fire under the sprawling live oaks. I found out that two of the men worked at a boat factory assembling consoles and trim, and the two passed-out women were nurses. One of the other men had been a boy scout, and another wore cowboy boots and was a very knowledgeable outdoorsman, so between all of them I picked up a lot of information about life in Florida. Boy Scout told me how scouts in Florida make shelters thatched with palm fronds and how certain palms cut like a razor, and Cowboy gave me directions to some nearby swimming spots. They explained how Florida has delicious lobsters (more delicious than Maine's but only the tail is good to eat), how they're known as "bugs", how they've become rare because of over-harvesting, and how some people catch them by driving out whole burrows by squirting bleach into one end (which is very very illegal). Cowboy's tent was of a type I'd never seen before, where the entire floor is basically a double-width cot, so it doesn't matter what the ground is like as long as the legs don't sink in too much. After awhile I headed back to my camp to write my blog, and could hear them partying for a long while, but not too loudly. They struck me as real sweet kids.

In the morning it was still cool and drizzly. I heard some very unfamiliar bird calls, and when I went out on a walk I ran into a couple out geocaching with their five rescue dogs, who told me that the birds were sandhill cranes. I rode the few miles back into town, stocked up on groceries, and ate lunch at a place called Odd Todd's. Out front there was a road sign with a silhouette of a bear and under that "NEXT 16 MILES" and under that "HOT BOILED PNUTS". I definitely felt I'd arrived somewhere different (I grew up north of the boiled peanut line). Back at camp I ran into Jeep guy heading out, and he told me how he'd once ridden the TransAmerica Trail on a KLR 650 and I said I'd like to do something like that one day. In the early afternoon I heard some signs of life from the end of the road and went over to hang out with the kids as they made "breakfast". The two nurses were now awake and two other people were passed out instead. Apparently it was hard seltzer that had done them in the day before, and some vodka that was intended to be mixed with juice but never was. Apparently, even apart from the pandemic, being a nurse in Florida is a little crazy because you have to deal with crazy Floridians. One of the nurses was telling a story about someone with their finger bitten off by a family member and there was some confusion about which of the several such cases she was talking about. When it started raining a bit harder, I retreated to my tent and spent the rest of that rainy Sunday reading and lazing around, and waved to the kids as they headed out for a day on the river and then a three hour drive back to their jobs down south.

Then the weekend was over and it got really quiet. Well, except for my non-human neighbors: birds, crickets, bullfrogs in the pond, and so on. The mornings were quite drizzly, but over the course of the week the drizzle shaded into fog, and the afternoons got gradually hotter and drier. I explored the area around my camp, which turned out to be at the intersection of several distinct ecosystems. The pond was surrounded by a little "prairie" which is officially known as a Floridian highlands freshwater marsh, "highlands" being a very low bar in a state where the highest points are "mountains" a few hundred feet above sea level. But because the sandy soil is so incredibly well drained, it doesn't retain water and nutrients well, and the prairies are an improbable mixture of marsh and desert, with a ring of dense reedy grasses in the lower parts, then sandy stretches colonized by soft pale green tufts of lichen, clumps of wiry grass, scrub pines, and even prickly pear cacti. It's fun to be in a place where I have so little experience, because it doesn't take much looking to run across natural mysteries. Like the piles of sand regularly spaced across the forest floor as if someone had been frantically hunting for buried treasure, which I later found out were excavated from the tunnel systems of the southeastern pocket gopher. On top of these, ant lions had dug their conical traps. One day I ran across a snake sunning itself by the pond, and after emailing a picture to a helpful herpetologist at the Florida Museum, I found out it was a dusky pygmy rattlesnake. I also saw some deer, woodpeckers, the wakes of fish in the pond, and many ground-nesting birds exploding away from me with a startling whir.

But my most exciting encounter was when I was sitting in camp and heard something crashing through the undergrowth. I thought it might be a bear, the thought of which was exciting and a bit scary, but then out of the bushes burst two beige turtles with carapaces the size of large mixing bowls, one chasing the other and slamming into it with a loud thunk. When I got up to get a closer look, they turned around and hoofed it in the other direction, still thunking away, and I saw them go into a large burrow that I hadn't noticed before, no more than a hundred feet from my camp. I knew right away they could only be gopher tortoises, which are a crucial part of the longleaf pine forest ecosystem. And right inside the burrow I could see the back end of one of them, and could hear them still thunking away. I emailed the herpetologist again to ask what the heck they were doing, and he told me the behavior is called "shell ramming", and happens both in courtship and when two males are fighting. I felt really lucky to have seen them, and I resolved to get myself some binoculars so that next time I can get a better look without having to get so close.

But during the week there was very little human presence around my camp. Even though I could hear the cars going by on highway 19, the long straight forest roads were so empty it was almost eerie. I saw a few turkey hunters, one pair in a metallic teal 1989 Geo Tracker (which I coveted more than I want to admit), and another pair walking past my hammock at dawn in head to toe camo. At one empty campsite across the road I found that someone had written "NO N*****S" on the top of an oak stump, which I rubbed with a lump of charcoal from the fire pit until the message was obscured, kind of hoping the writer would come back, sit down on it, and get up with a black ass. One time I saw a couple Ford F350s with tinted windows meeting on a lonely stretch of road and thought to myself that it was exactly the sort of vehicle a Floridian Walter White would drive, but otherwise there was no sign of the rumored meth cooks. I picked up a lot of beer cans, and in another campsite found a chromed muffler cover that fairly begged to be turned into the centerpiece of a dangly-dingly.

The days warmed up until even in the shade I was working in just a pair of shorts: no shirt, no shoes, no problem. Of course along with the warmth came a few ticks, mosquitoes, and biting flies, but not so many as to be really inconvenient. On Thursday afternoon, as the temperature approached 90 degrees, I took off work and headed down to one of the swimming spots Cowboy had told me about. I took a lovely shortcut along the edge of Hopkins Prairie, with majestic views through tall pines of waterfowl on the distant marshes. There were sections of deep sand that gave me some good offroading practice, and I arrived a little sweaty. The spot was a sinkhole, a deep pool of clear water sunken below ground level, connected through limestone tunnels to the aquifer that keeps the water at a refreshing 70 degrees or so year round. It felt like a natural version of what's called a "tank" in India, a cool oasis sunken into a desert-like landscape. I passed the afternoon swimming, reading, napping, and watching the clouds. It was the main thing I wanted to do when I headed for Florida, so I felt like now I could head north again and not feel like I missed out, although I certainly want to come back someday and spend more time in this landscape. Next time I'd really like to have a boat.

The ride back to Cobb Camp was uneventful and the scenery was a lot prettier in the fine weather, with green shady bottomlands and rolling cow pastures studded with trees. When I got there I found PP sitting on his tailgate and JT conferring with R the mechanic, who was fixing the suspension on her minivan. "I thought I heard a weed eater roll in," he said.

Things I Learned

  • People collect the fruits of the saw palmetto and sell them to be used as an herbal medicine.
  • Gopher tortoises sometimes drag sticks in front of their burrows to deter predators.
  • Female pocket gophers tend to dig branching burrows to have a better chance of finding plants to eat, while male pocket gophers tend to dig straight burrows to have a better chance of finding the burrow of a female.

Wonderful Things

  • Fog beading on spiderwebs at sunrise, making the trees look as if they'd been festooned with lanterns during the night.
  • Crushing the longleaf pine needles under my feet and walking through their intoxicating mellow aroma, like spiced caramel. It's becoming one of my favorite smells.
  • Purple thistles and yellow butterflies by the side of the road.

Week 28 - Woodbine, Osceola National Forest

When I left Beaufort the air was warm and tinged with the smoke from controlled burns, smelling sometimes like a campfire and sometimes like fine pipe tobacco. As I passed Savannah the dock cranes stood out in the hazy distance like huge skeletal beasts. I made a stop near Darien, Georgia at the "smallest church in America" which had a very pretty little chapel. In one corner there was a tiny food bank, and two bulletin boards with all kinds of messages: prayers, sweet notes to estranged relatives, and the manifesto of a man travelling by bicycle to spread the gospel. Although I could have made it all the way to Florida in a day, I didn't have it in me, so I decided to stop for the night in Woodbine, Georgia, where my friend EG had told me there was a very good barbecue restaurant called Captain Stan's. I rolled up in the mid afternoon and saw a sign proclaiming "Bikers Welcome" and a phalanx of Harleys lined up out front. The atmosphere turned out to be every bit as cool as I'd been told, with a ring of covered seating around a central courtyard shaded by a massive live oak and a military surplus parachute. On one side was a stage where apparently they often have live music, but it wasn't happening at the moment. I sat on a soft couch, relaxed, and had a late lunch.

Woodbine also had a single place to stay, the Stardust Motel, so I headed over there and checked in. The Indian family that owned the place was in a front room watching TV, and the smells that drifted out of the little service window took me straight back to Delhi. On this trip I've noticed a lot of the businesses in deep rural areas are owned by immigrants, and I'm guessing it's because that's where the opportunity is now that urban real estate is largely too expensive to be family-owned. I struck up a conversation with the guy in the room next to mine, who'd grown up in the area, and asked him what there was to do or see. He said the church and the river walk were pretty much it, so I chose the river walk. And wow, what a gem of a trail! There was a boardwalk along the Satilla River, and a sort of pier going way out into the stream on an old rail bridge. Heading back toward town, there was a lovely greenway built on the old rail bed, which an information display said was part of a system stretching all the way from the southern coast of South Carolina to the northern coast of Florida. The part that went through town was especially pretty, following a sinuous path through shade trees and blooming azaleas, both sides lined with well-preserved historic houses. Along the way I found a grave in the form of a concrete tree stump and, near a gazebo, a shrine to a local woman who died a few years ago, with painted stones and other offerings. It felt like a place people cared deeply about.

Back at the motel, I joined a video chat with some of my childhood friends. Since the air in my room was stale and smelled like cigarettes, I sat outside in the courtyard, where it was too dark to bother turning on my camera. The rest of the night passed uneventfully except for waking up at 3:45 to the sound of my neighbor having sex while playing strange looping music from a tinny cell phone speaker. I wondered idly if his partner was one of the waitresses from Captain Stan's, whose bar closes "whenever". I got back to sleep and woke up at sunrise as usual, but the time was 7:30 instead of 6:30. Daylight savings is way more obvious when you schedule everything by the sun! Compensating for the lost hour was the fact that it's much faster to move out of a hotel room than a campsite. I ate breakfast in Folkston and then went right to the edge of the Okefenokee before realizing I was almost out of cooking fuel and switching to a more built-up route that would take me past a hardware store.

I was entering the land of the saw palmetto, with sandy soil and long straight roads through open forests of managed pine. I rolled into Cobb Hunt Camp in Osceola National Forest in the afternoon. It was so warm that I took my shirt off while setting up camp, and was delighted to be able to string up my hammock again for the first time since fall. Walking around the camp, I saw all kinds of shelters: vans, camper trailers, cars with tents, and what I can only describe as tarp caves. It seemed as if the 14 day stay limit was not being strictly enforced, and when I started meeting my neighbors, I quickly realized that I'd stumbled into a really wonderful little community, anchored by regulars who come and stay for the winter. The first person I met was PP, a Tennessean in his early sixties (of whom more later). He introduced me to R, also from Tennessee, who acted as the local mechanic, spending the winter fixing people's vehicles, with a "pay whatever you feel called to" policy for poor folks. Through R I met J from Daytona, who had recently gotten a propane oven and was baking things for people. Hanging out at J's tarp mansion I met several other interesting folks. There were people at the camp who clearly kept to themselves, and not all the sociable people knew each other, but somehow it felt like a little village.

And I've rarely found people from so many walks of life gathered in one place. There was a guy with a huge solar array on his truck and a Verizon signal repeater who taught piano lessons via Zoom and played for virtual church services. There was a woman who was recovering from injuries sustained while walking the Appalachian Trail. When she came off the trail she'd taken a bus to the nearest Walmart, loaded up on supplies, and taken a taxi out to the campground. She lived with her dog Tequila in a massive tent she called "the Taj Mahal", furnished with inflatable furniture. There was a musician with drums, a bass, and an amp, who'd left his apartment because the new neighbors weren't okay with him playing music at all hours. There was a woman with two kayaks planning for an epic trip down the Missouri. There was an older couple with a 1977 Chevy Chevelle to pull their trailer and a 1980's Chevy Chevette to run around in, from which I concluded they were skilled mechanics. I saw lots of examples of people taking care of each other: giving rides, picking up stuff from town, and checking in on R when he was feverish from a toothache.

On a blank part of a park sign by the road, someone had written "NO Gods / NO Masters / NO Slaves," which I looked up and found out was a riff on an old anarchist slogan. And like all anarchic spaces I've known, Cobb camp wasn't all sweetness and light. There was talk of the grifting meth tweakers who'd just moved out, leaving a huge pile of trash. There was talk of a guy who'd driven up in some psychotic state and just sat in his car and screamed. There was mild grumbling about the musician playing too loud. But for me, when I compared it to the usual experience at paid campgrounds where everyone pretends like they're the only ones there, I was more than willing to accept a little sketchiness as the price of admission. As PP told me, "I always come to Florida for the weather, but I stay for the visitin'."

So yeah, my favorite neighbors were PP, the hillbilly from Tennessee, and his travelling partner JT, a retired hospice nurse from Pennsylvania, who returned on Wednesday by train from visiting her daughter down south. I wish I could do them justice here but I'm afraid I'm bound to fall short. Although PP made much of his illiteracy and lack of education, I found him to be curious and observant, sensitive, creative, practically skilled, kind, and a master raconteur. He'd survived alcoholism, imprisonment, a motorcycle crash, paralysis, poisoning, stabbing, homelessness, and cancer, all without a hint of bitterness. And amidst all that, he'd spent every free moment going on adventures which he called "hillbilly holidays": "sell what you can, throw whatever's left in the truck, and hit the road". He'd seen the natural and man-made wonders of the lower forty-eight, from watching the northern lights while ice fishing, to feeling the ground tremble next to Old Faithful, to dangling his legs off the edge of the Grand Canyon. He once walked from Tennessee to North Dakota. He said, "I couldn't read about all those places in books so I had to go see 'em." He'd worked all kinds of jobs: putting up cell phone towers, riveting the beams of skyscrapers, oil drilling, construction, trucking, logging, wildcrafting, making clocks out of cypress knees, moonshining, and more. If all that doesn't make for an advanced education then I'm not sure the word means much. I wish I could tell some of his stories here, but a) I couldn't reproduce the way he told them, and b) I was enjoying them way too much to take notes.

But at the moment he was pursuing his hobbies, the main one of which was making hanging sculptures he called "dangly-dinglies": "they're made to dangle, but if they dingle too that's okay". He started making them 20 years ago when he was staying on Bear Island and found a pile of empty one-pound propane tanks and busted camp chairs. With just a screwdriver, a hammer, and a hacksaw blade with a duct-tape handle, he started making them into art and giving them away. On his daily walks he would collect trash, and keep anything colorful or interesting in a bin until inspiration struck. His pieces were hanging all over camp, some of them themed especially for the recipient. For example, R's was made from lighter pine (aka fatwood) and car parts, with the K of a Kia emblem standing for "king" because R had been nicknamed the "lighter pine king" for his jet-like campfires made entirely from resinous wood. When I brought P an empty fuel alcohol can one evening, by the next morning he'd made it into a fire-themed sculpture with lighters and shotgun shells. I've seen a fair amount of trash art and his was right up there with the best.

Another of his hobbies was shooting slingshots. He had a piece of plastic cut out of an antifreeze jug hanging as a target, with a bed sheet behind it to catch the strays. The slingshots were two he'd made from forked sticks, rubber bands, and duct tape, and one store-bought one that JT had given him as a present. The ammo was marbles: blue ones which are easier to find in the daytime, and clear ones which are easier to find at night with a headlamp. I joined him for some sessions, taking turns shooting five marbles each until they'd all disappeared in the pine straw. The thwack of hitting the target was highly satisfying. One evening he and JT introduced me to a card game called Five Crowns, and I played a round of that and lost badly. On two nights we stayed up much later than we were used to talking around the fire, and on my last night in camp JT and PP invited me over for a dinner of fire-roasted vegetables and rice, the picnic table spread with a red and white checkered tablecloth.

I wish I'd had more time to get to know JT, because she struck me as a singularly grounded person. I asked if she'd ever go back to living in one place and she said no. When I asked what she'd miss if she ever did, she said, "This... Just this." When I told her about an empty campsite I'd found back in the woods under a massive spreading oak, she said she'd stayed there for months one year, and once during a wild storm she looked out and the air was full of fireflies, and she wasn't afraid of the storm anymore. She'd written a lovely poem about it which she let me read. (The place under that tree had the feeling of a church to me, and others must have felt it too, because at the edge of the clearing was a pet grave with "Jack" carved into a stone, a bouquet of red plastic flowers, and a green plush frog.) PP and JT were great company, but also a huge inspiration for me. They showed me that this kind of life doesn't have to be an occasional thing, it can be deeply fulfilling, and it doesn't require youth or lots of money, just a little mobility... I came to Florida for the weather, but so far the visitin' is my favorite part.

Things I Learned

  • Punkin's first gear is quite useful in soft mud. I tried my first serious off-roading of the trip and although I had a moment of panic when the engine stalled in a water crossing, and the throttle grip pulled off during the rescue, and the engine started racing, everything was fine in the end, apart from Punkin being filthy. I see this as a sort of exposure therapy to get me more comfortable with handling "disasters".
  • When I went swimming in Ocean Pond, it struck me immediately that it must be the same kind of lake as the Carolina Bays, which according to my favorite theory were formed by fragments of a meteor that skipped off the glaciers covering the center of North America.
  • There are scorpions in Florida. I need to start remembering to shake out my boots before putting them on.
  • Morel mushrooms are also known as "dry land fish".
  • Rice was cultivated all along the tidal zones of rivers in South Carolina and Georgia, because the paddies could be flooded or drained by opening simple one-way valves at the right time.

Wonderful Things

  • The smell of the bark of the pine tree I slung my hammock from, a brown papery sort of smell with a strong hint of nutmeg and cinnamon. I think it was a longleaf pine but it might have been a slash pine.
  • Sneezing and hearing a deer in the bushes "sneeze" back at me.
  • Coming out after a thunderstorm and making a basket from the grapevines on a dead tree that had just fallen down. Of course I gave it away since it doesn't fit with my lifestyle, but it was very enjoyable to make something with my hands.

Week 27 - Santee Coastal Reserve, Beaufort

It was a bit chilly heading out of North Myrtle Beach. My first stop was at an Asian Grocery to get some tea, dried fruit, and produce, and then I got onto 17 and headed south. At one point I was stopped on the side of the road changing jackets when a Sheriff's car went by trailing a line of Harley riders in formation, a line so long it stretched out of sight. They kept passing and passing, there must have been a hundred at least, and eventually I realized it had to be a funeral procession. I'd read in the local news about a motorcyclist dying around 1am on the previous weekend. When they'd all passed by, I continued to Georgetown, where I stopped for a walk along the waterfront and lunch at a nice little cafe complete with locally-grown tea.

By the early afternoon I'd covered the 80 or so miles to Santee Coastal Reserve. My expectations were set low by the drive in through several miles of monotonous managed pine forest, but eventually the road opened out into a shady tunnel through massive live oaks, and the campground turned out to be a majestic open space under big oaks and pines. The camping was free and first-come-first-served, but although the sites were already quite far apart and there were no water pumps or bathrooms for people to congregate at, the park managers had recently removed a number of them, leaving only five. I can't find any rhyme or reason to the way public land managers are responding to the pandemic, maybe they feel they need to do something, even though there are very few reports of outdoor transmission. In any case, I was coming in on the most crowded night of the week but got very lucky and snagged the last open campsite. The catch was that there was a maximum stay of four nights, so I'd have to move out in the middle of the week.

Once I set up my camp, the first order of business was getting some drinking water. I'd forgotten to pack part of my water filter, but figured it was no big deal because that part could be replaced by a plastic soda bottle. Usually they're fairly ubiquitous, but this place was so clean that I had to go around asking my neighbors to go through their trash. I met some nice people: a guy in a van down from Wilmington for the weekend, an older couple with a BMW Dakar Motorcycle on a trailer behind their RV, and another couple that looked like full-time vanlifers. The guy from the last couple was the only one that could find a bottle, he gave me the one he used to clean his windshield, insisting it was no problem to replace. I rode Punkin down to the boat ramp at the end of the road, and pumped a gallon of water out of the Santee River. It was a light straw color with just a hint of a tannic taste from the swamps upstream, but on the whole quite tasty. Then I gathered some wood for my stove and walked out on the boardwalk which extended 500 feet into a blackwater cypress swamp. The observation platform at the end had benches and overlooked a stretch of open water to the west. I sat there and watched the sun go down, shining blood red through the ghostly Spanish moss.

I decided to work on Sunday so I could take Wednesday as a travel day. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday all followed a similar pattern. I would get up at dawn and take a long walk on one of the trails. When I got really hungry, I'd make oatmeal for breakfast, read a little over hot tea, and then start work in the first of three spots that optimized the sun and shade throughout the day. After work, I'd go out to the end of the boardwalk and read Walt Whitman and Black Elk in the late afternoon sun. Then I'd take another ramble to watch the sunset and back to the camp to fix dinner as it got dark. On a couple of nights, it got down around freezing, and having a few hours of warmth from the wood stove before bed was a welcome luxury. I finally figured out how to make a long-lasting fire in it, although maybe a lot of the trick was using the really dry wood I found. The dead wood here was just naturally drier than back home, either because there's been less rain or because the sandy soil drains better than clay.

The reserve had a surprising variety of habitats in close proximity: several types of forest, the swamp, the river, and old rice paddies converted into waterfowl impoundments. As you'd expect, this made for a lot of wildlife sightings. One morning I saw an otter running across the road from one body of water to another, closely followed by a great blue heron. I'd never seen an otter running on land, so I wasn't quite sure what it was, but when I looked down into the stream it ran into, I saw the familiar whiskered nose cutting through the water, and the heron perched on the bank. I wondered if they were fishing buddies, each snapping up any prey scared off by the other. I also saw red winged blackbirds, a red cockaded woodpecker, cormorants, herons, egrets, and a large flock of swifts. I didn't see any alligators, but woke up on one of the warmer nights to the eerie sound of their roars echoing in the swamp like a distant rock concert. On the last night a cheeky raccoon darted under the edge of my tent and dragged out my bag of trash. I made threatening noises and chased it, but it was not about to drop that bag and hustled away into the thickets before I could get close. The next morning I was able to crawl back there and collect all the trash, which was thoroughly worked-over, so I guess it was kind of win-win for me and the raccoon.

I also met some interesting humans. One day while I was working, a couple stopped by who were both off-duty EMTs from Georgia getting into wildlife photography. After some small talk, the woman asked if, when I went back to work, she could use me as a model to practice her camera skills. She took a couple of shots, and as they were leaving, the man said, "You look at these trees and it makes you wonder how many people swung from 'em." My mind was apparently in a very innocent place, because all I thought of was how live oaks are pretty ideal for hanging a swing from. "You mean like on swings?" "No," he said, "like Black people." Again I misinterpreted for a minute, thinking he was making a racist reference to apes, but then I understood what he meant. "Yeah, it was a big thing," he said, "a lot of people don't know about that."

Another day an older man in a white pickup truck was cruising slowly around the campground and stopped to talk. He asked a few questions about Punkin and then asked, "Are you good? You need anything?" Now, normally this is a dog-whistle for drug sales so I said, "I'm good, I have everything I need, thanks!" When he asked if I needed any food, I started to wonder if it was some kind of ministry. Was he selling weed, Jesus, or both? He rolled over to my neighbor's site and hung around making conversation. When I started to walk over he drove away. I struck up a conversation with my neighbor S, a young British chef in a van on his way from Martha's Vineyard, where he works the warm season, to visit his Grandmother in southern Florida. We agreed that the guy was probably selling weed, and this was confirmed when he showed up again and, after asking if we needed anything, said, "hey Mr. S, do you have a pot for that fire?" S played innocent and said he did have a pan for heating food. The guy then made up a story about having some hot-and-sour soup we could all share, but we both said we'd already eaten and eventually he pulled into another spot and sat there with his engine idling until around midnight, when he took off. Slightly creepy, but the guy was probably lonely as well as desperate to make a sale.

Wednesday was a travel day, but I wasn't sure where to stop next. My research seemed to indicate that in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, all the paid campgrounds were full and all the free campgrounds were closed, and this impression was confirmed by a semi-retired heavy equipment operator from Pennsylvania on his way north from Florida. So instead of camping, I decided to book three nights at a hotel in Beaufort, SC (pronounced BYOO-furt unlike the one in NC which is BOH-furt). The ride there was fairly boring since it was all highways (17 and 21), but there was a bit of excitement when I passed the Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station and felt the deafening roar and vibration from a low-flying formation of fighter jets. It took me right back to the Cherry Point MCAS in Havelock and for a little while I felt myself to be in a sort of confused overlay of the two Carolinas. But I got to the hotel and it turned out to be in an excellent location, close to restaurants and a grocery store. Better yet, it opened onto a long open park of live oaks and palmettos at the edge of a marsh that stretched away for miles.

Just after I checked in and was about to unload Punkin, a burly middle-aged man walked up and asked if I would be willing to sell my bike and for how much. I told him I couldn't sell it for several reasons, but we struck up a conversation, not that it needed much striking. As he told me about how he'd been pulled over by the cops for doing 40mph on his only vehicle, a racing bicycle given to him by a friend, and that when he saw my motorcycle he felt instantly it would be perfect for him, I started to realize I'd run into another curious character. And it got better: turns out that he used to be a highly trusted driver for the Italian Mafia in New York, ten years of that before leaving with no warning and retiring down south. "See to work with the wise guys you gotta have a persona, right? It's the persona that wears you down." For ten years he worked continuously with only a couple hours off on occasional Sundays, putting on a tough face even though he was as he put it, "just a little girly man." "I'd pick up the wise guys at JFK, LaGuardia, they're soft. The Russians are hard, they don't have a persona, that's just how they are. They think comedy is soft, never crack a smile unless they're totally drunk, and their jokes are all weird... See when the Chinese want something done, they get the Russians to do it, and when the Russians want something done they get the Italians to do it, and the Italians get the Latin Kings to do it, and those guys are crazy."

There was a lot more: piles of cash left on the back seat as a loyalty test, a mob boss's wife trying to seduce him, references to "the body business", and the many dangers of the gangster lifestyle, not least of which is a simple heart attack from rich food and too much stress. "You got all this pressure on your aorta, right? And then one day you let it go and pop!" At the end of the conversation he wished me well on my travels and told me to be careful out there on the back roads. At first I thought he was talking about traffic safety but it seems he was specifically concerned about the danger of being abducted by guys in white pickups. I told him that as a matter of fact I'd run into a guy in a white pickup just a few days before... But it's funny the things people see as likely dangers!

Otherwise my stay in Beaufort has been pretty uneventful. I mostly worked from the shade at the edge of the marsh, but one afternoon I worked from the dramatic bluffs overlooking a bay with sailboats, and walked around the fairly generic waterfront district (they have a [Kilwins](https://www.kilwins.com/, 'nuff said). This weekend I'm hoping to pick up some speed and make it the rest of the way to Florida!

Things I Learned

  • Live oak acorns are pretty tasty right out of the shell. I cracked them using the lid of my laptop like a nutcracker!
  • You can buy home tests for marijuana and nicotine at the drugstore. At first I was confused because surely a person would already know what they'd smoked, but then I realized they're for testing kids.
  • I heard a strong Pennsylvania accent for the first time and it sounded strange because it seemed to oscillate between Redneck and Canuck.

Wonderful Things

  • The subtle V above a fish turning under water.
  • The rustle of tall marsh grasses in the breeze.
  • Cypress knees looking like little statues of robed saints and Madonnas.
  • The hooked heads of swimming cormorants like Art Nouveau periscopes.

Week 26 - Hadley to North Myrtle Beach

Well, twenty-six weeks, so it's been half a year since I started on this adventure! I decided to head south to ride out the remaining cold weather and test out all my new gear, then pass back through North Carolina for a resupply and continue north in a counterclockwise circle around the country. On Sunday I did the last bit of packing and cleaning in the early morning light and carted my baggage out to the driveway to load onto Punkin. Luckily it all fit and seemed pretty well balanced. My mom saw me off, as I wobbled away with temporarily out-of-balance wheels and the unfamiliar load, into a cold fog so thick it was almost like fine rain. I stopped in Pittsboro to fill up Punkin and myself with our hydrocarbons of choice, lubricated and adjusted the chain, and headed off towards South Carolina. Just north of Sanford I suddenly ran into a wall of tropical air, the most palpable experience of a warm front I've ever had, and the day began to get nicer. There were buffeting winds and dramatic cumulus clouds, and as the sun showed itself more and more I kept stopping to take off more jackets and even changed into the summer gloves I hadn't worn for many months.

I was riding on four lane highways for the first part of the trip, and Punkin seemed to have a bit more power than usual and was easily holding speeds around 45mph. After 40 miles I stopped to look over the bike and make sure everything was in good order and saw that I'd never released the choke after I started it! When I took the choke off, the engine was clearly weaker, and from this I inferred that the carburetor was running too lean (too little gas for the amount of air). I pulled over at a gas station, took apart the throttle, and raised the needle as far as it would go to get a richer mix (more gas). The power came back even stronger without the air being restricted by the choke, and I felt pretty proud of myself for having learned enough to do such a thing. A few months ago, tuning a carburetor seemed like it would require some kind of advanced wizardry, but now I can see that it's a lot like getting a wood stove or a campfire to burn right. After the adjustment, it felt like I might be getting almost up to 50mph at full throttle, but it was hard to tell since there's something wrong with the speedometer that makes it swing wildly at high speeds.

I got tired of fast roads pretty quickly and rerouted to take a rural detour around Fayetteville, riding some very pretty miles on Route 211 before being forced back onto the big roads as I approached the coast. There were still hours of daylight left when I rode into North Myrtle Beach through the six-lane strip malls of Route 17. My plan was to visit my friends the M-S family, and I found their address on a quiet, tree-lined back street just a block away from the strip. Their house was charming, a two-story Oregon cabin with a 12-pitch roof and weathered wooden siding. I met the M-S family back when they were enthusiastic early supporters of HW's school, and later their oldest son UM became a sort of intern at my office, where he came to practice software development and absorb the culture around it (or at least our version of it).

I'll give a very brief sketch of the M-S family. TM is a very talkative and fussy Italian, passionate but not taking himself too seriously. His wife LS is the essential yin to his yang: easygoing and incredibly tolerant and nurturing. They have three sons. UM (age 16) is a sort of mathematical monk: jogging, studying linear algebra with more self-discipline than most people have but less than he'd like, and subsisting largely on apples and peanut butter. DM (age 11), is writing speculative fiction and alternates between bursts of physical activity and stretches of computer games and graphic novels. EM (age nearly-6) is a hell-raising pain in the ass but makes up for it by being impossibly adorable.

TM and UM came out to give me a warm welcome, surprised at the smallness of my motorcycle and the largeness of my luggage. They offered me UM's room to stay in but I preferred to set up my tent in the yard and have my own space. Besides, the backyard was a real oasis, with towering trees and fantastic landscaping that TM's been doing on a shoestring budget for the last several years. He's built a waterfall, a koi pond, and a large natural swimming pool, and although it's still a work in progress, it's already quite lovely. They helped me set up my tent, and TM even gave me some pieces of dumpster-dived white plush carpet, which added a real touch of luxury to the place. When LS got home from work, they fed me a nice meal and the grownups stayed up late catching up over wine. TM told some stories of his motorcycling days, when he once rode his Vespa across the Alps and full throttle down the white lines on the German Autobahns, and made it all the way to the Netherlands and most of the way back before his engine gave up. See, there are people even more nuts than me!

Monday morning was very warm and clear. LS made an incredible breakfast of home-grown microgreen salad topped with garlic, scrambled eggs, and salsa, which I ate every morning but one and didn't come even close to getting tired of. And the other morning was oatmeal, which I'm pretty devoted to as you may know. After breakfast I worked happily on the back deck overlooking the pond and absorbed the sunshine. In the afternoon rain swept in suddenly, which sent me inside but not the two younger boys. DM dove into the cold pond and swam around while EM, who was initially upset that the water was too cold for him, found an outlet in shooting a squirt gun at his older brother, who defended himself with a large umbrella. After the rain passed I took a walk and saw a plane take off from the nearby air strip and an artificial volcano erupting (with a burst of propane, the mini-golf course below was safe). A couple nights before I had a very vivid dream about a specific salad (I must have been needing some nutrients), so I walked to the grocery store, bought ingredients for it, and chopped them with my Chinese chef knife, which I debated about taking on the trip but is proving nice to have. After dinner I crashed LS's weekly zoom meeting with my friends SE and TB in Montana, and we had a great conversation about UFOs, government propaganda, and other counter-cultural themes.

I soon slipped into the rhythm of life in the M-S household, quiet moments alternating with mayhem, a varied and nutritious diet, two campfires in the yard, and some great conversations about everything from relationships to artificial intelligence. There was never a dull moment, although sometimes the "entertainment" was a screaming child, and I began to realize that my recent observations about my mental state indoors versus outdoors may not be so much about built spaces versus natural spaces as about stimulating spaces versus boring ones. The fact is that for the past six months almost all my indoor time was spent alone, and most of my socializing was outdoors (the garage being a notable exception). But anyway, even on a rainy day the M-S household was an engaging place to be, and I felt a sense of deep well-being moving through my body from being embedded in family life with people I care about.

There were some activities too. I helped out a little with cooking and maintenance work on the pond's pumping system. We had a couple of campfires out in the yard, and took a field trip to visit the Meher Spiritual Center and walk around its 500-acres of beautiful maritime forest. It's the largest center dedicated to Meher Baba in the West. LS is a second-generation follower and TM a first-generation follower of Meher Baba, they met when they were both on pilgrimage in India. I found it a charming place, and an interesting layout because the only large building only seats about a hundred people, and the rest are cabins of various sizes, shared kitchens, and a rec room. Many of the buildings were moved there because of a lumber shortage when the center was being built after World War II, which gives the place a charming variety of styles, fusing bungalows with log cabins and tobacco barns. Ordinarily pilgrims can stay there for $22.50 a night and sort of craft their own retreat, there are none of the usual scheduled activities, yoga classes, weekly services, etc. I could definitely see myself taking a retreat there someday, once the lockdowns are over. But however much I tried to extend it by getting up early and staying up late, the week eventually came to an end, and it was with mixed feelings that I prepared to hit the road again for another move south. I promised to stop there again on my way north, and on Saturday morning, topped up with hugs and yet another fantastic breakfast, I was off.

Things I Learned

  • South Carolina doesn't require motorcycle helmets, which I inferred as I crossed the border and started seeing more and more Harley riders with gray hair streaming in the breeze.
  • Topolino is a series of comics written in Italian that started in 1932 as an unlicensed use of the Mickey Mouse character but turned into a sort of Italian branch of Disney. Some of the stories have been translated back into English for the American market.
  • An inner pocket of my new raincoat has a medal of Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers, sewn into it. What a nice touch.

Wonderful Things

  • Crossing a windy bridge over the intracoastal waterway. This is always the exciting moment when I feel like I've really arrived at the coast.
  • Seeing palmettos, which always make me feel like I've really gone somewhere that's not quite like home.
  • Sitting in the sun and petting a long-haired orange cat named Jax from the rescue next door.
  • Seeing the fleeing backside of a cat I surprised in my tent, and then touching the warm imprint it had made on my sleeping bag.
  • Getting a new down sleeping bag with the zipperless design I've grown to love. So cozy!

Week 25 - Hadley

Well, Punkin was pretty much ready to hit the road, and the forecast predicted a stretch of sunny weather perfect for drying out gear, so I decided to spend the week transitioning from sedentary life back to nomadic life. I moved out of my canvas tent and into a more portable one, just in time for a cold and rainy Monday that let me test out my foldable wood stove, which heated the tent well in short bursts. The stove's a bit temperamental and I'm still learning to use it, but heat on demand makes a nasty day so much more tolerable. Even if I only run the stove occasionally, just knowing I can get warm and dry when I need to is very comforting. The tent is also a new style for me; it's a tepee with a single pole in the center and no floor, and there's an inner tent hanging from the top of the outer tent, just big enough for a bed, with mesh walls and a waterproof floor. There are a lot of things I like about this setup: the inner tent can be hung from a tree branch in nice weather, it's easy to integrate with a tarp to make a porch, and there's no problem with tracking dirt or sand inside since the floor is the ground. I'm still figuring out where to put everything to make the best use of the limited space, but I think another week or two in it and I'll have a solid system. Monday's rain came with strong winds, and the tent withstood them well, as I expected it to since it's just a cone with no vertical walls for the wind to push on. I adopted the slow way of moving camp: whenever I really needed something, I would go get it from the big tent and not put it back, so that anything left in the big tent after a few days was probably not needed for the road.

Early in the week, some strong emotions came up, and it made me realize that I'd been suppressing them while living indoors. I think what happens is that when my physical needs are easily taken care of, it feels nice and relaxing at first, but it also offers me the temptation to ignore my body and my emotions for a while and distract myself with entertainment. When I'm camping, I'm constantly forced to pay attention to my body and take care of its needs, and I think that's good for me because it counteracts my habit of dissociating. At some point I hope to be able to have enough practice being embodied that I don't always need external discomfort to remind me, but for the moment it's a useful set of training wheels. My parents tell me that as a baby I was calmest when I got a lot of novel stimulation; when I was a toddler they traveled around Europe and carried me in a backpack, and as long as there were things for me to see I was no trouble at all. I think maybe I'm still that way to an extent. When I was living inside I found myself looking at the news several times a day, but being outdoors is an easier and healthier way to feed that appetite, and when living in a tent I have no desire at all to check the news (although I do check the weather forecast pretty frequently).

In the middle of the week there were three glorious days of sun, and I spent the mornings at work and the afternoons socializing and packing away all the things I'm not taking with me. I cleaned out the mud hut, and cried over a bin of ratty old clothes that HW and I used to wear. I knocked down dozens of mud dauber nests and one big paper wasp nest, swept the floor, and started organizing things for storage. The canvas tent got spread in the sun to dry and packed away with the wood stove, pots and pans, and other bulky stuff. By the end of the week, the camp in the field was clear, wild bulbs sprouted neon green from where the tent and food bins had been, and the latrines trenches were covered over with red dirt sprinkled with dead grass.

One day my friend AA came over with his truck to adopt Kiddo, and after taking a spin down the driveway he came back with a huge smile on his face, and I knew Kiddo would be going to a good home. We all had tea-time in the sun with my parents and GB. It was wonderful to be able to socialize outdoors again after such a long stretch of cold and wet. Another day JH came over to hang out, and we had a good conversation while rambling around the land. SS had come over to dig the garden because GB, who would normally do it, is now far too pregnant. It felt like a little village come back to life, and everyone's spirits seemed high. I helped AP move drywall, spray-painted the side racks I made, read some math history in the sun, and had a wonderful dinner with AP and GB of from-scratch Mediterranean food in honor of the weather. Home cooked food can be transcendentally delicious after a week where canned beans are one of the more exciting ingredients (I was trying to eat down my stores before leaving).

By the time the rain came at the end of the week, I had packed up everything and moved into the mud hut so I could take off with dry gear on Sunday morning. On Friday night I woke up and smelled a skunk, which I think had been nosing around a tuna can I left outside the open doorway and perhaps panicked and sprayed a little when it realized I was inside. I spent Saturday making final preparations, and hung out with RM in the garage for a while, which was nice because I got to say goodbye for the moment, thank him for letting me use the space, and tell him how much I'd learned from him about both the method and spirit of working on engines. I also went into town to see AC (aka Santa) and show him how Punkin (aka The Red Baron) had come along. I wound up visiting with him and his wife CR on their back porch; they were very observant and asked a lot of questions about the details of what I'd done, and we talked a bit about travel and travel writing. They said they'd add me to their prayer list, and AC blessed Punkin and told it to take good care of me on the trip. I felt incredibly lucky to have wound up with a bike with so much character and such a good story, and also to have met such delightful people in the process.

As soon as I post this I'll start on my final packing, getting ready to take off in the morning for North Myrtle Beach to visit some friends on my way south to Florida. The plan is for this to be a bit of a shakedown cruise, and also a way to wait in a warm place until the season changes enough to allow me to head up north.

Things I Learned

  • My awesome zipperless sleeping bag (a Sierra Designs Frontcountry Bed) has a sleeve in the bottom which is perfectly sized to hold my Crazy Creek chair as a sleeping pad OR as an assembled chair. I'd been using the sleeping bag and chair together while working, but without putting the chair into the sleeve, so that every time I sat down I had to spend a bunch of time adjusting things. Some genius at Sierra Designs deserves kudos for that design choice. But unfortunately that sleeping bag is just too bulky to take with me, and I'll be returning to my less luxurious down bag until I can get something better. They make a Backcountry Bed as well, which is down-filled and packs small, but it's been out of stock for many months.
  • Reading Black Elk Speaks, I found out that the Lakota called January "the moon of frost in the tepee". It was in February, but I experienced this myself, when the condensation on the inside of my tent froze and rained down like snow.

Wonderful Things

  • Birds on the move: flocks of bright blue ones feeding in the bushes, crows mobbing a hawk, and geese honking their way across the sky.
  • A pine branch with a drop of water at the tip of each needle, reflecting the sky.
  • The sun breaking out suddenly, raising clouds of steam from the side of the wet tent.
  • A chorus of spring peepers singing under a full moon. This was a sound I often fell asleep to as a child.

Week 24 - Graham, Hadley

Things I Did

  • Tried to take the motorcycle skills test. Several weeks ago I'd scheduled an appointment to complete the requirements for my full motorcycle endorsement. The appointment was on Wednesday afternoon, and I'd practiced a bunch in a parking lot and even rode over to the actual DMV to run through the whole test several times on their course. I was ready. But when I showed up, they said the test was cancelled because the pavement was wet! When I told them I was perfectly capable of riding on wet pavement, they said if I slipped and crashed during the "quick stop" part of the test (which involves coming to a stop from 15mph) they would be liable. They told me to go online to reschedule, but when I did there were no slots available, presumably because everyone else had to do the same thing. Well, given how wet it's been this year it's no wonder things are getting backed up. I was a bit disappointed and had some choice thoughts about state government and cover-your-ass culture, but since I already have my permit it's not stopping me from doing anything.
  • Moved out of the AirBnB in Graham. It was a nice place to be during all the gross weather, and I got a lot of work done there, but I was starting to feel a bit detached from the world after being inside so much. At the same time, I was a little anxious about giving up my warm nest and facing the cold world, but it helped that the forecast showed some sunny weather on the way. In the end it felt pretty good to get packed up and back outdoors.
  • Took Kiddo into town for some much-needed exercise. It took some time to get the engine started, which has never happened before, so I think the gas was starting to gum up after a few weeks of sitting in my parents' shed. I was surprised how strange it felt after getting used to riding Punkin, like putting on really old clothes. I'd originally been planning on taking Kiddo around the country, but I'm glad that's no longer the plan because the riding posture on Punkin is way more comfortable and healthy for me. At least I think so, we'll see how I feel after riding all day.
  • Tried to install a larger carburetor in Punkin, but it mounts differently and there wasn't quite room. I ordered a new intake manifold which I'm hoping will make it work. It's the kind of setback that would have frustrated me a lot a few months ago, but I felt pretty chill about it so I think I've made progress in that department.
  • Made some better side racks for Punkin out of proper steel tubing. I'm still not that great at welding but I think I got a little better, and was able to recover from some bad mistakes which helped with my confidence.
  • Helped prune the apple orchard at BHF on a sunny Saturday. Caught up with some people I hadn't seen in a while, including a childhood art teacher who recently moved back here after six years in California.

Things I Learned

  • The goo I put in my tires to stop leaks and automatically balance the wheels is really neat, but when the bike is parked for a while it sinks to the bottom of the tire and forms a cold blob. At the beginning of the next ride it takes a few minutes to warm up and distribute around the wheel, and during this time the handling is a bit strange. When I felt an odd vibration and the steering was a bit shaky, I thought something was very wrong, but then I figured it out, and now I know what badly unbalanced wheels feel like.
  • Taking a two-day Motorcycle Safety Foundation class exempts you from having to take the DMV test. I'd been wanting to take one anyway, but they weren't running in the fall and now they're all full, at least in the Triangle area. I might wind up taking one in a less populous part of the state. The nice thing is they're very clear that the class will run almost no matter what the weather, so it's a lot more solid than a DMV appointment.

Wonderful Things

  • Sunset lighting the pines against a sky of dark clouds.
  • Just standing still in the sun on a cold morning, feeling like a lizard.
  • The smell of red-hot steel. It's very distinctive; I sometimes smell it when going by construction sites and it takes me right back to the metal shop in college.
  • Watching a squirrel really close outside the window.

P.S. I hope to start heading south next weekend, but there's a snow storm in the forecast so we'll see how that goes!

Week 23 - Hadley, Graham

Things I Did

  • Got a waterproof motorcycle jacket and boots just in time for a bunch of freezing rain. Stayed warm and dry; everything works as advertised.
  • Admired the old minibike that RM fixed up for his wife ML. It was made in the 60s and belonged to her sister, and the cute thing is it's red with white trim just like Punkin but less than half the size. I guess that color scheme was just the bees knees in those days. RM put a 160cc engine into it (as compared to Punkin's 125cc engine), so it's what motorcycle people call a "wheelie machine", i.e. it doesn't take much throttle to make it take off so fast the front wheel pops up.
  • Did more upgrades on Punkin. I installed some little devices on the tire valves that constantly send the tire pressure to my phone and alert me if it drops. In general I'm not a fan of "smart" things, but I also know I should check the tire pressure before every ride for safety and the fact is that I rarely do. I installed a skid plate to protect the engine from rocks, and was pleasantly surprised that no welding was required, just a little piece of scrap metal from behind the shop and some drilling of holes. Then I swapped in a larger front sprocket so I can go a little faster. The good news is it got me up to 42mph, but the bad news is it's now clear that the engine really isn't producing as much power as it should. I tried some adjustments on the carburetor and tested them by zooming up and down the straightaway on Lutterloh, being watched by an audience of cows, but I think I just need a bigger and better carb, so I ordered one. The sprocket also turned out not to be entirely round, which caused the chain to loosen and tighten with every revolution and make funny noises. Luckily they're very cheap so I managed to get a good one from a different supplier.
  • Finished reading Motorcycle Engineering by P.E. Irving, in which I've found all sorts of little helpful tidbits. He mentions a British motorcycle company called Villiers, which made me wonder if the character Diana Villiers from the Aubrey-Maturin series was named after it. I mean, there's no question in my mind that if Diana lived a hundred years later she would totally have driven motorcycles and probably fast cars too, because she was such a badass on a horse and she had a thing for speed. Another interesting tidbit from the book is that the part of an engine we call the "choke" is known in England as the "strangler". Both accurate, because its purpose is to cut off air to the engine, but their word feels a bit more graphic.

Things I Learned

  • Platonic co-parenting is an emerging trend. It's kind of like having the benefits of divorced parents (e.g. more diverse home environments) without any of the mess of a divorce.
  • While walking in the graveyard I'd been seeing a bunch of tattered flags with some dates on them and finally bothered to look up the dates, which were May 20, 1775 and May 20, 1861. Which is when NC declared independence and when it seceded from the Union (the secessionists made the date match on purpose). So... turns out it's the flag of the North-Carolina American Republic, a group of people claiming the rightful state government was usurped by a military occupation. They have citizenship (requires cancelling your voter registration), elections (by email!), and even taxes (paid in either silver dollars or, somewhat ironically, federal reserve notes). They mention a "Counter-Revolution which we intend to implement" but thankfully it seems like they're attempting it through the courts at the moment. The constitution they're trying to revive has some interesting clauses (you can't hold political office and be a pastor at the same time), some extremely conservative clauses (only Protestants can hold political office), and some oddly progressive clauses (any foreigner can swear an oath of allegiance, buy real estate, be a resident for a year, and then is automatically a citizen). Of course the unspoken but palpable issue is what it doesn't prohibit; while they claim not to support secession or re-establishment of the Confederacy, they say the 14th amendment is unconstitutional while making no mention of the 13th. Is it a dog whistle? Probably. Whelp, I guess it shouldn't be surprising considering that cop cars are constantly parked in front of the courthouse downtown, guarding the statue of a Confederate soldier. Also city officials decided not to rename a local park after Wyatt Outlaw, which is how I thought it would go.
  • It's illegal in the US to trade in onion futures. The story of how this came about is one of those things you cannot make up.
  • Being in a commercial bathroom when the power is off feels pretty creepy.
  • Offroading with a carton of eggs in the saddlebags is not the best idea.

Wonderful Things

  • Finding just the right bolt in the jar of random bolts.
  • Getting Punkin's engine to run after nearly half an hour of kicking the starter and fiddling with the choke in the freezing rain. And then it turned out the pharmacy I was going to was closed due to a power outage. But I felt very alive!
  • Hot chamomile tea, a cozy couch, and a good book.
  • Long winter sunset / barbecue smoke on the wind / I outrun the pines.

Week 22 - Graham, Hadley

Things I Did

  • Talked to my friend NS in Los Angeles to give him some advice on a movie script he's writing about a software developer who stumbles into a crazy sci-fi action romp. It was nice catching up and I look forward to eventually making my way down there for a visit.
  • Took a day trip to the garage on Saturday and improved the handlebar attachment, installed a cigarette lighter socket for phone chargers and other accessories, and organized all my stuff to fit in a bin so the "fun table" in the shop can be used for other projects. I also installed a multitool in a holster on Punkin's downtube and it's already come in handy a time or two.
  • Figured out the solution to a mechanical issue while riding back to Graham and fixed it in a gas station parking lot with my toolkit. I'm feeling a lot more confident about doing repairs on the road.
  • Finished reading Blue Highways and really enjoyed it. I love the way the author is so present: curious and observant, drawing out the stories of the people around him, but never trying to erase himself from the picture. A lot of his adventures start with a silly thing like driving to a town with an interesting name and asking everyone how it came to be called that. The philosophical guiding lights of the book are Black Elk (who I'd like to read) and Walt Whitman (who I'm already a big fan of). While thinking about why I love Whitman, it occurred to me that while Heat-Moon is often critical of hamburger chains and obese tourists, I can't remember a single instance of Whitman disparaging someone or something in a poem. Well, in a eulogy to Lincoln he refers to "the foulest crime in history known in any land or age", which is a fair moral judgement, but his aesthetics and love of people seem to be all-embracing. He covered the march of industry and the carnage of the Civil War so it's not like he just ignored difficult topics and wrote about trees and flowers. I need to keep reading more poems to find out if my impression is correct, and if so figure out and absorb the secret of his disposition.
  • Practiced for my upcoming motorcycle skills test by weaving around bottles of water in a parking lot. Back when I first started riding Kiddo I was so bad at this that I rode over and smashed most of the bottles, but this time I only knocked them over with the footpegs now and then. So I think I've become a better motorcyclist in general, but also I'm gaining more and more confidence riding Punkin, which is surprisingly nimble and stable at slow speeds. I think the engine is performing about like it should now, and once I customize the gearing it's going to be perfect for me.
  • Extended my stay in Graham by a week. But after that I hope to hit the road and head south for a while. I've been looking at maps and doing some trip planning, and Florida seems mighty inviting in this cold weather.

Things I Learned

  • There's a new movie technology called LED wall virtual production, where scenes are shot in front of a massive screen displaying a 3D modeled background that's updated dynamically as the camera moves so it always looks correct from that perspective. It's all driven by consumer-grade gaming hardware, and one huge advantage is that the location can be changed in a matter of minutes just by adjusting the lighting and swapping out props in the foreground. Some advantages over green screens are that video comes out of the camera already composited, there are no artifacts around the edges, costumes can use any color, and actors feel a little more like they're in the scene.
  • Honda just came out with the 2021 CT125, which is a reboot of the CT90 model series Punkin is in. The looks are retro, with a sturdy cargo rack and everything, but it's got modern parts: a computer, fuel injection, antilock disc brakes. It's a bit funny, since I've essentially just built a 125cc Trail Cub, half codger, half infant. But I'm pretty happy with what I've got, and although it's made with a lot of Chinese ATV parts, they're at least repairable, cheap, and ubiquitous. If anything goes wrong, it's the kind of stuff that should be available in any rural motorcycle shop, or from Amazon if needed.
  • Some pazzo Italians have invented a sport called Vespacross, which consists of modifying vintage two-stroke Vespas to produce 17 horsepower, installing knobby tires, and racing them on dirt tracks. It looks ridiculous and terrifying and fun.

Wonderful Things

  • Scoring some very comfy new sweatpants at Family Dollar, which were marked down from $12.50 to $9.95, but when rung up at the register were actually only $1! I'm starting to really appreciate dollar stores.
  • Finding a Salvadorean restaurant with delicious pupusas and tasting the juice of the cashew fruit (marañon) for the first time. It's kind of like guanabana, but with some darker and more caramely notes.
  • Trying something difficult and getting better at it little by little.
  • Enjoying a few minutes of full sun, barefooted on the rooftop outside my room.

Week 21 - Hadley, Graham

Things that Happened

  • Hung out with AP and JP, my friends since early childhood, around the fire on Saturday night and over breakfast at Small Cafe on Sunday morning. It was quite cold but we had some good conversations about old times, all the stuff that's changed, real estate, and having kids vs not having kids. I guess we're solidly middle-aged now, but I feel like this is a very good part of my life.
  • As I was getting ready to go to breakfast, I discovered that all of Kiddo's cables had frozen solid overnight and the brakes and throttle were unusable. Some moisture must have gotten inside the housings, but there was nothing to do about it but wait until they thawed, and I had to run to the garage and take Punkin instead. RM suggested that Kiddo might be jealous and pouting.
  • Hung out with JD who just got back from Croatia. We talked about the earthquake there, sailing, travel, and what the hell comes next.
  • Did some quick work on Punkin to get the engine in shape to make it to Graham and back. It's still not making as much power as it should, but I think I found and fixed one vacuum leak between the carburetor and the manifold, diagnosing it using a stick of incense like RM taught me. The smell combo of incense and gasoline is a new one for me and actually not unpleasant. On the ride to Graham I found that even though I'm keeping my top speed around 35mph during the break-in period, which is about how fast Kiddo goes, Punkin can easily maintain that even up steep hills, which Kiddo definitely can't. That's going to be really helpful on my cross-country tour.
  • It was cold and rainy during the week, and one night it snowed, making me very glad to be in a heated space. The heat is from old steam radiators, which don't make the air all stuffy like forced-air systems do. Plus they make interesting sounds as if they're alive.

Things I Learned

  • Punkin's engine isn't super loud but it's loud enough that I can't hear the turn signal relay clicking, so at first I was leaving my signals on a lot. But I came up with a new habit of not taking my thumb off the switch unless it's in the neutral position and that seems to be working.
  • Tuning a harp is a pain in the ass. Not only are there a lot of strings to tune, but their tensions all influence each other so you have to make several passes. And the pegs work by friction and don't always turn very smoothly, so for fine adjustment you need to use some fancy piano tuner tricks that I haven't learned yet. I couldn't find the original tuning wrench from the harp in my room so I ordered a cheap one that didn't fit quite right, and had to supplement it with the adjustable wrench from my toolkit. But I did get the harp tuned tolerably well and fooled around enough to learn that it's probably not the instrument for me, even if I did live a more settled lifestyle.
  • According to the label, cucumbers pickled in vinegar have basically no nutritional value, since the only reported nutrient they provide is sodium.
  • Graham has a Korean Baptist church on Main Street, with the sign almost entirely in Korean.

Wonderful Things

  • Going over a bridge and being bathed in the cold, wet smell of the Haw River.
  • Morning sun shining through snowy trees. I love the delicacy of black branches perfectly traced by lines of white.
  • Breakfast in a historic drug store where elderly folks talk about the weather and the waiter already knows what they're getting.
  • A snack of green tea and hush puppies, which go together a lot better than I would have expected. I guess hush puppies are a bit like Takoyaki without the octopus, so maybe it's not that surprising.

Week 20 - Hadley, Graham

Things I Did

  • Helped RM fiddle with the tuning of Punkin's carburetor. I'm not sure we've got it right yet, because if it's tuned to idle at the correct speed when hot, it won't idle at all when it's cold. I need to learn more about the fine points of carburation.
  • Helped my dad, his firewood dealer, and the dealer's teenage son unload and stack some firewood.
  • Rode up the Haw River and moved into my lodgings in Graham: a room in a huge old colonial built in 1919 by a general returning from World War I. In 1939, after seeing the plantation house in Gone With The Wind, he added some wings and named it Tara. Which, along with a nudge from my friend KC, inspired me to read about the history of white supremacy in the area (see below). The current owner of the house has themed my room to be the "tropical bird room". The decorating rule seems to be anything colored cyan, yellow, or pink and/or relating to birds or flowers. It's not incredibly sophisticated but it's kind of fun, and since the room is on the second story with windows looking out between the massive porch columns on one side and into trees on the other, it has a sort of tree house feel. It's angled so that sun comes in all day long, I have my own closet kitchenette and bathroom, and it's a short walk downtown. Not a bad place to spend a month. There's also a good-sized Celtic lever harp, and if I can find the tuning key I might fool around with it some.
  • Watched Kevin Bacon bust a move in Footloose at the old Graham Cinema downtown. I'd already seen the movie a couple years ago, but hey, tickets were $2 and I enjoyed the second viewing as well. A lot of critics panned it as teen fluff, but I felt like the performances actually had some depth, especially compared to modern teen movies which are way more cartoonish. I also like how John Lithgow's character, who initially looks to be the bad guy, gets humanized and redeemed over the course of the movie.
  • Rested a lot. Although the past few months have been a lot of fun, there hasn't been as much real down time as I'd expected there would be, and it's felt good to not have anything I need to do, not even keeping warm.
  • Got a license plate for Punkin! I felt sure there would be some other paperwork they would ask me for, but no, once it got started the process went quite smoothly. I had to wait for the DMV supervisor to come back because nobody else was qualified to handle a bonded title, and there was a guy in line in front of me whose case was way more complicated than mine. According to him his estranged wife had taken out a restraining order and then arranged for him to inadvertently violate it, which led to him being thrown in jail for 22 months, during which time his girlfriend fraudulently sold all his stuff, including seven vehicles, maxed out all his credit cards, and committed insurance fraud for good measure. He was carrying a binder crammed with paperwork and said he'd been working to get everything straightened out since November. All my grumbles about dealing with bureaucracy suddenly felt petty.
  • Lost most of the hair on my right hand trying to figure out how to light an acetylene torch. Then I did what I should have done in the first place and looked on YouTube, learned how to do it properly, and bent up some steel rod into a basic but hopefully serviceable set of side racks to hold up my saddlebags. I had planned out a much more elaborate design made from aluminum but as I put it together it became clear it wasn't going to be strong or resilient enough and would probably break the first time I dropped the bike. Keep it simple stupid... when will I learn?

Things I Learned

  • Graham was where the Kirk-Holden War got kicked off when the African-American constable Wyatt Outlaw was lynched in 1870. Governor Holden declared martial law and brought in Colonel Kirk from Tennessee to restore order. At one point the KKK tried to take over my hometown of Pittsboro but was defeated in a bloody battle out in the Chatham County woods. But lest you think this was some kind of victory over white supremacy, Kirk was arrested and Holden was impeached, only being pardoned posthumously in 2011. The Graham City Council is considering a proposal to rename a local park after Wyatt Outlaw, we'll see how that goes. They didn't mention any of this in school.
  • The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 was a horrific suppression of a history that might have been. At that time the Democrats were the party of white supremacy and even had a paramilitary arm called the Red Shirts. The Fusionist party was an alliance of African-American Republicans with The People's Party, poor white cotton farmers aligned with the labor movement. When the Fusionists got elected to power in Wilmington NC, prominent Democrats started a massacre that killed hundreds of people and drove thousands more out into the swamps, never to return. After changing Wilmington's demographics by force, the Democrats were able to get back into elected office, and they instituted "Jim Crow" laws to divide people along racial lines and break the back of the Fusionist party or any potential successor. It worked and quickly spread to the rest of the Southeast. The coup leaders went on to hold powerful positions in local, state, and federal governments. Again, none of this was covered in the North Carolina school curriculum.
  • Tall beds are more practical than I thought. A waist-high bed kind of allows you to swing onto and off of it with very little effort. The major downside is that if the covers hang off the side, gravity is always short-sheeting me.

Wonderful Things

  • The smell of boxwood hedges in an old cemetery.
  • Golden-orange lichen covering a rough dark gravestone, shining brilliantly on a cloudy day.
  • A train shaking the ground as it passes with a cargo of lumber, liquid propane, scrap metal, corn syrup, potash, and graffiti.
  • Sitting in the afternoon sun on a bench at the arboretum, watching people stroll by and a couple relaxing on a picnic blanket. Feels like spring is on its way.

Week 19 - Hadley, Cary, Carrboro

Once again I'm finding it hard to string events together into a smooth narrative, so I'm not going to bother. It's all lists this week but I'll go back to the old format if and when it makes sense.

Things I Did

  • Spent a sunny Saturday morning hanging out with RM and JS and helping them reassemble a backhoe.
  • Installed a new key-switch in Punkin so it's impossible to kick start without the keys. Also glued on some reflectors for safety.
  • Met with Santa to sign a bill of sale for Punkin. Afterwards we hung out on the porch and he told me some good travel stories, one about the time he got stopped at the border coming back from Canada. "They probably thought you were smuggling a bunch of stuff from the North Pole," I said, which made him laugh. He told me about how he ran for mayor twice, one time losing by only eight votes, and how he was glad he didn't get the job because he would have hated sitting in all those meetings. The pandemic has been tough for Santa, since there were no lines of children waiting to tell him what they wanted for Christmas. He said it's made him realize how much he'd been getting out of being able to share the Christmas spirit with people. Despite the hard year, he did get to celebrate New Years Day on the beach at Ocracoke with a glass of champagne like he has every year for 30-some years.
  • Rode across Jordan Lake on a warm and sunny day and and saw lots of people riding motorcycles and fishing from their boats. The weather makes such a huge difference, especially now when there aren't any public indoor social spaces.
  • Stayed at a hotel in Cary for blood work and a colonoscopy to check into my ulcerative colitis. It's been acting up lately, and I figured I should probably take care of that before touring round the country. The 24 hours of preparation were unpleasant (although not as unpleasant as the first time I did it about eight years ago), but there were some bright spots like hanging out with my friend AA who drove me there and back, the friendly nurses who liked my new tattoo (one said hers would say "compassion"), and the fact that the doctor didn't find anything unexpected. Well, except that my vitamin D levels were low and I need to take supplements, but that was pretty predictable in retrospect given how the weather's been. Gosh I hate medical stuff but it does feel good to have gotten it over with.
  • Helped rebuild a bridge at the BH Farm workday and caught up with SE and KC. I really enjoyed the low-precision carpentry, figuring out clever ways to extract the nails from the reclaimed lumber we were using and measuring the boards so SE could cut them in half with a chainsaw. It's been a long time since I swung a hammer, so my forearm got tired and I bent a nail or two, but the end result was quite nice. Then a hearty outdoor lunch was served which finished just before it started to rain and snow.
  • Assembled and tested my new four pound titanium wood stove, which folds down to the size of a laptop, including the nine-foot long roll-up chimney. It was pricey but it does put out some serious heat, and if it allows me to stay in a tent when I would otherwise need to find a hotel or AirBnB, I think it'll earn its keep pretty quickly.
  • Helped RM and SF deliver and install a 450 pound cast iron wood stove in SF's sweet off-grid house, which used to be an optometrist's office in Pittsboro before being moved out to the woods. He'd finished it out beautifully inside, with a warm, woody, handmade, artistic sensibility that I thoroughly enjoyed. Afterwards I saw the tiny shed where Punkin spent a couple years, and was amazed that SF hung onto it for so long considering how much of his space it was taking up. But I'm really glad he did.
  • Got a fortune cookie which read: "Act boldly and unseen forces will come to your aid." Workin' on it.

Things I Learned

  • In much of Colorado it's illegal to harvest rainwater on your own land.
  • Pizza Hut's personal pan pizza tastes exactly the same as it did when I last had one as a kid, but it seems much smaller now.
  • The Honda Gold Wing Retriever is a motorcycle modified to tow cars. If a breakdown causes a traffic jam, it can weave through the stopped cars, lower the towing rig it carries on its back, lift the front of the car, and save the day.
  • During the Vietnam War, U.S. airplanes used a device known as the "black crow" which could detect the electrical noise from a spark plug and target bombs and guns at trucks beneath the jungle canopy. I learned this and a whole lot more from a book called A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle in which Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent rides a Honda C90 named Pink Panther 2000 miles through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It's a great adventure story but also underscores how atrocious the Vietnam conflict was. We dropped insane quantities of explosives and chemical weapons on all three countries and they're still suffering the consequences to this day.

Wonderful Things

  • Stars between the spidery black branches of a tree.
  • Ducks paddling on a bright green pond.
  • Lying on dry springy pine needles in the sun and inhaling their subtle resinous scent.
  • Doing physical work with people I like.
  • Full sun breaking through the clouds while it was snowing. I've never seen anything quite like it.
  • The crescent moon reflected in the pond, one moon pointing up and the other one down.
  • Little green shoots pushing out of the ground under my washtub.

Week 18 - Hadley, Carrboro

I'm not feeling in much of a storytelling mood this week but some important things happened, so I'll just hit the highlights:

I finished Punkin's air, exhaust, and electrical systems and RM and I started the engine. There was a problem at first because gas was leaking out of the carburetor, and after we'd called the quality of the cheap carb into question and removed the float bowl, we figured out that I'd plugged the fuel line into a vacuum port (in my defense it did not come with documentation of any kind). After that the bike started right up, but the throttle was adjusted way too tight, and I fumbled the kill switch, so the engine was racing and smoking until I managed to shut it off properly. But after RM helped me recover from my anxiety that I'd ruined it somehow, all was well and we idled the engine for a while to start curing the exhaust paint. A couple days later I rode Punkin for the first time. I was pretty nervous since a lot depended on the quality of my amateur mechanical work, and I kept to the back roads near the garage so it wouldn't be too hard to push back in the event of breakdown. There was one stall but no breakdowns, and apart from a few things that need tuning it felt awesome. Lots louder than Kiddo, but not in an unpleasant way, and very fun to ride. I tried how high a gear I could reliably take off in (3rd and often 4th), tested the ergonomics of riding standing up (very comfy), and hit a couple of potholes on purpose to check out the suspension (nice and bouncy). That night I got all excited and started looking at maps for the first time in a while.

Punkin got inspected by a License and Theft Bureau inspector. On the phone she was so discouraging about my chances of getting a title that I did some research and formed a backup plan of registering in Vermont, which is apparently what a lot of people do with old small motorcycles, since they don't require a title for anything over 15 years old or under 300cc. But as it turns out, when she ran the VIN through the system, Punkin doesn't exist as far as the state is concerned, which is strange but actually makes the bonded title process possible. And when she arrived at the garage for the inspection, I think she was either charmed by Punkin's good looks or influenced by the presence of Ganesh (remover of obstacles), because she gave me some good advice about wording and said it would be a shame to keep such a cool old vehicle off the road. And best of all, she explained that I don't actually have to wait for the title, but can get plates and a year's worth of registration as soon as I submit the paperwork. So if all goes well I should be legal next week.

I got my first tattoo! It's a line all the way around my right forearm that spells out "courage" in cursive on the inside, upside down so I can look down and read it. It's a bit meta since I've been afraid of getting a tattoo for a long time, not because of the pain (which was sharp but bearable and didn't last very long), but because of the irreversibility of the decision. But it just felt like something I needed to do, mainly to sum up what I've learned in the past year and keep on reminding me so I don't forget. Courage is something I can have no matter what the circumstances: courage to allow myself to feel difficult emotions, to try new things that might fail, to stay present through unpleasant as well as pleasant sensations, and to reach out and connect with the people around me. And without it freedom wouldn't be worth much, because true freedom usually scares me a little and it requires some courage to take full advantage of. Anyway, courage feels like a value that's solid enough to warrant a mark as permanent as I am.

While I was thinking I might need to wait for months to get a license plate, I reserved a place to stay 25 miles north in Graham from mid-January to mid-February. Then I found out I could get plates sooner and the place wasn't refundable, but the more I thought about it the better of an idea it seemed. Between my job, working on Punkin, my social life, and surviving the weather, I haven't had a whole lot of downtime. It'll be good to have ample time to rest, plan, test new gear, and put finishing touches on Punkin. I'll probably be coming back down to Chatham County on most weekends, and going back and forth will be a nice gentle break-in process for the new engine, which needs to run gently for a couple hundred miles so all the parts can get to know each other and wear into a good fit.

Things I Learned

  • Indian investors are buying up classic British motorcycle brands like BSA and Norton and planning to establish some factories and R&D in England. Royal Enfield was a bit of a pioneer here, because their Indian arm split off and kept operating long after the British arm had closed, and lately they're starting to make really good and innovative motorcycles that are also cheap because of the massive scale of their home market. Indian billionaires creating British jobs: the process of colonialism begins to reverse itself.
  • In the early 1800s, there was a form of entertainment called an ether frolic, where a lecturer would dose an audience member with diethyl ether or nitrous oxide and everyone would laugh at their dopey antics. It seems silly but the fact that volunteers would sometimes injure themselves and not notice actually led to the development of surgical anesthesia.
  • I've been afraid of touching creosote from my wood stove because I thought it would give me cancer, but apparently it's not all that toxic and is in fact what gives smoked meats their flavor. Coal creosote, which is what used to be used on telephone poles and railroad ties to keep them from rotting, probably is somewhat carcinogenic. Wood creosote does kill people, but mainly through chimney fires, where it burns so hot inside the chimney that it lights the house on fire.
  • The pandemic has brought on some welcome innovations. I've been seeing a lot of devices that allow you to easily open bathroom doors with your foot or arm. Also all the crosswalk buttons in Chapel Hill and Carrboro now have a sign that says "don't push the button!" and explain that the signal has been made automatic. Maybe the only change is the sign, because I hear a lot of those buttons were already placebos anyway, but still. It's always annoyed me that if you arrive a little late and push the button after the walk period has started, it will make you wait a whole cycle until it says it's safe to cross. It should have been this way all along.

Wonderful Things

  • Driving through the smoke from a fireplace that just got lit with Christmas tree branches.
  • Driving through icy cold air scented with early-blooming breath of spring.
  • The crispy crackle of properly made bánh mì bread.
  • Coyote poop on the trail near my tent, after the rain washed away the brown part and left behind delicate white swirls of animal hair.
  • The rainbow-colored starry twinkles when the sun shines through tall icy grass. I think they're an artifact of my astigmatism (because they go away when I put on the glasses I never wear), but still very pretty.

Week 17 - Hadley, Pittsboro, Carrboro, Chapel Hill

It's 2021! I think last year was both the best and worst year of my life so far. What a ride it's been. I hope you're all as well as can be expected and do please reach out if you feel like catching up.

Saturday was Boxing Day. RM and ML were having a family brunch in the garage with RM's daughter and her boyfriend, just back from a trip to California, and they made me up a delicious plate. Then my family had moved the celebrations planned for Christmas Eve to Boxing Day because the weather was better, so I got to eat another delicious meal of seafood soup and crostini prepared by GB, with my mom's prune cake for desert. We sat around a fire and my belly was warmed by all the good food, a hot water bottle, a few sips of single malt scotch, and the holiday spirit of fellowship.

On Sunday I went to Carrboro and ate a feast at Mediterranean Deli, then had a session in the infrared sauna. The primary purpose was to sweat out the Lyme toxins I've mentioned before, but it was also great for my circulation, and the cold bothered me a lot less after that. And it got me thinking: the forecast showed a lot of damp and rainy weather for later in the week, and the galoshes I'd ordered weren't coming soon enough, so why not ride it out in town? I made tentative plans to get a hotel room for a few days.

Monday was perfect outdoor spray painting weather, which wasn't going to come again for a bit, so I spent the day at the garage. I managed to get a little work done for my job but was distracted by a headache coming on and also with helping RM and JS pull the "thigh" off a 50-year-old backhoe tractor, which must have weighed several hundred pounds. They were rehabbing the damaged planetary drive gears inside, and preparing it for a new wheel bearing to replace the original one that had been ground to a twist of metal. Between things, I managed to get Punkin's exhaust painted with high heat primer and flat black paint. The welds actually wound up looking pretty nice after being ground, polished, and painted. In the evening I went back to the tent to nurse my headache, and wound up doing some emotional work that led to a pretty big breakthrough on a problem I've been chewing on for months.

On Tuesday I worked outside in the sun, and then took a trip into Pittsboro to visit the hardware and auto parts stores. I needed a section of tubing to connect the new carburetor to the original air cleaner, and RM told me a trick where you make a cardboard template of the curve you need and then convince the people at the auto parts store to let you behind the counter to rummage through the radiator hoses and find one with a section matching the template. It took some thoughtful rummaging but it worked perfectly. Then I tried out a Mexican restaurant I hadn't been to before and ordered the "molcajete", which turned out to be a lot more food than I'd expected but it was delicious.

On Wednesday I went into Carrboro to start my vacation to the great indoors. On the way, Kiddo had a bit of a mishap. Ever since hitting a nasty rock on the driveway, I'd been hearing a rattling while riding on rough terrain, but couldn't make it happen while parked. It sounded like it was coming from the front mudguard, so I wasn't super worried about it. But as I came into town it started to get worse, and somewhere on Rosemary street I heard a "tink, tink" and the noise stopped altogether. Well, I thought, I guess I just lost some fasteners. This time when I parked and revved the engine, the problem was clear: both of the bolts that held the muffler bracket onto the bike had worked their way out and the muffler was hanging on by just the head tube and the rear mudguard. Luckily it was an easy walk to Fitch Lumber and I picked up two new bolts (and a wrench because the toolkit I have lacks a 13mm one for some reason). I think that if I hadn't been spending so much time in the garage building my confidence, the incident would have caused me a lot more anxiety than it did. As soon as I get back to a full socket set I plan to tighten up every bolt on the bike. Back in 1968 Honda put lock washers dang near everywhere, so why don't they do the same in 2018?

I got the new bolts in just in time for my scheduled session in a float tank (aka sensory deprivation chamber). Back when the place opened around three years ago, I'd gotten a package deal and went once, but I recently realized that I still had two credits left. I figured at the very least it was an opportunity to take a shower, but it turned out to be a really nice experience. One reason I hadn't gone back was out of fear that the tank would encourage me to detach from my body, but this time I kept in mind what I'd learned from reading Judith Blackstone and found that not feeling the exterior of my body actually allowed me to isolate and focus on the interior of it. I discovered and released some tensions, and also the shower was great. The only unpleasant part was that the lights in the tank were having some issues and they came on unexpectedly at one point and startled me into sitting up, which caused the incredibly salty water to drip down my face and into my right eye. I managed to mostly keep the eye closed for the rest of the session but it did get a little painful at times. So yeah, very important to put petroleum jelly on cuts and scrapes and keep the water out of your eyes.

Then it was a couple days of riding out crappy weather in a swanky designer hotel in downtown Chapel Hill, at the very same intersection that I made a software simulation of for a grade school science project on whether traffic light timing affects air pollution. It's been nice to pamper myself with warm dry air, space to swing my arms and legs, a real bed with real pillows, running hot water, and lots of delicious food that I didn't have to cook. I caught up on the phone with my aunt JR and uncle KW in Texas and hung out with my parents, BF, and the P family down at the Carrboro Town Commons (as close as we could come to our old company holiday dinners). I got some good work done for my job, relatively free from bodily distractions. I played guitar and worked on relearning a few of my own songs. I took a hot bath with epsom salts and then on a whim watched Fly Away Home and cried a lot. Back when the movie came out, I just saw the death of the main character's mother as the inciting incident of the plot, but this time it struck me forcefully how losing their mothers is something she and the goslings share, and how raising them and teaching them to migrate is all about healing from loss for everyone involved. It seems so obvious now but it's taken me a long time to build my awareness of emotions and relationships.

Being outside the context of my "new normal" lifestyle also freed me up to start thinking about and planning the next phase of my adventure. I ordered some new gear that will hopefully allow me to motocamp and work through all kinds of weather; I'll talk more about that once it comes in and I've had a chance to try it out. I find that the hotel life coddles me, but also disempowers me: there's not much I need to do for myself but there's also not much I can do for myself. Still, it's awfully nice to have as an option and I want to keep reminding myself that I don't always need to tough it out.

Things I Learned

  • When the wood is a little wet, I can get my stove going by using the pump from my inflatable kayak to blow into the air intake.
  • It takes more fuel to boil water when it starts out frozen solid.
  • Fatwood is pretty great. A package of it costs $7 and fits neatly into two 42 ounce oatmeal cartons. I knew I was saving them for something.
  • RM and his siblings had dirt bikes and 26 old junker cars over the course of their childhoods, and drove them on Army Corps land and farm roads well before they had drivers licenses. They used to play a game where one kid tried to stay on the roof of the car while the others tried to drive so as to shake them off. The kid on top would usually hold onto the roof by grabbing the tops of the doors, but a favorite trick was to roll up the windows quickly to pinch their fingers and then stomp on the brakes. I think this may explain a lot about RM's calm attitude and knack for fixing things.
  • Once I get into an environment with a more neutral odor, all my clothes and gear smell a little smoky.

Wonderful Things

  • Harvesting chickweed by moonlight.
  • The tent illuminated by cold blue moonlight from the outside and warm orange kerosene light from the inside.
  • Birds singing and swooping from branch to branch as the dawn light moves slowly down the treetops.
  • Walking in the rain when you know there's a nice dry place to go back to.