October 10, 2020•2458 words
My plan had been to do some camping and explore the western part of Croatan National Forest, but the rain coming in over the weekend made me reconsider. I decided to just make it a day trip on Saturday instead, and mostly to places I'd already been. The weather was cool, humid, and gray, and for the first time it felt like fall had properly arrived out here on the coast. The sycamore leaves had turned a tarnished bronze by the side of highway 70 down to Beaufort. I had decided to visit the maritime museum there, which one of my neighbors had said was worth a look, and with free admission I couldn't argue with that. I like that Beaufort has dedicated motorcycle and golf-cart parking in all those little triangular spots that cars can't fit into anyway. I love that they have very nice free public restrooms every block or two along the waterfront, opening right onto the street. Along with the many places to sit down, it gave me a very comfortable and welcome feeling that I don't get in most towns.
The museum was indeed worth a look. I've been to maritime museums all over the place, and my favorite part is always the original historical artifacts on display. The first exhibit I enjoyed was about the US Lifesaving Service, later merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the Coast Guard. There were stations all along the coast with eight highly trained "surfmen" each, who would patrol the beach several times a night looking out for wrecks and sending up flares to warn any ships that approached. If they saw a stranded ship, they would sound the alarm and drag a wagon along the beach to the site, fire a rope out to the ship with a little cannon called a Lyle gun, use that rope to run out a hawser anchored beneath the sand, and then haul survivors in along the hawser through the surf. Mostly they would use boats and breeches buoys for this, but in particularly rough conditions they used something called a "life car", one of which the museum has on display. It's basically a canister made of riveted steel in the shape of a pumpkin seed. Up to seven adults would be stacked into it like cordwood, the hatch would be closed to make a nearly airtight seal, and they would bounce through the surf in what I imagine must have been a terrifying ride to the beach. The thing was damned small. If you didn't have claustrophobia before that, you probably would after, although I guess it's better than being dead.
The second exhibit I enjoyed was of artifacts recovered from the wreckage of Queen Anne's Revenge, which spent the last year of its life as a pirate ship commanded by Blackbeard, before he ran it aground in Beaufort Inlet in 1718. When he captured it, it had a cargo of slaves, whom the museum placard claims he freed, but Wikipedia claims he sold in Martinique. Hmm, I guess the museum didn't want to tarnish his image as a sort of local hero. The artifacts were interesting to look at, some of them remarkably well preserved, especially the glassware, ceramics, and some precision instruments that I assume were made from a copper alloy. There was an interesting sign that drew parallels between the NC coast in the early 1700s and modern-day Somalia, both notorious havens for piracy. Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia the field work on the wreck stopped in 2015 due to legal squabbles, but then again the remaining artifacts have been down there for 300 years and a few more won't hurt.
There was a traditional wooden boat building shop across the street with an observation platform, but nothing exciting was going on at the time, so I decided to ride down to the Old Barn at Mill Creek and see about the clam chowder I'd been told about when I passed through there a couple weeks before. There was some spitting rain on the way, and by the time I arrived they had just sold out of the chowder a half hour before. I bought some Mutsu apples instead and formed an alternate lunch plan, which was to ride up to a Vietnamese restaurant in Havelock. It turned out to be a pretty nice place, occupying a small corner of what must have been a grand Chinese buffet, vacated with all the decor and steam tables left in place. I ate a passable banh mi, some very tasty pho broth, and an avocado smoothie with boba in it. It felt luxurious to eat a meal that I didn't have to cook and that wasn't just standard American fare. A couple of children with high-and-tight haircuts sat down at another table, and I slowly realized from their conversation that they were US Marines. Yup, I'm getting older.
Havelock is unmistakably a base town, complete with the obligatory strip clubs and uniform tailoring shops. Apparently that also comes with better Asian food than you'd expect for a place of its size. In the same ratty shopping center as the restaurant, I found an Asian grocery and gift store run by a cheerful little old Korean lady known as Sunny. I replenished my supply of oyster sauce and picked up some cheap green tea. In the cold case, along with mason jars of kimchi, presumably homemade by the owner, I was delighted to find burdock root (aka gobo), and bought a bag of several-foot-long roots which looked properly eccentric strapped across the back of my scooter. The owner seemed tickled that I liked them, congratulated me on such a healthy choice, and taught me the name in Korean: u-eong. And there is something very charming about hearing a local expression like "you have a good one" in a foreign accent!
My last stop in Havelock was a military surplus store, where I was looking for a poncho like the ones I'd read about in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. "They don't make 'em like that any more," the owner told me, "they look like this now." "There's no hole for your head?" I asked. "Nah," he said, "they wear Goretex jackets and stuff now. The new poncho is basically just a tarp, nothing like what you'd remember." I think he mistook me for a veteran, not the first time that's happened. I wandered around and took in the cultural atmosphere: a young blond soldier was buying some kind of unit patch for an older African American woman, and telling the owner about how the flag in front of the General's house had recently been stolen by pranksters. They talked about the economics of custom-embroidered unit patches; apparently the store had a machine in back that could crank them out 25 at a time. In the end I found two camping mirrors for a dollar each, much more compact than the spare scooter mirror I've been using for shaving and tick checks.
It was getting on in the afternoon, and the western reaches of the forest just seemed a bit too far away, so I headed back down to the boat launch at Oyster Point and strung up my hammock for a nice afternoon nap. I was getting the kind of spaced-out feeling that I associate with toxins stored up during my bouts with Lyme Disease, and that would make sense because I've been shedding some body fat recently, and riding in the cold wind was probably accelerating that. But in any case it was definitely time to head back to Sealevel. On the road ahead I spotted another motorcycle going in my direction, which basically never happens because everyone else goes so much faster than me. As time went on without it pulling away, I became increasingly sure it was another scooter, and when I eventually caught up that turned out to be the case. I'm not sure if the driver even noticed me, but we continued in a little convoy for a while. At times there was just enough distance between us that drivers couldn't pass us both at once, so they had to dart in between for a bit. Go team, pissing off the cagers together! After a few miles our ways parted and that was that. Although I feel a bit of kinship with my fellow scooter people, I also know that in this state most of them are only riding because they got their license suspended for driving drunk, so it's not what they want to be doing and they usually don't seem happy about it. Motorcycle riders are another story, and almost always return the motorcycle salute (left hand held out low), except for a few stuck up Harley riders who might return it for other hogs but certainly not for the likes of me.
I stopped in again at Lookout Grocery to pick up some fresh vegetables, then had dinner at George's Takeout, also in Smyrna, watched the sunset, and rode the last stretch over the salt marshes in the dark. It was an enjoyable day, although tinged with some melancholy.
Sunday was cold and rainy so I stayed indoors, lazed around, and did some emotional processing. I'm starting to unearth what I think is really old material, like the root causes of the headaches I've gotten periodically since I was a preteen. The Judith Blackstone book I mentioned before is providing really useful tools for exploring it. Her exercises are straightforward but subtle: one of them is simply to sit with any object and focus on the space that pervades the object and yourself. Most of them are about "inhabiting" different parts of your body, separately and together. I like that she makes no physical or metaphysical claims about how the exercises work, but just offers them up as a useful process that she discovered and developed empirically. Anyway, I feel like I'm making some real progress untangling patterns that have been stuck for a long time.
On Sunday night I had a fun Zoom call with my childhood friends from Chatham County, and it made me want to stay in NC at least through November so I can see JP on one of his rare appearances stateside. It would also give me some time to wait and see what the DMV is going to do about road tests, because while they claim they'll start offering them sometime after we enter phase 3, I wouldn't expect them to move quickly. I'm going to need to figure out how I can work when it's cold, but I have a few ideas.
It was a pretty quiet working week out on the gazebo. On Tuesday my neighbor the retired landscaper returned from a multi-day surf fishing expedition on Portsmouth Island with a few big coolers of fish to clean. "You know if I added it all up," he told me, "this fish probably cost me $75 or $80 a pound. Could have bought it a lot cheaper at the store." "Hard to count the entertainment value though," I said encouragingly. Eh, maybe fishing isn't for me after all. Unless it's trout tickling, which I've always wanted to try.
On Thursday a V-22 Osprey buzzed overhead, because now I'm near a different Marine Corps airfield. I'd never seen or even heard of the V-22, but it's such a crazy looking thing that it took me all of a minute to identify it on the internet. It can take off and hover like a helicopter and then, by tilting its massive 38 foot diameter propellers 90 degrees, it can fly like a plane at over 300 miles per hour. It passed slowly by close overhead and then took some turns over the bay, gradually tilting its propellers into helicopter mode and flying off in the direction of the Dollar General. I mentioned it on my work Slack and lo, there was much geeking out.
Thursday night I slept in the gazebo again. Around 10pm I saw bright headlights approaching across the bay and a boat appeared with one person on it, who switched it over to underwater lights as it approached the pier, illuminating the water with an eerie glow. They took a slow pass down the length of the pier and along the seawall for a bit and then headed back out into the night and switched off all but the running lights. I have no idea what the purpose could have been but the mystery of it was entertaining. At 6am I woke to hear dolphins coming up for air all around, and aside from the watery burbles, the sound was reminiscent of the way deer will snort when they come close enough to camp to smell you. I guess deer and dolphins do share a relatively recent common ancestor. A half hour later a big heron flew out over the water, making its rasping cry, and landed on the roof of the gazebo with enough force that I could feel it shake. It's not that much of a stretch to imagine a heron as a dinosaur.
Next week will be a bit more eventful, because the sale of the house is almost definitely closing next Thursday, so I have to cut my time at the coast short by a few days and get back in time to sign the papers. It'll also be a good opportunity to do some equipment changes and maintenance: Kiddo is coming due for a 5,000 mile checkup. I ordered a cheap inflatable kayak, which will serve as a platform for future adventures, and plan to take it for a shakedown cruise when I'm back in the Piedmont. And here is the week's meager collection of photos.
Things I Learned
- North Carolina has a state boat, and it's called a shad boat. Apparently Maryland, Virginia, and Maine also have state boats but nobody else. Who comes up with these things?
- Lilian Bland was a badass. Favorite quote: "She connected the engine to an old whiskey bottle, and used her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet as tubing to funnel gas into the engine."
- An important artifact from Blackbeard's ship is a pewter syringe with a Parisian maker's mark, which helped identify the vessel. It was used to inject mercury into a sailor's urethra to treat venereal disease, and we know this because it still carries traces of mercury. The 18th century was big on heavy metal.
- World-class sunsets over the bay nearly every night.
- Afternoon naps in the hammock with a sea breeze.
- A smell-poem about fall running through my helmet: wood smoke, drizzle, pumpkin guts, candy apples.