To the Smoky Mountains!

The past few days have consisted of a trek inland. I spent nights in Greenville, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Asheville.

At some point in that trek I noticed signs for the "Country Doctor Museum". I was curious so I followed the signs off the highway(264?) and into the small town where the museum resides. The tour was $5 and included many interesting bygone medical tools, devices, and "cures". Above is a steel lung; above that, some Civil War prosthetics. There were also live leeches floating around a jar. The tour guide explained that leeches require very little maintenaince. You simply drop in "chicken liver" every few weeks and they're set.

Asheville had a neat little downtown run that reminded me of Brattleboro, VT -- lots of coffee shops, art galleries, locally-owned businesses, and so on. I walked around it with the intention to take pictures, but a passing cop, upon seeing my camera, warned me that the streets weren't "as safe as they look" and that I should put it away. So I did.

Leaving Asheville, I finally hit some mountains. The van held its own on the long inclines, albeit with abysmal gas mileage, but that's unavoidable. It was stressful on the curvy roads, what with freight trucks bearing down on me. I always feel bad holding up the trucks, but I figure it'd be much worse for everybody if I tipped over in front of them.

The part of the Smokey Mountains I hiked was along the northern flank. The colors and scents reminded me of the Adirondacks in the late spring. It was very warm; I had to take off my jacket to be comfortable.

BELOW: This lagoon was the goal of the hike. The picture doesn't honor just how truly emerald green it was.

BELOW: Bear scat?


The Outer Banks, NC

I drove southwest from Virginia Beach and spent a night in Elizabeth City, NC. I chose it because it had a coffee-shop with WiFi and a Super Walmart. It turned out to be an actual "small town" with a downtown area and locally-owned stores. It had a harbor. It seemed to be trying really hard NOT to be a shithole. I bought a fruit smoothie and slept at the Walmart. I rented "Tropic Thunder" from one of those "Red Box" dvd rentals. The movie was lame; it turned into the very type of movie it seemed to be initially mocking. I cooked soup and had a beer and went to sleep.

The temperature was a radiant 45 degrees in the van. I was able to walk around barefoot and wash my dishes without being in pain. Glorious.

The next morning, I crossed over into the Outer Banks. It was gray, humid, and raining. I always feel a little embarassed for a summer-vacation town when I see it during foul weather. The whole of NC-12 was deserted. Many businesses, motels, and campgrounds were closed down.

I underestimated just how long the Outer Banks is. Or perhaps because the landscape is so repetitious it just FEELS like that shot of the Imperial Cruiser in the beginning of Star Wars. My eyes started to cross after awhile. There seemed to be three "locales" which occured again and again, but never mixed: strip malls, vacation homes, and craggy dunes. It just went on and on. None are very interesting. The vacation homes are monstrous, built only to rent out to multiple families / frats (I imagine?), and they sit in these big ugly plains with no vegetation. And many more were being built everywhere you looked. I can't imagine spending a week at the Outer Banks in the summer.

Upon arriving, I stopped off at a visitor center to dump my recyclables and use the toilet. I also picked up some pamphlets and motel brochures. I was amused to see a pamphlet titled "SO YOU WANT TO DRIVE ON THE BEACH?" with a picture of a sandy SUV on the beach. I guess many visitors have it in mind to drive on sand. What, exactly, is the allure? Perhaps you can get to remote beaches. I don't know. there are so many rental units I imagine that come July there isn't much free sand no matter how far you drive down the beach.

My first order of business was to figure out where I was going to sleep. On a small, mostly-empty island I felt like my chances of going unnoticed while parked overnight on some side road were poor. I called over a dozen campgrounds. 2 were open and both had closed down their amenities (shower, bathroom, laundry, etc) yet refused to lower their rates. I explained that I just needed a place to park and that it was technically impossible for me to even use the hook-ups. Would they sell me a space for a few bucks? No. So I began calling motels. Most of the motel brochures had "rate sheets" and I started with the lower-end ones. Most were around $60/night. The first one, the Avon Motel, was only renting out cottages. I told the lady it was out of my price range and she suggested I call "The Falcon Motel". So I 4-1-1ed the Falcon Motel. But there was an error and the operator connected me by mistake to The Cape Hatteras Hotel.

The man who answered sounded reasonable so we talked. It being the off-season and a rainy Tuesday night, he was willing to lower the price. I really lucked out. The room was on the 3rd floor right on top of the beach. If you fell off the balcony you'd just land in the sand and probably get hit by a wave. In fact the waves were so close and so noisy I had to close the window to sleep. It had a little fridge, free Wi-Fi, coffee, and a TV. I took a hot shower then bought some beers and made sandwiches. I watched an Arthur C. Clarke marathon before falling asleep. It felt extraordinarily indulgent. But, hey, if you're paying for a motel room, you had might as well go all the way...

Who would have thought a classy hotel would lower their rates to accomodate me while those shitty RV parks wouldn't budge? I drove by those parks and they had dozens of empty spaces. What the hell is with that?

I also watched some "Ultimate Fighting" on the TV. I'd never watched it closely. A childhood of action and karate movies has made real-life punches look slow and oddly silent. It's hard to tell if the fighters are even connecting with each blow. But then the cheekbones purple, the noses turn into bloody cloves, the ears explode...

As for sight-seeing, I visited one of the state parks and hiked over the huge dunes. It was spectacular in a low-key way. So much silence and softness in all directions. There was also a nature exhibit (as per the photo at the top of the blog; I'm always a sucker for nature dioramas).

ABOVE: Due to the rain there was no horizon, just this gray wall about a half-mile from the shore.

BELOW: I photographed this unusually comprehensive urinal cover in the park restroom. I'd never seen a urinal cover like this. Usually people just tie a plastic bag around a urinal to indicate it's out of order. These guys built a plywood box!

Continuing on, I parked off of NC-12 and took a stroll on the beach, just to see it. The water was in the 40s.

When I woke up after my night in the motel, I found that my van had once again leaked badly around the windshield. Seeing as how there is a 3" deep ribbon of sillicone around the periphery of the high-top I am now officially at a loss as to how the water is getting in. It's not the windows. It's not the windshield either, as I've had that tested by professionals (and besides, the water comes in slightly above the windshield). But what can I do at this point? I've already spent over $1000 trying to fix the leak. It's hopeless. I think it's just a hexed van in that regard. I toweled it up and begged God for a chance to torture the dumb motherfuckers who originally installed the roof.

I took the ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke and then from Ocracoke to Swansquarter. The attendant told me to store my bicycle inside the van so I'd fall within the "20 footer" bracket and save $15.

Upon landing in Swans Quarter a very hellish trek to Greenville began. It was already late, close to 4:00, so it was getting dark, and the storm was really getting psycho. The van handles terribly on wet roads. You must constantly grip the steering wheel and watch for every approaching puddle; a bump on the road or a draft from a passing truck makes the nose jerk. That fiberglass high-top is like a sail and crosswinds slap the whole 10,000 pound vehicle about. The majority of the journey was on single lane roads with the locals pulling JasonBourne-maneuvers and passing me on the left. Most were nice about it, seeming to understand that I can't drive this whale as fast as a compact car, but on occasion there was the blared horn, or the teenage goblin in the backseat giving me the middle finger.

I passed many accidents. I probably should have just pulled over and waited out the storm. I'm the only guy on the road who actually can pull over and cook/shit/sleep/watch movies in his vehicle indefinitely while a storm passes. But I continued on like the rest of them. Now I'm in Greenville, NC, heading west.


Virginia Beach, VA

After visiting friends in Charlottesville, VA for 3 days, I drove to Virginia Beach intent on exploring the shoreline and First Landing State Park.

The weekend was rather sedentary and full of good food and beer, so I felt like exercising. I thought I'd bicycle from the Walmart where I was parked to First Landing State Park, which at the end of the day would give me 30 cycled miles round-trip.

I woke early this morning. There were seagulls on the roof of the van. It was one of those cold mornings where you have to get dressed inside your sleeping bag. I brewed tea and made a sandwich, then bundled up and set out on my bike trek.

I only lasted 4 miles. The "bike lane" frequently disapeared into a busy road popular amongst dump trucks driving 50 MPH. I thought my year of cycling around Providence had hardened me against bad drivers, but I forgot that in the city the streets are short, which prevents drivers from really getting up to speed. Here there are great long straight-aways and the drivers, no doubt listening to "Life is a Highway", seem to revel in blasting down them.

When there is no bike lane or shoulder it's difficult for drivers and bikers to share the road. I don't blame the drivers for that. What I do blame them for is for driving weirdly close to my bike or not signaling. At moments like that you understand those stories of cyclists going apeshit and beating at passing vehicles with their bicycles and tire pumps.

The final straw came when I tried to cross a street and nearly got hit by a Prius (aren't hybrids and cyclists supposed to be on the same team?). I had been watching the incoming traffic; the Prius most definitely had not signaled it was about to turn. It came to a screeching halt. I looked at the driver. The woman looked back. If I had any balls I'd have said some truly cruel things to her at that moment but instead I just kind of waved and wobbled toward the curb.

So I went back to the van and vanned it to the shoreline.

The "beach town" area was deserted but not dilapidated. It didn't scare me the way Wildwood's beach town did when I visited it in November. The streets were clean, the buildings well-kept, and so on. I walked on the beach and took some pictures.

There was a dude feeding seagulls out of his balcony:

The main drag along the shore leads right into First Landing State Park. I parked in the visitor area and went to the office to get a map, but found it was closed. In the absence of the office, visitors were directed to this thing:

It seemed to be an outdoor computer. It was "on" in the sense that I could hear the machinery whirring and there was this touch-screen showing a pastoral scene. But that was it - it wouldn't function. It had no buttons and the screen didn't respond. I guess it was frozen. Or maybe the staff at First Landing has a philosophical sense of humor and they like to have the information-needy jab fingers at an open, unresponsive landscape.

I walked the "Osthamanthus Trail" where there were many bald cypress trees and their so-called "knees". It was pretty neat, all the moss and boggery. That trail was 3.1 miles and went by quickly. I saw many squirrels and heard woodpeckers, as well as ongoing gunfire from Fort Story.

After finishing that trail, I got out the bike and began the Cape Henry Trail. It was 6 miles. It had another one of those fun "Exercise Trails". I did them all except the tire jump, which I skipped due to my bum knee.

I reached the end of the Cape Henry Trail. There was a boat landing. I meant to photograph it but then this predatory-looking white sedan with black-tinted windows pulled into the parking lot and made me uneasy. I could see the outline of a man's face through the black tinting. First he slowed down to a crawl right next to where I was riding and looked at me then he parked way off in the corner of the lot where only a pervert or a drug dealer would think to park. I continued over to the next lot and he followed me there as well. At one point he started to get out. I saw one red-swishypants and Reebok sneaker leg. I began pedaling quickly in the opposite direction. Then a second later he roared by me in the sedan.

After evading that freak, I found this little historical loop about the Chesapeake Indians. It had these cool re-creations of houses.

It's supposed to start raining for 3 days, so tomorrow I'm leaving Virginia.


Richmond, VA

I parked in a parking lot on the other side of the river in Richmond. Today I rode my bicycle over the Boulevard Bridge (above) to explore the downtown / historic area of the city. The first leg of the ride lacked a sidewalk or shoulder and the Richmond drivers competed with me for space on the road (it was two lanes and not congested, mind you, so they could have easily just gone to the left of me, the assholes...). I thought I might die.

You can't ride your bike across the bridge; you have to walk it over (above). It's too bad because it's such a smooth, straight chute, it'd be lovely on a bike. Well, that's probably why they outlawed bike-riding on it. People got carried away. The water below is very shallow. Lots of rocks.

The highlights of the day were riding down the Boulevard and also Monument Way (err Ave?). These were bicycle-friendly rodes with lots of beautiful architecture. There was also a sequence of increasingly grandiose monuments of famous men like General Lee on horseback. Being on a ride of my own, I felt inspired.

There weren't many decorations up and perhaps the people in the next picture aimed to compensate for that. With balls.

Lastly, I took a detour through a park on the north side of the Nickel Bridge. It had one of those Physical Fitness Trails where every 100 feet there is an apparatus to test your strength. I did well on the ropes but found that I'm largely out of shape. I could only do 5 chin-ups comfortably. A week before leaving on this trip I fell off my bike and injured my knee. The injury has persisted and prevented me from doing my daily jog or any strenuous hiking. Cycling, though, doesn't affect it.

No martinis allowed in the park!


Shock and Awe in Outdoor World

I stopped at a Starbucks in Hanover, MD. I noticed a big store called "Outdoor World" across the road. I'd never heard of "Outdoor World" and decided to check it out.

"Outdoor World" is an outdoors superstore. Hunting, camping, backpacking, fishing, and riflery are its main themes. But it's more than just a superstore....

The first thing you notice are the elaborate dioramas. Meticulously detailed, illuminated dramatically, and towering over you at every shirt rack, these stuffed-animal displays are on par with The Museum of Natural History.

Below is a diorama I couldn't really figure out. While most of the dioramas depicted animals in the wild or hunters stalking these animals, this one is just of some poor schmoe plunging through a crappy bridge. ("Outdoor World" doesn't sell bridges. Maybe that's the point.)

There was also this airplane.

In the marine section there was an enormous aquarium where you could watch employees feed the fish.

In the children's section I found this awesome toy set. I'd have loved this as a kid. The Jeep, ATV, hunter, rifle, and buck are mediocre, but there's a CLOTH TENT! That tent would have been a real jewel. It would have become a mainstay in every action figure set-up, from He-Man to GI Joe. Oh well.

There was a target range kind of like what you'd see at a carnival.

In the camping area there was the most comprehensive cooler selection I've ever seen.

Dead center in "Outdoor World" is a functional climbing wall. Well, one side is functional; the other is a diorama of a moose getting sprayed in the face by a skunk (while standing on a waterfall with real flowing water).

Last but not least, there were many displays of the "Butt Out" tool. This barbed, plastic anchor extracts the rectum of a deer, as the instructions explain. There were many "Butt Out" displays, not just one, spread out around the store. Maybe it's considered a good stocking stuffer.


Maryland RV Park!

I needed to shower and do laundry, and with Thanksgiving / Black Friday I was skeptical about parking overnight at Walmart. So I decided to cough up the dough and spend a night at an rv park in Abingdom, MD. I figured that in addition to the amenities it would make for a good blog entry, as I'd never been to an RV park before.

Here's a curiosity: the dump system. I watched some guy back up his monstrous Class-A and cautiously link his black tank to this little hole in the ground. It didn't take long to empty. Then he packed it up and drove off.

This RV park advertises that it's anti-activity. I guess other RV parks have big dinners and parties and whatnot. You're on your own at this place. Still, there was this pool for warmer weather, as well as numerous little docks, benches, and the "Wilderness Trail".

Below is the van in my space. For once, the van was the smallest vehicle around. Everybody else had enormous trailers or Class-As (enormous by my standards, at least).

It was $46 for that space. Since I couldn't use the hook-ups, that's a rip-off. I asked the desk if I could get a discount for not using the hook-ups. No, they said, but there is a 5% discount for paying cash. This was a nice park and the owners seemed like nice people, and I don't blame them in particular; all RV park rates, across the board, suck. It's what drives people into Walmart parking lots. If you're the owner of an RV park, why not just have a crappy overflow lot, $5 - $10 a night, for folks who can't afford / don't want hook-ups?

It WAS, however, glorious to take a warm shower, shave, and do my laundry.

The park also featured wireless internet. But since I arrived on Thanksgiving, the office was closed, and I couldn't find out the password. I asked another camper and he gave me a password which was completely wrong. Oh well.

Each site had a firepit. My Thanksgiving dinner consisted of 4 grilled veggie burgers and 3 beers, eaten while I watched Lord of the Rings on my laptop. Then I finished the movie and ran out of propane for my Coleman lantern. It got very dark in the van.

A little bit later in the night, the family in the next site over started building an enormous chimney fire. It was 5' tall. I guess they saw me staring at it enviously because they invited me over for beer and steamed oysters. It was a good Thanksgiving.