Looking for America

Looking for America

I'm on my way home from a spontaneous road trip, embarked upon last week due to an itchy restlessness I couldn't shake. I haven't been on one of these in a while. The last one took me to the very same place I ended up in this time, along a very similar route, almost exactly one year ago.

I tell people I'm a free spirit, but maybe traveling this journey twice in two years is the beginning of a routine, or maybe it's a sign; maybe there's a reason I'm drawn to this particular area. Both could be equally true.

Sometimes I like to drive and be surprised by the journey. This time, I set out for a particular destination. I've been to parts of the Outer Banks in northeastern North Carolina before (the beginning of Say Yes was set near Kitty Hawk), but I'd never been to Wilmington or the beaches in southeastern NC. 

Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.

The view of the Atlantic Ocean from Wrightsville Beach.

I loaded the car Tuesday night and pointed it toward Wilmington the next day, fully intending to stay at least until the weekend. The drive was beautiful. Blue skies, bucolic fields, but man, was it hot. I think the temperature reached at least 95 on Wednesday as I was driving, and again the next day after a restless night spent in a hotel outside Wilmington.

Naturally, I headed to the one place everyone goes when it's that hot: The beach, specifically Wrightsville Beach, a stretch of gray sand outlining this section of the Atlantic Ocean. I think I spent more time looking for a parking spot along the waterfront than actually on the beach, and when I finally found a spot, I couldn't figure out how to work the parking meters.

Hey, I'm a writer, not a machine operator.

Fortunately, a sweet young man employed with parking enforcement came along and helped me feed a quarter into the machine. When I told him I had driven in the night before and only wanted to walk over to the ocean and back, he waved away my money and said, "Stay as long as you want." I could've hugged him, I was so grateful for his kindness.

Seashells, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Seashells, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.

On the way back from the beach, I stopped in historic downtown Wilmington (ok, I got lost in historic downtown Wilmington) and visited The Noble Thread, a yarn shop crammed into a nook on Water Street between a store for pet lovers and another full of intricately crafted woodwork. The owner had a lovely foreign accent I couldn't place, and was wearing a long-sleeved cardigan. The air conditioning, she said; it chilled her. "We're knitting sweaters now," she told me. "For the winter, when the cold arrives."

Meanwhile, I was in shorts and a t-shirt, and was trying hard not to suffocate in the middle of her lovely selection of hand knit shawls and multi-hued skeins of yarn. Last January's nine inches of snow is a faint memory. Never mind that I've already had a fire going at home and, in August, cast on a winter hiking cardigan in a sturdy, worsted weight wool.

The high heat turned out to be too much for me. People talk about Southern women being hothouse flowers, but I'm mountain born and bred. I wilt in temperatures over the mid-80s, so in spite of the shop owner's promises of cooler weather to come, that afternoon I headed north toward more temperate climes.

Google Maps routed me along the most remote backroads between Wilmington and Norfolk. Night fell before I found a restaurant for the evening meal that wasn't McDonald's or Subway, and that turned out to be a good thing. 

Doris & Roger's Restaurant is a Mom & Pop located off Hwy. 13 in Gates, a tiny community situated just south of the North Carolina-Virginia state line. The menu consisted of standard fare, burgers and sandwiches and chicken fingers, and a goodly selection of meat and two combinations. The sweet tea was delicious. Y'all folks living outside the South just don't know how bad you've got it, having to drink that unsweetened stuff. 

Every other guest in Doris & Roger's was a local. The youngest son of the family in the booth behind me was doing homework while waiting on their food to arrive. An older couple sitting across the room stopped by the booth in front of me (a mother and two kids) and gossiped for a while on their way out the door. It was like sitting in a restaurant back home. Same good-hearted folks, same friendly smiles, same routine conversations. 

"How's your mom doing, hon? I heard she was in the hospital."

"Oh, she's better now. Doc sent her home, told her to stay off her feet. Say, did you hear about Lou? She's down in her back again."

I chatted with the waitress, a high school girl sporting a blonde ponytail and a bouncy step, and nearly inhaled a plate of country fried steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Good, hearty, Southern fare. I turned down the offer of dessert (though lordy, was I tempted) and hit the road again. A couple of hours later, I reached the hotel I'd stayed in last year during my first trip to the Norfolk, Virginia, area.

Two trips to the same locale in two years does not a pattern make. Does it?

A giant rosemary bush, Norfolk Botanical Garden, Norfolk, Virginia.

A giant rosemary bush planted in front of the Visitor Center, Norfolk Botanical Garden, Norfolk, Virginia.

Last year when I visited the Norfolk area, I went to the Virginia Aquarium and took a dolphin cruise skirting Virginia Beach. It was my first time out on the Atlantic Ocean. The dolphins were out in full force. A couple of the pods included calves, which were fun to watch.

This year, I started off at the Norfolk Botanical Garden. I needed to get out in the sun and stretch my legs, and this turned out to be the perfect place to do it.

I couldn't figure out the map (maybe if I'd put on my peepers?), so I walked around the visitor's center through paths lined with all manner of plants. Some I knew, thanks to a flower loving mother and a short stint working at an herb garden, and some I didn't. I tried to hunt down name tags for the ones I couldn't identify from memory. Alas, not every plant was marked. 

The first section I happened upon was the Rose Garden, row upon row of roses of every kind and color separated by dense paths of lush grass. Most of the visitors stuck to the marked paths. A few of us more adventurous ones wandered onto the grass. An Asian man wearing a brimmed hat and a long sleeved shirt over cargo pants snapped closeups of the blooms with a fancy 35 mm camera. An ancient African-American woman meandered from bush to bush, sniffing any rose that caught her fancy. Young couples held hands as they strolled the grounds, and parents led their children carefully away from the thorn tipped stems.

One young girl piped out a reasonable question. "Where are the signs that say no walking on the grass?"

I don't know what answer her parents gave to satisfy her curiosity. I was too busy smelling the roses.

Lasting Peace rose bush, Norfolk Botanical Gardens, Virginia.

Lasting Peace rose bush, the Rose Garden, Norfolk Botanical Garden.

I lost track of time during the trip. I don't wear a watch and my calendar is used mostly to help me keep track of work, not days of the week. Sometime after my trip to the Botanical Garden, a deranged individual opened fire on a crowd of music lovers. The internet erupted in a storm of vitriol and sorrow in nearly equal measures, it seemed, and the wedge shoved into the gaps between the various members of America's multi-everything society dug in a little deeper. 

I'm still not at a point where I can comment on this terrible tragedy, except to express my own sorrow for the victims.

I'd love to point out that those calling for more laws don't understand what laws actually do. They don't protect. They don't prevent. They only allow society to punish actions deemed criminal, long after the crime has been committed. Sadly, the people needing to hear this the most are deaf to reason.

While the tragedy and subsequent brouhaha unfolded, I did what I always do. I wrote. I observed. And I tried to keep my focus where it needed to be, on the things I have some control over, even if control is in appearance only. 

One night, I wrote a short story nearly two thousand words in length. It flowed out of me so swiftly, I have to wonder if perhaps worry pushed it out. My time in Norfolk was coming to an end, long before I was ready for it to. The work I'd set aside to accomplish there had hit another snag, and I was becoming frustrated with it and the reactions to the Las Vegas shooting.

The day before I left, I jumped in the car and headed toward the beach, hoping to clear my mind. On the way, I stopped at The Yarn Club, a nifty shop in Virginia Beach. 

Yarns bought on my trip home.

Yarns bought on my trip home. From left to right: Malabrigo Sock, color 850 Archangel (The Noble Thread, Wilmington, NC); Dragonfly Fibers Djinni, color Beauty School Dropout, and Yarn Love, color Juliet Mermaid (The Yarn Club, Virginia Beach, VA); Sugar Bush Cabot, color 9023 Serenity Lane (Gate City Yarns, Greensboro, NC).

When I'm upset, yarn therapy always helps, particularly when the staff is friendly and the store carries lots of yarn. The Yarn Club fits that description to a tee. Given the way the ladies in attendance discussed projects, I'm fairly certain I was the only stranger, and most definitely the only newcomer. When knitters discuss each other's progress on patterns with ease, you know they spend a lot of time together.

What tickled me the most was the conversation between Andrea, the store's owner, and a young woman winding a skein of yarn on a hand-cranked winder. "I told my mom I was going to hang around until I was indispensable," the young woman said. Without missing a beat, Andrea replied, "You know, it so happens that I'm looking for someone to help out. [So-and-so] just can't work a reliable schedule between classes, and she doesn't want to work Saturdays. Why don't you come in next week..."

I lost the tail-end of that conversation to one taking place closer to me revolving around another woman's yarn purchases. "I'm still working on that blanket," she said, "but [so-and-so] told me about this yarn, and I just had to come in and see it for myself." The woman to whom she was talking nodded sagely, as if she understood exactly which blanket, which so-and-so, and which yarn the first woman was discussing.

It's hard to stay upset around a group like that.

Half an hour, three skeins of yarn, and a new pattern later, I continued on toward Virginia Beach. Unsurprisingly, it took as long to find a parking spot as it did to drive there. It's not that the lots were full; they weren't. There's just not a lot of public parking. 

I finally found a spot near a public playground situated on the ultra-fine, orange tinted sand. Half a dozen folks dangled fishing lines over a metal rail into a man-made inlet outlined by a boulder pier. Three Navy vessels sailed into it as I walked along the concrete boardwalk.

Can a boardwalk really be a boardwalk if it's not made of wood?

The beach itself slopes gently down into the churning Atlantic, a brown-green mass of foam topped waves. There were no seashells here. Whether the beach had been picked clean or the ocean had drawn them back into her depths, I couldn't say. Seagulls and small birds, possibly sandpipers, ran along the edges of the beached waves. Each time a wave hit the shore, the birds scuttled out of the water's reach, then scurried into the ebbing wave's wake and pecked at the sand. There was a rhythm there, between the crash of the waves and the birds' flocking hunt, an endless, ageless interdependency affected more by the strolling couples sharing the birds' hunting grounds than by the ships dotting the horizon.

I stood at the water's edge under the fading sun letting a thought go with every curl of water onto sand. A nearby sandcastle, a relic of an earlier visitor to the beach, eroded away under the unceasing tide. Simon and Garfunkle came to mind. I am a rock, they sang. I am an island.

A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.

I'm human and, in spite of my self-imposed, introverted isolation, I'm not an island. I'm an American mourning the senseless loss of so many good people. That day, under a blue sky stretching as far as I could see, I cried for people I will never know, for their families, and for a grief-stricken nation scarred not by bullets or guns, but by the hands of an individual whose motives we may never know.

The boulder pier, Virginia Beach.

The boulder pier, Virginia Beach.

Every human is inherently both good and evil. Each of us carries those seeds from birth. Whether they are watered by nature or nurture is immaterial. The roots are there, growing within us, a fact humans have grappled with since the beginnings of self-awareness hundreds of thousands of years ago. The idea that evil deeds are caused by outside forces clings to ideological dogmas like Marxism, in part because no individual can accept the innate bad residing within herself. Poverty must be the root of crime, such philosophies insist, and poverty is caused by corporate greed. Those filthy capitalist pigs, Marxists scream. Power to the people.

Never mind that white collar crime is rooted in the excess of money, not its lack, and the fact that some people are just wrong inside. Let's not allow logic to stand in the way of a good slogan.

Before I'm accused of flogging an abhorred (and logically untenable) ideology, I should add that this same attitude exists across a wide swath of human beliefs. The religiously faithful believe morality is achieved only through the belief in a higher power, and that good and bad alike are imposed on humans by outside powers, God and Satan in Christianity, for example. 

It's easy to place our sins at the feet of a supernatural force, or someone else's misdeeds, or a tool (like a gun), and much harder to accept personal responsibility. 

But this is human nature. To decry it is an exercise in futility. We will always look outside ourselves for answers.

Virginia Beach

The Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach.

Monday night, I packed and loaded everything I didn't need for the next day into the car. The next morning, after a night spent working and too little sleep, I headed for my final destination, the Nauticus campus in downtown Norfolk. 

If America was broken and its people ruined by innate evil, it didn't show here. In the morning, I toured the museums and science centers housed inside Nauticus (officially the National Maritime Center), and toured the deck of the USS Wisconsin, a decommissioned battleship moored onsite. The entire complex was manned in part by volunteers who, unless I'm sorely mistaken, were former military service members. Tourists speaking a variety of languages mingled with Americans of all flavors.

On the Battleship Wisconsin, I skirted the people and ducked under lifeboats, through topside narrow corridors created between clearly labeled machinery and steel sided compartments. Everything was a flat gray I came to associate with the Navy during my brief stay in the area, everything except the deck and the giant anchor chains stretched along a sizable chunk of its length.

I had just enough time for lunch between that and a Navy Base Cruise scheduled for two o'clock, so I went to the onsite Dockside Cafe and ordered a truly awesome club sandwich. The gentleman manning the cash register was a Jersey boy, born and bred. We had a lovely conversation about the differences between there and Virginia, including his love of the mountains and snow (I told him to come on out to Western North Carolina), and how that area of Virginia isn't really the South. 

Lunch was brought to me by a thin woman in her '60s, and I swear, she had to be a native Southerner. When I tried to take my food tray from her, she said, "I got it, hon" and took it to my table. I got a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a big smile. I'm not sure which made my day, the conversation with the cashier, the excellent meal, or her, but by the time I finished eating and headed off for the cruise, I was in a much better mood.

A gun on the USS Wisconsin.

A 16" gun on the USS Wisconsin, Norfolk, Virginia.

The Navy Base Cruise is a two-hour tour of that section of the Elizabeth River. We saw a ship in dry dock and enough boats, ships, and cargo-loading cranes for a lifetime. The tour guide pointed out many of the features we could see, including historic sites in Norfolk and nearby Portsmouth, and was kind enough to detail the different seagoing vessels as we passed.

I have never seen so many gray ships in my life. Since I'm only seldom around large bodies of water, that's probably not saying much.

The halfway point of the tour was the Navy Base itself. We saw only parts of it, mainly the ships moored at various piers. The highlight for me was seeing the two aircraft carriers moored at the farthest pier. My brother was a yellow shirt on the USS Abraham Lincoln and an uncle served aboard the USS Nimitz. I knew that aircraft carriers are floating cities, but until I saw them for myself, I didn't realize how truly massive the carriers are.

We had some special guests on board during the cruise, a reunion of crew members of the USS Harlan R. Dickson. After the ship (boat?) turned around near the aircraft carriers, the reunion guests performed a small memorial to shipmates and other military personnel lost in combat. It was a brief ceremony. Some of the wives threw flowers into the boat's wake, someone said a prayer, and at the end, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" was broadcast over the speakers.

I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free.

Even a staunch libertarian like me feels a burst of nationalistic fervor when Greenwood sings, and I'd gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.

America is a symbol for freedom, and not just any kind of freedom, but that on the most basic level, the freedom of the individual to live his or her life in a way that most benefits him, as long as it materially harms no other's rights to the same. That ideal has drawn millions of immigrants to this great land for centuries, and we enfold them into our embrace, much as the ocean gathers shells from the shore and returns them to her depths. Humans were meant to live free. For much of the world, America is freedom's home.

So maybe I wasn't being nationalistic after all when I heard those words. I would fight, and die, for the ideal of freedom, but I will always remember that an ideal is nothing without the people in whom it is imbued, and a country is nothing without its people. Many fight to uphold those ideals, here at home by speaking out against injustices and promoting freedom wherever they can, or elsewhere through military and other service to our country.

Some give their lives fighting wars we don't always understand. Death is inevitable. Even the universe will die at some point, and be reborn again as something new. Sacrifice for freedom isn't a new concept, but it's difficult to accept when someone else is dying for your right to live freely.

Letter in bronze, Armed Forces Memorial, Norfolk, Virginia.

Letter in bronze, Armed Forces Memorial, Norfolk.

An Armed Forces Memorial occupies one corner of the sidewalk near where the Navy Base Cruise boat docks. It consists of excerpts from letters written by deceased soldiers, cast in bronze sheets that were scattered around the enclosure as if they'd been blown there by the wind. The letters contained sentiments of poignant beauty alongside blunt hopelessness and despair.

When will this war end? I long to be home.

I read those letters as I waited for the cruise to begin, and I thought of my grandfather, who died during World War II, not so that his wife and children would have freedom, but on the slim hope that the Nazi occupied land he flew over would someday share in that freedom. He gave his life for people he never knew, and they repaid him by burying him and his crew mates, and remembering them. It was all they could give until that freedom was achieved. Later, one of the witnesses, then a young boy, founded a museum to honor those who died that day in the air battle over his village. 

Everything has an ugly side. For my grandfather, the fight for an ideal led to his death.

For the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, the freedom of self-defense enshrined in the 2nd Amendment was perverted and twisted at the hands of an individual who lacked all respect for it and other individuals.

We cannot have the good without having the bad. 

America will never be the Utopian ideal libertarians hope for, in which individuals exist in perfect respect for one another, and I fervently hope it will never devolve into the socialistic, omniscient state my friends on the left desire it to be. Neither is realistic, nor overly likely to succeed or persevere. 

In the wake of the tragedy that unfolded in the City of Lights, I was reminded again and again that America is not the embodiment of evil, that her heart is her people, and the people, while flawed and merely human, are basically good. 

It was there in a sheepish waitress's smile when I hunted her down to retrieve the silverware she'd forgotten to bring me.

It was there in the love shared by couples walking along the beach, disturbing birds busy chasing waves.

It was there in the conversations shared with me and overheard, in the friendship offered by the many people I met, and in the kindness bestowed upon a stranger just passing through.

America isn't lost. It isn't broken. It's there if you look for it, beyond the yellow journalism, fake news, and social media rants, beneath the ever unconstitutional restrictions imposed upon our freedoms by well-intentioned (and occasionally politically expedient) politicians. It exists in the hearts and minds of her people, and in the communities we build one with another, not in borders or government offices or even a piece of paper enshrining humanity's natural rights. 

I wasn't looking for America when I set out on my quest to shake the restlessness plaguing me, certainly not the America portrayed in news broadcasts here and abroad, but America is what I found. The journey was a potent reminder of the power we have to perpetuate one of the most fragile and pursued states humans have ever faced: The freedom of, and absolute right to, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Bon voyage, my friends, and safe travels. Freedom is gonna be a bumpy ride.

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