Travels with Charles, Hugging the Coast from Maine to the Carolinas

Travels with Charles COVER.

Travels with Charles lead us to places we have never seen before, and to people we have never met. Those places become familiar, and those people become friends, sometimes even extended family. This is how we operate when on the road: We have direction, but no itinerary. Our only real guide is fate—whatever that may be—and our noses and eyes. This trip was different than any other we had ever taken because we were seeking something, a resolution of some sort.

 

 

 

 

Travels with Charles

Re-Discovering the Real America

 

by Charles McGuigan

 

Here’s the thing: We were looking for answers to questions, big and small.

Bullies in middle school had so intimidated my son for the better part of a year that we had removed him from two public school systems for more than a year and a half, and during that time Charles has been treated weekly by a gifted therapist for post-traumatic stress disorder, therapy which he is still receiving today. Charles was assigned a homebound instructor by the schools so he was able to pass both seventh and eighth grades admirably. During this entire period of time, he was forever by my side. We made a home and a workplace out of Stir Crazy thanks to the good graces of its owner, Claire McGowan, and her entire staff of kind souls. As I worked on my laptop, Charles wrote and read, and created works of art, things he gave away freely to whomever wanted them. I cannot tell you how hard this was on Charles. Every day throughout the school year he would see his friends come through the front door of Stir Crazy when school let out. They had lives between eight and three that he was excluded from, and even though he rarely mentioned this the pain on his face was readable as block print. We had been through countless meetings with bureaucrats and attorneys, and a very good attorney from the disAbility Law Center worked pro bono on Charles’s behalf. But by the end of the 2015-16 school year, Charles had not yet been given private placement. So we began the waiting game through the summer, and less than a week before we left on our trip I set up a meeting with Dr. Dana Bedden, superintendent of RPS, and Jeff Bourne, my representative on the School Board. It was the best meeting I ever had with school officials on my son’s behalf, but as we pulled away from the curb that late July morning to head up north, I had still heard nothing about my son’s placement. At the back of my mind throughout the trip the thought of what Charles would do come September was a persistent nag, as it was for my son.

South Philly street art.
South Philly street art.

After a brief visit with my sister and her family in Falls Church, we spent two days with my cousin Kosh in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Charles and I, with my nephew, David, spent an entire day walking through South Philly and Center City, marveling at the murals and outdoor art there, and there are thousands of them. Some are as panoramic as Hieronymus Bosch, and loaded down with just as much allegory. And we were joined on the streets by hundreds of other people who were staring at the murals, and these people were from every corner of the earth, from every religious and ethnic background, sons and daughters of immigrants, all Americans of equal value, regardless when they or their forbears settled here, six generations ago, or the day before yesterday.

We drove straight through to Mid Coast Maine the next morning and by early evening were eating our first lobster on the deck of Estes, a restaurant at the tip of the Harpswell Peninsula. We met a lovely woman, and her two daughters, one of whom was playing cello at Bowdoin College in nearby Brunswick. The mother is a concert cellist, and her other daughter, about Charles’s age, plays viola.

 

Climbing to the top of a granite island off the coast of Maine on low tide.
At Popham Beach, climbing to the top of a granite island off the coast of Maine on low tide.

In the morning, we left our room on Bailey Island and headed over to Brunswick. Listened to a guy on the sidewalk along the town’s main drag play piano; an upright, painted orange, bore a sign that reads: “Anybody can play me.” A line of musicians, all part of the international music festival at Bowdoin, formed by the piano. After donuts at Frosty’s we drove up the coast a few miles to Bath, one of the nation’s greatest shipbuilding ports. (During World War II, Bath Iron Works launched a new Liberty Ship every other week or so.) Then down the peninsula to Popham Beach State Park. Half-mile wide beaches that stretch in either direction for a few miles. On low tide you can walk out to a number of granite islands, but you need to be conscious of the incoming tide. It rolls in like a river, and this area is home to some of the highest tides in the world, some, a little farther north, rising and falling 42 feet daily.

Life clings to everything it can, and the water and land here are impeccably clean as they are all the way up to the Canada border and beyond.. Mainers take their environment seriously and always have. Their lobster fishery is one of the best managed in the world, and all the lobstermen in every village along the coast sells through co-ops so they don’t get screwed by corporate seafood slugs.

Charles found a Jonah crab in the shallows, among the seaweed, and held it on his flattened palm until it scuttled off.  We ate dinner over in Seabasco at a place called Anna’s where they’ve got their own fleet of lobster boats.  Very plain, very straightforward. And excellent food. We had fried steamers (soft-shelled clams, full-bellied; not those god-awful fried strips of chowder clams that may have last tasted seawater in the last century). The clams we ate were wet-battered, fresh out of the tidal flats, harvested that morning, the manager told me. Fried lightly in peanut oil, and the surrounding batter as delicate as a good tempura crust.

The next morning, we visited Reid State Park on the next peninsula up east, just north of Bath, then headed north and checked into our cottage, the upstairs of a carriage house (two-car garage), in a place called Friendship. Made our way to a nearby cove on low tide, hunting for sea glass for Catherine, and Charles got deep into a mud, thick as tar with just as distinctive an odor. Lost his shoes with a sucking sound, the mud pulled them off his feet, but we retrieved them later, and they lay in the back of our Honda for the next week caked in drying gray mud.

We returned to our apartment in Friendship, which served as home base for the next couple of days, with forays to Acadia and Blue Hill and Schoodic. Charles was asleep inside of five minutes.

Early morning breakfast (meaning five am) at Moody’s Diner on Route 1, a place that has been around forever, which is just up the road from the place we rented. More locals than tourists at that hour, which was nice.

We made a beeline for Acadia about one hundred miles north of our rental, and you have to travel via Number One Highway, and thus through every village along the coast from Thomaston to Searsport. Every Maine village–regardless its size–has two things: A modest monument to Union soldiers, and a library of its very own. We will visit every one of those small towns the following day, including all the points at the tips of the half-dozen peninsulas in this region, but that day it was Mount Desert Island, which real down easterners pronounce as if they’re about to scoop a teaspoon out of it to accompany a slab of pie.

Shortly after seven, we hiked Jordan Pond trail, a simple loop that rings this tarn, carved from the pink granite of MDI by a glacier eons ago. It’s spring fed and rain fed, and the water crystal clear, so glass-like and calm you can see forty feet down. We then hiked an adjacent carriage road down to Seal Harbor.

Next it was Schooner Head Trail, which gives you a great aerial view of Bar Harbor, home of the shamelessly well-to-do.  (History note: MDI was originally the summer playground of robber barons and their spawn. They lived in cottages with 35 bedrooms, called themselves rusticators, and, finally, one of their own convinced them to do the right thing, and by degrees the National Park here was formed.) Incidentally, while we were hiking down toward Seal Harbor, we encountered a crusty old woman who informed us we were off the carriage road and standing on her property. This is true: her last name was Rockefeller. There are a number of the senselessly wealthy who still own vast estates on the island, and, as we would discover, most of the shoreline of the towns of Northeast Harbor,Southwest Harbor, Seal Harbor and Bass Harbor.

 

Sixty feet above the Atlantic near Otter Point on Mount Dessert Island.
Sixty feet above the Atlantic near Otter Point on Mount Dessert Island.

Our third hike was along the headlands from Sand Beach all the way up to Otter point. These are craggy bluffs, most of which are made of MDI’s distinctive pink granite—feldspar-rich pegmatite, peppered liberally with quartz and hornblende. The Atlantic here is not at all like the coastal Atlantic in our beloved South. For one thing, aside from a smattering of sand beaches along the entire Maine coast, the mountains actually climb out of the sea, and the water is cold and dark blue and deep—sixty, seventy feet just a few yards off the shoreline–and the swells that roll in are massive mounds of water that can sweep you from the rocks in an instant, and grate you to death against the barnacle clad granite. A woman at a restaurant told us one of her server’s sons was killed just that way this past June.

So you have to watch your footing, and Charles has learned to climb like a mountain goat, hunkering down to lower his center of gravity, and picking out the natural steps as he moves along.

What gets you in Acadia is its biodiversity. Everywhere you look there are a multitude of species living in harmony, from the microcosms of the ocean captured in pink granite tidal pools, to the plants that need just a handful of soil to thrive in the fissure of a boulder.

When we were at Thunder Hole, which is one of the most popular points along the Ocean Path, more than a hundred people gathered along the railed bridge that takes you just feet away from the spectacle.  It’s pretty amazing, too.  And we hit it on just the right incoming tide. The swells, ever-mounting, roll up a narrow inlet sliced out of the rock. The inlet ends in a cul-de-sac of a cavern, and when the water is forced up into this tiny chamber, there is a great boom, as if thunder clapped your ears, and at the moment the thunder roars, cold Atlantic water erupts like a geyser, thirty feet skyward, splashing the spectators.

As they were splashed as a group, there was a marvelous confluence of voices in many different languages—Spanish, Japanese, Vietnamese, French and so on—and everyone, no matter where they were visiting from, or where their immigrant ancestors came from, knew exactly what the others were saying. Throughout the park, all day long, we encountered people from every walk of life—economic, ethnic, religious, gender orientation. And they were all there to see their park. We shared water with a woman and her two children who had lived in this country only three years. They were from Izmir, a port city in Turkey.  We sat with them at Otter Point, looking out on the vastness of the Atlantic, to that pencil-thin interface between sea and sky, and none of us spoke a word. We sipped from our bottles of water.

Our National Parks are all unum, bringing the pluribus together, and the greatest wonder of this park is that it is owned by all people, even those visiting from foreign lands. I really like that, for we are, after all, citizens of the same world.

We stopped for lunch over in Trenton, just off-island. There are a couple of decent places along Route 3 near Ellsworth, but the best and most reasonably priced is Lunt’s—our personal favorite. No frills. Picnic tables. They call your name, you pick up your order. And you don’t have to order dinner—fries and all that crap. So we have three lobsters: two for Charles, one for me. And Charles teaches me not to use drawn butter, the meat so rich and delicate unto itself that any coating only detracts from its iodine-rich purity.

All day long and into the night you can smell the wood fires along this stretch of highway where the lobster pounds are. Those oak fires heat massive cauldrons of water that boil like a witch’s cauldron, and are sure and instant death for thousands of lobsters every day.

View from the summit of Cadillac Mountain, after climbing the South Ridge.
View from the summit of Cadillac Mountain, after climbing the South Ridge.

Our last hike was along the South Ridge Trail of Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak on the Atlantic Coast, at about 1,500 feet. The entire ascent is one visual drama after another, from the thick balsam forests at the base to the alpine environment approaching the summit. So much of it is texture and color, and at the very top you can see for miles out into the Atlantic, which is dappled with scores of spruce-draped islands, and to the west you can see the mountains of interior Maine.

Lichens come in more varieties than I ever thought possible, and they grow in great abundance on Cadillac, particularly as you approach the peak. They cover vast sheets of pink granite, and their designs and colors are painterly in an abstract fashion. I bet I shot a hundred pictures of these alone, and no two the same.

Throughout the day we hiked a total of nineteen miles, capped by a brief visit to the commercial mayhem in Bar Harbor, and then a hundred mile drive back to our home away from home in Friendship. Charles was sleeping the moment I shut the car door. Amazing day.

On that fourth day we left our garage apartment and headed to the tip of our peninsula, then worked our way north through the village of Cushing and explored each and every cove, finally coming into the town of Thomaston and down the peninsula of the same name. We visited St. George and drove out to the tip where resides the Marshall Point Lighthouse, which is connected to the rock coast by a well-made wooden bridge supported by three piers of dressed stone. The villages on these more northern peninsulas are not in any way touristy. Working lobstermen and lobsterwomen still live and work here. Generally, there is one general store with one gas pump that also dispenses diesel; a library; a Civil War monument; and a lobster pound that serves “rough shore dinners”—meaning a lobster, corn on the cob and slaw. No fried foods. You can also get a full bucket of steamer clams—about a gallon–for seven dollars, or less.

We travelled quickly up the coast, passing through the ports of Rockland, Rockport, Camden, Lincolnville, Northport, Searsport, Stockton Springs, and Orland, and then down the greatest of all the peninsulas along the Maine Coast—the Blue Hill Peninsula, which is home to the Maine Maritime Academy at Castine.

Fact about Blue Hill: If you were to throw a rock in any direction, with a fairly decent heft behind it, chances are you would hear the clink and ping of shattered stoneware, raku, bisque or china.  There are more potters per acre on this bulbous protuberance and the two chunks that broke away from it eons ago—Little Deer and Deer Isle—than anywhere else in the world. I often wonder if arts and crafts schools recommend this area to their students, because they seem to absolutely flock here, and it isn’t for the clay—there’s none of it here. And you can’t make pottery out of schist and granite.

At every intersection there is at least one sign announcing another pottery studio. Sometimes four or five arrows pointing down the same gravel drive. And there are art galleries galore. We found our friend Melody Leiws-Kane at her home in Sedgwick fresh out of her studio. Her husband, Dick, is a documentary film maker, and last year we had the great good luck to rent their guest cottage—the best place we ever had on vacation.  She had shown Charles how to throw clay last year and he made a “Halloween bird”. Melody fired it after we left last August and she was able to find it this year and present it to Charles. “You can paint it,” she told him. Which is what he plans to do.

 

The bridge linking both sides of Boothbay Harbor.
The bridge linking both sides of Boothbay Harbor.

Our last full day in Maine we visited a peninsula we had avoided because of its reputation as being sort of like Bar Harbor. But Boothbay Harbor is nothing like Bar Harbor. We spent the entire day, and long into the evening, there. We visited the Maine State Aquarium where Charles held crabs and sea cucumbers and sand dollars—all living. And we spent over three hours wandering along miles of pathways through the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, easily the most remarkable botanical gardens I have ever seen anywhere in America. They seamlessly blend the natives with more exotic cultivars, and I’m guessing we hit it at peak season.

The last night on Bailey Island there were fireworks at Cook’s Lobster and Ale House, and from Cook’s Island View Motel (no relation to the lobster house), which sits on top of the granite spine of the island, we had a perfect view of the pyrotechnics, more elaborate than most municipal Fourth of July displays, including the one sponsored by the Richmond Flying Squirrels, which we can see from our front porch back in Bellevue. Charles remembered a previous summer night on Bailey Island, always our first stop in Maine and last stop out of it. We met a man from the room two doors down from ours who was dressed in a T-shirt and boxers, who’d obviously been drinking pretty steadily for quite some time. He wore glasses and was bow-legged, and as we watched the fireworks, he told us that he had been coming to Bailey Island for fifty years, that his parents had been very wealthy Connecticut Yankees and had set up a trust fund for him so he never had to work. He told us that he would come back to the Island View again in October, just before the place was shut up for winter, at which time he knew he would die. Barry and Patti Pontilillo, owners of the Island View, who have become sort of like extended family, would tell me the same man stays with them every summer and then again in the fall, and always tells the same tale of his imminent death, something he’s been doing for years on end, and he’s still alive.

The next morning, while Charles still slept, I wandered over to Orr’s Island, stopping by the cribstone bridge, connecting Orr’s to Bailey, and walked out on the tidal flats  on a very low tide. Harriet Beecher Stowe spent a fair amount of time on Orr’s Island, and in nearby Brunswick, at Bowdoin (where both Longfellow and Hawthorne had attended college), penned her most famous work, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  She would write the novel “The Pearl of Orr’s Island”, beginning at a time when she first began grieving for her eldest son, Henry, who drowned in the Connecticut River at the age of nineteen.

As I headed back across the bridge, I remembered the date, August 7, which was my father’s birthday. On a late summer’s day, more than 40 years, my Dad pulled the Pontiac station wagon, laden with my four siblings and mother, onto the shell drive near a group of cottages overlooking Casco Bay in a place called Bailey Island, Maine.  That was our very first trip to Maine, and in the intervening years, when we travel to the Maine coast we always end up on Bailey Island first, almost instinctively, like salmon swimming mindlessly to the rivers of their birth.  That year with my family on our maiden trip to Maine, I was fifteen, my son’s age this year.

When I return to the motel I join Patti and Barry in the office for a cup of coffee, and a few stories about the island, which is their second home. They live in Connecticut, but spend as much time as possible up in Maine and plan to make a permanent move here any year now.

Instead of heading back down the coast, we make our way inland to Paris, Maine and then through the White Mountains, up the summit of Mount Washington, one of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi, noted for its extreme weather conditions. The highest winds ever recorded on this planet—over 230 miles per hour—were at the top of Mount Washington. We were traveling, though, wanting to get south, so we hit I-91 and made our way out of Vermont and through Massachusetts and Connecticut, then east on I-84 and, to avoid the white knuckle driving from the Tappan Zee Bridge and down the Jersey Turnpike. We crossed the Hudson near the town of Beacon, and found lodgings in a town called Harriman, which is a mecca for outlet store shoppers.

In the morning, we took a new route to Haddonfield, New Jersey, from I-287 to State Route 206, leisurely driving through rural townships and through the luxurious heart of Princeton University. We picked up I-295 at Trenton and made a straight shot for my cousin Kosh’s house.

In the surf at Two Towers Beach in Delaware.
In the surf at Two Towers Beach in Delaware.

In year’s past, this would have been close to the conclusion of our trip, but this year was different. We had only finished about a third of our vacation.  So we headed south at a leisurely pace, down Route 13 coastward through Delaware—Lewes, Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany, stopping at a half-dozen state parks on the shore.

We visited my brother Bruce at his business—Captain Mac’s Fish House. The dinner rush was about to start up and Charles downed two crab cakes and I got a pile of cherrystone clams, steamed. My brother owned a bait and tackle shop at the same location for almost three decades before he built the fish house. He’s worked the water in one way or other since he was a boy. He’d worked for Harry Hemphill in St. Martin’s Neck when he was a teenager. And in subsequent years worked offshore on his PEI built trawler. He was a conch fisherman, then moved into scallops. He did his share of longlining. With all that experience it only seemed natural that he would open up a fish house. He knows every fisherman and waterman from Cape May to Cape Charles, from Crisfield to Chestertown. And each day, beginning at 4:30, he drives his pickup on appointed rounds to gather the best and freshest seafood on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Bruce and I talked long into the night, after he shut Captain Mac’s up. We talked in the parking lot. He told me story after of story of harrowing times he’d spent offshore, nearly losing his vessel in one instance, being transported by a chopper in thirty-five foot seas, plucked from the boat by Coasties and raised with precision to the safety of the chopper, which hovered in unison with the swells because of the skill of the pilot. Charles and I bedded down in my brother’s house and left early the next morning.

We stopped at Assateague Island in Maryland and then headed toward the Virginia state line. We had been thinking of putting in down in the northern Outer Banks, but the thought of Kitty Hawk and Nags Head has little appeal for either of us, so we decided to hole up in Chincoteague. Crossing Mosquito Narrows, despite the rapid succession of billboards, more than a hundred of them in all, running adjacent to the causeway, has always reminded me of the Low Country in South Carolina, where I lived as a boy. It’s thousands of acres of cordgrass and blackneedle rush and saltworts, cut through by small channels that feed back into Chincoteague Bay. These bays and the surrounding salt marshes are a breeding ground for all the bounty of the sea, from blue crabs to summer flounder. Oysters, which have made a terrific comeback here, filter the nutrient rich waters that are created by the saltmarsh grasses, and from a distance the Spartina beds look like fields of winter rye.

Just off the bridge to Chincoteague we came upon a barn-red house on Main Street with a sign that reads: Bayside Retreat Rooms $75.00 per Nite. There are only two units set back on the lot behind the house where Jenny Sommers and her husband live. Jenny answered the door and told me we could rent the one unit, but would have to wait until she cleaned it. We took it immediately, and in less than an hour settled in.  As we’re leaving for Assateague, Jenny told us that our neighbor is a single mom with a fourteen-year old son.

Assateague Island, another of our National Park treasures, is a vast seaside island (about 50,000 acres) off the coast of the Maryland and Virginia eastern shore. Like all the barrier islands in Virginia’s chain, Assateague is restless, forever moving. The island and surrounding salt marshes and bays are home to hundreds of different species of animals. In a large open grass meadow, ringed by loblolly pines, we saw a small herd of about thirty ponies, who trace their origins back to the sixteen hundreds. They grazed contentedly. Later, we spied a mare feeding her foal.  And great egrets, and willets, and sanderlings, and herons.

We walked along the beach to within a half-mile of the southern tip of the island. That entire tip is cordoned off to protect nesting shorebirds, including piping plovers, a threatened species.

With our friends Suzanne and Nick.
With our friends Suzanne and Nick.

As we turned around to head back to the car, we encountered a woman, who, like us, wass searching for shells in the clear water, right at the ledge of the first trough. I had found a small conch, one of a number we had already found, and offeredd it to her. Her son was standing behind her, and spoke to her in German. She thanked me in English, handed the conch to her son, and Charles and I continued back to the car.

Charles asked, “Do you think that’s our neighbor?”

“You never know.”

Sure enough she and her son are our neighbors—Suzanne Gold and Nick. We spent that evening together, and the next day took a hike through salt marshes and out to the light house, and back along the beach. Suzanne was going to leave for her flight out of Newark that evening, but decided instead to stay another night and leave at four in the morning. That night we had a big dinner, cooking out on a Cadillac of a grill supplied by our hosts. Suzanne is from Austria, though her son lives with his father in Germany. Suzanne told me how alarmed Germans are about Trump’s popularity and I nodded. She told me how worried Austrians were at the prospect this past May of having a far-right wing candidate—Norbert Hofer—elected president. This was the man who sported a cornflower in his lapel, which is how Adolph Hitler adorned his own jacket during those horror years of the last century.  The pro-EU independent candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, ultimately won the election, but just by a hair, about 30,000 votes.

“The world is becoming frightening,” Suzanne told me after dinner. “Again.” We sat at a picnic table, and our sons played a video game in her room. There was a waxing gibbous moon directly overhead, and Mars hovered above Suzanne’s left shoulder.

The next morning our Austrian/German friends were gone, but we told them we would visit, and they have an open invitation to Richmond. Before we headed south, I interviewed Jenny Sommers, who happens to be an expert on Chincoteague. She knows everything about its history and natural history, and her people have pretty much been on the island longer than anyone. Her roots go back to the seventeenth century. As she explained it, one of her distant forbears was an indentured servant, who really never had a chance of buying back his freedom, so he was more or less a slave. He was among two dozen men, debtors, mainly, brought from England to work for the landowner of the island. No English women were brought along with the men, so they ended up marrying first Americans, members of local tribes of the Nanticoke people. “Really, my people were here even before the Europeans,” said Jenny, with evident pride.

We head south, missing rush hour in Virginia Beach, and making it to the bridge over Ablemarle Sound by about four o’clock, catch a quick bite at Pigman’s Barbecue on the bypass (good North Carolina barbecue down near the 9 ½ mile post) and fish for an hour or so on the catwalk along the Bonner Bridge in the fast moving waters of Oregon Inlet. We catch a couple of sheepshead, about three-pounders, but release them because we have no place to cook this night.  By the time we board the ferry over to Ocracoke, it’s about nine o’clock. There’s a high and steady wind, and three-foot seas, so Charles and I, standing near the bow, holding tight to the gunwales, are doused in an ocean spray. We are the last car to drive off the ferry and begin the 13-mile drive down to the village of Ocracoke with its welcoming lights. Halfway down Route 12, I pull over to the sand and gravel shoulder, turn off the lights, and Charles and I enter the dark night. There is no trace of light here and the stars are bright and the planets steady in their streams of colors.

“You can see the Milky Way,” Charles says.

In Ocracoke, we try every motel and hotel and b&b, and there is no room at the inn. I drive down to the ferry landing on Silver Lake, on the leeward side of the island.  I talk to a sheriff’s deputy there and she tells us we can sleep in our car, if we like, that she’ll be on duty until seven, and watch out for us. I move the car over to the information center and begin talking with a bearded man who works with the ferry service, a man named J.L. “Joe” Lewis. He’s a hoi-toider, a Core Banker, who grew up on the water in Downeast North Carolina. He’s an easy going man and loves to talk. He recommends we open all our car doors, along with the hatchback and sunroof. There’s an ocean breeze coming off the southwest, so I realign the car, drop both front seats back to their lowest position and Charles climbs in and is sleeping within minutes. I talk with Joe until one in the morning, sitting on the steps. He shows me an image on his phone of the bed of his Ford pickup filled to the brim with shrimp. “One day’s catch,” he tells me. “I made thirty-five hundred dollars. You don’t get too many of those days.”

When I return to our Honda CRV—a car I had told Charles on numerous occasions we could sleep in if we had to—my son awakens and I tell him this is the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. We stare into the night skies, among the brilliant haze of stars, through the open doors of our car, and through the sunroof like the ceiling of a planetarium four feet above our faces, and all through the night, for the next three hours, we see shooting star after shooting star, quick slashes of pale green light like an ocean plankton, streaking the sky and gone in an instant, my son and I see this, and we lose track of how many we have seen after we reach forty. And then we drift into sleep, with the moist, now cool, breeze flowing over us, as if we slumber in a bed of clouds, and later, we are the first to board the ferry southward, an hour after a spectacular dawn, and neither of us has ever felt more refreshed, even though we had slept for only two hours.

An offering of shell fragments in one of his water shoes on Oak Island, North Carolina.
An offering of shell fragments in one of his water shoes on Oak Island, North Carolina.

We settle in for a week below the Cape Fear River on Oak Island where there are palm trees and Spanish moss-clad live oaks. I pluck ripened jelly dates from a palm tree that is two doors down from us. The fruit is citrus tart and mango mellow in every bite, tropical.

With a hundred other people, at two in the morning, we watch loggerhead turtles hatch and make their way to the loving embrace of the Atlantic. We fish and eat shrimp and visit the North Carolina Aquarium over at Fort Fisher, where Charles pets sharks and sting rays.

Our last two days we stay in a motel room overlooking the charter boat fleet in Hatteras Village at the tip of that island to the north. I watch the mates at four in the morning readying the boats for a long day of fishing in the Gulf Stream, which is a scant 25 miles offshore at this geographical point. We watch them come in with their catches in the early evening, watch them weigh the wahoos and mahi-mahi, which both end up as the catch of the day in half-a-dozen local seafood restaurants.

And that final night, long after Charles has fallen asleep, I check my email and there is a message from our attorney. Charles has been granted private placement at Brook Road Academy, where there actually is zero-tolerance for bullying, where the teaching method is Socratic so that young scholars and artists might develop true critical thinking skills, so they will someday make choices that are based on reason and compassion, so they will become informed members of the electorate.

Overhead, there is a full moon, and when we left Richmond, twenty-five days ago, there was a waxing crescent that disappeared into a new moon before our arrival in Maine. For that entire time we had not had one day of rain, but tomorrow as we head up Hatteras Island there will be fine, cool showers of a quenching rain that we will both welcome. And today, this day as I write, Charles just completed his second day of high school, and I have never seen him happier.

 

 

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