[This is Part 3 of a series on my bicycle ride down the East Coast with my wife Sarah]
“It’s called dispersed camping.”
Sarah and I just bumped into a long-distance bicycle rider—our first of the trip. Her name is Adela Wagner. Like us, she’s traveling south. Unlike us, she is camping every night. For free. She just finds a patch of public ground, preferably national or state forest, and sets up her small tent.
We are at the entrance to the Ocracoke National Park campground. It’s late in the day. Adela has just arrived on the island and is trying to figure out where to sleep for the night. “You mean you’re renegade camping every night by yourself?” I ask, at which point Adela corrects me on the proper, and more legal sounding, terminology.
I was sort of proud of how Sarah and I were traveling, but Adela is next level, a fact made clearer by the two panniers on her bike (we ride with four). She is not happy to hear that a vigilant camp host collected $28 from us last evening for the privilege of laying our heads down beyond that entrance gate.
“Do you mind if I share your campsite?” she asks.
I try to size her up: She is diminutive, probably late twenties, with a slight accent I can’t place. Her eyes are intense, but she seems warm and friendly. Sarah and I sort of deflect the question. Changing group dynamics is a tricky thing, as anyone on a wilderness or self-contained trip will tell you. We’ve been dreaming about this trip for months. Adding a new traveling partner isn’t something we want to do without some thought.
“We are going for a hike, but please stop by and say hello,” I say as we walk away. “We are in site D35.” It feels like the right level of commitment. When we return at dusk, Adela is setting up her tent in the site next to us. I’m so glad she did, as she becomes a big part of our trip. And a friend.
Now about that damn hurricane. What’s left of hurricane Zeta is expected to hit Ocracoke early the next morning. As we eat dinner and chat more with Adela, I check the weather forecast. Big winds are on the way. Time for a team meeting. We decide to take the 7:30am ferry in the morning. It’s our best chance to get off the island for the next few days. Until next time Ocracoke. We can’t fight mother nature.
It appears that Adela may also take the early ferry, but it’s clear to us that she lives in each moment more than most, and is comfortable with last minute decisions.
Sarah and I walk the beach in the twilight. On the way back, we run into Andy, our friend from the Frisco campground who has also set up here, and tell him of our weather altered travel plans. He hurt his knee and is heading north first thing tomorrow to visit his parents. We exchange contact info, and he says quietly “I hope someday I can find someone to travel with—like you two are doing.” It’s forlorn. Lonely. We hope so too Andy. Someone would be lucky to share a trip with you.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
I’m up at 5:20AM the next morning. Squatting over my camp stove, I have to shelter the percolating coffee pot from the wind that’s starting to build. I look like a shaman conjuring up the miracle of caffeine by firelight.
This will induce eye rolls from my family, but I’m very affected by noise. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hyper sensitive, but our home is in line with one of the Minneapolis airport runways, and the jet engines ripping overhead become a form of Chinese water torture for me on busy days. It’s given me a deep appreciation for being in nature and not hearing any human made sounds, something that gets more difficult with each passing year. I wonder how difficult it would be for you to find a spot outside where you could sit for even a few minutes without hearing a human made sound?
It’s easy to do on Ocracoke. As I sip my coffee in the dark campground this morning, I can’t stop marveling at how beautiful the soundscape was last night. I noticed it as soon as I zipped into my sleeping bag. A light breeze whispered through the stout trees circling our tent. Crickets, or maybe tree frogs, chirped rhythmically from the woods. And the sound of breaking surf continued off in the distance. It was perfection, and I laid there in the moonlight listening to it for as long as my tired body would allow.
As I contemplate that magic sound machine, a large 18-wheel skid loader truck pulls into the campground, circles around, and backs up to the campsite next to us. “Beep, beep, beep, beep.” What the hell? Sarah turns on a light in our tent. Adela does too. It’s 5:50 in the morning. There is a dumpster full of dead trees—presumably left over from hurricane Dorian clean up—that the truck is attempting to pick up and slide up onto its open frame. This task is easier said than done. Over and over and over, the truck’s mechanical arm hooks the dumpster, only to have it bang back to the ground noisily, as which point the truck backs up and tries again. This goes on for at least 20 minutes. Maybe 30. It’s so bad that I go from being mad, to slightly annoyed, to actually laughing out loud. I stand and clap when the performance is over. At least we were already up. The contrast makes me appreciate the sounds last night even more.
“Why are we always late?” Sarah says as we watch Adela cycle off to the ferry at 6:50am. We are scrambling as usual, but we make it with some time to spare. It’s still relatively calm, and I’m excited for the two hour and thirty-minute ferry ride south across the Pamlico Sound to Cedar Island. We park our bikes next to Adela’s and head to the second-floor deck. Adela is deftly moving around the ferry, interviewing people for what we learn is a forthcoming art project.
About half way through the journey, we meet Doug, a ginger bearded ferry worker who saddles up next to us, eager to chat. “I’m a laid-back hippie, but without the drugs,” he says, adding that he loves three things: “caffeine, food, and women, but not necessarily in that order.” We like Doug, until he starts going on and on about how global warming is fake science. Isn’t this guy on the clock? Doug finally gains some self-awareness, or maybe has to get back to work, and says goodbye, telling us not to miss Trivia Night at the Bay Breeze Restaurant and Bar that evening. He lives just down the road, but he’s working for the next five days and sleeps on Ocracoke when on duty.
As we approach Cedar Island the wind starts to build to gale force. What was a hot, humid morning, turns cold, with a heavy pewter sky hanging over churning dark water. I walk to the open bow of the ferry, hold my arms out and lean into the wind, Titantic style. I think we made the right decision to get up early, not that we had any choice.
Covid Fest 2020
Cedar Island is really a peninsula, but it’s remote. Except for the Cedar Island Resort that Google maps lists just beyond the ferry gates, there really isn’t another place to stay until we hit Beaufort, 35 miles to the south. The big wind is blowing out of the south and is forecast to bring a lot of rain with it. “I sure hope this resort is ok,” I say to Sarah nervously as we get ready to ride off the ferry, “because dispersed camping does not sound like fun tonight.”
“Holy crap is that it?” Sarah says as we ride beyond the ferry entrance and a dilapidated motel comes into view. The motel is falling down. Many rooms don’t have doors. Adela can’t help but laugh out loud. The roof is caving in and torn off in several places. We peek in one open door and see a mattress covered in mold. Oh boy. Thankfully, as we ride a bit further, we notice that what appears to be a new motel has been built directly behind this monstrosity. There is no signage. Is that the resort? Sarah masks up, goes into the Bay Breeze Bar, and comes out with the answer. Yes, that’s the new motel that was built after Hurricane Dorian destroyed the old one. $78 for the night. “Sold!” I say.
Adela isn’t so sure. A shirtless guy on an old rusted mountain bike rolls up. He’s been living in the R.V. park across the road since he lost his job at Duke University earlier in the year and thinks he might have a sheltered spot down the wild beach—his meditation retreat—where Adela can camp. She leaves with him to check it out. Our parental instincts are starting to kick in with Adela, but we don’t follow them. The day before, Adela asked us if we thought she should be more worried about wild animals or humans when she camped by herself, recalling one night in the Virginia woods when she was forced to camp on private forest land and decided not to make a fire. “People!” Sarah and I both answered emphatically. Apparently, she didn’t believe us. Or she is confident in her ability to read people on first impression.
“Have you seen a man walking around with a black backpack?” the police officer asks.
Sarah and I checked into our room and are just returning from a long walk down the remote and wild beach next to the motel when a squad car rolls up next to us, looking for a man that’s been hassling people in the area. It’s so windy that we have to shield our eyes from blowing sand. “Do you think Adela’s o.k.?” I say to Sarah as the squad car drives away. But not to fear, we find Adela checking into a room just down from ours a few minutes later. The Duke guy was friendly, and not a police fugitive. She tried to set up her tent with his help, but it was blowing flat in the wind and she was worried it would be ripped to shreds. We are thankful she will be out of the storm tonight.
At the risk of incriminating ourselves, the three of us decide to head next door to see if it looks safe to have an early dinner at the Bay Breeze Bar and Restaurant. The place is empty, except for two guys at the end of the bar, so we sit down and order. It was a big mistake. The meal takes forever, a parade of people pack into the place—none of them wearing masks and several without shoes—and we get cajoled into participating in Doug’s Trivia Night, competing against Doug himself, who is unexpectedly home because the high winds shut down the ferry. Before we leave, a big group of people arrive dressed in elaborate costumes, including Adela’s friend from Duke, who is dressed flamboyantly as the superhero Robin. As we leave, a group outside the bar tries to get me to eat a dead fish in a bucket. It was an appropriate end to the evening.
“I’m so embarrassed,” Adela says as we leave, and I’m pretty sure she’s talking about our decision to eat inside with the crowd, and not the fact that Doug’s trivia team beat us by a wide margin. Sarah and I are disappointed in ourselves, too. Why didn’t we get up and leave? It’s surprising what we end up doing sometimes to avoid a slight social embarrassment. Never again, we all agree, and head to bed.
The next morning brings bright, cold sunshine. The strong wind is forecast to shift around to the Northwest by lunch, which should provide us with a glorious push. We delay our departure to let the wind shift, despite the fact that the motel is rough. To give you an idea, there is not one, but two, fly swatters in our room. How can something so new already feel so run down and janky? And why in the world haven’t they torn down the condemned hotel that is blocking their exposure to the main road? These are the questions we pondered as we swatted flies and watched the Duke guy and several of his artist friends pull items like bed sheets from the destroyed motel for a Burning Man inspired art installation they were making in the park across the street to celebrate Halloween the next day.
Our New Bike Tribe
Without discussion, Adela sets off with us on the ride south from Cedar Island, despite repeated attempts by the Duke guy and his friends to get her to stay in the twilight zone a few more days. We are happy she’s joining us. She is delightful—full of energy, passion and underdog causes. Although Sarah and I planned this as an empty nest adventure, Adela is already starting to feel like a daughter, and we are happy to share our adventure with her.
That evening found the three of us sitting around a fire at the Oyster Point campground, after a long day riding sketchy roads with sketchy characters, including one older guy in a corvette who might get the award for worst driver of the trip. We were on the most dangerous type of road—a fast two lane with just enough shoulder for us ride on. I was twenty yards or so behind Sarah and Adela, trying to create a safe gap for them in case a car wasn’t paying attention as it overtook us, when this jackwagon drove by. He moved over for me, as there were no other cars in view in either direction, but I must have pissed him off, because he then floored it and swerved within inches of Sarah and Adela, his exhaust pipe winding up like a chainsaw as he passed them. It shook up Sarah so much that she actually started crying. I made a mental image of the color of his car and hoped he would be stopping soon down the road. “Congratulations buddy, you made a woman on a bicycle cry. I hope you are proud of yourself,” is what I would have said before attacking him like a deranged spider monkey. It’s probably for the best that we didn’t see his car again, as I only weigh 145 pounds and really don’t want to know what a jail cell looks like in North Carolina. Or anywhere else, really.
But that evening, the corvette was forgotten, the moon was bright, and we were entranced as we listened to Adela’s story around a crackling campfire. It pays to have a short memory on a bicycle trip.
Originally from Czech Republic, Adela performed for years as a classically trained singer, and then ran a non-profit in her country before moving to Brooklyn several years ago on a Visa program for exceptional artists and performers. As she discussed her estrangement from her family, and the pressure to make ends meet as a Visa holder ineligible for any form of public assistance, including health care on the ACA or Covid stimulus payments, she got emotional. Her Visa was up for renewal soon, at which point she will be required to show “extraordinary achievement” in her field in order to remain in the country. It’s a high bar that the Trump administration has made even more difficult.
“This is now my home, where everyone close to me lives, where make my living. It is my life. I can’t imagine what I will do if they tell me I have to leave,” she says, and turns her face away from the firelight.
Like many, I rarely think about how lucky I am to be an American citizen. Birthrights are unearned and rarely appreciated. Yet here was a dynamic, talented person who was called to America because it’s the place where the best and brightest contribute at the highest level. And she may soon be told to leave.
As Sarah and I said goodnight that evening and headed to our tent, it struck me how quickly our friendship with Adela had formed. We had known her for less than 72 hours, yet there was already an uncommonly strong bond and trust between us. She felt like a familiar family friend that had our back, as we did hers. It made me think of one of my favorite books on human history, Sapiens. This is how we evolved—traveling in small groups together across the landscape. Sitting around fires listening to our shared stories. Forming bonds that ensured our safety and success. This is what we are supposed to do. And bike travel let us easily return to this satisfying shared history, forging a new friendship in the process. Just then, an owl called from a big tree close by, pulling me from my thoughts of nomadic history and the things that humans were made to do, and I drifted off to sleep.
Just Don’t Poop in There
“Happy Halloween!” the two kids at the campsite yell as they run by in the morning. Oh yes, I forgot it was Halloween. Our plan for the day is to make it to the Cabin Creek campground just south of Jacksonville, North Carolina. It’s the only campground listed on our Adventure Cycling maps that is within striking distance, around 60 miles away. Their website says they offer tent camping, so we should be all set.
The morning’s ride is on rural roads through small towns and pine plantations. We even find Sarah’s favorite roadside attraction, Donkeys. The miles tick off easily and we join the busy four lane Highway 24 along the coast, stopping for lunch at a roadside veggie and fruit stand. The two ladies behind the counter see our loaded bikes and listen to our story. One of the ladies leans over and loudly whispers, “just go rent a car, and don’t tell anyone you drove to Florida.” I like her. And apparently, she likes us too, because as we leave to eat lunch in the yard behind the stand, she tells us that we can use the porta-potty out back. “We usually don’t let customers use it, but you can. Just don’t poop in there!” she exclaims. “If you need to poop, go to the convenience store next door. It has good food. They have a grill.” This is not a conversation I’m used to having in Minneapolis.
As we get close to the campground, I start calling out our mileage over the traffic noise—it’s become a daily ritual. “Less than a marathon to go!” “Under 20 miles!” “Less than a 10k left!” We arrive late in the day at Cabin Creek campground. It’s right off of busy Highway 17 leaving Jacksonville. There are more big R.V.’s in view than there are trees. A sign greets us on the locked office door. “No Tent Camping Allowed if Office is Closed. Sorry for the Inconvenience.” WTF? I call the number listed on the website and get an answering machine. Sarah wants to leave, but the next campsite is at least 20 miles away. She is outvoted. “You’re such a rule follower,” I say. To help assuage Sarah’s stress, I call the campground number and leave a message telling them that I am happy to pay for our tent site if they call me back.
Our experience at Cabin Creek does not improve. As is typical, the place is packed, but we are the only people camping in tents. We find a dedicated tent camping area down in a valley away from the R.V. fields. It looks like it has recently been blasted open from what was once a pretty woods. It’s grim.
“Whatever happens, I like,” I say, as we set up next to one of the odd metal garages located randomly around the tent area. We are on high ground just above a swamp. This would be a good setting for a horror film.
We make the best of it. My Mom texts to remind me that it’s a full moon tonight, a special “Hunters Moon” and we walk out of the dark forest and up into an open field to watch it rise. I’ve never been in a spookier place for Halloween. Several groups of R.V. campers drive through the tent area in their golf carts—probably to take their kids through the scary woods on Halloween. Or maybe to get a closer look at the idiots sleeping in tents and riding bicycles. None of them say hello.
“This place just keeps getting stranger,” I say as I return to the campfire later that night after a trip to the porta-potty. It has a porcelain toilet. We are in North Carolina, and this time of year can bring freezing temperatures. If the water in that toilet freezes, it will expand and crack open. It feels very appropriate at Cabin Creek.
We are up at dawn. Sarah didn’t sleep well. In addition to the machine guns we heard throughout the night—likely from the Marine’s Camp Lejeune—she’s worried that the camp owners are going to return any moment to yell at us. Or maybe worse! Her fears are misplaced, as we pedal away an hour later with the closed sign still hanging on the office door. And despite my message, the campground never calls to collect our camping fee. This also feels appropriate for Cabin Creek. I update our travel spreadsheet on my phone. 62 in the mileage column A and $0 in column B for lodging. Cabin Creek is going to help our nightly lodging average.
The Hippie Biker Show
Our goal for the day is the Surf City Family Campground, located on Topsail Island. It’s an easy day, around 22 miles, but it’s the only camping option before we hit the city of Wilmington, North Carolina. The short day is a nice break. We stop at a shopping center for a big breakfast and watch one guy after another go into the barber shop next door and emerge with the identical “high and tight” head haircut. Marines.
Just before hitting the coast, we turn off of a busy Highway and onto quiet Highway 210, which leads us over the Intracoastal Waterway on a huge bridge to Topsail Island. The view atop the bridge is spectacular—the only hills on this entire trip are the bridges—and I stop for a second to take in the expansive ocean view. The coastline stretches as far as I can see in either direction, and the narrow spit of land we are about to ride is visible to the south, condo’s sprouting up like lego blocks along the roadway. “Sweet!” I yell, but Adela and Sarah are already over the bridge.
Surf City Family Campground turns out to be the polar opposite of Cabin Creek. Friendly people, a generous camp host, and a beautiful place for us to pitch our tents, just over the dunes from the Ocean. Wendell Smith, the proprietor, charges us $35 to camp, $10 less than the posted rate of $45. “Bicycle discount,” he says to me with a wink. “My Mom started that years ago, and I’ve kept the tradition.” Wendell has silver hair, feathered back Kenny Rogers style, and a southern accent to match it. He looks to be around 70 years old, and mentions that his Mom is in the back office, going strong. “We’ve been here since the 60’s,” he says softly.
The campground is sprawled out on both sides of the road, but the tent sites are right next to the beach. As usual, we are the only tent campers, and it’s clear that most of the R.V. campers are long term residents that stay for the season. I don’t blame them—it’s a gorgeous spot on this beautiful beachfront. I envision Surf City back in the 1960’s, before any of the fancy condos that surround it were here. It reminds me of the movie “UP,” where old Mr. Fredrickson refuses to sell his tiny home that sits defiantly between newly built skyscrapers. I hope you hold out forever Wendell. You shouldn’t have to be a multi-millionaire to stay on this beach.
As we set up our tents, I notice that we are being watched. It’s covert at first; someone is peering out of a Motorhome window, another walks a dog slowly by, staring. But then a crowd gathers on the “front porch” framing Wendell’s office. There are benches and rocking chairs on the porch, and three older gentlemen saunter over and take their seats to enjoy the hippie biker show. It’s clear they are curious as to what would possess someone to ride a bicycle and sleep on the ground. A short time later, a woman and her little dog joins them.
After the tent is up, I head to the porch, settling into a rocking chair with dirty cushions. The location allows me to grab Wendell’s wifi so I can search for a place for Sarah and I to stay in Wilmington the following night, my birthday. But I mostly want to shoot the breeze with this group. One of the gentlemen, a retired plumber, has on denim overhauls. Another a cowboy hat. I feel like I’m in an episode of the Andy Griffith Show.
I’m immediately peppered with questions. Most of them are the common, how far are you going, variety. But then, from a retired shipbuilder, I get, “There are a lot of nuts out there these days, do you have a gun?” This question elicits nods, from the group. I think they are all packing heat. I tell them we are weapon free, except for these guns, as I point to my skinny arms. They don’t laugh. I suddenly notice Trump flags flying at several campsites. And the cold breeze.
Thankfully Sarah and Adela join the porch party after their hot showers, and the mood lightens considerably. My wife’s warm smile can melt even the crustiest retiree, regardless of political affiliation. As we leave for our campsite, one guy is heading with his family to fish on the beach and invites us for a lesson. Another gentleman offers us a propane heater to use overnight, warning us that it’s going to turn cold and very windy.
It does get cold and windy. So windy that we accept Wendell’s offer to let us use the storage room next to his office. It’s full of empty pesticide containers, rusted bikes, faded signs, a few shattered pinball machines, and other detritus you’d expect from sixty years of campground operations. There is also a sign on the door that says they hold church services here on Sundays at 9:30am.
We cook dinner on overturned plastic buckets and eat on folding chairs, the wind making it impossible to cook outside. Tonight’s dinner discussion is centered on Adela’s plans. This bike trip is part of her project to explore America’s people and viewpoints beyond the major coastal cities leading up to the Presidential Election. She’s been photographing and interviewing people daily, a practice that’s been illuminating. For example, I listened to the guy who offered us the propane heater tell Adela that Donald Trump’s leadership on the coronavirus had no impact on his support for the President. “The virus is in the Lord’s hands, Trump’s got nothing to do with it.” I don’t agree, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be civil to each other and attempt to understand each other’s views. That’s how beliefs evolve and lasting progress is made in a democracy. I’m thankful for this trip and Adela’s work that helped reaffirm this fact for me. I wish all of us had more opportunities to engage with people with whom we disagree. Outside of our self-constructed bubbles.
Adela work is impressive. Her planning is not. Her budget for this trip has run out, and she needs to get back to Brooklyn, or at least somewhere exciting for the Presidential Election in two days. She assumed she could take a train home. This being the U.S. rather than Europe, there are no trains available. Flights and buses are cost prohibitive because they charge big fees for her bicycle to travel with her.
I’m afraid we’ve led Adela down a dead end.
The next morning is still cold and windy, so we meet in Wendell’s storage room for breakfast. Adela makes me a birthday quesadilla and tells us her plan—she is going to hitchhike with her bicycle to Raleigh, North Carolina, where she can stay at a friend’s house for the election. Raleigh is 130 miles away. “I’m pretty sure no one hitchhikes in the U.S. anymore Adela,” we say, trying not to sound like parents. Despite our best efforts over the next hour, neither Sarah nor I can talk her out of her dubious travel plan. “I’m very good at judging people and risk,” she replies.
Sarah and I pack up and say our goodbyes to Wendell and several members of the porch gang. It’s very hard to leave Adela. We hug and linger for several extra minutes with her. As we bike away, I can’t help but look back a few extra times. Adela is standing with her gear by the side of the road. Her figure gets smaller each time I glance back until she disappears from view. I feel stupid for not offering to pay for a bus or plane ride for her.
“If anyone can find a ride to Raleigh, it’s Adela,” Sarah says, but we are both worried. “I hope we didn’t fail her,” I say, and we fall quiet for several miles. To lighten the mood, and to get images of deranged men in pick-up trucks asking Adela where she’s headed, I replay the scene from the movie “The Jerk,” where a young Steve Martin sets off hitchhiking from his parents’ country home, and only makes it a few hundred yards. “How far you headed? To the end of this fence,” I say, and Sarah can’t help but laugh.
Unfortunately, my birthday ride is terrible; one of the worst rides of the trip. In addition to worrying about Adela, we are routed by Adventure Cycling onto a very busy four lane road leading into Wilmington. The traffic is flying by at Interstate highway speeds, and we happily cling to a decent shoulder. And then, inexplicably and without warning, the shoulder simply disappears and we are pushed into the right lane, forced to play bicycle chicken again. Ironically, a road sign emerges with a bicycle symbol and a “Share the Road” message just after the shoulder disappears. Apparently, this is a bike friendly route in North Carolina. Without any alternative, we soldier on for several uncomfortable miles. And to add insult to injury—or in this case injury to insult—I crash my bike when we duck off the road for a moment at an intersection and my shoe clip jams in the pedal.
As my family knows well, I don’t like to swear. But as we finally turned off of that miserable road into a PNC Bank branch parking lot, I will admit to letting out a long, creative stream of obscenities. Sarah’s response was perfect. She simply smiled and handed me a granola bar.
Wilmington, thankfully, turned out to be a beautiful town and my My Dad, a.k.a., “T’s Travels Service,” helped us to find a perfect Airbnb apartment on the historic downtown riverfront for the night. That evening, while enjoying a wonderful birthday dinner, our team meeting turns serious. “Once we pedal out of Wilmington,” I say, “we are committed to biking all of South Carolina.” The little research we did on this ride hinted that South Carolina might include the most dangerous roads of the trip. One bicycle blogger who did this ride complained mightily about the dangerous South Carolina roads, but didn’t even mention North Carolina. “How could South Carolina be worse than what we did today?” Sarah asks. Neither of us is excited to find out.
“This is a vacation, you know,” I say, mostly to remind myself of this fact. “Maybe we should rent a minivan at the airport here and skip South Carolina. It would actually give us the chance to make it all the way to Key West before Thanksgiving.” I felt like a failure for suggesting it, so I add, “I’m just throwing out ideas.” But it was going to take us at least five or six days to get through South Carolina. Did I really want to sign up for six more days like today just so I could say I never got off my bike on this trip?
“Let’s sleep on it,” Sarah concludes, and the conversation turns to our other pressing concern.
“Where the hell is Adela? Have you heard from her yet?”
[Part Four – The End is Here]