A one-day love affair with a red Camaro

CHARLOTTE, N.C.
The rented 2017 red convertible Camaro had 400 miles on it. I’d add another couple hundred over the next eight hours or so, up in the hills of North Carolina.

From behind the wheel the hood had a sexy hip-like curve, and the barest suggestion of speed was met with a throaty growl of impatience. Let’s go, let’s go.

We flew east into the hills, toward Township 9, and had one perfect moment on a wide boulevard when a classic Chevy came up beside us and we were beautiful there together, and smiled and gave each other the thumbs up before separating.

The roads narrowed and the traffic fell away till it was just us hugging curves and holding our breath as we crested hills. “There’s a ghost town near here,” Melani said, setting the map on her cellphone without having to ask whether it was a good idea.

The signal was sketchy in the hills, but we followed as best we could and were ready to turn right onto a narrow ribbon road, but for the bright orange sign: Road closed.

There were some cars down there, locals, we assumed, yet we followed the detour and let the mapping system catch up and reroute. We were as high up as we were going to get, roughly following Little Meadow Creek past the gold mine, then up toward Ophir and Troy in the Uwharrie National Forest. Jilly was asleep in the back and we hadn’t yet realized she was burning slightly in the sun, in stripes because her hair had blown over her face.

We were lost but had hours yet.

The Camaro’s belly was low to the ground but didn’t feel it. She wasn’t bothered by pockmarked roads or dimpled grass, sliding onto them and creeping over with equal ease.

We had circled far around this alleged ghost town and had stopped twice to explore abandoned buildings. Then the asphalt fell away and we were faced with a slim dirt and gravel road. We looked at each other with lumps in our throats. This would be a breeze for old Jo the Truck. But this beautiful monster with her smooth cherry shell and slinking form … yet we’d come too far.

Detour 4 miles.

There is no turning back. And so we turned in. It was only four miles, after all.

The Camaro fought me, pushing to go faster, steady with those low wide tires that could handle this. Let’s go. Let’s go.

There were folks fishing at the edge of the one-lane bridge. The land opened up enough that we’d have plenty of space to turn around — we were only one mile in. Their heads turned, shaking slowly because the Camaro was so beautiful but so very very out of place. We eased onto the narrow bridge with its low barriers.

We met jeeps and trucks on the other side, as we crunched along the narrow road, cringing each time a rock slapped against metal. They pulled into the woods to let us pass, bemused looks on their drivers’ faces.

The Camaro and I had found our rhythm but I was still watching the odometer as the cellular signal wavered.

Two miles to go. One mile to go.

“Almost there,” Melani promised. “You’ll be turning right up there.”

And sure enough, there was the road — we’d done a giant looping detour to arrive here, at the mouth of our destination. And there was the sign, the twin of the one we’d come all this way to avoid: Road closed.

The Camaro was rumbling behind my thighs. Melani and I shared another look. There’s no turning back.

We snuck around the detour and onto the forbidden road. Bits of debris suggested parts of the road had been washed out, but it was otherwise passable. And quiet. Not ghostly quiet — just country-road quiet.

The Camaro was pulling now, desperate to get back up to speed. I let her take the lead. There was no ghost town here, and we had a plane to catch.

 

The freedmen of Roanoke Island

Capture of Roanoke Island, Feby. 8th 1862: By the federal forces, under Command of Genl. Ambrose E. Burnside, and gunboats under Commodore L.M. Goldsborough. Image via Library of Congress
Capture of Roanoke Island under Ambrose E. Burnside. Image via Library of Congress

ROANOKE ISLAND, N.C. — Roanoke Island seduces travellers with promises of grand mystery and road signs that proudly declare the birthplace of the first English—read “white”—child in America.

The story of the Croatoans is sexy, indeed. Author Harlan Ellison and the TV show Supernatural have referenced the Lost Colony—when more than a hundred people vanished during the six years in the 1500s that John White was back in England begging for supplies.

Unless visitors pause at the monument near the interpretation centre in the Lost Colony national park, they are missing a grander story that took place 300 years later and had a much greater impact on the nation.

* * * 

The inscription on this monument on Roanoke Island reads: First Light in Freedom: Former slaves give thanks by the creek's edge at the site of the island. "If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find 'safe haven'."
The inscription on this monument on Roanoke Island reads: First Light in Freedom: Former slaves give thanks by the creek’s edge at the site of the island.

The Civil War battle for Roanoke Island was spectacular. Sixty ships, 20,000 sailors, one victor: the Union Army under Brig-Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

Then 300 victors more, when the Union forces realized they had to do something with the resident Confederate slaves—some of them escapees Burnside had used as spies or pumped for information to give him a wartime advantage. Those slaves were immediately emancipated, thus creating the first freedman’s colony in America.

It was February 1863 and Roanoke didn’t have much to recommend it. There were barracks, but otherwise the newly freed people were on their own under the stewardship of Horace James, superintendent of blacks for the Department of North Carolina. Inhospitable as the heavily forested land might have seemed, word spread: “If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find safe haven.”

“It is an island 10 or 12 miles long, but four or five in breadth,” James wrote, “well wooded, having an abundance of good water, a tolerably productive soil, a sufficient amount of cleared land for the commencement of operations, and surrounded by waters abounding in delicious fish.”

By June, communities had been set up, the land divided in a grid fashion with about an acre given to each family. By September, James said the colony was “fairly on its feet.”

He went on: “I am surprised to find it so healthy here. Of the troops garrisoning the three forts only 16 are ill enough to be off duty, and only one is dangerously sick. The breezes are strong and pure from the sea, and our teachers can begin here as soon as they can get transportation hither. On the whole the island smiles, the prospects are bright, the work advances.”

An 1863 image in Harper's Weekly shows freedmen in North Carolina. Image via the Library of Congress
An 1863 image in Harper’s Weekly shows freedmen in North Carolina. Image via the Library of Congress

When the teachers arrived, they would tell another story, one of rations lost at sea, of smallpox and overcrowding.

Just before their first Christmas at Roanoke, Elizabeth James wrote, “One day I found, living in one room, ‘Jim’ Whitby and daughter, a girl of 14; Clarissa Whitby and two daughters, one of whom had two children, the other five; Lavinia Whitby with five children; Charlotte Cressy and three children; Moses Midget, his wife and mother; and Priscilla, a sick, crazy girl of 20; and her mother. … Should not the government provide at least a temporary shelter for the crowds which come? … Scenes of suffering are witnessed there which baffle description.”

But despite the poverty and hunger, the women who ran the schools for a population that would, at its height, swell to 4,000 souls, found beauty in the freedmen’s voices lifted in song and hope at their charges’ eagerness to learn.

“The suffering of the people is much lessened of course, by our genial April sun,” Ella Roper wrote in 1865. “Of destitution, there is still enough to make our hearts sad—is, and always will be—for have we not the poor ever with us?”

The Civil War ended in 1865. There had never been enough jobs on Roanoke Island for such a population, and with wartime rations drying up, things would only get worse. The land that had been given to the freedmen was suddenly returned to the prewar owners. People started to leave. The colony was drying up. They had lost their home, but they had gained their freedom, or, at least, they had gained a foothold toward their freedom.

The last word goes to missionary teacher Esther A. Williams, who wrote of a 102-year-old auntie: “She remembers distinctly the War of the Revolution, and that of 1812 also. She said, when asked, if she expected to live to see her race free: ‘Why laws honey, ‘deed I did’nt. It’s what my mammy afore me prayed for, and what ise prayed for all my life; but she did’nt ‘spect to see it in her day, or I in mine; but, honey, bress de Lord, he’s bringin’ it all out right, that he is’.”

 

The Roanoke Freedmen’s Colony website is an invaluable resource for learning more about this time and these people. It is packed with history, documents and maps. Descendants of the original freedmen are encouraged to contact the webmasters.

Harriet Quimby and the theatrics of flight

The Wright Brothers didn't teach women, and so Harriet Quimby went to the Moisant School of Aviation.
The Wright Brothers didn’t teach women, and so Harriet Quimby went to the Moisant School of Aviation.

KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — Way back in 1903, just a short walk from here, Orville Wright made history when he flew the remarkable little plane he and brother Wilbur had designed in Ohio. The flight lasted 12 seconds. Sixty-six years later, man would land on the moon.

Everyone knows the Wright brothers’ names. Finding stories about them isn’t difficult, and I encourage you to do that if you’re very interested in the early history of flying.

But I’m going to tell you a different little story, that of a Michigan farm girl turned New York journalist, Harriet Quimby.

Harriet Quimby was a daredevil who raced cars as well as flying planes.
Harriet Quimby was a daredevil who raced cars as well as flying planes.

Quimby left her family’s failing farm first for San Francisco, then New York, and while she harboured a great love for the stage, it was words she fell into, becoming one of the world’s first female scriptwriters, but also writing, editing and taking award-winning photos for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.

According to the museum at the Wright Brothers’ memorial, she acquired her pilot’s licence in secret. But your average journalist is not going to keep quiet about such a thing, and Quimby was so much more than your average journalist.

In an article headlined How I Won My Aviator’s Licence, she wrote in 1911: “The thrill of pleasure with which the eager and anxious university student after years of patient endeavour secures his diploma has been mine. It takes four years of study to win a college diploma. It takes a much shorter time, if you have a competent instructor and if fate deals kindly with you, to secure your license to pilot an aeroplane.”

Harriet Quimbly climbs into her Moisant monoplane, wearing her trademark satin flying suit.
Harriet Quimbly climbs into her Moisant monoplane, wearing her trademark satin flying suit.

She was finally able to live in the world of theatre, where the sky was her stage. She designed for herself a unique purple satin flight suit and set off to conquer the hearts of the people with exhibition flights in Mexico and elsewhere. The English Channel was her next conquest. She turned down a friend’s offer to secretly pilot for her (because, really, could a woman accomplish such a thing?), making the flight in a borrowed plane with an unfamiliar compass. She wrote: “I only had to rise in my machine, fix my eyes upon the castle, fly over it and speed directly across to the French coast. It seemed so easy that it looked like a cross-country flight. I am glad I thought so and felt so, otherwise I might have had more hesitation about flying in the fog with an untried compass, in a new and untried machine, knowing that the treacherous North Sea stood ready to receive me if I drifted only five miles too far out of my course.”

She landed after an hour on a beach full of fishermen who, she said, cheered and congratulated themselves that the first woman to cross the Channel had landed in their back yard. It would have made a great story but for the timing—all journalistic resources were busy with the sinking a day earlier of the Titanic.

“It is easier than walking, driving or automobiling; easier than golf or tennis,” she wrote in Good Housekeeping in 1912. “Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women … and there is no reason to be afraid so long as one is careful.”

Careful she was. She advocated for safety and for the wearing of seat belts in aircraft. However, 11 months into her aviation career, during an exhibition flight, her plane jerked and she was thrown from it, falling to her death in front of hundreds of spectators. It was, perhaps, the theatrical death she might have wished for.

Rising with the sun in the Outer Banks

atlantic ocean outer banks north carolinaKILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — I write this—longhand, as always—with frozen fingers. I have been chasing the sun for nearly two hours.

We told the baby we were going to see the Big Water, but when we finally arrived in the Outer Banks it was already dark. It’s a very dark dark here, and though we stood on the beach we could make out just the barest shape of waves reflecting the moon. The sound was incredible, angry, reverberating in our chests. That familiar salt-fish-sand smell blew past and through us.

We were back at the seashore before 6 a.m. We had a blanket under us and two around us, over our winter coats, with just our hands peeking out to hold coffee and tea. It was 6C, but frigid with the ocean wind on our cheeks.

“Oh. It’s a big water,” Jilly breathed into the salt air. “Where’s the sun?”

“The sun is still sleeping. We have to wait for him to wake up.”

“Wake up, sun! Wake up!”

Cloud cover and fog meant the sunrise wasn’t as spectacular as it might have been. Except that we were bundled up in the sea air and we were talking to the sun and staring at Venus and we were together. And that, my friends, is rather spectacular.

Ducks, trucks and muck in the Outer Banks

ORCACOKE, N.C. – Orcacoke, like most tourist towns, isn’t overly friendly, and the carpet – red or otherwise – is rolled up promptly at 6 p.m. Getting there is a blast, though.

A two-lane highway cuts through the dunes of the narrow Outer Banks and high tide covers parts of the road, making driving wet and wild and crazy-laugh-inducing.

There’s so much to do here, it easily merits its own week-long vacation. The Outer Banks are home to one of our favourite Monster Jam trucks, Gravedigger, making for some kind-of-awesome photo ops. We played at Flippers for nearly an hour on $10 worth of tokens, flipping a few of the 51 pinball machines and trying to remember how to win at Ms. Pacman. Trev played Tron and Space Invaders and a couple of games designed in this decade.

We took two ferry rides – 45 minutes for the first crossing and nearly three hours for the second. That nearly three hours is exactly what I need at this point in the trip: Quiet, with nothing to do, not behind the wheel, not worrying about anything beyond catching up on a couple of blog posts and looking through our pictures. There are only two other cars on the boat. The moon is nowhere to be seen, but every star created is there for us and the Milky Way meets the wake of the boat at the ocean’s horizon. There is no way to blog how beautiful that is, no way to Tweet or Instagram the quiet.

I need the break after nearly wetting myself giggling so many times today, like when we saw the sign for the chain restaurant: “I got my crabs from Dirty Dicks,” or when Trev and I had this conversation after leaving the beach:

“I’d better put a shirt on.”

“What? You’re a Sherpa?”

“Yes, Mom. I’m a Sherpa. I’m going to go live on Everest. Goodbye, world.”

“Well, it’s cold there. You’d better put a shirt on.”

I don’t want to call today perfect, because as I write this the day still has a little more than hour on this ferry, then two hours of driving to the hotel.

But we played pinball and watched a truck being built. We walked across dunes and were smacked by Atlantic waves. We met baby ducks and watched a Medevac helicopter take off. We did it all under cloudy skies, so we aren’t sunburned, and we boarded the ferry at sunset.

The cold follows us

I had feared that Myrtle Beach would be another Niagara Falls or, worse, Wisconsin Dells. It’s actually more like Banff – touristy as all get out but enough natural beauty that one feels one’s soul is moderately safe.

Melani and I have already started to drawl in the Southern fashion, which makes us laugh at each other and hope the locals don’t think we’re making fun of them.

The drive here was eight kinds of hell. It started to snow about an hour south of New York. It was blizzardy at the best of times. Only the truck drivers and I had any idea how to drive in those conditions. I will think twice before criticizing our salting trucks from now on: In Virginia, they pile a dump truck full of salt pellets the size of a thumbnail and shoot them onto the highway at automatic-rifle speed. I had the misfortune to find myself between two of these monstrosities with a truck behind me – if my car isn’t scratched to hell, it’s certainly rusting as I sit here.

Virginia, 2009
We’re guesstimating about a foot of snow fell in Virginia and North Carolina. A snow emergency was declared, school was cancelled, people were advised not to leave their homes to go to work or anywhere. The salting continued long after the roads were dry, like they wanted to show the citizens their tax dollars are hard at work.

It was two degrees this afternoon, though it was nice and sunny. Naturally I had to haul Trevor out of the ocean, moments before he fell right in. It’s amazing the child hasn’t succumbed to hypothermia.

I just went down to the front desk to ask a question, but the clerk was a little busy, what with the police and everything. I waited in the lobby while she made a phone call: “This is Sandra, from the Quality Inn in Myrtle Beach? Yes, I just called for a taxi for a man who came in here? Yes, well, two police officers have just picked him up, so I think you don’t need to …”