Sunday, April 29, 2018

Now you know who to call...

We had turned out all the lights. The nearly-full moon shone through the windows along the back wall, and once our eyes adjusted, we could make out each other’s silhouettes against the silver shimmer. We had tried, unsuccessfully, to get the child spirits to play with us. The hosts had said that the little girl might climb into your lap or pull the ball (conspicuously placed on the couch) out of your hand. Someone was taking flash photos outside, creating an eerie lightning effect. We hunkered into our jackets, the cold of the basement sinking deeper in our bones with each minute. This was where all the activity was to be. The basement was the hot-ticket item of this location.

Todd, our experienced hunter and the one with all the equipment, giggled. Melissa called out to the spirits to go toward the light on her EMF. Todd giggled again.

“Last time I spent this much time in the dark with this many women, there was a spinning bottle involved…”

I laughed from deep in my belly, the tension broken…

This was it. My first ghost hunt. Never again would I have a first ghost hunt. I had connected with the Association of Paranormal Study back in September, walking into an education tent on a lark at an outdoor festival. I was immediately impressed by their leader, Alex Matsuo, who personifies my favorite blend of true open-mindedness with a healthy dose of skepticism. She professes her mission to be to debunk the shysters but also find solid proof of paranormal experiences. She put me in the mind of Houdini in the day, and she earned my respect.

So here I stood, in the driveway of a gorgeous, stately building outside of Statesville NC, with some of my besties, Alison and Helen. Alison is a medium, so I knew I could never ghost hunt without her. Alex and the home’s owner, Tim, provided a brief introduction, while Alex’s medium toured the structure alone. This is said to be home to 70 ghosts and considered the most “active” site in North Carolina. The property had been a hospital, a supper club (read, Speakeasy), a detox facility, and a nursing home in its relatively short lifetime.

From the parking area, a walkway led roughly downhill, through a heavily landscaped entry area, and into a shady and welcoming garden near the building itself. The minute I’d stepped out of the car, I’d felt a presence down by the house and snapped an iPhone pic of the garden. My inner debate started immediately -- was it a presence, or just my anticipation? The feeling left me quickly enough, and I wandered a bit. You will not be the least bit surprised to hear I found the colony of feral cats taking residence in the greenhouse and snapped some pix.

Alison approached me and leaned in to whisper -- “There’s something here.” She gestured with her chin to the field behind the greenhouse. “It’s curious but guarded. It’s hanging back.”

Some people attend ghost hunts to gather evidence of the paranormal, and they come with cameras and recorders and all sorts of electrical detection devices in hopes of getting sounds, voices, and images documented. Alison, Helen, and I agreed on the way to the location that we were really only interested in our personal experiences. We were not trying to gather evidence or electronically document our experience.  

Several of our group -- we were 17, including Alex -- were unloading equipment and making plans to set up. We created three teams and set location plans -- my team upstairs, a team in the basement, and one outside. We would later switch so everyone got to experience all three locations. In a couple weeks, we will gather to review the electronic records and consider the evidence.

During the tour of the house, Doug, one of the owners, told us that the house appears to attract ghosts, since some of the spirits who linger have no history with the house itself. He cited a car accident a few miles away and said the driver now haunts this these grounds. Alex’s medium caught up with the group and said she got the impression of a child in the upper front room, noting that the wardrobe there had particular energy. Doug confirmed -- Emily was a child who came with the wardrobe that was given to them by a friend. She was known to hide in it and open the door when she wanted to play.

During the tour I became aware of someone watching us from the end of the hallway. I realized, as I tuned in, that the presence felt like it was outside, or at least in the window itself. The sense I got was curiosity, but mild. Like, “oh let’s see what the people are doing now.” When I moved closer to the window, it dissipated. I looked hard out into the evening light, hoping to catch a movement, a shadow, some visual confirmation. But nada.

I moved close to Alison. “Your friend from outside is watching us,” I said. “And you’re right -- guarded. Moved off as soon as I got close.” In that moment, I got goosebumps all over and felt a shiver down my core. “Oooh,” I laughed to Alison. “I’m getting tingly all over!” I made jazz hands to demonstrate as I moved back to the larger group, now heading to the basement.

The basement is set up for a party, with several tables in a row, chairs all around. Doug made reference to Halloween and Christmas events, with meals served during ghost stories. He pointed to the marks on the floors where walls had been and described the earlier lay-out of the home.

Then it was time to get settled in our assigned spots, and my group headed upstairs. Melissa, one of the APS Meet-Up members and assigned to our group, set up recording equipment in the center hallway. Todd had already set his equipment in the basement, hoping to record activity in the most promising area. I checked each upstairs room briefly, spotted the wardrobe, door closed, that had been the focus of discussion earlier. I avoided the room where Doug said the mental patient had been locked in, and chose instead the room of the married couple. It was not known to have a lot of activity, but I was ok with that. I am actually not very sensitive to these things and not likely to draw their energies toward me. I assumed Alison would feel whoever was up here.
But Alison couldn’t settle. I heard her pacing the rooms, stepping as quietly as possible on the old wooden floors. “It’s playing with me,” she said. “It calls me into a room, but as soon as I go there, it leaves, and pulls me into another.”

I joined her in the hallway. In my eagerness to hear something in the married couple’s room, I heard every slight sound, felt movement where there was none, looked hard for shadows that weren’t there. Knowing I was tainting my own experience, I decided to join Alison instead. She was nonplussed, speaking matter-of-factly about this energy she felt moving around these upstairs rooms. I leaned into the wardrobe/Emily room.

I leaned back out. “Did you open the wardrobe, Al?” I tried to ask it casually but I felt the blood drain from my face as I said it. I felt Melissa tense as she listened for Alison’s answer.


Alison had not opened the wardrobe. And it was definitely closed when she had checked earlier. I searched my memory. I had seen it closed when we came upstairs.

And now it was definitely open.

Alison went straight to it. She closed the wardrobe and then walked around, bounced in front of it, shifted her weight from foot to foot. Was there anything in our movements that could have led to the door opening? It didn’t even tremble. Later I would go to open that same wardrobe, and no. It nestled tight in the wooden frame and I actually had to work to get it open. Truly it could not have swung open on its own.

Later when Alex joined us, we would tell her of the wardrobe. She suggested, among other things, that we sing “Ring Around the Rosie” to try and coax Emily out to play with us.

Believe me when I tell you that the sound of “Ring Around the Rosie” floating through a haunted house in the pitch black dark is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard, even as I was one of the people singing.

We had a freaky moment when we heard distinct footsteps after singing a verse. The sound of someone walking right in front of us was almost undeniable, even though it made no sense. I watched the faces around me as we all struggled to understand what we were hearing. The same thing happened several times, with us singing, stopping, and then hearing footsteps. The rational brain sought an explanation. The excited 12-year-old inside me screamed, “Footsteps!!  Footsteps!!”

Ultimately, a buzzing bug popped out of the chandelier and made the footsteps sound against the wall as it tried to find its exit. The rational brain recognized the misplaced sound immediately. The 12-year-old inside me was disappointed. Debunked!

The larger group took a quick break in the kitchen before going to our second locations. We were advised not to discuss what we’d seen or felt so as not to taint the experience of others. Indeed, when I publish this blog, I will caution my fellow hunters to not read it until they’ve had a chance to review their recordings.

For logistical reasons not worth describing, Alison preceded our little posse into the basement. She had a chance to get a feel for it alone before we traipsed down. Once there, we agreed to turn off all the lights and sat in pitch blackness, the moonlight from the back windows enough to make out the basics. Some of the equipment let off light, and Todd placed a flashlight against a riser to minimize the light but provide some visual context in the space.

Alison called me to the back of the basement, near where the moonlight came in. An exterior door between the windows led to the back yard. “Do you feel anything?” she asked. I am very prepared to tell Alison that I am not feeling anything. She is a skilled medium, and I am not. We have spent plenty of time together when she feels the presence of beings, and I do not. I am not shy about this. At all.

So, when she asked, as I made my way to the back of the room, whether I felt anything, I said “No.” She was about two steps ahead of me, and I had about four more steps to go before reaching the back section of the room, behind the stairs.

As I came closer to Alison, arriving at the corner where she was standing, just moments before stepping fully into the space between the back door and what would be the door of a closet set under the stairs… in the split second it took me to answer in the negative, and then take about a step or two more… I was overcome. My throat felt tight, I felt a horrific pressure on my chest. I felt as though I was struggling to breathe, but I really wasn’t. Instinctively I reached both hands to me throat, my fingers splayed across my collar bones. I inhaled deeply. My throat felt completely closed. My chest felt like I had been pressed between something so my lungs couldn’t fill with air. My whole body tingled like it had upstairs, but it was awful. This went on for at least three breaths.

“Alison!  What is that???” I was horrified. I had not felt anything like it. My hands tore at my throat. “What’s causing that???”

“It’s coming from the closet,” was her only answer.

The horrific sensation started to fade, leaving me with a general sense of malaise. Alison and I stared at the closet door, debating what to do. Alison knew we needed to open it, but both of us were horrified by what might be back there. What the fuck? The feeling of dread and anxiety I felt bubbling up was all me. I did NOT want to feel that choking feeling again.

Alison and I were fairly frozen in our fear and ambivalence when Melissa walked up. I don’t think she was aware of our inner struggles, as she slid aside the closet lock and opened the door, shining her flashlight in abruptly.


A saw, some kerosene, a few buckets of desiccant.

I could sort the current feeling of being creeped out as completely natural. I felt no source for the anxiety except my own fear of opening the creepiest closet ever. Alison shone her flashlight around, and we noticed wiring overhead. It was ancient wiring, hanging precariously down from the ceiling in long loops. In several places, the wires were cut and exposed, dangling over head in knotted bunches of copper wire.

Alison suggested the sensation could be coming from raw electricity in the air. I doubted those ancient exposed wires were live. But we couldn’t actually know.

As we settled back in the main part of the room and tried to engage the spirits we were told were there, Alison told me she had been drawn back to the closet, but then couldn’t communicate with what was there or reconcile the negative feelings. She agreed it was intense and negative.

We wandered back there again. This time, prepared, the sensation wasn’t nearly as bad. We stood in it a few minutes, trying to understand it. We didn’t open the closet, but discussed it openly. It felt stagnant. I decided, rather quickly, honestly, that it was residual energy. Something awful had happened here. Was someone hanged? Crushed? Whatever it was, it had no movement, no life now.

Alison said later she had considered sitting with the energy, trying to reconcile it in some way. But she realized she would not be able to. There would be no good to come of it. She realized, as I had, that the energy was stagnant. No efforts would resolve it, and it had no current life.

This was markedly different from what we both felt upstairs and outside, with that energy having an emotional component and movement.

We stayed in the basement quite a bit longer. We tried singing “Row row row your boat” to entice the child spirits there to play. Todd and Melissa played with the ball as well.

I sat quietly on the couch hoping to get the child to crawl into my lap. I longed for a truly physical sensation -- someone pulling at my clothes or touching my hair. But I never got it.

On the couch, and later as I was describing to Todd about the hand photographed on the banister, I felt the same tingling sensation and core shiver I’d felt earlier. Perhaps something was down here with us after all.

During all this, Todd joked about spin the bottle, and we all laughed about how the creepy closet would make the WORST game of “Seven minutes in Heaven” EVER.

It felt good to laugh. I was worried we were disturbing the other hunters but I couldn’t help it. The intensity of it all was too much. I needed the levity.

This was not even the end of our adventure. The large group took a longer break and we shared cupcakes in celebration of a hunter’s birthday. We sang happy birthday which made me realize that at three separate songs in one evening, I had sung more that night than ever in my life.

Our group was then “stationed” outside, and we wandered the generous property by moonlight.

Absolutely STUNNING, the ancient trees and gorgeous landscape were lit beautifully by the ghostly, pale moonlight. Only a few constellations were visible against the dazzling moonlight, but I spent quite a bit of this last part of the night looking up.

I lost track of Alison, who was wandering the fields, following the call of a spirit. I felt a strong tug to my right but frankly, didn’t have the energy to traipse through the grass alone. I walked the little driveway and happened into Alison, who, it turned out, was following the same sensation, but from the other angle. “It’s gone now,” she said, and described again how it would call her and then disappear. We walked together down toward where I’d been pulled a few moments before, and I felt again the now-familiar tingle and wash of sensation across my skin. “There it is again,” Alison said, perfectly timed with my chill.

We tracked it a few moments longer and ultimately gave up. “It’s playing with us,” was our conclusion.

We headed back to the house when I realized Todd was not with us. He had gone down the gravel drive in the opposite direction. I headed after him, calling over my shoulder, “This is horror movie shit right here,” I said as I broke away from the group to wander the gravel driveway alone in the middle of the night. My little band of hunters shouted playfully behind me, “Don’t do it!!  Don’t leave the group!”

I quickly found Todd and we all met back at the grounds. I got talking to Alex for a while, and soon enough the whole event was over.

In the end, Alison and I decided the stories of the multiple hauntings were misguided. (Cuz we are the ones who decide -- haha!).  The energy in the basement, we agreed, was residual, with no life of its own. The other spirit was one coalesced being of some sort -- curious, stand-offish, amused by our presence, if anything. Although also fairly bored. It had a little fun with us but mostly didn’t care.

As for all the other stories, and the 70 ghosts or whatever -- well, that wasn’t what we felt. We may feel differently after the investigation evidence is pulled together, but for us, at least, it was just one.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Our trip to South Carolina has been incredible.  I had read several articles about what to expect, mostly ignoring all the dire predictions of hellish traffic and cloud cover.  

The traffic on the way down was non-existent.  We took route 1 all the way to Gervais St, where we turned right to find our hotel in a funky, life-filled, friendly downtown area.  We commented as we traveled that the roads of South Carolina are almost identical to those of North C, except, if you can believe it, there are even more pines.  The forests that line the NC highways are slowly being overcome by hardwoods, but that process is only in its infancy here.   The ground is sandy, and the trees stretch tall and grass-like, the way pines do, reach reach reaching overhead.

We passed various church signs reminding us to follow the Son not the sun, one of which added, "no glasses needed."  We saw signs for the Bethune Chicken Strut and Bill’s Burgers.

We filled up with gas once we got here, got the rations unpacked, and got settled.  We were meeting Stephen, the host and event planner for the weekend-- he did an incredible job. Our hotel is perfectly situated, and everything about the weekend was amazing.  

On Sunday, Stephen and I walked the area scoping out potential viewing spots.  Finlay Park is nearby, a vast green vista on the satellite view.  Getting there meant walking through an enormous train tunnel that had, disappointingly, no bats.  Not one.  We did hear, however, one lone cicada calling desperately for its mate.  "Find me!!  Find me before our 14-year slumber, my love!!"  He had tucked himself into a deep crevice between two bricks, his sad and desperate call cut short by the sound of our voices and our large pale faces peeking into his supposedly safe, prime real estate.

We were pleased to discover, as we approached Finlay Park, a manicured stretch of lush grass, at first blush a welcoming green blanket.  As we got closer, though, we realized the "families" camped out on the lawn were not actually enjoying picnic lunches.   Their bundles were belongings, not food, and people were mostly alone, with occasional bunches of adults looking wary and hard-worn. Every bench had a person in repose, a sac nearby.  

The only exception was an older couple practicing with their drone.  They caught the attention of two passers-by, who called out to a third, approaching from the opposite direction.  The approacher and the enthusiastic spectator exchanged a complicated handshake that ended in a strong grasp where cash traded palms with a ziplock bag.  Stephen looked at me and snarked, "They are very good friends."  

The cheerful drone practicing guy, his cheerful wife, and their cheerful little dog paid no mind to the shenanigans and soon after packed up their toy and moved on.  

Stephen and I continued to walk the area, noticing the neglected architecture and now-dry water features of the aging park.  I felt for the homeless in the oppressive heat, and wondered idly what percentage of the Columbia homeless we were seeing.  

We climbed about a million steps to a shady spot overlooking the post office and debated the viability of that spot.  We wandered down to Main St. and came to a street festival with tented vendors.  A guitarist busked outside a cafe; a duo calling themselves "The Ethnomusicologists" (perhaps the geekiest band name ever) played hand drums and a sax.   A pianist sat in a truck and hammered out a Schroeder-esque song list.  We bought our eclipse t-shirts and resisted the multitude of caloric treats on display.

We eventually made it to the capitol building and the confederate memorial statue there.  Tourists milled about taking pictures of everything, including that, George Washington just behind it, and the large marble steps.  We walked around, seeking shade, and found ourselves under an enormous pin oak whose branches had grown out and then down, forming a gigantic, leaf-domed "room."   We stopped to admire its enormity and beauty, commenting on the noticeable cool.  We found a monument to the original statehouse that was burned by Sherman and commented on the resentment that act had left behind, presumably fueling the difficulties we continue to have today.  We found a cement block that once held a memorial canon but was donated to the scrap metal effort of World War II.

By the time we were heading back to the hotel -- downhill, thank gods -- we were tapped out.  The heat, the exertion, the humidity… heavens to mergatroid, we were DONE.  We realized we would have a huge challenge the next day -- our goal was to watch the sun for three hours.  OMG.  How would we survive it???

Later that afternoon we went to the South Carolina State Museum.  They offered typical state museum fare, along with a telescope “set for sun viewing.”  What this meant is that they strapped a much smaller telescope atop their enormous one (the sun gives plenty of light -- in fact, you can see it with the naked eye), and transmitted the signal to several live-feed computer screens.  We picked one in the corner, away from the crowd, and watched the images scroll by.  The live feed showed the flares and storms swirling in the energetic mix, interspersed with educational images, showing such things as relative scale for the planets.

We wandered, then, through exhibits of the dinosaurs that inhabited the area in the way back years.  South Carolina was an ocean in the dinosaur days so their fossils are seafaring creatures.  We enjoyed debating which of us the Tylosaurus would eat first, given the choice.  Stephen agreed to take one for the team, but I think we all know it would be me.  We took in the Lego “4-D” movie (I highly recommend this experience) and the planetarium show accompanied by a live band that specializes in “planetary music.”  In a “now I’ve seen everything" moment, we listened to a group of talented musicians singing about the perseids.  Like, for reals.

By Sunday I was pretty antsy.  We lingered over breakfast; I did some puzzles; we watched tv.  I realized I still had two more hours to kill before heading out, and I knew I had to get moving.  The scorching heat and life-force-sucking humidity be damned, I had to do something.  Jacked up on I-can’t-believe-it’s-finally-here, I zoomed up to Main Street and then left a while.  I was hunting for a store that might have postcards, but never did find any.  I ducked occasionally into air conditioned venues, but mostly took in the sights and sounds. People setting up cameras, tourists looking to sup before the show, and a busker with a ukelele.  Two people were shouting about Jesus.  One woman with a thick island accent stood on a corner and shouted politely, “I just want to remind you about Jesus.  I realize you’re all excited about the eclipse, but please don’t forget about Jesus!”  Not sure how many of the truly faithful would have forgotten about him, but I guess she felt better having said it.  Later I heard a gentleman at the capital with a microphone yelling about the coming of Christ.  I felt for them both.  I felt the excitement in my own blood and bones, and could easily imagine how that could turn to fear.  I knew the eclipse to be a spiritual experience, and I could imagine how intense it would be for them.

One thing I definitely noticed--the apocecliptic predictions of unmanageable crowds never came to fruition. The streets were never more crowded than a typical tourist weekend, and for me, this was child’s play, crowdwise. I had survived popular concerts, political marches, the Obama inauguration (cold too!!), and, frankly, the DC Metro at rush-hour.  The eclipse crowd was not even a crowd in terms of filling the space.  Plenty of room to move around, plenty of wide-open spaces throughout the experience.  We barely even had to stand in line for meals.

Finally finally finally the time was nigh, and I hooked up again with our little band of eclipse-goers.  We decided on the capitol lawn, and as we approached, we spotted a grassy hill facing the sun.  A thick tree cover kept the top of the hill in cool shadow, and the height created a lovely breeze.  The slope afforded a gentle recliner feel as we tilted back (watch out for the ant hill!) and took in our favorite star.

Now I must stop for a second and discuss the difference between watching an eclipse and getting to see totality.  I had read several articles joking that 99% is not good enough, but none of them explain why.  Let me try…

The eclipse itself--the moon’s shadow passing in front of the sun--is an interesting phenomenon.  It’s not so different from a lunar eclipse.  The enormity of the bodies in motion, the concepts of light and reflected light, shadow and space… all of them are interesting.  Add in (pun intended…) the incredible math that goes into determining the exact second, the exact location, the exacting nature of all of it… and yowza!!  What an incredible thing this all is.

However, totality is something else entirely.  It is a thing all its own.  So yes, while 99% of the eclipse is as interesting as all the rest of it, totality is a completely different phenomenon.  

So here we sat on the very green hill of the capitol grounds, our eclipse glasses firmly in place, and we watched the sun.  One article I read pointed out that you can’t tell it’s the moon that is carving its shape into the sun.  All you know is that the sun is slowing disappearing.  The sky simply starts to subsume the sun, in a disc shape that you soon realize will engulf the entire star.  Slowly by slowly, the encroaching circle covers more and more of the sun.

My first thought as the darkness took shape against the glowing yellow disc was of cartoon eyeballs cut to the right.  They are often depicted with a white circle on the edge of the black pupil, and this is essentially (in negative) the shape of the sun in the beginning of the eclipse.  So I found a picture of cartoon eyeballs and posted it, with the caption, “the sun right now.”

We continued to watch, taking many breaks to sit in the shady, breezy cool of the hill’s top, and starting to make conversation with our fellow spectators.  The experience was already delightful, and meeting people from all around made it more so.

The next phase was when the sun looked distinctly like a crescent.  The sun was slowly taking on the distinct shapes of the moon’s phases.  They are both, after all, spheres in a play of light.  This time I found and posted a picture of Pillsbury crescent rolls.

A few minutes later, we had a clear “C” shape, if you sharpen the ends of the C down to points.  Kind of like what happens when the Cookie Monster is truly enjoying his cookie.  And this was my final picture to fb, because after the C, things got REAL.

By now the light had a distinctly different color to it.  The hour just before twilight is known to photographers as the golden hour because the sunlight, which gets filtered through the atmosphere and the horizon, takes on a lovely golden glow.  Twilight itself, tends to be gray.  In eclipse, the light changes to twilight, but goes directly to gray, even when it’s as bright as the “golden hour.”  So as you look around, you’re looking at a gray landscape that is too bright.  The effect is disconcerting and strange.  The world is almost purple in its strange gray tones.

About this time, we started to notice the crescent shapes in the shadows of the trees.  I stopped anyone who would listen and pointed it out.  Two homeless men sat on a nearby bench in the shade, completely uninterested in the eclipse.  (Weird, right?)  I pointed out the shadows to them, hoping to get them engaged in the event unfolding all around them.  They rolled their eyes.  I moved on.  

Other people were far more enthusiastic and soon we had crowds of people checking out shadows under different trees.  Some were a vibrant and movement-filled symphony of crescents all vying for attention. Others were mountain landscapes carved out in Cs.  Others still were oceans of cresting waves, the Cs piling on each other in orderly layers.

The crescenting sun got thinner, and we took our spots on the sloping grass.  A small group of young adults from Charlotte piled behind us, and I felt proud that these young people took the time to come enjoy the view. Now the change in the light was undeniable, but as I tried to photograph it with my iPhone, the software automatically adjusted the settings and “fixed” the photo.  Oops.  

Suddenly it occurred to me I wasn’t hot any more.  I looked at Bill and Stephen next to him.  “Hey!  It’s cooler!”  And we all realized we were now sitting comfortably.  We no longer needed to walk up into the shade.  We could sit here throughout the rest of the event and we would not melt.

A woman behind us realized she could hear the crickets and said so out loud.  Suddenly we all became aware of the bug chorus all around us.  Exactly as we had read, but none of us had really believed.

Now this is where my story diverges from anyone who wasn’t in totality.  If you were in the 95 to 99% zone, you can probably share a very similar story.  Except, perhaps, for the disinterested homeless guys.

This is where things went nuts.

We were all looking avidly between the sun and the surrounding areas.  The strange colors, the bugs, the sunset appearing in all directions.  And then pop -- Venus became visible.  Someone shouted “Stars!!!” and we all looked up, glassless and away from the sun.  There she was, a bright star in the night sky.  People started cheering.  Glasses back on, I watched the last sliver of sun sharply outlined against the left-hand side of the disc.  I watched until nothing was left but the tiniest dot, and I pulled off my glasses.  Then, like a coin sliding into place in a horizontal vending machine, or the click of a plastic strap lock, the moon completely covered the sun and the corona popped out in an instant, 360 degrees around the sharp black dot.  

The English language does not have a word for how beautiful that corona is.  It is not a simple ring of light or a halo like the glow of a full moon on a foggy night.  It is a rushing, swooping, dynamic sputtering of angelic brilliance that varies in density, brightness, width and height.  You are staring at the sun, and you are seeing its very essence.  Like a million threads of light, the energy of the corona dances away from its darkened center and out in every direction.  Like the difference between seeing the Boston Symphony live and hearing a digital recording, no photo can possibly do the experience justice.  The cheers and screams that erupted from our little band of hillside friends were echoed in every direction.  To say it is a spiritual experience is to state the obvious.  The earth, the moon, and the sun are lined up perfectly, and the light show is literally unbelievable.

We gazed and cheered and clapped for two minutes and 41 seconds.  Well, in the last few seconds, we started shouting warnings to the crowd, especially the children, to put their glasses back on.  As the sun peeked out and the thin sliver once again shone around the moon, the cheers and clapping resumed in earnest.  The sun had returned!!  We would all be ok again!!

As the light returned to normal--everything seemed accelerated on the flip side--we all stood and gathered our belongings.  The crowd thinned.  Before leaving, Bill shared his photos with the Charlotte crew behind us, and stopped several times during the short walk back to the hotel to show off his photos and text them to strangers, all of us joined in this incredible experience.  The trees continued their crescent shadows for a long time, and we all tucked into the hotel lobby for a rest.  We shared refreshments and stepped outside occasionally to check on the sun.  Eventually the full yellow disc returned, and Carolina life returned to normal.  

Except no one will get a postcard.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Great American Eclipse Adventure - Prologue

Today officially kicks off the Great American Eclipse Adventure, even though we are still in Durham.  I have made lists, checked them twice, and plodded through the tasks.  As I write this, Bill is outside in the oppressive heat, cleaning out his car.

A friend at work who is also on a quest for the Great American Eclipse Adventure pointed out that cell service providers may not be able to handle the intense traffic in the Band of Totality and that ATM machines may run out of cash.  A wise traveller, indeed…  So we discussed the pros and cons of printing off or buying maps, and I realized I should get cash for the road.

So this morning, while I was having coffee with a friend, I planned to grab cash out of the ATM conveniently located just over there, but as we talked, I watched the Loomis Armored Car pull up to the ATM and wait a long time.  Both doors opened, and the driver got out, ear buds clearly visible in both ears, the cord hanging down to his shirt pocket.  I idly thought, while also speaking with my friend about the TV series Ascension, which you should all watch if you haven’t already, that if I were an armored car driver, I don’t think I would wear ear buds--it doesn’t seem safe.  His t-shirt and jeans looked a little too casual for the job as well, but whatevs.   I tuned in more closely to my friend’s conversation about the body on the man-made beach, and lost track of the Loomis truck.

Lo and behold, a few minutes later, two police cars drove up to the same ATM and began a detailed and intense scan of the machine and its little porch thingie.  Huh.  They eventually pulled off to the side, chatted about whatever it is cops chat about, and moved on.  

This is all to tell you why I decided not to use that ATM and was therefore waiting in line at the drive-up version further away from my house a little while later, flipping through Facebook.  I had seen fb rumors of a gathering in Durham of verybadpeople, but I did not believe them.  However, now, in line at the ATM, two things happened.  Someone I trust on fb, who lives downtown, said, “I have this confirmed.  There is a gathering of verybadpeople coming to Durham.”  I also got an official email from work stating that the Durham site (which is in a government building) was closed due to the gathering.  

I was ok, then, as I collected my money and started back home.  But then there was a red light, and I was sitting in a little bit of traffic, and I started to lose it.  Why were the verybadpeople coming here?  How did they possibly get a permit?  WHAT THE HELL???

The pressure rose in my chest, and I realized I was going to lose it.  I imagine anyone reading this has felt the same way.  What am I doing here?  This is 2017.  How did we lose so much ground???  I don’t have to reiterate any more than that, I’m sure.  I believe you can all relate.

By the time I got to the house I was overwrought -- my disgust and impotence shook me to my core, and I called out to Bill, who (poor thing) was arranging transportation for incarcerated gentlemen to sing at a church service next weekend and trying to get the paperwork all settled before we leave…  He came running as I started crying; I acknowledged that crying is stupid at a time like this, explained that I was overwrought and so very frustrated about the verybadpeople, and bless his WHOLE HEART, my crowd-hating, violence-abhorring, please-don’t-stand-too-close-to-me husband said, without missing the slightest beat, “What do we need to do?  Where do we go?  Let’s go.”

But, we live in Durham, so our town showed up, the verybadpeople did not, and a dance party broke out in the streets.  The country has a LOT of work to do, but I believe we can do it, because we do it in Durham.  We ain’t perfect, but we have gotten a lot of it right. I am so proud of my town.

So just like that, from eclipse adventuring to science fiction tv over a latte to armored truck madness to verybadpeople to dance party and back to eclipse adventuring.  What a day.

I have prepared for my trip with the following in mind:  we will be in a hot car for a long time, and then we will be in a hotel, walking distance to many restaurants.  But so will MILLIONS OF OTHER PEOPLE.  We will then be in a hot car for an even longer time and maybe might even not make it back on Tuesday.  So I packed as though we are camping, only in a hotel room equipped with a microwave and refrigerator.  We may all decide to eat out, which will mean standing in line.  But at least I will have the option not to.

(You’ll notice there are no diapers this time.  But we thought about it!)

Here’s our packing list:
Hard lemonade for me
Beer for Bill
Different beer for our host
The variety box of chips in little individual snack packs
Fig bar cookies
Nutter butters
A large bag of pretzels
24 cans of Coke
6-pack of Cheerwine
6-pack of Mountain Dew
Parmalat (for the coffee)
Cans of beef-barley soup
Steamer packs of noodles with beef
Various canned meats and beanie weenie type things (that’s all Bill)
A mega-bag of jerky
A box of caramel popcorn and one of toffee popcorn
Loaf of bread
Sandwich meat
Sliced cheese
Hard-boiled eggs
Large can of mixed nuts
Two smaller cans of cashews
Variety pack of Lance captain’s wafers
Water packed into previously consumed soda bottles & milk cartons

So you see, we have packed all the essentials…  We are ready for Eclipsapocalypse, people.  Here we go!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Loading anniversary road trip program 4.0

About ten days ago we held the December calendar – still on paper for our household, with 12 months’ worth of kittens – and surveyed the holiday schedule.  We were overdue for a visit to our friend Jim in the prison, and I had a full week off for the Christmas holiday.  We considered the days the prison would probably be closed for the holiday, and realized the 22nd was the best day to plan the visit.  Our anniversary.   Four years we have been married, and Bill suggested we make a nice trip out of it.  You know, to the prison.

So I found an amazing B&B in Edenton, only about 30 minutes from the “correctional facility.”  Edenton, which is known (in Edenton) as one of the prettiest towns in America, is situated on the Albemarle Sound, a large inlet from the ocean that is met on the western side by the Chowan River.  I assume, therefore, the water is brackish, although I don’t actually know.  Anyway, it’s a gorgeous little walking town, with amazing homes, small shops, nice people, and gorgeous photo ops at every turn.

The Cotton Gin Inn, which I found entirely by accident, was absolutely gorgeous – I mean, GORGEOUS – and the owners delightful.  They described the vacant home and the “critters” dislodged in the making of the inn, filling us with remodel envy.  Decorated for the holiday, we found the place warm, inviting, and the perfect setting for our anniversary.

We knew we had a destination and we had a sense of some of the options in the area, so we did not leave with a specific plan in mind.  We decided, then, as we careened east, to revisit the Alligator River Animal Refuge, which you may remember as the scene of Frogpocalypse 2016.  (If you missed that story, you can find it in “The Many Moods of Saturday” listed on the right of this page.)
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And so we headed east on Hwy 64 the entire way, knowing the turn-off for the sanctuary was directly off that highway.  We stopped at the rest area in Plymouth, which welcomes you to Bear Country, and the parking lot lines are painted bear tracks.  Bill, looking quite the lumberjack Bear Country Man with his new  beard, struck a pose under the sign and off we went again.

Next stop was the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  Here we found an interesting, raised trail-walk-thingy, with a sign indicating it is “short but marvelous.”  Turns out the Scuppernong River comes right up to Hwy 64, and if you get off at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, you are treated to a delightful section of marshy wildlife, complete with explanatory signs and a lovely -- I’m not being sarcastic -- raised wooden walkway.  We ventured forth -- and yes this was December 21st, but we were in North Carolina, and it was in the mid-60s with a gentle breeze off the river.

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Let me tell you this, first.  Quicksand has not actually played as big a role in my adult life as I had imagined it would when I was a kid.  We were very prepared, at the age of about 11, to deal with quicksand, and I had read many books describing how to get out of it alive.  So as an adult, I did find myself quite surprised to question its very existence.

However, at the Scuppernong River in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, it turns out, one can find quicksand.  One needn’t worry, though, because the raised wooden walkway keeps you safe from its terrifying grasp.  We marveled, though, at the sections of fine, silty soil, built up over ages and soaking wet where the river had recently receded.  In the regular mud we saw canine paw prints (presumably someone walking their dog, although possibly coyote) as well as raccoons (look like small hands or cat prints if cats had thumbs), deer and many other undefined print-smears.  

Here at the Scuppernong walk was where we first encountered the overturned trees.  Take a second to do this:  splay your fingers of one hand out as far as you can, and then bend your wrist back toward your arm.  This mimics what we saw, with your arm as the tree, and your hand the area of root system pulled up and standing upright against the landscape.  At this point we were thinking it was the result of one of the recent wind storms, which must have toppled a few trees and lifted their root systems up.  Here in Durham, when trees fall over, they typically break at the trunk base.  Even healthy trees here do not pull up root systems like that. 

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We marvelled at all we could see in the below-spaces.  Roots twisting around on themselves, the place where the trunk turns to root and folds in on itself, the evidence of critter presence underground, the bugs and water taking advantage of the fresh access, the animal tracks where many species (including ourselves) had come to investigate.  We read signs that described the shallow root systems of trees growing in high-water-table environments and thought about what a difference that makes.

On the way out, Bill spotted mistletoe high up in one of the trees hanging over the walkway.  He pulled me in for a romantic holiday kiss, and I realized that this is the best way to honor that old tradition, while the mistletoe still lives.

We wandered, then, to Alligator River, and we were there for several minutes when I noticed another of the uprooted trees.  Then, as I looked along the roadway, I saw a long line of overturned root systems, and in the instant it took me to expand my view, I realized I was seeing hundreds of overturned trees.  The standing trees still outnumbered the turned ones by scores to one, but still…  and it hit me.  Hurricane Matthew had blown through this area in the time since our last visit.

I will be brutally honest for a second (cuz, you know, usually I’m lying), and admit that when we got word of a hurricane coming to North Carolina, my focus was immediately on me.  Our call center does not close for any reason, and when a major weather event threatens our area, the supervisory team kicks into high gear making plans for coverage, contingency coverage, on-call coverage, worst-case scenarios, etc.  In October, when the storm turned ever so slightly eastward and the impact to the triangle minimized, I was only relieved.  The one person I know who lives here is Jim, whose “home” is made of cinder block and who, ironically enough, was in the safest place possible.  Bullet dodged.  

Standing here, seeing all the trees with their exposed roots, I realized how bad it had been.  Now, nearly three months later, the damage is fairly “sanitized” if you will.  Overturned trees, green leaves still on their branches, are all one sees of the storm here.  However, I was immediately struck by what must have been the experience of the rangers when they first had the chance to survey the damage.  Of course they would have focused on populated areas first, but after a few days of assessment, someone would have been tasked with looking for potential dangers and assessing the need for human attention in this vast stretch of wildlife.  That person would have surely witnessed the large-scale loss of life, the land he was fond of and patrolled every day would have fresh wounds, swaths of downed trees, carcasses in their various states of decomp, animal friends lost by the hundreds, if not thousands, including the drowning deaths of animals accustomed to living in the water.  I flashed immediately to Hurricane Fran and the sound of the wind and rain battering my ground floor apartment; the stories friends told of water gushing into their houses while they watched, helpless, with not enough towels in a lifetime of towels to stem the flow; the friend who had a tree come down on her roof and take out half her house--luckily the half that the family, including her infant son, were NOT sleeping in.  

And then I flashed to the ice storm of 2003 (before winter storms were named like hurricanes), and the sound of the trees groaning and snapping from the weight of the ice; the blue arcs flashing through the night as power lines came down; the scores of bent trees when we awoke, changing the landscape of our entire block; the years it took for the landscape to hide and grow over the devastation -- even my wedding pictures later that year would have bent pines in the background, as the trees lasted, bent and dying for months.

I thought then of the massive flooding in eastern Carolina in my early years as a social worker, how colleagues were interviewing children to assess for lasting effects of trauma, and the children were talking about “walking through the water” which has a kind of beachy, vacation feel to it, until you remember the “water” is mud, in which are floating the carcasses of wild- and farm-life for miles around.  Families were limited to what they could carry above the water level as they walked, and their clothes were soaking wet for days.

North Carolina is an incredibly beautiful state, and if you’ve read this blog before, you know I am enamoured of its rolling green hills, blue-ridged mountains, walking paths along lazy rivers, duned beaches and miles and miles of roads winding from one gorgeous vista to another. But she is a cruel lover:  her winters, while blessedly short, are pocked with wicked fast, icy storms; her hurricanes are incredibly powerful and whip through large swaths of the state, endangering even those who know to live away from the beaches.  We now also have earthquakes, which have so far not been damaging, but who knows what the future holds.  

All these thoughts as I surveyed the uprooted trees.  

Last time we had been to Alligator River, we had stayed in the car, creeping ever so slowly along its gravel road and spotting several animals, including a small gator.  Today, though, we drove to the end of the entrance road to the walking trail.  A walking trail through ALLIGATOR RIVER?  Are we nuts?  Apparently, yes.

We parked in the silence and started walking the immaculately groomed path.  At first we felt like we were near the road and essentially in civilization, but after a few yards, a curve in the path brought the trees to a close behind us and suddenly we were alone in the woods at Alligator River Wildlife Refuge.  Suddenly every sound was a bear, every rustle a gator.  Bill jumped several times, which invariably startled me and soon enough we were both jittery.  Then we started seeing scat on the path--every few feet actually.  Mostly we inspected the scat of various flora-eating wildlife with the occasional meat-eater thrown in.  About mid-way we started finding fur scat, in fairly large quantities.  Then we were SURE eyes were on us as we strolled.  We decided that loud was a safer way to go, even if it meant limiting our sightings.  Yeah, whatever left those large fur-scat piles behind -- we didn’t want to bump into that.

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About halfway through the walk we encountered a sign that had a cell phone number and stop designation.  We called the number, entered the stop number, and listened to a recorded tour.  Once started, the kind, librarian-sounding lady accompanied us the entire length of the trail.  She spoke about the wildlife, the history of the area, and the upkeep.  My favorite image, though, was the way she walked us through the lives that inhabited the area throughout history, ending with the indigenous people who would have canoed the river before the modern roads and paths were cut.  During this talk, she also mentioned the guided canoe tours one can take in the spring and summer months.  Oh yeah…  we would definitely be coming back for that.  Can you imagine canoeing through the refuge?  RIGHT?

Displaying FullSizeRender.jpgWe had actually been on the way in when we stopped to watch a large heron doing what herons do.  This was the extent of the fauna spotted that day.

 From the refuge, we went on to Edenton, where we landed at the water at sunset.

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We enjoyed a lovely dinner at the local “fancy” restaurant (definitely not fancy), and were entertained (definitely not entertained) by the family at the table next to us.  We listened in as one out-of-town contingent met up with the other out-of-town contingent, and they were apparently waiting on the somewhere-nearby birthday celebrant.  We enjoyed looking at the cute kids and commented on the names -- Azeril, Asher and Bailey.  No, these are not people like us…  

 Well, gosh, it’s like 7 at this point.  We’d been in the car for pretty much 100 hours that day, so we headed to the B&B and got ourselves into the extremely beautiful and comfortable bed.  I had brought electric candles, thinking we might enjoy a little candlelight on our anniversary, and we both had phones and the ipad, along with the television.  So this 90-year-old couple hunkered down for a quiet evening of Netflix.  Soon we were snoring, and the night was behind us.

The next morning was a prison visit, and then back to one of the prettiest towns in America for lunch and more photos.  Here we discovered the local gull population, numbering in Hitchcockian proportions, sunning on the dock.  

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Eventually we headed home, happy to traverse the boring highway miles and find ourselves back in the company of Eddie and the cats.

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