It’s our anniversary weekend (of when we started dating) so of course to celebrate, we went to the prison. That’s what everyone does on a special occasion, right?
The week itself had already been a bit of a roller coaster ride. Small tragedies blended with national ones to wear us out. And then it was the French National Holiday, and I had happily suggested my mom could “eat cake” on fb, when we got news of a devastating attack in Nice.
So in the midst of all this, it was the calendar app on my phone that alerted me--oh, by the way, it’s your anniversary. I woke Bill a little after midnight; we kissed chastely; and that was pretty much it.
This would be our second visit together to the medium-custody prison in Windsor, NC, where our friend is currently incarcerated. The first time, a little over two weeks ago, was pretty rough. Minimum security facilities, which I am used to, look more like military camps, with several buildings of varying architecture, and while there is an obvious fence around it, the razor wire is limited to the top of the fence and reminiscent of fencing that surrounds many used car lots. On our visits there, we walked in through a gate in the fence, and although we showed ID, the whole feel was fairly casual, with the incarcerated men just on the other side of the fence, greeting us as we walked in.
For medium-custody, though, every imposing feature is brought to bear. The fencing has chain-link on the outside, but the curls of razor wire weave together in long rows, covering every inch of the fence, top to bottom. Just approaching it on the other side would be risking your life.
Today I approached with more confidence than two weeks ago, now knowing what awaits. The first building is security, where they only allow you in ten minutes before the visitation starts, and only a few people at a time. We waited in the North Carolina heat as the group outside grew. Three at a time they let us in, gathered all our metal belongings, a la every security entrance ever, and we went through the metal detector. They turned away the tall, beautiful woman next to us because the full-length skirt she was wearing was slit on the sides and at knee-level, was deemed too high. She protested--she had worn the same dress last time she was here; she had driven five hours to get here. We directed her to the Family Dollar nearby--maybe she could pin it closed.
We navigated the zig zag lay-out of the security room, with Bill pocketing his head scarf (also not allowed), showed our IDs to the officers behind the glass and signed in. We had already emptied our pockets in the car, taking only our IDs. Then they send you back outside, across the 100 yards or so of “No Man’s Land,” the area between the first razor-wire fence and the second. This area, of course, is where you get shot if you are here inappropriately.
A large building breaks the fence, and the door here leads to a large lobby, overlooked by tinted glass, with officers behind it. We pass a reception-looking desk (it’s not) and head to what would be an elevator door in any other lobby but here is a heavy metal contraption that clunks impressively on both open and close. We wait here for some unknown something to happen, and at some point (how this point is determined I have no idea) the metal door slides open. We enter a small room and the door slides shut, locking us in; today we are alone, still whispering heatedly about the arbitrary nature of the guards turning the woman away. Last time we were here, we were in this room with about eight other people. We wait a few seconds, and a second door opens, with the same intimidating weightiness as the first, and we are ushered into the large visitation room.
We show our IDs again, and are ushered to table 9 of 20. The room is large, reminiscent of a grade-school cafeteria, with square tables. The visitors all sit in one direction, facing a cinderblock wall, on which is installed an incongruous photo backdrop of a European street, with cafe tables, a cobblestone walk and a lovely canal. I idly think of Nice again. Later, a guard will come around and offer to sign us up to take a picture with our friend. We will pleasantly decline.
This was a Saturday, and more people were signed up to visit than our previous weekday jaunt. Almost every table was full, and we ended up waiting for Jim to appear. Eventually he did, entering through a different but equally imposing sliding metal door, explaining that he is strip-searched before and after every visit, and that was the reason for the delay.
We talked for an all-too-brief two hours. Bill and Jim spoke of legal matters and things that affect people in prison. I watched the attractive young man at the table in front of us who was waiting for his visitor who never came. I assumed he was scheduled to see the young lady who was turned away and hoped to tell him she had been here. But then I saw her at a table behind us, in a completely different outfit. This time her skirt had no slit and was a lovely print, but the shirt was white, tight-fitting, and dramatically accented her lovely shape. She had won, in the end, looking way sexier in her second outfit than she had in the first.
But this meant the man at table 17 had been stood up for real, and that made me sad.
Asked to change the subject to lighter matters, I admitted to Jim that this was our anniversary weekend, and look how romantic Bill is -- he brought me to prison! Jim had fun letting Bill know what kind of husband that made him, and before we knew it, the two hours were over, and we were saying good-bye, leaving Jim to go back to his bunk in the 84-man unit where he is surrounded by 20-somethings who believe they have nothing left to lose.
We left through the same metal doors, and the same holding area between, this time filled with people shoulder to shoulder. We offered our support to the young woman with the dress, and she explained she was coming from Charlotte. We gave her our number in case she ever needed assistance along the way. We chatted with the family that appeared to be grandparents and two young boys. We stood in the heat in no-man’s land as the guards limited access to the security room. When it was our turn, we gave it up to the older woman behind us and waited again. The a/c was a welcome relief in the 11 seconds it took to walk out through security. Even that short time in no-man’s land was enough in the nearly 100-degree weather.
Once in the car, Bill consulted the map, suggesting a celebratory dinner before we head back. Visitation had ended at 3:30 (on the dot), and we were close to Nag’s Head. Let’s just do it. And so off we went, east through the changing landscape as the tobacco and bean fields gave way to sandy and marshy flatlands, the humidity dropping, and the air taking on that breezy, delicate quality that beach air has.
We drove for a time, listening to our Adventure play list and taking in the beautiful scenery. We talked about the challenges Jim will face when he gets out--how the culture of prison does not prepare people for success “outside,” and how his basic ideology will be challenged. “And we will be there for him when it’s really hard,” I said, and Bill agreed. Eventually the music and North Carolina’s natural beauty worked its magic, and we relaxed away the image of our good-bye to Jim, and were present in road trip fun.
That’s when I saw the sign. The sign that would change our day completely.
The sign said “Alligator River.”
Incongruously, the sign logo is a stylized bird, shown in flight with its wings pointed downward in logo-dramatic fashion. I looked to Bill. “Do you think there are alligators in Alligator River?” I wondered if the name reflected its shape rather than its inhabitants, or if it was an outdated nomenclature, from a time before the area had been developed. Bill said Alligator River did have alligators in it, and I started to get excited. But then I doubted him. I genuinely thought NC was too cold for gators. But remember, I have all the knowledge of mankind in a small device in my hand. Sure, at that moment it was belting out some Foo Fighters, but it could still tell me important things, so I looked up Alligator River NC and found the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, home not only to gators but bears, red wolves, about a gazillion frogs and many other North Carolina natives.
I WANT TO SEE A GATOR!!! I could not explain or have ever predicted my unbelievable excitement at that moment, but every fiber of my being suddenly HAD TO SEE a gator.
Thank the gods I have a husband who is perfect for me, because he simply turned right at the next street and we were in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and we were on the look-out for gators!
The miles and miles of gravel road in the refuge are only slightly elevated from the swampy waterways on either side, so Bill drove slowly and we both looked, eagle-eyed, out our respective windows. As you probably know, a gator’s camouflage is that he looks like a log in the water. The inverse of this, when one is looking for gators, is that every log looks like a gator. But Bill spotted a log sliding into the water, and stopped the car. He directed me to look at a large tree nearby and to look intently just to the left of the base. I could see a round spot on the surface of the water but could make out no detail whatsoever. He had seen it though, and informed me it was the gator’s eye balls. He turned off the car and we waited, staring excitedly at the eyeball.
We whispered while we waited, taking pictures of the scene. Of course, no one looking at it would be able to identify the eyeball dot among the plant and insect life. The water was as still as glass, and even as he had just slid in, the water was undisturbed. No one could have possibly spotted him had we not known he was there.
After several minutes of silence and building anticipation, he rose in the water, lifting the ridges of his back and his snout above the surface. When we still didn’t move, he slid silently to the edge, among the reeds and soft grasses, fallen sticks and dark leaves, and eased himself out of the water, sitting for a while parallel to the road, content to let the last minutes of direct sunlight warm his back and sides.
We eventually moved on and continued to look intently. We would not see another gator, but the attempt let us appreciate the incredible beauty of the still water, the lovely vegetation, and the jurassic insects that followed us, keeping pace with the car, buzzing loudly, and looking every bit as big as our heads. Something with red blossoms had recently gone to seed, leaving bright red blooms floating just under the surface of the water and appearing, at first glance, like gold fish.
We passed a gentleman on a bicycle (gator dinner) and many cheerful waving people in cars. One man stopped to let us know where we might spot a bear cub up ahead, but we never did. We did, though, see a pair of some sort of water mammals--from a distance looking like otters--that frolicked in a field near the water, chasing one another and gamboling happily.
Now that I was looking for bears meant lifting my eyes away from the water and staring intently in the darkening woods. Entire fairy tales unfolded before me in that magical way that forests hold stories in the spaces between the branches and leaves.
Eventually dusk was overcoming us, along with some urgent biological matters and a growing hunger for seafood. We found our way out of the refuge and turned east. In a matter of short minutes we were pulling into a gas station and minimart and wait! WHAT? Is that a GOAT??? An enormous -- E-NOR-MOUS. -- goat with large horns was sashaying across the parking lot and in front of the doors to the minimart.
The surreality of it was too much and I had trouble taking it all in, but sure enough, the world’s largest goat was about to grab a slurpee.
We got out of the car and introduced ourselves to the goat, who was now rubbing her neck along the rough concrete side of the store; Bill petted her and got a few friendly headbuts in return. A small crowd had gathered, and when we were ready to go inside, our caprine friend sauntered on in with us. I cannot begin to tell you how weird it is to see a very large goat navigate a convenience store. I was initially concerned because this particular store had a large aisle of glass and other breakable souvenirs. I needn’t have worried since this goat knew exactly where the chips ahoy cookies were, and that’s exactly where she went.
After our bathroom break, Bill and I assisted the staff in removing the goat from the store (they initially tried to bribe her with treats, but she knew the treat aisle offered more, so they ended up spraying her with water, which did the trick as long as we could herd her toward an open door).
And so again, we were on our way. We drove all the way to Nag’s Head, and along the way, spotted signs for Dirty Dick’s Crab House, featuring a bikini-clad model being nipped by a crab. Classy. But in the end, we happened upon it and gave it a try. Fantastic food and one of the best waiters we have ever had. We ate, drank a toast to our anniversary, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The maps app said we were about three hours from home, so our 8:30 departure seemed reasonable.
But you’ve forgotten so easily--Bill likes to look at the maps app, find the most direct route home, and then press “definitely not that route.”
He noticed where 264 runs “parallel” to 64, and if we take that, it takes us back through the animal refuge and won’t add much time to the trip.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you this now.
This decision was a huge mistake.
A. Huge. Mistake.
We were back in the car, heading home. Now that I realized we were only about three hours away, we should plan a trip to come to Kitty Hawk. Maybe in the fall, when the air will be crisp and the wind will add to the feeling the Wright Brothers had. Yes, yes, we will return in the fall. And then the fateful moment came when we turned off Hwy 64 (home!! home!!) and headed south back into the wildlife refuge.
Within a minute or two, I noticed the frog jumping from left to right in front of me. I swerved gently to avoid him and hoped he hopped safely to the other side when the next frog hopped into view. I swerved back into my lane to avoid him as well, and oh wait there’s another. For the next 20 minutes or so, the frogs hopped with alarming regularity, always from left to right. I tried to miss as many as I could, with Bill protesting loudly. “I can never be sure we’re not going to wreck!” “I don’t think you can miss them all!” “Maybe it’s best to just drive straight!”
Some were tiny and hopped low, others were remarkably strong and appeared at eye level of the minivan, legs outstretched, body at a 45-degree angle from the ground, leaping magnificently. An enormous shadow moved in front of the right tire--I swerved left--what WAS that? A large, slower moving frog. Some had the sense to wait patiently while we passed; others waited until the exact moment to ensure they would get squished. I couldn’t possibly avoid them all, try as I might.
Scores of leaping amphibians became hundreds in the minutes that passed, my headlights illuminating their suicidal efforts just before the inevitable. We groaned with every death, Bill let out a startled gasp with every swerve. Thankfully, we were the only car on the road. Clearly, EVERYONE ELSE knew better.
And then something changed.
Whereas before the frogs were consistently leaping left to right in front of us, suddenly we entered a new landscape. Now entire committee meetings and political frog rallies were being held in the street. Under the glow of the headlights, the street moved and undulated. Frogs by the hundreds leapt in every direction. They moved in and out of our path hop hop hopping wildly. There was no way to avoid them. THEY WERE EVERYWHERE.
They leapt left. They leapt right. They leapt right at us, their legs outstretched, their bodies flung through the air.
We screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
We were seriously living out some Biblical myth, some Karmic hell. With every passing yard of road, scores more frogs sacrificed themselves. We were inundated, screaming down the road, both of us horrified at the frogslaughter happening all around us. This kept on for so long. “Why didn’t they close the road???” “Why is this happening to us???” OMG!!! The frog death!! OMG!!!
Finally, with a final ribbitty gasp, the frogslaughter stopped. No more frogs leapt in front of us. The marshy fields on either side gave way to solid ground, and eventually there were houses and maybe even a church. Finally, a good way down the road, we pulled into a gas station. We stretched our tense bodies, shook off the frog death, cleaned the windshield of the van. It was 10:30. We had been driving for two hours. I pulled up the map app. We were three hours from home.
We had driven due south through frog hell and were only now heading west. We collected ourselves. We could do this. We could get home at 1:30. We had a full tank of gas. The frogtrauma was over. We could do this.
We had now been gone for 13 hours. We changed the playlist. We hugged each other. We can do this.
At 1:30, 16 hours after our departure, we finally pulled our frog death machine into the driveway. A team of neighbors, my mom, and my brother had taken care of our animals in our unexpected absence, leaving us free to tumble into bed, which we did with deep gratitude. We slept the sleep of the dead, and didn’t even dream of frog revenge.
And that is the story of our Saturday.