Tonight we stood at the bank of Kerr Reservoir and watched in silence the glimmer of the stars reflecting on the water. Dozens of points of light, only occasionally twinkling at the passing of a ripple caused by a fish striking at a water bug.
We looked up, and Alli laughed.
“Go tell Walker he was right,” she whispered.
I stood there a moment longer, captivated by the expanse of stars. It has been a very, very long time since I saw so many stars. Possibly as long as twenty years. When I worked at Scout camp we saw a lot of stars, but with Williamsburg right across the river, much of the brilliance was lost in a pall of city lights rising up to make the horizon glow white. A couple of times I packed blankets into the back of my Honda and tried to take my first wife stargazing, but inevitably my efforts were hampered by cold weather and the even brighter glow of Norfolk, which was visibly anywhere we went within an hour of our house.
For twenty years I haven’t been able to see this many stars.
Eventually, I retrieved Walker from a the Mothership. Together, we stood beside his mother as she pointed upward.
“You were right,” I said.
Walker gasped as he saw, for the second time that night, the faint wash of the Milky Way churning across the night sky. He had claimed to have seen it earlier, but when we walked out to the field at the center of the campground, the western horizon was still faintly awash with the last glow of sunset and, to our aging eyes, the Milky Way was nothing more than a whips of cloud still catching the reflected sun.
But now we couldn’t deny it.
Arching away above our heads and drawing repeated gasps of “wow” from the boy child, we could see stars by the thousands. He sat at our feet for at least a quarter of an hour, searching the sky for constellations, asking his mother questions about mythology, and repeatedly craning his neck back so far that he nearly toppled over in his effort to see more of the Milky Way. I pulled up an astronomy app on my phone and we took turns searching for satellites and planets until the battery ran low.
Life has taken some strange turns in the last couple years, and just when I thought it was settling down 2020 threw a handful of bolts into the gears, but I have never been happier. Standing with my best friend as we look at the stars with her son, I know that I am finally on my way to where I belong.
When I was around nine years old my mother, sister, and I went out to North Dakota so my sister could participate in a wider opportunity for Girl Scouts, which to my recollection was kind of the Scouting version of what these days you might call Little Renfaire on the Prairie.
I remember when we dropped my sister off at the expedition base. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of girls milling around, all getting their gear unloaded and stacked up beside rows of Conestoga wagons. I was captivated by one of the leaders, a woman with a strikingly deep voice and large muscles who kept shouting out commands as she helped heave large sacks of food from the open back of a tractor trailer. It seemed like it took forever to get everything organized, but eventually we left my sister with the Scouting group ready to head out across the prairie like a proper pioneers party.
While my sister crossed the grass ocean, my mother and I headed over to Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. It’s one of my memories from that park that bring the entire journey back into my mind today.
We stayed at the park for upwards of a week. Some days we went hiking and found rattlesnakes sunning themselves on boulders. Some days we went into town to tour museums and attend stage plays based on the legendary history of Teddy Roosevelt. One evening the park rangers put on a campfire and told tales of the buffalo and wolves and other wildlife of the park. On one particularly memorable day, we were chased into the car by hailstones the size of golf balls as a tornado ripped across the grasslands just north of our campsite.
And then there were the times when we would spend a lazy afternoon down by the river that wound its way through the park. We would pick a clear spot on the bank, one with plenty of space between the brush and the river so we wouldn’t accidentally startle any rattle snakes. Mom would set her canvas tote down in the sand and I would head down to the waters edge while she laid out sunning and reading. I remember that she would lie as still as she could, just looking up at the broad blue expanse of the sky, more than you’d ever see back in New Jersey.
One time she laid out there so long and so still that the perpetually circling vultures started to land on the bank and flap their the big brown wings and quirk their ugly heads around to carefully watch her, thinking that maybe they just come across a prize. She let them waddle their way closer and closer until she could see their beady eyes peering out from amid the brown and red wrinkles of their mottled faces. Then she sat up all of a sudden, flapping her arms chase the buzzards away before they got it in their heads to actually taste her. They scurried and flapped away, squawking up a storm and mighty disappointed that they hadn’t actually come across an easy lunch.
While mom laid on the bank, luring death closer to her so that she could sit up and scare it off with a shout and a laugh, I played in the mud at the waters edge. I’d grasp handfuls of rich red mud from just below the surface of the water and play at tossing them back and forth in my fingers until all the stones and shells and bits of organic matter fell away and only thick, smooth mud remained. I played at rolling it around in my palms, circling it again and again until it formed a smooth red ball. I would work the clay again and again, making balls just about the size of my fist, each of them washed clean of grit and plant matter, then mash the balls together and work them until they formed a larger ball. Once the clay had dried enough to hold its shape, I would begin rubbing my little fingers across the surface again and again, working the clay to make a perfect sphere with a nice smooth surface. It would be another it would be another twenty years before I saw YouTube videos about Dorodango, a form of art from Japan in which sculptors create highly polished spheres from rough clay.
It’s been a long while since I thought about that week or two that we spent at Teddy Roosevelt National Park, but it popped in my mind again today as I sat here watching Walker play out in the mud flats at Douglas Lake in Tennessee. The sky and water are perfect blue, broken only by ripples and clouds. Across the lake, the Smoky Mountains march off to the east in rank after rank of cliffs and valleys, peaks climbing away into the distance. The deciduous trees are just about done with their colors for the fall, leaving wide swatches of mountains a soft green, broken in places where the few remaining oak and poplar trees show off their autumn glories in isolated bursts of red and orange. Between the water and the mountains, a ribbon ribbon of gold and red lakeside can be seen can be seen. It’s November, and the Tennessee Valley Authority is lowering the water level in preparation for preventing floods brought on by winter and early spring rains.
The water level is down a good twelve feet or more, exposing a wide swath of the lake bed and creating a wide flat of deep, rusty red Tennessee mud. The mud is broken only by the smooth round stones of quartz rock and upcroppings of shale. The red mud and scattered stones form an eerie Marsscape here in the homeland of many of the early American rocketeers. You can walk over to one of those miniature mesas and with your bare fingertips flake off huge chunks, some of which still bear the imprints of fossilized animal foot prints or shells that were trapped in the sediment as it was laid down eons ago.
Within minutes of arriving Walker was begging to go down and play in the water. We held him off for about an hour as I taught a class online and his mother got things situated in the camper, but it wasn’t long before his pleas became so insistent that Alli forced Ellie to take him down and keep an eye on him as he made his first forays into the water. He returned covered in red mud and begging to be allowed to go back again and swim as soon as possible. We sprayed him down, exiled all shoes to the carpet outside, and promised that he could swim tomorrow… if he really wanted to.
Walker woke up around three in the morning insisting that he was too cold and we needed to turn the heater on. It was chilly, but not quite cold enough to justify running the electric heater. When I refused to turn it on, instead suggesting that he should put on a shirt and grab another blanket, Walker compromised by snuggling between me and the dog until, a hour later, I sent him packing because he was now complaining that it was too hot and thrashing around.
Given the cold night, we expected that Walker would give up on his swimming plans, but by 10:30 he was again agitating to get in the water. I was pretty sure that it was a terrible idea, what with it having been so cold the night before, but he made an expedition down to the waterfront and returned with the news that it was actually quite warm, so we agreed to bring him down to a swimming hole between the shore and a small island that emerged as the waterline fell.
I’m writing this sitting in a red folding chair on the mudflat. My feet and legs are covered in mud from racing Walker across the deep, nearly quicksand mud at the edge of the water. Walker is… significantly more muddy. Just a moment ago, a helicopter from one of the local air tour companies swept low over the lake and Walker hit the deck, crawling up a river of mud with his body half submerged in red clay. We spent a good half hour searching for geodes along the fringes of the island, which grows larger by the hour as the lake continues to drain.
On Saturday we took the kids to the Native American history museum in Cherokee, North Carolina. Nestled amid the Appalachian mountains in western North Carolina, Cherokee holds a special, perhaps even unique, distinction among Native American territories within the bounds of the United States: It is not a reservation.
Pay no attention to the large weathered wood and white lettered sign that greets the visitor as you cross a bridge into town. According to several displays in the museum and an interpreter at the living history village, the Eastern Band of Cherokee were never granted a reservation by the American government. Rather, when the Indian Removal Act was passed and most of the Cherokee were forced to move west, the people who were to become the Eastern Band refused to go. Rather than fighting or complying, they disappeared into the hills and hid from the soldiers until the danger had mostly passed. Afterward, they gathered their money and gave it to William Holland Thomas, a white man who had been adopted into the tribe. He used the money to purchase a large tract of land in what is now Cherokee, NC and then the hiding Indians emerged. Years later, when the community was well established and the American government was more amenable to negotiating with native peoples, the Eastern Band negotiated with Washington and had their land placed in a perpetual trust, ensuring that it could only be bought and sold among members of the tribe and the federal government recognized the land and its people as a sovergn nation.
I got the distinct impression that the people of Cherokee, or the Qualla Boundary, are rather proud that their ancestors not only managed to evade the American soldiers, but that they chose their home and bought it for themselves. That they were able to remain on their own land and share it with their descendants.
That’s a pride that I admire.
I have long wanted to have a place where I could put down roots. My parents left their family home in New Jersey long before I was born and for the next fifteen years migrated between various points in New Jersey, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Maine, and Virginia. They moved for good reasons, mostly following my dad’s postings in the Coast Guard, and they worked hard to give my sister and me a good life, but the one thing that they could never ensure was that we would have a solid place to put down roots and stay.
We finally stopped moving almost twenty years ago in south-east Virginia, but despite the friends and memories I have made there it has never felt like home. Too flat. Too many hurricanes. Too miserably wet in the winter and unbearably humid in the summer.
I find myself now on a perpetual adventure. This RV is the closest thing I have to my own home and, between helping family members, avoiding areas of high COVID risk, and preparing to explore the country I find myself utterly detached from physical roots. I have home bases; friends and family who generously allow me to park in their driveway or give me a place to store my crates of books in their garage. This flat-roofed, creaky, cozy, and occasionally cantankerous house on wheels is a home that I have come to love.
But I know that one day I will need to find a place to put down roots. I need land, preferably several acres. I need a place where I can do my pottery and work on projects. Where I can improve my house in full hope that I will spend the rest of my life in that place which has become my final home. I have tentative plans and offers from multiple friends and family, some of which are likely to bear fruit and proceed beyond the realm of idle dreams.
Until then, I am content to travel and see and write.
In the darkness they gather, drawn by the song of running water and the promise of the flame. The teacher trails behind, holding aloft the lamp that his companions might see the winding path. Around fallen branches and down vertiginous steps carved from the mountainside they travel until, at the edge of the bog, they pause to light the ceremonial torches.
“Be cautious as you cross the bog. The rocks are treacherous and the torches throw little light. You must pass this place as much by memory as by light,” the teacher whispers as he sparks each of the torches in turn.
“What about…” the initiate asks, but before he can finish speaking the acolyte cuffs him across the back of his head. He turns on her, fury flashing in his eyes, but she fixes him with a barely contained feral glare.
He nods, accepts his torch from the teacher in silence, and turns to pick his way across the mossy black stones which peek out above the waterline.
“Hold strong,” the teacher whispers.
The acolyte nods and turns her eyes to the mountains, visible now only as black voids jagging against the starry sky. She breathes deeply of the night air and, silently, wishes for the hundredth time that she possessed the wings which she wears in her dreams.
Behind them, the matriarchs watch from their seat on a fallen log. Three generations of woods women listen as forest slowly heaves a sigh and returns to steady breathing as the night creatures begin to crawl and trill in the cold air. They wait in silence, knowing that the softest word will scare the forest into holding its breath again.
Down in the ravine, they cross the bog safely and arrive at the stony riverbank. The gurgle of water across half submerged rocks is interrupted only by the grating of stone on stone beneath the feet of the approaching ceremonialists. Out across the waters waits the pyre, prepared stick by twig by leaf by stone, each carried to its place at the middle of the river by the initiate and his teacher while the acolyte and matriarchs watched from the shore.
The three pause at the edge and gaze into the darkness. After a moment the teacher turns to the initiate and says, “Take your torch and wade out into the river. Place each step with care so you are not sweets away by the current. When you reach the pyre, light it with your torch and allow the rising flames to burn away your past life.”
The initiate blinked, unsure how to take the dramatic speech, but eventually nodded and walked out into the black water.
The acolyte and the teacher watched as the golden circle of torchlight moved slowly across the rippling surface. Soon the light revealed the pyre: Stone had been laid atop flat stone to create an altar which rose a hands breadth above the black water, atop which stood the pyre. The initiate pushed his torch into it, kindling a flame in its dry heart. With a burst of light and the crackle of hungry flame, the pyre ignited and cast a wide circle of golden light across the river.
On the ridge, the matriarchs smile as a golden light rises up across the mountainside. Reflecting from the wide waters, the flames glow like a sunrise to paint the autumn leaves.
The initiate returns, bearing his torch and a wide grin. He is soaked and more than a little cold, but the glow of the fire warms his spirit. The three stand there at the river’s edge, watching in silence as the flames rise and embers drift into the night sky. The cracking of the fire joins in with the burbling river and the insectile night song to form a wild, secret chorus.
It’s tough being a mother. It’s tough being one even in the best of times. But these times? Times with pandemics, terminal diagnosies of family members, and a husband who goes out to sea often? It adds to the stress exponentially.
I see many of my fellow parents (its not just mothers, obviously, who are under stress!) expressing their frustrations, exhaustions, and fears over many mediums. Their attempts to mitigate them are shared, and some work. I will admit that I have tried many a thing to bring my stress level down. Only one thing so far has made me completely forget my worries (without being foolish or careless)-
Being in The Mothership.
I don’t know what it is about this camper, but it brings me a strange feeling of control. Because we can all admit that when anxiety comes knocking its due to our lack of control of our environments or circumstances. This little house on wheels is something I feel like I can keep clean because its small. Something that, if all heck broke loose in one place, I could move on to another. Something that, instead of my kids rattling around the four walls of a house and peering through the windows at their friends longingly, they are leaping through woods and staring through windows at changing landscapes.
It’s giving us stimulation where there was none.
The hard parts are missing my husband. Missing my gardens. Missing my big bathtub. But he is often on ships, so I don’t see him often to begin with. My gardens are a struggle on our current property, so I am somewhat relieved at not having to chase them. And my bathtub? Well… I will get back to it.
For the time being I am not questioning why this is working. We don’t stay on the road constantly. We have to go back to Maryland to check in and help with my father. But I am giving myself something new to look at and think about (read here- obsess over) by planning our trips and adventures.
In the next few days we will be in North Carolina, and then deep into Tennesee, seeing more and more of these awe inspiringly beautiful mountains. I am watching my children not be stuck on electronics all the time, because there is so much to be done outside and to see.
…and there is something to be said about feeling like a super quirky family that is traveling around with two dogs and a rabbit in a motorhome!