|Welcome to Ramble. This will be our stream of consciousness log as we ramble across America, visiting beaches, rivers, ski resorts, biking trails, national parks and roller coasters. Along the way we'll keep you up to date on what we find : local controversies over beach closings or trail fees, storms or bear attacks we encounter, good food, eccentric characters and new equipment. Unlike most blogs, our posts will appear in chronological order. The last post is the most recent. To read today's post, scroll to the end.|
|I-64. Anybody who pays even a little attention can see we're nearing the end of the oil era. Our grandchildren will study about the 20th Century as The Oil Century. Political posturing, redneck rants and big energy propaganda aside, any rational person can see that the future will consist of putting around towns and cities in electric cars powered by rechargeable batteries, and travelling long distance by passenger trains powered by electricity, either overhead catenary wires or, more likely, huge batteries like the Fairbanks Morse engines already use. Companies are already coming out with electric cars. They still have work to do on lengthening the time a car can run on one charge, on speeding up the time required for a recharge, and on reducing the size and weight of the battery. But they've begun the process. Obviously, the other half of the process is to rebuild the national passenger train network we let decay since 1960. We once had the finest passenger train network in the world. Now we're not in the top 50. We need to get busy. So why do we continue to spend all this money on continually expanding our highway system to three, four, five lanes, and oppose any investment whatever in railroads? You cannot drive anywhere in the country without experiencing delays due to interstate construction. When was the last time anyone saw railroads under construction, being expanded to two tracks or having tracks upgraded to handle 150 - 200 mph passenger trains like they have in Europe and Asia?|
|Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. This is the third least visited national park (behind Theodore Roosevelt and Big Bend), odd since it has so much to offer. Mt. Rogers is the highest peak in Virginia and the park is the centerpiece of the Virginia Highlands, a rugged mountain region which gets very little coverage. Much of the park consists of "balds," high altitude meadows above tree line. Temperatures and humidity are much cooler in Summer than the steamy Ohio Valley. There's no lodge, but there are cabins and campgrounds. Backpacking is the prime activity. The Appalachian Trail comes through, and Mt. Rogers has its own trail network. The Virginia Creeper and New River Rail Trails are two of the nation's best long distance biking routes. The New River has its headwaters here, too far upstream for rafting but great for canoeing. One of the entry towns, Galax, is home to the String Music Museum and the annual National String Museum Festival, which, if you're inerested in fiddles, banjos or guitars, would definitely be worth a visit. From Lexington Mt. Rogers is a six hour drive on I-64 and I-77, allowing Ohio Valley readers a mountain experience close to home without crowded trails.|
|Hatteras Island, NC. It's always great to return to our beloved beach house. We love this house. Two decks and most windows look right out on the ocean. We can eat dinner and watch the waves crashing on the beach and the pelicans snatching fish from the water. The famous lighthouse beam continually sweeps across the house at night. We leave our doors and windows open so we can go to sleep and wake up to the sound of surf.|
|Hatteras Island. The locals are locked into a bitter battle with the National Park Service over beach closings. Driving four wheel vehicles up and down the beaches is a tradition here since World War II, when the army sold off its fleet of jeeps and they were customized into beach buggies. Now the Park Service is fencing off stretches of beach as long as half a mile to protect the nesting sites of the Piping Clover and Sea Turtles. Locals argue that those animals survived the last century just fine, they are not endangered, and nobody ever kills one. The checkout clerk at the grocery told us today she has been actually trying to run over a Piping Plover when she sees one on the highway, and she can't get even close. So she wants to know how, if she can't kill one intentionally going 60, how someone going 5 mph and trying to avoid it can possibly kill one. The local argument is that people come here from all over Carolina, Virginia and further up the coast specifically because they can drive onto the beaches, which is no longer allowed most other places. If those people are barred from driving on the beaches, they'll quit coming, and the local economy will be devastated. The Park Service is not persuaded. It argues that it's not running over the adult Plovers, but running over their nests or their newly hatched young that is the problem with the birds, and the blocking of access back to the ocean so the newly hatched turtles cannot crawl from their nest high in the dunes down to the water where they can swim out to sea. Despite the outcry of locals that the beach closures has had no effect anyway, the Park Service presents evidence the Plovers showed the highest hatchery rates in 23 years in 2009-2010.|
|Hatteras Island. When you're on Hatteras Island, you become hypersensitive to wind information no one pays much attention to inland. Windsurfing, surfing, kite boarding, hang gliding, sailing, kite flying, fishing, bodyboarding, tubing, kayaking and swimming all depend on the wind. It doesn't just matter how hard it's blowing, although you learn to keep an eye on the weather channel for hourly updates on wind speed and gusts. It also makes a huge difference what direction it comes from, because that determines water temperature. When it blows out of the North or Northeast the water turns cold and everyone puts on wetsuits or at least wettops. Wind out of the Southeast or South warms it up in a hurry. Waves also depend on wind direction. Wind out of due East kicks up great waves for surfing and bodyboarding. Wind out of due West flattens the ocean and makes it ideal for kids to play in the surf. A fisherman reads the wind to determine what to fish for, what bait to use and where to put his lines in. Today for the second day in a row the wind is out of the East Northeast, and the surfers are out in force. Vans and dune buggies with surfboards mounted on top or sticking out the back are everywhere. On days the wind is out of the West or Southwest the surfers are nowhere to be seen.|
|Hatteras Island. It's great to once again watch the Brown Pelicans. When I was a kid coming here, they were everywhere, a symbol of the island. As you arrived on the ferry, Brown Pelicans greeted you from their perches atop the pier pilings. All during your stay, they filled the air, swooping down to snatch fish out of the water just beyond where you were swimming or surfing. Then DDT weakened their eggshells so they could not reproduce, and the population plummeted. Slowly, the Brown Pelicans disappeared. DDT was banned, but the damage had been done. For two decades, Brown Pelicans were near extinction, and seeing one was a rare thrill. Then, slowly, they began rebounding. Today, they're back in great numbers. They fly in perfect formations up and down the beaches, and fish out in the water just beyond the shallows. Such an unlikely looking creature, almost comical looking with its huge scoop like beak, soulful eyes, funny feet and off balance body, but so perfectly evolved to fill the ecological niche it has carved out for itself over 10,000 years. On the rare occasion you get close to one, you realize how really big they are. Watching a Brown Pelican ride the air currents up there, then suddenly dive bomb into the water, disappear for a minute, then reappear with a fish tail wiggling out of the side of its beak while the Pelican regains altitude, is endlessly fascinating.|
|Hatteras Island. It's interesting to watch people learning how to do things out here. Vacationers are continually taking lessons in windsurfing, surfing, bodyboarding, kite boarding, hang gliding and kayaking. Some very good athletes, some of them players on high school and college teams back home, find these water sports almost impossible. Some delicate looking kids become very proficient very quickly. It's always comical to watch the cute blonde pick up windsurfing or surfing on the first day while her studly football player boyfriend keeps falling back into the water. It becomes painfully obvious that the key to all these sports is body balance and body control. Some people have it, and some don't. If you're big enough, strong enough and fast enough, you can play football or some other sports without it. But out here, lack of body balance and body control is a fatal flaw, one you cannot compensate for with any other quality. It's also interesting to see how amazed people are at how exhausting these sports are. 30 minutes or an hour can send a beginner to the beach for an hour's nap. Yesterday a Pilates instructor took her first windsurfing lesson and was unable to finish it. She had thought her conditioning would give her an advantage, but the muscles she was used to working were irrelevant. When you're on that board, a hundred times a minute your muscles are making tiny adjustments to counter shifts in the water under you and the wind around you. It wears you out quickly. Anyone who surfs, windsurfs or kiteboards on a daily basis will end the Summer with incredible muscle tone, a very impressive six pack, and cardiovascular readings off the chart.|
|Hatteras Island.These Manta Rays are incredible animals. They eat plankton, so they're certainly not dangerous to humans. They just cruise along underwater in the shallows. Water passes into their mouths, a filter strains out the plankton, and the water drains out the sides. But they're huge. Out in the Pacific, it's a sport for scuba divers to climb on and ride them. No one does that back here, but every once in a while one leaps out of the water, and with those wings remains airborne for up to a minute. At dusk and dawn, when insects are most plentiful, Mantas will also swim up into a wave, then break out of it and ride the trough, skimming along the water just ahead of the wave scooping up insects. Their wings are extremely soft, and little kids always get a thrill from petting them. The huge crowds of people in the water have driven the Mantas away from Myrtle Beach and the Florida beaches, but out here, with far fewer people in the water, the Mantas are able to peacefully coexist. They avoid the big fishing piers and the most popular beaches but are quite common along most of the other beaches, especially the ones between towns.|
|Hatteras Island. One of the big stories of 2010 was the return of Buxton Beach to its former glory. For most of the 20th Century, Buxton Beach was the finest natural beach on the Atlantic Coast, and arguably the finest natural beach in the nation. (By "Natural" we mean unmaintained. Most coastal beaches along the Atlantic Coast are artificially maintained with grooming machines and sand dredging to keep them clean and level. Here on Hatteras, this being a National Park, the ocean is left to its own processes. Driftwood, seaweed and shells wash up with every tide, and the beaches change with storms and the whims of the ocean.) Then the ocean began narrowing and steepening the beach, until it lost its top rating. For a decade, Lighthouse Beach a mile down the shore and Cocquina Beach on Ocracoke Island surpassed Buxton Beach. But during the 2009-10 offseason, the ocean built Buxton Beach back out, pulling sand from the dunes and extending the shallows back out to their former length. Over one more Winter, this rebuilding has continued, until Buxton Beach now in 2011 has the classic trough and bar profile it was famous for. You can surf with full boards or body boards or surfyak outside the bar, or tube, float or snorkle in the trough between the bar and shore. Today, Buxton Beach looks like it did in the 1950s and 1960s, and it's once again rated the finest natural beach in North America. Not even the artificially maintained beaches can match it because their machinery cannot duplicate the trough and bar profile.|
|Hatteras Island. Today we saw the only perfect triple rainbow we've ever seen anywhere. The 5 pm sun was dropping in the sky behind us and a rain shower had fallen out over the ocean. Suddenly the rainbow began coming into focus. All three were very sharp, the colors very bright, and the three bows all rose out of the ocean, arced over us, and disappeared into the ocean with no gaps whatever. The colors were so bright that the rainbow even reflected across the water, the only time we've ever seen that happen. As we stepped out onto the deck of our beach house with our cameras, cars began pulling up along the street as others had seen it from back in town and come out for a better look. We tried to take photos but it was much too large to fit into a single frame. Abby used the video attachment on our Nikkon camera, panning from one base up and over to the other base. We'll try to post that. The rainbow lasted much longer than most rainbows, as a light rain continued to fall. It was a sight none of us will ever forget.|
|Hatteras Island. This beach was where we learned to surf. It was back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when surfing was first migrating from California to the East Coast. We were little kids then, and the long, heavy wooden boards were hard to handle. We would sit on the beach between sessions in the water and argue with the hard core surfing crowd about how inappropriate those long boards were. We argued that they evolved in the huge waves of Hawaii and were overkill for these smaller Atlantic Coast swells. They scorned such suggestions, implying that it would be wimpy to question the power of the long boards. By 1970, however, shorter boards became the fashion, and East Coast surfers could suddenly do the same things on a board that their Pacific colleagues had always done. Decade by decade, the boards have slowly shortened. Today, they are short, light, fast, quick and maneuverable. Middle school girls easily pick one up and haul it up and down the beaches. This has been the norm for the last decade. Now, more and more, we're seeing the next step. Bodyboarding has long been popular out here. These are about half the length of surfboards. Cheap styrofoam imitations can be bought at gas stations and convenience stores, but high quality bodyboards with inner support ribs, hard edges and proper flex cost over $100. However, after years of practicing, now we're seeing more and more bodyboarders doing the same things on them that have always been the exclusive domaion of full board surfers. They're sitting up, kneeling and now even standing on the bodyboards, leaning and curling into the waves, doing 360s and other fancy tricks. And they can do all this on much smaller waves. One has to wonder how much longer the full length surfboards will be around on the East Coast, given their greater cost, inconvenience in transporting (they need a roof carrier while a bodyboard can be tucked in a trunk or backseat), and appeal to the X Games crowd.|
Hatteras Island. For most of our lives, shelling has been a favorite activity here. You could get up in the morning, take a basket, walk up and down the tideline, and fill the basket with whatever kind of shells you liked. You could be extremely picky. If a shell had a slight crack, hole, worn edge or discolored section, you discarded it. You only took perfect shells. It got so selective that, in the case of Scallops, if the tiny ridge that was the hinge was worn off, you discarded it. In contests or on sale at a store, such flaws lowered the score or the price. People used shells for all sorts of artwork. They glued shells onto lampshades, made Christmas Tree hangings from them, filled table piece baskets with them, or filled glass columns with them and mounted a bulb and lampshade on top for a very decorative light. The variety was astonishing. On any day, at low tide, you could gather Scallops, Olives, and 100 other kinds of shells. The big prize was a Conch. Lots of them washed in, but to get one in perfect condition was the triumph of a vacation. You would usually only take home one or two Conchs a year.
This has all changed. Now, many days, there is not a shell on the beach. Other days, there are fragments but no whole shells. On a typical two week visit, you will usually only have one or two days of full shelling, and even then, they're not nearly as plentiful nor in as good a condition as they used to be. Why this is has become a frequent topic of conversation. There are various theories. Some say the currents have changed and the shells are just washing up somewhere else. Some say the shells are simply gone, that a huge backlog had built up before white men came to America and it took us several centuries to gather them, but we finally did it, and now the ocean is only producing a small number of new ones each year. The most interesting theory is that these islands have always drifted back and forth with the rise and fall of the ocean, always maintaining the same distance from the mainland. Now, with towns and highways, we've forcibly stabilized the islands. We won't let them drift. But the ocean is rising again. The islands really want to drift westward, toward the Carolina shore. Since we won't let them drift, what used to be the gradual Continental Shelf is steepening, so now, just off the beach, the bottom drops down in a much steeper slope. The slope is simply too steep for shells to wash up to the beach. Scuba divers say a mile or so offshore, when they go down to wrecks or other sites, the same number of shells are laying around as always. They just can't get up these steeper slopes. Whichever reason is correct, it is certainly sad that today's little kids can't grow up shelling like previous generations have always done.
|Hatteras Island. Every year we go out deep sea fishing for one day. This is the kind of fishing where you sit in the chair and fight to reel in the fish over 15 minutes or more. Marlin is the famous fish everyone dreams of, but most of a day's catch is Yellowfin Tuna, Blackfin Tuna, Wahoo, Dolphin (the fish, the one the restaurants call Mahi Mahi to differentiate it from the mammal Dolphin, which is actually a Porpoise) and sometimes Grouper or Sea Bass. We've been doing this every year for a very long time, going out on a charter boat from Hatteras Harbor. This year we went out on the Release, part of a group of five, captained by Rom Whitaker with J. D. Payne as Mate. We had a record setting day, our best ever fishing the Gulf Stream. We caught 390 pounds of fish, including 56 Tuna and Dolphin. We divided the catch equally among the five fishers. Temporarily, we had ours stored in the freezers at the Hatteras Harbor Fish House, and when we head home, we'll pack ours in dry ice and seal it with duct tape inside a thick walled cooler. We'll be eating semifresh Tuna and Dolphin all Winter. Way out there, 25 miles offshore, life gets interesting. While we're fishing, we see Porpoises, various kinds of Whales including Humpbacks, Flying Fish, Sea Turtles, huge expanses up to a square mile of Sargasso (sea grass), and occasionally a Shark. We also see huge container ships bringing cargo from China to ports up and down the Atlantic, and Russian, Japanese and Norwegian fishing ships. Those fishing ships are gone from home for six months. On board each one has a gym, bowling alley, and movie theatre. They process each day's catch right on the ship. Their presence is a continual source of irritation to the U.S. Government, which claims territorial waters out to the edge of the Continental Shelf. The rest of the world only recognizes a 25 mile limit, so they insist on fishing "our" waters, which contain the greatest fishing grounds on the planet.|
|Hatteras Island. We have two areas of the beach fenced off this year while Sea Turtle eggs hatch. The big Sea Turtles lumber ashore under the full moon and lay their eggs in the sand. Later, under another full moon, thoe eggs hatch, and the little turtles, about as big as the palm of your hand, crawl back down across the sand to the water and swim out to sea. Park Service rangers patrol the beach every sunrise checking for signs eggs have been laid. When they find them, they fence off a large square (it's up along the dune line, so it doesn't stop people from going in the water). They keep records so they know when the eggs are about to hatch. They then fence off a corridor all the way down to the water so the turtles have a clear path. We are now at that point, so the rangers yesterday fenced off the corridor. Every night now at midnight we'll go down with our flashlight and see if the turtles are emerging. Once a hatch has occured and all the sea turtles who emerged have crawled down to the water, the next morning, in daylight, the rangers dig out the eggs and "rescue" any of the turtles who for whatever reason, didn't make it on their own. They then release them into the water. This little fella will grow to 800 pounds and outlive any of us.|
|Williamsburg, Va. We treasure our once a year visit to this historical village, the second capitol of Virginia after they moved it here from Jamestown. But 108 degrees??? Wow. We've backpacked in 110 degrees at the Grand Canyon, but it was a very dry heat. The humidity here makes this a sauna. We still enjoy our annual dinner at Christiana Campbell's, the restaurant where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other colonials ate and where Washington, Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette laid their plans for the battle of Yorktown the night before they marched there. This being one of America's top 10 seafood restaurants, we usually order that, but this year they have Rainbow Trout on the menu, and we find it outstanding.|
|Williamsburg. There should be a law requiring every school district in America to bring every student here three times---once each in grade school, middle school and high school, each time for several days. "Williamsburg" really includes the original colony of Jamestown (It was built in a low marsh and was so bug infested they finally relocated up the road to Williamsburg) and Yorktown (the final battle of the Revolution). Williamsburg was the capitol of Virginia until after the Revolution. Once they relocated the capitol to Richmond, Williamsburg was pretty much abandoned and there was no reason for continuing commercial or residential development, so when, in the 20th Century, the thought occurred to John D. Rockefeller that this was a priceless treasure and a window into America's past, it was perfect for restoration. Now, 60 years and millions of dollars, mostly his, later, we can see the wisdom of his vision. Boston, Philadelphia, San Antonio and other places have preserved individual buildings and in some cases whole blocks of history, but Williamsburg is the only entire 18th Century town we have, where you can walk for blocks and totally immerse yourself in the atmosphere of our Founding Fathers. A student, or for that matter an adult, can soak up more feel for American history here in one day than in a year in a classroom.|
|Williamsburg. The College of William & Mary would certainly be interesting to attend. It was founded in 1693. Harvard had been founded in 1636, but William & Mary was only the second college in America, and because of the influential men who taught there and attended there, William & Mary quickly rivalled Harvard as a center of learning and leadership. Today, located right in the heart of the historic district, William & Mary is still one of our greatest liberal arts colleges. Obviously, its History Department is outstanding, especially its focus on Colonial History. But its Literature, Marine Biology and other majors are also very prestigious. And to be able to work part time as an interpreter or other historical specialist at Williamsburg, Jamestown or Yorktown would be an education in itself.|
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