Category: birding

The Pause That Refreshes – Part 3

A view of Hatteras Lighthouse, and an early moon

A view of Hatteras Lighthouse, and an early moon

When I set out for Hatteras Island the weather was overcast and a bit drizzly, which meant no sun in my eyes as I drove due east. I was grateful for that.  I imagine the route I took, which is only two lanes for a good part of the drive, can be hellish with beachgoing traffic on a summer Friday afternoon, but on an early autumn Monday morning it was quiet and calming.  I cranked the windows down and listened to some quiet music and craved some breakfast, but I’d already told myself I’d stop for a good lunch once I crossed the Croatan and Roanoke Sounds into the Outer Banks.  Three hours later, right at lunchtime, I arrived.  I knew I wanted to go to Sam and Omie’s to dine, and only had a vague idea of its location, but like a homing pigeon I went right to it.  I was just ahead of the lunch rush and had my shrimp burger and onion rings in no time flat (a continuation of the ruinous eating choices I made in Raleigh).  Then I got back in the car, pointed it south on NC 12 and crossed the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge onto Hatteras Island.

The northernmost part of Hatteras Island is occupied by the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and once you get past it and the towns of Rodanthe and Salvo, the view gives way to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.  There’s not much to see but dunes, ponds and the occasional sound or sea view.  There was a fair amount of repair work being done on NC 12, partly as a result of Hurricane Arthur’s drive-by back in July, and I had to keep my eyes open to the many, often rapidly-changing speed limits as I headed toward Buxton and the Cape Hatteras Motel, my ultimate destination.  After another hour’s drive (and a stop at a grocery store in Avon to pick up a few supplies), I arrived, checked in and got my key to my second-floor oceanfront room from Dave, the friendly manager.

A little too "oceanfront" for my taste.

A little too “oceanfront” for my taste.

If you look at the photos of the property from the website link above, you’ll see a big dune and a boardwalk to the beach from the oceanfront rooms.  Both dune and boardwalk are gone – casualties, I’m told, of Hurricane Isabel more than ten years ago.  Beach erosion here has been quite bad, as you can see from this photo of a property right next to the hotel (note the big sandbags at the foot of the property).  I’m sure the guys fishing off the deck thought it was great, but the waves breaking around the property’s foundations would have spooked me a bit, particularly at high tide.  At said high tide, the porch outside my room was literally a stone’s throw from the water, and you wouldn’t need to throw that stone very hard.

That said, the view from my room was delicious, and once I opened the windows, so was the sea breeze and the sound of the waves crashing.  I hauled my stuff from the car up to my room (a bit of a workout, since the motel is a typical Outer Banks mom-and-pop place and has no elevators) and put everything away.  The Cape Hatteras Motel isn’t luxe by any stretch – one of my two dresser drawers was stuck shut and an armchair was so seat-sprung you couldn’t sit in it – but it was the end of the season and I was willing to put up with it for the location.  There was a long counter with coffee-maker and toaster where I could prep food, as well as a small refrigerator and a microwave, so I made a pact with myself that I would eat two meals “in” each day to try to get my eating habits back on track.


View from my oceanfront window.

HAH.  I was in the land of fried and broiled seafood, not to mention HUSH PUPPIES, which are like crack to me.  I stayed in the first night, creating a nutritionally-responsible dinner from my personal stores and enjoying the experience of writing right by the window with the waves roaring just outside (it was a particularly windy night).  I was also a good girl the next day and made breakfast and lunch in my room, since I mostly hung around on the motel’s beach, although I did make a short jaunt to Hatteras Lighthouse in its new location.  I’m well-acquainted with the structure, having visited it many times in the past and climbed it with John and Margaret on my last visit (when it was still perilously close to the surf line due to beach erosion), but it was nice to see the old girl in a safe place.  I drove out to the lighthouse’s previous location and did a little birdwatching (a Double-Crested Cormorant and a Great Egret, neither of which were new to me but were nice to observe all the same) then headed back to the hotel, showered, changed clothes and went to The Captain’s Table for dinner.  I don’t remember what I had – a glass of wine and a broiled seafood dinner of some kind which was good – but I made a pig of myself on the hush puppies and then waddled back to my hotel room and wrote for a while, with another glass of wine and some totally unnecessary munchies to keep me company.  I went to bed early as I hadn’t slept well the night before (never do, in a new place) and because I was getting up early to go to Ocracoke Island in the morning.

An Apple Ugly - about a quarter of the way in.

An Apple Ugly – about a quarter of the way in.

Since Ocracoke is only accessible by air or boat, I did what most folks do and took the ferry.  Since I love ferries and was still feeling nutritionally reckless, I stopped at the Orange Blossom Bakery and Cafe and bought one of their famous Apple Uglies, a ginormous apple fritter which cost, I think, all of $3.50.  I put it aside while I drove to the ferry station at the very end of Hatteras Island, although the urge to pick at it during the trip was almost more than I could stand.  I pulled into the line for the ferry and with about twenty minutes to kill, chowed down on the Ugly.  IT WAS DELICIOUS.  Kind of insanely delicious, and every bit the size of my whole hand, fingers and all.  I ate two-thirds of it and forced myself to wrap up the rest of it up.  I washed it down with a Diet Pepsi (OF COURSE) and fortunately had some water to wash the sticky goodness from my greedy digits.  About then the folks running the ferry starting directing us aboard, and I was lucky enough to get a front-row position.  As instructed, I put the emergency brake on, shut off the ignition and watched as they chocked my wheels.

The sturdy little Mrs Mig2 on the Ocracoke ferry.

The sturdy little Mrs Mig2 on the Ocracoke ferry.

It was a gorgeous morning for a ferry ride, but I was glad I’d brought my jacket as it was windy on the water.  It was a bit too rough to birdwatch – my binoculars kept jiggling from the chop – but I saw the usual Brown Pelicans and Herring Gulls and more cormorants and lots of other seabirds, and just contented myself leaning on the rail and looking.  Other ferry passengers came up to enjoy the view and several of them got splashed when the occasional wave broke over the ferry’s nose.  The trip took about 55 splendid minutes – if one could travel in a straight line it would take a fraction of that time, but because of the shoals the ferries have to describe a route that’s like an inverted U – and then we were landing at Ocracoke.  There’s not much besides the ferry station at that end of Ocracoke Island; you have to drive another dozen miles to get to Ocracoke Village, passing through more of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Ocracoke Village is quaint and rather charming, particularly in the off-season when many of the tourist-y places have closed for the season.  Many people park their cars and rent golf carts to get around, but as the village isn’t that big and I have two perfectly functional legs, I didn’t see the point.  I parked near the southern ferry docks (where you can take a ferry to Cedar Island or Swan’s Landing), paid a quick visit to the Ocracoke Preservation Museum (where I learned, to my surprise, that figs are HUGE in Ocracoke – another thing to love about it) and then set out walking to the Ocracoke Lighthouse.

The plump and comely Ocracoke Lighthouse.

The plump and comely Ocracoke Lighthouse.

It’s a squatty little structure, nothing like its towering cousin on Hatteras, and you can’t climb it, but it still looked pretty in the morning light.  Did I mention it was a beautiful day?  As it got warmer, I stripped off my jacket to enjoy the sun, but nearly put it back on as I made a side trip through Springer’s Point Preserve, which is a maritime forest and reputedly once a hangout of the pirate Teach (better known as “Blackbeard”).  I was beset by mosquitoes a short way down the trail and was grateful I’d brought bug spray, although I wished I’d had the foresight to apply it before starting my walk.  The trail empties out onto a soundside beach, and I sat on one of the thoughtfully-provided benches and took in the view before heading back.

I walked back through the village, finally ending up at Books to Be Red and Deepwater Pottery, where I indulged myself in two books about local history, two bars of scented soap, a pretty cuff bracelet and a nice conversation about Snowy Owls with the lady running the shop.  Apparently two of the birds visited Ocracoke during the winter and were quite the media sensation.  The lady was kind enough to invite me behind the counter to look at the shop’s Facebook page on her computer, where some wonderful photos of the owls were posted.

By the time I finished at the bookstore, it was just after the lunch hour and I thought I’d better find myself something to eat.  Many restaurants were closed for the season, but I stumbled upon Dajio, which was open, lucky me.  I had one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches of my life there:  manchego and Vermont cheddar on country white bread with bacon and green chile chutney.  It was so good I could have eaten it twice.


Ocracoke pony stops for a drink.

Lunch devoured, I went back to my car and headed back to the northern ferry dock.  Along the way I stopped at the Ocracoke Wild Pony pasture viewing site and was treated to a view of a half-dozen or so of the horses, one of which came to a nearby pond for a drink while three Killdeer squawked in the grass close by, as if upset about the pony’s incursion on their turf.  Back at the dock, I forced myself to toss away the remains of the Apple Ugly (stale or no, I would have continued noshing on it Because It Was There) and then enjoyed another ride back over the waves to Hatteras.  I had dinner in the room, along with more wine, and then enjoyed a solid night’s sleep after so much fresh sea air and sunshine.

The next day I mostly loafed on the beach, reading, taking photos, strolling around and watching the surf roll in and out.  I didn’t see any dolphins, which was a wee bit disappointing, and most of the shore bird life was comprised of Sanderlings, Sand Pipers and Willets – all familiar to me.  In my rambles I stumbled across the remains of someone’s sand castle, which made a nice photo.

Sunrise with Sandcastle

Sandcastle morning.

After a shower and change of clothes, I went to dinner at Diamond Shoals Restaurant, which was so close I could have walked to it (but I drove, lazy me).  I had a delicious broiled grouper filet with a side of very good green beans and MORE hush puppies, and I was such a pig that I asked for seconds of those.  I went back to the motel and packed up most of my gear so I wouldn’t disturb anyone when I left in the morning – the motel, which had been largely empty through most of my stay, was starting to fill up with weekend fisherfolk.  I got the car partially loaded and then read for a while before turning off the light and enjoying my last ocean lullaby before I dropped off.

I woke up before my alarm went off and was able to catch a final shot of the beach at sunrise (I’ll share it with you to conclude this post).  I dropped off my key at the motel’s still-closed office and drove north back over the Bonner Bridge.  I stopped at the Charles Kuralt trail at the Pea Island National Refuge and did a little birdwatching, where I saw a White Ibis, Louisiana Heron, White Egret (all familiar to me) and a Lesser Yellowlegs (which was not, and got added to my birding Life List).  I also got chewed up by mosquitoes and had a near encounter with a confident young racoon when I got off the main trail.  I stopped for a few minutes at the Bodie Island Lighthouse on Nags Head and then continued on home, refreshed and rejuvenated, my little ten-day solo jaunt a rousing success.


Hatteras sunrise, with pelican flyby.


The Pause That Refreshes – Part 1


The second floor porch of The Porches

It’s one of those things we actors folks both dream about and dread:  unrelieved, overlapping gigs.  Show after show, gig after gig, all tumbling together on the calendar like a bunch of happy puppies, difficult to manage, nearly impossible to organize, hard not to love.  I’ve been going nonstop since October a year past, industrial upon workshop upon one-nighter upon show uponshowuponshow.  Don’t think for a minute I’m not grateful; I am.  Back to back gigs in my line of work are something to be celebrated.  It’s like having a “real” job for a change:  knowing exactly what you’ll be doing a week from today, the ability to plan ahead, and most important, the constant paychecks.

But after nearly a year of it, I was desperate for a break.  I only get one day off a week, and that’s Monday, and it’s usually filled with mundane things like laundry, grocery shopping, housework and making dinner for my long-suffering husband.  I had a month-long break in June, but I spent it with my mother in Tennessee, getting her house in order after she’d been in rehab following a fall and a fractured hip.  It was a break from show biz, yes, but it was not a Break in the normal sense of the word and in fact, was a lot more stressful than I realized.  I looked at my calendar and saw that I would have three weeks off between SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at Signature Theatre and THE LITTLE MERMAID at Olney Theatre.  And I said to myself, “by gum, Self, you are going to take a REAL BREAK.”

Unfortunately John had a project due at work, so we couldn’t take a break together, but with his blessing I decided to strike off on my own.  The first thing I wanted was to have some uninterrupted writing time.  Through research and the recommendation of playwright Bob Bartlett, I settled on a three-day stay at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia.  As soon as SUNDAY closed, I packed my bags and my travel  computer and set off for Central Virginia.

Front Gate of The Porches

Front Gate of The Porches

Trudy Hale, owner and hostess of The Porches, sent along a sheet of directions and advised that I use them instead of my in-vehicle GPS.  There’s a reason for this:  Norwood, Virginia is out in the boondocks, and when I was about fifteen miles out from my destination my GPS simply stopped working.  Fortunately Trudy’s directions are quite clear, and I pulled into the gravel driveway of The Porches around 4:30 PM on Tuesday.

Trudy met me at the door, along with Jenny, one of the other writers in residence.  There were two other writers at The Porches when I arrived, and all three of them left the following day.  I chatted at length with Jenny, exchanged only a few words with Anne, and never even saw Henry.  Privacy is tantamount at The Porches; there are rules about keeping quiet during the day so you don’t disturb other writers as they woo their Muse.


My little bed in the Jade Room.

I unpacked the car, stowing my foodstuff in the Writers’ Refectory (a large first-floor kitchen and dining room) and dragging my other things up to my assigned quarters:  The Jade Room, on the top floor of house.  Initially I was a little dismayed at being waaaaay up there (in addition, the Jade Room is the only room equipped with a single bed instead of a double), but after I’d gotten moved in I had to admit it was an awfully nice place.  It was a light, airy room with a skylight, plenty of windows, a view of the treetops and loads and loads of quiet.  It also had a generous workspace for my computer and attendant Writing Junk, a power strip for All The Things That Must Be Plugged In, a ceiling fan and good lamps for writing at night

Not that I did much writing that first night.  I was too busy getting oriented and arranged, and discovering that there was absolutely no cell reception anywhere on the property (“AT&T and Verizon don’t get along up here,” was Trudy’s explanation).  I had to email John to let him know I’d arrived, and we kept communicating via email, and you know what? it wasn’t so bad.  I wrote him a little letter in the morning and sometimes one at night, and it was actually sort of sweet.

My sleep that night was only so-so, as I expected.  I never sleep well the first night away from home, and the final week of SUNDAY’s run I’d had some kind of bad reaction to a bug bite that made me break out in hives – some of which might have been stress-oriented.  I’d been to the doctor and gotten a steroid shot to bring the hives under control, but I still had some major itching going on.  All the same, I got up the following morning ready to write.  Trudy was already gone – driving Henry to the airport in DC (!) and Jenny and Anne departed not long after, so I had the house to myself.  After breakfast, I got to work.  I took a break for lunch and kept on going until about 2 PM, when I realized my eyes were crossing and I needed a break.  I stuck my phone in my pocket (although I couldn’t make any calls, I could take photos) and struck off to see what the neighborhood looked like.

Heading down Norwood Road, with Maizie in the lead.

Heading down Norwood Road, with Maizie in the lead.

Maizie, Trudy’s dog, was waiting just outside the gate and happily accompanied me on my walk.  There was no one else around; not a soul.  The only other person I saw on my 45-minute walk was a school bus driver, who waved to me as she passed the first time and waved again on her return trip (I wondered what poor kid lived way up here in the boonies).  I crossed a little stream (I found out later it was not a stream at all, but the Tye River, a tributary of the James River which is not far away from The Porches), looked at a cow with her calf out in a field, saw a lot of old ruined houses and barns (very picturesque; made me wish I was a painter), and generally just enjoyed the fresh air.  It was overcast and smelled like rain, and by the time I returned to The Porches (Maizie having long ago abandoned me for a neighbor’s yard) it was beginning to drizzle.  I met Trudy out in the garden with a trowel and trug; she had only just gotten back from her trip to DC.  I thought it was awfully nice of her to drive Henry all that way, but she shrugged and said she’d known him for thirty years.  We stood in front of the house chatting for nearly an hour; she told me that she owns the little church just across Norwood Road from The Porches, and has hopes of turning it into an art studio/gallery at some point.  She also told me a way to get down to the River Tye, and the best walks in the neighborhood.  It started to rain in earnest then, and Trudy went into her side of the house, and I went upstairs to the Jade Room and got back to work.  It rained the rest of the day and into the night, but the drumming of it on the tin roof was oddly comforting.

A view of the Tye River

A view of the Tye River

I wrote nearly 2000 words my first full day at The Porches, which probably doesn’t sound like much but it’s a lot more than I’ve been averaging of late.  I generally peck out 500 or so words a day, but my excuse is that I edit and polish as I go – a system some writers scoff at, preferring to burp up words without stopping, but I’ve written two previous books this way and it’s what works for me.  In addition to writing, I also read and did some yoga and never once turned on a TV (there’s one downstairs for them as wants it).  Day Two was much the same, except even quieter – I had the whole house to myself.  I followed much the same pattern:  wrote all morning, took a break for lunch, wrote until midafternoon, went for a walk (this time sans Maizie, who couldn’t be bothered).  I didn’t get as much written the second day:  only about 1000 words, and I wasn’t entirely happy with it, but this is a first draft, after all, and I’ll fix it in rewrites.

So after my two full days and two partial days at The Porches, I can give it my heartiest recommendation.  It’s quiet, it’s comfortable and it’s been lovingly laid out for working writers.  The Refectory has plenty of refrigerator and storage space; the Writers’ Lounge looked comfy but I never used it – too busy writing.  I brought my own books to The Porches but it was like bringing sand to the beach – every room in the house, with the exception of the bathrooms, had books in it.  I had a peek into the other rooms and each of them is a veritable Writer’s Haven, with good light, a comfortable work space, great views and cozy armchairs and sofas for lounging in.  The price is reasonable, the location gorgeous, and Trudy was funny, kind and welcoming.


Workspace with a treetop view

I’m off on the next leg of my three-legged trip tomorrow:  heading to Raleigh to visit my sister Margaret, by way of Appomattox Court House and environs.  I’m looking forward to a weekend featuring a beer fest and a hockey game.  It’s the antithesis of The Porches’ serene atmosphere, but after so much solitude, I’m about ready to be join the human race again.

More later.

Kentucky Shaker Weekend – Part Two


An open gate at South Union Shaker Village.

As I headed south through Kentucky, the snow disappeared and the sun played hide and seek with the clouds.  Even without the snow it was still cold and blustery as I got off I-65 and turned west on US 68/State Route 80.

I had been on this stretch of road back in August, when I had accompanied John on a trip to Cave City, KY and made a quick side jaunt to visit my mother.  The drive is a pretty one, on a good road that passes through rolling farmland and never seems to be heavily traveled.  I had noted signs for another Shaker Village on that trip, and that’s where I was headed now.

In the early 1800s this part of the country was a hotbed of religious activity.  The Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement, sent evangelical ministers into newly settled regions to enroll new members via camp meetings.  Lucy Wright, leader of the Shakers at the time, sent her missionaries to proselytize in Vermont, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky, and it was at this time that several Shaker communities were established.  The Pleasant Hill settlement was one, and another was located at South Union, in Logan County.

Like Pleasant Hill, the Shaker community at South Union thrived during the pre-Civil War era and produced furniture, textiles and farm implements and was part of the birth of the seed industry in the area.  And like Pleasant Hill, South Union also suffered economic setbacks after the war, resulting in a decrease in membership.  (Remember, these folks practiced celibacy, so new members had to come from the outside, rather than being born into the faith.)  The South Union community last a few years longer than Pleasant Hill, with its remaining members selling off the settlement’s worldly goods and property at public auction and closing its doors in 1922.  Restoration of this site began in 1971.

The South Union site sits about a mile off the main road and consists of five buildings on approximately 500 acres of land.  There’s a small visitor center with a gravel parking lot, and that’s where I headed first.  The nice young man running the visitors center gave me a dollar off the $8.00 admission fee since I’d visited Pleasant Hill – even though the two organizations aren’t connected.  There were no tours that day and I had the place all to myself, but he told me the main building, which houses a museum and gift shop, was open, and that I was free to walk around as I pleased.


Shaker barn.

So I did.

I bundled up in my gloves and parka and fleece headband and struck off across a nearby field to visit the Shaker Grain Barn.  It was wide open and felt just a little eerie; the wind was gusting and making all the loose bits creak and groan.  I explored it a little:  went up some staircases that were roped off at the top and it would have been easy just to step over the ropes to explore further – but it was just too creepy.  In fact, the whole area seemed a bit creepy – maybe it was because I was by myself, or because the wind was blowing so hard or because I keep seeing starling murmurations overhead (I took some videos of my own but they didn’t come out very well).  I decided to walk further out into the fields, and that’s when I came upon the Shaker cemetery.

When the few remaining Shakers sold out and left the area in 1922, they left behind a sizeable graveyard with some 425 people buried there.  Some of the graves were marked with stone markers, and others with iron “lollipop” markers.  A Louisville businessman bought much of the Shaker property, including the burial ground.  So what did he do with it?  He took down the fence around it, pulled up the stone markers and had them ground up and used to lime the fields.  Apparently he also had the iron lollipop markers simply plowed under, because the restoration folks have founds shards of them by the bucketful.  The cemetery was built upon and cultivated, and for the longest time no one was exactly certain where the graves were.  Eventually a grant allowed the non-profit which runs the site to bring in ground-penetrating radar, and the gravesites were finally located.


The Shaker cemetery, with the nearby Fathers of Mercy complex in the background.

Now the cemetery has a fence again, and a single monolithic stone marker serves as a memorial to all the Shakers who rest there.  It’s a sobering sight, and with the starlings whirring and wheeling overhead, a little melancholy as well.

I made my way over to the village’s Center House, which houses the museum.  It’s an imposing brick building but it smelled wonderful when I walked in:  warm and scented with coffee and baked goods.  That’s because the gift shop is located on the bottom floor.  I decided to save that until last and worked my way up through the museum.  It’s beautifully laid out and the exhibits are fascinating.  There’s a whole section dedicated to the cemetery, with a case full of those shattered iron lollipop grave markers that have been painstakingly pieced together, along with supporting documents from the settlements’ papers – so much so that the former residents came alive as I read their histories.  I was also startled at the amount of artifacts and furniture on display that was ORIGINAL to the site (most of the furniture at Pleasant Hill seemed to be reproduction).  Apparently the local folks that came to the South Union auction back in ’22 cherished their Shaker purchases and were kind enough to return pieces when restoration of the site began.


View out the window of the Center House.

After I’d spent an hour or so in the museum, I went downstairs to the gift shop.  The prices seemed far more reasonable than at Pleasant Hill, and I bought some soaps and tea and herb mixtures, the latter from Sabbathday Lake in Maine, the last active Shaker community in the United States.  I also bought an unusual “turkey wing” whisk broom to use on my potting bench, which turned out to have been made by the young man running the visitors center (he stopped in to help the lady in the gift store with a computer issue).  He told me he had taught himself how to make them by studying pictures, and invited me to stop back by the visitors center to see some hawk-wing whisks he’d been working on.

From the museum I pottered around on the grounds for a while, but the afternoon was starting to wane, I still had another hour or so to drive and I knew my mother was waiting for me.  I stopped back by the visitors center to look at the hawk-wing whisks, but the young man wasn’t there although the whisks were.  I had a look at them, admiring the handiwork and the patience that they must have taken.  I was charmed at the thought of that earnest young man, greeting visitors on a cold February morning and using his spare time to make by hand a utilitarian item that could be mass-produced in a matter of seconds by machine – but where’s the beauty in that?  As the Shakers said:

“Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”

Kentucky Shaker Weekend – Part One


The view from my bedroom at Pleasant Hill, about 7 AM on a cold, snowy morning.

My mother’s birthday is in early February.  Since that usually coincides with the end of the run of whatever holiday show I’ve booked, my practice is to take a few days and drive down to northwest Tennessee.  I celebrate Mom’s birthday with her, visit my sister Joan and her kids, maybe see my Aunt Julia who lives a few hours away.  I always enjoy the trip except for the drive, which involves about ten and a half solid hours in the car, mostly on interstates, with very little scenery and no time to stop even if there was something to see.

This year I decided to shake things up a little and go a different route.  Normally I go south through Virginia and then west through Tennessee to get to my mom’s, but this time I decided to go through West Virginia and Kentucky.  I knew it would add another hour to my travel time, but I thought it might be fun to break the trip halfway and stop overnight someplace.  That would give me time to do a little sightseeing on the way.  I started doing a little internet research but kept coming up with chain hotels and the same old/same old B&Bs.

Then I stumbled on the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.  It’s in Harrodsburg, KY and was a little further down the road than I had originally planned to go on my first travel day, but the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became.

The Shakers, or as they call themselves, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, is a religious sect started in the mid-1700s with an emphasis on ecstatic worship services, a celibate communal life, equality of the races and sexes, hard work and craftmanship, and the belief that doing something well was, in itself, an act of prayer.  The settlement at Pleasant Hill was established in 1805 and thrived for nearly fifty years before the post-Civil War industrial revolution changed both society and the economy.  After a long, slow decline, the settlement closed its doors in 1910, but restoration work began in 1961 and the site today features 36 of the original 260 structures built by the Pleasant Hill Shakers.

As one might expect, Pleasant Hill is most popular in warmer months, but even in February one can stay in one of the restored buildings.  I was able to book a room in the West Family Dwelling (with private bath) for a single night at a cost that was in line with rates at chain hotels in the nearby Lexington area.  The Winter Kitchen, located in the basement of the building, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so I made a dinner reservation as well, packed my stuff in the car and on a cold and blustery morning, headed out.


My Shaker reproduction bed, complete with Tempur-Pedic mattress.

I had some delays along the way and ended up driving the final miles of the trip down a winding back road in the dark, so I was grateful when I arrived at the village entrance.  I had to drive to the Trustees’ Building to check in, then drive to the West Family Dwelling.  I’d asked for a quiet room with a pretty view, which meant I was on the third floor, but I knew this in advance and had packed an overnight bag just for this leg of the trip.  I hurried up all the pretty staircases, stashed stuff in my room and then ran downstairs just in time for my 7:30 dinner reservation.  The cozy Winter Kitchen serves a limited menu – only about three or four choices – so I decided on the country tart, which turned out to be a sort of vegetable quiche.  I like quiche, they had some nice wines to choose from and my little table was near the hearth with a good fire, so I was happy.  A dozen or so Mary Kay ladies had a large table near me and their makeup chatter didn’t really go with the ambiance of the place, but I was still in a good mood when I climbed the steps to my room once more.  There was a little TV in a Shaker-style cabinet in one corner of the room and a little rocking chair to watch it from, but I opted to unpack the travel laptop and try to get some work done before I went to bed.  Unfortunately the wi-fi reception in the room was spotty so I gave up after a while.  I wanted to get in some sightseeing time in the village before I left in the morning, so I had a shower, set my alarm (I had an 8 AM breakfast reservation), read for a while and then turned out the lights.  In addition to the Mary Kay ladies, there was some meeting of college-age girls going on in the building and I heard the occasional outburst from them, but by and large the place was lovely and quiet and I slept well.


My breakfast table in the Winter Kitchen.

In the morning I had a surprise – snow!  (See the first picture above.)  It was so pretty, but I could tell it was going to be a cold, blustery morning and was glad I’d packed warm clothes in my overnight bag.  I got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast and was just about the first one there, so I got my pick of tables.  Of course, I chose the one right by the hearth and it was delicious to sit there sipping tea and eating biscuits with the crackling fire so warm and close.  Breakfast itself was nothing to write home about; on the weekends they do a buffet-style thing and the reconstituted eggs and bacon in warming trays weren’t very appetizing.  They also had pastries and oatmeal and cold cereal, just like any chain hotel’s free breakfast.  I filled up on biscuits with butter and jam and lots of hot tea, then ran up to my room for my luggage.  I packed the car and brushed about two inches of soft, pretty snow off the windshield, et al, and then drove over to the main parking lot and left the car there.  It was snowing pretty hard but I was warm and full of breakfast so I walked over to the Trustees’ Building to check out – maybe a quarter of a mile.  The nice lady who checked me out seemed surprised that I wanted to buy a ticket to tour the village, but she assured me that many of the buildings would be open at 10 AM and I was free to stroll around as I liked until then.

So I did.

Pleasant Hill has a kind of Colonial Williamsburg vibe going on, but I expect that even on busy days it’s nowhere near as crowded as C.V., and this was definitely NOT a busy day.  In fact, I had the whole place pretty much to myself.  I’m not all that hepped on the insides of old buildings but I do enjoy the outsides and it was fun to trudge down the deserted village streets with the snow scrunching under my boots and the wind whipping around my face.  I had a fleece headband as well as my jacket hood to keep me dry and relatively warm, and I also had a map of the place the nice lady had given me.  I discovered that there were working farm buildings in the eastern half of the village, so I hiked off in that direction.  Soon I saw a large black barn in the distance and as I got closer, saw a pen full of frisky goats having their morning constitutional.  I went over for a visit and was joined by a large and insistent cat.


Kitty and goat confab.

Everyone was covered in snow but still friendly enough; the goats kicked and capered and tried to nibble my coat through the fence and the cat positively yowled until I petted it (and then got so excited that it tried to bite me, fickle creature).  I spent a good long while playing with the goats and then moved down the road to a turkey pen, with a single large tom turkey in dignified residence, and then further still to snow-covered pastures lined with stone walls, where a lot of cattle were standing patiently, their hides frosted white.

It was nearly 10 AM by then so I mushed back to the Visitors’ Center.  The gift shop was just opening so I had a look in there – the prices were jaw-droppingly high – and then strolled down the village’s main drag to the Centre Family dwelling, which is used as a museum.  A pair of lovely elderly ladies in Shaker garb were doing the docent thing while ironing shirts and doing other picturesque things.  They were pleasant enough but seemed content to leave me to my own devices, so I went up and down the staircases, snapping pictures to my heart’s delight.


So many pretty windows with lovely snowy views.


Going up the stairs to a spare and pretty Shaker hall.

I went back outside and noodled around some more.  Signs led me to the eastern section of the village and the little Shaker graveyard, which was particularly poignant in the snow.  I saw some geese in a half-frozen pond, many more cattle and some donkeys sharing some hay with a few sheep.  I also finally began to see other people; a few brave folks were out wandering like me, but mostly people seemed to be shuttling between their cars and the West Family Dwelling.  The snow was letting up but it was still blustery.  I knew I had another three or four hours to travel to my mother’s house, and I also knew there was another Shaker village I wanted to visit along the way, so reluctantly I went back to my car, brushed off the fresh accumulation of snow, and pointed my nose to the southwest.

I’d like to go back to Pleasant Hill one day – maybe in the autumn.  I bet it’s gorgeous in the autumn.  But Pleasant Hill in an early February snowfall is pretty darned magical.


Cattle in the snow.


One of the restored buildings.


In the Pleasant Hill cemetery.


View of the pond and the fields beyond.


The snow is letting up and the sun is trying to peek through the clouds as I get ready to leave Pleasant Hill.

Mouse War

IMAG0053Believe it or not, this is a photo of a battleground.

It’s the corner of our guest room, and it’s the site of the final confrontation between a home intruder and me.

The first skirmish occurred last night.  I was not involved.  I had gone to bed but was still awake, reading, when my husband came in from the living room.  “I saw a mouse,” he said.  “It was running across the top of our living room drapes.”

“On TOP? Of the DRAPES?” I responded, with my usual keen grasp of the situation.  “How could it be on TOP of the DRAPES?  Maybe you imagined it.”

“I didn’t imagine it,” John said, with some asperity.  “I was laying on the floor and I heard something jingling overhead and I looked up and the mouse was looking down at me.”

“Well, where is it NOW?”

“I don’t know.  It ran off.  I checked the trap downstairs and it’s been sprung, but there’s nothing in it.”

This is not generally the kind of information one wants when one is tucked up in bed for the night.  We keep a pretty clean house and are usually, mercifully, vermin-free, but we do get seasonal incursions – ants in the spring, the inevitable stink bug in the summer, and the odd mouse when the weather turns cold.  (There was also this little incident some years ago, but that wasn’t in the house, exactly.)  A little more than a week ago I was in the basement and thought I’d heard one between the floors, so John had set our usual trap in our usual spot, and it was this trap that had been sprung.  We agreed that we’d pursue the matter in the morning, turned off the light and went to sleep.

About 8:30 this morning I was awakened by a loud, inarticulate shout from my husband – something along the lines of “AUUUROWRGH!”  John talks and hollers in his sleep at times, but this shout had a slightly more insistent timbre and was followed by him sitting up.  “What the heck are you doing?” I asked, or words to that effect.

“A mouse just ran across my face.”

“ACROSS your FACE?”  I was still half-asleep and therefore querulous.  “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”

(I don’t know how he kept his temper; when one has been awakened by the scuttling of mousy feet over a portion of one’s anatomy, one can hardly appreciate one’s experience being questioned – and this was the second time in less than twelve hours that I’d suggested the mouse was All In His Head.)

“I wasn’t dreaming.  A mouse ran across my face.”

That woke me up competely.  “WELL WHERE IS IT NOW?”

“I don’t know.  I flicked it away.”

We both got up, threw on some clothes and started looking around.  John got a flashlight to look under the bed as I picked up shams and decorative bed pillows off the floor.  A dark shape scuttled past my feet and I emitted a sound kind of like this and jumped back on the bed.  A certain amount of chaos followed; we were pretty sure it had gone under the bed but as we store the extra leaves for our dining room table under there, encased in special zippered covers, visibility was limited.  John went off to get a broom for chivvying purposes and I continued to shift things around.  I moved the curtains near my bed and once again did the Goofy Yell as the mouse ran past.  Again, I didn’t see where it went.  We rattled around the room some more but couldn’t find the mouse.  Hooray, it’s gone.  We baited a couple of traps and put one in the usual basement spot and one in the living room and got on with our day.  Since I’m between projects at the moment (actor-speak for unemployed), I was tasked with pulling everything away from the bedroom walls and vacuuming the place thoroughly while John was at work.

I was making my morning tea and John was showering when I realized the house seemed awfully cold.  I checked the thermostat, which read 64 degrees, along with the statement SYSTEM MALFUNCTION CALL TECHNICIAN.  Great.  I inform John that something’s wrong with the HVAC system and place a service call.  They’ll be right out – huzzah.  John and I swap places in the shower; he decides that he’s going to telework today but he has to fetch his computer from the office about ten minutes away, and will get a couple more mousetraps while he’s out.  I’m dressed and already vacuuming by the time the technician arrives.  John leaves, the tech gets to work in the basement, I fold some sheets in the laundry room and carry them upstairs.  As I’m on the approach to the linen closet, I look into the bedroom and see THE MOUSE, sitting up pert and unconcerned, on the freshly vacuumed bedroom rug.  I squawk and it turns, squeezes under my sliding closet door and disappears inside.

I confess to being completely skeeved out by the thought of the mouse amongst my clothes and shoes.  I call John on his cell and he tells me to get the baited trap from the living room and put it in the closet.  “I don’t want to,” I tell him.  I have visions of opening the closet door and having the mouse run over my hand.  He tells me to butch up and do it, and I do.   Nothing happens.  The mouse is lying doggo (oh, look it UP).

I am poised in the bedroom doorway, broom at the ready, fully expecting to hear the sudden snap of the trap at any moment, when the tech comes upstairs to check the thermostat.  “Screw on the flame sensor backed out,” he says.  “I tightened it and she fired right up.”  I know I look wild-eyed and explain about the mouse.  He is sympathetic as I sign his work form and see him out the door.

I head back to the bedroom and see THE MOUSE ambling out into the hallway.  I let out another Goofy Yell and it darts next door into the guest room, which I have already partially prepped for vacuuming.  The bedspread is turned up on top of the mattress, which is a Good Thing because even though I am hollering and brandishing the broom, THE MOUSE is making vigorous attempts to CLIMB UP ONTO THE MATTRESS.  Stymied, it runs underneath the bed.  Stored beneath the bed is one of those Space Bags – those things into which you stuff your out-of-season bedding, use your vacuum cleaner to suck the air out of and then shove someplace out of the way only to discover later that the damn thing has somehow expanded again and is now jammed tight into the spot where you shoved it.  The mouse tap-dances around the edges of the Space Bag but can’t get over it as it is firmly wedged between the floor below and the box springs above.  It disappears into the darkness behind the Space Bag.  I notice it isn’t moving very smoothly and surmise that perhaps it’s stunned or maybe injured from being flicked off the bed early in the engagement.  I grab my cell phone and call John again.

“What is it now?”  He sounds less than thrilled.

“The mouse is in the guest room now.  WHEN ARE YOU GONNA BE BACK?”

“I’m at Home Depot getting traps.  Then I gotta get gas.  Put the trap in the guest room and I’ll be home soon.”

I start to argue with him about the trap and THE MOUSE COMES OUT AGAIN.  It still wants to climb the mattress.  I make an ineffectual jab at it with the broom and it looks at me like “What is it now?”  “IT’S OUT AGAIN GOODBYE” I tell John, hang up and stuff the phone into my back pocket.  The mouse disappears under the bed again and I stand there in the doorway, broom poised, hurling a steady stream of invective in the direction of the bed.  If I go in after the mouse, I’m afraid it’ll just elude me again.  I decide to stay where I am.  I find that I am shivering even though the heat is back on in the house – some primal instinct has kicked in, and while I have absolutely no desire to kill the mouse, I know I have to, and I’m repulsed by the thought.  My invective takes on a pleading quality – “GO AWAY! JUST GO AWAY!” – but it’s to no avail.  In a few moments the mouse comes out again, this time at the far end of the room, and hesitates.

So I took its picture.


Yes, I was shaking THAT BADLY.

I put the phone back in my pocket and stand there with the broom raised.  The mouse does not move.  I lower the broom a little bit.  The mouse does not move.  I adjust my grip and angle the broom so that it will strike the mouse not with the broom straws, but with the flat plastic base.  The mouse does not move.  The whole time I am lecturing the mouse, telling it that if it had just stayed outside where it belonged, none of this would be happening – it would be going about its mousy business undisturbed and I would be drinking tea and writing – and the whole time my voice is scaling up and up and becoming more distraught as I realize The Time Has Come.  I let out one last whimper, grip the broom tight and slam it down with all my strength.

The mouse is flattened, but only for a moment.  It makes a halting, crippled run for the corner of the bedroom, under a little incidental table which holds family photos.  It leaps against the wall as if hoping to find an escape.  I am making awful noises as I chivvy it out and land one or two good whacks before it backs itself tight into the corner again.  I can’t get at it there; the table is in the way.  Nearly sobbing, I shift the family photos and use the broomstick to push the gateleg of the table out of the way.  Now I have a clear shot at the mouse, but not enough room to whack it with anything but the broom straws.  I think about reversing the broom and using the stick end like a pool cue, but I am trembling so that I am afraid I’ll miss and the mouse will get away.  I jab hard at the mouse with the straw end of the broom instead, but it only turns its back and smooshes its little face into the corner, like a child in Time Out.

That does me in.  I start moaning.  I know I’ve hurt the mouse badly; I know if I leave the room to get some more effective killing implement that there’s a chance the mouse will escape and hole up someplace to die and later stink.  I see a heavy plastic container in the room, grab it and put it on the floor near the mouse, then began to push and sweep the mouse toward it.  The mouse makes a few ineffectual attempts to run, but it’s clearly crippled and eventually I shove it into the plastic container and clap a towel over the opening.

IMAG0052So now I have a partly dead mouse in a plastic container and have no idea what to do.  Quivering and snuffling, I put on my shoes and walk outside in the cold drizzly morning with the idea of maybe throwing the mouse in the trash or in the gutter.  It’s then that I remember the young red-shouldered hawk that’s been hanging around the neighborhood, and I decide to take the mouse to a place where maybe the hawk will get it.  The hawk likes to sit in a small tree in a neighboring yard; the house is currently vacant so I have no qualms about putting the mouse there.  I slog through the mud into the neighboring yard, uncap the container and pitch the mouse beneath the tree.  It’s not dead; it hops a bit and falls down, hops a bit and falls down, but now I am completely undone and can’t think what to do for it and so go back to my own house crying.  I call John and tell him “I got it” and he’s just pulling up to the house and is delighted until he sees how upset I am.  He hugs me and tells me I’m a Mighty Mouse Hunter but I’m still a mess.  He wants to see the mouse so I show him where it is and then go back inside.  I see him bending over the mouse; I see the mouse hop a bit and then John comes back to the house, gets a shovel, goes back to the mouse and does what I was unable to do.

John marked the little corpse with a twig so we can train our scope on it from the deck window.  If the hawk comes back and makes a snack out of the mouse, we may finally get a good look at our feathered visitor.

It seems a terrible shame, though.  I guess I’m glad I got the mouse – after all, mice are vermin and can carry lovely diseases like the hantavirus – but the image of the mouse with its head tucked into the corner still harrows me.  The only comfort I got out of the whole incident was the thought that a hungry young hawk might get an easy meal out of the carnage.  But I’m guessing not.  As of this writing the mouse is still there, but it’s dusk and we have foxes and cats and raccoons prowling the neighborhood at night.  All of them would likely find a mouse corpse of interest.  Failing that, there’s a good chance of significant snow tomorrow and the mouse will be buried then and out of sight.

No snack for a hawk, no comfort for me.

The Christmas Hawk

red-shouldered hawkA hawk has been hanging around my back yard since Christmas Eve.

I first noticed it was because of the other birds mobbing it.  It was hunkered down on a limb in my neighbor’s yard, and a blue jay, a mockingbird and a trio of crows were in nearby trees, screaming and occasionally swooping down at it.  The hawk did not retaliate, but instead scrunched down, as if trying to disappear.  Eventually one crow got too close, and the hawk launched itself heavily into the air – not to attack, but to flee.  It didn’t fly further than a few trees away and then crouched close to the trunk.  The other birds continued to yell and swoop as I got out the binoculars and tried to ID the hawk.

I knew it wasn’t a sharp-shinned hawk.  They visit the area around my bird feeders frequently enough that I can spot them without binoculars.  This new hawk was much larger and heavier.  A little snow was falling and the light wasn’t great, but I decided it was probably a juvenile red-tailed hawk – a pretty common bird for my area, but a first-time visitor to my back yard.

John and I had some last-minute pre-Christmas errands to run so I had to leave without a better look.  When I got back it was nearly dusk, but I could still see the hulking shape of the hawk, this time in our own yard, and with its back to me.  I was able to get a better look at its tail and realized that I’d misidentified the bird – that it was more likely a red-shouldered hawk rather than a red-tailed.  The species are not dissimilar and the juvvies are pretty easy to mix up, particularly for someone without a lot of hawk experience.  I’m not swearing by that ID – I could very well be wrong again – but the hawk was closer to the house early this afternoon, and both John and I got a better look at it.  In fact, John had a fabulous sighting:  the hawk landed on our deck rail and stayed there for some minutes.  Talk about jealous!  I was in the shower and missed the whole thing.  How I wished John had been able to snap a photo of the bird, but since he didn’t, this one I found on the internet will have to do.

We’ve seen him/her several more times today, mostly at the rear of the yard or in our neighbors’ trees or on the fence line.  My bird feeders have been empty since autumn – I’ve been too busy to buy more seed – but I’d fully intended to fill them up on Christmas.  However, having a resident hawk makes me reluctant to do so.  I don’t want to set up my little feathered friends as a birdie buffet, no matter how entranced I am by our new visitor.  (If I was sure the hawk would only make off with the English sparrows and the European starlings – both invasive, non-native species – I wouldn’t have the first scruple.)  John wants to feed the hawk, but unless we catch a mouse or something, I don’t see that happening.  I don’t think you can buy hawk feed at the local bird supply store.

Having wild creatures in my yard makes me happy, but having a Really Wild Thing visit, particularly during the holidays, feels like a special gift.  I hope the Christmas Hawk hangs around for a while – at least into the New Year.

Sand Between the Toes

I’m back after a pleasant few days at the beach in North Carolina – a trip that was a happy combination of idleness and activity. I’m toasted a very light brown due to the judicious application of sunscreen and much hat-wearing, I have the requisite amount of sand in my shoes, and I got my eyes, ears and nose full of beach sights, sounds and smells.

I headed south at the crack of dawn on Sunday. Since I was by myself, the drive was a good opportunity to listen to lots of music from the 1940s and have some creative thinking time. I stopped for gas and lunch south of Rocky Mount, and got into Emerald Isle about 3 PM.

The beach house, which is owned by my sister Margaret’s friend Sue, is situated on the sound side of the barrier island known as the Crystal Coast. However, it’s a really narrow part of the island, so you can walk from the sound side to the ocean side in less than five minutes. I got the car unpacked in quick time, then put on shorts and my spanking-new beach shoes, and walked down to the shore.

I’m happy to report that my L.L. Bean beach shoes performed well. They gave me plenty of support and, beyond some baby-toe blister action on the first day, were pretty comfortable. Of course, no shoe is comfortable when it’s full of sand, but all in all they were a good investment.

Since I felt kind of kinked up after eight hours in the car, I struck off at a brisk walk along the surf line. My landmark is a water tower that looms over the beach access path nearest the house; before I knew it, the water tower was well in the distance and I had walked out of Emerald Isle into Indian Beach, which is the next town north. Since the sun was starting to set, I decided I’d better double back. Round-trip, it was roughly a two-mile walk and the perfect antidote for sitting in the car all day.

As I was walking back toward the water tower, I was kept company by a willet, which spent some time walking in front of me, for all the world like a little gray dog. Next to the sanderling (those little scuttling birds that dart in and out of the surf), the willet is my favorite shore bird. They’re about the size of a blue jay and stride through the surf on long stilt legs, counterbalanced by a long beak that they poke into the sand after mole crabs and small mollusks. Pickings seemed to be somewhat slim for this particular bird; I finally stopped and looked around me and saw evidence that the beach had recently been “renourished.”

The nature of a barrier island is that it shifts and moves according to the weather and waves. This, of course, isn’t good for the people who build homes and businesses on barrier islands, particularly those who cater to the tourist trade. They refer to this natural movement of sand and shore as “erosion.” Periodically, the town fathers arrange for sand dredged from somewhere off the coast to be deposited on the beaches to build them up. This makes for a somewhat gray and shelly beach – and sometimes, a smelly beach. Because the dredged material is full of dead and dying organic matter, and because dumping it on an existing beach effectively smothers the pre-existing sealife at the water’s edge, there’s a definite downside to this practice, particularly if you’re a shore bird. For example, the willets and other shore birds frequently feed on coquina, those colorful little butterfly-shaped mollusks that you see burrowing into the sand as the waves wash back into the sea. On this visit, I didn’t see any live coquina colonies – just the occasional empty shell. I also didn’t see many mole crabs, which are another major food source for shore birds. In fact, I didn’t see as many shore birds as I normally do – just a few willets, the sanderlings, a ruddy turnstone or two and some dunlin. There definitely weren’t as many gulls.

I’m not sure where I fall on this issue, which is a very hot topic for those whose livelihoods revolve around the beach. I sympathize with the property owners, but what good is a beach without its wildlife? I also realize that, as a visitor who wants to stay on the beach and have conveniences such as restaurants, shops and groceries nearby, I’m part of the problem. I mulled the situation over as darkness fell and I walked back to the beach house. I dined on some leftover chicken I’d brought from home, read a large chunk of “Great Hurricane of 1938” and watched some television. Around midnight, I went to bed, and fell asleep to dream of dredging and birds.