Hiles > Essays >

On the Outer Banks

by Jeff Hiles

I pressed my hand to Tari’s side, felt her stiffen, and feared I had moved too fast. Careful now, I thought. Slowly I stroked her. She began to soften. Taking the cue, my hand slid higher. My knuckles rubbed gently across the side of her neck. When the timing felt right, I scratched her behind the ears.

Elmer had kept one eye on me while I reached through his truck’s window and petted his terrier. His other eye aimed off across the highway. I wondered, to myself, if he could see through both eyes. I wondered if he could watch me and the lark across the road at the same time.

Elmer leaned on his truck’s rusty front fender and puffed a pipe. His belly filled his coveralls, which, like his Datsun pickup, looked well used. “Every Sunday I take ol’ Tari for a drive,” he said. “Every Sunday morning she’s all excited and prancing around ’fore I ever get out of bed. She knows when it’s Sunday as well as I do."

Stella and I (I called my bicycle Stella) had rolled into this North Carolina rest stop a few minutes earlier. A lot of thoughts and feelings were bouncing around in me. I wanted to pour them onto paper. Then, this guy came up to me and said “Howdy!” as if we knew each other. I must have looked confused. “Wasn’t it you that waved at me up the road?” Elmer asked.

“Oh yeah, the guy in the blue pickup,” I said, noticing his truck. To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure I remembered him. But I would have felt awkward telling him so. I had waved to everyone I passed that June morning, and maybe I remembered a blue truck, so what the heck.

“Where’d you ride from?” , Elmer asked.

“Set out from Columbia, Missouri, three weeks ago.” Elmer raised an eyebrow.

I’ve always liked raising people’s eyebrows. It was easy then, in 1977, to raise eyebrows over a long bike trip. Most of the people I met along the back roads had never seen the likes of me. My bike and all my camping gear hanging over it drew lots of questions. I often felt like a celebrity.

The country felt friendly that spring as I bicycled through the Ozarks, across Tennessee, over the Blue Ridge mountains, and out to the ocean. It was a country that had chosen a Georgia peanut farmer for president, had chosen a leader who walked in his inaugural parade, who put on a sweater to save energy, who made conservation a patriotic gesture—at least he tried.

Throughout my bike trip, people fed me, put me up for the night, cheered me on, helped me out. As I approached the mountains, for example, a passing motorist pulled over, got out of his car, told me the best bicycle route through the high country, and wrote me a note of introduction so I could stay at his old fraternity house when I got to Chapel Hill.

Little miracles like that sprinkled the trip, and the morning I met Elmer, I woke up feeling full of gratitude. A sense of exhilaration had stayed with me from having danced Stella over the mountains a couple of days before. And the sun rose over gentle hills. Its light splashed on grassy dew and scattered in the fog, blending the distance into yellow and white. My leg hairs snatched wet beads from the air as I churned past wildflower blossoms still closed from sleeping through the cool night.

The sun rose higher and traffic picked up, mostly people in their church clothes. They were on their way to give thanks for their blessings. I was bent over my bicycle alter, feeling quite blessed myself. Struck by that connection, I decided to wave at the next car to come down the road.

It was a bold decision. For me, the middle child of a middle-class family from the middle of a Midwestern state, waving at total strangers constituted a radical act. But I felt inspired that morning, uncomfortably inspired. A pressure had built up, a heart swell. I had to do something.

Suddenly, there it was, coming over the hill, a car, three people staring at me through its windshield. I lightened my left hand’s grip on the brake hood, began to lift my little finger. My heart beat faster. The car passed. OK, I thought. No need to rush into this.

By and by, the next car came. This time I looked the driver straight in the eye, lifted my hand about six inches off the bars, fingers pointed up, then cocked my wrist to the left. The driver, without taking the heal of his hand off the steering wheel, wiggled his fingers back at me. With each car I grew bolder. In nearly every car I waved to, faces brightened and someone waved back. The more faces brightened, the warmer I felt inside. The warmer I felt inside, the bigger my wave. The bigger my wave, the more I saw faces brighten. By the fifth or sixth car, I was stretching my arm and waving from the shoulder.

After about 20 minutes, I heard two beeps from somewhere over the hill ahead. A car passed me from behind, then disappeared over the hill. Another two beeps. Then a red VW Beetle came over the crest ahead. Its horn beeped twice and two young women in it started waving at me before I even got my hand up.

“Juicy!” I thought, trying out some lingo I had recently learned.

If I had waved at a motorist before, it was with one finger, at someone who had tried to bounce a golf ball off my helmet. I was 23, had never owned a car and hoped I never would. Of course, most of the people in the world will never own a car, but where I was raised in Greene County, Ohio, growing up meant graduating from two wheels to four before you left high school. Motorists and I had tangled over road rights for years as I daily bicycled to school or to work.

In their eyes, I was lollygagging in the road, obstructing serious transportation. In my heart, I was saving the world from environmental plunder. They believed they owned the road. I knew I paid taxes, too, and that their gasoline taxes and license fees came nowhere near paying the bill for what they did. They thought roads were made for motor vehicles. To my way of thinking, roads were built to move people and goods, no matter the vehicle.

In their minds, the thousands of dollars they paid for their cars, the thousands of pounds cars weighed, and their high speeds all added up to an inherent superiority. My small, nonpolluting, health-enhancing, energy-efficient bicycle beat their big, smoggy, deadly, gas guzzlers hands down, I had no doubt.

Now and then, motorists got angry if they had to slow down and move left a little to pass me. Even those coming from the other direction sometimes harassed me. Maybe my presence challenged their confidence in their cars, or their beliefs about what a road was for, I don’t know. By the time I reached driving age, enough motorists had honked at me, yelled at me, spit at me, and swerved at me as to harden my resolve. If driving turned people into such monsters, I wanted to steer clear.

But that spring, motorists seemed to treat me differently. Maybe it was the camping gear on my bike. Maybe people felt friendlier toward their fellow countrymen after having celebrated the United States’ Bicentennial the year before. Maybe all those mid-1970’s press stories about a bicycle boom had finally brought some respect to bicycling. Maybe it was the environmentally-conscientious president. Maybe it was luck, maybe my imagination. For whatever reason, motorists seemed more considerate than usual. And that Sunday morning I reached out and made friends.

But then, I had planned to make friends. People had always been part of the landscape to me. I would not have felt like I had met the land if I had not meet some of the people who lived on it. To make meeting people easier, I left my bicycle clothes behind, except for a helmet, cycling gloves, and cleated shoes. Serious cyclists in 1977 wore tight black shorts and brightly-colored jerseys, as they do now. But it was a fashion before its time. If I had dressed that way when I tried to mingle with the locals, I might as well have worn antennae on my head. I rode in cut-off shorts and T shirts.

Also, I avoided campgrounds, motels, tourist attractions, any place populated by out of towners. Near the end of each day I stopped and asked people if they knew where I could pitch my tent. The question usually led to conversation, often to a place to stay. Sometimes people invited me to their homes. Sometimes I slept in a field or behind bushes in a city park. Once I lay among the headstones in a cemetery. Perhaps the most interesting place I stayed was at a spiritually-based commune populated by hippie-like folks.

“What’s your trip?” Judy asked. She smiled, and my heart beat a little faster for the sweetness of her smile.

“You mean like, where am I from,” I asked, “and where am I going?” I thought that to people at The Farm, the word “trip” might mean my philosophy, my religion, my scam, my favorite drug. I didn’t want to misinterpret the lingo.

“Of course,” she answered, lilting in a way that made me feel like she knew the other meanings I had thought and was laughing at me for having thought them.

“Well, I started from Columbia two days ago. I’m not sure where I’ll end up. I’ll just let the universe show me as I go. I do plan to see the ocean, though. I’ve never seen the Atlantic before. And I want to check out the main Farm in Tennessee.”

“Juiced!” she said, and smiled again.

But in Judy’s eyes I saw that she needed to talk, had things she dared not say to other people at the commune. She led me by the hand to the far side of the chicken coop where we’d be out of sight. Evening sunlight outlined her bushy brown hair as we sat in the grass.

I had first seen Judy that afternoon, shortly after I arrived at the old farmhouse near Fulton, Missouri. A roaring hiss sent her and two other women running from the kitchen. They ran screaming, aprons flapping. A cloud of steam followed them out the door. A pressure cooker had emptied its beans in a hurry.

Afterward, the women joked and laughed while we scrubbed the walls and ceiling. They took pleasure in working together. To them, work was a kind of yoga, a discipline that was good for the soul and that brought one closer to God.

“Ah, it feels good to find a quiet place to sit,” I said to Judy, and ran my hand over the soft spring grass. She nodded.

“Does it always get that crazy when the guys come home?”

“It’s about the same every day,” she said.

“Oh, man,” I said, “I don’t see where they get all that energy. I mean, they go out and build houses all day, then come back here, and everybody’s hugging and swinging kids around and talking all at once. All these guys kept shaking my hand and introducing themselves. I’ll never remember any of their names ’cause my head was spinning just trying to keep up with it all.”

“Yeah, they get a lot of juice from each other. I dig it when I get to go out with the construction crew,” she said. “I used to go with them all the time. Now I mostly stay here.”

“How’s come?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, looking down at the grass. “They just think it’s best.”

“Hmm.” I said. We each plucked a blade of grass.

“I think it’s juicy what you’re doing,” Judy said, derailing my train of thought.

“Yeah? Well, I’m ... pretty ‘juiced’ about it myself,” I said. “I mean there are just so many things to do, places to go, people to meet ...”

“That’s it, you know,” she said. “I like the people here a whole lot. They’re so ... so ...”


“Exactly! But, I don’t know. I’m thinking maybe I should go away for a while, see the world before I settle down.”

“Hmm,” I said.

Judy was nineteen, had left her Chicago home soon after she graduated from high school. While hitchhiking, she came upon The Farm, a commune of more than a thousand people living on a thousand-acre spread in Tennessee. She liked it a lot, except that it was crowded. So she moved to this branch in Missouri. Its twenty-five residents lived in two farm houses and a chicken coop.

The Farm people seemed healthy and sincere. Despite their tie-died, rock-and-roll, Zen culture, though, they lived by some old-fashioned values. It seemed that to be cool, a man needed an “old lady,” a woman an “old man,” and both needed children. They claimed not to have strict sex roles, but I found mostly women in the kitchens, mostly men in the fields and on the construction crew, which brought money to the farm.

Judy, the only single woman at the Missouri Farm, lived in a house with three couples and their kids. She was the odd person out. To my eyes, she was surrounded by expectations that must have felt smothering to her spirited young soul.

Or maybe I wasn’t seeing her at all. Maybe when I looked at her, I saw instead, me. I couldn’t imagine myself living packed in with all those people, however “juicy.” Yet the idea fascinated me.

When the Farm’s founder, Stephen Gaskin, and 250 of his students formed a bus caravan and left San Francisco in 1970, it was the Mayflower all over again. They were pilgrims looking for a place to start a new life. No, it was more than that. They wanted a better way of living.

And that was my trip, too.

A year before I set out on this journey, I had quit college, just got up and walked out of news writing class. I had finally faced the fact that I didn’t belong in journalism, in that hectic world that some say stretches a mile wide but only an inch deep. I was slow, for one thing. I moved slowly. I read slowly. I wrote slowly. I talked slowly. In a conversation with more than one person, I couldn’t keep up.

Journalists were gusts of wind. They blew over a subject, picked up a story, carried it off, and dropped it on a page. I had to immerse myself in a subject for a while, soak it up for a time. And my words didn’t drop, they dribbled.

Then there was the car problem. Journalists drove cars. They depended on speed. Sooner or later I would have to give my hand, sell my soul, to the automobile.

I was the odd person out. Every day in school I was surrounded by a culture with expectations that clashed with my spirit. So I stocked grocery shelves for a year, then made my bicycle pilgrimage to the ocean.

I felt a kinship with the people at the Farm. They valued cooperation, spirituality, living lightly on the earth; and so did I. It was funny, though, I had grown used to thinking of myself as an underdog, a small voice of dissent in a world madly dashing about. Then at the Farm, where everyone was an underdog, I wanted to dash madly back to the world where I was a misfit.

You see, I loved bicycling. It wasn’t so much that I was anti-car. More than that, I loved bicycling. It was a sensuous pleasure, my legs spinning, my lungs drawing deep, my whole body aware of the land’s rises and falls and of subtle changes in weather. I could hear birds and crickets and see individual leaves of grass.

That level of experience seemed terribly important. People needed to know, I thought, that transportation could mean so much more than sitting behind glass and watching the world pass like so many flashes and specks.

I pumped cool morning air into Stella’s tires and sprayed oil on her chain. Through the spokes I watched Judy walk toward me across the wet lawn.

“I sort of wish I was going with you,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

We looked into each other’s eyes. We hugged. Judy turned and went back to the house.

It felt like a movie.

“Juicy,” I thought and rolled away.

The entrance to THE Farm, the big Farm in Tennessee, had a gate house where members interviewed anyone who wanted to stay a few days and check the place out. I was one of more than fifteen thousand visitors who dropped by during the year at the commune near Summertown, south of Nashville. To keep that onslaught from getting out of hand, residents had set up formal entrance procedures and had built a special place for visitors to stay overnight.

Greg had lived at the Farm with his wife, Linda, about four years. It was their week to be hosts to visitors. They made sure everybody had what they needed, assigned each visitor to a work crew for the day, and answered questions about The Farm. I had one pressing question.

“How does it all work?” I asked. “How do you squeeze four or five families into a house without everyone killing each other?”

“Two things make it work,” Greg said. “First, we have agreements. We agree to make it work. We have agreements about spirituality, about how things get done and who does them, about how we behave with each other.”

“I see how that would make things less complicated,” I said.

“The other thing is that we rap. We’re like a mental nudist colony. One of our agreements is not to hold things in. It ties up a lot of your juice when you sit on your feelings. It’s scary sometimes to let them out. Takes some getting used to. Most of us want to avoid conflict if we can. But its a cop out not to talk. If something’s bothering you, sooner or later it will come out.”

“Like an overheated pressure cooker?”

“Yeah, the idea is to deal with things before you get overheated.”

The Farm attracted strange visitors, some a little overheated before they arrived. Greg and Linda spent about two hours one evening with a visitor who had a lot of steam to blow off. As I lay in my tent, I couldn’t tell what he was yelling about, but it gave me a knot in my stomach that was hard to sleep with.

The next day after sweating over a hoe among rows of dill, I came back to my tent to find that some kids had used it as a playhouse. It was torn and there were muddy footprints all through it. I felt my own steam building. I wasn’t a very good mental nudist, didn’t trust just anyone to go stomping around in my private thoughts.

So, Stella and I rolled slowly along the rocky road that led to the gatehouse. I waved to the gatekeeper who had judged me worthy to enter, then rolled past, rolled out, rolled free.

Once on the road again, when I could look around me and see fields and trees and not a single person in sight, I immediately felt better. I breathed easier, I felt clearer in my mind, my heart felt lighter. All my life I had balanced two basic social needs: my need to be with people and my need to be alone. I ran best with a blend heavy on solitude, light on company.

So when people asked me if I got lonely traveling by myself, I said no. And that was mostly true. Did I get lonely traveling by myself? For some people that was the main question. Mostly women asked it. I’m sure men thought it, but couldn’t ask. One man hushed his wife when she asked. The question was too personal, he said.

Did I get lonely? I knew what the question meant. The first time I made a solo bike camping trip I sat on a hill one night and cried beneath the stars. I was young, the loneliness beautiful.

Lonely? It bugged me a little when people asked that. It wasn’t so much the question as the tone of voice. “Don’t you get lonely?” they said. “Doesn’t the bogeyman get you?” I heard.

What went on inside them, I wondered, that they feared so much? I loved time alone with the beat of my own heart. My thoughts fluttered and sputtered and slid beneath my lid in the most amusing arrays and patterns. I never met a bogeyman there.

I could not understand why so many people used every means—radio, TV, friends, bowling, loud stereos—to avoid their inner workings, to avoid the greater part of themselves. Had they heard there were monsters in the depths? Did they fear meeting Satan in dark valleys of their souls? Were their inner tangles wilderness to them, places where they felt bewildered?

If they could not face their inner landscapes, what about their outer ones? Did monsters get them when they walked in the woods at night alone? Woods, night, alone—classic ingredients for horror. Was it loneliness they feared or being alone, being vulnerable to all that’s wild and wicked in the world? Did wild mean wicked? Were these the fears and worries that drove people to tame their outer worlds and avoid their inner ones?

“Hmmm,” said Stella, her tires humming on the pavement. She had a subtle way of bringing me back to earth, and I loved her for it.

Few places beat a college campus when I was looking for somewhere to spend the night. I just had to walk around with Stella and all her trimmings. Soon someone would take notice and I’d be set. If that hadn’t been so, I would have stayed away from any city as big as Knoxville, where I headed for the University of Tennessee.

A musician I met on the street invited me to camp in a vacant lot next to his house. That evening we squeezed into an old Hudson with four of his friends and went to a bar to hear a guy sing morose songs. Everyone listened politely until, between sets, a woman from the audience picked up the guitar and began to sing “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.” Suddenly, everyone started dancing. Women’s feet flew off the floor as men spun them in powerful swings. The dancers moved with such spur-of-the-moment freedom, yet such harmony.

I quit the bar early. As I walked to my tent, I thought about the dancers. I wondered how they did it. What kind of communication made it possible? How did they make so many fast moves together without crashing into each other? What subtle tugs and pushes did they use to tell each other, without words, how each would move and when?

The next day, Stella and I danced across Knoxville. It felt like a dance, anyway. People drove down the street in coordinated movements. Traffic lights set the rhythm. Traffic laws provided the choreography.

Once in a while, I liked city cycling. I had learned years before that it was best to blend with traffic, to become part of the flow. If you didn’t join the flow of traffic, you put yourself at odds with it. A crowded street is like a crowded commune. You have to communicate, or else.

From Knoxville, I rode south then turned east along the lower edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and passed into North Carolina. These were soft mountains, green mountains. Unlike Western mountains that have sparse slopes, jagged peaks, and pointy conifers, these rounded hills were covered with lush green deciduous forests. I climbed slowly, enjoying wildflowers by the roadside. Now and then, through an opening in the trees, I saw valleys below and in the hazy distance.

I liked the climb. Going down was just a quick thrill. On the climb, I measured the mountains with my muscles, smelled the trees, noticed the colors of pebbles by the road. As I rose higher and higher above the valleys, I imagined that Stella could fly.

I’ve always seen a kinship between bicycles and airplanes. I grew up about twenty miles from where the Wright Brothers had their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. I had seen some of their airplanes. They connected the motors to propellers with bicycle chains.

As I flew higher, near where the conifers started, I thought of my father. When I was a small child, he showed me an old box he had stuck away in the basement. In it, he kept a dozen model airplanes he had carved and painted by hand when he was a boy. “Patience,” he said, and showed me the perfect circles on a Sopwith Camel. Patience. Above all, my father taught me to value patience. But among virtues in an instant oatmeal world, “patience” ranked with “chivalry.” I wondered if, on my bicycle, I had become an anachronism.

As I rolled fast down the mountain roads, I caught glimpses of trees and flowers and valleys. I kept my eyes always on the next turn, my hands on the brakes. Too fast around the bend and I would fly for real, into the brush and the white crosses planted by the roadside that read, PREPARE TO MEET YOUR MAKER.

Beyond Chapel Hill, beyond Raleigh, I crossed the Piedmont where the land flattened out, and the reception I got did too. I was no celebrity there. My bicycle drew no questions, just quick sideways glances. I would walk into a country store and people would try to ignore me. If I caught someone’s eye, I would smile and he would look away. These were private people who spent long hours alone in their fields. I seemed to be more of an intrusion than a curiosity.

Even the empty roads felt unfriendly. With half-inch pebbles embedded in their asphalt, they shook me, jostled me; my butt got sore. Stella’s tires made moaning sounds as we jiggled between lines of sagging fence wires. I had no wish to trespass on the bare soil of those early-season fields. But one late afternoon, I began to wonder if I might have to spend the night in some lumpy furrow. My map showed no town nearby and the sun was getting low. I had a mind to curse the Piedmont.

Instead, I stopped and rested Stella on her side in the grassy ditch. I sat down, folded my legs, closed my eyes, and started to work on my solution. It was just a word that meant nothing to me, a Sanskrit sound. It was a sacred sound, though, that I had promised never to tell to anyone. When I started it in my head, the sound played like a sweet song, over and over.

I sat by the road and listened as the song swelled within me and washed over me, again and again, washing away curses and the need to curse.

By and by, I heard a car horn. It seemed too far up the road to be honking at me. I blinked my left eye open then closed, just grabbed a brief image, not wanting to disturb the song. Before the picture faded from my retina, I made out a car passing a bicyclist.

My host for the night had arrived.

A serious cyclist, Kevin had won the title of North Carolina State Road Racing Champion. He lived on his family’s farm a few miles away. We spent the evening eating salad and yogurt and swapping bicycle stories in a room littered with bike parts, bright jerseys, and exercise equipment. I told him about The Farm and other parts of my trip. He told me about a young Michigan cyclist who had come to race on the Piedmont and had lost his life to a passing semi trailer.

A witness claimed she saw the whole thing in her rear view mirror. She said the truck moved right, and knocked the cyclist off the road. The truck driver insisted the cyclist had just been blown over by a gust of wind from the fast-moving trailer.

The local sheriff chose to believe the trucker and refused to investigate further. It was, after all, just some fool kid from out of state dressed in funny clothes with nothing better to do than ride around on a bicycle. He had no business on that road anyway.

That story stuck in my mind as I rolled east across the remainder of the flatlands, headed for Cape Hatteras.

If you look at a map of the United States’ eastern coastline, about halfway between Florida and Maine you’ll find North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a series of long thin islands close to and parallel with the mainland coast. On one of the northern-most islands, the Wright Brothers made their famous first powered flight in 1903. The islands south of there, where I would go, had more fame for catastrophes.

More than six hundred ships have run aground on the shoals of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” near Cape Hatteras. Ships that navigate along the coast follow two ocean currents that come close to shore, one flows north, the other south. Shallow sand bars reach ten miles into the Atlantic from the Cape to grab vessels that drift a little off course.

The only way to reach Cape Hatteras by bike was to cross Roanoke Island, then head south on Highway 12 through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a sandy wetland known for its birds and other wildlife. The day I crossed the refuge, two streams of motor homes sailed the narrow highway, one stream sailed north, the other south.

Not much in my bicycling experience made me as nervous as those amateur drivers in oversized vehicles. In their motor homes, they sat in little living rooms watching the world through glass windows like large-screen TVs. They had divided their world into islands connected by highway. They had places they left and places where they would arrive. Very little in between seemed to touch them. I was not part of the landscape they expected to see here, not part of the regularly scheduled program. I feared that one of them would inadvertently cancel me.

Now and then someone squeezed his RV past me on that narrow road while another RV came from the other direction. If I moved away from the edge of the road, tried to force them to wait until it was safe to pass, they blew their horns and yelled.

I remembered how the sorcerer Don Juan told Carlos Castaneda that his death was over his left shoulder. I gave in and moved over. My left leg lost some of its kick as my soul cringed into the right side of my body.

And this was a wildlife refuge, I tried to remind myself. Between RVs I scanned the sand and scattered bushes, hoping to see something that would make this last stretch worth riding. This was the finale, after all. I had recently made arrangements to ride, in a car, back to my Ohio home.

Finally, I found my prize. A turtle had crawled onto the road, was in the middle of my lane and moving toward the other side. He was a slider, his yellow and green shell about a foot long. When I was a kid, every dime store had a tank of baby sliders crawling over each other. I used to watch them and smile. Everyone expected turtles to be slow. Their slowness was endearing. And something about their shells, the way they would retreat into themselves, touched people’s hearts.

My Pea Island slider had chosen a perilous path. So I decided to help him across the highway. With a break in the traffic behind me, I got off Stella and walked along the edge of the road toward the turtle. He hesitated a moment, his left eye rolled back in my direction. I wondered if, at the same time, he could see me and the Winnebego coming down the road to his right.

The RV came closer, came fast. The turtle, though, was about a foot away from crossing the center line and didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger. I didn’t want to alarm the oncoming driver by running into the middle of the road, so I decide I would wait and rescue my turtle after the RV passed.

Then, the motor home moved to its left. I don’t know why. It lined up the path of its left front tire with the turtle. I didn’t know what to do. How do you tell a turtle to look out? How do you stop a sixty-mile-an-hour monster?

I couldn’t see the driver, only a glassy glare. Was he looking? Had he misjudged the turtle’s speed? Did he mean to straddle it, to harmlessly pass over it? Had he turned his head away from the road? Was someone handing him a beer?

Was it deliberate? Did he have the nerve to play pop the turtle in a wildlife refuge? Didn’t he see me watching? Didn’t that matter? Was he trying to gall me?

Beneath a tourist’s tires, the turtle exploded. A gust slapped my face as the Winnebego whizzed by. A round, fleshy part of the turtle’s innards—maybe it was his stomach, maybe his heart, I don’t know—rolled across the pavement and came to rest at my feet.

That evening, I poked and prodded the campground sand until it agreed to hold my tent stakes. One strong gust from the ocean breeze, though, and my shelter would flatten. Around supper time, a ranger drove through the park with a megaphone to warn us campers that there could be a hurricane forming. If things got rough, he said, we should take refuge in our vehicles. I had grown used to looming threats, though. After a stormless night, all warnings were canceled.

The next day, the Atlantic rolled onto the sand and washed my feet. Its waves roared like highways, though more soothing. I had come to the end of my journey and wanted to feel that I had arrived.

I waded deeper into the home of crabs and sharks. Brine splashed against my bare navel. Ah, sweet nakedness, I thought. On a bicycle I’m exposed, open to what lies ahead. That helps people trust me, opens doors, lets me see life with a slow, close eye. Sometimes danger seems just over my shoulder. But folks in fast cages each year perish by the thousands. What makes them think they’re so safe?

Two seagulls watched me from above. The ocean lapped at my arm pits. The best part of bicycling, I thought, is being vulnerable. I took a deep breath and dove beneath the waves where turtles glide.


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