Uninstagrammable, and New Bern (Very Instagrammable)

With the gong of this commencement bell, I sadly parted from the diner and got on the road, not looking forward to all of Virginia to get through. I took Route 1 to avoid 95. Highway road tripping seems pointless, at least in the east, and this trip was not a matter of destination. In fact, there was no destination, no sights, nothing except seeing how people live and experiencing different places as they’re alive today.

I passed through Fredericksburg/Stafford, noting along 1 an area of nothingness and small auto shops with a mobile community sign and an open mic sign right on the highway, turning into the former for a drive-thru around the loop. Everyone had decorated their house with abundant garden toys, wind chimes, and partially or hastily completed projects. Some things were poorly constructed or lopsided or certainly not in tip top shape. All the houses were jammed together. Trees enclosed this hood. There was no way everyone couldn’t know each other. Character abounded.

That night I parked in a Walmart lot somewhere not far from North Carolina and got a beer at the bar that happened to be in that strip mall, catching eyes before deciding against another and heading back home. Such can be life on the road. It’s hard not to explore a bar when there’s only one and it’s the only venue for entertainment around. That said, I’ve been to my fair share of strip mall bars, most notably on the edge of Boone on Thanksgiving early afternoon. I believe if there is anything that can begin to heal the many rifted factions of today’s America, it is craft beer and dirty jokes.

Saturday morning, I drove and drove and then I drove into a terrible rain that lasted the whole day. My car is not made for the mountains, but it is surprisingly bad at the puddles that quickly fill up on perfectly easy, flat land. What is it made for, other than perfect weather and, as my dad likes to put it, delivering flowers? The illusion of throwing down a sleeping bag and hitting the road, neatly packaged into a Transit Connect.

As I prayed not to get caught in a flash flood, cursed my hubris, frantically beat back water, and thanked All Things Considered for providing a link to the human world, North Carolina’s poorer infrastructure and greater number of dilapidated country houses, manifesting minutes after crossing the border from Virginia, became my little world. Even at its most rural, Virginia is quite well fed. North Carolina is visibly poorer, but they are adamant about not littering in their state.

I like driving there. Their highways are narrow and seldom used, probably because there are no major cities. Oriental was, for some reason, my chosen destination simply for want of having one, but I only made it to New Bern.

The quaintest of little Christmas towns, right off the highway! There’s a waterfront walkway and a dense grid of shops, a beautiful red brick church with a courtyard and massive magnolias and oaks covered in Spanish moss. Spanish moss abounds everywhere, in fact, and I have never seen it anywhere else in this state. The sun came out in spurts once I parked. It was a nice enough day for one sailboat to be out in the water. Parked on the edge of that red brick lined shopping grid, a young couple prepared some food inside a white Transit van with interior wood paneling visible in passing. For an open door, their world seemed superimposed on the one in which they physically parked. One set of social standards sitting atop another, but with no interaction. It’s remarkable how much people have changed socially. They may be quite social… online, among their friends, or as part of a very dispersed network, but in person I saw no interaction, no eye contact with anyone who passed. And who knows, I may be the same. Except my camper is a stealthy camper, transporting my kids to soccer practice and hardly capable of eliciting double takes wherever it parks, giving no indication of its inner life from the outside but sparking more than one friendly exchange with the various mechanics it’s been taken to. Next time it’ll be a painted bus, covered in stickers.

New Bern, like the place that inspired its name, looks meticulously cared for. From the coffee shop where I applied to jobs and watched people – essentially my new full time job – I followed the signs for art into an adjoining shop, then tumbled out of the nearest exit into a parking lot, right in sight of a nondescript little courtyard adjoined to a painted white brick garage. Little did I know I was staring at the coolest thing in town, brewery 99. Everyone is a character and Confignorant immediately registered as the best pale ale I’ve ever had, the way really good wine registers as better than the middle grade wines it sounds douchey to grade. Ockham’s razor tells me you will never know if it is truly an interestingly good wine or your imagination wanting to make up for what you can’t immediately tell, which is why someone said this was really good wine.

Like I said, everyone was a character, seated on the short benches around the fence, and the faint smell of pot once wafted comfortingly through the air. A guy head to foot in expensive cycling clothes and external measurements of performance, a couple typically contented web developer/software-engineer-y guys in my demographic, a couple out-of-towners, a lesbian couple with one woman reminding me irresistibly of a lady I used to work with in the environmental engineering lab – no-nonsense -, and a handful of colorful regulars I knew nothing more about. All I know is that everyone crowded in that tiny space was an interesting person. I did the usual and determinedly took out a book (reading is so much more fun in a crowd of strangers, and I mean that) but ended up making some friends. The owner was good about that.

My celestial navigation book turned out to be good conversation starter, and eventually a friendly soul on the verge of backpacking through Thailand who Air BnB’d his house offered me a free room or at least his parking space, in the suburbs of town, which I took for peace of mind, though I don’t think overnight street parking would be too difficult here for a night or two…. His card billed him as “human”. No further descriptors.

Another human was a photojournalist who had also lived in his van some time before, perhaps the most sensitive soul I’ve met in a while, and maybe the most sensitive I’ve met en route. I think he was more keen on philosophical conversations than even I….

I have their websites or their cards, little trinkets to take away with me, and it soothes me, but what of it? What’s the use in trying to hold them, like little rocks you might pick up from the places you visit? They can bring you back, mentally, but that’s all. I guess my real question is, how do you build a shrine to what you value? Or, why do I feel compelled to? If you don’t build a shrine to it, what happens to all that intangible wealth? What happens to the richest human things if we don’t preserve them? They could fall away into the darkness! At least, that’s what I fear, and I don’t think my fear is unreasonable. Look at what we’ve let happen to the world.

Do you just let those moments go!? Yeah, I think you just let them go and let new ones breeze in. And trust that you won’t forget them. And maybe if you meet those people again, just pick up where you left off, even if it’s been years.

This blog is that attempt at a shrine, but it’ll never get it all down, not even one percent of it. And if it does, trust that it is never in what I said, never what I described, never in the words themselves and in the facts. It belongs wholly in the negative space.

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