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Dad ventures outDad always loved taking the long way to wherever he was going. If there was a way to get to school, church, or the Little League baseball field that involved twisting and turning our way through the backroads of Raleigh until all us kids were turning green and ready to hurl, that was the route Dad preferred to take. Just like in that Robert Frost poem.

When he, Mom, and my two older brothers moved to Raleigh from Gulfport, Mississippi, in the late 60s, one of the first things Dad did was get out his Raleigh roadmap and trace out a route from our house in the newly developing suburbs of North Raleigh to our church downtown that involved a more satisfying amount of winding roads, stomach-churning turns, dizzying hills, and gnarled asphalt.

This was all fine with me, for the most part. As a boy I was never in a hurry to do anything that involved going somewhere. But I did have to go to school. My 8th-grade year I transferred to a school downtown after a few years of tedious bullying at my local middle school, and since Dad worked downtown at the power company, he took me to school every morning. Our lengthy commute into town gave me more time to enjoy the idiotic antics of Gary and Nola on the Morning Zoo on 94Z every morning as I bit my nails and stripped cuticles off my fingers in bloody anticipation of another horrific day as a 13-year-old.

I was bequeathed the “take the long way that’s kind of tedious to other people” impulse by Dad, and it used to make my high school friends nuts because I was the only one with a car, so in order for them to hitch a ride they always had to go to the bayou and back to get anywhere. (And they’d be forced to listen to all of my awesome musical cassettes while enjoying the view.) But most of the time in my adult life I’ve never been able to indulge it because I’ve always been running late. I was never able to sit back, relax, and calmly make my way through the unnecessarily labyrinthine journeys Raleigh had to offer—or rather, I could, but I had to do it very quickly.

But I could always rely on Dad to take the scenic route whenever we would go somewhere on my visits. The journey, to him, was at least as important as the destination.

 

Even in the latter stages of Dad’s Alzheimers, when we had to take his driver’s license away from him, his meandering continued. He couldn’t sit still. He would constantly be wandering around looking at things, trying to sneak out of the house, and moving toward some unspecified and probably nonexistent target. The further he wandered into the fuzzy headspace of his disease, the more he seemed to want to get up and go places. Of course, this behavior stemmed directly from the Alzheimers, but it was nice to think more fantastically—that Dad was rapidly aging backward, say, and that he wasn’t a sick 79-year-old man but rather a cheeky 6-year-old full of wanderlust, curiosity, and mischief, stalking frogs, leaving dog turds on doorsteps, and choosing his own adventure.

When our family gathered at our time-share condo at North Carolina’s Atlantic Beach last August for what would be our last beach trip with Dad, he was restless and fidgety. We had to keep a constant eye on him to make sure he wasn’t slipping off to do some exploring.

“Crap! Where’s Dad?!” I said after dinner one night, realizing that he was no longer standing in front of the television with his dog Lilybit in one hand and the clicker in the other, clicking. He’d quietly wandered off as mom, my sister Laurie, my brother Kevin, and I were talking at the table. Everyone looked around, got up, and started searching. I went out the front door into the hallway and, sure enough, there was Dad trying, unsuccessfully, to turn the doorknob of the condo next door.

I popped my head back into our place and there was mom, on her way out the door to look for him.

“Found him,” I said. Then I turned and walked toward Dad.

“Hey, Dad, what are you up to?”

Dad stopped trying the doorknob and headed toward the staircase leading down to the boardwalk, muttering, “Oh, I’m just going over here.”

“Okay, that’s fine. I think I’ll come with you.”

“Nah, you don’t have to do that,” he said, seeming a little annoyed.

“I’d really like to. Let’s go for a little walk.” I tried not to sound patronizing—when he was in this kind of mood he was easily stirred up.

“Oh,” he said. “Okay.”

I followed him as he shuffled down the hallway, down the stairs, and onto the boardwalk that led out to the beach. There was a pool off to the right and down some steps where kids screeched and splashed and their parents lounged and chatted. Dad was walking pretty slowly, and while I was following him I zoned out as I gazed over at the wet children flailing about the pool. I watched as a little boy pulled a girl’s bathing suit strap and snapped it back against her back. Without missing a beat the girl twirled around and slapped him across the face.

This excited me, obviously, because who doesn’t like to see a child get bitch-slapped by another child? Is there anything more life affirming? I smiled and looked back over at Dad, hoping he had seen it and would give it a thumbs-up. But he was still moving determinedly ahead on the boardwalk, now at a quicker pace, out to the little gazebo area overlooking the pool on one side and the boardwalk trail out to the beach on the other.

At the gazebo he stopped and sat down, so I sat down next to him. We watched people pass by, greeting them with smiles and soft “hello”s as they passed. Dad never seemed to be looking at anything—rather, he was looking past everything into an ethereal realm that perhaps he alone could glimpse.

After a few silent minutes he stood up and started walking—faster now—along the last leg of the boardwalk out to the beach. I got up and followed him, struck by the determined pose he assumed: hunched over with his upper body bowed forward and arms swinging resolutely as he barreled ahead. He moved down the stairs and slowed down briefly as he began slogging through the soft sand near the dunes.

I followed on his heels, trying to keep up without looking like I was acting as his minder. We were heading east toward Fort Macon State Park, and toward the jetty at the corner of both the park and the island. He and mom had walked down to the jetty for years during our beach trips, early in the morning. But he hadn’t been able to make it to the jetty last year or, sad to say, this year. He would tire out when he was about halfway and be encouraged, by mom, to turn around. He’d tried again yesterday again, but . . .

So was the jetty where we were heading now?

“So how’d you like that chocolate cake we had tonight, Dad?” I ventured. Dad always hated chocolate. He loved dessert but hated chocolate. But after dinner tonight when mom started cutting slices, Dad requested one, and, to the shock of everyone at the table, he ate the hell out of it.

“It was pretty good,” he mumbled under his breath, as if he was saying it to himself. His eyes were still looking straight ahead.

“Yeah, you seemed to really like it,” I laughed, finally breaking even with him.

His pace didn’t decrease, and I began to worry that he would tire himself out again and that we would be a mile away with him not able to walk.

“So where are we going, Dad?”

“Just down here,” he said, gesturing ahead with one arm.

“Okay. We probably shouldn’t go too far, though,” I said gently. “I don’t want you to get too tired.”

“Just over there,” he said, pointing ahead again.

Up ahead a few hundred feet I saw the green sign announcing our entrance into the grounds of Fort Macon State Park, the halfway mark on the way to the jetty. I squinted my eyes and gazed beyond it trying to gauge how much farther it would be to the jetty, and while I was lost in those complicated mathematics, Dad slipped off. When I surfaced from my advanced calculus lesson I realized he was no longer beside me. Looking around I saw that he had darted off into the dunes, clomping awkwardly over sprouts of beach grass and sand stumps. Uh-oh.

Recently, Dad had taken to going outside to go to the bathroom. At the house in Raleigh Mom had regularly started finding him out by the trashcans with his pants down taking a whiz. Fearing for the worst, I quickly hopped over to the dunes to see what he was up to.

“Dad, where are you going? I thought we were walking on the beach.”

“You don’t have to follow me,” he said irritably.

“I know, but I just want to make sure you don’t fall.”

He stopped and looked around the area of dunes. Was he looking for a place to pee? I hoped not, because how do you tell your dad not to pee somewhere?

He stepped passed me and started moving back down toward the beach. Following him down, I sighed with relief.

We continued on in the direction of the jetty, passing a few shirtless guys fishing in jean shorts. Up ahead in front of another series of dunes and close to the Fort Macon sign two abandoned beach chairs were perched, their flimsy seats and backs flapping in the wind.

“Oh, these are ours,” he said, pointing them out.

“No, I don’t think they are,” I, the insufferable literalist, responded as Dad sat down in one of them. It occurred to me to say we probably shouldn’t sit in these, they’re someone else’s, but then I thought so what/who cares?, shrugged, and sat down next to him.

We sat and watched the waves roll in together.

“This is nice, isn’t it?” I said.

“Uh-huh,” Dad replied dreamily. “Sure is.” He looked ahead toward the sea stretching south toward the Bahamas and onward to oblivion. I followed his gaze, my mind wandering again into his headspace, wondering what he was thinking about, where he wanted to go, and if I’d have to be stronger in urging him to start moving back to the condo. Then I got lost in another thicket of time and distance measurements, wondering how long it would take to jet ski to Grand Bahama island and would there be anywhere on the way to stop for snacks…

Dad stood up, walked over to the Fort Macon State Park sign, and then stopped. I got up and walked over to him. He looked at the sign and out to the sea.

“I think we can turn around now,” he said. And with that, he touched the sign and turned to start heading back.

“Oh, okay, are you sure?” I said.

“Yeah.”

We walked back passed the seats we’d just been lounging in, passed the shirtless fisherman tossing their lines out, passed the dunes where we had detoured, all the way back to the soft sand and the boardwalk, up to the gazebo, and over to the faucets where we could wash our feet and legs off. Then we went down the boardwalk stairs onto the grass. I looked over to the pool: there were fewer kids running around now, and, sadly, none of them were slapping each other. Dad made his way up the stairs to our second-floor condo. I followed him up and we went back inside.

 

A few hours later we were playing cards at the dinner table while Dad sat on the couch with the clicker, clicking. At one point I looked over to the couch and saw that Dad was gone again.

“Crap, where’s Dad?” I said. I started to get up to go out to the hallway and check that he wasn’t trying to open anyone’s door.

“There he is,” Laurie said, pointing out to the balcony overlooking the beach.

There he sat in one of the plastic chairs on our beachfront balcony, a little boy with a television clicker in his hand and his dog on his lap. Staring at the sea.

Day 19 took us from Lynchburg, Virginia, to Charleston, South Carolina.

On the open Southern roads, bright in the day, we listened to Lily Allen. We listened to VAST. We listened to Robbie Williams, Peter Fox, Siouxsie Sioux, Coolio.

Yes.

We listened to Bon Jovi.

We listened to Kansas.

Two wholly different riverbeds in the United States offer an official rock with a slide.

There are possibly more, and there may soon be less.But we would make sure to dip into these, one in North Carolina and one in Arizona, on our tour around the country.Because we’d been away from American natural spectacles and because an open swimming hole with a rock slide wasn’t actually supposed to exist in this new century, belonging to a rosier, bucolic past since replaced by concrete waterparks and videogame fitness.


We left home for Bald Head Island under an invasion of gnats.  They started turning up in the master bathroom, and it got to the point where I was killing a dozen or more a day.  The slaughter was not traumatic for me in any way.  The gnats were slow, unthreatening.  You could close your hand around them or — my preferred method — wait for one to land and crush it neatly under a fingertip.  If one alit in the sink, you might end its existence with a splash.

I didn’t think of the gnats again until we were well ensconced on Bald Head, until we saw the baby sea turtles.

Like many of North Carolina’s barrier islands, Bald Head’s beaches are significant nesting ground for sea turtles.  They come ashore in the spring and dig an eighteen-inch-deep hole with their hind legs, then cover it, leaving one or two hundred eggs to fate.  When they hatch two months later, the baby turtles make a manic dash for the water, presuming predators haven’t dug up the eggs first.  And that the hatchlings didn’t follow houselights to distraction.  And that the birds didn’t get them.

This is where humans enter the equation.  During nesting season, volunteers managed by the Bald Head Conservancy patrol the beaches to monitor egg laying.  When they locate a nest, they put a wire cage around it with a do-not-disturb sign.

For the five years we’ve been going to Bald Head — always during the summer hatching season — we’ve seen many marked nests.  This year we noted two right by the beach path nearest our rental house.  As we always do, we paused to examine them the first day.  The sign, the broad-spaced wire, the sand — all were as nondescript and inauspicious as they always appeared.

Then, one early evening, I was drinking a cocktail and gazing past the rushes toward the ocean when some kind of fuss arose on the beach.  I stared dumbly, trying to make sense of it.  Was this a party — a wedding?  A few people had on the same color green.  What were they wearing?  What was that about?

The sliding door opened behind me and my wife stepped out.  “What’s going on?”

“I’m trying to figure it out myself.  Beach party?”

Someone pulled up in a golf cart — the main mode of island transportation — and rushed down the path without pause.  Another person arrived.  Then another.

“Oh,” my wife declared.  “The turtles!”

We notified our group and hit the beach with drinks in hand.

Sure enough, a crowd had formed by one of the nests.  The green T-shirts were the volunteers.  They had dug a trench from nest to water, to facilitate things.  A hundred people or more lined the trench, some sitting, others standing.  There was an air of celebration: kids performing cartwheels in the sand, playing frisbee.  Still, a cartful of teenage girls road right by, oblivious.

I sidled up to the group of people beside the nest.  A volunteer explained that they knew the eggs had hatched because the sand had collapsed, forming a crater about six inches deep.  But the only sign of life was a single lump of uneven sand in the crater.  It may have moved while I was looking.  Then again, maybe not.

A volunteer told everyone to keep the noise down.  Amazingly, people complied, though there were whispered conversations.

My nephew, with all the ingenuousness of a five year old, got into a chat with an older boy about camp.  The boy asked what camp.  In Georgia, my nephew reported, a Jewish camp.

“I know a Jewish boy at school,” the boy said without irony.  “He’s not bad when you get to know him.”

When we laughed, the boy became a tad belligerent.  With night falling, it felt a little spooky.

The volunteer said no one should touch the turtles when they start moving.  If one goes off track, tell a volunteer, who will guide it back into the trench.  A few of the volunteers had pulled latex gloves on, as if the hatch were imminent.  I asked how many babies there would be.  She said there were 161 eggs in the nest.

“How can you be so specific?”

She explained that the nest had been placed too close to the water by the mother turtle.  Volunteers dug it up within hours and moved the eggs to higher ground.  Being conscientious, they counted them.

We all peered into the hole.  Did the lump move?  Maybe.

It was getting dark.  Volunteers were shining lights into the hole — red lights, which they believed the turtles couldn’t see.

My wife overheard a man say: “Why aren’t people more interested in the sky.  The sky is beautiful tonight.”  It was true.  The stars were emerging.  Then again, there were miles of beach, yet this man was here with the rest of us, awaiting the turtles.

The scientist in charge arrived, Brett DeGregorio.  He seemed young and vigorous, on top of things.  I asked if he was a marine biologist and he shook his head.

“I’m a reptile guy.”

That made sense.  He told me he held an undergraduate degree from U. Mass.  For his Masters, he’d studied rattlesnakes at Purdue.  He seemed a little startled by the turnout.  I don’t suppose one gets a crowd for rattlesnake hatches.

Despite the excitement, I had the presence of mind to ask Brett how long this would take.  Our kids are young and the mosquitos were coming out.  I’ll take gnats over mosquitos any day.

Brett said most of the hatchlings would emerge all at once in what observers call a boil.  Once that begins it would all be over in a few minutes, he said.

But how long after the roof of the nest has fallen in does it begin?

“Anywhere from eight to thirty-six hours.”

Thirty-six hours!  It was after nine o’clock and the kids were already exhausted.  I passed the word and we made a group decision to leave.  Each of us gave a parting glance to the hole.  Status quo.  We trudged away disappointed.

Back at the house, my seven-year-old daughter said of the turtles: “They’ll probably come out at one in the morning when no one’s around except the super nature explorers and people who are really really desperate.”

But the super nature explorers and the casual observers, the desperate and the not so desperate were all equally disappointed that night.

In the morning, a lone volunteer stood monitoring the nest.  My wife made inquiries.  The volunteer explained that the boil hadn’t happened and, notwithstanding its name, was unlikely to occur in the heat of day.  Maybe tonight, she said.  She further explained that the one lone turtle that appeared as no more than a lump of sand had been removed by the scientist for safe keeping, carried away in a cooler.

Poor little guy!

An hour later that volunteer had gone and my wife, ever curious, picked the brains of another.  This one said the first volunteer was misinformed.  No turtle had been removed, just covered again with sand for protection from the sun.

Who to believe?  It was like a very earnest game of telephone.

Yet something was happening in that hole, something not contrived by man, something both ancient and in a sense eternal.

So of course we were back that evening with the crowd, staring into the sand crater.  The volunteers were ready and eager again, too.  The crowd was more insistently hushed, as if through reverence they could make nature happen.  Brett, the scientist, was there, too.

I asked some more questions and learned some more facts.  Several species of sea turtle lay their eggs on Bald Head, but this was the most common, a loggerhead nest.  And if it hatched — when it hatched — it would be the first of a light season.  Last year there were more than seventy nests laid.  This year, fewer than thirty.  Also, on the subject of numbers, Brett said there were 154 eggs in the nest, not 161, as the volunteer had insisted.  I wasn’t about to count the hatch, but if someone decided to do so, I’d put my money on Brett.

The evening progressed as before, though a discerning look into the hole revealed more lumps than the previous night.  And did one of those lumps just move?  Maybe.

Darkness fell and my entire party drifted away.  I decided to hang out for a few more minutes.

Then a minor commotion arose as one of the volunteers showed up with a small red cooler.  Brett opened the lid and I peered inside.  A sand-colored turtle the size of two quarters rested there on what looked like a bed of damp cotton.  Rescued.  So the first volunteer had reported correctly.

“Maybe this guy can inspire the others,” Brett said.  Gently, he dropped the baby turtle into the hole.  It stretched its neck and one of the lumps looked up.  Then a couple of other lumps moved.

This was more action than we’d seen in that crater in two days.  I took out my cell phone and whispered urgently when my sister answered: “It’s happening.  Get out here!”

My party — kids and all — arrived just in time to see the hole come to life.  A boil.  One moment we were looking mostly at sand.  Then, with the suddenness of a Star Trek transporter beam, it was mostly turtles.  Baby turtles, two or three inches long and straining against one another with the determination of toddlers on their first trundle.  They crested the lip of the hole, scampered straight through the wire mesh, and sprinted down the trench toward the ocean as fast as their flippers would carry them.

My nephew, never at a loss for words, said, “It’s like a race!”

If so, it was an endurance race.  They say that only one of ten thousand sea turtles survives the twenty-five years required for sexual maturity.  A lucky few may live eighty years.

Nature, if it has consciousness, must think us mad.

As is the case for so many species, man is the sea turtles’ No. 1 predator.  Though they’re protected in many places, they are also hunted for their meat, their shells and their skin.  We destroy their habitat with beachside development.  We snag them in long-line fishing rigs and shrimp nets, where they often drown.

And yet, others among us usher these creatures into the world with more attention than most newborns get.  (When was the last time you saw a hundred people at a human birth?)  If they could remember volunteers with latex gloves, guiding them toward the ocean, the turtles must later look up at industrial trawlers with incredulousness, wondering:  And these people are all one species?

In this admittedly roundabout way I thought, the next day, of the gnats in my bathroom and how casually I terminated their existence and would continue to do so.

A gnat, of course, is not a sea turtle.  And one can’t fret every death, right?  All life, as the poet Frank Bidart wrote, “exists at the expense of other life.”

The next morning, fire ants by the front door stung my sister’s leg.  My brother-in-law, always eager to act, sprayed poison on them, defending his family.  We’ve all done it.  And, as they always do, the ants curled into little twitching balls and expired.

And I thought: perhaps I should ask my daughter what she meant the other night, when she spoke of really desperate people.


My daughter, not yet eight, has grown suddenly careful with her money.  She’s not greedy.  (She often forgets to ask for her allowance.)  But, now that she’s figured out that money is finite, she spends what she has with great deliberation.

Prior to our recent beach vacation, she planned a lemonade venture for weeks in her mind, fantasizing about the preparation of the drinks, the inevitable line of customers, the transactions.  Our family has a running conversational riff about one day opening a store selling only her favorite foods: salmon sashimi, cucumber, chocolate, a few others equally eclectic.  She’s sophisticated enough to know it’s a joke.  So when she contemplated the lemonade stand she settled on two items she thought would have a better shot than sashimi: lemonade and chocolate brownies.

My wife donated the brownie mix.  My daughter and her cousins worked on the sign for two days, including graphic representations of their offerings.  They stirred the lemonade from a mix, planning to add lemon slices for authenticity, but in their excitement they forgot that last touch.

They set up their stand in the shade of a tree on a corner in Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where cars are banned and people run errands with golf carts.  My wife and I went off with the six-seater to pick up house guests, leaving my daughter and her two cousins in the hands of my sister and brother-in-law, who monitored from lawn chairs.

I feared that the first lesson of commerce would be how hard it is to pull in customers, but I suppose I overlooked the cuteness factor of two eager little girls and a well-tanned five-year-old boy with a mop of thick dark hair and a smile that could melt icebergs.  Less than an hour later they had sold out, if you don’t count the three brownies they’d set aside for themselves.  And who’s scrooge enough to count that?

They declared with pride that they had eighteen dollars — six for each of them with no arguing about the relative contributions of the youngest.  But I was determined that there be a business lesson in this.  I said they must deduct expenses.

“What are expensives?” my daughter asked with great seriousness.

Aw, heck.  I explained the concept of costs, but my heart had gone out of it already.  We deducted three bucks and they each ended up with five and we headed for the ocean.

Over the next two days, my daughter proudly left three shops in a row without spending her share of the bounty.  Then, on the way home, we stopped in Richmond.  A few blocks from the Jefferson Hotel, we passed a plain storefront with agates and geodes in the window.  It specialized in beads and rocks, playing down the access-restricted head shop in back.  Beads and rocks, as it happens, are the specialties also of every seven-year-old girl in the world.  We entered with my daughter in the lead.

The place had only the most basic merchandising, home-made strands of beads and minerals hanging from plain hooks, drawers filled with colorful beads, rocks and small fossils sorted by type on tables and shelves.  My daughter was — well, like a kid in a rock shop.  She had to have everything, but knew she couldn’t.  The clerk behind the counter — eager, friendly, New Agey — must have been disappointed with our admonitions about the budget, but she didn’t show it.

After about twenty minutes of touching everything, creasing the brow, doubling back, touching again, my daughter settled on a shelf of sparkling golden rocks.

“I think I want some gold,” she said.

It fell to me, over her shoulder, to point out like a heel that she was looking at pyrite, fool’s gold.  So what?  It sparkled, it fell within her budget, and the one she selected filled her palm perfectly.

Scarcely an hour earlier, we’d been dragging her through the hot, humid streets of Richmond, urging her forward, reprimanding when she dropped too far behind.  Now, leaving the store with her treasure, the kid had springs in her steps.  She knew for sure that she’d chosen wisely, that she’d taken possession of something that in turn had the prospect of possessing her.  She declared that she’d start a rock collection and that she’d look up on line, when we got home, about pyrite.

In that moment, she reminded me of an older nephew whom we’d taken to the Bronx Zoo years ago, before we had a child of our own.  All he wanted to do was go into every gift shop and buy trinkets, which he’d stuff into his pockets with an owner’s pride.  Real live lions and giraffes and elephants — couldn’t take those home.  A rubber rhino to control, to have forever, to place on the shelf as a trophy — that’s what a kid’s after.

My daughter, among other interests, pursues fireflies at night with the determination of a big game hunter.  She’s evolved from wanting to trap them in a jar, where they surely die, to wishing only to see them glow in her hand for a few seconds.  Then she sets them free and seeks another.

The morning after her purchase, I emerged from the shower to find her in a huff.  My wife explained the problem: she’d lost the pyrite — had it and then didn’t.

“How do you lose a rock in a hotel room?”  Maybe the same way you let a firefly go.

When my wife went into the bathroom I helped my daughter search the covers of each bed, look under and behind every piece of furniture.  Gone.

I was halfway through Round Two when she turned to me, reconciled to her loss.  “Well, thanks anyway for helping me, Dad.”  I paused and swallowed.  That unprompted thank-you was real gold.

We ran out of places to look, but she found the rock in her knapsack a few minutes later — had put it there for safe keeping and forgotten.

That afternoon, back home, she asked without prompting to use the computer.  Then she came back downstairs, requesting help.  She did a Google search and couldn’t find fool’s gold or pyrite.  Turns out the first six hits or so for fool’s gold reference a movie.  And she was spelling pyrite wrong.  I set her up on Wikipedia and she printed the results.

The article states: “Despite being nicknamed fool’s gold, small quantities of gold are sometimes found associated with pyrite.”

So true.