I feel about the return trip the same way I feel about making the same piece of art twice.  Just not as much fun the second time around.  The challenge to myself today was to ask the question, “What do IH95 South and IH10 West look like from the other direction?”  Well, I had to do something – I had barely started the almost 18 hour drive back and was already feeling antsy!  So, in effect, the question is, “How is this reverse trip different?” 

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Different times of day, different cars around me, different stops for gas and potty, different food to eat, a different Starbucks, and a completely different perspective than when I left San Antonio 2 weeks ago today.  Stopping for the night after 11 hours of driving, I am tired.  Tomorrow another 8 hours, maybe 9 and then back to Texas, again.  

 

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 Twenty-three years ago tonight, Feb 1, I arrived at Dallas/Fort Worth airport having traveled from the Azores, Portugal, after living there for three years, to begin the Texas chapter of my life.  As I contemplate the past twenty-three years they have passed incredibly quickly and have overflowed with rich experiences and memorable people.  Tomorrow night, I will be back to Texas again, this time for a pit stop and then into another new chapter and more rich experiences and memorable people.  

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Yesterday, my last day in Wilmington was warm and blustery, preceding the arrival of storm Mangus during the wee hours. As the day revealed itself the wind howled and cloud cover thickened and thinned intermittently.   The day was ideal for seeing Airlie Gardens, a compelling combination of art, nature, history, and symmetry.  The wonders were amazing, a 467 year old live oak tree, a bottle house created to honor Minnie Evans, an outsider artist who worked at the Gardens for years creating her art there, a chapel built in 1835, ponds, and a salt water marsh.  I was in artist/nature lover/history geek heaven.  Stalking two Canada Geese that crossed my path, one honking loudly and stretching his neck, greeting the other as they walked and grazed.  Discovery in a sixty-seven acre garden, where a slow morning walk reminded me everything is always balanced and aligned.

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Seeing the Acme Art Studios (http://acme-art-studios.com/) was a high point.  Purchased by a group of artists, today the space includes 18 artists in various sized spaces – indoor and outdoor.  The gallery space changes monthly and is curated by different artists in the space each month.  I met with Fritzi Huber (www.fritzihuber.com) and Michelle Connolly (www.michelleconnollyart.com); we talked for an hour about art workspace, process, paper, ideas, and more.  Thank you both for your time and welcome spirits!  I left refreshed, energized and so glad I am part of your tribe.    

 

I feel a little like the horses I used to ride in my youth.  Not a very accomplished horsewoman, I had difficulty keeping them contained as we turned around to head home.  Some horses have this issue.  They race back to the barn either to return to the herd or to get rid of the rider.  My excitement is multifold and I cannot wait to get started on expanding my business plan and bringing to fruition a longtime dream of owning my own business in a new city.  The decision about “where” is almost made and now narrowed to two – Wilmington or Charleston. 

 

As I reflect on this almost completed relocation recon trip, there is a sense of accomplishment and direction, the first step of thousands yet to come.  Like the symmetry I saw in the formality of Airlie Gardens, there is symmetry everywhere, even if sometimes things appear asymmetrical.  I embrace this sense of symmetry or balance and know right now I stand on the precipice of a new life.  Going back to my initial dream ready to fly into this new life, the return trip, my race to the barn, begins tomorrow morning.  

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A dense fog advisory for the area was forecast until 9am this morning.  Staying up late last night led to a dense fog event inside, too, when I arose late!  The weather changed today and it was a balmy 70 degrees with sun as I left to learn more about downtown Wilmington.  The historic downtown retains some brick streets, more brick buildings, and small alleyways all moving straight up from the Cape Fear River in a grid.  There are large hotels on the river, which block views and take over the landscape, but for the most part, downtown is an interesting mix of retail, bars, hip eateries, tattoo parlors, and movie sets. 

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When I first began planning this relocation recon trip, I perused Craig’s list looking for vacation rentals in the area, thinking I would spend my entire time in Wilmington.  I sent an inquiry on one asking what the nightly rate was from a monthly rate posted.  The gentleman who called me back, Sam, relayed the rate, but was really looking for a 60-day lease.  He asked where I had been looking to stay and I mentioned the Day’s Inn.  His immediate response, when learning I was traveling by myself was that I wanted to stay away from that part of Market Street because “there is nothing but military and prostitutes down there, not that there is anything wrong with military, but it is not a great part of town.  If you aren’t sure where you are staying is safe, call me and I will tell you!”

Later as I paged through the tourist literature, I learned that military personnel, college students (there are two colleges close to downtown – University of North Carolina – Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College) and alcohol when mixed at bar closing time lead to police intervention.  The recommendation was to avoid certain areas of downtown at that time of night. 

 

After walking around the area, I can understand how those different forces could come together and ignite in the wee hours of the morning.  I was not prepared to have a Wilmywood experience.  The area has an active film industry, and is the filming location site of many television shows and movies.  Homeland is filmed here and I learned today from a bystander that a “post apocalyptic thing, not too good, but at least they got another season” is filmed here, too.  In fact they were filming today.  I don’t think I was in any of the shots, since what I saw was the moving of equipment from one part of the area to another, but it was curious to see llamas, horses, plastic butchered meat hanging from a tent, and other props built for the scene. 

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Stopping in an artist’s coop gallery located in the Cotton Exchange (historic, haunted building) yielded a wonderful conversation with a metal smith/jewelry maker named Sara Westermark.  Yes, her husband is Swedish, too.  Originally from St. Louis, she has grown to love Wilmington and its artist community, restaurants, size, beaches, and sense of place.  Thanks Sara for the time and convo, maybe a collaborative project is possible!  Her cohort, Sybil, too is an advocate for Wilmington; a town they both say has a lot of “newbies,” who are welcomed.  A stop in the New Elements Gallery yielded more convo about downtown and its greatly supported monthly Art Walk events, and the energy of noise that is exploded after the bars close. 

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The Port of Wilmington, the flow of water in the Cape Fear River allowed access to materials needed for the city to grow. When blockade-runners were successful, citizens received goods before cities further up river.  Walking the mile long River Walk, the river is approachable, almost gentle, belying its past as witness to slave ships and riots.  I feel a churning underneath my placid exterior, the “where?” decision time is drawing near and there is much more to learn, including trusting the current of my soul. 

 

Arriving in Wilmington midday yesterday I was greeted with some inauspicious signs – a traffic jam on the Memorial (Draw) Bridge from a ship moving upriver, a very ripe plastic bag “fruit” hanging from a tree and road kill.  After spending time at Myrtle Beach, a lovely beach, but somewhat repetitive promenade (cheap beach clothes, miniature golf, Waffle House, Fireworks, liquor store, and then repeat) I am looking forward to learning about another historical city. 

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I will digress to share one experience while in Myrtle Beach, which includes an incorrect address, porn, and an art museum.  I typed the address to the Art Museum of Myrtle Beach into my Map App and headed north on Highway 17, not noticing the map said North Myrtle Beach, instead of Myrtle Beach.  Driving for about forty-five minutes I arrive at S Ocean Blvd, but know something is amiss when I see Badd Kitty, The Prrrrfect Store for Couples not once, but twice in the same block.  Siri has not been wrong yet, and wanting to see this through, I turn onto S Ocean and as I curve to the left and Siri tells me I have arrived at 3100 S Ocean, all I see is a boarded up house and vacant lot.  Driving quickly, I turn the corner to return to the highway driving by another X-Rated establishment.  Returning to the highway, Siri and I get our directions right and I backtrack for twenty minutes, and arrive at the Art Museum – without a stop at Badd Kitty. 

 

The weather has been beautiful.  Yesterday was in the thirties, cold, but the sunny.  The inauspicious welcome became auspicious as I toured the Bellamy Mansion, an historic house completed in 1860, six months before the Civil War began. The house sheltered the homeowners, their nine children and up to eleven or twelve slaves.  Occupied by a descendent until 1946, the home was restored by Preservation North Carolina.  The beauty was in the details and the angst in the separate living quarters for those whose work allowed the lifestyle to continue. 

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The privy room in the slave quarters. Both the laundry and the privy were on the first floor of the quarters, the slaves slept upstairs.

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Today was cloudy and cold, so I decided to drive the area and save the walking exploration for a warmer day.  The drive to Jacksonville was pleasant, although Jacksonville was not appealing to me – mostly law offices, a Marine base and tattoo parlors.  Stopping at North Topsail Beach for a walk, I spy two dolphins swimming close to shore almost paralleling my walking.  Brown pelicans fly low along the shore and other waterfowl bob on the water.  The contrast of the dunes with the sky is stunning dunes, the sand holds so many shells it looks as if someone has sown them like seeds, and there are two collies. 

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The collies came with a man whose name is Richard and who I dubbed Richard of the Beach.  He wore a brown flannel shirt, with a grey long john shirt underneath, grey sweatpants, and walking shoes.  The pockets of the flannel shirt were loaded with phone, glasses, and wallet.  His baseball cap said Sneads Ferry.  He was a stout man with a mostly grey goatee at least eight or ten inches long, which was blowing in the wind and moved as he spoke.  A hearing aid occupied his left ear.  The female collie ran over to me and he yelled, “They won’t bother you.”  I thought, “good,” and as I petted her, he came over to me. 

 

ROTB:  “Where are you from? “

Me:             “Texas, San Antonio”

ROTB:  “Oh.  Years ago I lived at Fort Hood.  My brother lived in Fort Worth and my sister outside of Fort Worth.  She worked 30 years for Bell Helicopter. “

Me:              Nodding.  “Do the dogs go in the water? “

ROTB:  “She does.  He is scared.  She and I have come here everyday since she was a little puppy.  Why are you here? “

Me:              “I am on a relocation recon mission.  How long have you lived here?”

ROTB:  “Eleven years.  I grew up in Morehead.  I came back here as soon as I could and I wanted to live with local people.  Morehead is not like that anymore.  Rich people from everywhere moved in and they moved there because they liked it the way it was. Then, as soon as they got there they changed it to be like where they were from.  So I moved to Sneads Ferry.  Now, that is local people.  People I can talk to. “

Me:  “Yeah, that happens everywhere. “

ROTB:  Turning his left ear my way.  “Why are you here? “

Me:  “I am looking for a new place to live. “

ROTB:  “What are you looking for? “

 

And my mind stood still.  I have a list, a spreadsheet of questions to answer about what I am looking for in a place to live.  I don’t think Richard of the Beach wanted to hear chapter and verse about my list, he just wanted a friendly conversation with the woman from Texas, a stranger on the beach he walks everyday with his two collies.    And I needed to be asked, “What are you looking for?” 

 

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I visited two other beaches, driving through Wilmington to Carolina and Kure Beaches and then backtracking to Wrightsville Beach.  On the way I saw a street sign for Salient Point, smiled at the double entendre and smiled again when I thought about deciding where I will move.  Wherever the final place, it will be close to water.  That is what I am looking for.

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My experiential research method is rhythmic.  In the evening, I write and research on the Internet using clues from local publications and recommendations from people I have met during the day.  Sometimes I make a specific route of what I want to see the next day, but mostly I create a loose itinerary.  Then, i think about what I want to learn and prepare questions for the next day.   All of this planning has an urgent energy – i do not want to miss  anything big!  During the day, I walk, drive, examine the landscape, look at art, blend in, and see whom I want to talk to and who wants to talk to me, try to get a vibe of the area and practice being in the moment.  Can I see myself living there?  Working there?  More than anything, I try to just be open.

 

Preparing for my last morning in Charleston, which was yesterday morning, my research led me to a collaborative clay community gallery and studio called Cone 10 (read more here: http://www.cone10studios.com/). They did not open until 11am, so I had a couple of hours to walk through the “hip” area, get lost, and drive across a picturesque bridge, which spans the Cooper River and connects Mount Pleasant on the east to downtown Charleston.  The third longest cable-stayed bridge in the Northern Hemisphere, it opened in 2005 replacing two unsafe bridges.  Viewing it from the ferry to Fort Sumter provided a panorama, driving over it (both ways!) was exhilarating. 

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Coming down from the bridge put me almost at Cone 10’s door, in an industrial, mixed-use area north of downtown.  As I visited with the four potters I felt their enthusiasm for where they were – not only the city, but also the location of their space, which is sizable and well laid out for workshops and individual work.  Through their collaboration, talent, and vision they have made a nitch for clay in the community. 

 

Although I had been checking weather on my Weather Channel app regularly, the wonder storm Khan escaped my notice.  Myrtle Beach is only an hour and a half from Charleston and was not in the path of the storm, although when I left Brookgreen Gardens (http://www.brookgreen.org) in the afternoon the clouds looked ominous.  The gardens were deserted; even the alligators were hiding from the 40-degree, which felt like 32 degrees, weather.  The gardens, at the same time formal and integrated with the natural environment, opened in 1932, and were the vision of Anna Hyatt Huntington and her husband Archer.  My preference is for abstract or contemporary work, and even moving through at “keeping warm” walking speed, I appreciate the skill of representational sculptors.  Beauty from nature, integrated with artist-made work, all with nuance.   

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On this journey my challenge is to remain grounded and aware so I can integrate experiences and answer my question of “Where?”  Living in my head is comfortable, creativity is innate and the process of making things integrates the two.  My ocean song this afternoon was a twist on the Three Dog Night song Celebrate… “integrate, integrate, dance to the music….integrate, integrate, dance to the music…” 

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The symbol of the Phoenix bird fascinates me.  Being reborn from the ashes of the past has allowed me multiple careers, reinventions, and “provings.” In the Bruce Coburn song, Pacing the Cage, the lines “I’ve proven who I am so many times/the magnetic strip’s worn thin,” is a testament to this.  I feel the time is ripe for a convergence of all the previous redirection and believe the thinness of the magnetic strip can expose one’s true nature.  I guess it was this fertile symbolism coupled with my current recon mission, which moved me to tears today, as the National Park Service Tour Guide completed his interpretation and tour of Fort Sumter.   When he said, and I am paraphrasing, “The National Park Service leaves this fort in ruins to represent the awful disaster of the Civil War and to remember those 750,000 men, women, and children (2% of the population at the time) who died.  From this, we have risen from the ashes to rebuild and become one.”   All of the 50 people on the tour were silent to let it soak in.  Word.  Unity and creativity can make much rise from the ashes. 

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This map from the Park Service Visitor’s Center depicts slave holding and free states at the time of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  The legend says:  Green:  Free; Purple:  Slave; Red: First free, then slave; Blue:  Subject to popular sovereignty.  This designation of Free or Slave was one of the many issues, which agitated those in power and led to the war.  I won’t digress into the “Red State” vs. “Blue State” moniker affixed by the media to emphasize our voting habit differences because definitions of who we are can be so narrow and limiting.   Looking at the map this morning, it seemed familiar, perhaps i had seen something similar last November. 

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A cursory exploration of Charleston’s surrounding areas led me to Folly Beach on James Island.  The wide-open space was calling and with a brisk North/Northeast wind I got my mind blown out.  The smell of the sea, the sound of the sea, the movement of the sea is like a rhythmic blanket.  On the Underground Railroad different patterns or colors of quilts were used to signify safety or warning to escaping slaves.  The sea is my quilt.  Today it signaled regeneration and I heard Carry on My Wayward Friend as I stood on the sand.

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A Chapel of Ease is built away from the main church for parishioners “ease,” when they are not able to attend the main church regularly.  Situated on the remote St. Helena’s Island, this Chapel of Ease, built in the 1740s by planters, is in ruins, destroyed by a forest fire in 1886.  The further I drove on Land’s End Road from Island Parkway the narrower it became and the closer the trees.  Shrouded in live oaks draped with Spanish moss, I almost did not see it.  Others had arrived before I did and after they left I was alone with the remains of the chapel and people from the past.  Three small areas were marked off with short stonewalls and wrought iron, grave markers inside.  Are these ancestors remembered?  Were the trees growing behind the markers growing through rib cages, through hearts?  As I walked back to my car black buzzards were flying overhead seeking new charnel grounds for their sustenance.

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Close up of the walls at Chapel of Ease is called Tabby and is an aggregate of oyster shells and concrete. More about the Chapel at http://www.heritagelib.org/articles/chapels-of-ease

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I remember when I read “Gone With the Wind” for the first time.  The Doobie Brothers song “Black Water” was playing on the radio.  My baby blue transistor would be tuned to CKRC out of Winnipeg and I relished it when that song would play.  Even though the song was not really about this part of the south, it was my soundtrack to “Gone With the Wind” and to the South.  I feel like I have entered a foreign country previously only existing in a song, a book or my mind.  Walking around a former plantation’s gardens, historic antebellum and federalist homes and through streets with houses built in the 1700 and 1800s has challenged me to look at my Northern “truth.”  Nonfictional, not fictional people lived here, believed in their cause, experienced all human emotions, and tried to make their mark.  The anthropologist in me knows cultural relativity trumps “truth” and this is an opportunity to examine my judgment.

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A camelia at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

At Magnolia Plantation and Gardens the land and its ability to produce abundance and beauty is not only remembered through stories, but what the gardens still produce – camellias of all varieties blooming now and azaleas soon to bloom.  Growing up on a farm, I can relate to land and what it produces.   I can also relate to making things, creating something from nothing but your idea, curiosity, and community need.  Charleston grew from the creativity of those who first arrived and then blossomed with rice and cotton production, but also with specialized craft of wrought iron, furniture and cabinetry and much more.  It is still creating today.

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Spanish moss at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

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On the bank of the Ashley River at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

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The back yard at Aiken-Rhett House. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 blew the roof off the house, then rained into the house for days.  The stable and carriage house are on the right.

My tour of the Aiken-Rhett house in Charleston yielded more empathy for those who really made the system work – the slaves.   Walking through where they worked, slept, and lived; comparing it to where their owners worked, slept, and lived is like touring concentration camps in Germany.  It also yielded a wonderful “I love Charleston” conversation with Ned Hartley, a Tour Guide there.  He has lived here 30 years and watched the downtown area blossom.  It was fun to visit and I am grateful for his insights about the city, promising areas, and experience here.  He writes a blog at redcrapemyrtle.blogspot to float his ideas about art as he works on a series of essays.  Good luck Ned!  If I become a Charlestonian, we will meet again.

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