My name is Miccah Duckett. I have been riding a Vespa S 150 since February 2014. A 38-year-old employed wife and a mother of two, living quietly in western North Carolina, I’m not a seasoned traveller, or an avid outdoorswoman, so perhaps it was my naivite, rather than my confidence, that bolstered my spirits on a Saturday in mid-May of this year when, after breakfast, I packed my hammock, bed roll, basic toiletries and clothing onto my scooter, kissed my family goodbye, and twisted the throttle on a week-long journey, determined to claim the title of “adventure rider.”
It’s possible to reach one’s mid-thirties without enduring any significant uncertainty, or discomfort, both of which we tend to avoid as modern Americans, but beyond our front yards and our office blocks, beyond the climate-controlled enclosures of glass and steel that shelter us even as we move down the open road, the wide world, with all its flawed humans and open spaces, still waits. I wanted to discover just what slice of that reality was waiting for me, should I turn my back on the traditional, accepted methods of travel and lodging, and reduce my expectations to the absolute minimum. Would I be shown kindness or indifference? Would I be lonely? Could I handle the logistical challenges of the roads far from my home?
I can trace the inspiration for this trip back several months, to the autumn of 2014, when somebody on the Modern Vespa forum posted a link to Hennessy Hammocks, which are presented as lightweight, self-enclosed pods that can be suspended quickly and easily between trees, encasing the user in a thin but durable shelter from rain, wind, insects and prying eyes. Intrigued by the simplicity of hammock camping, I realized that, in replacing a traditional tent with a Hennessy, I could conceivably pack every essential item required for travel on my Vespa, Ms. Eldritch, and in so doing, explore the world of adventure travel without the need for a larger engine. After reading about several types of hammocks, I ordered the Hennessy and stored it, coiled in its bag, all through the dark winter months, frequently touching it or lifting it in my hands as I waited out the cold, wet season. Did I mention that I am a romantic? I am a romantic.
I determined to choose a travel itinerary that would push me through discomfort to the reward of relaxation along the coast. A visit to North Carolina’s oldest towns, at a distance of about 400 miles from home, would push me, as a scooterist, from the “intermediate” riding level to something approaching “advanced.” As for accommodations, the plan was simple: talk to strangers, and gain their permission to pitch my hammock in their yards or along their properties, anywhere two trees could be found just the right distance apart. Any reservations about talking to strangers would melt away, I believed, with the approach of night and the very real need for shelter. Googlemaps picked a very straightforward route for me, starting with Highway 64 East, which would then merge into 264 East, terminating in an initial visit to historic Bath, followed by a detour to Belhaven, and then a sweep aong the Crystal Coast.
Soon after picking up Highway 64 in Taylorsville, I realized that, despite my deliberate click on the “no highways” button, Googlemaps had directed me to a major artery that only masquerades from time to time as a country road. The dips and swells occasioned by the foothills terrain that I was leaving behind, at a sustained speed of 55-60 miles per hour, taxed my scooter’s engine to the limit, as well as the patience of other drivers unfortunate enough to creep up behind me as I neared the top of a hill.
My bedroll, lashed horizontally across the backrest with a flat bungee cord, caught the wind and created considerable drag, and the supplies added weight that would not have hindered me on an ordinary ride. Several times, I pulled over onto a side street to let the faster vehicles pass. I felt no shame at my slower pace, or in removing myself from traffic. Instead, I felt acceptance, of myself and of my scooter. I counted that as my first lesson. I put on my tough face and fixed my eyes on the thin, unscrolling tongue of highway, knowing that the flat Piedmont was not far away.
The first time I ever asked a stranger for shelter was near sunset that afternoon, in a suburb of Raleigh called Knightdale. After locating a gas station and filling up my tank, I noticed a ranch-style house immediately behind the station, and a well-shaded yard whose trees, to my eyes, looked just the right width apart. A young man with a shock of dreadlocks leaned into the passenger-side window of an SUV idling in the driveway. Somewhat nervously, but also buzzing with adrenaline, I pulled my Vespa up into his driveway and waved at him cheerfully.
He looked surprised, but when he ambled over to say hello, I shocked him completely by asking his permission to camp in his trees. Then he shocked me by saying… yes. After leaning once more into the window to kiss his girlfriend in the SUV goodbye (and after I got a hilariously appraising look from her), he ducked inside to check with his housemates. A minute later he emerged from his front doorway with a big grin on his face and a thumbs-up signal for me.
I was elated; I had done what I set out to do, on my first try. I had asked a stranger for kindness, and received it.
Looping the hammock tether lines securely into the knots that I learned and practiced at home, I briefly chatted with my host, whose name was AJ, and who told me that he works in construction and food service.
“How old are you?” I asked him.
“I ain’t nothing but twenty-three,” he replied shyly.
Suspended in my hammock after sunset, shifting around in the first of many attempts to establish a comfortable position, I read my Bible and thanked God for a safe journey. The crickets, and the passing of strange cars, turned out to be excellent company.
On the second day, waiting to order breakfast at a busy McDonald’s further along the road, I met Jimmy, an optimistic man in his mid-sixties who, only three years back, bought a used Harley to see what it was all about. It was a pretty machine, chromed out respectably and fringed along the saddlebags with a fancifulness that clashes with the orange and white safety vest he wears. Jimmy’s not a young man, but he’s a young rider, and he knows the risks involved. Now he’s looking to sell his 650 and buy something larger so his wife can ride along too.
“I think that motorcycles, and cars and boats… are put here for a reason. I think they are here so we can buy one and try it out,” he mused, curling his long mahogany-colored fingers around his coffee cup.
When I asked Jimmy about riding, he cracked a grin, showing gaps in his teeth earned over the years. “I feel happiness; I feel joy; I feel peace,” he told me.
After my breakfast I waved good-bye to Jimmy and set out again along that gruelling stretch of Highway 264 East which stretches from Raleigh to Greenville. As soon as I could, I turned onto the business route, and felt a little of the peace that Jimmy had told me about.
Due to my experience last year of suddenly losing pretty much all of my oil over a journey of a hundred miles or so, with no explanation, I practiced the habit of stopping quite frequently at gas stations to check my levels. I was also feeling a lot of knee stress from the removable pads in my GoGo Gear Kevlar leggings. The pants themselves are quite comfortable, and I wore them for almost 2 straight days. The knee pads, however, finally caused me so much discomfort that I had to remove them. I think this may be due to the length of my legs (I am six feet tall) which must add stress to the knees.
I finally ripped them out in Greenville, home of my Alma Mater (East Carolina University), and shoved them into my pet carrier with no regrets.
After a long morning of riding and resting, I reached Bath in the early afternoon on Sunday.
This place is quiet: I mean Twilight Zone quiet. The residents generally use golf carts for local trips, which means that the only car sounds are generated by outsiders. Plodding up and down the streets in my sweaty motorcycle pants and sandals, I looked around with increasing despondency for anything resembling an air-conditioned Blackbeard museum, but as it was a Sunday, I was prepared to just amble and take a few pictures. Lovely antique gardens, which I may or may not have been authorized to visit, beckoned to me from behind carefully restored clapboard homes with tour hours posted on neat little signs outside. I knew what I would find within: quilts spread over sagging beds made of straw-stuffed ticking, the TempurPedic mattresses of the colonial period. Butter churns and spinning wheels gathering photo-ops in the heat that creeps in through single-paned windows. I hadn’t come for that. I had come to interact with humanity.
At the public bay access, which is actually a pine-carpeted park, a retired man hanging out in his pickup truck offered me a camping spot on his secluded property outside town, but some of his conversation didn’t sit well with me. There was an air of the predatory about him, leg surgery scars notwithstanding.
Because I am a woman, and not truly at liberty to laugh in the face of a creep, I demurred; I giggled and thanked him for his offer to camp on his isolated property outside town. Then I got away. If you’re not a woman, you won’t understand; travelling alone is not a joke, and a kind of dance is required to placate the kind of person who would offer shelter while slyly remarking that he wouldn’t molest me “unless I wanted him to.”
Near sunset, after dinner at Blackbeard’s Slices and Ices, I floated my dilemna to the restaurant owner, a tanned and muscular ex-NYPD cop named John. I frankly asked him if he knew anyone in town who wold let me put up my hammock. A few minutes later I was being introduced to a very amused table of locals taking a break from a day of boating, and offered the use of an open-weave hammock right on the waterway, in a sheltered nook between two extremely expensive villas. It wasn’t an ideal scenario, as I felt unable to ask if I could substitute my own enclosed hammock, but I was, after all, on an adventure.
After docking his gorgeous boat (sorry, don’t know about boats) in his two-story boat slip, my host gave me a tour around his villa and a thorough briefing on the rampant corruption in Congress, which he has reportedly witnessed firsthand, to his dismay, as part of his association with a major powerboat producer. I will not name this gentleman or the powerboat company, but I will say that his career began with stunt waterskiing at Sea World, and progressed through helicopter piloting and powerboat racing. It was like getting a stern lecture from MacGyver.
Ultimately, he offered me a guest bed in his no-nonsense way, and marked up my map to show me the route to Belhaven, my next stop. I felt completely safe in his villa, and spent a comfortable night there. No museums, no molestation. Just a meatball sub and a lesson on politics. It seemed a fair trade.
After a shower, and a sincere thank-you, I rode on to Belhaven where I intended to visit the Belhaven Memorial Museum, housed in the upper floor of City Hall. I met a really decent guy named Marcus at the Gingerbread Grill, where you can order massive biscuits that are actually closer to popover croissants, which I did. After a lively conversation about his job driving mail trucks, Marcus picked up my tab. The generosity really touched me, because I had not anticipated it.
Since the museum doesn’t open until one, I took a lap around the historic residential part of town, where a good number of the rooftops are encircled with widows’ walks. It was on this walk that my MP3 player randomly selected a perfect theme song for my journey, “Turn Loose the Mermaids” by the symphonic metal band, Nightwish.
Plodding the streets of Belhaven, encircled by two-hundred-year-old sea captains’ homes, enchanted by a sea shanty about Mermaids and old dusty spyglasses performed by theatrical Norwegians: this is how a vacation really comes together.
As I rounded back on the downtown district, I noticed a tall and beautiful woman waving frantically at me. I had been lost in the music and she probably thought I was a bit daft.
“Come in and have a bottle of water,” she invited, when I finally yanked down the earbuds. We had met at the cafe, but I hadn’t thought much about it. Apparently, she had thought a whole lot about it. “I was just telling my friend that I had a pivotal experience today; I finally met another woman I could look in the eye!” she explained.
The woman, who introduced herself as Regina, was just so incredibly happy to meet another Amazon. She gave me a bottle of water, and we chatted about everything, including fetching items on the top shelf for little old ladies, love, loss, and working in healthcare.
Before I left, she gave me her business card and told me to call her. She also made me measure her pupillary distance so that she could order glasses online from Zenni Optical, because for some reason, part of our conversation included how pleased I have been with this online retailer. I hope I did a good job.
Oh, how I waited for the Belhaven museum to open, and when it did, I pounded up the wooden stairs to the entrance and immersed myself in the historical artifacts collected and (adorably) labeled by Mary Eva Blount Way, an amateur historian with a penchant for buttons, who, between her birth in 1869 and death in 1962, amassed an astounding collection of Victorian clothing; buttons; patent medicines; creepy porcelain dolls; buttons; canned goods that must have an incredibly high botulism content by now; biological freaks in jars; and buttons.
Nothing could have torn me away from this scintillating assemblage except for the horrible announcement, delivered in an offhand way by another tourist, that my beloved scooter had TOPPLED OVER in her parking space out front of the museum.
Wracked with horror, I confirmed that indeed, something awful had happened to Ms. Eldritch while I frolicked amid the tatters of yesteryear, oblivious to her distress. Even worse, if possible, after I got some road workers to help me right her again, and ascertained that the very new pavement was to blame for her misfortune, and then re-parked her in a different spot, she succumbed a second time to the pliancy of the asphalt, and again relinquished her hold on the ground, even as I was struggling to pull on my boots and jacket, so that I could ride her away from that place.
I will freely admit it: I cried.
At that point, I was completely done with Belhaven. As soon as Ms. Eldritch was righted for the final time by a new group of men, I sped away from that town as fast as I could.
I hopped a ferry south, and after a thrilling ride through the Croatan National Forest and a second ferry, I ended up in Havelock at the Krabby Patty, where I ordered All-You-Can-Eat local shrimp, and did my best to honor the spirit of the offer.
I spent my third night in Morehead City, strung in a kind of fairy bower among a grove of live oaks tended by a lady who resembles Paula Deen, if only Paula looked more like a human and less like an artist’s rendering of a human.
The next morning, as I was loading up the scooter (a very involved process which involves placing the Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap in an upright position in the topcase; winding and stuffing the hammock into a tiny bag; redistributing my clothing between my flimsy saddlebags; and lashing down my bedroll and pillow) some guy in a work truck pulled up next to me and remarked, “Why don’t you get a real motorcycle? They go faster!” I guess my eyes popped out at that, because he held up a helmet and grinned at me. When he learned that I was going on to Atlantic Beach, he told me to head over to Fort Macon, about five miles to the east, and use the free public beach access instead of paying to park in the city.
Since I trust locals, that’s what I did. I also obeyed another local when he told me to visit Beaufort, where I spent two nights because I loved it so much.
Beaufort is an historic port of call, now visited by fishermen and pleasure boats from all over the world. The town, having been raided by the Spanish and the French before being granted a “protector” in the earnest, if ineffectual, Fort Macon, long ago embraced the promise and the vulnerability that arrive with commerce by sea. Museums, historic properties, interesting travelers and good food all compete for your attention even as you tell yourself that you just want to sit on the boardwalk and gaze at all the beautiful boats, of all makes, that you will never own.
I showered in an old fashioned American pinewood bunkhouse once; I also bought showers from the dockmaster in Beaufort, because a local told me to.
I camped at one home on the promise to the owner that, when I returned to the real world, I would “vote” online for his disabled grandson to receive a wheelchair because he does not financially qualify for public benefits in his home state of Virginia. Even as I shook hands on the deal, I thought about the other competitors in this odd contest, and wondered how anyone could ever truly “win” such a contest.
I spent time getting to know a bartender named Mary Ann at a teeny bar in the back of an extremely old mercantile, called Backstreets, which incidentally houses a free library that you must access by climbing an old set of metal stairs salvaged from a tugboat.
I ate chili cheese fries on the top deck of the Dock House Restaurant during an incredible downpour, while Ms. Eldritch, with all of my freshly cleaned laundry bagged up on board, stood miserably outside.
I got a lecture on model ships from a curator at the Maritime Museum, and now I can tell you about model ships.
I walked the green moat and the echoing, breezy whitewashed inner chambers of Fort Macon, and learned how pitifully unprepared it was for the artillery shelling it received during the Civil War while somehow being ideally positioned to take potshots at U-boats in World War II.
I discovered numerous uses for Aquis Adventure Microfiber Towels, which (full disclosure) were given free to me for review purposes. I disliked microfiber until I tried these excellent towels which are thin and pleasant to the touch, and fold easily back into their cute mesh storage pouches. I cannot ever get things to fit back into their storage pouches, so this made me feel competent, which is important. Should you be fond of attaching your towel to other things, you are certainly covered. Each towel is fitted with a closing snap on one corner, so you can keep it secure on a branch or clothesline. Also there is a teeny cute carabiner clipped to the outside of each storage bag, because why not? Is it me, or do these people think of everything?
Also, and most importantly, these towels are equally brilliant for drying a person or a scooter and accessories. After a storm, I was able to clean Ms. Eldritch, including her delicate mirrors, plus my helmet face shield, without any streaking or scratches, using my microfiber towel.
Thank you, Aquis Adventure Microfiber Towels!
After a final ride along the Crystal Coast and a few hours on the pier at Emerald Isle, I set out for home via Hwy 24 West, which would take me through Fort Bragg and the Uwharrie National Forest.
My final night among strangers was doubtful. Once away from the coast, I must have looked more like a threat than an endearing vagabond to ordinary homeowners. I was turned down twice in the deepening twilight, and speeding along the two-lane swath of highway at 55 miles per hour gave me little time to search for an appropriate campsite.
Finally, just as I had determined to “stealth camp” among a line of pine trees that tempted me off the main road, I discovered a trailer park on the far side. I pulled into the park, begged leave to sling my hammock, and climbed inside just as the sun was blotted out.
That was a cold, gusty, uncertain night, and my clothes were damp. I slept very little, and when the sun finally rose I gunned out of there. The biscuit I ate at a Hardee’s about five miles later tasted all the better for the rough night.
The only time I was truly frightened was on the return trip, when I began to experience a loss of power about 70 miles east of Albemarle. At that time I had to make a decision. Instead of pulling over and requesting a tow truck from my insurance provider, which would probably be useless to me so far out in the country, I decided continue into Albemarle and throw myself on the mercy of JWR Cycles, a dealer in mostly Chinese scooters that I had visited once.
Unfortunately, those miles in between, which would have challenged me on a good day, absolutely terrified me, trapped as I was on a scooter I was unable to trust. I could not stop mulling over the possibility that my belt was about to snap, or that I had thrown a roller, and that my transmission was wrecked. This little mental drama played out, naturally, against a backdrop of undulating hills along yet another two-lane stretch bound on both sides by the Uwharrie. After doing more than two hours at liquor-cycle speeds, dodging an endless parade of eighteen-wheelers because I was too afraid to give it the full throttle, I was exhausted. Ms. Eldritch limped into the JWR parking lot and we received a very warm welcome.
I was able to pull up my service manual from my Dropbox account so that Jay Mills, the owner and head mechanic, could take apart the transmission with confidence. A little while later, he showed me the belt and rollers, all looking fine. After a bit of head-scratching, he opened the air filter casing and oil literally poured out everywhere. At that time, I had an epiphany: the motorcycle mechanic to whom I have entrusted Ms. Eldritch’s care has never understood the blowback collection bulb, or the necessity for clearing that bulb. Also, excellent at motorcycles as he is, he really is not prepared to extract the drive belt and sliders, as one would the giblets from a turkey, and offer an expert assessment on their current status.
I realized then that a decent scooter mechanic, not an excellent motorcycle mechanic, is what I really need.
Mr. Mills, almost bashfully, asked me if twenty-five dollars would be all right.
It would be all right, Mr. Mills. It would be fantastic.
I arrived back home with my lessons learned and my air filter clean.
I can ask a stranger for a camping spot, or just shoot the bull and make a new friend. I can endure hours of doubtful riding when something’s not right, and I can trust a scooter mechanic, even if he needs to look at the manual.
One more thing I learned: if an Australian tells you he will leave on his house lights all night so you can use the bathroom, he will.