Sailing the High Seas

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

One of the gifts of being around children is the reminder to find adventure in the mundane moments of a day. Rio has always been a little man of action, and there is a lot of time to fill when we are together: thousands of walks to the bridge and hundreds of trips to the store result. I realized early on that I could either grit my teeth through these duties or believe that each turn of a corner could bring surprise even if the same path were taken yesterday.

Part of this is infusing regular objects with magical properties. Rio and I often travel to the Pirate Ship under the bridge that is actually just an outcrop of boulders. Other times we’ll have breakfast at Fox’s Place, which is in truth just a restaurant called the General Store that once was selling fox puppets among other knick-knacks. Because he’s still young, Rio doesn’t see much difference between imagination and reality, so it doesn’t strike him as odd that a stuffed animal might be running a restaurant. With him, magical realism is easy.

In my youth and into my twenties, bold travels were the norm. I remember one trip when I was living and teaching high school in South Africa. I had hitchhiked from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, across the border into Namibia, where I planned to meet a friend in the capital Windhoek. To get there, I had to travel the Caprivi Strip, a long, dusty road that separated Namibia and Angola and had been a battleground during the war between those two states. I remember waiting at a gas station with only my backpack, a bottle of water, and two pieces of sugarcane I’d cut from the roadside that morning. Who knew what might happen?

The first guy who picked me up was an Afrikaner who at one point pulled over to vomit: “too much Klipdrift” [rum] he managed to say as he lunged out the door. Next I caught a ride with a truck driver who was returning from a delivery with an open-air trailer that he had filled with travelers along the way, most of whom were African. I sat atop my backpack for 100 miles, bouncing with the road’s potholes and making friends with two black city slickers from Johannesburg. When we finally got into a town, we tried to get a hotel room together, but the sole proprietor was a portly white man who took one look at my friends and sneered, “Sorry, sir, no rooms here for you.” Somehow the South Africans knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who was building a home in that tiny Namibian village, and through a series of phone calls, we managed to procure a spot on the empty house’s floor for a night’s rest. One of the South Africans snored all night long.

All this to say that I often used to travel without a map: walk out the door and trust the wind. As I got older, I became less spontaneous. Part of this was intentional; at times unstructured adventures turned into irresponsible binges, so I started building structure and routine to keep me grounded.

A mentor of mine noticed this and suggested that the patterns I claimed as anchors were now leading me to stagnancy. He was right; somewhere along the way I’d lost my sense of adventure and had then desperately tried to rediscover it with mad impulsive jaunts; in response, I had swung too far the other way and now had become a drum stretched too tight.

“You’re in a rut because you’re not taking to the Seven Seas every day in your pirate ship,” my mentor told me. “You need to get out there, do something unexpected every day! Talk to a stranger! Walk a street you’ve never walked!”

And so Rio arrived just in time to bring me my very own pirate ship. Interestingly, now that he is almost six, he has become choosier with his adventures. The other day, I recommended a walk to the bridge, usually a sure winner — he looked outside, saw the freezing rain, and said, “Nah, I just want to stay inside.”

So I’ve started importing adventure. An eight-year-old with a funny voice named Billy Bob has been showing up at our house, in the form of my body. His dad’s name is Rock and his mom’s name is Willow. He lives on another planet and has to slide down a rainbow to get to Bynum. He only gets grumpy if Rio tries to kiss him.

And there I sit, off the map of Tim, getting smothered with smooches.


I live in a tiny old mill town of 250 people on a river in North Carolina. My son Rio was born at our former home in Oakland, CA, but has grown up on the other side of the country in a place Tom Sawyer would’ve loved. There are few cars on the street, no fences between yards, and a river to throw rocks into.

Bynum is about half old-timers and half newcomers. The old–timers grew up in Bynum and worked in the now-defunct mill for most of their lives. The newcomers sport progressive bumper stickers on their cars, shop at the local co-op, and mostly work in Chapel Hill or Durham.

Amazingly, the two bodies have more merged than collided. We celebrate holidays together on the old bridge that is now shut down to traffic. We talk on the street and congregate every Friday summer night for an outdoor concert next to the old general store. I once asked my neighbor Ollie (who in his lifetime worked every job in the mill, he says) why the newcomers and old-timers seem to get along together so well.

“I reckon new people who moved here but didn’t fit in moved on out. The ones who fit in stayed,” he replied.

“What does to take to fit in to Bynum?” I asked.

“I’d say that if someone in Bynum asks you how you’re doing, they really want to hear your answer.”

A key part of the community’s connective tissue is undoubtedly Clyde Jones,  a mill worker cum folk artist who years ago reportedly had a vision of carving animals out of trees. He now spends his days chainsawing and hammering pieces of cedar into large wooden creatures, which he paints and calls “critters.” Clyde’s yard is littered with giraffes, aardvarks, and reindeer, and he has ensured that every house in Bynum has a critter for its front lawn, as long as you agree to keep it lit up at night. When he’ s not making art, Clyde is riding around town on his driving lawnmower, making sure everything is as it should be.

I once asked Clyde why he graces every lawn in Bynum with a critter, and he replied, “So ya’ll associate.” I took him to mean that the art gives everyone in town something in common, no matter their background or story.

This is all to say that Bynum has the same small-town values it’s always had, even though many of the faces have changed. What this means for Rio is that I hear about any community infraction he’s committed before he even makes it home.

Not long ago, an adult friend of ours taught Rio how to make a very annoying sound with his voice — “screech” would be putting it nicely. When Rio does it, people react, negatively, but he still screeches because he’s five and small and cherishes invoking strong reactions. Last week, I was at an outdoor concert in Bynum, and a fifth grader I know told me that Rio had been screeching on the bus, and that the bus driver had summarily assigned him to the seat right behind her as punishment.

That night, I asked Rio if he was still making that sound.

“No,” he lied.

“Well then how come Miss Beth made you sit in the front seat of the bus?” I asked him.

His eyes grew wide. He probably thought I was omniscient, but really I just live in a small town.