Rainbow layer cakes, 20 feet long sculptures of posteriors, and Christian amusement parks, oh my! We spent just under two weeks in the Carolinas and every day was chockfull of art, birds, and family.
We started out visiting my Gramma and Abba who live a few blocks from the ruins of Heritage USA, the God-themed world created by Jim Bakker and the Praise the Lord Club that was the third most visited amusement park in the 70’s after Disney World and Disney Land. It’s rundown, crumbling, and overgrown now, with open doors swinging in the breeze. There are warped bleachers that look out over barren fields and broken lampposts that reveal the cacophony of rainbow wires inside.
Kevin and my grandparents got to know each other, and in between we used their old bikes to explore Kev’s burgeoning interest in birding. I picked up a little watercolor field kit and splashed colors while he traipsed through bushes with binoculars. We went to a beer festival at the Olympic Whitewater Rafting Center with my aunt Rheba and her family, and snuggled her absurdly affectionate boxer, Mona. My Grandma, Kev, and I made one of my cousins a behemoth 5 layer rainbow cake for her sixteenth birthday. It was at times disastrous: it leaned every which way, it guaranteed a multiple day sugar coma, and was quite difficult to transport, but when we cut into it, the ooh’s and ahh’s were worth it.
After Kevin recovered a bit from the Lyme’s Disease he contracted in New England, we hopped a train up to Raleigh where we enjoyed more of my extended family, kayaked with Bald Eagles, and mountain biked around the North Carolina Museum of Art. The mountain bike trail was dotted with sculptures, including an enormous corn cob balanced upright, a silver tree mingled in with the real ones, and a giant reclining nude.
The days whizzed past, and I tried to soak up the time with people I cherish but don’t get to see very often. It was great to have Kevin finally meet these influential people of mine (and vice versa), and know that they will all have faces for the stories now.
We fixed up my grandparents’ old bikes and used them to explore.
Kev and my Grandma bonded over baking bread.
We explored the bizarre remnants of Heritage USA, the Christian amusement park built in the 70’s by Jim Bakker and his Praise the Lord Club. This giant apartment building is crumbling, with open doors clanging open in the breeze. It’s an eerie place.
We visited the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, where we were haunted by this piece from Michael Richards. He used a cast of himself to commemorate the African American pilots who served in WWII. The piece turned out to be strangely foretelling, as his artistic career was cut short when he was killed in his World Trade Center studio on 9/11.
Kevin watches birds as the sun sets on the Jim Bakker’s castle.
Several months ago during our trek in Nepal, we were approaching the town of Namche Bazaar when we happened upon a couple of excited trekkers with binoculars transfixed with something off of the trail. As we got nearer, they noticed that they had attracted our interest. ‘Look!’ the man said, “Himalayan Monal!” He handed us his binoculars, and before us we saw a brilliant, rainbow colored ground bird, large and iridescent in the alpine sunlight. Several days later, we ended up at a teahouse, gathered around the fire with the same couple. Park rangers from England, they travel the world to see birds. In other words, they are birders. The man had a life list, a list totaling all of the bird species he had ever seen, of over 3,000 unique species. To put that in perspective, that is nearly 30% of all living species that we know of currently on the planet.
Fast forward several months, and we are back in the United States visiting family on the East Coast. After paying extra attention to some interesting shore birds in New England, my interest in birding was beginning to grow. I had downloaded an app for my iPhone, and was using my digital point-and-shoot to try and get a closer look. Needless to say, this was not the most effective strategy for identifying birds. I was talking with Elizabeth about buying some binoculars, when she said, “Well, I was hoping to be able to wait until your birthday, but here you go.” and handed me some field guides and a brand new pairs of binoculars. Based on our interaction in Nepal, she had predicted my interest in birding before it had even developed. I am one lucky guy.
Upon arriving in the Carolinas, I delved in quickly, trying to spot as many species as I could in the region before we returned to the West. After dinner, we would hop on bikes and go to a nearby pond to sit for a few hours until the sun went down. I would run around trying to get a better look at a colony of Bank Swallows or a Green Heron, while Elizabeth would paint watercolors of the scene. The every day dramas that occur in the sky above us hooked me into the hobby. I spent 20 minutes with my heart in my throat watching four American Crows chase a fledgling Northern Mockingbird towards its early demise. When all hope appeared lost, the bird’s parents appeared from nowhere, chasing off the Crows and directing the frightened baby to a safe perch.
Near Raleigh, we took out kayaks in the early morning to try and spot Bald Eagles. After nearly four hours, as the sun began to get too hot, we had given up and were paddling back to the dock dehydrated and disappointed. Suddenly, an Osprey appeared from the sky behind us and began circling overhead. It swiftly banked and started into a dive, submerging itself entirely in pursuit of a fish. After momentary silence, the water erupted as the bird shot back to the sky, fish in talons. As it began to fly to the shore to devour its spoils, two huge Bald Eagles swooped from the tree line and dived fiercely at the smaller Osprey until it dropped its fish in panic. One of the Bald Eagles dove talons-first to the water, recovered the bounty, and beat its immense and powerful wings towards a branch no more than 40 feet away from us.
Birding has provided us with not only another excuse to be outdoors, but also with another means of better understanding the world we exist in. Taking the time to pay attention to wildlife teaches us more about the life around us, its triumphs and tragedies, its ebb and flow, and how interconnected and complex it can be. Sit and watch sometime, see the struggles and the joy, and you will never look at even a House Sparrow the same again.
An Eastern Bluebird in the South Carolina grass.
Canada Geese drifting down a canal through the ruins of Heritage USA.
A Great Blue Heron grooms itself atop a dead tree over Lake Jordan, North Carolina.
A Bald Eagle leaps from its perch after devouring a fish scooped from the lake.
Amid eagles, osprey, and herons I spotted my favorite bird of all floating along the shore.