Owls hoot in the trees to the southwest in the cool dry air before dawn. Sails up before the sun, ghosting off anchor in the light breeze. I spend too much time photographing the sunrise, the canal and the bridge. But there is no rush, the wind is waiting for me out around the point on the Pungo River beyond the reach of the tall trees.
Better than four and almost five knots sailing southwest down river, turning west past Satterthwaite Point. I can pick out the white buildings on Upper Dowry Creek, the marina there beckons for breakfast, but we continue west towards Belhaven.
A water tower emerges in the tall trees, then a spire. Soon River Forest Marina, once a jewel of the waterway and now closed, is in sight, as is the wooden breakwater at the entrance to Pantego Creek. Making 5.4 knots we follow the channel and slide through the breakwater entrance, two cruising boats to the south and Belhaven along the north shore.
Tied up at the public dock, Mark arrives on a bike and offers the bike to ride to the gas station. I say I'll walk, but he says it is farther than I think. "Take the bike and just leave it here when you are done." I take the bike.
It is farther than I think. Down the main road, past the rusting rail car, past the old white houses with broad porches and American flags, past the vacant lots and the police station in a double wide trailer. The nice young lady at the gas station, wearing a camouflaged visor and Outer Banks "Brew Thru" tee shirt, shows me where to find the ethanol-free gas. She can tell I'm off a boat, asks about the trip, asks if I'm doing any fishing. The big bull drum are biting, she says, you can find them in the shallows at night. I tell her my boat is 17 feet long, don't know what I would do with a three-foot-long drum. She laughs, helps me tie the gas can on the bike. Riding away I hear her shout "Catch a big one!"
I walk across the street for a burger and fries at Farm Boy's, an outdoor restaurant. Then I explore the streets of the classic southern town. Empty department stores, a pool hall and more restaurants than you would expect. Brick buildings and wide streets, it must have been a thriving place back in the day. I stop to take a photograph of a tall building across the street and hear a woman behind me say "That's my building your photographing." I tell her I hope that's okay and she says it's fine, "It makes me feel good."
It is the old movie theater, one that I suspect has not shown a film in decades. She and her husband own that, plus Spoon River, the restaurant across the street, and a couple of other buildings on the block. Introducing myself, I ask her name. Teresa she says. When I ask if that is with a "T" or a "Th", she says "T" and then quickly mentions her husband again, maybe thinking I'm becoming too familiar - this is the south after all. But no, I just want to get her name right in my notebook.
"Come back in 30 minutes and you can have lunch," she says motioning to Spoon River. I tell her I will be sailing by then, but ask if I can step inside to take a look. Walking through the door I find unexpected elegance. Paper lanterns float in the cool air conditioning, delicate table cloths and porcelain antiques. I am reminded of the contradictions of the south, the interesting mix of heat, harshness and delicacy that I will never quite understand.
Walking back to the dock I notice all the parking downtown is posted with a two hour limit. I wonder why this quiet little town, with its vacant buildings and enthusiasm, doesn't have signs saying "Please, stay for two hours or maybe three, please stay as long as you like."
Mark is back at the dock and I thank him for the use of his bike. He helps me cast off, then goes back to fishing at the end of the dock. A friendly wave and we say goodbye to Belhaven, there's a north wind blowing and I'm headed south.