Empty of strangers, full of birds

People, no people. People, no people. What’s to love about people, strangers and all, and what’s to love without them? In the early days of quarantine, the busiest cities grew still, cars went into hibernation, walks outdoors were taken with caution, and the number of people in our lives significantly shrank. 

To celebrate our four-year anniversary, Seth and I spent the week in Hampton, Virginia. This is a city that is full of some things and empty of others. More than a hundred thousand people call Hampton their home, yet when we went to visit, the people were inside; in their cars, in their carbon-copy homes, in their yards — like it was the beginning of quarantine all over again. I was struck by the prevalence of land and space. There were cemeteries and huge empty fields in the middle of downtown — which itself comprised two blocks — wide streets, large yards, and tiny sidewalks.  

Yes, despite all the space, the sidewalks were miniscule, one-person wide, appearing and disappearing at random, causing us to walk on road shoulders or jaywalk to our salvation. Also pitiful was the public transportation, with bus stops few and far between and a shoddy schedule. Surprisingly, carshare options were even worse. The city was small enough to walk nearly everywhere but at the end of a long day, six miles from home, we called for a car, yet there were none. Zero. No cars available. Everyone has their own, I suppose, who would need an Uber? 

A few folks we talked to (still masked, distanced, etc) didn’t seem to understand why we came to visit Hampton. Our Uber driver (we got one an hour after requesting it) and our kayak fishing guide  consider it an empty place. (We consider it the closest beach to DC we could easily get to by public transportation.)

Hampton is not empty. It’s beautiful. There are miles of beaches and dolphin coves and marshlands and pine trees taller than cathedrals. Entire beaches with just me and Seth. 

And it’s full of historic significance. The oldest continuous English-speaking town in the country — and the land where America’s first slaves were brought in 1619 — it sits at a key access point in the Chesapeake Bay. But its very importance was its peril; it was targeted by the British for burning during the Revolutionary War and again in the War of 1812, only to be later burned by the Confederate army during the Civil War to prevent the Union army from building a stronghold larger than Fort Monroe; a Fort that itself became a flagship in the fight against slavery, when former slaves of the town fled to the Union-held fort and the General there decided the slaves could stay as “contraband,” leading thousands more to flee, the thousands of slaves that made up half of Hampton’s population before the war, their flight now turning the tides of war more thoroughly into a fight about slavery itself; Fort Monroe, known as Freedom Fortress, when we visited, was empty, strange, with a pet cemetery by the lookout, including a dog named after Jefferson Davis, who himself was held there after the war for treason, and who has a memorial park named after him within the fort, which later had his name quietly removed. Strange and filled with ghosts, Hampton is far from empty, yet at the same time it is, where aside from the Fort and a couple scattered areas, the historic significance has been burned to the ground, rebuilt with chain stores and empty mowed lawns. Hampton is empty and full at the same time. 

There was an upside to the lack of people, in addition to having entire beaches to ourselves. With fewer grabby hands to fear… birds. Here are all the birds we saw with our eyes: one yellow-crowned night-heron, several great egrets, one bald eagle, one osprey, seven great blue herons, one killdeer, one grackle, and several piping plovers, mockingbirds, royal terns, laughing gulls, and more. Many of the birds share Hampton’s proclivity for solitude. We parked our kayaks on a riverbed special significance: hundreds and hundreds of oysters. As we sat there, one huge bird would fly to us and land in the water, fish for oysters with its beak, fly away, then another huge bird would take its place. Always one at a time, no less, no more (if you don’t count the single mallard who also hung around, watching the huge birds as if he wanted a friend). 

Seth and I were there to celebrate our togetherness, alone in the city. Being in a relationship is, in a way, a solitary act. The best relationships allow you to become the best version of yourself, to feel a strength of self that grows when you are together and remains strong when you are apart. 

People are important. I’m glad we got to see a million birds and walk through history unencumbered, but I’m grateful for the Uber driver that picked us up after an hour of waiting, for the kayak fisherman that taught us how to tie knots and be patient, for the friends who fed our cat while we were away, and especially, especially, for the friend who picked up his phone when we called at one in the morning when we got back because we had left our keys in Hampton, because our upstairs landlords were — reasonably — sound asleep, the friend who let me cry out our conundrum, that we were locked out and had no way to get in and nowhere to go, who let us come over and sleep on their couch, with sheets and pillows made up, and even though we only slept for five hours, we’ve never slept so well. 

-Denise

No Elliephant of the week because we were away, so here are a couple of Seth instead:

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