ICW travels on the Elizabeth River
Tuesday 19 JUN 2018 – Portsmouth/ Norfolk, NC
It’s hot here in southern Virginia. The hottest place in all of the country, it appears. The thermometers read 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and if you count the humidity it feels quite a lot hotter. The temperatures have been climbing upward for days without fully cooling off in the nights between, so each morning has a hotter starting point than the day before and each day reaches a higher height. Periodically the flawless sky dribbles out a puffy cloud and as you get between one of these cumuli and the sun you marvel not at the momentarily relief, but at, as if you’ve already acclimated, the intensity of the sun’s power when it reemerges one minute later.
We arrived in Portsmouth a few days ago and tied up to the public dock in the south basin. For most of the time we have been the only ones here. Maybe the other boats know to stay away? Maybe they understand how a city draped in endless brick becomes an oven, blasting heat through its basin mouths. We didn’t. We don’t. Anyway, it’s hot, the hottest in the country, and the hottest so far on our trip, where we have managed to outrun the heat for an entire year. The last time we felt heat like this was in Port Washington almost exactly one year ago. Those heats bookended the beginning of the anniversary we have been celebrating with this week’s heats.
Here, two old brother cities, Portsmouth and Norfolk, face off across the Elizabeth River, a tamed, green-gray liquid highway thick with hurried boat traffic. It takes almost exactly seven minutes to cross by ferry from one side to the other, and in that short time one comes face to face with the country’s vast naval war machine. Dozens of shipyards, mostly private, rim the shores of the Elizabeth, each yard visible in the distance by their tall cranes, each yard clanging out their own version of haze gray ship. There are so many yards now that they have become a tourist destination. Naval Yards Tours reads the sign on one of the ferries riding along with us. It’s full of people.
We land on the Norfolk side. It’s just as cloying here but somehow also cooler. This city is larger by at least double and it brings with it sophistication. By which I mean, a Japanese electronic toilet bidet that I find (and use) in the upstairs bathroom of a downtown coffee shop. Glenn and Ava scoff, but I am fully immersed, er, impressed.
Today’s plan brings us to the Chrysler Art Museum with a sidetrack to watch a glass blowing demonstration in which the resident artist takes almost an hour to almost complete an intricate, three-part goblet that accidentally falls off the end of his hot pipe in the last step. It’s a low grade tragedy considering we are sitting in an ice cold room fighting both indoor and outdoor fires while The Hague outside floods its banks a little more each day.
The museum stop was refreshing, not only for the art and the cool air but also for the air we put between the three of us. After our fragments of alone time, we brave back into the furnace, moving in the shade of peeling sycamores and mature live oaks through the historic area named Ghent. Mostly built at the beginning of the last century, Ghent is one of those dense, self-contained, urban neighborhoods that makes living in a city so appealing. Throughout, it has a mix of large and medium single-family detached houses in the styles of their time, mostly Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and a few masterful Shingle stylers. There are old brick apartment buildings along the arteries and a main street named Colley which has shops and restaurants. We are here for the movie theater, the Naro, one of those older single-movie theaters that people walk to from their houses. We go twice. I mean we see two movies today. First we see First Redeemed with Ethan Hawke playing a distressed alcoholic priest who doesn’t quite do what he really should. Then we see RBG, the overly optimistic documentary about Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
By the time we come out it’s after 9 o’clock and the heat of the day has subsided enough that we don’t have to constantly seek shade. Instead, as we walk the three miles back to the ferry discussing the movies of the day, we begin to notice that Norfolk is surprisingly beautiful city. In its dense areas it’s a smaller, more southern version of Philadelphia or Washington DC’s historic zones. There’s a lot of brick and some cobblestone. There’s a lot of green and water in well placed parks. Regardless of the day’s discomfort or maybe because of it, I believe I’m developing Stockholm Syndrome for this town.
at the Chrysler Art Museum