On Saturday morning I set off toward the coast, and although I knew I could make it all the way in one epic day of riding, I decided to break it into two parts and take a more leisurely pace. My route followed the path of the Neuse River, which starts just upstream of Falls Lake and empties into the Pamlico Sound on the northern border of Croatan National Forest. Just about midway in between is Busco Beach, a park for off-road vehicles encircled by an ox-bow bend of the Neuse, and they offered cheap camping so I decided to check it out. Arriving in the early afternoon, I paid $15, signed what appeared to be a liability waiver although I didn't actually read it, and I was in. I hadn't been quite sure what to expect from this place. I could see on their website that in August they held a daisy dukes contest with a top prize of $300, and that their usual cookout was cancelled due to COVID, but there wasn't a whole lot else to go on. What are ATV people like?
The first thing that struck me was the diversity. This was not just a bunch of young white guys like I expected, and in fact the crowd was far more representative of the state's population than any I've seen recently. They were white, Black, Latino, and Middle Eastern. They were male, female, and hard-to-say-with-all-the-mud. They were all sizes from skinny to fat. They were all ages from kindergartner to retiree. They were big burly men on big burly machines and tiny little girls on tiny little machines.
The second thing that struck me was that the atmosphere felt decidedly libertarian: for the most part you could park, ride, and pitch a tent where you wanted to as long as you didn't block anyone else. Helmets were strictly required, but there were no rules against alcohol and I doubt very much that every single rider was sober. Children were driving around with total confidence and what appeared to be great skill.
People seemed friendly if not gregarious. Camo Crocs were a popular fashion choice. Kiddo drew some incredulous looks and an enthusiastic shout and wave from what I assume must have been a fellow Ruckus fan, but there were no other scooters or even dual-sport motorcycles to be seen. I set up camp under a willow tree on a spit of land out in the lake that was almost an island. There was another family from Virginia on the island, with a little girl who couldn't have been more than five years old, delightedly being "chased" by dads/uncles on big four-wheelers or tearing around the island on her own little red four-wheeler, beeping the horn smartly as she went by.
Once I'd set up my tent and Kiddo was running light without all the luggage, I set off to do some proper offroading. I hadn't spent much time driving on sand or mud so it was good to get some practice at that. A few minutes in I spun out and ran into an embankment, but no harm was done apart from the mirrors going wonky, and the dirt is really the best place to practice handling a loss of control. After that I started to get the hang of it and there were no more incidents. I found the slippery fishtailing really enjoyable, demanding total focus and fine sensitivity to the momentum of the bike and my own weight, and it was fun to be riding through the trees where my speed was normal, with no impatient drivers behind me and no need for turn signals.
But one thing I should mention in case you ever camp there is be sure to bring earplugs! There was a constant noise of engines from all directions, even from the lake because of course there were jet skis, and some of these engines were not well-tuned, and some of these engines did not have mufflers, and they did not stop just because the sun went down or because it was past midnight. Also after dark there were fireworks, like the serious ones that shoot out of mortars and go way up in the air and make a big starburst. Luckily I had earplugs and slept pretty well once I got to sleep.
When I finished packing up around 9:30 the next morning, the engines were revving again for another day of mud-spattered fun. As I rode out, I realized that even though I grew up in rural North Carolina, I need to refresh my picture of it. Girls are being raised to drag race in the mud. Long-empty country stores are being reopened as tiendas. You can get tacos and fresh-squeezed tropical juices way out in the boonies. Solar farms are popping up all over the place. Things are changing out here, folks.
Sunday's ride was pretty uneventful. Miles of flat soybean fields do get monotonous after a while, but when I got bored I made up little songs in the same key as the engine noise and sang them inside my helmet. Kiddo's normal sound is the sort of refined rumble befitting a Japanese machine, but at full throttle it becomes a sort of battle cry with a charmingly vocal quality, and sings on a steady note, although I haven't gone to the trouble to figure out what note it might be.
But anyhow I arrived at Croatan National Forest in the early afternoon and started scouting for campsites. At the first place I came to, Fisher Landing, the road was blocked by a gate. At the second place, Flanner's Beach, campsites were $20/night, the beach was closed (not because of COVID but because of damage from Hurricane Florence two years ago), and it just felt a little too fancy for my taste, like a suburb for RVs. At the third place, Pinecliff Recreation Area, there were some orange barriers across the road, but they had been pulled aside. Good, I thought, they decided to open this one back up.
At the end of the road was a picnic area that had seen better days. The information sign looked like a bomb had hit it, the bathrooms were locked, and the grass was high. But there were some hikers getting out of their cars so I figured all was well. This place is also the northern trailhead for the Neusiok Trail, which goes 20 miles south to Oyster Point. The trail was choked with weeds and had a fallen tree over it, and I wondered why, but explored down it to find the place I'd scouted out on the map. It turned out to be one of the best campsites I've ever stayed at, a beach lined with cypresses, pines, and live oaks, right at the mouth of Gum Branch. I figured out how to connect my homemade tub slings to my homemade adventure backpack (because PALS is awesome) and after four trips, a lot of sweat, and a little blood (from blackberry canes reaching onto the trail), I had all my gear at the site and the camp set up.
Since the Neuse is brackish at this point, I filtered my fresh water from Gum Branch, and although it was slightly brown and tannic from its time in the swamp, tasting a bit like roasted barley tea, I've had plenty of coastal tap water that tasted worse. There were a few days of lovely weather. Fighter jets occasionally roared overhead from the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station to the west, and to the east the NC-306 ferry glided majestically back and forth across the river, lit up at night like a glowing layer cake. There was a lot of wind, and sand got into everything, but it was worth it.
I slept well and had some powerful dreams, continued to grieve although with a bit less intensity, and read The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson and Trauma and the Unbound Body by Judith Blackstone. Who I'll maybe talk about in a future post, but let me just say that if any of you have heard me rave about Alice Miller, I think I might like Judith Blackstone even more. The last week I had started writing a little song, my first in years, and I added another verse to it this week. Maybe I'll finish it next time I have access to a guitar.
On Thursday I spent most of the day working inside the tent, because it was raining off and on, and that evening I took a walk back to the parking lot to check on the bike. Lo and behold, a Craven County sheriff had come by on Tuesday and left me a warning ticket explaining that I was trespassing in a closed area. Ah, I thought, the barrier wasn't opened by the USDA, it was opened by the people practicing some civil disobedience. The sheriff had come to close the barrier and check that nobody was trapped inside it, and that explained why I hadn't seen any hikers for a few days.
With heavy rain and darkness coming on, I rode back to the barrier and sure enough, it had been closed, although not well enough to keep an adventure scooter in. I scouted down another forest service road for a farther but reasonably close spot to park, but it too was closed. So I wound up parking in the equestrian trail parking lot just outside the barrier, which of course was still open because you do not want to upset the wealthy horse people! Newly attuned to rules and regulations, I now noticed the "Day use only. No camping." sign on the way in, and a closer reading of the Forest Service website told me that the Neusiok trail was closed north of 306, again because of unrepaired damage from Hurricane Florence.
Pissed off at the narrowness and illogic of the official mind, I walked past the barrier and back to my tent in my soaked motorcycle gear and settled in for a night of thrashing rain from the remnants of Hurricane Sally. Since I'm working on allowing myself to feel frustration, I did a bit of mild screaming since nobody was around to hear, but really there was nothing to be done in that weather. On the other hand, nobody was going to be out in it looking to bust me. Torrential rain and high winds started to move in as it got dark. One of the tent seams couldn't take it and started to leak, but to be fair it was holding its own pretty well for a $60 tent. By forming a canal in the sand under the floor to divert the water, I was able to stay dry enough to get a reasonable night's sleep, and had some cathartic frustration dreams.
I woke up at 5am and since the rain had let up I decided to pack up and move out right away. I hauled the tubs back to the parking lot and set everything up so that I could spend as little time as possible in the forbidden area. Just as I was in the woods leaving a final offering to the place, I looked out and saw a rainbow over the river opposite the sunrise. I'm not sure how you measure the width of rainbows, but it was certainly the widest one I've ever seen. I took this as a sign that all would be well, and indeed all was well. I made it out of the forbidden area without seeing anyone and headed down to the campground at Oyster Point, which the Forest Service website said was officially open. I arrived, picked a site, purchased my $10 worth of unassailable legitimacy for one night, set up camp, hung out all my wet gear, pitched a tarp down by the water to be my office for the day, and was "at work" just after 10am. There were a few biting flies, which the online reviews had warned about, but they were slow and easily killed, and the day passed smoothly with only light sprinklings of rain.
Tomorrow I'll be moving on to stay for a month at an Airbnb in Sealevel that I booked in a time long ago and far away. So it'll be a bit less adventurous I guess, or maybe just a less rough sort of adventure, because I do plan to use it as a base to explore the area. I look forward to doing laundry, not worrying about batteries, and catching up on YouTube. I'll also be spending the bulk of next week on Ocracoke with my family, which should be a nice change from two weeks of seeing only a handful of people a day, and some days seeing nobody at all.
Things I Learned
- Swimwear paired with a motorcycle helmet is a bit ludicrous from a safety perspective, but I find myself oddly attracted to the combination. I don't think I'm ready to analyze this.
- With the tubs on board I'm not getting the usual 100 miles per gallon, maybe more like 90. I think it's probably not so much the weight as the extra air resistance.
- The ticks aren't as bad this year? I have yet to see a single one on this trip and I've been tromping through plenty of leaf litter and undergrowth.
- I didn't make too much kimchi after all, I just made two weeks worth. This Wednesday it reached a fine balance of flavor and crunchiness, and today I cooked up the last of it with beans and rice.
- Taking a swim to wash the sweat off after setting up camp when a pod of dolphins surfaced all around me.
- Snoozing and watching the red sun come up over the sound while snuggled deep in my hammock.
- Eating tempura and yakitori under an awning surrounded by the sound and smell of rain.
- Craving some fruit and finding ripe wild muscadines growing right along the campground road.
Photos and Blog Business
I wasn't sure last time the best way to include photos, but I decided Dropbox is good enough for now. Here's the album for this week.
Also I've heard from people that the subscribe feature is broken and I've verified that, but there's not much I can do about it. If you use an RSS reader then that should still work, but I know most people don't. The other option is to just check back every week, and I'll try and post regularly every Friday, or on Saturday if that's somehow not possible. Until next time!