October 24, 2020•3180 words
On Saturday morning, I left the Extended Stay America as early as I could, happy to get into the fresh air, and headed downtown. I dropped by the farmers market and picked up some watermelon radishes and a hefty loaf of Danish rye bread. Then I went to my storage unit and reorganized gear, storing the tent I'd been carrying around and picking up some extra clothes for the cooler weather. The plan was to go out to my family's land in the township of Hadley and set up a base camp for the next few months, where I can work in cold and wet weather while I get my drivers license figured out. I had ordered a canvas tent and a small wood stove to heat it, and there was also the inflatable kayak to unpack and test out. I wanted to get all this done on Saturday, because I'd reserved a campsite at Raven Rock State Park for the week and would need Sunday to get settled in there. So once my gear was organized and stowed, I headed out to Chatham County.
The ride was gorgeous, with crisp weather and the leaves starting to turn. As soon as I got there and had chatted a bit with my parents, I went out to scout a location for my new tent. It was important that I could get both sun and internet, and the big unknown was whether I would be able to use my hotspot or would have to extend my parents' WiFi signal somehow. My first choice was up in "the big field", and I was very happy to find that from the top of "the star tower", a sixteen foot tall structure originally made from the remains of an old hunting stand, I was able to get a cell signal, not an amazing one but enough to work with. I hauled the tent and stove there in a cart and pitched the tent. It's not technically a yurt but it's quite yurt-like, round and twelve feet in diameter with a pointy conical roof. It felt incredibly luxurious and spacious compared to the two-person tent I had been working in on rainy days, and I was excited to get it fully set up. I didn't have the time or the parts to install the stove, but figured I only had to get through one cold night, and then I wouldn't really need it until the weather got consistently cold. In the late afternoon I tuned in to my first virtual wedding (of my friends HG and KO), but just before the ceremony was about to start the internet stopped working, so I decided to watch the recording later. However I did get to watch some cute midwesterners catching up and some elders using Zoom for the first time, which was fun.
I ate dinner with my parents out on the back porch. Slinking around us was my parents' cat October (or Tober for short), the abandoned runt of a feral litter that GM caught and HW and I adopted around when we got married, and then left in Chatham County when we moved to Durham. The last few times I'd visited she'd run away from me, which wasn't surprising since she's very shy of strangers, but which had made me sad that I'd become such a stranger to her. But this time, for some reason she seemed to suddenly recognize me, and made many passes to rub on my legs and accept head pets. She had just recently turned thirteen but seems to still be in excellent health. After dark I headed over to AP and GB's place next door for a bonfire and an outdoor movie. The bonfire was nice, and the movie was the original Halloween, but I didn't get to see the whole thing because after all the setup but just before the really dramatic part, I started getting sleepy and had to head off to bed in the new tent. It was supposed to get down to 41 degrees that night, and I figured my lightweight down bag would just about handle that with a bivvy sack around it. I had some condensation buildup inside the bivvy, and a few cold spots during the night, but slept far more deeply than I had been during the last few weeks of staying indoors. Near where I'd pitched the tent was a place where the tall vegetation had been pushed down, and I had wondered how it happened, but the mystery was solved as I drifted off to sleep: I could hear deer skirting the camp and snorting in alarm that someone had invaded their resting place. Hopefully they can find another good one. But after that it was total silence with not even an insect making a sound.
When I got up in the morning it was way too cold to lie around. The sun was just lighting up the top of the pines with an orange glow, and there was ice on my motorcycle seat, not just a little dusting of white but crackling ice, so the temperature must have dropped somewhat below freezing in the night. Something about the powerful dreams I'd had, the thick layers of memory in this land where I lived my first sixteen years, and the freedom of being in a wild place again allowed my grief to come to the surface, and I had a good cry while packing up for my trip to Raven Rock; I'm learning to multi-task with emotions when needed. The kayak filled up one of the bins, and I had to slim down my camping equipment so that everything else would fit into the other one. But the weather forecast was sunny and moderate temperatures all week so I was pretty confident I'd be comfortable. I headed over to breakfast with my parents, AP, GB, and little A around a campfire, where I toasted my socks that had gotten soaked in the cold dewy grass. A flock of geese flew in formation low overhead, heading roughly south.
Due to much socializing, I got on the road to Raven Rock a bit later than I'd wanted to, but since I'd dropped my original crazy plan of paddling all my gear to the campsite, there was plenty of daylight to do what needed doing. The beginning of the ride was along my old school bus route, which I'd ridden literally thousands of times, but this was the first time I was driving it alone. Just a few miles down the road, the tears started to come again, so I pulled over for the second cry of the day, this one very deep and cathartic. When I felt steady again, I got back on the road and enjoyed another beautiful ride, with farm ponds sparkling through the trees and the smell of black walnut husks and fermenting wood chips in the cold clear air.
Raven Rock State Park is a really beautiful place and only about an hour by car from the Triangle, but I'd only been there a few times and never for very long, so I looked forward to having time to get to know it a little better. The central feature for which it's named is some rocky cliffs that stand a hundred feet above the Cape Fear River, looking far out over the beginnings of the coastal plain. It has a bit of a mountainous flavor, but it's a lot closer than the actual mountains. And apparently the word is out, because when I got to the park gates there was a long line of cars waiting to enter, and a sign projecting waiting times of 45 minutes to an hour. Apparently it was based on parking capacity, because as soon as one vehicle left, another was allowed to enter. Thankfully I had to wait less than half an hour, and of course because of the carefully regulated line at the gate, there was one and only one parking space available. The next step after checking in at the front desk was to get my gear down to the campsite, which was a 1.6 mile hike from the trailhead. By leaving most of my "office" at the top, I was able to do it in two trips, the first with camping equipment and half the food, and the second with the bin containing the kayak and the other half of the food. Along the way, the walnut-wood stiffener in my homemade tub carrying strap snapped, allowing the tub to drop really low on my back and forcing me to walk doubled over like an old rice farmer. I immediately hatched a plan to paddle all my gear out so I didn't have to make the same trip again except uphill.
Down at the campsite it started to feel like a bit of a race against sunset. I filtered water from Little Creek, a clear swift-flowing mountain stream, during which the bag to my water filter sprung a leak (but was easily replaced the next day with a Diet Mountain Dew bottle from the recycling bin). I gathered sticks for the stove, decided there was just enough time to inflate the canoe and go for a quick paddle, and then used my new kettle to cook up some mashed potatoes and ginger tea as it got dark. As I got into bed at eight, really looking forward to some cozy reading time, I discovered that my e-reader had run out of batteries at some point, and I had no way of charging it until the morning. It was probably for the best because I fell asleep almost immediately and again slept deeply. I've noticed that my dreams have become much more relational lately, almost always involving close interactions with other people, whereas in the past I think that's been somewhat rare. I think it might be from the emotional work I've been doing and I take it as a good sign.
The week fell into a nice pattern, oatmeal and hojicha for breakfast, commuting to work by hiking up past the charming miniature waterfalls of Little Creek, working and people-watching under the trees at the edge of a disused grassy parking lot, a lunch of hearty Danish rye bread thickly slathered with good Irish butter, with a side of homemade radish pickles, dinner and ginger tea back at the campsite, and reading in my cozy hammock until bedtime. All night long there was the gentle ticking of falling leaves, the patter of condensation falling from the trees, and the thwacks of acorns, hickory nuts, and black walnuts falling from the trees.
Once I went out for a morning paddle in the mist and scared up a large fish, a herd of deer, and what I think might have been an otter although I only saw the splash as it dove into the water. One day a distraught young woman lost her dog, and her family came out in force to help look for it, walking the trails over and over in both directions and calling his name. I got their number and the dog's description, and so did everyone else, and it was the talk of the trail-net for several days. Unfortunately the dog was somewhat shy of people, and I never heard whether he was found or not. A graphic designer out of Fort Worth stopped to chat and ask me about my remote working setup, because she was driving around doing the same kind of thing as I am, only based out of hotels instead of camping. Once when I was working next to a little-used trail, some hikers got spooked because, with my wide-brimmed sun hat hunched over my laptop screen, they mistook me for a witch!
I'd reached the part of the Judith Blackstone book where she explains how to release trauma held in the body, and I'd also traced my periodic headaches back to a certain tightening or hardening around my heart, which pulls on my shoulders and upper chest, which pulls on my neck, which tightens muscles in my head. Using her process I practiced inhabiting and softening this place around my heart, at which point I would almost always start to cry. And I cried about the loss of my marriage, about the things I missed in childhood, about the sheer improbability of being incarnated on this harsh, crazy, beautiful planet. I even cried at the end of All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, even though it's quite a happy ending. Over the course of the week the crying got gradually less intense, and afterward I always felt incredibly present and grounded, and everything in the world was more rich and spacious and emotionally evocative. I like the direction this is going.
I'd been watching the level of the river and the speed of the current drop steadily over the course of the week, and on Thursday I decided it might be wise to paddle out on Friday before it got much lower. Since I hadn't gone down to the base of the cliffs yet and since this was my last chance, I decided to work near the overlook at the top of the cliff, with a splendid view whenever I looked up. At lunchtime I walked down and felt the presence of the massive rocks, then climbed back up and worked at the top for a bit, then worked from behind the visitor center to quickly charge my batteries at an outdoor outlet. I quit early to set a shuttle so I could paddle out first thing in the morning. This involved parking Kiddo at the ramp at Cape Fear River Adventures just above the Lillington bridge, then taking a Lyft back to the park. The first part went smoothly: I parked, left my $5 for the use of the ramp in the honor box, walked into downtown Lillington, ate a nice takeout dinner watching the sunset, talked to a retired welder and pipe-fitter about the time he drove a hitchhiking itinerant priest with an eighty pound backpack all the way to Fayetteville, and bought some snacks from the CVS.
Unfortunately, I'd based my estimate of Lyft driver availability on the fact that whenever I started to book a ride it claimed I would be picked up in 3 or 15 minutes. However once I actually booked a ride, this turned out to be bullshit, and the app would just string me along indefinitely until they could find a rider willing to go way out of their way, presumably either by shafting the driver or taking a loss. I won't waste your time with a rant about the evils of the Silicon Valley worldview, but some choice words were on my lips at the time. I called the small local taxi company, but it turns out they'd shut down because of the pandemic. So my remaining option, short of scootering back to camp and spoiling the paddle plan, was to engage in old fashioned ride sharing, the kind that is actually sharing a ride. A local told me the Minuteman gas station was a good place to ask around, so I headed over there and started waving at cars. On my fourth try, I met a used tire dealer who was willing to take me. We had a good conversation once he'd had a chance to vent his political views a bit. He hadn't been down to Raven Rock since high school, when they used to "skip school, screw, and smoke weed" but he intended to go there some time and walk around. He wouldn't take money so I just thanked him for the ride and hopped out at the gate. It was fully dark by that point, so I hiked back to camp by the light of the moon and my headlamp on the lowest setting, made a cup of tea, and went to bed.
Friday morning got off to a slow start, but since I'd already set the shuttle there was no big rush. The inevitable finally happened and I got smacked by a falling hickory nut, from a very tall tree, probably at least eighty feet, and right in the ear. A ranger went through the camp with a leaf blower... good grief is any place safe from the damned things? But eventually after the fun challenge of figuring out where to put everything and how to secure it, I was packed up and out on the water. The boat tracked and handled a lot better when loaded. Honestly it's not perfect but it's a hell of a lot of boat for $120. And the seat is by far the most comfortable one I've ever used in a boat, which makes sense coming from a company whose main business is making air mattresses. I paddled by great blue herons standing at attention, neon-green willows bending over the water, and showers of yellow and brown leaves. I shot some easy rapids and the boat undulated up and down over the waves, handling great. Once a bald eagle took off from the west bank, dipped low on the east bank, and came back to a higher perch on the west bank. Interpreting this as an omen, I think America is going to be just fine.
The six mile paddle was over before I wanted it to be, and I started making plans to do more paddling in the future. I ate lunch under the gazebo at the boat ramp, deflated the boat, re-organized all the gear into bike mode, and took a dip in the cold river to wash the sweat off. Then I took the scenic route, including some charming back streets of Sanford, admired the cloudscapes, ate dinner in Pittsboro, and managed to get back to the big canvas tent while there was still some light left.
Things I Learned
- Site #5 at Raven Rock is the best for hammock camping, and site #1 is the most secluded.
- It turns out one of the owners of the place I stayed at in Sealevel is an old acquaintance, which I only realized when I was prompted to review the stay and it showed their last name. I think he's the one that taught me the trick of "ferrying" a canoe across the river by paddling upstream at an angle so the current pushes you sideways.
- They make pacifiers that glow in the dark. I spotted one on the side of the trail during my night hike and got very excited thinking it was some kind of glowing mushroom, but no.
- Hammock straps make great gunwale ropes, you can clip something to them anywhere and it won't slide fore and aft like with regular ropes or straps.
- Fall colors against gray skies.
- Clean dry undies on a clean dry bottom.
- The smell of fungi reaching their hyphae up into the fresh carpet of brown leaves.