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Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Outer Banks

A Peaceful Way to the Old North State
By Justin T. Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
On a hot weekend earlier this month, I set out to reach North Carolina’s northernmost border of its outer banks. By land, the only way is through some of Virginia’s most remote littoral wilderness, and one of the most pristine and natural areas on the eastern seaboard -- False Cape State Park. This is a one-mile- by-10 mile barrier spit of land in southern Virginia Beach, Virginia, sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the back bay of Currituck Sound.
False Cape is the least visited of Virginia’s state parks. It’s isolated, located on the other side of the Back Bay Wildlife Refuge with access only by hiking 4.5 miles down the beach from the town of Sandbridge; by the Back Bay interior trails; or by paddling the bay in a canoe, kayak, or other non-motorized watercraft. This is to protect the seclusion of the wildlife refuge, where shorebirds nest, and all kinds of animals find their homes.
Live free... break your chains of confinement.... go forth and embrace nature and cherish the moment.... dive into your life with no fear....don't hold back, have fun and see everything you can when you're exploring in the great outdoors. ~ Unknown. 

Habitats in Back Bay include beach, dunes, woodland, farm fields, and marsh. The majority of refuge marshlands are on islands contained within the waters of Back Bay. Thousands of geese, swans, and ducks visit the refuge during the migration in late Fall. Other wildlife live here too like loggerhead sea turtles, fox, white-tailed deer, feral hogs, peregrine falcons, egrets, bald eagles, and, at one point, wild horses.
A park ranger told me that the horse herd, now numbering about 120 horses, originally was limited to an area near Carolla, North Carolina, the town just south of the Virginia/North Carolina state line. However, the herd outgrew its range and, increasingly, became determined to become Virginians. The horses migrated northward to False Cape further into the town of Sandbridge. Finally, they became a nuisance to the residents, grazing in yards, galloping down roads, foaling in public parks, and even some lethaly colliding with vehicles. The state couldn’t ignore the problem any longer, and had the Virginia Wild Horse Rescue round up half the herd where it's now protected on farms. The other half of the herd largely keeps to itself, south of the border in North Carolina.
Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it. ~ Russell Baker.
I arrived at about 8:30 am, entering the wildlife refuge by making my way to the park entrance. I brought hiking gear, biking gear, and plenty of food and water for the day, and a bit extra in the case of an unplanned overnight.All I had was my road bike, and I was unsure if it would be suitable for the trail, but I thought I would attempt riding the trail to avoid hiking the twenty miles out-and-back. I packed my backpack to include food, water, bug spray, extra clothes, swimsuit, literature about the park, and hiking shoes. I tightened the strap on my GPS watch, mounted my bike, and took off down the gravelly trail in what were now temperatures already in the mid-to-high 80’s. I knew this was going to be tough going with those temps, but with the ocean as my destination, it gave me great incentive to keep going so I could dive in, cool down, and enjoy a hard day’s work.

I biked along a primitive road, more so, a path, through marsh with egrets staring me down, and through woodlands where turtles policed the way, cautioning me to yield. I noticed these beautiful, large white flowers peeking out of the marsh as I rode along. This white flower, I learned later, was the mallow plant or Althaea officinalis. It tends to grow in swamps or marshes. At one point in its history, the plant was harvested for its sweet sap that was then processed into a confection used in what became the marshmallow.

I walk without flinching through the burning cathedral of the summer. My bank of wild grass is majestic and full of music. It is a fire that solitude presses against my lips. ~Violette Leduc.
I eventually got to a fork in the trail about four miles down where I saw the first significant sign of civilization and a perfect spot for a rest -- the park visitor center. I went in, enjoyed the air conditioning for a bit, chatted with the ranger, and asked about hours of operation.
Refreshed, I went on my way towards my goal -- North Carolina … and the beach! I was able to make it another three bone-rattling, slow-going miles deeper into this maritime forest until the majority of the trail was sand, and my slicks were not going to make it on the terrain. I dismounted, looked around, rested on my bike, watched a squirrel scurry across the path, stop, look, and scurry into the woods. I enjoyed what, at first, I thought was silence, but rather it was the profound peace. The sounds of the wilderness.

Photos: Justin T. Carreño/Writers Clearinghouse News Service

The only real theft in this area are raccoons stealing campers’ food. Still, better safe than sorry, I stashed my bike in the woods out of view of others traveling the path. I was sure to fill up both my water bottles on my bike so I knew that I would have hydration for the ride back. I wanted to remain in this peace that I found here, but my goal was looming, and a conspicuous, smaller, well-worn trail diverging off the main route was calling out.
I researched this park quite a bit and studied the map. I knew the remains of an old settlement -- a ghost town -- were nearby and down this trail. I followed it over sand dunes for about a quarter of mile where another trail took off deeper into the woods. I knew this was the trail to the settlement because of my intuition … and because of a sign saying that was the right direction.
This ghost town is Wash Woods. Today it continues as an unincorporated town, but the only thing that remains is the church steeple and the graveyard headstones. But no people and no church. Wash Woods, as legend has it, was developed by inhabitants from a shipwreck of the 16th or early 17thcentury. The church and other structures were built by cypress wood from a ship wreck. The small town of 300 remained until about 1930 when people began to move out when storm destruction became a constant refrain and rebuilding too costly.
I followed the path down into the woods. The dark cover of the waxy-leaved tree canopy provided much-needed relief from the scorching sun. I first noticed the old weathered church steeple. Nearby an eerie site caught my eye. Large oaks with robes of thick Spanish moss draped over them stood watch, like patriarchs, over the graveyard. The headstones had sunk in the soft earth, leaving them tilted at odd angles. Seashells adorned the markers. The cemetery was quietly telling its story of the area. Once a fishing and farming community, Wash Woods existed hard by the ocean. During summer’s tropical storms and winter’s nor’easters the ocean itself would come up and wash over the community. That is how it earned its name. Isolated, windswept and stung by salt, it could not have been an easy life. It was hard to imagine a bustling village in this wonderfully dark, lonely alcove, but at one time there was a lively community deep in these remote woods of the Virginia outer banks.

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone. ~ George Elliott.

I spent the next hour and a half hiking through varying, monotonous terrain obsessively looking at my GPS watch calculating distance, time, and speed.I was drenched in sweat. I would stop, doff my pack, and chug a half liter of my Gatorade/water mixture at time, eat a granola bar, and feel a surge of energy pour through me. Despite my desire to jump in the water to gain some relief, I avoided listening to tempting directional signs pointing down little paths reading “Ocean 0.6 miles” trying to veer me off course.

From around a corner I nearly collided with a trail runner. We both stopped when we scared each other not expecting to see another human. We talked a bit. He said his wife was following behind walking her bike, which made me realize that I made a smart choice to leave mine behind.
The sand was hard to trudge through, the scarce shade made for fleeting relief. I eventually heard a familiar sound -- sheosh … sheosh … sheosh -- waves in the distance. The ocean was near! Sand dunes were surrounding the trail, and I couldn’t see far. The trail came to a T. I looked right and there was a fence and a gate. To the left was a gap through the sand dunes. I decided to turn right and check out the gate. The lock on the chain around it was popped, so I took it off and went through the gate putting it back as I found it. I followed the fence line, hiked up a sand dune and beheld the site in front of me -- an endless beach in both directions and the inviting Atlantic just a few steps away. I looked down the fence line; it went right into the ocean leading me to believe this was high tide and I was in North Carolina! The gate I entered was the gate to North Carolina. I made it! I walked to the beach -- no gate in sight. I had to carefully step through the wired fence separating the states.

I was alone. I stripped down, put on my swim suit, and took a running plunge into the refreshing Atlantic. I dove into the surf and swam from one state to another. There was nothing, but me, the beach, the ocean, Virginia, and North Carolina. I lay out on the beach, worked on my tan a bit, and went swimming again. After enjoying the beach solitude and refreshing ocean, I walked along the beach reflecting, thinking, and imagining -- as if I were going for a long walk with my girlfriend, then my family and friends joined, and then myself.
I placed two unique shells into my pocket, thanked the beach for its hospitality, looked over the border, and saluted the Old North State.

(Justin T. Carreño lives in Arlington, Virginia. He has written before for The Philadelphia Junto about his mountain-climbing adventures and his travel in western Canada).