About ten days ago we held the December calendar – still on paper for our household, with 12 months’ worth of kittens – and surveyed the holiday schedule. We were overdue for a visit to our friend Jim in the prison, and I had a full week off for the Christmas holiday. We considered the days the prison would probably be closed for the holiday, and realized the 22nd was the best day to plan the visit. Our anniversary. Four years we have been married, and Bill suggested we make a nice trip out of it. You know, to the prison.
So I found an amazing B&B in Edenton, only about 30 minutes from the “correctional facility.” Edenton, which is known (in Edenton) as one of the prettiest towns in America, is situated on the Albemarle Sound, a large inlet from the ocean that is met on the western side by the Chowan River. I assume, therefore, the water is brackish, although I don’t actually know. Anyway, it’s a gorgeous little walking town, with amazing homes, small shops, nice people, and gorgeous photo ops at every turn.
The Cotton Gin Inn, which I found entirely by accident, was absolutely gorgeous – I mean, GORGEOUS – and the owners delightful. They described the vacant home and the “critters” dislodged in the making of the inn, filling us with remodel envy. Decorated for the holiday, we found the place warm, inviting, and the perfect setting for our anniversary.
We knew we had a destination and we had a sense of some of the options in the area, so we did not leave with a specific plan in mind. We decided, then, as we careened east, to revisit the Alligator River Animal Refuge, which you may remember as the scene of Frogpocalypse 2016. (If you missed that story, you can find it in “The Many Moods of Saturday” listed on the right of this page.)
And so we headed east on Hwy 64 the entire way, knowing the turn-off for the sanctuary was directly off that highway. We stopped at the rest area in Plymouth, which welcomes you to Bear Country, and the parking lot lines are painted bear tracks. Bill, looking quite the lumberjack Bear Country Man with his new beard, struck a pose under the sign and off we went again.
Next stop was the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Here we found an interesting, raised trail-walk-thingy, with a sign indicating it is “short but marvelous.” Turns out the Scuppernong River comes right up to Hwy 64, and if you get off at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, you are treated to a delightful section of marshy wildlife, complete with explanatory signs and a lovely -- I’m not being sarcastic -- raised wooden walkway. We ventured forth -- and yes this was December 21st, but we were in North Carolina, and it was in the mid-60s with a gentle breeze off the river.Let me tell you this, first. Quicksand has not actually played as big a role in my adult life as I had imagined it would when I was a kid. We were very prepared, at the age of about 11, to deal with quicksand, and I had read many books describing how to get out of it alive. So as an adult, I did find myself quite surprised to question its very existence.
However, at the Scuppernong River in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, it turns out, one can find quicksand. One needn’t worry, though, because the raised wooden walkway keeps you safe from its terrifying grasp. We marveled, though, at the sections of fine, silty soil, built up over ages and soaking wet where the river had recently receded. In the regular mud we saw canine paw prints (presumably someone walking their dog, although possibly coyote) as well as raccoons (look like small hands or cat prints if cats had thumbs), deer and many other undefined print-smears.
Here at the Scuppernong walk was where we first encountered the overturned trees. Take a second to do this: splay your fingers of one hand out as far as you can, and then bend your wrist back toward your arm. This mimics what we saw, with your arm as the tree, and your hand the area of root system pulled up and standing upright against the landscape. At this point we were thinking it was the result of one of the recent wind storms, which must have toppled a few trees and lifted their root systems up. Here in Durham, when trees fall over, they typically break at the trunk base. Even healthy trees here do not pull up root systems like that.
We marvelled at all we could see in the below-spaces. Roots twisting around on themselves, the place where the trunk turns to root and folds in on itself, the evidence of critter presence underground, the bugs and water taking advantage of the fresh access, the animal tracks where many species (including ourselves) had come to investigate. We read signs that described the shallow root systems of trees growing in high-water-table environments and thought about what a difference that makes.
On the way out, Bill spotted mistletoe high up in one of the trees hanging over the walkway. He pulled me in for a romantic holiday kiss, and I realized that this is the best way to honor that old tradition, while the mistletoe still lives.
We wandered, then, to Alligator River, and we were there for several minutes when I noticed another of the uprooted trees. Then, as I looked along the roadway, I saw a long line of overturned root systems, and in the instant it took me to expand my view, I realized I was seeing hundreds of overturned trees. The standing trees still outnumbered the turned ones by scores to one, but still… and it hit me. Hurricane Matthew had blown through this area in the time since our last visit.
I will be brutally honest for a second (cuz, you know, usually I’m lying), and admit that when we got word of a hurricane coming to North Carolina, my focus was immediately on me. Our call center does not close for any reason, and when a major weather event threatens our area, the supervisory team kicks into high gear making plans for coverage, contingency coverage, on-call coverage, worst-case scenarios, etc. In October, when the storm turned ever so slightly eastward and the impact to the triangle minimized, I was only relieved. The one person I know who lives here is Jim, whose “home” is made of cinder block and who, ironically enough, was in the safest place possible. Bullet dodged.
Standing here, seeing all the trees with their exposed roots, I realized how bad it had been. Now, nearly three months later, the damage is fairly “sanitized” if you will. Overturned trees, green leaves still on their branches, are all one sees of the storm here. However, I was immediately struck by what must have been the experience of the rangers when they first had the chance to survey the damage. Of course they would have focused on populated areas first, but after a few days of assessment, someone would have been tasked with looking for potential dangers and assessing the need for human attention in this vast stretch of wildlife. That person would have surely witnessed the large-scale loss of life, the land he was fond of and patrolled every day would have fresh wounds, swaths of downed trees, carcasses in their various states of decomp, animal friends lost by the hundreds, if not thousands, including the drowning deaths of animals accustomed to living in the water. I flashed immediately to Hurricane Fran and the sound of the wind and rain battering my ground floor apartment; the stories friends told of water gushing into their houses while they watched, helpless, with not enough towels in a lifetime of towels to stem the flow; the friend who had a tree come down on her roof and take out half her house--luckily the half that the family, including her infant son, were NOT sleeping in.
And then I flashed to the ice storm of 2003 (before winter storms were named like hurricanes), and the sound of the trees groaning and snapping from the weight of the ice; the blue arcs flashing through the night as power lines came down; the scores of bent trees when we awoke, changing the landscape of our entire block; the years it took for the landscape to hide and grow over the devastation -- even my wedding pictures later that year would have bent pines in the background, as the trees lasted, bent and dying for months.
I thought then of the massive flooding in eastern Carolina in my early years as a social worker, how colleagues were interviewing children to assess for lasting effects of trauma, and the children were talking about “walking through the water” which has a kind of beachy, vacation feel to it, until you remember the “water” is mud, in which are floating the carcasses of wild- and farm-life for miles around. Families were limited to what they could carry above the water level as they walked, and their clothes were soaking wet for days.
North Carolina is an incredibly beautiful state, and if you’ve read this blog before, you know I am enamoured of its rolling green hills, blue-ridged mountains, walking paths along lazy rivers, duned beaches and miles and miles of roads winding from one gorgeous vista to another. But she is a cruel lover: her winters, while blessedly short, are pocked with wicked fast, icy storms; her hurricanes are incredibly powerful and whip through large swaths of the state, endangering even those who know to live away from the beaches. We now also have earthquakes, which have so far not been damaging, but who knows what the future holds.
All these thoughts as I surveyed the uprooted trees.
Last time we had been to Alligator River, we had stayed in the car, creeping ever so slowly along its gravel road and spotting several animals, including a small gator. Today, though, we drove to the end of the entrance road to the walking trail. A walking trail through ALLIGATOR RIVER? Are we nuts? Apparently, yes.
We parked in the silence and started walking the immaculately groomed path. At first we felt like we were near the road and essentially in civilization, but after a few yards, a curve in the path brought the trees to a close behind us and suddenly we were alone in the woods at Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. Suddenly every sound was a bear, every rustle a gator. Bill jumped several times, which invariably startled me and soon enough we were both jittery. Then we started seeing scat on the path--every few feet actually. Mostly we inspected the scat of various flora-eating wildlife with the occasional meat-eater thrown in. About mid-way we started finding fur scat, in fairly large quantities. Then we were SURE eyes were on us as we strolled. We decided that loud was a safer way to go, even if it meant limiting our sightings. Yeah, whatever left those large fur-scat piles behind -- we didn’t want to bump into that.
We had actually been on the way in when we stopped to watch a large heron doing what herons do. This was the extent of the fauna spotted that day.
From the refuge, we went on to Edenton, where we landed at the water at sunset.
We enjoyed a lovely dinner at the local “fancy” restaurant (definitely not fancy), and were entertained (definitely not entertained) by the family at the table next to us. We listened in as one out-of-town contingent met up with the other out-of-town contingent, and they were apparently waiting on the somewhere-nearby birthday celebrant. We enjoyed looking at the cute kids and commented on the names -- Azeril, Asher and Bailey. No, these are not people like us…
Well, gosh, it’s like 7 at this point. We’d been in the car for pretty much 100 hours that day, so we headed to the B&B and got ourselves into the extremely beautiful and comfortable bed. I had brought electric candles, thinking we might enjoy a little candlelight on our anniversary, and we both had phones and the ipad, along with the television. So this 90-year-old couple hunkered down for a quiet evening of Netflix. Soon we were snoring, and the night was behind us.
The next morning was a prison visit, and then back to one of the prettiest towns in America for lunch and more photos. Here we discovered the local gull population, numbering in Hitchcockian proportions, sunning on the dock.
Eventually we headed home, happy to traverse the boring highway miles and find ourselves back in the company of Eddie and the cats.