Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pilot Mountain State Park, NC (United States)

“Watch for falling bombs!” is what the sign should have read as we were pulling into the campground. While we were a tad early for fall foliage, giant acorns from chestnut oaks were dropping all around with resounding thunks. A helmet wouldn’t have gone amiss… especially when a direct hit to my thigh hurt like a paintball at point blank range, complete with a yellowing bruise.

We were in Pilot Mountain State Park, one of my favorites out of the forty-some lovely state parks of North Carolina.  The park is located on the western end of an ancient, isolated range called the Sauratown Mountains, which rise sharply above the surrounding terrain.  Pilot Mountain itself was a landmark for Native Americans and pioneers. Today the peak - a white hump of quartzite capped with greenery - makes for a spectacular view, even from the highway (US Route 52).

The Jomeokee trail, looping around the peak, is a very popular one with easy access from the picnic areas and parking lot. A sign informed day-trippers driving in that the waiting time for a parking spot up top was at least 30 minutes long! The trail is a little technical, but short at a scant 0.8 miles. It rounds the dramatic rock faces of Big Pinnacle, and turkey vultures circled effortlessly in the blue skies above. More strenuous is the Ledge Spring Trail following along the rocky cliff. A fine afternoon meant the trail was fair littered with climbers and their gear – everyone from Boy Scouts to a sorority reunion seemed to be trying their hands (and feet) at it.     

Roads less taken included the Mountain and Grassy Ridge Trails, ascending and traversing the mountain. Yellow wingstems were in full flower along the sunnier patches of the upper Mountain Trail, and sprawling stands of pokeweed with their hot-pink stems and deep purple berries made for striking contrasts in the shadier parts. Grassy Ridge deserves its name. The same weeds we mow in our sad excuse for a lawn back home were growing in riotous green splendor on the forest floor, producing a rather restive feel under the canopy. Grassy Ridge is also a bridle trail, though most of the evidence we saw were riders at the junction heading down the longer corridor trail to the river.  This actually put us more at ease, as our dog has a tendency to bark at horses and, even more unsettling, a penchant for their poop!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ocracoke and the Outer Banks, NC (United States)

Growing up in the landlocked Midwest, the idea that you could get to the ocean in anything less than the grueling 16+ hour trips of my childhood spent in the back of a 15-seater van was a revelation. Where we live in the Triangle means the beach is an easy weekend away or even a day trip... ok, it's a far cry from our 25-minute walk to Barceloneta in Europe, but for most Americans, this is a relatively short distance. Our first year we also discovered that tacking on a few more hours would get us to a really special place: the Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks are a 200-mile chain of narrow barrier islands that outline the coast of North Carolina. They are a popular destination on the east coast. Maybe you've even seen the bumper stickers "OBX"? Many families or friends book beach houses for annual reunions... even humorist David Sedaris has written about it! Nowadays we feel like a house can be quite reasonable when split between a bunch of people. But imagine our delight back when, as broke students, we discovered you could camp for $12 a night!

It seems like everyone who goes to the Outer Banks has a favorite island. We've been going to Ocracoke (pronounced "oh-kra" like the vegetable and "coke" like the cola) for over a decade. It is reachable only by ferry, either from the mainland across the Pamlico Sound or from Hatteras Island, just to the north. The pirate Blackbeard used to ply these waters and frequently anchored in Ocracoke inlet. The place was isolated for so long that you can still hear a touch of the "high tide" accent (pronounced "hoy toyed" in the native brogue) among locals. There is a small museum as well as a British cemetery, where sailors from a British vessel sunk by a German sub during World War II rest in foreign soil. To guide passing mariners, nearly every island on the Outer Banks boasts a lighthouse, usually painted in a distinctive black-and-white pattern, but Ocracoke's, in a simple, solid white, is the oldest in operation.

Apart from the village, the rest of the island is dominated by the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Its campground is where you can pitch a tent with nothing but a sand dune between you and a glorious expanse of - what is for all practical purposes - a private beach. The sea oats wave golden against the bright blue sky... and they help stop erosion. Funny little sanderlings and sandpipers run along the edge of the surf, and small, roped sections of the beach show where loggerhead turtles have laid eggs. We usually bring our assortment of toys: books, frisbee, volleyball, a stunt kite from local shop Kitty Hawk Kites, and bodyboard (Cape Hatteras itself is popular with the surfers). On clear nights, the stargazing is incredible with the luminous Milky Way stretching across the sky, and on the ground, the highly entertaining ghost crabs scurry in and out of their burrows in the sand, much to our dog's delight. A few days of this life makes for a relaxing way to wrap up the summer!