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Walking along the Hatteras National Seashore

Walking along the Hatteras National Seashore

Sliding Rock, a popular pastime in the dense North Carolina forest

Sliding Rock, a popular pastime in the dense North Carolina forest outside of Asheville

Blackbeard and back

Barb and Ty Belknap

Last month we traveled to North Carolina to visit our son, who is spending the fall there attending an outdoor, experiential school. (No, we didn’t have him kidnapped; it’s not that kind of school.). It was parents’ weekend, so we had fun strolling through the streets of Asheville with the other parents and kids and getting reacquainted with Evan.

Albuquerque city planners should have a look at Asheville when they’re planning a good street scene. Music, microbrews, and fusion food are in abundance. Public radio plays bluegrass music all day long and the mountains and rivers make the area a mecca for outdoor recreationists like us. Locals who have already staked out their claims sport bumper stickers proclaiming Don’t Move Here!

The carpet in our hotel room was still wet from the second hurricane flood of the season. Downed trees were still being removed from the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. Hurricane Jean was making her way across Georgia, chasing us six hours east to the Outer Banks. It seemed unusual to head to the ocean to escape a hurricane, but by the time Jean hit the coast there was nothing left but wind.

Lots of wind. We had to stay in hotels for a couple of days or risk having our tent blown out to sea. When perfect weather arrived we pitched camp at the deserted Hatteras National Seashore and enjoyed playing on the beach for a few days. The Outer Banks are made up of islands with shifting sands famous for causing shipwrecks and attracting summer tourists. In places, you can see both sides of the island as you drive down the long strip of highway to the final stop: a ferry ride to quaint little Ocracoke.

As it happened, the three-hour car ferry from Ocracoke to the mainland was about to depart, so we drove right onto the boat to the backwater animal refuge at Swan Quarter. We headed for the nearby historic town of Bath, not knowing what its history was, but attracted to a state park marked with a camping symbol on our road map.

We soon found that Bath was the first incorporated village in North Carolina, founded in 1705. Its founder was abducted by the soon-to-be killed and deported Indians who strategically impaled him and several of his slaves with pitch-soaked pine boughs and barbequed them from the inside out. The town was also home to the pirate Blackbeard, who is more famous there than Billy the Kid is in New Mexico.

Legend has it that Blackbeard was in cahoots with the governor. According to history, he became enamored with the governor’s fourteen-year-old daughter, who rejected his demand that she become his thirteenth wife. Blackbeard chopped off the hands of the girl’s boyfriend and sent them to her in a jewel-encrusted case. Shortly thereafter, the pirate was killed in a sea battle. He put up quite a fight, though, and was stabbed twice, shot fifteen times, and beheaded. His head was attached to the bowsprit of the victorious ship and displayed up and down the coast.

Bath also is known for a “spook light” that appears mysteriously in the night, just as in many other small American towns where decapitations have occurred.

We were the only campers at Goose Creek State Park. A pale, baby-faced ranger nervously interrogated us, then reluctantly issued a permit. He announced, “Gates are locked at 8:00 p.m. and not reopened until 8:00 a.m.” Our camp was in a piney woods next to a meandering river that spilled out into the brackish Pamlico Sound. We enjoyed a private sunset swim in the black water off a low dock. Our evening campfire—made from unopened bundles of firewood from two adjacent campsites—crackled away under the dark and starry night.

About 2:00 a.m. we both woke up spooked and started rehashing the local stories about murders and encounters with the devil. Was that ranger a zombie hiding in the woods? What was that strange light we could now see across the river? Why weren’t there any other campers in this beautiful campground and what was with all that unopened firewood? We lit out of there as soon as the main gate was unlocked in the morning, suspecting that a headless horseman might hurl a pumpkin at our rented Toyota.

The second part of our trip was supposed to be spent hiking and rafting the rivers around the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. We decided instead to spend one more night in Asheville, drop off some new socks for Evan, and return home. The vague sense of dread we felt was probably not just because of Blackbeard; it was probably more a guilty feeling about goofing off when we should be home finishing some unfinished projects. Maybe it was just election anxiety.

 

 

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