Twenty-eight years and I don’t think I’ve ever missed a Fall in the mountains – until now. The suburbs of Atlanta where I grew up never felt like home, but I still remember being instantly embraced by the mountains on family travels. When I was a little over a year old, my parents carried me up Mt. LeConte, swaddled against the misty cold in a trash-bag poncho. We spent weekends in our cabin in Toccoa, GA, nestled in a soft pine forest interspersed with tall poplars and beech trees.

During high school my dad and I traveled from Atlanta to Wesser, NC, on Friday afternoons so we could launch into the icy waters of the Nantahala and feel the crisp breezes that sweep through the gorge in early Fall. Needless to say, moving to Asheville a decade ago was more like coming home than leaving it.

In August of this year I loaded up my belongings and drove away from my rented bungalow, my roommate for the past four years, a street full of friends, my nephew who came into the world just a few months before, my job and my mountains. I’m pursuing an MPH at UNC Chapel Hill, so leaving my job felt like a natural progression. The telephone, email and even Facebook help me stay in touch with friends and family. But you can’t call the mountains. I’ve scrolled back through my photo reel, read my old poetry, and meditated with their image in my mind, but still my heart aches for them. Their support and unwavering presence has always inspired me to seek that sort of peace in myself.

Maybe it was an effort to be strong like the mountains, probably it was just self-protection, but I decided I needed to stay in the triangle over fall-break. I would never miss the woods in October, so a girlfriend and I decided to make our Piedmont backpacking dreams a reality.

Recruitment was our first challenge. In Asheville if you say to a room full of people, “Who wants to go camping?!” almost everyone jumps up and starts stuffing their packs with wool socks and coconut date bars. We didn’t find the same sort of enthusiasm among our classmates, but we did find one more for the trip, a friend who just moved to Carrboro (Chapel Hill’s hippie neighbor) from the Bay Area.

To do our research we used a book called Trails of the Triangle, written by Allen de Hart in 1997, that I bought used at The Bookshop on Franklin Street. Because the resource is nearly two decades old, we weren’t sure if our chosen route would still be accessible, but in fact Raven Rock State Park is doing just fine, with a beautiful visitor center and some of the best maintained trails and campsites I’ve ever seen.

Raven Rock State Park came to be in 1969 when a bill was passed preserving it as a recreational area. The 4,684 acre park is located about an hour Southeast of Chapel Hill in Harnett County, reachable by a beautiful drive over Jordan Lake. In my search for more details about whose feet had walked the land before, I found that the area was inhabited by many Native American tribes at different times including the Coharie, Waccamaw Siouan and Tuscarora.

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I talked to Vin Steponaitis, Director of UNC’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology, to get more clarity about the history of Native American tribes in the area. He explained that there is not just one answer to which tribe occupied the land that is now Raven Rock, but that there is archaeological evidence of human inhabitants in the Central Piedmont dating back 13,000 years. Native people of the Piedmont began to encounter European settlers in the mid-1600’s, which meant, like in other areas, that their lives and cultures would soon be trampled and their homelands taken over. In our reasons to be grateful for land preservation, I think we should add that in light of injustices like these, protecting the land honors the spirit of the peoples it was taken from.

The lands of the Piedmont are swampier and more primeval feeling than Appalachia. Flocks of Great Blue Herons abound, swooping low with their s-curve necks outstretched, fishing. The leaves on the trees are big swarthy things, vibrant green and proudly fanning out or curling into parchment-like rolls. For my friends and I, entering this new ecosystem was a way to let go. We were shaking off the stress of leaving the familiar and starting something new. In the forest we shed our ‘real’ life labels and used trail names: one friend had already earned the title of ‘Hush Puppy,’ one would become ‘Mountain Rope,’ and I, for reasons that are still not clear, became ‘Mountain Lion.’

Our home for a night was a space we reserved ahead of time in canoe camp, a managed campground where canoeists can paddle up to shore and rest their heads. The sites are accessible by foot or river, so we backpacked in about two miles to find that our spot came equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, lantern hook, and one shared pit toilet. It was pretty luxurious; something between backcountry and car-camping.

While I was setting up the cooking station and pulling ingredients for ‘snobby S’mores’ out of my backpack (Ritz Crackers, dark chocolate hazelnut butter, and vegan marshmallows (who knew that most marshmallows aren’t vegan?!) I heard a double-scream from the tangled woods behind me. My friends were staring transfixed into the branches and vines, eyes-wide, giggling nervously. A bug, I thought, they were scared of a bug. I jogged their way but right before I reached them, Hush Puppy yelled, “Stop!”

Mountain Rope added, “Watch OUT!!!” Suddenly I heard myself scream, a shrill sound against the frog chirps and gentle flutt-flutt of the river. A Marbled Orbweaver, with neon green and orange-pink stripes on her fat body, hung suspended on her web inches from my face. She looked like an elephant on a tight rope wearing a watermelon cocktail dress. We watched as she worked with thick, stake-like legs, to enrobe the unlucky larvae that had landed in her sticky trap. In seconds she’d bundled it up like a pig in a blanket. We backed away, trying not to think about the gruesome world hidden under curled leaves.

We made it through the night, all worries erased by darkness and the warmth of a campfire. The morning dawned through the netted skylight of my two-woman tent. Although canoe camp has six sites we had no neighbors and enjoyed a peaceful breakfast before packing up. We didn’t see anyone else until later in the day after descending the long smooth-railed stairway to the base of Raven Rock cliffs. Down below, parents who had chosen to value exploration over a clean car watched as their giggling children played on the mud-covered rocks. Our own parents must have made that choice years before, because soon enough we’d found a mess of our own.

Like any good person with Type 1 diabetes, I was having a snack when the misadventure began. It seems like on any hike or backpacking trip there is at least one episode of rock scrambling; it’s practically inevitable.  Mountain Rope made it happen for us when she decided to get a better view up the river and across the bank. Hush Puppy decided to follow but like I said, I was munching on an apple and didn’t have two hands available for climbing, so I just watched it all unfold.
After some knee-scraping and sliding, both women made it down to the flat rock for a heron’s eye view of the muddy Cape Fear River. At this point I realized their chances of getting back up were looking even less favorable than their descent, so I stuffed the rest of my fuji in my pack and tried to figure out how to help.  Mountain Rope was already stuck mid-climb, no foot holds accessible, no low hanging roots to grab on to.

I shimmied out a few feet where the bank began to get steeper and held onto a thick root. I stretched out my arm to her but her fingers barely reached within a foot of mine. We decided she would push off the tiny ledge of rock that held her and make a lunge for my hand. I readied myself for the impact while imagining us both tumbling into the water below. Suddenly her footing gave way. “OHH!” she half-grumbled, half-screamed, as she slid, albeit quite gracefully, into a shallow eddy below. Hush Puppy watched from the rock.

Mountain Rope was not to be deterred. Instantly she shouted, “It’s ok! They’re Gore-Tex!” A true woman thinks not about her knees but about her boots. From her new angle on the rock she was able to quickly scramble up to a better handhold and heave her way to the viney roots above where I was still perched uselessly.

Now it was Hush Puppy’s turn. Mountain Rope had definitely found a better route, but she also has a pretty significant height advantage over Hush Puppy. Long story short, Hush Puppy was never going to make the lunge up.
After a brief silence, Mountain Rope (who incidentally was not named up until this moment), said to Hush Puppy matter-of-factly, “How about I lower myself down and you can use my leg like a rope!” And then without a moment’s hesitation, she did. There’s no doubt that someone is a true friend after they’ve offered to be your human rope.

Back at the car, after another gourmet yet slightly weird lunch, Hush Puppy remarked on how much fun she’d had, especially the part where she got to climb up Mountain Rope’s leg to safety. It seems to be always like that, although we try to avoid so-called ‘mishaps,’ they become the placeholders for our best memories. There were plenty of other uplifting sights and sounds from our hours in the woods: the Great-Horned Owl who sang us to sleep, the two families exploring with their kids, the soft earth of the curving trails, but the poster image in my mind is that moment of support.

I got back home tired and satisfied. The Raven Rock overlook had provided a little bit of the elevation I’ve been missing. Morning sunshine cascading through the vines and the gentle sounds of life splashing in the river had helped me connect with the land.  Unplugging and communing with friends and forest for even one night always strengthens my foundation. The Blue Ridge Mountains are part of my heart, but getting to know the woods of the Piedmont helped me to feel grounded here. I’m already flipping through Trails of the Triangle again and plotting our next route.