A few weeks ago I went in search of a new hiking trail. I wasn’t intent on finding anything more than a few good views and a little peace of mind — the latter of which is increasingly hard to find in our culture of constant bombardment by advertising and social media. In the process, however, I found a forest of emerald green, a lady doing yoga in the middle of the Eno River, a great blue heron swooping through the foliage, an abandoned dam, an old graveyard, and a renewed appreciation for life which results whenever you immerse yourself in nature.
It started when I arrived at the Cole Mill access at Eno River State Park (4390 Old Cole Mill Road, Durham, NC 27712) on a Sunday in early August. There was a sizeable crowd — which I’ve come to expect from prior hikes on the weekend — but I nonetheless managed to get a parking spot and soon found myself at the trailhead for Pea Creek Trail.
There were a few other hikers lollygagging by the river, enjoying the cool weather and peaceful scenery, but I soon left them behind.
The trail was very narrow and somewhat steep as it followed the Eno River on the north bank, giving little room for maneuver. When a group of three guys in their early twenties crossed my path going in the opposite direction, there was barely enough room for us to pass without tackling each other, even though they were walking in single file. After passing the three guys, I then followed the trail beneath an underpass for Cole Mill Road, where an informal access point allows fishermen to park on the side of the road and avoid the occasionally overcrowded parking lot.
After the underpass, the trail divided, with the left branch going uphill into the adjacent forest and the right branch hugging the north bank of the Eno River. I wanted to see as much of the river as possible, so I decided to take the right branch and soon found myself in a floodplain with ferns and tall grasses in abundance. It’s hard to believe how green a floodplain can be, but once you’ve seen that distinctive shade of emerald green you’ll realize how much of the rainbow is missing from our culture of concrete and plastic.
In addition to the ferns and tall grasses, there were sycamores all along the bank of the Eno, jutting their roots into the river with the enthusiasm of children at a water park. Two sycamores in particular caught my attention. Their roots were configured in such a way that they were nearly conjoined at the base while allowing room at the top for someone to descend into them in a kind of giant cradle. Of course I had to check it out and promptly lowered myself down four feet of steep embankment to do so; unfortunately, even after I’d done that, I wasn’t able to get any decent photos due to the extremely close quarters.
Climbing out of the cradle of sycamore roots, I continued on Pea Creek Trail. After a short distance, I reached a footbridge crossing a small tributary of the Eno. The bridge was very basic in construction but had no difficulty bearing my weight as I passed over its beams to the east side and found what had brought me to Eno River State Park in the first place, namely Dunnagan Trail.
There wasn’t much difference between Pea Creek Trail and Dunnagan Trail, but it was plain to see from the minimal level of maintenance and the occasional overgrowth of surrounding vegetation that the area didn’t get much foot traffic. None of this deterred one woman, whom I saw in the middle of the Eno River on a stretch of exposed river rocks, from doing yoga without a care in the world. I thought about photographing her from a distance through the foliage, but there were too many intervening branches to get a decent photo, and I didn’t want to I intrude on her communion with nature.
Heading on once again, I stopped in my tracks when I heard the distant call of an approaching bird. I recognized the call as soon as I heard it and was delighted when I saw a great blue heron swoop through the undergrowth down the middle of the river, showing his distinctive plumage and giving the park a tinge of the wild despite its close proximity to downtown Durham, North Carolina.
Before long Dunnagan Trail reached a point where a stone outcropping intervened, requiring a bit of climbing to surmount it. When I reached the top of the outcropping, I looked south across the Eno River to see a brick and mortar structure that looked like nothing so much as the remains of a dam.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I found out in my research for this article that this was one part of the old Pump Station, which was built in 1886-1887, and supplied water to the city of Durham, North Carolina, until 1916, when another dam was built on the Flat River to provide the city’s water instead. Regardless of the history, the ruins were quite imposing and provided a nice photographic opportunity.
After passing the remains of the old pump station dam, I continued on my eastward hike, eagerly anticipating Dunnagan Trail’s sharp turn to the northwest. It took a while, but the turnaround came, and when it did I decided to pause for reflection before the Eno River disappeared completely from view. After a few moments, I headed northwest on the return leg of Dunnagan Trail as it climbed a considerable bluff toward the most unexpected part of my hike.
After cresting the bluff — which rose from the Eno River over a distance of a quarter mile — there was a fork in the trail. One branch extended to the north, outside of the official limits of Eno River State Park; the other branch extended to the west, back toward the parking lot where my car was waiting to carry me home. Despite the allure of the northward trail, I took the westward trail and soon found ample reward for my choice.
After passing through a valley and cresting another hill, I saw a pile of stones to my right which looked decidedly out of place. They seemed to be assembled in a pile by design and were sufficient in number to stand roughly five feet tall. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but these were the foundation stones for the family house of the woman after whom the Dunnagan Trail was named, Catharine Link Dunnagan.
It was off to the left of the trail and clearly visible to any passing hiker, veritably begging to be inspected. Despite my reservations about approaching a grave in a forest rapidly dimming with the lateness of the hour, I decided to swallow my apprehension and get closer. With as much respect as I could muster, I stepped across the stone ring that surrounded the graveyard and took a good look at the headstone of Catharine Link Dunnagan, who died in 1914 at eighty-five years of age and was buried in the spot where I was now standing over a century later.
It’s hard to say what you’re supposed to feel when looking at the final resting place of someone you never knew who died long before you were born and gave her name to the land where you’re now standing. On the one hand I was apprehensive about being so close to a place of the dead, even if I’m not inclined to believe that the dead are malevolent toward the living. On the other hand I was deeply honored to be able to see a place that must have been profoundly meaningful to the woman who chose it for her burial site.
Wrestling with both feelings, I decided it was time to continue on the return leg of Dunnagan Trail. Walking through the serene forest of oak and pine, I was able to able to reconcile my internal conflict, leaving behind my previous apprehension and carrying in its place an appreciation for the way in which the dead imbue the land with sacred significance. For every piece of land is the final resting place of someone, whether human or animal or plant, who lived and died and gave her flesh back to the soil for future generations to cherish in turn. It is this return to the soil which binds the loved ones of the deceased to the land and which reminds us of the brevity and sweetness of every life, even the life of a complete stranger.