Exploring History on a Spring Hike to McCown’s Mill

by Mark Miles

History pervades everything. If you’ve ever gone on a hike in the woods and unexpectedly discovered the remains of a crumbling barn, the shards of a glass bottle, or the fading traces of an abandoned path, you’ve seen this for yourself. So often, however, this fact is overlooked by our culture in its persistent race toward novelty, which is frequently presented as an unqualified good but should more accurately be considered a drug to distract us from what is truly important in life. Regardless of whether it functions as a sedative or stimulant, novelty is frequently nothing more than a relic of the past redecorated for modern consumption.

The irony of this situation is that confronting the complexity of the past in all its historical depth can provide a greater sense of novelty than any prefabricated commodity on the market. By going into the world, seeing for ourselves the impact of the past on the present, and extrapolating from the present to the future, we can begin to appreciate where we as a species have been and where we are rapidly heading. We can also begin to appreciate how much our own lives are deeply and inextricably interwoven with the lives of people whose last footstep came to rest on this planet centuries ago.

Not for the first time, I found myself in this position on the first weekend of May, when I took a hike on an unfamiliar stretch of trail at Eno River State Park. I’ve hiked portions of the Laurel Bluffs Trail in the past (click here to view story), but the trail is so long and hilly that I’ve only ever been able to traverse a small portion of it at a time. In this instance, I started from the Pump Station Access on Rivermont Road in Durham and made my way northwest to the southern bank of the Eno River, where I then followed Laurel Bluffs Trail on its southwest trajectory toward the ruins of McCown’s Mill.

Laurel Bluffs Trail is one of the less frequented and consequently less well maintained trails in Eno River State Park. As such it can be somewhat treacherous in parts, especially when the trail suddenly veers up a steep incline or skirts the edge of an actual bluff. Nonetheless it’s also deeply peaceful by virtue of its seclusion and at times hypnotically beautiful in its serpentine dance along the banks of the Eno River. On this occasion in early May, as I navigated through the woods on Laurel Bluffs Trail, I was keenly aware of this.

I was also aware of the presence of the ruins of an old mill – which was originally called McCown’s Mill and later called Cole’s Mill – on this stretch of the Laurel Bluffs Trail. In fact there’s a nearby road in Durham named Cole Mill Road, which to this day passes within a quarter mile of McCown’s Mill and was presumably named for its close proximity to the mill after it underwent a change of ownership in 1874. Though most people have no idea of the origin of the name of the road, it’s one small but pervasive way in which history has left its mark on the land.

The mark would never have been made, however, without the work of many people who lived in this area and ensured the construction of McCown’s Mill over two centuries ago. Foremost among these people was John Cabe, the owner of another mill a couple miles upstream, whose family was one of the most powerful and influential in Durham during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Fulfilling his responsibilities as patriarch, John Cabe oversaw the construction of McCown’s Mill in 1813 as a kind of dowry for his daughter Rachel Cabe upon her marriage to Moses McCown.

The reason for this was simple. John Cabe had nine daughters and no sons, and during this period in US history women were prohibited from owning or inheriting land in their own name. If they were in a position to own or inherit land, it transferred to their husbands by default. This situation did not change in North Carolina until 1868, when married women were finally allowed to own property in their own name in the event that their husbands were irresponsible, imprisoned, or incapacitated. Therefore, if John Cabe wanted to continue to exercise power and influence over the region, he had to find some way to ingratiate himself to the man who would become Rachel Cabe’s husband and the legal owner of his lands. This John Cabe did by financing the construction of a mill and naming it after his son-in-law, Moses McCown.

This marked the beginning of McCown’s Mill, one of the more substantial mills in the region as indicated by the presence of a tilt hammer. A tilt hammer is a very large and powerful blunt instrument used primarily in smithing to refine ore and temper steel; this made it very handy in the time before steel mills were common in the United States. Below is a short video demonstrating a tilt hammer (also called a trip hammer) in action.

It represented a significant input of capital on the part of the mill owner and allowed the mill to perform a much wider range of operations than it would otherwise have been able to. In a sense, it was John Cabe’s way of making sure that Moses McCown fully appreciated how much he owed the older man.

But the marriage between Moses McCown and Rachel Cabe was not to last. In 1830, Moses McCown died, leaving Rachel the implicit but unrecognized owner of McCown’s Mill. To ensure that her children would inherit the mill uncontested, Rachel married another mill owner named Herbert Sims in 1831. Rachel’s family subsequently held the mill until 1874, when Rachel’s children sold the mill to John Anderson Cole. It was at this time that McCown’s Mill became Cole’s Mill. In 1908, however, the mill was destroyed in a devastating flood, after which time McCown’s Mill became little more than a footnote in history.

Aware of the presence of the old mill, I was keen to find as many traces of it as I could on my hike. After crossing under the overpass for Cole Mill Road, which is still functional to this day, I passed through the surrounding forest of beech and sycamore, noticed the leveling out of the trail on the flood plain, and finally caught sight of something ahead. There was a footbridge over a small creek, and I hurried to cross it.

After the footbridge, I noticed a side trail branching to the left away from Laurel Bluffs Trail. Peering into the distance, I caught sight of something that appeared to be an old stone hut. Intrigued by the thought of what it might be, I approached through the thicket of undergrowth, which wasn’t as well cleared now that I was off the main trail. When I came within ten feet of it, I stopped in my tracks and admired the handiwork which graced the old springhouse. This was the location where meat, dairy, and perishables would have been kept cool in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before the advent of icehouses or refrigeration.

Returning to Laurel Bluffs Trail, I resumed my search for the ruins of the old mill. Before long, I noticed a cylindrical depression in the ground to my left, about twelve feet wide by five feet deep with sloping edges. Then something, actually two somethings, caught my eye. They were sitting on the southest side of the depression, opposite where I was standing. They were about four feet in diameter and were draped in undergrowth. They were undoubtedly millstones.

The first millstone I saw was the runner stone, which sits on top and rotates in a traditional gristmill. In this position it provides the necessary force to create friction to grind the grains which are fed into it from above. The circular hole in the middle facilitates the motion of the stone spindle, an axle which attaches to the runner stone and causes it to rotate.

The second millstone I saw was the bed stone, which sits on the bottom of a traditional gristmill. In this position it remains stationary while providing the counterforce necessary to create friction to grind the grains which fall between it and the runner stone. If you look closely, you can see the fissures where separate stones were plastered together to form the bed stone.

Continuing down Laurel Bluffs Trail, I came to a hill where another side trail branched to my left. Taking this trail, I ascended the hill by the side of a creek bed and came to an old abandoned cabin, surrounded by foliage and adjacent to a field. There was no clear indication of what purpose this cabin served, but it may have been associated with one of the ancillary businesses frequently attached to a mill: forge, general store, cotton gin, or distillery.

Turning west, I continued to explore the hillside. Before long I came to a clearing, after which I was able to discern the unmistakable traces of an old road stretching into the distance. To the south of this road, there was a primitive stone wall that stood about two feet high, though it may have been much taller when the mill was still operational. Positioned on the edge of the road that passed by the mill, the wall may have formed an enclosure for a loading dock where materials from McCown’s Mill were transferred onto awaiting vehicles for transport to distant markets.

Backtracking to the cabin and descending the hill, I started hiking Laurel Bluffs Trail back to the Pump Station and my car. The trail was mostly deserted, but the views were pleasant and gave a distinct impression of what must have attracted so many early European settlers to this area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Certainly the beauty of the area must have been one of many reasons why John Cabe and his daughter Rachel chose to make a home for themselves on the banks of the Eno.

For my part, the beauty of the Eno Valley has been a great benefit to me over the past two years since I started hiking regularly. But there’s so much more than mere beauty to be found here and in any other wilderness. There’s a haven of peace and tranquility, a hotspot for health and fitness, and a great place for outdoor recreation. Beyond that, there’s a vital connection to the past in the form of historic sites such as McCown’s Mill, without which future generations will have no way to fully appreciate the importance of a crucial chapter in local history.

There are other additional reasons for the preservation of historic sites. For a start, they prompt us to reconsider what is truly important in life: freedom, nature, beauty, peace, health, and belonging. They beg the question of why our culture is so obsessed with and addicted to novelty for its own sake. They allow people to develop a real relationship with the land, without which our lives would not be possible. They reveal that history and the land are one, so deeply intertwined that it takes only the smallest scratching at the surface to uncover a wealth of knowledge about both. Finally they show that if our species is to survive on this planet, we must protect both history and the land. Without them not only will we starve, but we will even forget who we are.

References:

Anderson, Jean, “A Community of Men and Mills,” Eno Journal (via Eno River Association), Vol. 7 Special Issue, July 1978, accessed April 30th, 2018.

Anderson, Jean, “Cabe, John,” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (via NCpedia), (University of North Carolina Press, 1976), accessed May 3rd, 2018.

Anderson, Jean and Margaret Nygard, “The Story of West Point on the Eno,” Eno Journal (via Eno River Association), Vol. 3:1, 1975, accessed May 2nd, 2018.

Bender, Nancy, “Spring Houses, Important Buildings in the Past,” Mercersburg Historical Society, accessed May 1st, 2018.

Cabe, John Family Cemetery,” Durham-Orange Genealogical Society (via Cemetery Census), accessed May 3rd, 2018.

February – McCown-Cole Mill,” Eno River Association, accessed April 30th, 2018.

Heron, Duncan, “Mill Sites on the Eno River; A Geological Viewpoint,” Eno Journal (via Eno River Association), Vol. 7 Special Issue, July 1978, accessed April 30th, 2018.

Khan, B. Zorina, The Democratization of Invention: Patents and Copyrights in American Economic Development, 1790-1920 (New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2005) pp. 166-8.

Kueber, Gary, “McCown-Cole-Sparger-Nygard House,” Open Durham, accessed May 2nd, 2018.

Nygard, Margaret, “the Coles,” January 1986 Calendar, Eno River Association, accessed May 10th 2018.

Spring Houses,” Good Things by David, accessed May 1st, 2018,

Trip Hammer,” Wikipedia, accessed April 30th, 2018.

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First Signs of an Early Spring at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Spring came early this year in central North Carolina and brought with it exceptionally warm temperatures, arriving by the middle of February after a winter that was exceptionally cold and snowy. The pairing of exceptional warmth with exceptional cold may seem unusual, but it’s more easily understood if you think of it as a climatic fever. When you have a fever, your temperature is elevated, yet your body experiences chills as it attempts to fight off infection. This is precisely the situation in which our planet finds itself, attempting to deflect the worst ravages of industrial extraction by hobbling the climate on which industry depends for ease of extraction and transportation. In the process, however, there are numerous side-effects which most media outlets conveniently blame on the natural world rather than the extractive industries which are truly responsible for destabilizing the climate.

This pattern of climatic destabilization – which includes the undermining of established patterns of temperature and precipitation globally – is an increasingly common phenomenon throughout our world and represents another aspect of climate change. Though most people are hesitant to speak the truth on this matter, the fact remains. What we’re seeing isn’t merely a momentary aberration; it’s the transition to a new and highly inhospitable global climate, in which our world will be irrevocably altered for the worst, whether we like it or not.

At Occoneechee Mountain, this climatic transition was more subdued on my first visit of 2018 than it was in 2017. In 2017, there were flowering plants of every stripe putting forth new growth by January. When I visited Occoneechee Mountain in February of this year on the other hand, there were comparatively few flowering plants in bloom. There were some, however, and there were other signs of spring to be found as well, despite the fact that spring in central North Carolina doesn’t typically arrive until the beginning of April at the earliest.

When I arrived at Occoneechee Mountain on the last Sunday of February, the clouds were overcast and gloomy, telling of the torrential and unseasonable rainstorms that have recently become common in central North Carolina during the winter months. The land was still drenched from the latest rainstorm, and with temperatures in the 60s it felt more like April than February. I got out of my car, started hiking the Mountain Loop Trail, and tried to keep solid footing on ground that might as well have been the last remains of a mud pit.

Aware of the mud and careful of my footing as a result, I crossed the north and west sides of Occoneechee Mountain without difficulty. The deciduous trees were still mostly bare, though buds were starting to appear on many of the maples and dogwoods. The pines were stately and serene, lending the lion’s share of green that could be seen on most stretches of the trail. There were, however, other patches of green here and there. As I progressed down the trail, those patches became more prevalent on the forest floor, and it wasn’t long before I decided to stop in my tracks and take a closer look.

What I found when I took a closer look was a strikingly beautiful yellow and red flower that loosely resembled a columbine and had unmistakably distinctive maroon leaves with green spots flecked across the surface. I was baffled as to the identity of the flower, since I’ve never seen it at Occoneechee Mountain in years past and have certainly never seen it in a domestic garden. At a later date I was able to identify it as a yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), which I learned through a bit of research has a tendency to remain dormant for most of the year, thereby explaining why I had never noticed it before.

There are in fact only about ten weeks of the year when the plant is active, during which time each individual yellow trout lily will produce either one leaf with no flower or two leaves with one flower. Though there are reputedly only about five percent of plants with flowers in any yellow trout lily colony at a time, the profusion of tiny yellow and red flowers at my feet left me wondering if there was a single square inch of the forest floor where these plants weren’t already residing.

Walking past the largest profusion of yellow trout lilies along the north side of Occoneechee Mountain where it skirts the Eno River, I noticed faint ruins of a mill race that used to adjoin the Quarry. The ruins of the mill race followed the course of the trail at this point, and it was only after walking north of the trail and looking back that I was able to discern a better view. The presence of the mill race was more readily visible on this visit because of the vibrant green moss blanketing the ruins, which seemed to have greater intensity of color after the latest rainstorms.

As I passed from the ruins of the mill race up the side of the mountain toward the Overlook, I decided to stop and admire the view. Though it was marred by the clearcut of an electric line extending to the north and south, it was refreshing to see so much land that’s still in a reasonably natural state. The fact that Occoneechee Mountain is directly adjacent to downtown Hillsborough, North Carolina, is one of the park’s biggest assets, since the town of Hillsborough is generally vigilant in its preservation of historic sites – of which Occoneechee Mountain is one of the foremost. However being in close proximity to a town that’s expanding in population and housing brings with it the imminent risk that much of the surrounding terrain will be significantly degraded and will cause harm to the mountain by extension. As a result my feelings are increasingly ambivalent when I look in the distance from Occoneechee Mountain.

Regardless of any ambivalence about housing, I love the views and the land itself, and it wasn’t long before I was hiking the last stretch of Mountain Loop Trail in quest of the amazing view from the Overlook. When I reached the crossing of Mountain Loop Trail and Overlook Trail, I switched from the former to the latter and continued the last portion of my ascent before coming into view of the fenced-in area at the edge of the old Quarry that provides the most memorable view in the whole of the park. The clouds were still overcast and were threatening to downpour at any moment; similarly I was drenched from my own perspiration as a result of hiking in such warm springlike temperatures. None of that mattered, however, when I reached the edge of the Overlook and the high point of my hike.

After taking time to relish the view from the Overlook, I returned to the trail and descended Occoneechee Mountain. The forest surrounded me on all sides again, and it was easy to forget that an expanding town and a major interstate were both less than a mile away from my location. I passed the lone house in the park, where the park ranger lives, and reached the last stretch of trail before the parking lot. As I came into view of the parking lot, I noticed one other telltale sign of spring: a bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) in full bloom.

These trees are frequently the first to indicate the arrival of spring, and this one in particular left no doubt in my mind about how quickly the world around us is being irrevocably altered in front of our very eyes, whether we like it or not.

References:

Erythronium americanum,” Missouri Botanical Garden, accessed March 7th, 2018

Callery pear (Bradford pear), Pyrus calleryana,” Invasive.org, accessed March 7th, 2018,

The Importance of Fighting to Preserve Wilderness

by Mark Miles

Whether we realize it or not, wilderness is essential to all of our lives. A short list of the major ecological services provided by wilderness includes the following: 1) regulating climate by sequestering carbon, 2) retaining topsoil through expansion of root networks, 3) preserving biodiversity by providing habitat and food sources for endemic species, 4) filtering watersheds through microorganismal and vegetal communities, 5) purifying air through respiration and storage of pollutants, and 6) supporting indigenous communities who depend on the land for the necessities of life. And best of all, these essential services are provided to us free of charge.

By contrast, if tech industries were to attempt to fulfill the same ecological services provided for free by wilderness, the cost could very easily surpass the national deficit on a monthly basis. In short, wilderness is doing all of us a favor merely by existing. Needless to say, that should be enough for our leaders to preserve wilderness at all costs. Such is not the case however.

As you may have heard, there were some sobering statistics released not long ago in the scientific journal Current Biology regarding the state of wilderness globally. The bottom line, as with so many issues relating to planetary health, is horrifying and obscene. Over a period of two decades, ten percent of all wilderness (3.3 million square kilometers or the equivalent land area of two Alaskas) was annihilated to feed the engine of industrialization. This may not seem to be much on the surface, but it is when you consider two things: 1) only twenty percent of Earth’s land area is still wilderness, and 2) the rate of global deforestation is only increasing due to the growing appetite for resources of China, Brazil, Russia, and Indonesia. Whether because of construction, manufacturing, mining, forestry, or agriculture, the result is the same: wilderness pays the price while the wealthy who run the global economy walk away with the bank. It’s the very definition of unsustainable, unjust, and unforgivably wrong.

Which is why we should be doing everything we can to protect and support wilderness wherever we are. For my part I do this by raising awareness through my blog, gardening organically, reducing my consumption, buying as little as possible, and encouraging others to do the same. But the reality is that none of these actions will stop the bulldozers, the pipelines, the paramilitary troops, or the endless waves of industrialization that are eviscerating our planet. What we need is an organized, mobilized, and uncompromisingly dedicated army of concerned citizens who want to save the planet and their children’s future before it’s too late.

And one focal point for mobilizing should be our national and state parks. These are bastions of nature, freedom, wildlife, and health which are frequently within driving distance from where we live and which are doing their best to ensure that the little of wilderness that’s left has a fighting chance for the future. To that end I’ve compiled some of my latest photography from three parks in my area of central North Carolina to demonstrate exactly what it is that all of us should be fighting for.

The trails at Eno River State Park are so extensive that even after exploring them on a monthly basis for the past year and a half, I haven’t covered all of them. The park includes 4,200 acres of land and preserves nine miles of riparian habitat along the banks of the Eno River, where I found this bubbling brook nestled amidst a bucolic valley that could’ve come straight out of a fairy tale. There are so many places in Eno River State Park that are equally beautiful and worthy of preservation, but the only guarantee we have that they will continue to exist in the future is our own efforts to fight on their behalf in the present.

The trails at Eno River State Park preserve not only opportunities for hiking but also opportunities for fishing and swimming. Though no one was swimming at Bobbitt Hole when I took the following photo, there was at least one person fishing with his girlfriend on the rocks around it. It may seem trivial to some people to preserve an opportunity for fishing when so few of us depend on the work of our own hands to survive, but it’s a reminder to all of us that our human lives are directly tied to and dependent upon the health of the land, which provides food to all of us along with beauty and recreation.

The Eno Riverwalk in Hillsborough, North Carolina is a stretch of riparian habitat that includes 1.8 miles of trails which border downtown and run through several neighborhoods in the area. It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of riverfront that I’ve ever seen and demonstrates that it is indeed possible to combine some degree of human habitation with wilderness, though obviously there are limits. Even in the quaint and historic town of Hillsborough, however, there is an increasing push to construct ever more housing that will inevitably erode the health of the river and the surrounding land.

Another feature of the Eno Riverwalk is the gradual reconstruction of a traditional Occaneechi roundhouse, which sits just southeast of the courthouse in downtown Hillsborough. The Occaneechi Indians lived in this area through the eighteenth century but were forcibly displaced by European colonization at the end of that century, only beginning to re-emerge from the shadows of history in the last quarter of the twentieth century. They’ve become active in historical recreation and have demonstrated some of their traditional habitation in this roundhouse. This place then is a testament to the importance not only of preserving wilderness but also of preserving cultures that have historically revered wilderness and sought to live in harmony with nature rather than in dominion over it.

The State Natural Area of Occoneechee Mountain is another wilderness area where I go hiking frequently. It covers 190 acres of beautiful terrain and straddles the Eno River along its northern and western borders; it was also part of the traditional territory of the Occaneechi Indians before they were forcibly displaced by European colonization. My understanding is that they regarded the mountain as a holy place where they could commune with their ancestors and the spirits of nature. It’s easy to understand how they could have come to that conclusion when you see for yourself the awe-inspiring beauty of the view from the Overlook, where I took this photo.

Sadly there is also mining for pyrophyllite and andalusite in the area surrounding Occoneechee Mountain, though you would never be able to tell from the view provided by the Overlook. Fortunately Occoneechee Mountain remains protected from the deforestation and contamination which are the inevitable byproducts of mining, but there’s no guarantee for the future. If Occoneechee Mountain were ever to be sold by the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation in order to ameliorate budgetary shortfalls, the fate of Occoneechee Mountain would be the same as that of most mining sites: it would be turned into a hollow and lifeless shell of its former self, never to be the same again.

So while there are many stretches of wilderness in my own area of central North Carolina, any or all of them could be clear-cut, bulldozed, mined, or turned into an industrial wasteland at the drop of a politician’s hat. And that is neither ethical nor acceptable to anyone with half an ounce of sense or concern for the future. If we want to live on a planet that continues to be habitable for humans as well as every other species, we need to take action now to preserve wilderness anywhere and everywhere we can, starting with the wilderness in our own backyards. Organizing, mobilizing, and acting decisively to defend wilderness while it still exists is not only our responsibility as inhabitants of this planet, it’s the best way of ensuring our survival as a species.

References:

Eno River State Park,” Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 29th, 2017.

Fraggoso, Alejandro Davila, “The planet is going through a ‘catastrophic’ wilderness loss, study says,” Think Progress, accessed Nov. 28th, 2017.

Harvey, Chelsea, “The world has lost a tenth of all its wilderness in the past two decades,” Washington Post, accessed Nov. 28th, 2017.

Occoneechee Mountain — Active Mine,” Eno River Geology, accessed Nov. 30th, 2017.

Riverwalk,” Town of Hillsborough, accessed Nov. 30th, 2017.

Watson, James E. M., Danielle F. Shanahan, Moreno di Marco, James Allan, William F. Laurance, Eric W. Sanderson, Brendan Mackey, Oscar Venter, “Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets,” Current Biology, accessed Dec. 1st, 2017.

Healing after Loss through a Relationship with Nature and the Land

by Mark Miles

The month of September was very difficult for me. It was the year-and-a-half anniversary of Bobby’s disappearance, and it seemed there were memories around every corner. (Full story here.) This was distressing because I honestly expected that my feelings for him would have dried up and vanished by now. I thought for sure when we broke up in February of 2016 that it would take no more than six months for me to recover from the loss of our relationship, a year for me to forget he ever existed, and a year and a half to be in another relationship with someone who would treat me as an actual person deserving of love and respect rather than a piece of trash to be discarded at the nearest dumpster.

Yet somehow I find the loss of our relationship still haunts me from time to time. This happens whenever I encounter something that reminds me of Bobby, especially anything to do with skiing, fencing or freerunning, all of which he enjoyed. This also happens when I watch certain movies that remind of him for one reason or another, especially The Princess Bride, Sense and Sensibility, Music and Lyrics, or Howl’s Moving Castle. And most of all it happens when I listen to music that evokes the feelings which I harbored for him for so long, with two pieces in particular possessing the uncanny ability to reduce me to shambles in less than a minute flat.

It was the first of these, “Farewell to Stromness” by Peter Maxwell Davies, that triggered my latest relapse into sadness. I heard it for the first time about six months after Bobby and I parted ways. It’s an immediately hummable tune that many people recognize even if they don’t know the composer. The background is particularly resonant with me because of the way Peter Maxwell Davies used this song to oppose the mining of uranium on the Scottish isle of Orkney, where he lived for many years. “Farewell to Stromness” is intended to evoke the image of townsfolk who are forced to leave their ancestral home forever due to the contamination of uranium mining. It also evokes the sense of leaving behind a loved one who will be forever cherished and remembered, despite the pain of parting ways.

The other piece of music that’s become indelibly linked with Bobby in my mind is a work by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. “Spiegel im Spiegel” means “Mirror in the Mirror” in German, and the significance of this title is immediately appreciable when you hear the endlessly repeating melody that slowly but inexorably builds from the simplest groundwork into one of the most heartwrenching edifices of minimalist music. “Spiegel im Spiegel” is the sonic equivalent of placing one mirror in front of another, standing between them and seeing the repeating likeness of yourself stretching before and behind you indefinitely. There’s also the sense that the two mirrors could be two people, who look into each other and see the love they share reflected back in an endless cascade.

So with these two works floating in the background of my mind, I found myself thinking about Bobby throughout the month of September. It seemed I couldn’t go a day without a piece of conversation, an image of his face, or a snippet of his voice passing through my mind like a ship on the horizon. I was frustrated, sad, and lonely, and I didn’t know what to do.

But then one night in the middle of September, something changed. I was talking to a friend about how I thought I would never be in a relationship again. I am after all thirty-four years old in a small, religious and extremely homophobic town where the dating pool for gay men in their thirties looks like something out of a horror movie. Think Psycho meets Catfish with a side of Mean Girls.

Then I looked at my cat Heidi and my dog Bella. They were in the same room with me, gravitating toward me as if they knew I needed something, perhaps a gentle nudge in the right direction. I didn’t think much of it at first, but then it clicked. I’m already in a relationship, though obviously not of the same kind, with them and with others in my life who mean a great deal to me. It may not be the kind of relationship where I’m seeing stars every moment of the day and thinking about how much I hope we have children, but there is a healing relationship between us nonetheless.

Then I got to thinking about my garden, which isn’t much and hasn’t produced nearly the bounty of herbs and vegetables that I hoped when I installed it. But it has nonetheless provided a sanctuary for rosemary, fennel, zinnia, blackberry, strawberry, gourd, and sage plants who’ve given me a reason to be active in my own backyard. They’ve also given me something to look forward to from one season to the next as they wax and wane in growth, reminding me that it’s ok if I too experience a diminution in my energy and productivity from time to time. Usually it just means I need to rest, allow time for healing, and take better care of myself.

Finally I thought about the places where I hike and the relationship I’ve developed with the land as a result. When I started hiking on a regular basis in 2015, I never imagined it would come to mean as much to me as it has. Without hiking around Occoneechee Mountain, Eno River State Park, or the Hillsborough Riverwalk, I would never have discovered so many amazing places that are practically in my own backyard. I never would’ve come to love the rock formations, the curves in the river, the enveloping canopy of the forest, the musty smell of earth and sweat and all good things. This healing relationship with nature and the land–which has come to me through my animals, my garden, and my hiking trails–may not be the same as a relationship with another human being, but it’s absolutely necessary for a rich and meaningful life.

References:

Farewell to Stromness, piano interlude from ‘The Yellow Cake Revue,’ J. 166,” All Music, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

Infinite Reflections: Pärt’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel,’” The Cross-Eyed Pianist, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

Spiegel im Spiegel,” Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

The staggering simplicity that makes ‘Farewell to Stromness’ a work of complete genius,” Classic FM, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

The Yellow Cake Revue,” Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

How Dunnagan Trail Led Me to an Old Graveyard and a Renewed Appreciation for Life

by Mark Miles

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 Eno River State Park’s Cole Mill access 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, which leads to Dunnagan Trail after a mile or so. 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 riverbank to do so, but unfortunately I was only able to get a decent photo of one side due to the extremely awkward angle and 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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

Progressing a little further I was startled to find that there was another landmark associated with Catharine Dunnagan, specifically her grave. 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.

References:

Eno River Park Map,” North Carolina State Parks, accessed Aug. 31st, 2017.

Kueber, Gary, “Durham Water Company — Eno River Pumping Station,” Open Durham, accessed Aug. 23rd, 2017.

Schwantes, Jay P., “Pump Station Area,” Eno Trails, accessed Aug. 23rd, 2017.

Southern, Dave and Denny O’Neal, “Catharine Link Dunnagan,” Eno River Association, accessed Aug. 23rd, 2017.

The Wisdom of the Moth in a Changing World

by Mark Miles

With daytime temperatures in North Carolina ranging from 60° to 90° F, things have been pretty wacky lately. In early July, the black walnut tree in my backyard started to drop nuts, which usually doesn’t happen until September. Dogwoods in the neighborhood have started to change color, and a few of them have simply died. Very few fireflies have been active this year, and they’re usually prolific from June to August. Thunderous rainstorms with torrential downpour and destructive winds have been punctuated by periods of dry and sunny weather that parches the ground until it cracks after little more than a week or two. All in all, the reality of climatic collapse–which is what climate change should really be called–is indisputable by anyone with observant eyes and a reasonably functional brain.

Nonetheless there have been a few recent occurrences which are normal for this time of year. Tomatoes have been ripening, corn has been rising, crepe myrtles have been blooming, and sunsets have been breathtaking. There’ve also been an abundance of moths at my doorstep and on the trails where I hike. A few of them caught my attention and prompted me to take a few photos. Those photos in turn prompted me to do a little research, the result of which is the article you’re now reading.

This Carolina satyr moth (Hermeuptychia sosybius) was sunning herself serenely on the prolific vegetation bordering the Eno Riverwalk in Hillsborough when I went for a hike recently. I approached her slowly and did my best not to startle her. She seemed oblivious to the intrusion and carried on her business with the seriousness of a professional athlete, moving her wings to demonstrate the distinct pattern of circles and dots which characterize the Carolina satyr moth. It was a beautiful day, so I could understand her agreeable disposition. The area was probably also her home, since the grasses which predominate around the Eno are the preferred food for Carolina satyr caterpillars and make for a perfect nursery.

A few weeks ago I was coming in my front door after watering my plants in the evening when I noticed the brilliant coloration of this harnessed tiger moth (Apantesis phalerata). The bands of black and yellow are immediately recognizable; they make me think of a bumblebee who was perhaps slightly confused when choosing his final form. In any case, I was glad to know that someone in my yard has been taking advantage of the dandelions, clover, and plantains–all of which are the preferred food of harnessed tiger moths in their early stages of development.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

When I saw this walnut sphinx moth (Amorpha juglandis) on my mailbox on a separate occasion, I very nearly swooned. This little guy was almost three inches across and looked much, much heavier than most moths of his size. Clearly he’d been munching on a tree in the area and had the gains to prove it. Additionally his abdomen, at the rear of his body, curved upward in the most striking resemblance to a scorpion tail that I’ve ever seen in a moth. Despite this resemblance, he was perfectly at peace and paid no attention to my presence, which gave me this lovely photographic opportunity.

So, despite the weird and wacky climate, which is slowly but steadily collapsing in front of our very eyes, these moths have found a way to cope. They might not be leading any protest marches or boycotting extractive industries, but they’re doing what they do best: munching away, growing fat, changing form, and emerging from their cocoons to spread the pollen of plants in a cycle of life that makes all of our lives possible.

And we should be doing the same. By taking care of ourselves, developing our skills and abilities, resting when necessary, and emerging from our cocoons to take action in whatever way we’re able, we can take the wisdom of the moth to heart. And in the process we’ll be making a difference in this world that will not only help others but bring our lives purpose, making possible a united effort to preserve the one and only home we have in this universe, our planet earth.

References:

Amorpha juglandis,” Wikipedia, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Apantesis phalerata,” Wikipedia, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Carolina Satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius),” University of Florida, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Pippen, Jeff, “Carolina Satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius),” Jeff’s Nature Page, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Subfamily Arctiinae — Tiger and Lichen Moths,” North American Insects and Spiders, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis),” Butterflies and Moths of North America, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Hiking to Eno River Rock Quarry, a Swimming Hole with a History

by Mark Miles

When I think of quarries, I generally think of big holes in the ground with levels upon levels of excavation that are devoid of life and inhospitable to anyone with an ounce of sense. What I don’t think of is a swimming hole in the middle of a state park that, despite two deaths in the past ten years, has nonetheless become one of the most popular summer hangouts in the area. Now that I’ve visited the Eno River Rock Quarry in Durham, North Carolina, I’ve begun to think of quarries in terms which highlight the simultaneous beauty and lethality surrounding so many of our culture’s byproducts.

When I arrived a few weeks ago at the parking lot for the Cabelands access at Eno River State Park–which leads to the quarry–I got my first clue that this was going to be a memorable experience. Unlike most other parking lots at state parks in my area of central North Carolina, this one was full to bursting. There was literally nowhere to park at all; a sign at the entrance even proclaimed the fact. Turning my car around in frustration and muttering a few choice words, I was ready to leave in a huff. However the park ranger on duty noticed my reaction and called out to me. I had my windows open and responded, half-expecting to be told to move out of the way. Instead he told me there was room to park now since a few cars had just left. Pleasantly surprised at my turn of luck, I found a spot and started my hike on Laurel Bluffs Trail.

Through the first mile of trails leading to the quarry, there wasn’t much scenery apart from a forest of oak and pine. A black snake crossed my path, but I didn’t have my camera ready and wasn’t able to get a shot before he disappeared to my right. Otherwise there was little wildlife apart from the other groups of hikers, mostly composed of students from Duke University and neighboring colleges, who had decided to make a day of it.

After twenty minutes of solid hiking, I was beginning to think the quarry was little more than a rumor and a myth. Then I saw the first sign: a creek bisected the trail and had to be forded before I could reach the other side. Crossing the creek, I crested a small hill and got my first glimpse of the quarry itself.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

Of course I’d seen pictures of the swimming hole on Instagram, since some of my followers live in the Durham area and go hiking nearby. The quarry was nonetheless much different than I expected, looking for all the world like nothing more than a peaceful lake in the middle of a state park, the handiwork of nature and wilderness. Yet I was aware that it had been a working rock quarry at one time, and from the signs around the site I could see that it was much deeper than a traditional lake, with no shoreline to speak of but instead an immediate sixty-foot dropoff from the surrounding land to the lake bottom. Still, all looked pleasant and peaceful on the surface.

After passing the quarry, I knew I wanted to explore further north and west along Laurel Bluffs Trail. I’d never hiked this section of Eno River State Park, so the allure of unexplored terrain was too much to resist. Continuing on the same trail past the northeast corner of the quarry, I noticed several piles of very large and imposing rock, which were part of the legacy of the old quarry from what I could tell. These rock piles were adjacent to the Eno River and bordered the floodplain, where the trail now led.

On the opposite edge of the floodplain, the land crested in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the rows upon rows of pine trees that spread out in front of me were a definite change in scenery. Their appearance was uncanny primarily because of their grid-like layout, as if someone had planted all of these trees at once and laid them out just so as to be ideally spaced for a future harvest. On that basis I would guess the area is a pine plantation, which will probably be chopped down in whole or in part at some point in the not too distant future.

After passing the ostensible pine plantation–which was the first section of Laurel Bluff itself–I reached a grove of laurels which encroached the trail on all sides, leaving barely enough room for two people to walk side by side. Presumably these were the laurels that had lent their name to the trail. To my surprise they reached a height of seven feet or so, thereby obscuring my sight and lending the impression that I was passing through some kind of vegetative labyrinth.

At last the laurels began to clear, and the forest regained her spaciousness, revealing a small gorge where a creek crossed the path of the trail. The bridge which crossed the creek at this point was very charming and provided the perfect opportunity to take a brief rest, which was much-needed at this point.

Continuing past the bridge and another small creek, I reached the last portion of Laurel Bluff. There wasn’t much to see in this section of woods, but the gurgling of the Eno to the north was a calming and familiar presence that kept my feet moving.

At last I came out of the forest and was greeted by shoulder-high blackberry bushes and mixed vegetation, accompanied by the dull roar of traffic not far in the distance. The brightness of my surroundings was a mild shock after the pleasantly diffuse light of the forest, but it matched the tenor of the sonic onslaught. Before long the trail passed under an overpass and led to the the Pleasant Green Access, where the trail ended.

Turning around, I retraced my steps over the mile and a half that had originally led me away from the quarry, all the while passing people in bathing suits with flotation devices who were making their exodus. At last I rounded a corner and saw the quarry again, now with the light of late afternoon bathing it in a golden glow. It seemed as if nothing bad could ever happen in such a place.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

And yet–as I was to find out in my research for this article–there have been two deaths in the past ten years at the quarry. One took place in 2008 and the other in 2015. In the first instance, Ian Creath, an eighteen-year-old from a nearby university, drowned after attempting to retrieve a raft which had floated forty or fifty yards from shore. In the second instance, Lamont Burt, Jr., a seventeen-year-old who was planning to attend college in the fall of that year, drowned after jumping from the unofficial diving hotspot on the north shore of the quarry.

Of course, the reason for these drownings goes back to the origin of the quarry. Between 1960 and 1964, Interstate 85 was being constructed not far away. Because there was a need for gravel due to the ongoing construction, a site was chosen where a sixty-foot pit with precipitous dropoffs could be sunk into the ground to gain access to all that gravel. When construction of I-85 ended in 1964, there was presumably no clear idea of how to make the site safe again, so state officials decided on the course of action which created the Eno River Rock Quarry: they flooded the sixty-foot pit with water from the adjacent Eno River and let nature take over from there.

In the end, however, it’s not nature that’s to blame for the drownings which have happened here. It’s the culture of industrialism, which views nature as nothing more than a resource to be plundered and looted at will and which fueled the construction of I-85 so many years ago. Unfortunately that culture is still alive and well today, chomping at the bit for any and every opportunity to turn nature into a graveyard and the world into a concrete slaughterhouse. And that’s all the more reason for each of us to fight like hell to preserve every bit of the natural world that we can. If we don’t, it may not be long before there’s nothing left of our world but a graveyard for our own, and every other, species.

References:

Eno Rock Quarry,” Local Wiki, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

Sweat, Candace, “Despite dangers, swimmers flock to Eno River Rock Quarry,” WRAL, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

Vuncannon, Douglas, “What lies beneath,” Indy Week, accessed June 22nd, 2017.

How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Discovery of a Hidden Cove

by Mark Miles

Sometimes the road less traveled leads to a genuinely breathtaking surprise. I was reminded of this in April when I went hiking at Occoneechee Mountain, which — if you haven’t figured out by now — is my favorite hiking destination in central North Carolina. I’ve been going there on a monthly basis since the summer of 2015, so there’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to discover the hidden nooks and crannies within its limits. Yet somehow I managed to miss the most breathtaking sight of all in the course of the past twenty-two months.

In my defense there’s a good reason for this. The hidden cove I discovered isn’t adjacent to any of the official trails; you actually have to venture off the main trail in order to find it. It’s not terribly far from the main trail, but it’s far enough that the spot is entirely occluded by the surrounding terrain.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

I found this out when I reached the fern grove on the north side of the mountain. I was headed up the staircase that leads toward the quarry when I saw a path veering toward the west. I’d seen it before but had never paid much attention to it. For some reason on this occasion I decided to follow it and see where it led.

There wasn’t much to see at first. The westward trail ran along the edge of an embankment where the land sloped steeply upward to my left and downward to my right. Because the trail was unofficial and therefore not maintained by park officials, the vegetation was thick and gave me more than my fair share of smacks and slaps. Though the distance I covered wasn’t more than a tenth of a mile, I was seriously considering turning back due to the discomfort.

Yet something nudged me onward subconsciously, and I found myself wondering if my regret would be greater from finishing what I started or turning back too soon. So I continued through the vegetation and kept my fingers crossed.

Then I noticed a rock formation to my right. It was probably ten feet wide by fifteen feet tall, though it was covered by vegetation and dead leaves which obscured its features. I didn’t think much of it until I passed it and noticed the trail in front of me veering sharply to the left. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my fingers were still crossed for something miraculous. Possibly for the first time in my life my expectation was surpassed with flying colors.

Rising forty feet high to my immediate left and jutting outward over my position was the most breathtaking rock formation I’ve ever seen at Occoneechee Mountain. I’m not very small, being six feet tall and in good physical shape, but I suddenly felt as tiny as an ant at a gathering of elephants. The promontory — which I’ve decided to call Sentinel Rock in the absence of an official title — was jagged and rough-hewn, which may have indicated that it sheared away at some point in the not too distant past. This added concern to my amazement, but I quickly disregarded it as I stepped into the hidden cove which looked as if it came out of a fairy tale.

To the right of Sentinel Rock was a gorge which had been hollowed out by a tiny stream gurgling gently over the surface of the rock. I can’t be certain, but it appeared that the stream originated at this very location. It’s strange to say, but this may have been the first time in my life that I’ve actually seen the birthplace of a stream.

Above and to the left of the stream was something else very curious. About thirty feet from the outermost edge of Sentinel Rock was a strange opening in the side of the rock face that almost looked as if it could’ve been the mouth of a cave. Now I was really excited. Apart from a cave in the Appalachian Mountains which I visited a very long time ago when I was a kid, I’ve never seen the mouth of a cave before. I’ve certainly never stumbled upon one inadvertently.

After very carefully picking my way up ten feet of steep moss-covered rock to make a closer inspection of the opening, I came to the conclusion that it was instead a sizeable crack which had been hollowed out by erosion and came to form a pocket in the side of Sentinel Rock. Regardless of its depth or adjacency to a cave, it was still fascinating and gave me the opportunity to more closely examine the area.

After I’d finished my cursory inspection of the crack in the rock, I decided it was time to head back to the main trail. Very suddenly and for no apparent reason, I found it difficult to breathe. Possibly from a combination of excess pollen, inadequate ventilation in the enclosed microclimate, and physical exertion from climbing the slippery rock face, I experienced an asthma attack — which for me is virtually unprecedented. For forty-five seconds I could barely take more than a shallow gasp of breath. Combined with the fact that I was attempting to descend a slippery rock face with abundant moss that gave little protection in the event of a fall, I was momentarily flummoxed.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

By the time I made it back to the trail, however, I was breathing normally and thanked the mountain for allowing me to see something so utterly surprising and breathtaking. Not for the first time in my life I was reminded of the words of Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

References:

Frost, Robert, “The Road Not Taken” from Mountain Interval (New York City, NY, USA: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), accessed May 4th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

Finding Musical Inspiration among the Rocks at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Inspiration is a funny thing. It comes in many shapes and sizes, can arrive at any hour of the day, and needs no invitation apart from a receptive mind and a willingness to create. It can show up at a museum, in a forest, by a river, at your workplace, or in bed while you sleep at night. It can nag away at your insides until you feel sick and restless, compelling you to find a way to express it meaningfully. And when you do, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

I’ve been reminded of this since I started composing in September of last year. When I first considered following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Mozart, however, I was absolutely terrified. “Who am I to think I have the skills to create music that could ever live up to the standard they set?” This thought crossed my mind many times, and I still grapple with it from time to time. It turns out, though, that all I really needed to overcome my initial hesitation was an experience of profound inspiration.

That experience came to me when I first visited Occoneechee Mountain in the summer of 2015. Seeing the rock formations there — many of which were formed hundreds of millions of years ago when central North Carolina was much more volcanically active — planted a seed in my mind that ultimately took a year to bear fruit. But bear fruit it did.

Before I get to that, however, I’d like to share the rock formations themselves to give you a sense of how incredible they are and how easily they could fill anyone with a sense of profound inspiration. (For the record, I was unable to find official names for any of these rock formations in my research for this article. So, in the absence of official names, I’ve come up with my own unofficial names, which are hopefully amusing and memorable.)

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

Elephant Rock is a tor (a free-standing rock formation that juts directly out of the surrounding terrain) that sits on the northwestern edge of the Mountain Loop Trail before the trail reaches the Eno River. Like many of the other rock formations near the mountain, it appears seemingly out of nowhere, towering fifteen feet over the trail and exerting a magnetic pull on anyone with an ounce of curiosity. The weight of the rock is so massive it can almost be felt simply by looking at it. Staring into the grey and green textures along its flanks, it wasn’t hard for me to understand how similar sites were used by our ancestors as places of worship.

Gumdrop Rock is another tor that can be found a little further along the Mountain Loop Trail. It’s not as imposing or grandiose as Elephant Rock, but it has its own kind of quiet sublimity. Standing roughly eight feet tall and ten feet wide, it makes even some professional athletes look dainty by comparison. Nonetheless it’s one of the smaller rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain and may be overlooked because of it.

Sentinel Rock is a promontory (an abutment of land bordered on two sides by water which has progressively eroded it over time) that may also be overlooked by the casual hiker but for very different reasons. This rock formation is reasonably well hidden from sight on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain and takes a little looking in order to find. There are trails that lead to it, but they’re not terribly obvious, and they lead through some scruffy undergrowth that smacks and whacks at every inch of your person on the way. After a bit of manhandling from the plants, however, this forty-foot marvel is a sight for sore eyes and easily the most breathtaking of the many notable rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain. To sweeten the deal, there’s even a mountain stream to the side that gurgles gently down the imposing rock face.

Overhang Rock is a crag (a nearly vertical body of rock formed by erosion and weathering over time) that overlooks the Eno River on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain. It directly borders the Mountain Loop Trail and may leave you in fear for your life the first time you pass by it. While my photo shows that the rock face isn’t quite vertical, when you’re underneath it you may think otherwise. Staring thirty feet up the side of a cliff that probably weighs more than twenty tons is nothing if not an intensely humbling experience, which is only accentuated by the twenty-foot drop down to the Eno River on the opposite side.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

Reverential Rock is a boulder on the north side of the mountain which may have been formed in the landslide of 2001, when more than five thousand tons of debris crashed down the side of the quarry at Occoneechee Mountain. At the very least, it has many more edges and irregularities on its surface than many other nearby rock formations, which would seem to indicate a much more recent deposition. In any case, it’s become something of a shrine for hikers who wish to express their creativity by making small stacks of rocks called cairns, which abound at the quarry. Looking at the attention to detail in these small structures, it’s easy to see I’m not the only person who’s found inspiration in these majestic rock formations.

Despite the fact that these rocks inspired me from the first moment I laid eyes on them, it took me fourteen months before I picked up a pen and wrote my first musical composition to express that inspiration. Though it’s impossible to say for sure how the spectacle of creation must have looked when Occoneechee Mountain was formed several hundred million years ago, I nonetheless had a mental image of massive boulders being thrown around like pebbles when writing this piece. These descending boulders can be heard in the rapid downward scale at 0:12. The thought of lava being spewed and progressively building up the structure of the mountain can also be heard in the rising trajectory of the ground bass passage starting at 0:31.

Though I know mere music can never surpass the mountain that inspired me to compose, I’ve nonetheless tried to capture a faint glimmer of the grandeur of Occoneechee Mountain in this piece. Perhaps just as importantly I’ve tried to create something that may help you to find your own special place in the natural world, where you can find inspiration and share it with others in turn.

References:

Bradley, Phil, “The (Brief) Geologic Story of the Eno River,” North Carolina Geological Survey, accessed April 18th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

McIver, Hervey, “Occoneechee Mountain Dedication,” Eno River Association, accessed April 18th, 2017.

Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area,” Geocaching, accessed April 20th, 2017.

Love and Betrayal on Instagram: a True Story

by Mark Miles

A year ago I had the worst breakup of my life. There was a period of time in the months following when I wasn’t sure if I would survive. I’ve encountered depression after traumatic occurrences in my life, but this was something else. It felt as if a piece of my heart had been stolen, as if someone had taken from me the ability to breathe, as if I had lost the one person in my life who understood and cared for me better than anyone else.

When Bobby Rolando and I started dating, I never imagined in a million years what lay in store. We became acquainted through Instagram in January of 2015, and I was tentative about getting involved with him on that basis. As much as I use social media, I fully recognize that there are concrete limits to the fulfillment it can offer. I’ve seen firsthand how friends of mine have been lured into online relationships with people who claim to be one thing and turn out to be another, and I wasn’t keen on the idea of the same thing happening to me. So I kept him in the friend-zone for several months.

Despite our distance from one another — Bobby lives in northern New Jersey and I live in central North Carolina — we nonetheless had many common interests on which to base our virtual friendship. I love photography; so does he. I love hiking; so does he. I love animals; so does he. I love running; so does he. I love the outdoors; so does he. Some of this was the natural byproduct of his membership in Snowboarders and Skiers for Christ as well as his employment at a Christian day camp; however I was unaware of those things at the time. In any case, we had so much in common that I secretly began to wonder if Bobby wasn’t simply agreeing with everything I liked in order to ingratiate himself to me and make his way out of the friend-zone. To this day I’m not entirely sure how much of what he said about his interests was true and how much was a lie.

Regardless of that, he had the pictures on his Instagram account to prove that he was indeed interested in photography and hiking, and it was through his photography that I became acquainted with some of his favorite places. I began to feel as if the forests, hills, and mountains of northern New Jersey were in my own backyard. And with that sense of shared landscape, it was much easier for me to think of Bobby as a kindred spirit, as someone who cared about the same things I did and would respect me because of that. Little did I know at the time.

So we continued to get to know each other through an entirely virtual forum, never meeting in person, never establishing the physical existence of the other person, never looking each other in the eye without a screen coming between us. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, but slowly I was starting to consider Bobby a good friend, perhaps even a better friend than people I’ve known in real life for much longer. It was a curious and irrational phenomenon, but it was inescapable at the time.

After we’d known each other on Instagram for six months, Bobby finally started to make his move. I’d previously gotten the impression that he wasn’t entirely heterosexual, but it was only a feeling. There was no way I could substantiate it. Then, out of the blue one day for no apparent reason, he asked me if I was “into guys.” I explained that I was, and that was when he really started to turn up the heat.

For a few months after that, we dated. It was never official: he never asked me to date and I never agreed. But there was an unspoken understanding between us. We started to talk on another app called Kik — which is primarily text-based and allows for better conversation — and before long we were spilling the beans about everything. I told him about the guy who’d cheated on me in my previous relationship; he told me about the girl who’d cheated on him. I told him about the time I was assaulted in a parking lot; he told me about the time he was assaulted by a roomful of frat guys. I told him that I wanted to be in a loving and committed relationship; he told me that he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” I still remember those words to this day, if only because no one other than Bobby Rolando has ever said them to me in my entire life. He was the first person to say them, and I have a feeling he’ll also be the last.

So we kept getting closer and closer without ever meeting. I can’t say definitively when we went from dating to a relationship, because once again nothing between us was ever official. Bobby never asked me to be “the one,” and I never agreed to be “the one.” But at some point around September or October of 2015, we became monogamous. He stopped talking to other guys, and I started incorporating him into my fantasy life. We started talking almost every day, and frequently we had conversations that would extend for an hour or more. It felt like something out of a fairy tale, but that was only because I didn’t yet know the ending.

In December I finally blurted out the big question: “When are we finally going to meet?” There was no definite answer from Bobby, and I probably should’ve taken this for a warning sign, but I didn’t because I believed his lies with the naive innocence of a child. As ridiculous as it sounds, I was beginning to think he was the love of my life. I’m not prone to flights of fancy, and I’ve only felt similarly for a handful of people in my three decades on this planet. But I felt it for him, and I felt it was time for us to make the big step from an online relationship to a real-world relationship. By this point we’d known each other for a full year, and it only seemed natural.

Then, in January of 2016, out of the blue and for no apparent reason, Bobby disappeared. He stopped responding to my texts; he stopped responding to my snaps; he stopped responding to my comments on Instagram. This was utterly shocking to me because there’d been nothing to precipitate such a radical shift. We’d been getting along just fine; we’d still been having great conversations; we’d still been planning to meet. I was paralyzed and heartbroken for weeks. I didn’t know what to do. Then, with time and thought, a plan materialized.

On Valentine’s Day of 2016, I put up a post on my Instagram account telling the story of how we fell in love. I tagged Bobby in the photo and mentioned him by name to ensure that he would know I meant it for him. I thought he’d be happy about my display of affection, that he’d come back to me with open arms, that he’d tell me all he’d wanted from me was a definite sign of my love, and that now we could be in a real relationship. It’s embarrassing to admit in hindsight how deluded I was, but I believed him when he told me he wanted to be with me “longer than either of us would live.” And if he’d been telling the truth, how could that have changed after a mere month? I couldn’t accept the possibility that he was a lying and deceitful scumbag, so I acted on my gut.

The answer I got left me dumbstruck. Bobby’s words were, “You’re hurting me more than you know. If you love me, let me go.” It was as if he’d stolen prepackaged lyrics from a Katy Perry song and then dumbed them down for a preteen audience. Not only were the words insulting to the English language; they simply didn’t make any sense at all. How could I be hurting him when all I was trying to do was reciprocate the feelings he’d expressed for me on more occasions than I could count? And beyond that, how did my truthful and heartfelt story come to deserve a warning from Instagram that my post had “endangered” another user and that it had to be removed as a result? None of it made any sense, and I was getting desperate.

So I took an unplanned step. I sent a group message on Instagram to a number of Bobby’s friends and family members explaining to them everything that had happened and asking for an explanation for his increasingly erratic and nonsensical behavior. In response to my message, I received numerous allegations that I was a “fake,” a “stalker,” and “spam.” If my truthful and heartfelt story wasn’t enough to convince these people that I was being perfectly honest, then something more was required. So, without thinking, I gave what I had: a picture of Bobby in a position of partial nudity, in which he told me how gorgeous I was and how much he wanted to be with me. It was a sudden decision and one that I didn’t have time to think out. All I knew was that I had one chance to prove my case and that I had to do it fast. If the group decided informally that I was a fake, they would’ve ignored me and destroyed my one chance to get an answer from Bobby.

Finally Bobby started to talk. He was seriously angry now, and he called me (for the very first time coincidentally) to give me a piece of his mind. I was more terrified and relieved than words could say. I was terrified that he would say he never loved me, but I was relieved he was at least talking to me. We spoke on the phone for fifteen minutes, and in that time he broke down in tears and explained what he was dealing with. He explained that he lived in an extremely religious family who would never accept the prospect of his being in a relationship with a man. He explained that he’d seen his cousin Henry effectively kept under house-arrest by his own family after it became known that Henry had been in a sexual relationship with a man. He explained that he was terrified of what would happen. And most importantly he told me that he loved me.

Whether or not Bobby was telling the truth about any of this is anyone’s guess. After this brief conversation, he and I got back together briefly on the condition that I delete the message that I sent to his friends and family. This I did without delay. For three days, I was happy. Then all hell broke loose again. It turned out that his sister Jess had seen the message that I sent, and she confronted Bobby about it. He decided at that point to tell his family about our relationship, revealing for the first time to his extremely homophobic relatives that he was not in fact perfectly heterosexual.

A day or two later, he texted me to tell me that we couldn’t be together. I asked for some explanation, some rationale for his erratic behavior, but all I got from Bobby was a static monophonic line: “This is my choice, nobody forced me to make it.” It was like he was a robot repeating a mechanically predetermined dictum. There was no thought, no feeling, no conviction in it whatsoever. And so I asked him to call me the following day.

The following day arrived, and Bobby called. I asked once again why he was breaking it off with me, and he finally spilled the beans. His family had been considering legal action against me, for what reason I had no clue. I was utterly shocked and flabbergasted. How could the act of explaining a relationship — which did include sexual elements but was not in any way pornographic on my part — constitute grounds for legal action? How could love be a prosecutable offense? I had no answer, and he gave none that made any sense. The conversation ended, and that was the last time I was ever to hear his voice.

Nonetheless we did continue to text for a little while longer, leading to a series of threats and counterthreats that I still can’t explain or make sense of. We both became incredibly angry with each other, and it reached a point where I began to fear for my safety. Though I had good reason to do so, I wasn’t the one to put the nail in the coffin of our friendship. On the contrary, that was Bobby’s handiwork. At the end of what was to be our last legitimate conversation, he told me never to speak to him again. I gave no indication of how distraught I was, but after that conversation I broke down in sobs. I was utterly heartbroken, and to be honest I still am.

Since that day at the end of February, 2016, I haven’t heard a word from Bobby Rolando, though he does still maintain his Facebook profile. He hasn’t asked me how I’m doing or if I’m okay or if we can be friends or if there’s anything he can do to make it up to me for all the needless pain and suffering he caused. He’s taken the easy way out; he’s done what his family wanted; he’s allowed them to destroy our love, the equivalent of which he’ll probably never find for the rest of his life.

As you may have guessed by now, there is no happy ending to this story. I’ve gone on with my life in the year since we parted ways, but there’s no mistaking the hole Bobby Rolando left in my heart. Despite my best efforts, I often find myself thinking about him, about what went wrong, about whether there was anything I could’ve done differently to avoid our estrangement. The truth is that no action on my part would’ve changed the outcome when Bobby’s family was bent on the destruction of our love. This is the sad, hard truth of the matter.

Despite this, I have managed to find consolation in other areas of life. One source of consolation has been the work of a thirteenth-century female troubadour, the Comtessa de Dia. She wrote a song about the man she loved, a man who abandoned and betrayed her after she had been true and loyal. Even though she died nearly a millennium before I was born and wrote her music thousands of miles from where I live, I still feel a resonance with her music that validates my own experience of love and betrayal.

Another source of consolation has been the relationship I’ve developed with the land around Occoneechee Mountain, where I frequently hike. I often think of Bobby when I go there because of our shared interest in hiking and because I wanted to take him there for our first date. Something about the steep and craggy terrain in the park reminds of the steep and craggy love that unfolded between us.

The final source of consolation has been less unlikely but still noteworthy. It was William Shakespeare. When I saw and heard the following sonnet in the Ang Lee movie “Sense and Sensibility,” I knew immediately that I had to adopt it for my personal anthem regarding love.

Sonnet 116:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no! It is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken.

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error, and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

 

References:

Cheyette, Fredric L. Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Lee, Ang. Sense and Sensibility. Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Culver City, CA, USA: Columbia Pictures, 1995.

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York, NY, USA: MetroBooks (an imprint of Friedman/Fairfax Publishers), 1994.