In Search of the Ruins of Holden Mill

by Mark Miles

Last weekend I was finally able to explore the ruins of Holden Mill at Eno River State Park. I’d been wanting to for a couple months, but finding the requisite three hours of daylight proved to be more difficult than finding honesty in a politician. I made an unsuccessful attempt in November which resulted in my turning back before reaching the mill due to lack of daylight. As a result, some of the photos in this article have more autumnal color than others; those are photos from my incomplete November hike. The photos that have more wintry color are the ones that I took last weekend. And while most of this story will be a recollection of my December hike, there will also be minor elements of my November hike interspersed. With that covered, let’s begin.

I arrived at Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina, on Sunday afternoon to find that there were a good number of other people who had the same idea. It’s not uncommon to find a crowd here, but I figured the 40° F temperatures would be enough to dissuade my fellow Carolinians from venturing into what’s considered by many southerners to be intolerably cold weather. My assumption was wrong, but I was right in assuming that I’d be the only one not wearing anything on his head. Being the son of two midwesterners well accustomed to blizzards and snowstorms, I’m inclined to regard 40° F in December as a heatwave. Thus headwear was superfluous.

Stone Staircase by the Eno (Mark Miles, 2016)

Starting northward on Buckquarter Creek Trail, I rounded the curve near Outhouse Ford and continued westward, encountering a few other small groups of hikers who were finishing the trail I was starting. Before long I came to Buckquarter Creek footbridge and crossed gingerly before coming to a fork in the trail and taking the northern course. I had now come to Holden Mill Trail, which consists of two closely linked loops. The first of these is considerably larger than the second and extends from the banks of the Eno to a neighboring hill which provides decent elevation.

Ascending Wintry Hill (Mark Miles, 2016)

Cresting the hill, I noticed how the lack of foliage increased the visibility of the area considerably. When I came in November, there was still enough foliage to obscure a great deal of the surrounding landscape, giving the sense that so much legwork had been for naught. This wasn’t the case last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised by how invigorating it was to see so much of the surrounding terrain with the chill December air goading me to breathe deeply of autumn’s last days. The visibility increased further still, however, when I reached a clear-cut of power-lines, which looked as if a giant had used his scythe to scalp the land of her foliage.

Powerlines Scalp the Land (Mark Miles, 2016)

By this time I was getting close. The trail had turned from westward to southward, and Tranquility Creek came into view. The trail continued on a course parallel to the creek for a little way before turning right abruptly at a shallow ford and leading me to the last stretch before the mill itself. I was pretty excited by this time and wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I’d seen a few photos of the mill previously, but none of them had been particularly detailed. Thus my senses were fine-tuned and ready for anything.

The first thing to come into view was the defunct dam which once blocked this stretch of the Eno. It was very primitive and appeared to extend no more than ten feet in height, though it may have stood taller when it was intact. I wasn’t able to get any decent photos of it, but there wasn’t much to photograph in any case.

Ruins Loom in the Distance (Mark Miles, 2016)

Then came the good stuff. Looming amongst the bare sycamores and oaks was a considerable stone structure that looked as if someone had transposed a fragment of Hadrian’s Wall to central North Carolina. Standing twenty feet in height and leaning ever so slightly forward, it was an imposing sight and lent an air of dubious antiquity to the landscape. In front of it stood two other fragments of the same structure, the first of which was no more than eight feet in height and the second no more than twelve. Together the three stone structures formed a kind of maze that simultaneously invited and dissuaded exploration. On the one hand curiosity urged me to take a look for the sake of posterity, but on the other hand precaution urged me to watch for falling stones from a very old structure that’s clearly seen better days. I adopted the middle path, exploring what looked safe and avoiding what didn’t.

Not-So-Hadrian’s Wall (Mark Miles, 2016)

There weren’t any plaques or signs in the area to indicate what the ruins had previously been, but I have my own ideas. The tallest structure in the back appears to have been the site for the mill-wheel, which was probably considerable in size to provide sufficient force to power the internal mechanism of the mill. The second wall may have redirected water from the adjacent canal to a spillway which emptied into the Eno. The third wall might similarly have provided the means to retain water in an enclosed area without spilling into the river prematurely.

Mill Spillway after Two Centuries (Mark Miles, 2016)

All of this is guesswork of course, but I was also able to find something more substantial than guesswork in my research. As it turns out, Holden Mill was founded as a corn, flour and saw mill in 1811 by Isaac Holden. He owned and oversaw the mill for nine years before passing it to his son, Thomas Holden in 1820. Thomas Holden expanded the mill’s workload to include cotton, oil and threshing before passing it to his son-in-law, John Lyon, in 1851. John Lyon retained the mill until 1868, when the mill was closed due to financial difficulties. For fourteen years it remained shuttered. Then, in 1882, Samuel Cole reopened the mill and changed the name from Holden Mill to Cole Mill. He oversaw the operation of the mill until 1893, when the mill closed for the second and final time. The development of factories had rendered the water-mill obsolete, and its role in the economy had become a footnote in history.

As I began the return leg of my hike, I still had visions of decaying stone structures in my head, attempting to reconstruct themselves into their original form to show me how everything worked. I still don’t know if my guesswork is accurate, but I do know one thing. The river which was the real reason for the operation of Holden Mill is the real reason why anyone should come to Eno River State Park.

How the Eno Stole My Heart (Mark Miles, 2016)

On the banks of the Eno I can hear the running water and the voice of the land, leading me to imagine how our world would be without toxic industries poisoning the water and fouling the air. On the banks of the Eno I can feel the rush of a crisp wind on my face and the sharp pull of nature on my soul, whispering to me to respect all that’s green and good in this world. On the banks of the Eno I can see that beauty is everywhere and that another world is possible, expectantly waiting for us to join in common cause to end the reign of money once and for all.

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Clowns in the Woods and the Vilification of Nature

by Mark Miles

Clowns have been in the news for some time. There’s been media coverage of clowns in South Carolina and even in North Carolina where I live, in addition to many other states. In one case a man with a machete was reported to have chased one of these clowns into the woods. That incident took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is a mere thirty miles from where I live. So I’ve been thinking about clowns lately, despite my own skepticism regarding the phenomenon.

The reports of malevolent clowns that I’ve read have characterized their activity as consisting in large part of a concerted attempt to lure people into the woods by use of candy or offers of money. Obviously this sounds nonsensical, but the idea caters to certain preconceptions of clowns that have been prevalent on social media for some time, including this notorious meme of a clown in the woods.

As you probably know by now, I love the woods. If I were to choose any place in all the world to live without any consideration of economics and with only my own happiness in mind, I would choose a forest. This probably stems from my childhood, since I grew up in a residential area that was heavily wooded, and I found myself in the woods frequently as a child. Consequently the woods are a place of familiarity and comfort for me. Or at least they usually are.

With the advent of reports about clowns engaging in various sinister activities loosely related to wooded areas, my feelings have started to shift. This shift has been entirely unconscious but noticeable nonetheless. Nowhere was this shift more apparent than on a recent hike to Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina, which I took earlier this month.

I arrived at the park around 5:30 pm and immediately scrutinized the trail kiosk to see where I would go for the day. I’d already explored the trails surrounding Fews Ford and the southern stretch of the Eno. But when I saw that there was a considerable expanse of forest to the north which I hadn’t yet traversed, I knew where I’d be heading.

Setting off from the trail kiosk at the park office, I joined the Buckquarter Creek Trail. Following this, I wound my way through the surrounding hills, quickly leaving the Eno in the background and descending gradually before finding Ridge Trail. Joining Ridge Trail, I continued marching steadily northward, thankfully unconcerned about clowns for the moment.

Before long, I heard the sound of rushing water ahead of me in the distance. I looked at my trusty map and determined that the sound was emanating from Buckquarter Creek itself. Reaching the creek, I looked for a bridge but instead found a line of rocks which appeared to be passable but which clearly required sure footing to cross. Before I did this, I had to take photos of the beautiful American sycamore tree (Platanus occidentalis) which graced the edge of the north side of Buckquarter Creek. Sadly the thought also occurred to me that it might be a good place for a malevolent clown to hide.

After taking my photos, I gingerly hopscotched across the stream, ascended the base of the eponymous ridge, took a right at the fork in the road, and joined Shakori Trail. Judging from the depiction of the trail on the map in my hand, I figured it wouldn’t take more than fifteen or twenty minutes to complete the Shakori Trail, which loops back to Ridge Trail at its northeasternmost extremity. By now the sun was noticeably fading, and I estimated that I had thirty minutes of strong daylight by which to safely navigate these unfamiliar woods.

There were, however, a few caveats. I had set out from my house without charging my phone, and it now had less than five percent power. Additionally my small digital camera which I take on hiking excursions had already died, leaving me to take photos on my phone and thereby expending more of its limited energy. Finally I had no flashlight and knew I would need to use my phone for that purpose if the woods became too dark, thereby expending more of my phone’s limited energy. All of this increased my apprehension about venturing into this stretch of woods; but I did anyway, fully cognisant that this was by far the best place in the entire park for a clown with a bad attitude to be hiding.

I could immediately tell after crossing Buckquarter Creek that the woods to the north were rarely traversed by humans. The trail was narrower, there were more sticks and branches in the way, and at points the trail itself seemed to fade into the surrounding woods. Normally this wouldn’t have bothered me; but because of the lateness of the hour and my unfamiliarity with the area, I was becoming apprehensive. Thoughts of what might be lurking in the encroaching gloom didn’t help.

Despite the depiction of Shakori Trail, there was a greater distance to walk than I was expecting. With every passing minute the sunlight waned, the trail continued, and my apprehension grew. It didn’t help that I happened to stumble upon the largest animal-droppings which I’ve ever seen on a park trail. I can’t say definitively what species made the deposit, but I’m guessing it was a bear. To the casual observer, however, it could easily have been the droppings of a clown.

After passing the poop, I continued on my way. The trail was still climbing upward at a steady rate, indicating that I hadn’t reached the top of the ridge for which Ridge Trail is named. At the same time, the sunlight was still fading. Without warning I heard a rustling in the woods to my left. There was a declivity to that side which obscured my sight, and an image of a clown with a malicious sneer momentarily intruded on my thoughts. By this time, my stomach was fully tied in knots.

Still I was determined to finish what I’d started, and no amount of rustling in the woods was going to stop me from doing that. At last the trail began to level out, and within ten minutes I saw a yellow fence-gate which marked the convergence of Shakori Trail with Ridge Trail. Relief flooded over me in an instant, but I still kept looking for clowns.

From that point onward, I kept a brisk pace. It was 6:30, and I didn’t want to extend my stay any longer than absolutely necessary. The woods were darkening noticeably by this time, and decreased visibility only increased the play of imagination. Every darkened corner of the woods seemed to be the perfect hideout for a clown; every rustle in the branches seemed to be the approach of a clown. I tried to scour these thoughts from my mind, but they simply wouldn’t leave.

At last I made it back to Buckquarter Creek. I quickly hopscotched across and felt a wave of relief at the prospect of being back on a section of trail that was reasonably well traversed by other hikers. To my left, however, there was a deserted cabin in the woods, which under the circumstances didn’t require a significant leap of imagination to be perceived as a potential hideout for a malevolent clown.

With the last stretch of trail in front of me, I saw motion ahead. Immediately my stomach was in my mouth. I’d been thinking of clowns for so long that the first thought to jump into my mind was of course the worst. I was tense and uneasy but continued. Finally I could make out the features of the approaching entity. I relaxed as soon as I did. It turned out to be just another hiker with his dog at his side and his baby on his back.

Finally I was done with the trail, and I got back into my car to head home. There’d been no encounter with clowns, no molestation from clowns, no sinister offers from clowns, no lurking or skulking of clowns. It’d been a good hike, even if I hadn’t arrived as promptly as I should have or with appropriate preparedness of electronic devices. In short, nothing bad had happened.

And this was when it dawned on me. The most harmful effect of recent media coverage of clowns in the woods has been the effect on people’s relationship with nature. Woods have been vilified once again as sites of malevolence, perversion, and violence. This vilification is nothing new, as anyone who’s familiar with the story of Little Red Riding Hood can attest. But the disparaging misrepresentation of clowns in the woods continues the trend and takes it to another level, adding an element of infantilizing terror to the experience and further dissuading anyone, especially children, from ever taking that first step into the embrace of nature. And that’s the real horror story.

Light and Shadow in the Summer Sun

by Mark Miles

Toward the end of June, I went to Occoneechee Mountain for the sixth time this year. I’ve been making it a habit to go at least once per month, and that schedule has allowed me to enjoy the fluctuations of the seasons without becoming inured to the place by visiting too frequently. As a result, the mountain remains fresh and exhilarating to me whenever I visit.

Cresting one of the first slopes along the main trail, I came within view of the early evening sun. It was dazzling after the gloomy atmosphere of the hill leading up to it, and I stood for a few moments to soak in the moment.

After branching off on the mountain loop trail, I descended again into the relative gloominess of the forest. It wasn’t in any way unpleasant, but I have to admit I was slightly unnerved on my first few visits when the canopy seemed to become much darker much quicker than the open terrain around the mountain.

On my way up the side of the mountain toward the overlook trail, I stumbled on this beauty. Appropriately enough, its common name is Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana), which I only found out after searching for a solid forty-five minutes on my phone through an online database. It’s a perennial with spiny stems, lanceolate leaves, four-petaled flowers, and drooping anthers. And it lives up to its name too, being one of the most beautiful flowers to be found on a western slope in the early evening, when the orange sunlight accentuates its innate magenta coloration.

To my surprise, despite arriving at the park later than I wanted, I had almost perfect timing for sunset, making it to the overlook itself within minutes of the last peek of the sun over the horizon. There were two other people there to savor the final rays of the day, and together we shared the moment on the edge of the mountain-face before going our separate ways.