No, no, no, no no no NO……!
Shock. Panic rising. Heart sinking to its lowest. Not again.
Nine-year-old Emma heard the horrifying little bloop from the front of the rented canoe and quickly turned to look back.
“Was that your phone?” she gaped.
I’d happened upon the wee town of Saxapahaw (I’ve been schooled that it’s pronounced Sax-pahaw. That second ‘a’ is silent, accent is on the ‘haw.’) by accident one day while looking for stopover options for our Deep Creek mountain trip. We didn’t end up staying that night but the Airbnb listing intrigued me. A yurt on a creek, on a farm, in a river town, owned by someone I had once gone to school with.
A couple weeks after returning from Deep Creek, on a Tuesday, I booked the yurt. We’d had court (always my very least favorite place to be) that Thursday, during which big, risk-all or end-all decisions were made for the kids currently in kinship care with us, and I just….needed a moment. A decent-sized moment. Emma and I took that moment together. After a full year of her sharing me with five other children, some of them very young and needy, some of them requiring more of my attention than she does, we needed it and she deserved it.
Saxapahaw is a tiny blip on a piece of the Haw River. It’s located in Alamance County, and an easy twenty minutes out of Chapel Hill. Old brick mill buildings along the river are now home to local businesses so Mayberry and quirky and sustainable and eco-friendly and 2017 all at once. But this speck of a village…more full of life than possibly any other town I’ve visited.
One by one, we fell in love….
Cane Creek Farm
The yurt at Cane Creek Farm was our first yurt retreat. We felt a bit like fru-fru, upscale Native Americans because though we were sleeping in what is essentially a giant, round tent, cooking meals over a campfire and using an outhouse (or a pot, I’ll be honest), we also had the luxuries of an actual wooden floor, a fridge, outlets and lovely strung lights hanging above us. As I soaked in all the coziness from the yurt’s bed that first evening, I studied its construction. My mind was already rolling around plans for my husband to build me my own on a little piece of land we’ve got…he always adores when I think up new, big projects for us (him.)
Lucky for him, I discovered that this particular yurt was pieced together by a few willing hands and is totally possible for us to tackle ourselves. Cane Creek’s yurt, however, comes with an extra special piece of history that probably most renters don’t know and that can never be replaced. That beautifully old wooden floor I’d been admiring was pieced back together with the very same wood that mill workers had once walked across in the old dye house down by the river, the portion that is now the Saxapahaw General Store.
In the same way those three connections are made, we found similar connections all over town.
The weekly crochet group may be nestled in among the diners and customers at the General Store, chatting away with busy hands as food and refreshments move around them. A Hawbridge School class may be meeting in the old colored school building now located at the Saxapahaw Museum. You may need to use the restroom at The Haw Canoe and Kayak Co. before your paddle out, climb the stairs to the old recreation area and stumble upon a dark gym, the massive faces that are the Paperhand Puppet Intervention props, staring down at you from each available wall. The butchery will offer the Village Bakehouse (housed within The Eddy Pub) bread, and also the local farm’s t-shirts. At Saturdays in Saxapahaw, you’ll be able to browse the local goods of area vendors (like Haw River Farmhouse Ales whose Sun Hands Summer Golden seasonal brew I can still taste and comes in such a cool little bottle that it’s now nestled on a shelf with other treasures I’ve found along the way) and hear different local musicians each week during summer. When a name is mentioned here, everyone seems to know exactly who you mean.
Businesses and people don’t seem to stand alone, but appear to be so naturally intertwined with each other, beneficial to each other, that you wonder how they got that way and how all towns across America can replicate what they’ve created.
The Haw Canoe and Kayak Company
Despite years of mill pollution into the 110-mile Haw River, it is now more closely protected and a stunning sight. A canoe and short shuttle ride was provided to us by The Haw Canoe and Kayak Company, with a bit of instruction. We had three hours. The whistles attached to our life jackets were for blowing if we really needed help. At the spot where we put in you can never go to the left. A left will take you to the dam and over its falls. This terrifies me, of course. Class I rapids now terrify me. But to the right, oh my heavens. A glassy, still corridor of water between borders of green with very few buildings peeking out on both banks. A blue sky rising up in between with a few puffy, picturesque clouds amidst its near perfection. I had my phone, of course, and took some of the most gorgeous iPhone photos I have probably ever taken. Then I put it safely away. I wanted to fully enjoy this. The calm beauty of the river, the ease of our first canoe trip, the realization that the river at this spot was incredibly shallow and swim-able…we were giddy, Emma and I. We swam, laughed, played. We swam over to where some people were jumping off high rocks, at a point I was later told is the deepest part in the area.
We’d climbed back into the canoe to dry off for a minute after watching the rock jumpers. My things started getting wet in the bottom. I was in the midst of half-laughing/half-talking to myself about the wonders of the Haw, picking up my little bag to move it…
Every bit of giddy drained right out of me. The first-time, Haw River high we’d just been on….gone.
Emma heard the horrifying little bloop from the front of the rented canoe and quickly turned to look back.
“Was that your phone?” she gaped.
We hadn’t even seen what had fallen in. We knew.
How is it possible that I have just lost another thing to a river? Another phone? Those photos!? (Previously, I have lost the equivalent of about $2000 in rivers, including a phone, a days-old camera and an old and simple, but so beautiful to me and my very first, kayak. Don’t ask me how. It’s just my thing, apparently.)
This was a new phone. My husband had spent a literal three hours getting it set up for me. It was so recent that I remembered it well. And those photos!
I’d immediately instructed Emma to take off her life jacket and search the bottom for me. Most everywhere else we’d been we could see the bottom. Reach-down-and-pick-it-up shallow. Not here. We could touch, though, and we felt around for a good silent, somber ten minutes before I dropped my head against the canoe and resigned myself to the fact that I had just dropped a few hundred dollars and beautiful pictures into the river. Again.
“Should I blow the whistle now?” Emma asked, quiet and serious.
“No, Emma, we don’t need to blow the whistle…” I replied, dejected and almost in a whisper, but with a hint of a smile trying to find lips.
Upon our return to The Haw Canoe and Kayak Co., Matt, who’d helped us into the river, learned of the phone incident. He gave me his phone to call my husband (who, by the tone of his “hello?” at having me call him from an unknown number, knew I’d had another sort of incident that would cost him money), treated my daughter to a popsicle and printed off directions to the nearest Verizon store. He had an entire group he was heading off to the river with at the exact time we strolled back up the path…but he waited. They all waited. Until he’d seen us entirely and patiently through the process as if he had nothing else in the world to do just then. He even figured he or someone would probably come back with my phone.
Just before I headed out the door, my MapQuest directions in hand, he gave me his thickly laminated card, just in case.
“It’s waterproof,” he smirked.
Saxapahaw General Store
The food at the Saxapahaw General Store (part store, part restaurant, part gathering place) is local, seasonal, creative, delicious, exquisite. By the time we reluctantly drove out of town, I’d tried the in-season Mozzarella Caprese Stack, the Duck Jam Burger (made with locally-sourced beef, blueberry ketchup and duck bacon), the Chicken Salad and the Duck Salad (best dang duck I’ve ever had in my life!).
But it was the people….They left me a bit stunned and and a lot happy.
Maybe it was the fact that it was the first time in a year that I could actually be in a place without six little people crying, screaming, fighting, needing, pooping, running, playing, talking, talking, talking at/to me that I actually could hold an appropriate conversation with another adult. Maybe it was like four-year-old Rief said, as he overheard me telling my husband upon return about how nice everyone was…
“Maybe they’re so nice because they really liked your skirt,” he stated as he looked me up and down.
But no…I think it was just them. Every.single. one. that I had any sort of conversation with, there was connection. Genuine, slowed-down, looked us in the eye, stopped-everything-else-they’re-doing, fully engaged, real live connection.
I’ve got a small handful of business cards and handwritten contact info around me, given to me by the locals we met, just in case. When we accidentally wandered into Left Bank Butchery on a day that it was closed, we were invited in to have a look at the half of an open Cane Creek Farm pig on the back table. When we met Chris, special needs teacher/coach during the school year, Sax General Store employee in the summer, he heard our phone-in-the-beautiful-river story and nearly offered to go look for it.
“Yeah, everyone in town’s gonna offer to find your phone,” Matt with the canoes assured me later.
Back on the farm one evening, our last, the sun had begun to set, cooling the red dirt acreage off just enough for us to finally walk the perimeter and visit all the animals. I had given Emma my old camera to use for the first time and she was thrilled. I’d never let anyone handle my cameras before. (Though it seems….perhaps…maybe I’m the one I need to be most concerned about.) The evening was…quiet, mother/daughter, easy, intimate.
The owners were away, camping in Nova Scotia. In their place, a farm sitter, though we hadn’t met her, seen her, heard from her. One of the owners kept in contact with me herself to make sure all was well. And it was.
We had followed the red dirt that evening, which led us around the back of the main house and toward the gardens. Dogs rushed to us, barking but friendly. I glanced upward, towards the house, spotted a second-story deck and then…skin. Lots of skin.
Ah, there she was. Elusive farm sitter girl, at the end of a scorching day, amidst the cows and the guineas, in the sanctuary of the peaceful Piedmont acres, probably believing herself to be utterly alone…Topless.
At first we looked away, admired the vegetable gardens with new fervor, then we exchanged a few words with now-clothed upper deck girl, acting as nonchalant as possible, and then we strolled on, giggling and taking sunset photos all the way back to the yurt. I later asked a new friend if this was Saxapahaw normal. Not quite, but it is farm sitter girl normal, I was informed. I also later realized, as I studied the farm’s map carefully back at the yurt, that I had led us right down the wrong path that evening. To think, had we gone wide and around the actual farm perimeter, we’d have missed all that. And the big laugh we all had later.
Because two weeks later we were back and really met her, and the most precious little thing she is. When she’s not topless on the farm, she works in outdoor education. All natural, sweet-spirited and free. Like General Store Chris, my Emma girl liked her immediately. Kids can sometimes tell about people, you know.
On a Tuesday, we ate our last Saxapahaw meal at the General Store’s outdoor cafe and grabbed a few items for the road. As I took a last glance around the store, at the fresh produce in their bins, the local artisan’s goods, soaked in all the kind and laidback Saxapahaw that I could, I turned to Emma and reluctantly said, “So we just leave?”
Though neither of us wanted to, she replied, “Yeah. We just leave.”
But I had a feeling that Jane, the museum director who’d shown us around that morning, was right.
“You’ll be back. I can tell,” she’d said, smiling her gentle smile.
(And we were, of course.)
After the pouring out of myself for the past year, Sax gave back to me. Nurtured a mother/daughter relationship. Gave me the perfect blend of peace, people and excitement. Filled me right up again.