I first started coming out here, really coming out here, when this yucky thing happened, or rather, multiple yucky things at once with one unresolved, persisting, that completely broke my heart and overwhelmed my soul. We’ve all had those things, those gut-wrenching, horrible, ugly, cry on your pillow, cry while driving down the road, cry from your very core when there’s little else you can do except watch it happen and endure. We all have those things. They shatter our innocence and harden us just a little more for having lived it or been witness.
Maybe I came out here to grieve some losses. Maybe I came out here to get away and find some peace. Maybe to get quiet with God and creation, away from the pounding, joy-stealing noise. Maybe to gain perspective, to know that this too shall pass, to know that God and all the good forces on this earth are bigger and grander than the fairly large pieces of yucky I’ve seen. Maybe all of that rolled into one magnificent landscape that calms an aching soul.
And so I keep coming back.
Each time it is with fresh eyes, a new corner yet unknown to me…a still and beautiful pocosin, sunning turtles having found their very own private Eden…a quick and terrified squirrel finding his way into a tree hole high above the ground…ducks at rest on a hidden water, the warm sun beaming off of its quiet surface…
And one ginormous sawdust pile.
The first day I came upon it, I had been on the Weetock Trail for a couple of hours and needed to get off. It was a gorgeous day, but I had somewhere to be, evening would be coming on and I wasn’t sure how far I was from the southern end. There was no map and according to the sign at the northern end I should have reached some pile of sawdust by now. I had begun somewhere around the middle of the trail. I had asked my husband to pick me up, thinking I was approaching a stopping point and a simple exit onto a forest road. Except that I wasn’t. There was no sign of a road or anything I was familiar with, and though I knew the direction to go I didn’t want to leave the clearly marked trail to find my husband’s truck. So, walking more quickly, I kept going.
On the trail ahead of me I saw something. Some type of path, wider than the trail, cut across it perpendicular. I stood in this new path, forest rising up all around me, and glimpsed field to my left and a dirt mound to my right, but I was far more interested in what was in the woods in front of me. The brick remains of civilization. A chimney? A foundation? It was small but seemed larger than a chimney would have been. I had read about the possibility of old homestead remains off of the Weetock Trail, and I was intrigued.
About half a second after I saw it I thought I heard faint voices. I brushed it off, knowing I was utterly alone. But then I heard it again. Ghosts from the old homestead?
“Hello?” I called.
No response. Then, the sound of a dog and I immediately thought I must have come upon hunters, who sounded like they were on the other side of that mound, where perhaps a field lay. Not only did I want to make myself known if they were hunters, but I needed to find my way out. My husband was still waiting somewhere out there.
I crunched back through the brown oak leaves that carpeted the trail beneath me to the wide path and called out again.
As I peered around the trees towards the mound I saw them. People. People! The three of them looked down on me from their high perch atop the dark mound, quietly puzzling over my appearance for a moment. I shadowed my eyes from the sun that was shining brightly directly behind them. My heart sank at their young appearance and I found myself thinking, “They’re not going to help me!”
“Hi…do you know where I am?” I asked awkwardly.
“Are you lost?” one answered.
The girl, in between two boys, yelled down to me with excitement, “This is the Saw Dust Pile!”
“This is the Saw Dust Pile?” I called back in surprise, both of us speaking of it as though we were standing at the pyramids at Giza.
She smiled and laughed, “Yeah!”
A minute later I was standing at the top with these 20-somethings, doing things we won’t mention up there, but comfortable enough that they felt no need to hide, overlooking not a field on the other side but Hunter’s Creek, as it meandered down below us. Young trees as far as we could see on its far bank, for we could see above their tops. A big, black dog romped and played in the almost black sawdust.
“It’s been here since, like, the 1920’s,” the girl said. “It used to be an old mill.”
“They used to float logs from here over to Swansboro on the river,” one of the guys, the one with the shirt, said as he pointed down the creek.
“I haven’t been here since I was a kid,” the girl said, sipping on her bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. “We used to come hang out at the Saw Dust Pile, “ she giggled.
I stood there with them, total strangers, watching the dog run down the pile for a quick swim in the creek, listening to their stories about the old mill and the girl’s chatter about the weekend festivities in Emerald Isle at the St. Patrick’s Day Festival and her attempted recovery from it, the sun just beginning to lower in the sky, answering, “Yes, that was my minivan you saw parked at Long Point” and feeling old, listening to the gentle rustling the breeze made when it passed through the trees.
They walked me back through the fields, the girl talking the whole time, taking me on a route that is so easy now that I know it but one I would never have found my way through that day, where we came out directly at the spot they knew my husband would be parked.
My littlest had fallen asleep in the truck during their search for me and when he awoke, hours later, he said, “we came to find you because you were lost in the woods!”
I wasn’t lost. But in places like this, and with people willing to help you find your way out when it’s time, it’s kind of nice to feel like it sometimes.
A couple of weeks later, after spring had sprung and my kids had already been to the Sawdust Pile once, they asked to go again. We walked across the field that leads to the pile, fishing pole and worms in hand, the sun warm on our faces. Halfway across we spotted a forest service truck and trailer, and were soon after stopped by its driver, who stood waiting for something outside of it. He let us know that there would be a prescribed burn in the Croatan Forest that day, and we’d have to cut our trip short. I barely had time to register my disappointment when he asked us to step towards the truck so his helicopter could come in and land.
“Wha…now?” I gaped as, sure enough, a helicopter was landing right in front of us in the formerly quiet field. The last time we had been so near a helicopter Emma was being airlifted to the Greenville hospital after a severe head injury and we had both flown in a light rain through the dark night sky for 30 of the most prayerful, high-anxiety minutes of my life.
The guys (and one girl) from the forest service gave us such a treat that day. We never made it to the Sawdust Pile, but we left with a new and good helicopter memory. They were incredibly welcoming, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the fact that someone had wandered in on their fire starting. The kids sat in the helicopter, tried on the gear and would have taken off if they could have. Instead, the guys showed us how they start the fire with small chemical balls and the machine used to activate them. The helicopter pilot, who lives in Seattle but travels all over the US starting controlled fires or putting wild ones out, had me wait and meet his wife and dog, who both work and travel with him. He was smitten with our Dixie dog, who we had with us and who I’ve been, in theory, trying to find a permanent home for. So close they were to adopting her, but she just got a lot of extra love from some forest people in the end.
We ended the day at Haywood Landing, just a short forest road away but not on fire, and Emma caught a small sunfish (the first for any of us at that spot), despite the noise from the rowdy boys camping nearby.
We left hours after setting out, sun-kissed, refreshed, and soul happy. Just what we were looking for.