Croatan National Forest. Neusiok Trail.
Leading up to my trip I really thought I was going to walk into a Lost Colony sort of scenario and just disappear into unknown woods. My efforts to research the trail and plan my overnights had just been one big "404 Not Found" love fest.
"Click here for a link to a map!" 404 Not Found.
"Click here for directions to the trail head!" 404 Not Found.
"Click here for shuttle information!" 404 Not Found.
But my backpacking NC book and Mountains-to-Sea Trail book encouraged me to go ahead and just explore. It was starting to get warm and I was running out of cool weather weekends before venomous slithery things and clouds of pesky insect wings would be out in full force. I checked that Uber offered rides in the Havelock area so I could park at one trail head and thru-hike the 20-mile-long trail, and before dawn on Saturday I just left home for the unknown.
The Pine Cliff trailhead overlooks the Neuse River as it opens into the Pamlico Sound. Minnesott Beach and Camp Don Lee across the wide water were hazy and indistinct in the morning sunlight. I picked my way down the beach, enjoying the smell of brine and exploring the various cypress roots that crept across the sand. I scrambled over and under countless uprooted trees whose trunks were stripped to polished sun-bleached wood.
Eventually the trail forked from the beach and into the scrub forest. I was greeted into the tree cover by an explosion of chattering birds - robins, blackbirds, titmice, and many others that I heard but never saw. There were birds of another kind too - great metal fighter jets and choppers running training missions from the Marine Corps airfield adjacent to the forest. I drove past the base and its iconic "Pardon our noise; it's the sound of freedom" sign on my way toward the trailhead, and past boundary fences and military accoutrements. On the other side of the road from the base there was a school, a childcare center, and a cluster of three buildings with painted signs that said "Cherry's" and "Bombshells" and "Olivia's" with some faded painted girls. I mused on these and other things during my hike, and once or twice I was surprised from my reverie by a Chinook or a fighter jet that ripped across the sky with a roar.
The forest map was terrible, but the trail was surprisingly well-maintained. It was wide and easy to follow. I passed one crew who were chainsawing a downed tree and clearing dense brush, a compliment to the care the West Carteret Wildlife Club pays to the trail despite the club’s dated website with various broken links and sparse details. It was a hint of people who spend all their free time in the outdoors with no mind to the distractions of technology. I took heed and tucked my phone away.
The trail meandered through pine savannah and pocosin and swampland with boardwalks zigzagging along jungle undergrowth next to pines and firs. I was making terrible time, but the scenery was all so novel, so beautiful that I had to frequently stop, explore, and take pictures.
At a section of boardwalk named “Cottonmouth Spa” I lingered and explored the environment beyond the wooden slats - the rushes and reeds with their hidden deadly snakes and the moss and black sucking mud and the piles of frog spawn. Recklessly I plunged my hand into the water for a bit of video footage of the mire; a stupid thing to do in infested jungle waters, but perhaps worth the risk.
It was the golden hour when I finally worked my way through the last miles of the day. Rays slanted through the pine forest and glowed on berry shrubs and tufted pine saplings whose pompom heads hinted of Dr. Seuss trees. “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees,” I mused aloud while inspecting the scorch marks on pine trunks from controlled burns. I was in a good mood from all the exploring and the prospect of rest.
The overnight shelter was solid, though littered with beer cans. I spent a relatively quiet night except for the few times I shouted at mice to leave me be. I heard nothing of the coyotes that the trail book described from previous hikers’ notes.
It was a frigid sleep, but morning dawned cool and misty. As I wound through the pine savannah I paused to snap photos and wipe condensation from my camera lens. With the slanted sun and the tall pines and the even undergrowth hazy with fog I half expected to see ghosts of long ago Croatoan and Roanoke wandering through the shadows and across the bogs.
The sun eventually burned off the morning mist, giving way to blue skies pierced by pines. Overhead circled the occasional vulture and in the distance broke the intermittent rat-a-tat of a woodpecker. Grasshoppers flew up from the trail in a flurry of slapping, glittering wings.
At one point the trail ventured into the swamp again, dipping away from a forest road and into the shade. Here I met a hiker coming from the other direction who asked me, “Is the trail wet?”
“What?” I asked him.
“Wet! Is it wet on the trail ahead?”
“Uhm, not really. Why? Is the trail wet ahead from here?”
“Oh yes. Oh yes.” He looked wild-eyed at the ground as if it were not quite there, and then hiked on.
I soon found out why. The boardwalk - that consistent friend through the swamp - did not accompany the trail this time. Instead it was just black muck - black soul-sucking muck that squelched at your boots and creeped up your ankles. Here too there were gnats and flies and similar ilk hovering in clouds in sunny, warm patches. From every angle thick briars and brush of the dense pocosin forest encroached on the trail, making any routes around the worst of the bog impossible. As a last resort to the hateful mire I strapped my boots to my pack and pulled on my camp shoes and waded through the muck.
There’s a reason bogs are the settings of ghost stories and hellish lore. Sucking, consuming, dense, inescapable - the hopelessness of the mire eats at you psychologically. Only when I could hardly stand it any more, when I was certain I would have to quit the bog or follow the way of the lost colonists, did the trail finally emerge on solid ground, and I rejoiced.
It wasn’t long after I escaped the bog that I finally made my way to the end of the trail: Oyster Point. The name was much more exotic than the place. Oyster Point was, in fact, just a point where you could access the banks of the Neuse amid broken, bleached clam and oyster shells. That was it. I sifted through some of the debris and squinted up the river into the sun and then peered back the other way, and then I pulled out my phone to summon an Uber, only to find the message “Sorry, no cars available” in block letters across my screen. Oh well. I’d hitch a ride or find my way back somehow. I had made it through the forest and the bog; I was not lost, but found, and had confidence I would find my way anywhere.