Due to the recent stay-at-home order and numerous state park closures, I’ve been limiting my hiking lately. (It’s worth noting that exemptions have been made in North Carolina for outdoor activities and health, as long as social distancing guidelines are followed. And hiking certainly falls into both of those categories, since it’s both outdoor and health-related.)
Even so, I did manage to take a local hike, covering roughly four miles, at Occoneechee Speedway on April 4th, 2020.
Along with me were roughly half the citizens of Hillsborough, who were equally intent on getting their fair share of exercise and sunlight. As for me personally, however, it was the surprise appearance of an eastern fence lizard, along with beautiful views of the Eno River, that made my hike truly memorable.
After arriving at the public parking deck next to Weaver St. Market in downtown Hillsborough, I parked my car, got out, and descended the staircase leading to the Hillsborough Riverwalk.
[The first portion of this route along the Riverwalk adds two miles, there and back again, and can be skipped by parking at the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trailhead, if you prefer.]
Joining the Riverwalk, I promptly headed east.
Passing under the Exchange Bridge, I marveled at the blue skies above, such a welcome sight after months of nearly uninterrupted rain and dreariness.
In another hundred feet I passed under the Interstate Bridge, and soon after that I reached River Park, with the land on my left rolling gently upward toward downtown in a carpet of emerald green.
With a parking lot ahead of me, I turned right on a dirt trail and crossed a small wooden footbridge that swayed back and forth with every footfall.
Upon crossing the wooden footbridge, I turned right and rejoined the paved surface of the Riverwalk as it passed the reconstructed Occaneechi Village. Then I entered a hardwood forest that covers the length and breadth of the Riverwalk.
A few hundred feet into the forest, I looked to my right and noticed a column of milky white flowers rising from the top eight inches of a yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava).
After admiring the flowers, I headed on and soon passed a wide clearing where the land rose gently to my left, framing a historic home in the distance. Continuing a few hundred feet, I passed another clearing where there have been community gardens in previous years.
Shortly thereafter, the Riverwalk changed from a paved walkway to a dirt trail, winding back and forth through trees on all sides.
Soon I reached the easement from public property to private property — the latter of which is owned by Classical Homes Preservation Trust — and veered toward the right as the trail continued ahead, now narrower than before.
Reaching the footbridge that crosses the Eno River at the trail’s easternmost extent, I turned right and noticed a runner approaching.
Waiting for him to reach my side, I gave him more than ample distance before venturing across.
When I reached the middle of the bridge, I stopped and looked east, admiring the view of the Eno as it stretched into the distance under a cobalt blue sky.
After crossing the bridge, I passed through a bit of forest and up a hill and soon came to the edge of the parking lot for Vietri, a ceramic manufacturer in the area. Skirting the edge of it, I quickly reached the pedestrian crossing with Elizabeth Brady Road, looked both ways, and crossed.
Walking through the gravel parking lot for the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trailhead, I soon reached the trailhead and noticed a surprising number of people — many with dogs, children, and extended family — all eager to enjoy a little exercise and sunlight.
After about a quarter of a mile, I reached the gate that marks the entry to the old race track and passed around it. Descending a slight hill, I arrived at the Speedway Trace and turned left.
A few hundred feet up the track, I came to the old stadium and turned left, heading up the concrete steps.
Upon ascending them, I turned right and followed the dirt trail, heading through a pine forest. Soon I reached an old men’s room — that looked for all the world like a creepy cabin in the woods — and passed it, turning right and then left through a maze of conjoining trails before finally reaching Beech Bluff Trail.
Within a couple hundred feet, I reached a side trail — one that’s not officially marked or maintained — leading toward the southwest. Turning left onto it, I started hiking through a forest of beech, oak, and sweetgum, in search of one of the foremost views on this stretch of the Eno River.
On my way, I followed the trail as it skirted the edge of a ridge, fifty feet high in places, along the Eno River. As I did, I happened to glance to my right and noticed the young leaves of an American beech (Fagus grandifolia), just beginning to peak out into the spring sunlight.
The leaves were so light and feathery, they seemed ready to fly away.
Through the woods, I continued southwest for another couple hundred feet before coming to a grove of northern red oaks (Quercus rubra) that crowded around the trail. Going through them, I happened to glance up the trunk of one and admired the wide, lightly-colored ridges bordered by deep, dark grooves.
As the trail bent to my right, I followed suit and began the approach to the view I’m so fond of.
Veering slightly off trail, I came to a steep ridge, about forty feet high, dropping straight down to the Eno River. And there ahead of me, through a canopy of trees unfurling their spring foliage, was a view that never ceases to amaze me.
In all honesty, I could’ve spent the rest of the day there, soaking in the peace, quiet, and beauty of it. But after thirty minutes of taking photos and videos from every possible angle, with every possible aspect ratio and composition, I decided I needed to move on.
Backtracking through the forest, I quickly regained Beech Bluff Trail and headed northeast. After a couple hundred feet, there was a break in the canopy overhead, and spring sunlight bathed the area in a golden glow. At the same time, I noticed a wooden bench in front of me.
Approaching it, I considered sitting down to soak in the sunlight, which has been so scarce in central North Carolina lately. But just as I was about to, I looked closely at the bench and noticed something out of the ordinary: a small lizard, about ten inches long, enjoying the nice weather and sunning himself.
At the time, I wasn’t sure of the species, but I did take notice of his tan coloration, long hindfeet, and the tiny spines all over his body — all of which were useful in my later research, which allowed me to identify him as an eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus).
After standing motionless for a few minutes so as not to scare him off, I approached as calmly and quietly as possible. Fortunately my efforts paid off, and he simply looked me in the eye as if to say, “Hey dude, I was here first.”
Stooping to his level, I was amazed by how attentive he was. Not a single sound or movement went unnoticed. But, as luck would have it, he wasn’t thrilled by my voice. So after I finished my video — which included a voiceover as usual — he promptly skittered off into the underbrush.
Rising to my feet, I kept hiking northeast until I came to another side trail, this one barely visible, leading from Beach Bluff Trail down a steep river bank. Intent on a photographic detour, I turned left and made my way down to the river, then turned left again and passed a stately old beech tree with carvings all over.
After squeezing through some dense underbrush, I reached another one of the best views of the Eno River, where a young couple had perched their bright green hammock on the far side of the river — the edge of which is barely visible on the far right of the following photo.
I paid no attention to them, since they weren’t the reason for my visit. And after a short while, they paid no attention to me either. Then I finished taking photos, turned around, and retraced my steps.
Returning from my photographic detour, I resumed my northeast hike on Beech Bluff Trail. And as I passed through a forest of oak and beech trees, I marveled at the brilliance of the spring sunlight, making the world feel new all over again.
Soon Beech Bluff Trail bled into Big Bend Trail, and before long I was back at the old race track itself, taking the reverse leg of the Speedway Trace on my way out.
As I was leaving, I looked back and thought about all the past experiences of people who once lived here. I wondered how many of them lived through times of hardship, suffering, or even pandemic. I wondered what their responses were and how their lives changed. I wondered how they found meaning in life when the world around them seemed to be falling to pieces.
But of course I didn’t have to wonder very long, because the answer was all around me. For if there’s one thing that’s gotten people through times of hardship throughout history, it’s their relationship with the land — with the river, forest, food, and family that are a part and parcel of it.
Likewise, if there’s one thing that will get us through our present hardships, it will be our recognition that the land is not merely something local or regional, but something global and planetary, just like the virus sweeping across it.
And the better we take care of our land and planet, the better they will take care of us.
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