I’ve been gone for the past week—a nice break as I stayed at my grandma’s empty home (it’s between tenants) for a week doing some writing and planning and a lot of reading. I also had a chance to see’s cousins and to reacquaint myself with the Sandhills of North Carolina from where I’m from even though we left there when I was six. One evening, I decided to check out WeymouthWoods. I haven’t been there since I was probably twenty. It was a good walk, about 4 miles, as the shadows of evening grew.
I set out on the Lighter Stump Trail at 6:30 PM. It's still hot, in the low nineties, but thankfully there is a light breeze. The trail runs slightly south of the ridge of sandy soil, though an area that has been recently burned. Longleaf pines, which cover the flanks of the ridge, thrive on fire and the preserve regularly burns the underbrush. The burn areas are still black and gray but already plants are sprouting up through the ash. When I leave the burnt area, the growth underneath the pine's thin canopy include wire grass along with sassafras, blackjack oaks (some with leaves almost as big as a catcher's mitt), huckleberries, sumac (not the poison variety) and in one place, a healthy stand of poison oak with fresh green berries. My ankles itch just thinking about stepping amongst them, but I stay to the sandy path. Sure enough, after a quarter mile or so, I pass a number of old "lighter stumps." These once supported stately longleaf pines that were cut down years ago. The "lighter wood" in the stumps contains so much pitch that they’ll burn like kerosene, giving off a quick hot smoky flame. Growing up in these parts, finding lighter wood was always a priority when camping, especially when it was raining. You wouldn't want to use this wood for cooking (as it didn't make good coals), but it helped dry out damp wood and to start a fire in rainy weather.
In a half mile, the trail follows the ridge line as it drops down into a lowland swamp. Here the long leafs give way to loblolly and other shortleaf varieties, along with a variety of hardwoods: gum, bay, hickory, oak and popular. There's also a few cedars and American holly and a variety of thick brush that close in the landscape. Along the edge of the wetlands are dogwoods and persimmons (it is sad to go to my grandma's house and there not to be any persimmon pudding). As I walk across the boardwalk, I no longer feel a cooling breeze. The air is still, moist and warm and my shirt is soaked with sweat. A few mosquitoes buzz around along with a sole deerfly that annoys me to no end. I cross a tributary to James Creek and am startled by a squirrel jumping between trees. A hundred yards later, I cross the creek itself. Standing on a wooden bridge, I pause to look down into the shallow water. Where it flows fast, it is clear with a sandy white bottom, but in places where a fallen log acts as a dam and slows the water, decaying leaves gather on the bottom and the water appears dark. I imagine there are some crawfish and salamanders in these waters, and maybe even a small jack in some of the deeper pools.
Climbing up out of the bottom land, I take the Pine Island Trail over to the Holly Road trail and head northwest, making a big loop. At the far end of the preserve, I look at the clock on my cell phone and realize it is now 7:15 PM. I step up my pace and take the Gum Swamp Trail over to the Pine Barrens Trail that runs higher on the ridge from the Lighter Stump Trail. The sun is dropping lower in the sky and the insects are singing loudly in anticipation of nightfall. I make it back to parking lot five minutes before the gates are scheduled to close (at 8 PM).
After stopping for dinner, I am driving back to where I am staying and notice the new moon on the Western horizon. Just below it, there are flashes of lightning from over the horizon, promising a storm to cool the earth.