I keep my eyes glued to the right side of Highway 101 as I drive away from Beaufort. Route 3-0- something, 3-0-something, 3-0-something my mind mutters as I look for the black and white road sign that will indicate my turn. It can be easy to miss. But this time I’m prepared and hit my right blinker before I make a smooth transition into a land that suddenly feels more rural. Past the Cherry Branch Ferry sign with the posted ferry schedule. Past the small church grounds. Past overgrown dirt roads with weathered Private Property signs hanging from chains blocking their entrance. Where do they lead?
The brown and soft-yellow wooden sign engraved with ‘Croatan National Forest Recreation Area’ (subtitle: Pinecliff) signifies my left turn onto a dirt road. “Gate open 6 AM – 10 PM.” There is no fee. I am welcome to enjoy this land along with everyone else.
The usual dust cloud doesn’t trail my car, the dirt’s packed down harder than it was this summer. Towering trees cloak the road on either side. A part in the greenery appears after about a mile. I pass the horse trailer parking area and settle next to a car parked in the dirt lot. A couple more vehicles are already here, but no people to be seen on this Saturday late morning. Through my windshield, my gaze immediately settles on the water of the Neusiok River, visible beyond a grassy clearing and small beach cliff. My shoulders relax and my body sighs off the weight of whatever else was on my mind. The wonder and beauty of this place never cease to invigorate me.
I don the fleece mittens, fleece ear warmer headband, concealed car key, and phone (just in case). I breathe in the cold air and the forest smells. I think of people in houses and stores and offices and want to point them at this scene, Look, Look, Look at what you could be experiencing.
I set off at a slow pace, running towards the trail head. This entrance marks the end of the 22-mile Neusiok Trail. The beach is on my right as I wind through the trail, with the forest on my left: the best of both worlds. I run across the foot bridges- they’re not flooded over, a good sign. I reach the sandy area and take a running leap over the small stream that heads inland from the beach. Knobby cypress trees knees are everywhere. I run carefully but still catch my foot on one, giving myself a spike of adrenaline but still managing to remain upright.
The beach-trail ends after a mile as the trail winds up to the forest cliff edge, providing a higher view of the river. I run deeper into the woods, taking a right at the small pointed wooden sign: “Neusiok”. I’m grateful for the lack of spider webs at this time of year, as I usually resort to running with a stick in front of my face to break my way through. Brown leaves blanket the ground, however, hiding roots and rocks.
I quickly warm up, so much that I take the mittens off. Gliding up and down, along the edges, through the thickets, just a single-track trail and trees and some silver trail markers. I see day hikers up ahead, carrying large packs with sleeping pads tied to the bottom. Where are they going? One turns around after he hears my rustling, moving to the side and telling the others “trail runner.” I run by a few separated groups of them and continue on.
Trail runner. I roll the words around in my mind. Trail runner: rugged, tough, persevering, nimble, gritty. It’s a bit of a misnomer these days as my main routes are the roads- the simple, flat, predictable roads. I relish this trail run, yearning to be that “trail runner.”
A small path heads off the trail towards the right, and, being in an exploratory mood, I see where it leads. Where the hikers are going: Copperhead Shelter. The small shelter has three walls and a slanted roof, with a fire circle and water pump out front and a view of the river. Cans of beer are lined up inside the shelter, perhaps left here intentionally for future use or left over from campers that are long-gone. Satisfied with my discovery, I continue on the Neusiok. About 3 more miles to Hwy 306, a sign tells me.
I most enjoy running across the old boardwalks, seeing small bubbles burst up from the stagnant water below, signs of life beneath. The sounds of cars slowly take me back to reality as I reach Hwy 306, a slice through the forest, where the Neusiok trail crosses the road. I run across to study the trail map at the small parking area on Hwy 306, but then start making my way back down the road. Back to Pine Cliff, and the Neuse River. I run on the side of the road, yet again reaching the brown and soft-yellow wooden sign engraved with ‘Croatan National Forest Recreation Area’ (subtitle: Pinecliff) that signifies my left turn onto the dirt road.
The dirt road feels long, at each turn more trees cover my view of the river until eventually the trees part and I see the blue sky above the water. I stop my journey in the grass clearing looking out at the river. Some other people are there this time. I breathe the cold air in through my nose and it instantly brings to life memories of running in winter up north. For now, though, I’ll enjoy a North Carolina winter with North Carolina trails, “Gate open 6 AM – 10 PM.”