“You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.”
I can’t claim that I wasn’t a little apprehensive about tackling the Neusiok Trail. The 20+ mile trail runs through the wild and remote Croatan National Forest. The Forest Service provides very little information—most information on the trail is on a website put together by a retired Marine, who makes it clear from the get-go that the summer is the worst time to hike the Neusiok because of the heat, humidity, and biting insects. The Forest Service concurs: “Hiking is best from October through May when the brush is the thinnest and insects are sparse.” The date was, in fact, July 29th. Projected temps for Newport that day were 88 with 92% humidity.
[I always have a rationale for the silly things I do]
When I told Andrew that I planned to do an out-and-back on one of the sections to get in my 18 mile long run, he offered to drop me off and pick me up so I could cover a bigger section, point-to-point. Well, if I was going to do 18, I might as well do the whole enchilada, right? Excitedly, I started writing out my cue sheet and packing my fuel belt. Suddenly an 18 mile solo slog was turning into an epic adventure. My favorite kind!!!
An argument could be made that I made several mistakes before I even started running. In fact, one of my running buddies said something along the lines of “Steph, this is not one of the brighter things you’ve done, and let’s be honest, you’ve done some stupid things.” I didn’t start until guests left town, so it was about 10:30 when I hit the trail. I guessed it would take about 3.5 hours. I knew I couldn’t carry enough water to make it the whole way, but there are 3 shelters on the route with water pumps. Then, there were the aforementioned biting insects.
Damn the torpedoes. I packed my cue sheet, camera, phone, 1 bottle of Hammer Perpetuum, 1 bottle of Nuun, 2 bottles of water, two gels, one cough drop, a leftover shot block, and a small piece of zucchini bread.
Andrew dropped me off at Pine Cliffs. Nearby, a dad was coating his toddler with bug spray. Andrew had some in the car but I figured I could outrun the ticks and chiggers, and hopefully the mosquitos and horseflies as well. So off I went.
The trail begins by hugging the south shore of the Neuse River, occasionally wallowing into soft sand. The most beautiful part was when it skirted between the river and the cypress swamps just 50 feet behind the spit of sand the trail went through. White flowers of duck potato floated in the air just above the waterline and the buttressed cypress trees; water the color of sweet tea flowed through crystalline sand to the river, and this trail runner tiptoed through on the sandy pathway, trying not to get her shoes wet or trip over knobby cypress knees [note: cypress knees represented a first-time trail hazard].
The trail curved inland. Vegetation now obscured the path and all I could think about were ticks and chiggers. But I soon had other things on my mind—there were some trees across the path, sometimes obscuring the next section of trail. One rough-hewn log bridge ascended into nothing, as near as I could tell. My concern about ticks and chiggers was trumped by my much greater fear of big snakes. I was sure they were coiled underneath the downed trees and under the deep overgrowth. It was slow going, but you can’t be tentative if you’re planning to go 20 miles. I plowed on.
Soon, I reached Copperhead Landing at 3.5 miles, one of the 3 shelters along the trail. It’s a 3-sided wooden shelter with a water pump nearby. I ran the pump a bit, but could not get it going (foreshadowing). Since I had plenty of water and mosquitoes and horseflies were attacking me, I hurried on.
I entered deep swamp forests and started running on boardwalks through the wet areas. I can’t imagine the hard work it must have taken to build such long stretches of boardwalk this deep into the woods. Kudos to the membership of the Carteret Wildlife Club, who constructed the Neusiok over five years. I’m so impressed with their handiwork.
Many of these walkways were slick, angled, or both, so I had to plant my feet deliberately. I saw one purposeful hiker who barely said hello over his headphones. I didn’t see another person on the Neusiok that day. It was beautiful.
I kept expecting to see lurking snakes but saw none—I’m sure I would have seen plenty if I had been hiking. I kept thinking what Andrew had said. “You may not see any big snakes, but some big snakes are sure to see you.” Shudder.
I finished the first section, 5.6 miles, and crossed NC 306. Sent Andrew a text to let him know I was running behind schedule. The next section was populated by gigantic spiders, so the hiker I saw must have started at 306. These spiders must have been in the Spider Olympics. They had been busy constructing a web network across the entire Croatan National Forest. Given the size and strength of these webs, I imagined Shelob lurking nearby, and that thought kept me moving along at a good clip.
The Toad Wallow section (inscribed on the boardwalk along with Cottonmouth Spa) is only 2.5 miles, but I was still past an hour and a half when I crossed NC 101. Almost immediately, I came to a section of underwater trail. The brush was thick on both sides of the trail and I didn’t want to bushwack, so I plowed through the ankle-deep water. During this time I also somehow passed the Dogwood Camp, which I did not see, which is where I was planning to refill my water bottles. The trail wound through mostly pine forest, though there was one section with large beech that piqued my curiosity. This was the wettest section of trail I encountered.
I emerged from the trail onto a dirt road about 2.5 miles from 101. My cue sheet said to turn left, go to an intersection, and turn right. But there was an intersection right in front of me, with a left turn heading south. I wasn’t expecting that. Although my gut told me to take the road in front of me, I turned left to follow my directions. I expected to reach the intersection rather quickly; instead, I followed it about a half mile before deciding I must be off track. So I retraced my steps and headed down the road that seemed right. I didn’t see an intersection there either and turned around again.
40 minutes had ticked by; it was time to phone a friend. It took Andrew awhile to figure out where I was, but he confirmed that the left turn was correct. I was still doubtful, but he was looking at a map and I didn’t have any better ideas. Sure enough, more than a mile down the road, I finally saw a small sign indicating that I was on the right track, with the Neusiok Trail pointing ahead (Note: never trust my gut).
I finally reached the intersection, and that’s when I made the turn onto The Road of Despair.
Oh, the Road of Despair. It stretched 2 miles ahead, arrow-straight. No shade. No breeze. The heat shimmered from the sandy road in waves, distorting the treeline in the distance. I opened each of my empty water bottles, shaking the last drops into my mouth. I sent Andrew a text to let him know I was back on track. I did not tell him I had run out of water over an hour ago. Although I knew it would be the smart thing to do, I wasn’t ready to quit.
I put my head down and jogged ahead resignedly. Sweat burned my eyes. I do this for fun, I told myself. I can make it to Mill Creek Road.
As I focused on the ground in front of me, I noticed the footprints of a barefoot runner in the dust. In fact, it was just the front half of the foot. A wide foot. A very, very wide forefoot. I slowed to a halt as my heat-scrambled brain caught up with my eyes. This was no barefoot runner. This was a bear foot.
Grumpily, I told myself that even the bears were smart enough not to be out here on this stupid road during the hottest part of the day, and slogged on.
Two miles later, the trail finally went back into the woods. I couldn’t remember exactly how much farther it was to Mill Creek Road from where I was, but I now knew that I’d need to finish there. I also knew that Blackjack Lodge, one of the shelters, was near the road and there was a water pump there.
I alternated walking and running. I was very thirsty. I dug out the cough drop and that helped a little. I was mostly cruising through pine flats and the trail followed an old logging road. I kept wondering how much farther I had to go—I knew the section from 101 to Mill Creek Rd was over 10 miles, but I wasn’t sure how far I’d come—I guessed about halfway. I finished the cough drop and pulled out the margarita shot block. It sat tucked into my cheek like a wad of dip for the next half an hour, because I didn’t have enough saliva to dissolve it. I called Andrew again and asked him to pick me up at Mill Creek Rd. and to please bring lots of cold water. I tried not to sound pathetic.
A few bright spots along this otherwise miserable section were the flowers of loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus) on the trail at my feet. The fragrant, waxy white blossoms look like camellias and they are one of my favorite coastal trees. I also saw both yellow and white fringed orchids (Platanthera ciliaris and P. blephariglottis) along the pathway. I crossed another dirt road and was relieved to see the signed trail on the other side. Relentless forward progress—that’s what those ultra guys say. I was getting there, slowly. But most importantly, I was on the other side of my lowest point.
I knew I was getting close to Blackjack Lodge, but I nearly ran by it. It sat off the trail in a beautiful open stand of longleaf pine. Several jugs of slimy brown water sat next to the pump for priming. I eagerly picked one up and poured about a quart of water into the pump, and started working the handle. It gurgled as the priming water went through, but several minutes of hard pumping did not build up pressure and yielded no water. I tried again with the same result. I knew it was user error, but couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.
I stepped away from the pump, swatted away a dozen mosquitos and two horseflies, and looked around. Just inside the shelter was a jug of clear water with a lid. I looked at it longingly. I was really, really thirsty. It had to be water, I reasoned. And there was a lid on it, so it couldn’t be too bad. I took the top off and poured a few sips’ worth into my water bottle. It was all I could do to keep from chugging the whole half gallon on the spot. I resisted, though. The sign promised that Mill Creek Rd. was just three-quarters of a mile away where I knew my pit crew would be arriving at 3:30.
The last bit went by quickly and my spirits rose. I emerged out onto the road and looked across to the other side where the Oyster Point section started. I was a little disappointed not to finish the last 1.7 mile section, but I knew I’d had enough after nearly 5 hours. I had lost about a quart of blood to mosquitoes and horseflies, my feet and legs were tired, and I was hot and dehydrated. My crew appeared like a mirage with icy cold watermelon, water, and Gatorade. Andrew rocks.
I promised myself that I would return and run the whole Neusiok Trail one day. Maybe in one of those months with an R in it. The Neusiok Trail Run is scheduled for January: http://www.neusioktrailrun.com/Welcome.html. Hmmm.