When did the Friday after Thanksgiving reach the tipping point when everyone in America started calling it Black Friday? The term started in the 60s in downtown Philadelphia to describe traffic jams and hordes of shoppers. Black Friday was splattered with gusto in all of my spam that week.
In any case, "Black Friday" 2014 was a cold, sunny day in Raleigh. We groggily met up with friends just before sunrise at the Reedy Creek entrance to Umstead State Park. Friends who will meet you on a frozen holiday before dawn: I gave thanks for them on Thanksgiving! And also for the state parks here in my home.
The first official state park in 1916 was a grassroots effort. The 5,000-acre W.B. Umstead State Park which buffers Raleigh, Durham, and RTP with greenery was created with much foresight in the 30s. The CCC and WPA provided jobs by constructing the camps, facilities, and trails. And because nothing in the South is ever without a complex history, there's this: in 1950, over 1,000 acres were established as a separate Reedy Creek Park for African-Americans. The two parks were merged in 1966. There is a divide between the Reedy Creek entrance and the Glenwood Avenue entrance to the park: you can't get from one to the other unless you are walking.
The park has been trying out a pilot program where they open before 8am to let eager trail visitors in. Sure enough, along came a friendly ranger to unlock the gates. Thanks, Dude. I had a permit in my pocket wherein the park superintendent had signed off on our little group's planned outing: a backwoods trek to the Piedmont Beech Natural Area, a 50-acre stretch of sloping creekside land inside Umstead Park that encompasses an old growth stretch of towering beech trees.
"Old growth." How old? Park ranger Jason Brown later pointed out that the older trees in the park are typically on sloped land, likely there before the late 1700s land grants opened the area for settlement by farmers who began clearing it. I've lived in Raleigh for decades now and made hundreds of visits to Umstead, but never had the chance to wander off the wintery trail unto steeply sloping land, through dense undergrowth and bare trees, following Crabtree Creek in search of the elusive 200-plus year old beeches which were designated National Registry of Natural Landmarks in the early 70s.
"What's so special about beech trees?" I asked NC State landscape architecture professor Fernando Magallanes before our trip. "What's special about a beech? Those particular beeches are very old, for one thing. And... Well, hug one," he suggested. "It feels like you are hugging an elephant's leg. Smooth gray bark, towering, sturdy tree." Like a true scholar, he went on to clarify that he'd never actually hugged an elephant's leg in real life, but he imagines if he had, it would feel like the trunk of a beech tree.
After some walking and much goat-like scrambling, we hit pay dirt. And beech trees. Some of us hugged them. Most of us photographed them. All four of us had some quiet time amidst the crunching leaves and frosty breathes to give thanks. And, because life is complicated, there in the midst of a primordial moment I spied a set of carved initials on the trunk of one old beech. "People! They're the WORST," as Jerry Seinfeld once put it. But it was settlers long before us who first roamed what was then oak, hickory, and beech forests right on this spot, followed by Native Americans developing trade routes (the Occoneeche trail to the north and the Pee Dee trail to the south). Then came the farmers and in the 1930s, the federal and state agencies who reforested these acres. And, hello! We the people were traipsing amongst the beeches ourselves. But gently. Please go gently.
If the idea of getting off the trail for a wintery adventure interests you, "Walk on the Wild Side" on January 27, 2015 at 10am is a 2.5 hour hike off trail with one of the park rangers as a guide. Call (919) 571-4170 before the 10 available spots (well, 9... I just signed up) are filled up. See you there!