It was a late summer Sunday sometime in the mid-1970s, and I had been having a difficult time juggling motherhood, a job writing for an advertising agency, part-time teaching, and trying to write my second book of poetry. I was staying up half the night working on poems, then worrying about all the things I wasnt taking care of, the usual things a young too-busy parent worries about. My husband, Don, was a born optimist, a jazz and classical flutist, and a director of music at N.C. State University where he directed the symphonic band, the marching band, and the jazz band, in addition to teaching lecture courses on the history of music, jazz appreciation, and other subjects. We both worked very hard.
There is a kind of stress that can tear at the fabric of life, the ties of family, and even the weave of selfhood. Such stress I think is more common now, but in those days a woman working, especially at several different kinds of work, was not the norm in a suburban south still hungover from the 1950s. I would eventually find my way into a career I could stay with and love.
But not that year. Not that summer.
Don knew I was fraying. He had rare instincts for a man of his generation, and he knew exactly how to help me. Come on, he said that Sunday morning, I have something to show you.
Reedy Creek Park was then a well-kept secret in Wake County. It had been established in 1950 as a park for African Americans in Raleighs still rigidly segregated society. It was designed to be the other version of William B. Umstead Park, which had opened as Crabtree Recreation Area in 1937. The two parks were contiguous. Together (there is much irony in their being together though apart) they comprised several thousand wooded acres surprisingly near the fast-growing capital city. In 1966, the two were combined into one park under the name William B. Umstead State Park.
Those names tell us something about them. The one is a simple country name, a clear diagram of a place and its character. We see the reeds; we hear the tumbling of the creek in that name. By contrast, the main park, which now encompasses both land parcels, bears the name of a long dead politician who was a U.S. congressman, senator, and briefly governor of North Carolina. Even after the parks were consolidated, people kept the name Reedy Creek Park separate though officially it became only a second entrance to Umstead.
That summer Sunday when I was in my thirties, I knew nothing of all this. Wed always had our family outings at Umsteads main park, where the WPA had built the tables and small barbecue pits that we could build fires and roast hot dogs for picnics. I had never heard of Reedy Creek. My husband, however, was a runner, and he knew its pristine trails very well indeed. Even today the place is a runners haven. Don was going to show me the woods in the middle of our city, on a then-graveled road just past the DMV and the pastures of N.C. States animal husbandry farms.
We parked at the entrance, which was then closed to automobiles. The path in was wide and had once been wider. Wonderful edge-growth of pine saplings, some longleaf, and wild plum bushes had crept in and narrowed the way. Partway along was a marvelous tree, I think an oak, very large and old and taking a great chunk of the sky in its wide arms. It would play a role in a later day at the park. There were small plums on the bushes. Puddles from old rains marked the earth of the unkempt way, along with deer tracks. Tiny frogs animated the puddles, bringing memories of my east Texas childhood when I used to catch such new-limbed leapers and bring them home in a fruit jar full of creek water.
This whole place felt like home. I had grown up around such near-wild wandering fecundity, with acres of heavy woods around my childhoods homeplace. As we walked, holding hands, toward the spot where two smaller trails, one on either side, snaked off into the deep woods, Don and I listened for birds whose calls wed later learn to recognize, accompanied briefly by the bells of Mount Olive Church pealing out a hymn, softened by distance into proper mystery. ...