Every year while we’re down here, Kelsea and I take an excursion somewhere for a day.  We generally head north – last year, we went to Beaufort, the year before to Swansboro.  However, we’ve had a few … struggles passing through Camp Lejeune, which is basically in the way of anywhere north, so I decided we’d do something different this year.  Like go South.

To Bald Head Island.

My parents had often talked about taking a little daytrip down to Bald Head Island.  My dad loved lighthouses (as do I), and the Bald Head Island lighthouse (aka Old Baldy) is the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina. But somehow, we never did it.  For a number of years, the lighthouse was closed due to lack of funds, and I don’t think my folks wanted to do the long drive and not be able to climb to the top.

But I thought it might be just the ticket for the two of us.  A drive, a ferry ride, and an island with 14 miles of pristine beaches, a quaint little village surrounding a marina, a maritime forest, a lighthouse.  We will tool around on a rented golf cart, wander through the tree-arched forest, dabble in the sun-drenched sea edged by white sands.  A basically perfect day.

What is that they say about the best laid plans?  That they “aft gang agley”?  Well, mine aft ganged with some serious agleyness.

The day started out fine – a pretty deliciously disgusting steak biscuit from Hardee’s (it’s a once a year treat, ok? no comments from the peanut gallery).  We hit the road around 9:00, with Daniel, our navigational GPS James Bond, chiming in with directions when needed.  It was an easy drive, skirting Wilmington and turning east to hit the coastline.  And then WE were hit with an amazing rainstorm.  Wipers on high, roads nearly flooding, creating our own waves along our two lane highway.  We didn’t stop at the jeep that had flown off the road and buried it’s nose in the hillside, only because two other cars had already stopped.

The rain eased as we entered the town of Southport, where we were to catch the ferry.  Daniel, however, seemed to be somewhat befuddled, as he made repeated attempts to direct us down alleys, roads, and dirt tracks that had names but went nowhere.  Like a GPS creeper trying to lure us behind a barn to have his way with us.  So we turned him off, and found our way to the ferry on our own.

The ferry terminal was lovely and clean and cool. $48 got us two round-trip tickets and two tickets to the lighthouse. We wandered around the docks, admiring the sailboats and making speculative purchases. When the “Patriot” arrived, we snagged a corner seat on the outside upper deck.  The ferry was about as large as one of the larger Caribbean ferries, and as a catamaran, it was a smooth 15-minute crossing.

We pulled into the quaint little village of Bald Head, disembarked, and set off to see if we could get a golf-cart.  (There are no private vehicles allowed on the island.) The sign on the door of the rental shop said that no golf carts would be rented without a prior reservation.   Well, there has to be a way around that, right?  So we talked to Wade, a stoned, but still functioning young man, who considered the idea when I asked if I could go outside and call to reserve a golf cart.  After coming to his senses, he checked the schedule, and said that while they usually only have about 25 rentals a day, today they had 70, and a lot of their charging stations were out of order (or rather underwater) so they had fewer golf carts than reservations anyway.  He tried to talk us into electric bikes, even though I told him I didn’t ride a bike. That conversation concluded with him saying, “Yea, it’s as easy as riding a bike. Heh heh.” Very Beavis.  He did show us (sort of) a route to the lighthouse, and he was actually very sweet in a stoned teenage boy way.

We happily trotted down the boardwalk edging the beautiful marsh, with old trees framing the lighthouse in so many spots that Kelsea got irritated with my stopping every 5 seconds to take pictures very early on.  We passed through the tiny little gift shop, were awarded with our “I supported Old Baldy” stickers (it took great willpower for me to NOT think of that as a reference to my ex-husband), examined things in the tiny one-room museum, and headed out to the tower.

Old Baldy was originally illuminated in 1817, and was the second lighthouse on the island, the first being built in 1795 but destroyed by erosion. The 90-foot octagonal lighthouse has five-foot thick walls, narrowing to 2 1/2 feet thick at the tower’s top, and is made of brick, plaster, and stone, with stairs and flooring of North Carolina yellow pine.  The lighthouse has some amazing energy – a very spiritual place, strangely enough. It has a certain subtly primitive quality, and yet it displays its history beautifully and in its many layers (a theme for this trip, it seems).  Hard to describe – I’ll share some more pictures, which may help you see it through my eyes.

The steps to the top were tall and narrow, but with several landings, each with a strategic hole in the center so you could see down to the bottom or up to the top from whatever floor you were on.  The access to the light itself was up a narrow ladder.  Suffice it to say that the lighthouse keeper would need to have a fairly small ass, and I was pleased that I did just fine. (Others did not.)  The view from the top was great, but I wish it had been open – I suppose the liability for potential suicides is too great for that these days.  We were sweating like the wild boars that the island used to support by the time we finished the climb up and down.

From the top of the lighthouse, I had spied the church spire nearby and wanted to check it out, so we headed that way.  It was a cool respite from the heat.  The serenity was interrupted slightly by Kelsea asking me if Jesus had a middle name (although what I thought she asked me was if Jesus had a wooden leg, but either question was bizarre.)

Upon exiting the church, we tried to get a little closer to the marsh, but the bugs were biting a bit, so we ducked down a delightful forest path.  The little grey signs described the role that the island had played in the Civil War as the home of Fort Holmes, a haven for shipping and smuggling.  It was magical and fascinating.  And then things started turning on us.

Walking along the path, something suddenly leaped from the trees to our right.  Large and golden, I thought it was a big dog (though why it would be leaping from the trees I could not say), until I caught a glimpse of antlers which identified it as a stag.  Only one, bounding off into the woods.  Our path dead ended.  We suddenly realized we were being consumed by mosquitoes.  Turning around, we were performing a very unique tribal dance, trying to keep the bloodsuckers at bay.  We figured we’d head for the 14-miles of pristine beach – the breeze would certainly help with the bugs.

We dodged a few golf carts as our path crossed a little road.  And then, things got a little stranger.  First, the bugs got worse.  And worse.  And worse.  We did not have enough hands to swat at the flying things on all of our body parts. We came across a sign warning us of alligators.  And snakes.  And poison ivy.  Really truly.  And our path ended in a little raised walled platform with no way out except the way in. So we jumped over the wall, off the platform, running along a faint deer trail and hoping like hell that our legs weren’t being entwined with poison ivy and that no alligators were going to snap at us from the fetid pond next to us.  Still flailing, we emerged into the serenity of a golf course where we later figured out we were not supposed to be.  But the bugs had eased (as long as we kept walking) and so we followed the path, figuring it had to go somewhere – I kept thinking I could hear the sea.  I mean, it’s an island, right?  But I know that I am capable of getting lost for hours on a very small island.

We walked.  We flailed. We swatted each other. I would stop to take pictures and would be devoured.  We wished for cooler air (thankfully, it was overcast, although the rain must have made the bugs worse.) Finally, finally, we see a sign for Beach Access. Bliss is close at hand.  But… no. Bliss is another mile down a residential road and then another 1/2 mile of board walk and sand and then, we arrive at the beach.  But it’s not the pristine sands we were anticipating.  It was a stretch of sand covered with flotsam and dead marsh weeds piled a foot deep, with surf fisherman happily casting away.  We took our shoes and pants off and cooled off in the water for a few minutes, but there was nowhere to settle in comfortably, soooo… we went onward.

We decided to stay on the beach this time as long as we could.  The bugs were better there, and we could see where we were going.  We’d gone a long way – the lighthouse was way off in the distance – but the marina seemed closer.  As we walked along the track of golden sand, we came across some … bones?  Yes, bones.  We decided they were likely deer bones – a scapula and something totally unrecognizable. And creepily, both were right next to a large crabhole with a sort of long, wide lump extending away from it.  Freakish.

A few steps further and we are assailed by an absolutely vile stench.  I’ve smelled dead animals before, but never anything like this – our imaginations already inflamed, we both decided we were smelling a dead human.  And then we encountered some other spongy, boney mass next to a large lump in the sand and we were certain we’d come across some illicit grave.

Time to exit the beach at the next access. Which is just what we did.

Stopping ony to take a few pictures of frog roadkill (old habits die hard) we went immediately to Eb and Flo’s for something cold to drink and a little food.  We just beat some more rain, and the gin and tonic was most refreshing.

So our blissful escape did not exactly turn out how I  imagined.  Ferocious mosquitoes, endless walking, skranky beaches, potential dead bodies  – it did not exactly add up to my fantasy.  But my Kelsea said she wouldn’t have traded it for the world.  We were together, we laughed, it was an adventure, and something she said she’d always remember. Like me, she is learning that she who dies with the most stories, wins.

As for Bald Head Island, I am wondering if it is truly just a marketing ploy, as everything new on the island seems to be under the control of Bald Head Island Limited, which rents all the houses and (I think) makes all the rules.  The lighthouse was worth it, and I might try the island experience again, if we were to find ourselves spending a couple of days in the Southport area, and it hadn’t been pouring, and we could be sure we had a golf-cart.  Or we might just chalk this one up to experience and leave Bald Head Island to the wealthy visitors who can afford to make themselves at home for a few weeks.

What we have concluded is that excursions with me are never dull.