I rode bareback as a young girl and the horse and I moved as one. I remember the slanted, late afternoon winter light on the seemingly endless sand dunes spread in front of me and the plodding sound of hoof to sand from my trusty steed. Endless afternoons roaming the sparsely scattered knolls covered in vegetation which stubbornly clung to life. These hills and swales were our playground and we had it all to ourselves most of the time.
Here we found mounds of plump, ripe “fox grapes” in the fall of the year. My four-legged friend munched on beach grasses while I gathered wild grapes to take home to mother who made the tartest, best jelly ever spread on a thick slab of homemade bread.
I remember having this lonesome, wild place to myself during the winter months – myself and my horse named Sandy. There were no houses across the expansive dunes in those days and very few on the “backside” of the island where the weathered, tall trees grew in Old Nags Head Woods. My trails carried me from my parent’s home on the oceanfront of the barrier island, across the “flats” and then, across the northernmost edge of the smaller dunes that eventually flowed into what is now Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Sandy and I plunged forward and down the cascading sandy slopes where the sand dunes were constantly creeping southwestward overtaking the ancient maritime forest of Nags Head Woods.
Up and down steep sandy slopes, picking our way through dense trees or swimming in the Fresh Pond or Roanoke Sound. We would not see a single house until I reached Mr. Marshall Tillett’s place on the marshy soundside, nestled deep in the protected woods. My rides in this direction would eventually take us past the Fresh Pond for a drink of water to quench Sandy’s thirst and to sneak up on any wildlife that may be there for a drink.
The Fresh Pond was a magical place where fresh but dark tannic colored water collected in a natural sink amongst the sand dunes. Magical because the fresh water was an attraction for all forms of wildlife. Here Sandy and I would frequently scare away the doe-eyed deer, the masked-bandit raccoon family, and the fire-red wily fox. The woodland songbirds would drop down to the sandy shores of the pond from overhanging tree limbs of live oak and serviceberry and yaupon bushes for their sips of water or to chase insects that gathered there.
We swam in the Fresh Pond. I was afraid of the dark depths but Sandy would plunge right in and swim across with me clinging to her back and mane! What a refreshing feeling to all my senses! She must have enjoyed it too because the gentlest of nudges would have her swimming back to the other side in no time! The way home across the dunes always seemed lighter, easier as the sun baked us dry before we arrived home again.
Manns Harbor, NC, USA. Cyndy M. Holda retired as the Public Affairs Specialist for Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A native of Nags Head, North Carolina, she graduated from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and pursued a lifelong career with the National Park Service. She now enjoys freelance writing and photography from her home on the shores of the Croatan Sound in Manns Harbor, NC.