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At Elmo’s Diner, a story of humility and joy

Cam was a familiar sight at Elmo’s Diner on Ninth Street. Most nights, he would come for dinner wearing a nice shirt, sit at one of his familiar spots at the counter, patiently wait to be served and banter with the staff in his characteristic gentle, easy manner.

“Cam,” as he was known to Elmo’s staffers, was John Camden Hundley Jr. He died in 2016 at 83 years old.

Cam ate at Elmo’s so often, around seven o’clock most nights, the staff at the busy restaurant out of habit would start looking out for his car at his usual parking spot.

“Is Cam here yet?” people would start asking. He was supposed to call Elmo’s if he wasn’t going to come. His birthday was in the date book.

Although Hundley died in 2016, his death still weighs on the staff, and memories of him are cherished and protected. People are reluctant to be interviewed, for fear the emotions would come to the surface and there would be tears.

Chrissy Yuorick, who waited on him often, remembered what he would have. For dinner, he always ordered chicken, broccoli and toast. For dessert, he would have a single scoop of ice cream, with three sprinkles.

“I remember he didn’t call it ‘dessert,’” Yuorick said. “He would call it a ‘treat.’ He would finish his dinner and say, ‘I’m ready for my treat now.’”


Hundley, or “Cam,” as he was affectionately called by the staff.

Hundley gave Yuorick birthday cards, and had other presents ready for other staffers at Elmo’s. He had a “cheat sheet” for who’s on staff and what everyone liked, Yuorick remembered. “I’m a huge hockey fan, and there’s a player named ‘Cam,’” she said. “He remembered that. So I was Chrissy, but I was also his hockey girl.”

Hundley was a solid presence in the hustle-and-bustle, stressful day-to-day life of restaurant work. He lightened the mood with his friendly banter and warmth. If someone has a bad night, they can stop by for a chat with Cam and he would make them feel more at ease, sympathized with, accepted.

“He was just a wonderful spirit, to wrap it up in a nutshell,” said Jemmel Sanchez, another waiter at Elmo’s. “He had a wonderful personality.”

His death coincided with the loss of two other people close to the restaurant, which made for a traumatic early 2016 for the staff.

“Cam was very special to the staff, so naturally, they were very upset,” said Cammie Brantley, the long-time owner of Elmo’s. “We tend to be the kind of place that adopts a number of senior regulars. Cam was an especially hard one because he was so close to so many people.”


Co-owner Mark Schueler greets customers at Elmo’s Diner.

Maggie Ingram, Cam’s daughter, recounts his fast decline. In fall 2015, he had back pain and arthritis and began to use a walker. In early 2016, he fell and couldn’t walk. Then, he was hospitalized for a urinary tract infection that became a sepsis UTI.

Still, after he became sick, he would still go to Elmo’s and would get depressed if he could not get there for his dinner. “If he couldn’t get there, then it was a really bad night,” Ingram said.

Hundley’s humility in person belies a storied family background and personal career.

He was born in 1933 in Durham to father John Camden Hundley Sr. and mother Margaret Eloise Hundley. Hundley Sr. was the general manager of Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. For most of his career, Cam, or Hundley Jr., was an accountant at Duke University. He went to work at Liggett & Myers when his father became sick, according to Ingram. Later, he went back to Duke in accounting at Student Health. After retiring in the 1990s, he started working at Sports Endeavors in Hillsborough.

He went to Durham Academy, then Durham High School, then enrolled at Duke University, where he was in the glee club. Hundley witnessed the decades of changes in Durham. After he and his wife, Ingram’s mom, divorced was when he started living at Holly Hills apartments, where he stayed for about 40 years until just shortly before his death. There were times when Ingram and her siblings worried about him. “That area began to decline, and we were like, ‘Dad, are you OK?'” she said.

Her own memories of Durham and the Triangle are also informed by her father’s home base. Department stores like Hecht’s and Service Merchandise, the stores around the Holly Hills, Duke area, the history of Durham itself, and all the changes since her childhood, she remembers with perfect clarity — a cultural inheritance from her dad’s steady, humble life. As a child, she remembers going across Erwin Road to the forest on the Duke campus and gathering moss to use for Christmas decorations.

Her father was very insightful about people, she said, “And he was very understated about it.”

Cam with daughter Maggie 1989.jpg

Ingram dancing with her father, Cam, in 1989. Cam taught her to ice skate and do tricks on the ice. Photo courtesy of Maggie Ingram.

She recounted his fondness for ice skating and his adventurousness. In addition to skating, Hundley also went camping on Mount Mitchell by himself and would go to Southern Pines for golf.

He learned to ice skate in college, his daughter said. And when she was 11 years old, he started teaching her. “I can do tricks on the ice,” she said. “I can do spins. We’d have fun. He’d pull me through his legs.”

Ingram recounts how they would bond over watching figure skating together. “If we couldn’t watch together, then we’d call each other while there’s figure skating going on.”

“He had a very soft heart. He was very giving, very humble,” Ingram said of her father.

“I hope I have my own Elmo’s [when I’m his age],” Yuorick said. “He had a certain joy about him. I’m happy I was able to go to the hospice and say goodbye to him.”

Hundley’s memorial service mentioned his fondness for Elmo’s Diner and also included a poem, “The Eternal Goodness” by J.G. Whittier.

“I know not what the future hath of marvel or surprise, assured alone that life and death God’s mercy underlies.”

News round-up week of Jan. 5-10: As U.S. and Iran pushed toward war, life went on elsewhere in the region

The U.S. and Iran pushed toward war this past week, going from near-hysterical heightened tensions between the two countries, to a blinding fumble and resulting confusion, a downed passenger plane, to renewed protests that finally eased tensions, but still with no lasting trust or resolution.

So what has been going on?

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has two columns that shed light on the political and social changes in Iran.

“Trump Kills Iran’s Most Overrated Warrior”

“Iran Is Crushing Freedom One Country at a Time”

Another column in Al Jazeera also touches on what’s been going on in Iran

On Al Jazeera, NATO stood with the U.S.

Al Jazeera’s live updates also showed the tension, shock and consternation among all parties, which Pakistan wanting very much to be left out of the narrative.

Meanwhile, a glance at the newspapers elsewhere in the region shows that as the region was seemingly headed for war this past week, there was optimism and a steady movement. As activity in the U.S. and elsewhere froze, life kept going on.

In Dubai, the top news on Tuesday when tensions were the highest was not the U.S.-Iran conflict but that the country’s new tourist visas extended to five years.–#slide3

The Khaleej Times editor’s note also provided some much-needed insight and background on Iran’s actions

And we see why Pakistan wants to be left out of the narrative

Meanwhile, the Tehran Times ramped up its rhetoric and at one point had a story on the front page about “summoning” the German ambassador to rebuke them over Soleimani

By the end of the week, however, the Tehran Times had softened its tone to lead with a story on the new U.S. sanctions

By the end of the week, in Dubai, there were torrential rains.

“The Dream of the Earth” by Thomas Berry

When the Catholic priest Thomas Berry died in 2009, obituaries were not sure what to call him. “Cultural historian” was the preferred title. “Theologian” didn’t quite encompass his work, and he had preferred the term “geologian” instead. Born in Greensboro in 1914, Berry studied Asian languages and religions, Native American culture, founded the graduate program on religions at Fordham University, among other studies and work throughout his life — all in the search of a spirituality that combines religion and nature.

In “The Great Work,” Berry wrote about his profound spiritual experience at a meadow when he was 11 years old. The experience was the basis for his spiritual development and intellectual thought for the rest of his life. “Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformations is good, what is opposed to this meadow or negates it is not good,” he wrote.

Berry’s writing is soft yet powerful. It flows, and is difficult to quote and pull from. You end up reading the whole book but not being able to describe what you just read, and not wanting to either, but instead just to let the writing settle. The writing flows gently like water or like a breeze, and you delight in his love of the word “numinous.” 

Here is an excerpt from “The Dream of the Earth,” by Thomas Berry, published in 1988.

We are returning to our native place after a long absence, meeting once again with our kin in the earth community. For too long we have been away somewhere, entranced with our industrial world of wires and wheels, concrete and steel, and our unending highways, where we race back and forth in continual frenzy.

The world of life, of spontaneity, the world of dawn and sunset and glittering stars in the dark night heavens, the world of wind and rain, of meadow flowers and flowing streams, of hickory and oak and maple and spruce and pineland forests, the world of desert sand and prairie grasses, and within all this the eagle and the hawk, the mockingbird and the chickadee, the deer and the wolf and the beer, the coyote, the raccoon, the whale and the seal, and the salmon returning upstream to spawn — all this, the wilderness world recently rediscovered with heightened emotional sensitivity, is an experience not far from that of Dante meeting Beatrice at the end of the Purgatorio, where she descends amid a cloud of blossoms. It was a long wait for Dante, so aware of his infidelities, yet struck anew and inwardly “pierced,” as when, hardly out of his childhood, he had first seen Beatrice. The “ancient flame” was lit again in the depths of his being. In that meeting, Dante is describing not only a personal experience, but the experience of the entire human community at the moment of reconciliation with the divine after the long period of alienation and human wandering away from the true center.

Something of this feeling of intimacy we now experience as we recover our presence within the earth community. This is something more than working out a viable economy, something more than ecology, more even than Deep Ecology, is able to express. This is a sense of presence, a realization that the earth community is a wilderness community that will not be bargained with; nor will it simply be studied or examined or made an object of any kind; nor will it be domesticated or trivialized as a setting for vacation indulgence, except under duress and by oppressions which it cannot escape. When this does take place in an abusive way, a vengeance awaits the human, for when the other living species are violated so extensively, the human itself is imperiled.

The Dream of the EarthIf the earth does grow inhospitable toward human presence, it is primarily because we have lost our sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants, our sense of gratitude, our willingness to recognize the sacred character of habitat, our capacity for the awesome, for the numinous quality of every earthly reality. We have even forgotten our primordial capacity for language at the elementary level of song and dance, wherein we share our existence with the animals and with all natural phenomena. Witness how the Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande enter into the eagle dance, the buffalo dance, and the deer dance; how the Navajo become intimate with the larger community through their dry-paintings and their chantway ceremonies; how the peoples of the Northwest express their identity through their totem animals; how the Hopi enter into communication with desert rattlesnakes in their ritual dances. This mutual presence finds expression also in poetry and in story form, especially in the trickster stories of the Plains Indians in which Coyote performs his never-ending magic. Such modes of presence to the living world we still carry deep within ourselves, beyond all the suppressions and even the antagonism imposed by our cultural traditions.

Even within our own Western traditions at our greater moments of expression, we find this presence, as in Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, and even in the diurnal and seasonal liturgies. The dawn and evening liturgies, especially, give expression to the natural phenomena in their numinous qualities. Also, in the bestiaries of the medieval period, we find a special mode of drawing the animal world into the world of human converse. In their symbolisms and especially in the moral qualities associated with the various animals, we find a mutual revelatory experience. These animal stories have a playfulness about them, something of a common language, a capacity to care for each other. Yet these movements toward intensive sharing with the natural world were constantly turned aside by a spiritual aversion, even by a sense that humans were inherently cut off from any true sharing of life. At best they were drawn into a human context in some subservient way, often in a derogatory way, as when we projected our own vicious qualities onto such animals such as the wolf, the rat, the snake, the worm, and the insects. We seldom entered their wilderness world with true empathy.



The change has begun, however, in every phase of human activity, in all our professions and institutions. Greenpeace on the sea and Earth First! on the land are asserting our primary loyalties to the community of earth. The poetry of Gary Snyder communicates something of the “wild sacred” quality of the earth. In his music Paul Winter is responding to the cry of the wolf and the song of the whale. Roger Tory Peterson has brought us intimately into the world of the birds. Joy Adamson has entered into the world of the lions of Africa; Dian Fossey the social world of the gentle gorilla. John Lilly has been profoundly absorbed into the consciousness of the dolphin. Farley Mowat and Barry Lopez have come to an intimate understanding of the gray wolf of North America. Others have learned the dance language of the bees and the songs of the crickets.

What is fascinating about these intimate associations with various living forms of the earth is that we are establishing not only an acquaintance with the general life and emotions of the various species, but also an intimate rapport, even an affective relationship, with individual animals within their wilderness context. Personal names are given to individual whales. Indeed, individual wild animals are entering into history. This can be observed in the burial of Digit, the special gorilla friend of Dian Fossey’s. Fossey’s own death by human assault gives abundant evidence that if we are often imperiled in the wilderness context of the animals, we are also imperiled in the disturbed conditions of what we generally designate as civilized society.

Just now one of the significant historical roles of the primal people of the world is not simply to sustain their own traditions, but to call the entire civilized world back to a more authentic mode of being. Our only hope is in a renewal of those primordial experiences out of which the shaping of our more sublime human qualities could take place. While our own experiences can never again have the immediacy or the compelling quality that characterized this earlier period, we are experiencing a postcritical naiveté, a type of presence to the earth and all its inhabitants that includes, and also transcends, the scientific understanding that now is available to us from these long years of observation and reflection.

Fortunately we have in the native peoples of the North American continent what must surely be considered in the immediacy of its experience, in its emotional sensitivities, and in its modes of expressions, one of the most integral traditions of human intimacy with the earth, with the entire range of natural phenomena, and with the many living beings which constitute the life community. Even minimal contact with the native peoples of this continent is an exhilarating experience in itself, an experience that is heightened rather than diminished by the disintegrating period through which they themselves have passed. In their traditional mystique of the earth, they are emerging as one of our surest guides into a viable future.

Throughout their period of dissolution, when so many tribes have been extinguished, the surviving peoples have manifested what seems to be an indestructible psychic orientation toward the basic structure and functioning of the earth, despite all our efforts to impose on them our own aggressive attitude toward the natural world. In our postcritical naiveté we are now in a period when we become capable once again of experiencing the immediacy of life, the entrancing presence to the natural phenomena about us. It is quite interesting to realize that our scientific story of the universe is giving us a new appreciation for these earlier stories that come down to us through peoples who have continued their existence outside the constraints of our civilizations.

Presently we are returning to the primordial community of the universe, the earth, and all living beings. Each has its own voice, its role, its power over the whole. But, most important, each has its special symbolism. The excitement of life is in the numinous experience wherein we are given to each other in that larger celebration of existence in which all things attain their highest expression, for the universe, by definition, is a single gorgeous celebratory event.

Morgan Imports celebrates turning 50!

In a corner of the Morgan Imports store is the store’s Christmas room, which is filled with ornaments, trees, figurines and toy houses in wonderlands with names like, “Snow Village” and “Mistletoe Farm.”

Standing at the entrance to the room, Peter Bangasser points out carolers to his baby. Bangasser used to live in downtown, and that’s when he started shopping there. “My wife and I get an ornament here every year,” he said.

Alice Isard, 6, said her favorite part of the store is Buck, the reindeer who has given probably thousands of kids rides. She was looking at a Christmas tree and then helping her father, Ben Isard, pick out presents.

Holding up a coaster, she said, “I like this cup mat.” Isard, humoring her, said, “Cup mat? You want this cup mat?”

Morgan Imports in downtown Durham is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and as the holiday season began, long-time customers and new customers alike stopped by to get into the Christmas spirit.

Richard Morgan started the store in downtown in 1969. Since then, it has grown into a destination and stalwart, filled with a huge assortment of goods ranging from cards, books, soaps, lotions, and candles, to clocks, kitchen goods, science kits, journals, and also furniture. There is also the abundant decorations and collectibles in the Christmas room, which is open year-round and known just as, “Department 56” by Morgan and his wife Jacqueline, for the company that makes them.


Alice Isard, 6, shops with her father Ben Isard.

Morgan, at 84 years old, immediately said he had no plans to retire when he arrived for the interview.

“You’re used to working seven days a week,” Morgan said. “I’m 84, I’ve always worked for myself. I just never thought about retiring. We spend more time here than anywhere else.”

Morgan, a Durham native, first opened the store on Main Street. After a fire devastated the store, he moved it to its current location on Gregson Street in Brightleaf Square in 1981. Jacqueline Morgan, 78, was then a customer and met Richard at the restaurant he also owned at Five Points. She married him and joined him in working at Morgan Imports.

There’s just a handful of businesses that have been in downtown Durham for that long, and Morgan Imports is one of them alongside Ward’s Furniture and Stone Bros. & Byrd.

With experience and instincts honed over decades, the Morgans don’t overthink about what they like and what sells, and that fluidity shows in the cohesion of the store.

They also get some help from loyal customers who’ve been shopping there since practically when it first opened. The store held an anniversary party in November and long-time customers showed up, as well as employees, many of whom have worked in the store for decades.

Leah Johnson has been a customer since shortly after she moved to Durham in 1971. She still has items she bought there from that time.

“I just loved the ambience and the variety of merchandise. And the clerks are always super friendly,” Johnson said. “The first thing we do when we come to Durham now is go to Morgan Imports. Now that we have granddaughters, we bring them and we always have something to buy, whether it’s for the kitchen, or the grandchildren.”

That’s not to say maintaining quality of goods and services has been easy. The past few years in downtown have been stressful and anxiety-ridden for small businesses. There was ongoing construction on multiple condominiums developments, which made getting around downtown uncomfortable and difficult for visitors, and traffic was also funneled too close to the store. Earlier this year in April, there was the explosion at Prescient on North Duke Street. More recently, there was more construction — this time, on the famous “can opener” bridge that has wrecked so many trucks over the years. That bridge is practically just outside Morgan Imports’ window.

Retail traffic has also become more unpredictable. Richard Morgan used to be able to predict sales down to the hundred, but for at least the past decade, that has not been the case. And Millennial trends and shopping habits also have been hard to crack. Recently, unexpectedly, there was a wave of young people on one particular weekend. Why that weekend?

“We’ve noticed that trends don’t last very long. Trend up and trend down is maybe six to eight months. It used to be years. Trends with the Millennials are shorter,” Jacqueline Morgan said. “Now you’re also inundated [with social media]. Once you’re not there anymore, you’re looking for something new.”

“Online has certainly affected it. If you’re not used to touching things, then you’re not going to go out looking for it,” Jacqueline said.

“Online, a lot of young people do that. But online is good if you know what you want. We still offer that retail experience to people.” Richard added.

“It’s been a challenge to stay profitable too. 2008 was challenging. The last quarter was not good,” Morgan added. “But Duke is a very solid economy in Durham itself. So we were down 3 percent [in 2008] instead of 20 percent like some people.”

“There used to be a huge back to school season,” Richard Morgan said. “Probably ten years ago, that changed.”

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And these times are a different beast in general. In the ‘80s, Jacqueline said, “There was nothing you could buy that didn’t sell.”

Although the 1980s had its own challenges. The gift industry had taken a blow from the AIDS epidemic, because many of the artists and artisans that made up the industry had contracted AIDS.

Going over their decades of experience, the Morgans went through their memories of customers and business people they have met, travels, and also popular items that used to fly off the shelves, like baskets, rattan furniture, black light posters, and stickers. “I always said, ‘At 10 cents each, they paid the rent’,” Jacqueline said.

“The most satisfying thing has been being able to travel and experience everyday people, everyday life wherever we go,” Richard said. “Not just traveling for business, but seeing how people live.”

On a recent afternoon, Kristen Butler and Sarah Tamore were admiring the coffee mugs and teapots in the store. “There’s a lot of really cute gift ideas,” Tamore said. She had come to the store more than a dozen times, she said, and brought her friend this time, who was on her first visit.

They had met up for lunch and decided to stop by afterward. The young women each held up tiny ceramic cats and smiled. “We’re commemorating our friend date,” said Butler.

What is Save RDU Forest?

The landscape around the 105-acre “Odd Fellows” property is serene during winter.

Although it’s right by Interstate 40, a quarry is just feet away, and although construction equipment have begun to move into the area, the landscape is still a healthy forest, with old hardwoods reaching at the sky and ferns underneath.

In March, the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority’s Board leased the property to Knightdale-based Wake Stone Corp. for mining over 25 years for $24 million. The Umstead Coalition and others say the agreement would not be able to generate as much revenue for the airport as projected, and that more alarmingly, a lease for a quarry cannot be a real lease since the land will not be returned in the same condition. The Odd Fellows tract as it is, with all of its trees, water and animals, will cease to exist.

“Save RDU Forest” is the ongoing effort by the Umstead Coalition to save the property.

“We have been actively involved since 2016,” said Jean Spooner, chairwoman of the Umstead Coalition. The coalition preserves the 5,600-acre William B. Umstead State Park just north of the tract. “The Odd Fellows tract has, forever since the beginning of the park in 1934, been on the identified land acquisition for the park,” Spooner added.

In 2017, the Conservation Fund along with the coalition offered $6.5 million for the tract, and Wake Stone also submitted its own proposal. They were both rejected by the airport. This year, however, the airport changed its mind.

The Umstead Coalition says the airport does not have the authority to make this significant lease since it is public land, owned by Raleigh City, Wake County, Durham City and Durham County — the four municipalities that own the airport. The airport says it has the authority to make such business moves without prior approval and says the Federal Aviation Administration agrees. The FAA in December 2017 had also approved RDU’s massive $2.7 billion “Vision 2040” master plan.

In November, a Wake County superior court judge sided with the airport. The coalition says it will appeal the decision.

The Umstead Coalition’s fight with the airport has drawn attention from local residents who have clamored to do activism work on the issue. Chief among them has been TORC, or Triangle Off-Road Cyclists, who wants to build “mountain bike” trails on the property.

As “Save RDU Forest” continues, the green and red signs from the Umstead Coalition have slowly made their way to the western part of the Triangle, Durham and Chapel Hill. But here, they are still few and far in between.

This is the first story examining the “Save RDU Forest” issue. It’s a story in three parts. First, the fight between the coalition and RDU heated up this week over an 8-mile-long chain link fence that would surround the quarry. Second, I go on a winter hike with Jean Spooner to see the forest and Crabtree Creek. Third, who is TORC?

The fight heats up


“Save RDU Forest” signs are all around the property of Randal and Tamara Dunn. The quarry will be just beyond their backyard.

The same day the Umstead Coalition urged state environmental regulators to deny permits for a proposed 8-mile chain link fence, the airport went on the offense with a video and blog post.

The airport’s proposed 8-foot-tall chain link fence, complete with three strands of barbed wires and a “tension bar,” would surround the Odd Fellows tract, or the site of the proposed quarry. The coalition opposes it because of the 15-foot clear-cutting that would occur on either side of the fence and because it would sever a state parks trail at two points.

The fence is estimated to cost $2 million. RDU Director of Media Relations Stephanie Hawco said in a phone call that it is the first phase of a multi-phase project, the size and cost of which is unknown at this point.

When pressed over e-mail for further comments on why the fence is necessary, Hawco replied:

“Your questions read more like an editorial than a journalist’s effort to gather facts. It appears that you have already drawn conclusions about this issue, as evidenced by your telling me over the phone that you already know the answers.”

[I said that I had seen the details in the proposal.]

“Should you be interested, the facts are as follows,” she continued. “Activists are spreading misinformation about RDU’s proposed perimeter fencing as a scare tactic to further their agenda. RDU is working with North Carolina State Parks to ensure that the perimeter fence does not block access to Umstead State Park or the multi-use trail that crosses airport property. The proposed perimeter fencing is in the design phase and is intended to enhance security and keep trespassers off airport land.”

The questions asked over e-mail were: Why is the fence necessary? The airport has not had problems with trespassers in the past. Why is this now a problem? Why is the first phase of the fence encircling, and protecting the Wake Stone project, and so it’s not actually protecting the airport? What’s the airport’s statement on Umstead saying that the fence would sever the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail in two locations?

And it seems like the plan for the fence was hastily put together only to protect the Wake Stone project. Why is that?

According to the proposal on RDU’s web site, contractors were given a site tour in November, but the proposal also can be found on other web sites from as early as July. The fence is the latest of RDU’s accelerated building efforts following the approval of its $2 billion “Vision 2040” master plan by the FAA in December 2017.

Since 2017, RDU has also increased funding in general. According to the airport’s financial reports, its capital contributions increased a whopping 987.6 percent from fiscal year 2018 to 2019, jumping from $4.9 million in federal and state funds in 2018 to $53.8 million in 2019.

A hike in the forest


Oaks, beeches and pines in the forest here.

On a bright winter day, I meet Jean Spooner, chairwoman of Umstead Coalition, to begin what turns out to be a beautiful and eye-opening hike through the woods to Crabtree Creek.

I had spoken with Spooner earlier in a two-hour-long phone interview and wanted to see the area myself. She agreed to meet with me the following week.

We park by the home of Randal and Tamara Dunn, who have been vocal in opposing the quarry that would be built just beyond their backyard. “Save RDU Forest” signs in red and green line the front of their property. Just that morning, Spooner says, trucks began rolling into a newly paved path just by the Dunns. They were new neighbors, and wholly unwelcome.

As the construction machinery rumble about, Spooner brings out a map of the area to situate where we are and give me a rundown on where we will go. She has worked at Umstead since the 1970s and is a woman fully in charge. Dressed in a down jacket and a hat, she is ready for the hike and smartly remembers a water bottle, which I do not have. The morning coffee will have to go a long way that day! We start walking, and she pauses briefly to check if I’m wearing decent hiking shoes. I do have that at least.

We keep away from the pink-ribbon markers on trees, which are signs of the boundaries of the Wake Stone project, and follow the state park system’s yellow dots.

She helpfully tells me to watch for the sinkholes where tree trunks have rotted away. “People have broken legs in those things, so be careful,” she says. Although 65 years old, Spooner moves quickly and steadily through the woods.

As we walk, Spooner remarks on the new 8-foot-tall chain link, barbed-wire fence planned by the airport, pointing out where it would go. The issue is clearly on her mind. “It’s a prison fence,” she says. “[Reedy Creek trail] is one of the most popular trails in the state, and they did not even consult the state.”


The forest here is mostly oak trees, not as many pines as other areas in the Triangle. “All this hardwood is very rare,” Spooner says. “It’s quite impressive.”

She estimates some of the oaks to be about 60 years old, and she says this forest, the way it looks in winter, is a healthy forest.

The landscape is beautiful and calm. Although we could hear the machinery and the occasional blasting, it still feels spiritually elevated. It has seen less traffic from hikers and bicyclists than many other natural places in this area in recent years, and still feels protected. It feels like how other natural places felt for a long time, and still felt just a few years ago.

There are beech trees, with their copper leaves this time of year. Tall oaks. Some pine trees. And underneath the trees, there are ferns. In some parts of the landscape, there are pretty quartz stones dotting the ground like nature decided to casually throw out some jewels.

We could not hike on the Odd Fellows tract. But from photos people have shared on social media, it looks just as or more beautiful than this area. Another hardwood forest, with wildflowers, and frogs and salamanders.

As we hike, we see construction equipment from Wake Stone start moving into the woods uphill from us. We turn and keep following the yellow dots downhill toward Foxcroft Lake. The lake has a small dam made from rocks that have become covered with moss and ferns.

The Odd Fellows tract is named after the Odd Fellows, a fraternal order that had owned it before it became airport property. And Boy Scouts have used the land since then. I look at the lake and wonder how much fishing and swimming have taken place there. Pink ribbons are in the trees just in front of us. Under Wake Stone’s proposal, Foxcroft Lake would cease to exist. It would become part of the quarry.

The landscape here is more stark than Umstead Park. If Umstead feels like a big, lush tree, with branches going every way, then the land in this part feels like a tree that has grown straight up, as if survival was the only thing.

As we climb up the hill away from the lake, Spooner tells me of the stark history that is part of the land here.

The area had been a 1930s Depression-era public works project. Trees were clear cut and the land had been used for farming. She points to the deep cuts in the landscape that during rainstorms would be rivulets flowing down into the lake. Those happened because of erosion, Spooner says.


At the top of the hill, we see the trail beside Crabtree Creek and go down. I have never seen the creek before and remark at how wide it is. “It’s called a creek but it’s really a river,” Spooner says.

Crabtree Creek begins in Cary and winds through the neighborhoods and shopping centers of Cary before getting to Lake Crabtree, which was created by damming the creek. After that, it snakes up north under I-40. The portion we are hiking runs along a side of the existing quarry by Wake Stone that is right by I-40 and Harrison Avenue.

In an earlier phone interview, Spooner had pointed out something she knows from working on Umstead all these years. “The airport drains into Crabtree Creek. The airport actually drains into Umstead Park. All the de-icing, the thawing, the park processes all of that.”

Two hikers pass us. I say hello to the woman and she smiles and nods. The scant crowd here, at least on that day, was gentle and friendly.

Spooner points out to me wild ginger growing. We come upon boulders, 15- to 20-foot-tall, sheer-faced, that jut out and stand boldly just by the creek. The soil around them is dark, with delicate green plants growing in their shade.


The other side of Crabtree Creek is a 200-foot buffer, sloping up to the border of the existing quarry. The treeline for that is visible.

The buffer proposed for the new quarry on this side of the creek would be just 100 feet. In that case, Crabtree Creek would become a creek suspended above two quarries.

We then hike to a tributary stream where people have seen run white from the existing quarry over many years.

“We also risk that the creek might collapse, and that would be catastrophic,” Spooner said in the phone interview.

Imagining how that would feel to hike that, 200 feet to a quarry on one side, 100 feet to another quarry on the other – it felt like it would be virtual, like hiking there would be a videogame or virtual reality. There would be woods on either side of the river where you stand, but it’s not quite real. You are actually hiking the peak between two quarries, and the woods in the buffers make you think it’s a landscape like any other river with watersheds feeding into it. But that’s not quite the truth.

There was another thing about it that my mind cannot quite process. It’s different from a river being bounded by urban structures. A city, even with all of its pollution and activity, is still real life feeding into a river, the people on its banks affecting it with all of their movement and way of life. When the city becomes cleaner, so does the river. But a river above two chasms is not quite alive. It’s like a river only in the abstract, going through the motions until it can get to the other side. What is a river without the earth around it, alive and feeding into it?

How had the business and political dealings in the Triangle led to this point?


On the hike back, Spooner shares with me more of her knowledge on watersheds.

“It would be an environmental tragedy to destroy this,” she says.

“The worst thing you could do is to level the land by a river,” Spooner says. “The land recharges the stream slowly. If you level it, you lose all of that vegetative sponge for the water. You lose Mother Nature’s natural control of flooding.”

Three and a half hours after we started, we end up back at the Dunn’s. As we stand there talking, another truck laden with dirt and rocks rumbles out. It goes up the road, turning into another newly paved path.

Who is TORC?


A tributary stream that people say they’ve seen run white.

When the Conservation Fund offered to buy the property in 2017, it included the Umstead Coalition in its proposal, and also a smaller organization. That was TORC, or the Triangle Off-Road Cyclists.

From the press release for the Fund’s purchase of the land, Dave Anderson, advocacy chairman for TORC had said, “We see this as a win-win solution for both RDU and the community, and we’re excited about the opportunity for expanded hiking and mountain biking opportunities in such a popular, central area.”

However, Anderson revealed during a phone interview this week that TORC would have contributed no money toward the purchase.

Anderson also could not respond on why the organization wants to turn the property primarily into use for mountain bikers.

When asked how much his organization has grown in the past few years, and also why, Anderson could not answer.

Were people perhaps drawn to “off-road cycling” because of safety concerns on regular roadways during a politically and socially tumultuous time? Anderson had no response to that.

Anderson pointed out the organization has more than 5,000 members on “Do you know” he said. “We’re probably the biggest Meetup group in the Triangle.”

Actually, there is at least one Meetup group that’s bigger than TORC. The Triangle Hiking & Outdoors Group has 10,225 members.

The airport has made concessions to TORC. Aside from the Odd Fellows tract, the airport has promised mountain trails at another airport property.

When asked if since the property is owned by the public, that maybe people and groups other than TORC would want to have a say in its use in the future, Anderson bristled. “We’ve put $13,000 into this. We’ve gone to public meetings,” he said. “We’ve funded a documentary.”

When asked why “mountain biking” has become so popular in this area when the Piedmont terrain is mostly not suitable for it – North Carolina, after all, is not Colorado – Anderson carefully explained, “Well, mountain biking just means riding on dirt.”

Actually, a look at Atlanta-based Southern Off-Road Bicyclists Association, the parent organization of TORC, reveals the organization’s mission is in part to promote the building of what are traditionally considered to be mountain bike trails, simulating mountainous terrain.

SORBA celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018 by launching a new website. During a membership drive recently, it gave away a brand new $2,000 bike. The nonprofit organization has also applauded the work of local chapters in building new tracks, including a new pump track at Charlotte’s Colonel Francis Beatty Park. The sandy, wet land already had an existing bike track.

Halloween movies! Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein

“Frankenstein” was the classic movie monster that has never really gotten a decent update. There have been many witches and vampires TV shows and movies over the years, as well as werewolves and zombies. (How long has “The Walking Dead” been running now?) But Frankenstein was the one that stayed like he was, as that 1930s era iconic persona.

And Frankenstein has become a short hand in popular culture: “Misunderstood wretched monster created by science and the hubris of man,” is probably it. And he is kind of a funny character and relatable. He awkwardly roams through the countryside and he is very straightforward in how he tries to relate to people. In the second movie, he meets a hermit in the woods who finally treats him well, gives him shelter, food, wine. “Wine! Good!” he shouts.

Frankenstein and the hermit

Frankenstein and the hermit in “The Bride of Frankenstein”

“It’s alive!”

But it’s only when you get into the wrong state of mind and watch Frankenstein – or maybe the right state of mind – that you see more clearly why it’s so horrifying.

Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and released in 1931, is relentlessly bleak. It’s a very short movie that’s just 70 minutes long. It’s so simple that it’s stark. The sets are gothic, but not theatrical, so it’s almost like you’re peering into this creepy world instead of having a story of it be told to you. Frankenstein has no big cinematic flourishes. It doesn’t even seem to try to entertain. It does not try to create sympathy for the monster or make his motivations very obvious. The monster, played by Boris Karloff, runs through everything, destroys everything, kills violently and at random and without sympathy.

And for me, the two scenes of Frankenstein meeting the little girl by the lake and the scene of her father carrying her body through the streets of the town are a couple of the most morbid and creepy scenes I remember seeing in movies.

In those two scenes, you catch a whiff of the violence and morbidity that was about to break out in the world in the 1930s. That’s the kind of moment in a movie that I really wonder what kind of human weakness and darkness World War II grew out of. It’s also a moment in that movie that makes me think of how much was transformed after World War II, in movies like “The Sound of Music.”

It’s not until the second Frankenstein movie that you start to understand what was going on.

When the monster first emerges, he gestures toward Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a gesture he makes more of in the second movie, especially in the scenes with the hermit in the woods. Hands open, he seems to say, “What do you want? What should I do?”

The ability to love and to relate is what this monster-man created by science wanted, but just couldn’t seem to get, even when his inventor makes him a bride.

“The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) is a very different movie from Frankenstein. By the time this movie was made, the Frankenstein story became more theatrical and the “It’s alive!” line was performed with more fun. The movie is also more accessible and more real than the original Frankenstein. In the scene when the Bride comes alive, you can almost smell the metal and smoke in the room, the electricity and power in the technology. The original Frankenstein had conveyed a damp, creepy tower, and the power in that moment was more metaphoric – and that’s more the Frankenstein in the popular imagination.

Bride of Frankenstein

The Bride emerges.

The Bride, the havoc she could have wreaked. She doesn’t appear until the last 10 minutes of the movie, with that electrified hair and white streaks like lightning bolts. She looks around, and you see she’s obviously a different creature from Frankenstein. Maybe, actually more monstrous.

In the Frankenstein movie, when he emerges, he gestures toward the sun, and he opens his hands. When the Bride steps forward, she looks down and then looks up, not at sunlight, but up the tower where lightning would have struck her.

The monster approaches her, and she shrieks at him, and the shriek comes out unexpectedly, horrifyingly like a squeak, half machine, half animal.

Those 10 minutes are filled with mystery that was never explored, but still surprisingly relevant and alive (“Aliiive!”).

You wonder how much the movies in that era prepared people for war and for everything that was built afterward. In the moment when the Bride looks around and stares, there are so many questions: “What does this mean? What is this science or magic? What is it going to do with me? What am I?”

In that moment, you see all of the technology that followed in the 20th Century and the human instinct for its power, for its ability to transform, and to marvel at it.

And, here is a major spoiler: The same actress, Elsa Lanchester, played both the Bride and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley at the beginning of the movie.

Maybe during the making of this classic, how it all came together, the director and the actors had an instinct for some truth.

The Bride of Frankenstein, which Roger Ebert considered to be the best of the Frankenstein movies, also had this magical moment.

As Schoolhouse celebrates 30 years, stories and lessons abound

About 400 parents and kids gathered at the West Point on the Eno last Saturday for the 30th anniversary of Schoolhouse of Wonder. The organization has led nature classes for kids at the Eno River since 1989, and was celebrating with storytelling, s’mores at campfires and games.

Despite the torrential rains this area has seen all summer, the weather last Saturday kept calm and Schoolhouse held its celebrations in a perfect, temperate evening.

Children gathered to make fire, whittle and practice tomahawk throwing. As Annabelle and Lillie Barbour, 12 and 10, busily whittled away, Annabelle said to another girl, “Could you aim that a little away from (Lillie)?” “Yeah,” Lillie chimed in, “it’s like you’re trying to kill me.”

At a fire making spot, 8-year-old Isabella Reynolds made a little fire in the straw, which is a skill her mom, Carrie Reynolds, said she has learned at Schoolhouse and at other nature classes in the area. Isabella is homeschooled, so getting out to programs such as the ones offered by Schoolhouse allows her to interact with other children.

“She’s just a very social girl, so teaching her these skills is important. And when she has success (at making fires) – that is, if the parents don’t take over – then it also builds confidence,” Reynolds said.

It’s one of the missions Schoolhouse, founded in 1989, has cultivated from the beginning, as well as instilling a sense of connection to nature in children.

“It’s not every city that has this amazing park (like the Eno) within city limits,” said Executive Director Wendy Tonker. “So to make people aware and have a connection with it is key. If kids aren’t going to those parks, then it’s a much higher hill to climb for them to be good stewards of those places later on.”

Schoolhouse 2

Isabella Reynolds, 8, makes a fire in the straw.


Annabelle Barbour, 12, left, and Lillie Barbour, 10, whittle and make jokes.

Tonker herself became involved with Schoolhouse first as a parent, then as a board member. At Schoolhouse’s new office at the Mechanics & Farmers Corporate Building on U.S. 15-501, Tonker spoke about her thoughts on nature education as her young son played with toys on a bean bag beside her desk.

Tonker had enrolled her oldest son with Schoolhouse in 2009. She was trying to get her son to go outside instead of spending all his time on computers.

“I would tell the camp counselors, ‘Whatever you do, do not let him go on the computer. He will try to get on the computer, but just don’t let him do it.’ But they were so nice. And every afternoon, he would still find a way to get on the computer,” she said, chuckling.

Speaking on the need for nature education for children now, Tonker said many children are not playing outside without supervision anymore.

“Kids are not playing anymore for an undetermined amount of time outside. And kids learn things when they play, like problem-solving, conflict resolution. They come up with games themselves. These are soft skills that will inform kids’ abilities as they move through the world as adults,” Tonker said.

In 2011, Tonker became executive director. Since then, the organization has expanded into Wake County and Orange County and added new classes. Schoolhouse enrolled about 6,000 students total this past summer, according to Tonker, and added a new class in geology. The organization also now has 20 full-time employees.

The Wake programs have been particularly successful and grown steadily since they started in 2014. The Wake programs alone made up about 1,000 students this year, according to staff. In 2014, it began with about 200.

The Wake programs operate in Umstead Park and at Harris Lake at Apex. Schoolhouse was able to expand into Umstead because the City of Raleigh had shut down its own camps there in 2013. Schoolhouse’s Orange County programs are in Brumley Nature Preserve.


Despite the torrential rains this area has had this summer, last Saturday was the perfect, temperate September evening.

Carin Gray has been enrolling her kids, 10 and 7 years old, in the Orange County programs for the past three years. Gray started camping when she was in college, and she likes that her kids are learning those skills earlier in life. Gray also does rock-climbing, but she said it has been harder to get her kids to challenge themselves with that.

“At first, as a parent, we were worried that (Schoolhouse) wasn’t organized enough. They put a lot of responsibility on the kids. They make the kids responsible from the time they’re dropped off to the time they leave,” Gray said. “Before they went, they didn’t have a huge interest in going to the creek and going and looking under the rocks. Now they’re ready to roll, and they want to teach us about it.”

“It’s nice to see that they have that knowledge and they’re interested in it,” she said.

“The way that we treat kids and handle behavior management is different from a lot of organizations,” said Meg Gulledge, staff director. “We are outside all day. Unless it’s storming, we are outside.”

“We are very old school,” Gulledge added. “I think parents like seeing that, that this is what they did as kids, playing outside until it’s dark and that’s when you come home. They want their kids to have that same experience.”

And in her experience, children also take to playing outside and adapt quickly.

“It’s interesting. It’s very natural to kids,” Gulledge said. “They’ll get so excited. And as soon as they learn a few things, they’ll just build this immaculate hut.”

“But there’s definitely a wall that you have to break down,” she added, and gave an example of a little girl who did not want to wade into a creek. “She was afraid to play in the creek because she said there were alligators. And you think that well, if she’s always lived in a place where there are no creeks, maybe she would think there were alligators.”



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At the 30th anniversary celebration, families parked themselves out on foldout chairs and beach blankets and listened to storytellers both professional and amateur. As the light dimmed, everyone relaxed and just listened. The older kids ran around and mothers strolled with small children.

Dave Cook and Wayne Poole, co-founders of Schoolhouse, both told stories and sang. Poole told a story about a doctor in Durham who cleverly taught a bunch of boys a lesson about not wasting food that involved watermelons and a giant needle. Cook played guitar and sang a folk song about the Eno called, “Long Time Ago Days.” “Kind of a ghastly song,” he said. The song had been collected by Margaret Nygard, who had been instrumental in preserving the land and founding the Association for the Preservation of Eno River Valley in 1966.

Camp counselor Maddy Rossie told a fairy tale story about a bear who was sent to deliver gifts to the king. On his journey, the bear stopped to give the gifts to other people, so the king imprisoned him for failing his mission. But in the end, the bear was rescued by the grateful people to whom he had given the gifts.

Raymond Christian, a storyteller from Boone, told stories of growing up in North Carolina, about how he helped his mom, illiterate and poor, fill out a form for social security. He told her where to put her name, where to sign. “You will never know what it’s like to be ignorant.” she told her son.

Christian told a story of how he was helped by a kind man, wearing nice shoes and expensive cologne, when his dog was struck by a car. And how as he grew up, he had a thirst for learning and knowledge. One time, he stole the dictionary, the actual Webster’s Dictionary from the library, because he was so excited to read it.

“I ran straight for the open door. But instead, there was plexiglass,” he said as the audience laughed.

Christian’s life then took him on many adventures. He became a paratrooper, and then he went to college and law school. “I was telling everyone I was going to become a lawyer. Hey nice to meet you. I’m going to law school!”

Storyteller Cynthia Waxter also told stories from her own life, and ended her storytelling with a lesson to the audience.

“Dance in the rain, sing in the sunshine, and don’t ever miss an opportunity to enjoy life.”