Imagine a peaceful, cool morning. You hike along, far from civilization, inside the beautiful, wooded Umstead State Park between Durham and Raleigh, North Carolina. You see only a few other hikers, an occasional runner. You hear a rumble behind you, turn, and behold a caravan of cars, SUVs, and pickups led by a park ranger’s truck coming along the trail. Who is this!? Blasphemous!
It’s me…me and my immediate family, plus cousins, on our annual trip to clean the family graveyard. Some of us are too old to hike, so each year a ranger escorts our caravan along a dirt road and a graveled trail, all the way from the faraway parking lot at the Visitor’s Center just off U.S. 70. We ride in eight, maybe 15, vehicles, 20 to 40 of us, ranging in age from 3 to 89. We park along the trail and walk to a clearing with 26 graves, half with markers and half unmarked except for simple stones.
The graveyard was born around 1900 when a farmhand without a family died—his last name was Stanley. The field behind my grandparents’ farmhouse became his final resting place. Then a baby girl—a cousin—was born dead and buried next to Mr. Stanley. Then another baby…then a great-uncle. And eventually my great-grandmother, great-grandfather, grandmother, and grandfather.
Later, in 1934, 5,000 acres surrounding the graves were purchased from landowners by the federal government and sold to North Carolina for one buck. Camp and picnic sites were built on the land before it opened to the public in 1937. But the site of the graves remains with our family as long as we keep it up.
In the late eighties, I stood with my Aunt Oma (b. 1899) in the middle of the graveyard. I said, “I wish I knew the names of all the people buried here.”
“Get a pencil and paper,” she said. “I can name every one.”
The old-timers among us (including me) used to be the youngsters listening to the old-timers talk as they cut weeds, ate ham and biscuits, and told stories about our relatives—characters like my great-grandma whose name was Elizabeth Darbee Barbara Ferebee Caroline Jane Keith Warren (b. 1829). Her husband, my great-grandfather, William Pinckney Warren (b. 1827), the local millwright, called her Puss. She rode a horse sidesaddle, delivered babies, and once told a Yankee soldier who stole a ham from her smokehouse, “I hope you burn in the belly of hell.”
I rake, stop, remember, talk, listen. I show my children the small gravestone with “Born Ded” scraped roughly, now barely visible. The wind whispers high in the pines. This place of final rest is my favorite outdoor spot on Earth. Mostly because of the stories that go with it. I corralled many of them into a novel called The Floatplane Notebooks.
Part of Umstead State Park, this graveyard is open to the public. If you happen by and see some weeds near a gravestone, pull a few. That will give us, on our next grave-cleaning visit, a little more time for stories.
Clyde shared more of his favorite places in Durham, North Carolina
Favorite Taste of Home
“A taco that blossoms with flavor from Taqueria la Vaquita.”
Best Local View
“From the first bridge on the American Tobacco Trail, which starts just south of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.”
Only in Durham…
“…can you find The Scrap Exchange, which collects and sells recycled materials like spools and buttons.”