Where Have the Trees and Horses Gone?

John Riddle

Essay by John Riddle 

On a recent vacation to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, my wife and I took one of those wild adventure tours that promise to show you horses in their natural habitat in and around the beach area in Corolla.  The open-air sightseeing vehicles were equipped with seat belts, and the guide warned that “you had better buckle up because shortly you will be experiencing a wild ride up the beach while we look for the horses.”

He wasn’t kidding!  It was a bumpy ride from the get-go.  We were told it would be about twenty minutes before we would reach where the horses could roam wherever they wanted.  Watching the waves crash on the sand and smelling the salt air, I noticed something in the distance.  I tried to focus my eyes. I wasn’t sure if I was seeing large, jagged black teeth sticking out of the sand by the water, or tombstones from an abandoned cemetery.

The guide must have been reading my mind, because before I could ask what they were, he explained that winter storms have a habit of exposing hundreds of ancient cedar and live oak stumps up and down the entire Outer Banks coastline.  It wasn’t unusual to come across a few dozen tree stumps in various sizes and shapes along the shore.

Researchers at Duke University have estimated that a maritime forest thrived there nearly 2,000 years ago, but as time went by, it began to disappear as the barrier island drifted west towards the mainland.  Apparently, the combination of strong winds and salt water from the ocean took its toll, and we are now left with only the remnants of what was no doubt a sprawling forest.

I was beginning to wonder if we were going to see any horses at all during our tour, but as we turned towards a dune area and drove towards beachfront homes, we finally spotted them!  Four beautiful horses were in the backyard of someone’s million-dollar beachfront paradise.  Although they weren’t very active, they were, at least, there.  As we drove by, they didn’t even seem to glance in our direction.  Apparently, they are not scared by noisy vehicles with loud tourists hanging out of the windows snapping pictures on cell phones.

We endured more twists and turns through the semi-residential dune area and discovered other groups of horses.  Some were standing, seemingly enjoying the sea breeze, while others were busy munching on sea oats and grasses.  The guide said there are only 103 Corolla Wild Horses around today, a mere drop in the bucket from the 6,000 or more that were here in 1926.

Will the weather and erosion continue destroying what is left of the wooded area just beyond the dunes on the Outer Banks?  Will a time come when guides explain, “This is where the wild horses used to roam.”

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