Carolista Baum stood before a bulldozer in the summer of 1973, defying the driver to keep scooping sand from Jockey's Ridge for a planned condo complex.
The man told her he would stop but would return the following day. She waited until he left and removed the bulldozer's distributor cap, remembered her daughter, Ann-Cabell Baum Andersen, a real estate agent in Raleigh.
"She did not take 'No' for an answer," she said of her late mother.
Two years later, the tallest natural sand dune on the East Coast became a state park. Set along U.S. 158, Jockey's Ridge draws more than a million visitors a year, consistently making it the most popular state park in North Carolina.
This year, the park turns 40, and the celebrations are coming. Music and activities are planned for May 31.
"I personally think it's one of the natural wonders of the world," said George Barnes, the park's first superintendent, who served for 27 years before retiring in 2009. "There's nothing else like it. It's kind of my baby."
Scientists believe that hurricanes and other storms carried sand from offshore shoals inland, where it formed hills on the Outer Banks hundreds of years ago. Jockey's Ridge served as a landmark for mariners through the centuries.
Prevailing northeast winds in the winter and opposing southwest winds in the summer keep the hill in place, Superintendent Debo Cox said. Dry surface sands blow around, Cox said, but underneath, water wicks upward from the ground, keeping the bulk of the dune from shifting.
The elevation has shrunk to about 90 feet from 140 over the past century, but there are still roughly 30 million tons of sand.
"It's sand. It moves, it blows around. That's what it does," Cox said. "There's still as much sand as always. It's just rearranged."
Years ago, the park scooped away tons of sand that had accumulated on Soundside Road and trucked it to the east side, Barnes said. Natural vegetation and discarded Christmas trees have helped control migration, he said.
The park is now 426 acres. When Barnes served as superintendent, his office was a beat-up Dodge pickup and an enclosed utility trailer. He sat in his truck next to the trailer early and late each day answering calls. He took care of the grounds the rest of the time.
"Things were a whole lot different back then," he said.
How Jockey's Ridge got its name is not known. It could have come from the surname Jacock, according to a visitor center exhibit. A 1953 map by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the hill named "Jackey's Ridge." A legend says locals gathered on the hill to watch jockeys race banker ponies.
Today, visitors can climb, walk nature trails through maritime vegetation along the bottom, fly kites or take a hang-gliding lesson. Rangers lead groups of about 200 daily to watch the sunset from the peak.
Wear shoes and carry water, Cox said. The sand's temperature often rises past 100 degrees. Rangers respond to 50 or 60 cases a year of overheating.
Dave and Christy Butler of Fayetteville climbed with their two children and a German shepherd recently.
"The kids love to come out and roll down the hill," Christy Butler said.
In 1973, Andersen and her siblings were playing on Jockey's Ridge as they did every summer day until they saw the bulldozer. They scampered down the steep dune to report to their mother.
"That was our sand pile," she said. "Somebody was messing with our stuff."
Carolista Baum founded People to Preserve Jockey's Ridge, contacted landowners, raised money and lobbied the state. Andersen remembered that her mother set up a watermelon-pink hut along the road to sell "Save Our Sand Dune" bumper stickers and honorary 1-foot squares of the ridge for $5.
Today, a visitor center and museum sit at the base of the hill on Carolista Drive.
Inside hangs a portrait of the woman who challenged a bulldozer.
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