And the Beat Goes On

The Hermit Society set about staging events to commemorate the hermit, the first of these being a Hermit Fest in early June. "I had a number of hermit look-alike contests every year on the anniversary of his death," Edwards said. The Harrill family was in attendance and programs were presented with slide shows, question-and-answer sessions and bunker tours.

"That must have been back probably in the late '90s," he said.

Carolina Beach has an annual Beach Music Festival the first weekend in June, and the Hermit Society has sometimes participated in that. Other public events continue to be scheduled, featuring Pickler with his books and photos, or Harry Warren, one of the founders of the Hermit Society, giving presentations at the Fort Fisher Aquarium or the Federal Point Historical Museum in Carolina Beach.

"And sometimes we'd pass around a petition," Edwards said. "One was to reopen the investigation into the hermit's death, and one time we had a petition to rename the new ferry the Robert Harrill."

Neither effort amounted to much. The ferry is called the Fort Fisher-Southport Ferry, and he said the state made "a very pointed attempt to forget about the hermit for many years after his death."

Some of the tension surrounding the incident has eased somewhat over time. The hermit's letters and papers have been collected in the historical archives of Joyner Library at East Carolina University in Greenville. Some of the barricades erected to hamper the investigation are beginning to disintegrate with age.

"Too much evidence had been discarded purposely and there was a massive cover-up," he said. "There are two theories about that, one that the hermit had always been a sore spot for the New Hanover County Sheriff's Department because they had to drive down from Wilmington to rescue him from time to time from thieves and robbers.

"And the second theory was because of the people who were involved. I approached the SBI and wanted to find out where the investigation had gone. I'd turned over five names to them and it came to light they refused to contact the people because of their standing in the community."

Resistance to the glorification of the hermit's memory has taken other strange shapes and forms. For one thing, legislation is now in place to prevent any old bum from wandering in and taking adverse possession of an old concrete bunker.

"They closed off all the access points to the bunker right after his death. One remained open but was closed off in the late '80s, so now you're forced to go by the Fort Fisher Recreation Area, which they close out at night. So you can't go out at night."

Now this is exactly the sort of thing the hermit sought to circumvent, but instead he apparently caused.

"They've made so many restrictions down there. You can't go down there to camp, can't even go down there as a mass group unless you get a permit. And Robert always wanted to keep that area for the use of the public."

Edwards runs The Wellness Institute according to the teachings of the hermit, and is the author of "The Battle for Independence: The Story of the Fort Fisher Hermit."

And the Conspiracy Goes On

So now you're off on a spiritual quest, a pilgrimage to the hermit's bunker, and you begin it at the Fort Fisher Aquarium because somewhere you heard that's the closest thing. The smiling ladies at the information desk tell you to backtrack to the Fort Fisher Recreation Area, a building you passed on Loggerhead Road on your way to the aquarium, and there you will find the trailhead for the Hermit's Trail.

These perfectly pleasant people are part of the evil conspiracy.

At the recreation area a map is posted that tells you two things: (1) It's not the Hermit Trail, it's the Basin Trail, and (2) it runs past the aquarium to the bunker on the far side of the aquarium. From the recreation area it's 8/10ths of a mile, but it's probably one whole heck of a lot shorter from the aquarium.

Well, plenty of people tried to obstruct the Crusades, and there shall always be suffering in the eternal quest for truth.

The trail is carved into a maritime forest with mulch here and sand there, the trees and brushes neatly trimmed back to create the effect of one long, green, leafy cave. The occasional boardwalk goes over the occasional swamp and the occasional sign points the way.

The bunker is a bit of an anticlimax, certainly not shrine quality, and that could be why it's downplayed in the glossy brochures distributed by the park rangers. It's called a World War II bunker and only about two lines of text at the bottom mention Robert Harrill's residence here.

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