According to the official site of the Foothills Trail Conference, there was a concerted push beginning in the 1960’s to protect the rugged beauty of the Appalachian Foothills, while at the same time making them more accessible. To that end, through the cooperative efforts of the U.S. Forest Service, Clemson University, the South Carolina Department of Parks & Tourism and Duke Power, a 77 mile trail began to take shape by the 1970’s which linked Table Rock State Park in the east with Oconee State Park in the west. The trail was completed by 1981.
Some 17 years later, I was 26 years old and living in Greenville, S.C. when I happened to pick up a copy of Bill Bryson’s incomparable “A Walk in the Woods” – his brilliantly funny and informative story of walking the Appalachian Trail. I was immediately transfixed and hastily began planning a backpacking trip of my own. Some quick research led me to the nearby but until then undiscovered Foothills Trail. I placed a call to an old college roommate, Greg Maxwell, who gamely agreed to come along. That 1998 hike – my first overnight backpacking trip – was a turning point in my life. It was a modest hike, all things considered. We didn’t even complete the entire trail. But it stoked a passion for the out doors that has stayed with me and in many ways has defined my view of the world.
Before the hike, a zip along the treetops
The crew assembled at Casa de Piercy the night before our trip and took inventory, packed our backpacks and made plans to meet at zero dark thirty the next morning for the long drive to Table Rock. Melissa’s Dad, Fran, had planned a surprise for us along the way, necessitating the extra early departure. The seven of us pulled out of Raleigh at 4:30am last Thursday. The surprise turned out to be a fantastic zipline excursion at The Gorge in Saluda, N.C. It was an incredibly thoughtful and generous idea on Fran’s part and we all thoroughly enjoyed it.
After indulging in $1 PBR’s at the Gorge following our zipline we had a great lunch at The Purple Onion in downtown Saluda – a postcard worthy little mountain town just off I-26, between Asheville and Spartanburg. From there, we picked up a few last supplies (including two bottles of wine) at the hardware and sundry store in town before making the 45 minute drive south to Table Rock State Park where we were to meet our shuttle over to Devil’s Fork State Park, our destination for the night.
I had arranged a van to shuttle us from one park to the other on Thursday afternoon and then a water shuttle across Lake Jocassee the next morning, which would drop us off on the trail. We would then walk 22 miles along the trail back to our cars at Table Rock. Both shuttles would be provided by Jocassee Lake Tours, owned by Brooks and Kay Wade, two of the kindest, most accommodating and informative folks you could hope to find. Kay shuttled us to Devil’s Fork, a state park I had never been to, situated on the comely southern shores of spectacular Lake Jocassee.
We quickly made camp and explored the park a bit. It was around 8pm by the time tents were set up and a camp fire was going. A bluish, near-dusk haze settled on the lake and mountains to the north while the descending sun cast gauzy brush strokes of burnt orange and faint purple in the gathering clouds. The lake beckoned and I put off a dinner of grilled hot dogs for a swim. The water was perfect – clear to four or five feet and slightly cool but welcoming after a hot day. I swam out a hundred yards or so, the shoreline and mountains shifting and redefining themselves with each stroke. I floated for some time on my back, the water cool around me, looking up at the heavy clouds. I could see our campfire through the pine trees and could hear muffled conversation and laughter. I could smell the rain that would come within the hour. The mountains off to the north shore stood brooding, shadowy and muscular. But that would be tomorrow’s task. That night, it was just about the most perfect scene I can imagine.
My nephew, Ashten joined me for a swim as well and after drying off, we ate beside the campfire right before the rain started, forcing our retreat to the tents. I set up a camp chair in my tent and sat, neck craned against the nylon ceiling, sipping pinot noir from a metal coffee cup. I read my book by headlamp until my eyes grew heavy, then climbed into my bag and fell asleep to the sound of a gentle rain. It was a very good day.
Next, A long day on the mountain