Saturday we were up and fed with packs on, ready to go by around 8:30. I had spoken with an early arriving day hiker in the parking lot next to our camp who agreed to give Fran a ride back to Table Rock when he and his companion finished their hike. He was a gruff, ex-drill sergeant, card-carrying NRA type, but friendly enough once I got him talking and more than willing to help out. Transportation arranged, we said grudging goodbyes to Fran, donned our packs and started down the gravel road to fill our bottles at Estatoe Creek before heading out for the day.
Twenty minutes later, as Patrick and I stood along the highway waiting on the others to finish pumping water, Patrick noticed a family in a van who had stopped directly across the road. There were four of them, a mother, a father and two small daughters who had stopped to snap pictures against the backdrop of the Estatoe. Without hesitation, Patrick hustled across the road to ask them if they would be willing to give Fran a ride, which would prevent him for having to wait God-knows how long for the returning day hiker.
There was something remotely odd in their nature. Nattily attired for a Saturday morning, they struck me as high mountain Pentecostals of the snake-handling variety, perhaps out to harvest a few Copperheads and rattlers for Sunday service. But they were unceasingly sweet-natured and eager to help, which was the main thing. As it turned out, they were en route to pick up their two other children from a church camp just across the North Carolina line and would be driving right by Table Rock on their way back home. They readily agreed to take Fran.
I rode with them back up to the parking lot where Fran sat waiting. He seemed a little perplexed to see me again so soon, but was relieved to have a ride after I explained the situation. I made introductions all around, loaded his pack in the van and caught a ride with them back down to the highway. Fran seemed thrilled with the turn of events, probably just as much for having someone to chat with as his earlier-than-anticipated rescue. He teased us good-naturedly about his comfortable seat in the van and as soon as I exited, they were off. Relieved to know Fran wouldn’t have to sit in the parking lot all day, we crossed the highway to the waiting trail and started the immediate uphill grind that would dominate the better part of our day.
Sassafrass = Kick-your-assafrass
From US highway 172, we had 4.5 miles of walking to the top of Sassafras Mountain, the highest peak in South Carolina at 3,564 feet. Now 3,564 feet doesn’t sound very high, especially compared to the “fourteeners” out west, or even to 6,684 foot high Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, which is the highest point east of the Rockies. But let me tell you, it’s plenty high. Especially when you gain 1,900 feet over the course of four and a half miles to get there. It was strenuous hiking.
Along many sections, wooden steps were built into the side of the mountain at angles so steep we were frequently on all fours, as if climbing an extension ladder. The humidity was high and the sun was rising fast. It would be well into the 80’s that day and we were all sweating copiously within a half mile. We took frequent breaks and gulped water with reckless abandon, fully anticipating ample opportunities to pump more throughout the day. This would prove to be a miscalculation.
Walking in the eastern mountains, you never have a real sense of where you are in relation to the larger terrain. You rarely, if ever get above the tree line and so you trudge through a perpetual, indistinguishable corridor of trees. Just when you think surely you are nearing a summit and the welcome easing of the trail’s gradient you round a bend and face another long stretch of steep incline and unceasing canopy. Always, more uphill until you begin to wonder if you will ever get there.
We finally, gratefully got to the top of Sassafras around 11:30. We happily unburdened ourselves of packs and plopped heavily down on rocks and even a park bench, thoughtfully placed to mark to the summit. We took a lingering, much-needed break for lunch, none of us eager to be the first one to lift a pack even long after the last morsel had been polished off. Sassafras is tree-covered, so the views were not great, but it was still pretty cool to bag the State’s highest peak before noon.
Who turned off the water?
Our plan was to hike another 1.2 miles to the John L. Cantrell home site. Cantrell was an early settler to the area and the ruins of his stone chimney are still present, surrounded by what is widely regarded as the best, most expansive and idyllic campsite along the entire Foothills Trail. Plus, there were supposed to be two water sources within .2 miles of the site according to the official trail guide. By this point we were carrying nearly empty water bottles and badly in need of resupply.
We were thrilled as we entered the site and found, in addition to Cantrell’s chimney ruins, half a dozen neatly stacked stone chairs built around a large stone fire ring. It was truly a perfect campsite and we gladly took another long break, luxuriating in the stone chairs (I didn’t even realize it was possible to luxuriate in a stone chair, but believe me, it is). But after a minute or two we realized something was missing… the welcome, gurgling sound of stream water.
After a quick search around the edges of camp and down the trail a few tenths of a mile, it was obvious we would have no water source here. Goodbye John L. Cantrell home site. So long, awesome stone chairs. Hello again, trail.
Having had an abundance of water along the trail for much of the day Friday, it was nowhere to be found on Saturday. And so we walked. It was still early in the day anyway and every extra mile we walked would be one less we would have to cover on Sunday, so it was probably for the best. But still, those stone chairs…
We walked over relatively easy terrain for another three and a half miles before finding a very nice campsite hidden fifty yards or so off to the right at a dogleg bend in the trail. And whad’ya know… there were even a couple of stone chairs! Not to mention a meager but useable water source not more than a hundred yards away. We happily set up camp.
Despite the ubiquitous sodden wood and thanks to Patrick and Cole’s relentless efforts, we were able to get a modest campfire going. We ate dinner and enjoyed the last few hours of daylight, telling stories, laughing about our experiences on the trip, sipping bourbon and generally enjoying each other’s company. It had been a tough day – a long day, but a good one and we were now only five and a half miles from Table Rock. Tomorrow we would meet Nita, Melissa, Jenny and Lyn in Greenville where we would have hot showers, clean hotel sheets and a proper restaurant meal. I was reminded how much I had missed backpacking and vowed to do more of it. Its amazing what a good campsite, a hot meal and a swig of bourbon will do for morale, especially when fun things await the next day.
Next, the final push, amazing views and a night in town