Laurel Falls to Table Rock – three days on the Foothills Trail – Part III

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.

At the summit - Sassafras Mountain

At the summit – Sassafras Mountain

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.

The epitome of trail comfort - stone chairs at the John L. Cantrell home site

The epitome of trail comfort – stone chairs at the John L. Cantrell home site

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

Laurel Falls to Table Rock – three days on the Foothills Trail – Part II

It occurred to me as we woke at first light and began breaking down camp that it was Friday the 13th and we were starting our day at a place called Devil’s Fork. But it promised to be a beautiful day, the late spring skies already a brilliant blue and we were anxious to get started. Omens be damned.

We met Brooks Wade at the Devil’s Fork boat ramp promptly at 8am, packs loaded and alarmingly heavy during the half mile walk from our campsites.

Brooks welcomed us aboard his pontoon boat and introduced us to an older gentleman who would share our ride that day. Brooks would drop us off first at Laurel Falls, then deposit the other gentleman seven miles further back on the trail at Cane Break where he would tackle the toughest portion of the entire Foothills trail as part of his 13 mile day hike. He was very fit, maybe 70 years old with a thick shock of white hair and neatly attired in brown hiking clothes. There was a distinct military bearing about him and he looked like he could still ace an Army PT test without breaking a sweat. Around 5’8″ and wiry, he sat ramrod straight, had clear, intelligent eyes and a neatly trimmed mustache. He carried only his lunch in a small haversack while we all sat around the boat with comically overstuffed backpacks, preparing to hike just 22 miles over three days. He made a bemused comment about the size of our packs, which seemed at first a benign observation, but I’m pretty sure what he was thinking was “what a bunch of pussies”.

As we made our way across Jocassee, Brooks would stop from time to time to give us little tidbits of area history or a geological factoid. The area we would be hiking, for example, was classified as a rain forest due to the sheer volume of annual rainfall it receives – some 90+ inches. It is one of only two such rain forests in all of North America – the other being in the Pacific Northwest. This was fascinating to me.

The lake was almost totally undeveloped, with the exception of just 92 high-end homes clustered in one small area of shoreline. Aside from that it was endless trees, rocky shores and green hills. The trees were different here – conifers, hemlocks and poplars – which gave the lake a distinctly alpine feel. We were the only boat on the lake at that time and Brooks mentioned that most days he spends on Jocassee running his guide service, he has the lake almost completely to himself. It seemed to me a novel and exceptional way to make a living and Brooks carried a perpetual grin, as if he had discovered a great secret. In fact, he had. I was very jealous of Brooks.

Fran, Ashten and Grant in front of Laurel Falls

Fran, Ashten and Grant in front of Laurel Falls

As we got close to our hopping off point, he maneuvered the boat into a narrow cove to catch a beautiful glimpse of lower Laurel Falls. It was a gorgeous sight – the first of many falls we would see along the trail and further evidence that we were, indeed, entering a bonafide rain forest. A cool mist from the churning bottom of the falls settled over us as Grant snapped pictures of everyone. A few short minutes later Brooks positioned the boat on the shore where we exited onto the trail. The older gentleman mentioned something about there being a Starbucks about a mile up on the right. A regular comedian. We hoisted our packs and after a few minor adjustments – a tug on a shoulder strap here, tightening of a hip strap there – we were on our way.

Ten miles is no joke

Day one of any multi-day backpacking trip is hard. You’re legs are rubbery, your lungs seize in protest and your shoulders chafe against a suddenly burdensome load. Our goal on this first day was to make it to the Laurel Fork parking lot, approximately eight miles down the trail. Along the way we would gain 1,200 feet in elevation, peaking near Flatrock Mountain, then descend around 800 feet to the parking lot, just off US Highway 178. A lot of uphill, followed by a lot of downhill, all while carrying the equivalent of a chubby 2nd grader on your back.

But it’s worse than that. This is a load which does not want to be lifted – whose natural state is to sit in a bulky heap on the ground. It is a load that never escapes your notice, even for a second, and which requires constant adjustment of straps and shifting of hips and shoulders. You are always dialing in the fit, looking for that elusive comfort that you know you will never achieve.

The inspiration for Mark's pack shifting moves

The inspiration for Mark’s pack shifting moves

Mark, in particular had an unusual method of shifting his pack wherein he would stop completely, bend 90 degrees at the hips and gyrate in an odd, jerky motion that I could only describe as “twerking”. Think Miley Cyrus with a 50+ pound pack. Thankfully, Mark kept his tongue in check during this process

 

It was a long slog that first day. At one point we lost the trail at a poorly marked area intersected by a forest road. We had to double back and, by the end of the day, walked a total of ten miles though our actual forward progress was only 8.1. We finally, mercifully came to the Laurel Valley parking lot around 4:30pm that afternoon. We camped at at small site adjacent to the gravel lot. It wasn’t the remote, private site I would have preferred, but we were all exhausted and thrilled to be able to stop, regardless of any aesthetic shortcomings of the campsite.

Taking a break along the trail

Taking a break along the trail

 

Mark and Cole make their way along the trail

Mark and Cole make their way along the trail

We could hear water from the site, so after setting up tents, Grant and I walked the half mile down the gravel access road to the US Highway 178 intersection, where there was an old stone bridge over Estatoe Creek. We scrambled down the bank and found the swift-flowing Estatoe an exceptional source for pumping water. We set up under the bridge, shed our boots and socks and soaked our aching feet in the cold stream while pumping water for everyone back at camp. I cannot adequately explain how good it felt to sit and soak those aching feet – it was magic. At one point, enjoying myself and pumping water absent-mindedly, I felt something on my big toe and looked down to find a crawfish taking exploratory pinches. I reached down to catch him and he vanished behind a rock. It reminded me what a strange little world we had entered.

Mark joined us down at the river and eventually we all headed back to camp, fresh water in tow. Patrick, Cole and Ashten were asleep and Fran was resting as well. Unfortunately Fran’s back was giving him fits and his legs felt weak – possibly a nerve issue and he had decided to bow out the next morning, sure that he would find a ride back to Table Rock from someone coming off the trail. There were several cars in the lot by our camp. We were all disappointed for him but his performance that day was nothing short of heroic. Ten miles with a heavy pack – in the mountains no less – at 72 years of age. We were all exhausted and Fran had 30 years on us. It was damn impressive.

Another late afternoon storm rolled through around 6pm, just as I was putting the rain fly on my tent. I climbed inside, heated water for dinner and opened the second bottle of wine purchased Thursday in Saluda (which I’d carried all day in my pack). Turns out, Cabernet Sauvignon is the perfect paring for freeze-dried beef stew – something you will likely never hear during a winery tour in Napa Valley, but true nonetheless. I was famished and ate slowly, savoring each bite, enjoying the wine and listening to the heavy rain against the tent.

Around 8pm, the rain stopped and we all came out to attempt a camp fire, but it was a monumental task with the mostly sodden wood nearby. Thanks to some fire starter Fran had purchased, we got some semblance of a fire going, but it was high maintenance and smoky. We soon turned in, tired, grubby and happy to have day one in the books.

 

Laurel Falls to Table Rock – three days on the Foothills Trail – Part I

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.

PBR's after zipliningAfter 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

 

The Foothills Trail – what could possibly go wrong?

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.” – John Muir

“What would I do if multiple bears came into my camp? Why I would die of course. Literally shit myself lifeless” – Bill Bryson

 

It is Monday evening and as I write this, Melissa’s family is en route to Raleigh for our much-anticipated backpacking trip along the Foothills Trail in northwestern South Carolina. We have been planning this trip for months and it is finally upon us. I’m ready to don my pack and hit the trail – eager to do a little mindless ambling, away from phone calls and texts and the histrionics of 24/7 news cycles. I’m ready for the deprivation that backpacking brings – no icy drinks, comfortable mattresses or clean sheets – no air conditioning, hot showers, flush toilets or lovingly prepared home-cooked meals. Because the only way to really appreciate these things is to be without them, even if just for just a few days.

This will be a guy’s trip – a classic male bonding retreat into the deep woods and hills.  We’ll don backpacks and with creaking knees, shuffle laboriously through a corridor of trees, along high ridges, past comely waterfalls and across river valleys. At day’s end we’ll make camp, resting tired legs while pushing home quivering spoonfuls of reconstituted, freeze-dried beef stroganoff. As the summer sun, nearing Solstice, makes its lazy descent and we sit transfixed by the warm glow of campfire, we’ll sip bourbon, trading stories and laughs. Its going to be hot and grubby and hard. We’re going to stink. Its going to be awesome.

Joining me on this little excursion is Melissa’s Dad, Fran (driving in from Austin) her sister Lyn’s husband Patrick and his son, Cole (flying in from Phoenix and Dallas respectively), her brother Grant and his son Ashten (Raleigh), and her sister Jenny’s husband Mark, also from Raleigh. Unfortunately, Lyn’s son Luke couldn’t make the trip, but he will be greatly missed.

Setting off on a previous hike along the Foothills Trail (me, far right) - circa June, 1998

Setting off on a previous hike along the Foothills Trail (me, far right) – circa June, 1998

Outdoor experience with this crew varies from a freshly minted Eagle Scout (Cole) to no experience whatsoever, with a majority of folks landing in the latter category. But what this group lacks in experience it more than makes up for in provisions and equipment. Grant and Mark have been especially spirited shoppers, accumulating a cache of equipment that would ensure comfortable passage along the entirety of the Appalachian Trail (this is a three day hike). Mark even toyed briefly with the idea of bringing a water heating contraption for purposes of showers at camp. He smartly abandoned that idea after checking the dimensions on line and discovering it weighed in at a whopping 25 pounds. Baby wipes will work just fine. He did however, purchase – (I never imagined I would use these two words in one phrase) – a “poop hammock”. More on this as the trip unfolds (how’s that for a cliff hanger?)

 

 

 

Lost legend – Paul Redfern and the birth of aviation in Columbia, S.C.

While reading Bill Bryson’s excellent new book “One Summer” about the momentous and much celebrated summer of 1927, I stumbled across a story that seemed almost too fantastic to believe. That summer a daring young aviator by the name of Paul Redfern attempted a 4,600 mile flight from Georgia to Rio de Janeiro – a flight that would have broken Charles Lindburgh’s freshly minted long distance flight record by more than a thousand miles. He was 27 years old, the same age as Lindburgh, weighed a paltry 108 pounds and hailed from my hometown of Columbia, S.C. Intriguing enough in and of itself, but it gets better.

Paul Brunswick

Redfern was the son of the dean of historically black Benedict College in Columbia and to say he was fascinated with aviation is to dabble in reckless understatement. As a teenager he was known to wear an aviator’s goggled helmet while going about his daily business – an eccentricity that must have caused great amusement as he strolled the campus of old Columbia High School. During his sophomore year there, he built a full-sized plane of his own design, modeled after the popular Curtiss Jenny planes. His industrial arts teacher recognized his potential and had the plane hoisted atop the gymnasium rafters at the University of South Carolina nearby. As a senior, he assembled and flew a small bi-plane of his own design, made from spare parts and a used WW I aircraft engine. Upon graduation, he established the first commercial airfield in Columbia on the site of present day Dreher High School. (By way of review, Redfern had built two airplanes and established the first airfield in South Carolina’s capital city by his early twenties, reminding me what a mouth breather I was at that age.)

Prior to his graduation, Redfern took a break from high school with the grudging approval of his parents in order to gain some real-life experience in the aviation industry. According to the South Carolina Aviation Administration’s web entry on Redfern, he went to work for the Army Air Corps as a production inspector at Standard Aircraft Company’s Elizabeth, New Jersey plant. Following the closing of the plant at the conclusion of WW I, Redfern extended his interlude from high school by traveling the country on a barnstorming tour, stopping at county fairs, giving rides to curious spectators and working on his piloting skills.

Possessing a mischievous sense of humor, Redfern was arrested following one of his airshows after dropping a life-sized dummy from 2,000 feet, causing wide spread fainting and considerable angst among the unsuspecting and horrified onlookers. Interestingly enough, considering his own brush with the law, he worked for a spell as a Revenue agent, (this was during the dark days of Prohibition), spotting illegal stills from his plane. Legend has it that he busted forty stills in one weekend outside of Columbia – no doubt, disrupting supply and creating a minor panic in the speakeasy’s clustered around the red light district of Park Street in today’s Vista area.

Between Lindburgh and Earhart lies oblivion

It is impossible to overstate just how famous Charles Lindburgh was in the summer of 1927. He went from near total anonymity to worldwide fame almost overnight when he became the first person to safely cross the Atlantic in his Spirit of St. Louis that May. Aviation was still in its infancy at this time and the public’s fascination with flight can best be compared to its later fascination with the astronauts of the 1960’s (or with Kim Kardashian’s rear end today). Lindburgh’s stunning achievement no doubt fired the already ambitious imagination of young Redfern and appealed to his swashbuckling tendencies.

Looking to top Lindburgh and carve out his own piece of history, Redfern, with the support of wealthy backers in Brunswick, GA, announced that he would fly his Stinson Detroiter from Brunswick to Rio de Janeiro – a flight that would take him over the Caribbean Sea and thousands of miles of mountainous jungle. It was audacious, brave and unmistakably foolhardy – classic 1920’s aviator bravado. On August 27th, 1927, carrying meager survival supplies, twenty sandwiches, two quarts of coffee and two gallons of water, Redfern took off for what would be a 60 hour flight.

Paul Redfern - Port of Brunswick

According to Bryson, he was lost before he had even cleared the Caribbean (there were no navigational instruments in those days). Flying low over a Norwegian freighter, the Christian Krohg, Redfern dropped a message which promptly bounced off the deck of the ship and into the sea. Thankfully the message was gamely retrieved by one of the ship’s seaman – it read: “Point ship to nearest land, wave flag once for each 100 miles. Thanks, Redfern.” Obligingly, the ship’s captain pointed him in the right direction and a thankful Redfern departed “…with a snappy wave” toward South America.

He was later spotted by a fisherman off the coast of Venezuela, so we know he made it that far – becoming the first person to fly across the Caribbean Sea. It is believed he went down somewhere in the jungles of Dutch Guiana (now Suriname). For years, reports came back from missionaries and other visitors to the interior of Dutch Guiana about a white man living among the Indians. It was said that he had taken a wife and was living peaceably – even being treated as a divinity because he had dropped from the sky on the local tribes. More than a dozen search parties were organized and two men even died during the many quests but there were no confirmed sightings.

Ten years later, in 1937 – the same year that Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean – Redfern’s (American) wife filed a petition to declare him dead. And so, between the legends of Lindburgh and Earhart, Redfern’s story fell into deep oblivion – even in Columbia.

I asked my Dad about it – knowing he is a Columbia High graduate, history buff and accomplished pilot in his own right – and he had heard of Redfern’s exploits. But it astounded me that I had not, and it reminded me that even the most spectacular stories – the most daring exploits – are by and large lost to the unyielding passage of time. Thanks to Bill Bryson for blowing the dust off this amazing story for me.

I cannot help but grin and think about Redfern and the possibility, though slight, that he lived out his life contentedly among the natives in Dutch Guiana. In my mind, that’s how it ended for him.

Lake Logan magic

Lake LoganIt has become my favorite weekend of the year. Hands down. I love Lake Logan weekend.

When Melissa and I were getting into triathlon in 2009, we started looking for interesting races around North Carolina. Long enamored with the foothills of Asheville and points west, I stumbled upon Lake Logan International Triathlon, just outside of Canton, N.C. We first did the race in August of 2009, spending Friday night in nearby Waynesville, then Saturday night after the race in Asheville. I fell immediately and irretrievably in love with that weekend and in particular, Lake Logan.

We’ve done it five years running now and it has never failed to leave me deeply satisfied. Annually held on the first Saturday of August, Logan comes at a time of year that finds my soul in need of nourishment – deeply diminished by the grinding heat and humidity of a long summer and the bleak morass that is the sports world between the end of the Tour de France and the start of College Football season. Logan is a welcome retreat from steamy Raleigh into the high hills west of Asheville. As we make that annual drive up the mountain on I-40, my blood pressure drops in corresponding degrees with each west bound mile marker. Logan is medicinal – I daresay even spiritual. It is my late summer North Star and I am reminded each year of the simple, luxuriant pleasure of needing a long sleeve t-shirt against the cool morning air.

*****

According to the site digitalheritage.org, Lake Logan sprang up in 1932 when the powers that be at Champion Mill, located in nearby Canton, decided to dam the West Fork of the Pigeon River, resulting in an 87 acre lake that flooded the former logging community of Sunburst. Named for Logan Thompson, the son of Peter J. Thompson who founded Champion, Lake Logan soon became home to various meeting, sleeping and dining facilities constructed from logs of deconstructed cabins in nearby counties and served as a retreat for Champion Mill executives well into the 1990s. Many of the buildings survive today and were purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in 2000 after Champion sold its holdings. The Diocese operates a retreat at Logan and in 2006 sponsored the first Lake Logan Multi-Sports Festival, which has grown to include international and sprint triathlons, an aqua-thon (swim/run) and aqua-bike (swim/bike).

*****

The swim portion of the triathlon is one of the very few wetsuit-legal swims (possibly the only one) in the summertime triathlon circuit throughout the Carolinas, which indicates that the water temperature is below the acceptable wetsuit cutoff temperature of 78 degrees. Usually it is considerably cooler and this year it was a bone-chilling 67 degrees. The last hundred yards or so of the swim goes under the Lake Logan Road bridge and directly into the chilly mountain stream which feeds the lake, resulting in a lung-seizing five to ten degree drop in temperature. In August though, you appreciate that kind of thing.

The swim itself is enchantingly beautiful, setting off just after dawn, the narrow lake bookended by hills covered in hemlock and fir and topped by a cloud cover almost low enough to touch, hanging grey and cottony like soiled gauze over the water. The .9 mile course runs in a long rectangle and as you advance in that strange watery silence unique to lake swims, the hills to your right and left rise up in your periphery. I feel totally at ease, peaceful and warm in the thought that there is no place on Earth I would rather be on the first Saturday in August than in this very place.

The bike course is 24 miles of mostly rolling hills through Southern Haywood County, bookended by steep climbs out of T1 and coming back, just before T2. It is Southern Appalachian farm country, generously dotted with picturesque and diminutive farms, ancient barns and the occasional work mule, brooding and contemplative in its pen. Mostly flat to downhill on the first nine miles, you don’t so much ride the bike course as float through it, enjoying the novelty of the cool air and the rustic countryside. You can almost hear banjo music in the air. Not in the moronic, clichéd sense of snickering Deliverance references, but deep in your soul, as if the hills are calling to you in bent, five string notes. And to me, it sounds a lot like home.

The last 15 miles of the bike are mostly up hill. The heady reverie a little less pronounced, the determined exertion a little more. Your average speed steadily declines as the hills exert dominion over any unspoken plans you may have harbored for a 22 mph average. The last climb is truly taxing. But Lake Logan is visible to the right, through the chlorophyll-choked cover of summer trees. You know you are closing in on the run and this carries you upward.

The run is a 10k. Three miles mostly uphill from the base of T2 along Lake Logan Road to Sunburst campsite just within the borders of Pisgah National Forest (the campsite takes its name from that long-forgotten logging community). This is followed at the turn by the much-anticipated pleasure of three miles mostly down hill back to the finish. The run is always an especially happy time as you pass friends either going or coming and contemplate the completed swim and bike in between high fives and shouts of encouragement.

The finish is always sun-splashed. The low cloud cover of early morning has burned away as friends gather to cheer each other and chat about the race. What went right, what went wrong, how cold the water was, etc. The temperature is late summer perfection – warm but not hot. We make our way to the food tent and eat sandwiches, chatting some more. We are pleasantly tired after 31 miles of swimming, biking and running and as we sit there amongst friends in the perfect post-race warmth, it is, how can I put this… exceedingly nice.

Later, Melissa and I always check in at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Asheville – an easy walk to all that downtown has to offer, which is much. After lunch and a nap, we’ll meet friends again for well-earned margaritas and dinner at our favorite Asheville establishment, Salsa’s. We’ll dine in the narrow alleyway outside and soak in the perfect mountain air. Saturday night after dinner can go late and on occasion ends early, but is always fun.

Sunday, we’ll sleep in and have breakfast at Early Girl Eatery or Over Easy. Afterwards we’ll walk over to Mast General Store and my favorite bookstore, Malaprops. Here I take almost as much pleasure eavesdropping on the aging hippies gathered earnestly to discuss new age mumbo jumbo as I do the truly wonderful selection of books.

We linger, not wanting to leave. We order coffee, we stroll. We take in Asheville and all of its charms. And then, reluctantly, we get in the car and head down 40 East. And on the drive home, we talk about our weekend and Logan weekends of years past. The four-hour drive breezes by.

It is Monday after Logan as I write this and we have already planned next year’s trip.

I told Melissa that when I move onto that great transition area in the sky, I want my ashes spread over Lake Logan. I can’t think of a better place to be – forever. I’m hoping though that we’ll have a lot more Logan weekends between now and then.

Portland, land of donuts and coffee and beer, I love you

We arrived in Portland around 6pm on April 29th, after another long day of northbound driving, punctuated by the jaw dropping scenery of the rugged Oregon coastline. After 800 miles in two days, we happily parked our rental at the Marriott Waterfront and struck out on foot, eager to stretch our legs and explore a new city.

Dusk was settling in as we exited the hotel and the air was warm and light with the perfect fragrance of late spring. A fading sun cast golden hues on the industrial buildings of east Portland as a rowing club wrapped up practice on the lovely and impressive Willamette River.

We walked west a half-mile or so in the fading light, admiring Portland’s handsome buildings and clean streets and there were bicycles everywhere – the one word that kept popping into my mind was “green”. We were instantly comfortable in Portland. It exuded that funky vibe and laid-back charm of a mid-sized town, not a city large enough to boast an NBA franchise.

After a wonderful meal at one of the city’s great seafood restaurants, Southpark Seafood Grill, (I did not carry my notebook with me that night, so the details of that meal are lost), we were anxious to get out for more walking and fresh air. We strolled through the darkened streets, feeling tired but wonderfully sated and excited about the prospect of very limited windshield time over the remainder of our trip.
After a nightcap overlooking the Willamette in the dimly lit 16th floor bar back at the hotel, we turned in, exhausted yet again.

The first day of May found us well rested and ready for a long walk. Our plan was to fall back into our “Paris routine”, which would involve lots of walking, interspersed by frequent breaks for eating and drinking coffee or beer. The weather was spectacular – cool in the morning with highs in the mid-70’s and not a cloud in the sky. Perfect for leisurely ambling.

We walked all over Portland, stopping first at the gorgeous International Rose Test Garden, then over to iconic Powell’s Books, where we had coffee and pastries before wandering around it’s shelves for an hour or so in that heady reverie familiar to all bibliophiles in such settings. For lunch, we stopped at one of Portland’s famous food trucks – one in particular, which we had seen reviewed, that specialized in Czech food. Melissa ordered goulash and dumplings while I ordered the “Schnitzelwitch”, a fried pork sandwich as big as my head. We walked several blocks to the riverfront and stood eating our lunch while gazing over the Willamette. Ravenous after miles of hilly trekking, we polished off that considerable lunch and basked in the warming sunlight while taking in the awesome people watching (of which Portland abounds).

After a while we strolled slowly, with leaden bellies, north along the river to Hawthorne Bridge and crossed over to east Portland and the city’s recently thriving warehouse district. We walked six blocks to Hair of the Dog Brewery where we sat outside in warm sunlight sipping on a pint of golden ale, which was refreshing beyond description. It was one of those perfect days, mid-vacation with still much to do and see, a marathon under our belts, a brilliant cloudless sky overhead and nothing to do but amble about at our leisure in an interesting and lovely town. We were in our element.

We continued in that walk/stop/walk pattern for the rest of the day until we had covered a good ten miles or so. For dinner we found Higgins at SW Broadway. We shared a wonderful charcuterie plate with local sausages, a salad and Oregon wine, then espresso after.

Thursday dawned and we were excited to be heading to Seattle later in the day, but there was still more to see in Portland. After breakfast at the hotel, we walked to the Oregon Historical Society Museum, then over to Barista Coffee – the top rated coffee shop in Portland, which is saying something as Portland has recently overtaken Seattle as the nation’s craft coffee hotspot.

We shared an excellent latte as we walked the half-mile or so to Voodoo donuts – a pastry shop with the punk attitude and quirky vibe of a tattoo parlor on the shady fringes of a middling seaport town. We had heard of this place from friends and seen it on the Food Network and were drawn by the novelty of eating donuts (and nothing but donuts) for lunch. After a 15 minute wait in line, we ordered two apiece – me the famous maple bacon and raspberry jelly (both awesome), and her the chocolate cake and their signature creation, the Voodoo Doll – a doll shaped donut with a stake through it’s heart from which raspberry jelly flowed, blood-like. We sat on a picnic bench outside of the shop and wordlessly polished off 1,000 calories each worth of Voodoo donut goodness.

From here we walked slowly, in a mild diabetic haze back to the hotel, glazed residue on our lips, veins coursing with sugar and finely crafted caffeine. Though we hated to say goodbye to Portland, we were ready for the short drive north to our final destination, Seattle.