Big Sky love – Missoula

The plane made its approach, zeroing in on the lone strip of linear asphalt among the surrounding blonde foothills and the high mountains just beyond. Missoula is ringed by numerous mountain ranges – the Bitterroots, the Garnet range and the Rattlesnake Mountains, among yet others and the wildness of it filled our tiny airplane window. The mild jolt of landing and squealing of tires told us we were finally in Western Montana. Ten days of vacation lay out before us like some uncharted and meandering river full of possibility and maybe – just maybe – a little danger.

Welcome to Missoula

Welcome to Missoula

Exiting the plane, we felt the cool Montana air which was medicinal after the burdensome August humidity we left behind in Raleigh. It was in the mid-60’s at 1:15 pm Mountain Time and, overpowering the wafting fumes of jet fuel was the scent of pine-tinged alpine air – clean, dry and inviting.  Greeting us in the small terminal was a massive Grizzly, standing and glancing toward the baggage claim area intently, as if watching the conveyer belt for his luggage. His front paws were as large as dinner plates and he must have stood twelve feet high. It was a dramatic display of taxidermal artistry and it was as close to one of those big boys as I ever hoped to come.

 

A hike to the “M”

We quickly loaded our bags into the rental, which we were excited to find was a cavernous GMC Acadia SUV complete with sunroof. After a short drive into town, we checked into the Double Tree Hotel – a sprawling 60’s era hotel which the Hilton chain has renovated admirably. Truth be told, the property likely would have met the wrecking ball years before had it not been for its prime location, right on the banks of the lovely Clark Fork River and adjacent to the University of Montana campus. Melissa had been steadily researching things to do and places to eat, so after a quick change of clothes we set out on foot for the U of M campus and a hike up to the iconic “M” on Mount Sentinel.

The switchback trail up Mount Sentinel was first constructed by forestry students in 1908 and the large “M” was initially constructed of white washed rocks. In 1968 the rocks were replaced by a 125′ by 100′ concrete “M”, which is still in place today. It is visible throughout the city of Missoula and looms large over the U of M campus. As we headed up the trail – a mile from its base on the east end of campus to the top – the views of campus and town grew more sweeping and dramatic with each step. We paused several times to admire the impressive view and let our lungs adjust to the 5,000 foot elevation.

The U of M Grizzly statue, with University Hall and Mount Sentinel in the background - note the "M" high above

The U of M Grizzly statue, with University Hall and Mount Sentinel in the background – note the “M” high above

The view from the top was splendid and we took our time, enjoying the vantage point and still-novel cool air. The campus below, with it’s leafy canopy, distinguished red brick buildings and manicured lawns was charming and inviting as only college campuses can be. It was move-in week and students milled about, looking like so many busy ants from our high perch, carrying boxes and filling dorm rooms with personal effects in preparation for the start of fall semester. There was a palpable buzz of youthful energy in the air and the entire scene filled me with nostalgia and no small amount of envy for those students. I realized that in very short order I had fallen in love with Missoula and the University of Montana.

After a walk down the mountain and a brief tour through the rest of campus, we walked just over a mile, more or less along the Clark Fork River to Caras Park where each Thursday night during the summer the City of Missoula hosts a festival with live music, food and drinks. We were suddenly famished from our walking and became big fans of the Missoula food truck scene. I ordered chorizo tacos, Melissa had Thai and we sat on a park bench gazing out over the swift flowing Clark Fork, happily sipping offerings from local Big Sky Brewery. The people watching was impressive. One lady, who must have been eight months, 29 days and 23 hours pregnant posed for pictures nearby wearing only a sports bra and very short shorts. I was reminded of the local slogan, “keep Missoula weird”, and I believe this lady took that slogan to heart and was doing her part to make it happen.

After a while, with darkness gathering and temperatures falling squarely into the jacket range – a splendid novelty for a Carolinian in August – we walked back to the hotel as a light rain settled in. While Melissa showered I sat on the patio of our 2nd floor room, contentedly sipping a bourbon, listening to the rain and writing in my journal. Day one of our long anticipated vacation was in the books with nine days to go. I was as happy in that moment as it is possible to be.

Smokejumpers, hot springs and a glimpse of Idaho

We started the day with a solid breakfast at Catalyst Cafe on North Higgins Avenue downtown. A veggie scramble with a side of bacon for Melissa and wonderful huevos rancheros for me. Gratifyingly sated and ready for our first full day in Montana, we headed out for the Missoula Smokejumper Museum located at the Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center, near the Missoula airport.

Smokejumpers are the elite airborne firefighters of the U.S. Forest Service and I have always been fascinated with them. Smokejumping, or at least the idea of it, has been around nearly as long as the airplane. According to the National Smokejumper Training Guide, as early as 1917, airplanes were used for aerial fire detection. By the 1920’s, the initial attempts at aerial fire suppression were underway, with containers of water and/or foam being dumped from buckets, tin cans and in at least one instance, an 8 gallon oak beer barrel attached to a parachute. By 1939, live jumps were being made with some regularity via the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project in the vicinity of Winthrop, Washington. The following year, 1940, was the first operational year for airborne firefighting, and the Smokejumpers have been at it ever since.

Perhaps the most famous and tragic event in the history of the organization was immortalized in the excellent “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean (of “A River Runs Through It” fame). Maclean worked in Western Montana logging camps as a young man and became fascinated with the story of the Mann Gulch tragedy of 1949. During the tragedy, 12 Smokejumpers out of a crew of 15 were killed by a fast moving fire in Helena National Forest, Montana. The Forest Service took many lessons from the tragedy, incorporating advanced training techniques, equipment and strategies, as well as a focus on fire suppression and research into the science of fire behavior.The museum was outstanding and admirably relayed the history of the Smokejumpers, which in turn, provided texture to the evolution of flight and firefighting during the 20th Century.

By the time we exited the museum, around 11am, we were eager to make our way to LoLo Hot Springs, about 45 minutes west. Our plan here was to spend a lazy afternoon in the rejuvenating natural hot springs getting exceedingly pruned. Upon our arrival, we found what appeared to be a Branch Davidian-style compound of ramshackle buildings, one of which contained a casino (casinos are ubiquitous in Montana).

There were no natural hot springs anywhere that I could tell and we were beyond disappointed by this. After five minutes of walking around the property, I did find a building with a small sign which promisingly read “natural hot spring this way” and walked inside. This was a pay-to-soak operation in a rundown cinder block building – the likes of which made me wonder if I was due for a tetanus shot. Reluctant to part with the $7 apiece entrance fee based on what I had seen thus far, I asked the gum-smacking, mouth-breathing attendant if I could have a look around. She responded with a dull-eyed wave of her hand, which I took to mean “whatever”, but could also have meant “go fuck yourself”- her demeanor left room for interpretation.

I made my way through the noxious, moldy locker room, which was discernible from hell only by it’s lack of stalactites and cloven-hooved beelzebubs, to the promised hot springs in the back of the property. I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, to find a grey concrete bunker of a pool – a fetid basin of dubious origin – in which two heavily tattooed and glassy-eyed teenage girls sat slack-jawed and glum – as if serving some strange penance.

I made a hasty retreat to the car and we were quickly on our way. Happily, a little farther up Highway 12 at the Montana-Idaho line, we discovered the LoLo National Forest Visitor’s Center. Here, we learned that that just 22 miles further west along Highway 12 sat Jerry Johnson natural hot springs in the Clearwater National Forest. No charge, no concrete, no fetid basins of dubious origin. This would be the real deal.

We parked on the side of the road, just past mile marker 22 in Idaho proper. I was thrilled that we were suddenly and quite unexpectedly spending part of our vacation in Idaho – a mild yet pleasing diversion from our carefully plotted itinerary. After a quick change into bathing suits, we walked a mile or so along the west bank of the Lochsa River which beckoned us with a wild and splendid beauty. We were carried along by the sound of running water and the smell of lodgepole pine and spruce – it smelled like a Christmas tree farm in heaven.

We found a private little pool and spent a half hour soaking in the just-right water as steam rose off of the river and the the spindly tops of conifers tickled a low-hanging gauze of pending storm clouds. We gazed out over the Lochsa, taking in the wildness of it all. It seemed like a grizzly or a moose might amble out of the tree line any minute for a drink, or a flash flood might come roaring down from the north with hardly a notice. It seemed an untamed, even vaguely dangerous place compared to the world we had left behind in Raleigh. But at that moment, it was perfection.

Chased off earlier than we would have liked by rumbling thunder, we hiked back to the car and drove east to Missoula, happy with our little adventure and thankful that we didn’t settle for the incalculably sucky LoLo Hot Springs.

A stroll through town

After showers back in Missoula, we walked from the hotel to Red Bird Cafe, downtown. Located in the historic Florence Hotel building, Red Bird was exactly what we were looking for – great food, a nice atmosphere, somewhat upscale, yet not pretentious – for our last night in town before encountering the relative deprivations of Glacier National Park. This place delivered. To start, we each had a glass of excellent Spanish Cava and split an appetizer of lamb sausage with peas and heirloom tomatoes, and ravioli stuffed with parmesan and mushrooms. We moved onto red wine and a beautifully done (medium rare) steak strip green salad. We finished with espresso, then strolled back to the hotel through the cool Montana evening air. It was misting softly now, though not enough to soak in, and the low 60’s temperature was invigorating.

As we walked along newly familiar streets back to the DoubleTree we talked about our trip so far and were amazed at all we had done in just over 24 hours. I waxed poetic about moving to Missoula and Melissa seemed to be as excited as I was. Tomorrow would bring a three and a half hour drive to the West Gate of Glacier National Park, followed by the legendary Going to the Sun Road, which traverses the park from southwest to northeast. But tomorrow would come soon enough and this night we were still enjoying Missoula and all of its charms.

 

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

In spite of the relatively short duration of our trip, by the time we woke on Sunday morning – our final day on the trail – it seemed like ages since Brooks had dropped us off at Laurel Falls. With only a five and a half mile trek to Table Rock, we were excited about completing our journey and about the upcoming night in Greenville (wives! showers! cold drinks!). But we were also determined to enjoy our last hours on the trail. Our walk on Sunday would include Pinnacle Mountain and Drawbar Cliffs which were reputed to provide breathtaking views. They would not disappoint.

Ashten and the familiar white blaze of the Foothills Trail

Ashten and the familiar white blaze of the Foothills Trail

We ate breakfast, quickly stuffed our packs and were walking by 8:30. As was the case throughout our days on the trail, Ashten took the lead. At 12 years old, he definitely had the most energy of anyone and took great pride in being our “spider web catcher”, knocking down webs for the rest of us. The walking was strenuous and uphill as we made our way to a bald granite overlook a few hundred feet below the tree-covered summit of Pinnacle Mountain.  Though Sassafras Mountain is the highest peak in South Carolina, a portion of that mountain extends into North Carolina, making Pinnacle the highest mountain entirely contained within the borders of the Palmetto State, at 3,415 feet.

Grant and Ashten perched atop Pinnacle as Alan (left) takes in the views

Grant and Ashten perched atop Pinnacle as Alan (left) takes in the views

The views from the granite outcropping on the eastern side of the mountain were truly spectacular. It was a clear day and we could see for miles, including outstanding views of Table Rock and Paris Mountain. We lingered, snapping pictures and soaking in the incredible scenery. Everyone agreed, it was worth the 22 mile walk just for this vantage point alone.

From there it was less than a mile to more stunning scenery at Drawbar Cliffs. Where the outcropping at Pinnacle was a true cliff with a dramatic and knee buckling drop-off, Drawbar was a gently sloping granite face which invited – insisted upon – a lingering stop. We happily did just that. With views of Lake Keowee and miles beyond, we were again handsomely rewarded for our efforts.

All downhill and waterfalls galore

At length, we bid adieu to Drawbar and rejoined the trail. From here it was a relatively easy downhill jaunt over the last three miles to Table Rock State Park. After seeing almost no water on Saturday, it was in abundant supply on this last stretch, including over a dozen medium to small waterfalls. It felt like we were back in a rainforest, which technically speaking, we were.

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An orange salamander making his way along the trail

Along the way we passed an intriguing orange salamander and two snakes – the second of which darted onto the trail right in front of Cole, causing him to shatter the State high jump record.

As we grew closer to Table Rock we began to pass day hikers headed in the opposite direction to take in the views we had just enjoyed. From our bulbous packs, generally disheveled appearance and impressive bouquet, they likely thought we were completing the full 77 mile hike from Oconee State Park. We were happy to let them think that.

Nearing Table Rock - a slippery rock crossing

Nearing Table Rock – a slippery rock crossing

By noon we were done. Back at the Table Rock parking lot, we made a b-line for the lake and a refreshing dip. By 1pm, we were reunited with Fran, who had spent the previous evening in nearby Hendersonville, N.C. and had thoughtfully packed a cooler of cold Coca-colas for us. We loaded our packs and drove south to Traveler’s Rest where we had a highly anticipated lunch of burgers and beer at Shortfield’s. We called wives, debriefed about our trip, caught up with Fran and entered a state of enraptured joy over our first “real” food in several days. We were a grubby but happy bunch.

Happy reunions and a stroll along Main Street, Greenville

It was wonderful to see Melissa and the other Herr girls when we arrived at the Hampton Inn just off Main in downtown Greenville. Melissa gave me a warm hug and peck on the cheek but otherwise, smartly kept her distance until I could shower. I can’t say that I blamed her.

We gathered for drinks before dinner at Sip – a cool rooftop wine bar with great views of a bustling Main Street two floors below. Afterward, as we ambled along a busy sidewalk on the way to dinner, it felt strange to walk without a pack, unburdened and light of step, and odd not to be on the lookout for a suitable campsite at that time of day. I was reminded how quickly you fall into routine in the woods and how powerful those routines can be. And despite the unbridled joy of a much needed shower and the fun of being with family in my old town, I found myself missing the trail.

We ate that night at Soby’s on Main, a downtown Greenville institution since I lived there in the late 90’s. It was a sensational meal and still somewhat novel to eat off of plates rather than out of a freeze-dried meal sack.

After dinner, Melissa and I strolled hand-in-hand along Main in the fading light, through Greenville’s recently revitalized West End district. The West End area was, when I lived in Greenville, an old warehouse district, mostly abandoned and in serious decay. You wouldn’t walk there after dark. But over the past 15 years it has experienced a tremendous revitalization, including the demolition of Camperdown Road bridge, which opened up views of the lovely Reedy River Falls. The concrete monstrosity of a bridge was replaced by a dramatic and elegant pedestrian bridge and below that, a revitalized Reedy River Park. This investment in turn, attracted a splendid minor league ballpark and countless restaurants and shops as well as the renovation of most of the old buildings along the Main Street corridor. The result has been nothing short of amazing. Downtown Greenville is thriving and provides a powerful testament to the importance of public green space.

A walk in the woods in perspective

We walked 22 miles over two and a half days. We spent two nights on the trail, clambered over some challenging peaks, sweated buckets, enjoyed some spectacular overlooks, burned countless calories and overcame a few obstacles along the way. But to put this into humbling perspective, we covered just 1% of the length of the 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail. We averaged around 8.8 miles a day during our walk. At that pace, hiking the Appalachian Trail would take us over eight months. It takes most through hikers five to six months. On Monday I found a four foot high wall map of the AT at Mast General Store in Greenville. To put our little walk into further perspective, those 22 miles, when measured against the four foot wall map, represent about the width of a fingernail.

But even still, as Bill Bryson put it so well, we can gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, “Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.”

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.