June 28, 2021
The rain was light, misting, when I found the parking area at a place called Laurel Valley. The sky was deep gray, a thick, ominous overhead that promised a downpour any moment. I was 50 miles from home in South Carolina’s Jocassee Gorges Management Area, maybe a half-dozen miles due south of the state line.
I stepped out of the van and looked around. I heard only the clicking of the drops hitting the ground. I was alone, who else would be anywhere near this place on a day like this. I pulled on my light shell, stowed my map and a couple of candy bars in my hydration pack, and walked a quarter-mile down a gravel road to U.S. 178. The course would be close to five rocky, winding miles to the northwest to Sassafras Mountain, an elevation gain of about 1,800 feet. Then the return.
I could see the trail across the road, narrow and steep, leading into dark forest. I looked for the white blazes of the Foothills Trail.
The Blue Ridge rises quickly from South to North Carolina. The trails are steep, twisting, narrow chutes; the rocks are sharp or blunt instruments. Mount Mitchell, just northeast of Asheville, is 6,680 feet to the summit, a tad higher than Tennessee’s Clingman’s Dome, crown of Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,640. Mount Rogers in southwest Virginia comes in at about 5,700. Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest point, straddling the state line, is 3,550 feet. Mount Cheaha in Alabama, where the mountains slope into rolling piedmont, is down at 2,400.
These ancient Eastern mountains seem minor league next to the far-younger peaks of the Rockies and the West Coast. Mount Whitney in California’s Sierra Nevada, highest point in the contiguous U.S., is 14,500 feet high. Pike’s Peak, not the highest place in the Rockies at 14,115, is yet better-known than Mount Elbert, which at 14,440 feet is a tad higher than Washington’s Mount Rainer at 14,411.
I’ve been to a few of these places. They draw men and women who come for their own reasons: the mystery and grandeur of nature, the challenge of the climb, the wildlife, the serenity, sometimes the danger. All find, in their own way, communion with God, the power of his presence in these wild places, where treacherous trails wind among giant boulders and cross rushing streams. Wilderness, the power, the opaqueness, both the relentless hardness and exquisite beauty of it, calls us to act, to move forward, to overcome. It teaches or reminds us of our humanity, of our place in the world.
I pushed on from Laurel Valley, high and higher, hard step in front of hard step, foot by foot, achieving a brief stretch of level or near-level trail then slogging upward again. In some unclimbable places wooden steps had been installed to help the climber cheat the elevation. At a half-mile the heavens opened and the rain fell in a steady, thunderous roar, thwacking on leaves and branches. The rain soaked through my shell, my shirt, my cap, my shoes. I kept my head down as the water dribbled from my cap into my eyes and down my chin. A thin mist rose from the underbrush to the treetops, obscuring the trail. I whispered a few Hail Marys.
At one hour I reached the halfway point, called Chimneytop Gap, a road crossing marked by a sign. As I approached I could see the road hundreds of feet below, a thin ribbon of asphalt. A car looking the size of a dime passed and disappeared. The trail widened a bit, I descended in a rough trot.
Getting to the road picked up my mood, I dropped the thought of turning back. On the other side the trail sloped gently but that didn’t last, it twisted again sharply upward, huge rocks formed obstacles to be climbed over, revealing the route through the deep columns of oak, maple, poplar. An idea dawned: ditch the trail, take the road back. I recalled the course moves away from the Sassafras Mountain Road and my parking place. No way but to backtrack.
The rain fell in sheets and I moved on, using my trek poles to push the overgrowth aside to avoid being dumped on further, alert any bears in the area, and evade ticks waiting in the long grass. The trail opened up a bit then narrowed again. An hour from the Gap I began to see flashes of sky through the treetops. Progress. I turned onto a short level stretch and found the end of Sassafras Mountain Road, the route to the observation deck at the summit. But the blazes took me back into the woods for another half-mile for more climbing, up, up, around a dark bend. Then the summit.
I stood for a moment in a fog-shrouded meadow then moved forward, still following the blazes. For a few moments I crossed into North Carolina. As the mist wafted around me a chilling breeze rose. The observation deck, straddling the state line, was a gray-white silhouette. The small parking area was empty. No one in his right mind was coming up here today.
Still soaked, I leaned against a boulder and pulled a candy bar from my pack and looked around. The view from the deck, where on clear days visitors can look north and east for a hundred miles across two states, was closed in by an impenetrable cloud.
The breeze picked up, I shivered. I looked around. The tall grass waved. Not a soul for miles. The silence was absolute. I took a deep breath and stood and adjusted my pack. A chill was setting in. Nature was warning me. I stepped back on the trail.