Sandlapper Society

My Kind of Place

Trekking Dark Corner

by Dr. Kirk H. Neely

I was surprised when two of our sons announced that instead of going to the beach for spring break, they wanted to go backpacking in the mountains of South Carolina. They wanted me to go with them! As an Eagle Scout, I hiked the trails and fished the streams of the Upstate. I enjoyed fresh trout cooked over hot coals. I found arrowheads along the riverbanks.

So in 1995, when Scott and Kris, two of our four Eagle Scout sons, invited me to join them on a 40-mile hike on the Foothills Trail, I was delighted. Both were high school students. Scott, a senior, sought a Thoreau-like retreat into the woods. Kris, a sophomore, wanted an artistic venture. The photographs he took of the trip were black-and-white, in the manner of Ansel Adams.

Twisting and turning through steep mountains, the 76-mile Foothills Trail stretches from Table Rock State Park to Oconee State Park. The path meanders through an area my grandfather called Dark Corner. This northwest corner of South Carolina includes rolling foothills and the rugged Blue Ridge escarpment, known by the Cherokees as the Blue Wall. The first settlers were Scots-Irish, granted their lands from the King of England before the Revolutionary War. They were good, hard-working people. They still are.

For generations, folks of Dark Corner operated stills hidden in laurel thickets along mountain streams, converting their corn and rye into whiskey. When the federal government imposed taxes on liquor, the Revenuers were regarded as the enemy. Intruders were viewed with suspicion. “Dark Corner” became synonymous with a sinister, forbidden part of the state. Our four-day backpacking trip took us through the heart of the Jocassee Gorges. The trail loops around the northern part of Lake Jocassee. Here, the ancient Appalachian Mountains fall 2,000 feet in sheer granite cliffs. Five major rivers and numerous streams plunge over rocks, creating more than 30 waterfalls. The place is spectacular!

We walked west starting at Rocky Bottom following Laurel Fork Creek. At noon we moved through a thicket to refill our water bottles. Whoa! On a flat rock above a small waterfall, we spied a coiled timber rattler, basking in the sun. Leaving the velvet-tailed rattlesnake undisturbed, we found water farther along. That night we camped above Laurel Fork Falls serenaded by the rhythm of the cascade.

Sunrise presented a stunning view of Lake Jocassee, whose deep water covers Keowee, once the southernmost village of the Cherokees. Named for a chief’s daughter, Jocassee means “Place of the Lost One.”

A shaft of sunlight penetrated the forest canopy. Flitting in and out of the light were scores of yellow swallowtail butterflies. Scott held out his hand to provide a momentary perch for one. The second day was exhausting. At first we laughed and then became exasperated with the printed trail guide. I smile at the indelible memory of Kris standing with a full backpack, holding the trail guide, and reading “ steady incline.” With that he turned and looked at the trail ahead as it ascended straight up the side of Heart Attack Hill.

We took a break at the suspension bridge over the Toxaway River, watching a fisherman catch rainbow trout in the cold water.

The third morning, we realized that we had camped near an old homestead. Though the house was gone, the moss-covered stone foundation was still in place. Petite golden jonquils, planted years before by a mountain family, danced in the morning breeze.

We stopped at Horsepasture River. Call it a swim or a bath, we felt renewed after our crossing. On the next ridge, we saw a bald eagle soaring high above. Later, near Bearcamp Creek, Scott found an eagle feather beneath a tall white pine. The boys moved along the trail like mountain goats.

I plodded along like an old mule. I was tired and sore. We camped for the night at a spot aptly named Misery Mountain.

Well into our final day, the trail joined the Whitewater River, following it for several miles. At the crossing, we discovered a flash flood had washed away the steel bridge. A fallen log became our footbridge as we forded the roaring river. Our final ascent was a steep climb. Though the trail was slightly improved, the thunder of Whitewater Falls added to the adventure. We still talk about the trip. Recently, we gathered to reminisce. “I remember most of all the vivid colors,” said Kris, a visual artist. “It was the best spring break I have ever had,” said Scott, who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2001.

For me, the trek will remain a treasured memory. I was privileged to be in an intriguing place with two of the most fascinating people I know. I love the place; I love the people. 

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Author of Comfort & Joy and A Good Mule is Hard to Find, Kirk Neely is senior pastor at Morningside Baptist Church in Spartanburg. He still enjoys a hike in the woods.

This article is sponsored by Pendleton District Commission.