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Field Notes: Woodlands and Water, Crux of Silence

By Erik Hogan

This is part III of a five part series about thru-hiking the Foothills Trail in South Carolina in early May, 2024.


I had just fallen asleep.

POW! A gunshot, but not too close. Or, did I dream it?

Alert, I listen for anything more. No yelling. No more noises. Maybe it was a tree snapping. Maybe I did dream it. I’m too exhausted to maintain concern and quickly fall back asleep.

A crack of thunder. Rain pounding on my tent. I have no idea of the time, just that it is the middle of the night. Inside, all is secure. Exhaustion grabs me once more and drags me back under, hardly disturbed.

Distant thunder rumbles me awake again, this time closer to morning. I turn in my sleeping bag until close to 6 am, but then I am awake. Slow and cautious movement serves as self assessment after yesterday’s extensive mileage under driving rain. Muscles are stiff and sore, but no strains or lingering injuries. My feet are dry and strong.

Mostly clear skies unfurl beyond the dripping wet tree canopy. Indistinct lingering low clouds grow pink from the approaching sunrise. My senses come together as I eat and I realize several truths. I stink. I am sore and my shoes are still wet, but it is going to be a good day!

Packing up camp takes only a few minutes and I have time to sit and reflect over coffee. A poignancy hits me at the realization that two days of the five on this thru hike of the Foothills Trail have already passed. The journey no longer sprawls ahead of me as a span of unbroken possibility. Am I paying enough attention? Can I focus on being present in the moment, enough to be able to carry the details of the experience with me after it is over?

My unattained goal for yesterday was Hilliard Falls Campsite, and the distance to get there this morning is made up ground. From here, a side trail leads to the namesake waterfall. It is early and only 0.2 miles, so I take it.

Hilliard Falls is a slick rock water slide ending in a sudden drop into the water pool at its base. Photographing the water is problematic. The top is now exposed to the rising and unclouded sun, while the lower half remains embedded in shade. I take multiple exposures of the same composition, hoping I will be able to blend them together during post processing.

Hilliard Falls

A variety of vegetation enfolds upon the trail as I continue the walk. False solomon’s seal, hay scented fern, and galax glisten cleanly with residual raindrops. Rhododendron and maple drip in the understory. Netted treetops distill the morning sun. The humidity is palpable.

The trail undulates up ridges and through valleys, always with bridges of every size and stairs. Mist hangs in the air, but with the clearing clouds higher up, sunlight penetrates the leaves causing radiant and visible beams of light. I take out my DSLR, but the light is shifting so rapidly that the light beams have changed by the time I find a composition. I capture some photos with the GoPro camera as I continue walking.

Another backpacker occupies Bearcamp Creek Campsite. The morning is well underway, but he is just now preparing breakfast. I pass him by without interrupting the silence.

Although my shoes are still wet from yesterday’s downpours, my feet had a chance to dry and no longer hurt from over-saturation. Walking feels good and the hope is that the shoes will dry as I walk. My calf muscles seem to have accepted their fate and find protesting the hike to be useless.

The Foothhills Trail begins a giant circumnavigation of Lake Jocassee. Searching for glimpses of it through the foliage, I almost walk right past a wooden sign high up on a stout maple. Halfway. It is 38.1 miles back to Oconee State Park and 38.1 miles ahead to Table Rock State Park. From this point on I am no longer walking into the woods, but out of it. The thought stops me in my tracks and leaves me feeling very conflicted. I am elated at the achievement, but how can this adventure be slipping by so quickly?

Another large bridge spans the broad Horsepasture River. It is about 10:45 and the rising sun and humidity have left me coated in a film of sweat. I lay my clothes and shoes in the sunlight and, for a few minutes, swim in the cool river waters. A group of monarch butterflies investigating my shirt scatter as I return. Refreshed, I follow the trail across the bridge.

Out from the Horsepasture River valley comes another climb up the opposite hillside. The intensity builds quickly, measured in units of sweat per meter. My shoes still haven’t dried as I had hoped. My feet, having been in them all morning, start to remind me of their distress in the wet conditions yesterday. A minor worry now, but it still follows me.

I look forward to Bear Gap Campsite, where I plan to take a short break, eat, and re-fill my water. Temperatures are rising at just past noon when I arrive. Flat and wide with benches and fire pits, this site could host a group of campers. Now, it is empty.

A large cluster of monarch butterflies have clustered on the ground nearby. They are so tightly gathered they look like a quivering ball of indistinguishable black and yellow. I creep closer to film them, trying not to cause them to disperse. Something bumps the back of my leg and I swat it away. Bees! Lots of them! There are many flying around in the air, and then I see they are crawling all over my backpack! Fortunately, they look like honey bees and not the much more aggressive yellowjackets so common here. As they whisk around they are more interested in my pack than in me, but I cannot find where they are coming from.

I step away towards the stream and fill my water bottle. Then, trying hard not to smash a bee and cause it to sting, I grab my backpack by the top carry strap and walk away with it across the bridge over the stream. Only a couple of persistent bees follow me and those soon fly away. Not the restful lunch break I hoped for. I slowly hike further, as concern for bees diminishes but the concern for my wet feet grows.

The trail traverses higher, hilly terrain north of Lake Jocassee. A power line clear cut through the trees lets the full force of the sun strike the earth. My eyes squint. A sign indicates the border of Gorges State Park. The up and down stair covered climbs become long and straight, as if the builders of this section of trail were unfamiliar with the concept of switch-backs.

A turn in the path, and the trail quickly drops in elevation. The rippled waters of the lake shine through gaps in the forest, green in its reflection of the surrounding trees. It rapidly draws closer as I descend and I reach its shore under the brunt of afternoon heat. The lake’s cool waters call to me like the mesmerizing song of a Siren. However, the edge of the lake is alternately tangled with reeds, sticks, or mud. These are the only deterrent from me dropping my pack and plunging in.

Lake Jocassee

Walking becomes easy along the lake’s edge. I become aware of a deep sense of fulfillment that has been growing throughout this journey. At times masked by superficial pains and discomforts, this much more enduring feeling is becoming louder than all of those distractions. It is the sense of acceptance as being part of the land, rather than a visitor passing through it.

I continually monitor the shoreline for easy access to the water, but none readily appears. Suddenly, the insulting whine of a motor fractures the serenity. I stop to see two jet skiers on the water powering towards the peak of the cove. They are out there having a good time on the lake on a nice day. But, here I stand watching them intently, recessed into the shadows of the forest like some feral creature. They are unaware of my presence. In the green world, on my third day of minimal contact with civilization, the sound of the engines strikes me as blasphemy.

The jet skiers are en route towards my next way point, another Whitewater Falls at the confluence of the Toxaway River and Lake Jocassee. I enter the area at 3:15. The jet skis are turned off, bobbing silently in the inlet a good distance away.

River rapids power through sharply angled slabs of rock just before the Toxaway meets the lake. The watery chaos is spanned by a massive suspension bridge, bouncing with each heavily laden step. On the far side I drop my pack and strip my sweat drenched shirt to wash it in the clean stream. Like a careful artwork display, I position my shirt, socks, and shoes on the baked rocks for maximum sun exposure. Then, for the next few minutes, I soak my aching feet in the frigid mountain waters and let the cold purge my ailments.

Toxaway River Whitewater Falls

Standing on the warm boulders absorbing the afternoon sunlight for half an hour completely dries my feet, my clothes, and most importantly, my shoes. Beyond the moisture, my concerns have evaporated as well. I gear up and continue hiking, re-energized and now pain free.

More leisurely walking along the lake propels me into late afternoon. However, my progress comes to a sudden stall past Rock Creek Campsite as I begin to climb the ridges again. Stairs. An unremitting ascension of flights of stairs. It begins as a test of strength. I soon realize that this effort dwarfs any of the previous climbs along the trail. Still more stairs. Sweat completely saturates my recently cleaned shirt and stings my eyes. My ribs hurt from the uncontrollable and forceful contractions of my lungs. My hamstrings are depleted. Every step or two requires a long pause before continuing. Though unaware at this time, I later learn that this stretch of the Foothills Trail has been named ‘Heartbreak Ridge.’

A gentle breeze rustles the canopy leaves as the path levels out on the peak of the ridge. The delicate brush of air on my sweat covered skin stops me with eyes closed in gratifying welcome. A sweet whisper from the spirits of the forest, the breeze rewards my efforts and softly encourages me to carry on. I do so, after chugging a majority of my water.

Evening quietly settles on the land as a side trail and large bridge lead me into Laurel Fork Campsite. This area contains multiple scattered sites near the point that Laurel Fork Creek deluges down as a waterfall into Lake Jocassee. A potential view to the west exists from the top of the falls, but other campers already occupy the site closest to that point. I am satisfied with a wide level space further upstream. The roar of the falls is softer here.

Bridge to Laurel Fork Campsite

The silence of the day has provided space for my subconscious to wander in abstraction. The concepts it encountered begin to take more definition as I slowly set up camp. This journey is a process of connecting deeply with nature. However, it is fueled by an internal drive towards creativity, and that drive is completely irrational. Creativity is painful and I have come to believe that suffering is a requirement for creating authentically. This is not the pain of sodden feet crushed by miles under a heavy pack, although for me it is closely entwined. No. This pain comes from confronting one’s own soul in silence, dipping into its rawness to draw out an attempt at art, and suffering in the secret knowledge that even one’s very best effort is not as good as one hoped. The call to create is a constant pursuit of an ever elusive perfection of one’s craft. There is beauty in that. The sweat, both physical and metaphorical, is cleansing. But why do it? Perhaps the effort is the only possible stimulus for growth along the path. So, do I create for myself, for others, or both? Maybe it is as Rick Rubin suggests, that the creative act is an offering to God.

I step to the creek to fill my water bottles. There, I see that Laurel Fork Creek is flowing directly towards a vibrant sunset, veiled by branches and leaves. It reminds me of a sunset I experienced from the top of Panther Creek Falls in the Cohutta Wilderness last summer. I cast off my fatigue and photograph the scene. For a while after I sit, simply experiencing the fading light and gentle murmur of the flowing stream. This is a gift from the trail gods. Perhaps my photograph of it can be a gift to them.

Erik Hogan is a photographer who primarily shoots landscape, wilderness, and nature scenes in the Athens area.

Follow on Instagram @erikhoganphotography Erik's sketchbook includes a look behind the scenes, with an option to purchase a limited number of prints through the link in his bio. htttps://erikhoganphotography.com.

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