top of page

Field Notes: Woodlands and water, Rapture in Storms

By Erik Hogan

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

Hours of the night drag by in restless exhaustion. Here along the Laurel Fork Creek, though upstream from the waterfall where it drops into Lake Jocassee, the swirl of rushing water stymies sleep. I toss and turn in the sticky still air. Later, my drowsing is interrupted by yet more storms rolling through on waves of thunder. The tent walls tremble under the barrage of rain.

Aches wake me at 5:30 am. The rain has stopped. My sweat laden clothes are repulsive, but must be put on. I pack what I can inside of the dry, cramped confines of the tent before emerging. Outside, the world is dark. The musty smell of wet earth and plants hangs heavy in the cool dampness.

The Foothills Trail leads out of camp, level and smooth, following Laurel Fork upstream. This fourth day of the thru hike will bring me into some of the highest elevations yet. I begin to wonder about the timing of my arrival at Sassafras Mountain, potentially the climax of this adventure.

Misty air trapped between dripping rhododendron above and dank ferns below envelops me in moisture. Despite stepping carefully, softly bending flora extends wet leaves to wipe against my legs and shoes. Poison ivy grows here. Tender yet sinister, it lurks with a deceptive countenance of innocence. I remain on high alert to avoid brushing those three-leaf clusters.

The morning is still early and filled with the chatter of birds. A turn in the trail abruptly reveals another anticipated waterfall. Virginia Hawkins Falls. I am stunned. The dispersion of the flow amongst the rocks accentuates the textures and layers before me in a way that stops me mid step. The stream divides into five separate flows at the sharp peak of a sheer rock cliff. After crashing into the base of this cliff, the water then careens through multiple tiers of moss covered ledges and boulders before resting in a calm shallow pool. Spellbound, I watch the water flow for a timeless eternity compressed into a moment, resonating to the echoes of my beating heart.

I could easily spend the day here, viewing and photographing the waterfall from countless angles. Miles and higher destinations lie ahead, though. My time here must be short.

Virginia Hawkins Falls

Flatrock Mountain rises beyond Virginia Hawkins Falls and I begin its ascent. As I drive each stair below and behind me I can only speculate that they were built by people with much younger knees than mine. However, my energy level is high this morning and I push through the climb.

Out of the valley and on the ridge, the topography rolls like waves on the sea. The land is drier here, and the under story more dispersed. Towering oaks predominate, mixed with hickory and tulip magnolias. The air remains still and my sweat-dampened shirt clings to my skin.

The trail merges with a dirt road that surrenders the elevation I just gained. It descends to a gap in the mountains where it intersects, and crosses, the paved Highway 178. A day hiker’s white Subaru parked along the shoulder stands out like a strange carved idol of some long forgotten deity.

The empty road spans a river over an arched stone bridge. I leave my pack to scurry down a rocky embankment to the water’s edge. Like some filthy bridge troll, I stoop near the shadows and fill my water bottles. Tough terrain lies ahead of me, and I must prepare for the upcoming ascent.

Chimney Top Mountain looms ahead. This unforgiving climb begins on the other side of the highway, just as the mid day heat builds. It is a step by step slog forward, drawing streams of sweat from my temples. The trees are tall and the path dusty. Monumental boulders rise from the mountainside above me to my left. One of these has been aptly named Mammoth Rock. New grow of rhododendron reaches for patchy sunlight. Small sassafras saplings begin to appear. Progress is slow, but I steadily crawl on.

My gaze is cast downward at my stumbling feet, but a sudden feathery noise draws my attention to the treetops. A large dark shape takes to wing and flies from the branches high overhead. A raven. I seem to encounter them on most of my adventures in the mountains. It croaks throatily as it flies and, a bit further away, another answers. Huginn and Muninn. Opportunities to do warrior deeds are rare these days, but perhaps Odin is taking notice of my efforts.

Chimney Top Campsite has a cistern of water strategically embedded into the small creek running through. I wash my shirt of its filth and hang it on a bush to dry as I eat and rest. This site was an option for camping tonight. Doing so, I would have to leave very early but then might have the chance to see sunrise from the top of Sassafras Mountain.

It is much too early in the day to stop now. I also cannot quite estimate how long it would take me to get to the mountaintop from here or what the weather will be like in the morning. No, I will reach Sassafras later today and stay there until sunset, if necessary for a good photograph. I will then continue in to the dark to Cantrell Campsite.

Thunder growls ominously overhead as I begin to tackle the stairs on Sassafras Mountain. The rain begins lightly as a pattering in the treetops which shield me from the drops. My breathing races to keep up with the ratcheting intensity of the climb. The power of the storm grows as I gain elevation. Atop of a flight of steps I rest in the hopes that it will begin to pass, but the opposite occurs. The rain becomes a deluge and I hastily cover myself and my pack with my poncho. There is nowhere to shelter from the downpour. My only option is to hike through the storm.

The trail traverses scraggly clearings of broken and dead trees, the remains of past forest fires. Completely exposed, I trot through these openings as piercing discharges of lightning flash all around, one after another after another. Fear and worry will not diminish this tempest. I can only keep moving forward while wondering if, perhaps in mid stride, I will suddenly awaken in Valhalla.

Orange highlights in the rain

The storm does weaken. Eventually the lightning stops. The booming of the clouds fades into unsettled rumbles over distant hills. My continued steps lead me out of the trees to a rocky clearing. An abrupt lightness fills my chest. Shudders of goosebumps raise the hairs on my arms. Days of effort led up to this moment. Just ahead a stone observation tower, wide and round, stands imposingly atop the highest point on the Foothills Trail. I have reached the summit of Sassafras Mountain.

A long zig-zag concrete ramp conveys me to the broad, flat top the of platform. A painted black line divides the landing, marking the exact boundary of North and South Carolina. Sassafras is the tallest mountain in South Carolina, but at only 3554 ft, there are much higher ones to the north. I straddle the line to stand in two states at one time. In the center of the platform is a massive directional compass. An elderly couple is enjoying the views when I arrive, having driven up to the nearby parking lot. The lady asks, in seeming disbelief, if I hiked up the whole mountain. Yes, indeed. They soon leave me here alone.

Rippled green mountains recede into distant haze in all directions. Dramatic storm clouds still cross threateningly overhead. My mind spins, as if the enormity of the landscape before me will not correlate to the distance I have traveled on this journey and how close to the end of it I am. Motionless, I look across the scope of the land with glistening eyes, feeling the caress of wind on my skin.

Though still mid afternoon, the post-storm light paints the landscape with a gravitas that I am excited to capture in a photo. I attach my telephoto lens to my camera and my camera to my tripod. Just as I take a photograph, the skies quickly darken and begin to drizzle once more. At first, I only worry about water drops on the lens, but a crash of thunder spurs me to gather my things and hurry from the platform.

The viewing platform is solid, without any shelter inside or on top. I withdraw underneath the concrete ramp just a moment before the full torrent releases. I squat and wait, but the storm continues to worsen. Rain blows sideways, striking me as the temperature plummets. I retreat to cover under the lowest point of the ramp. My fleece pullover and poncho provide barely enough warmth and protection. Ear splitting cracks of thunder explode before each previous boom has faded. Ab muscles unconsciously clench as I wonder just how bad this can get. I sit on my ground sheet, knees tucked to chest, trying to avoid the rivulets of water now coursing across the bare ground. For the better part of an hour I am entrenched here, cold and wet, hiding from the violence of the weather.

The rain finally eases and for a moment my full body tension relaxes.

Plink

What was that? More sharp plinks and something bounces nearby. Pea sized hail is striking the walkway railing. It quickly escalates from intermittent to an icy bombardment that covers the mountaintop in a coarse coating of white. The hail does not continue for long, though. By the time it stops falling from the sky, the ice on the ground has melted, like a rapidly fading dream.

Cautiously, I crawl from my cave-like shelter. The darkest of clouds have passed beyond the nearest peaks, but my return to the platform is hesitant. What I find there is a new world cleansed by the storms, reborn out of the weather’s fury. Perhaps the world now sees me the same way.

Silent mountains stand unmoved, speckled with lingering patches of white mist. Scattered sunlight adorns the land with a mottled green mosaic. Rolling hilltops rise in luminance under sunbeams streaking down between the broken shadows of clouds. To the northeast a rainbow fans its flawless array of pure and vibrant hues, stretching longingly towards distant peaks. The breeze is soft. The sun is warm. Somewhere a lone bird sings.

It is like standing in the presence of the divine. I am divided between a feeling of devotional duty to approximate the sublime scene in photographs or simply stand and watch in elated wonderment. With ritualistic care, I set the tripod. My fingertips tingle as I dial in camera settings. Thoughts clear from my mind like the dispersing clouds. The process is a meditation. I find compositions among the wide views around me and then… I focus.

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.

Subscribe to his Field Notes at

52 views2 comments

2 Comments


a good read. Actually, better than that. Thanks!

Like

Before leaving the tent, I pack as much as I can inside its dry, cramped confines. eggy car

Like
bottom of page