The gorges of the Blue Ridge Escarpment--what a beautifully sculpted phrase. Listen to it: You hear gouged, edged, cut, and carved; scooped, scoured, and scalloped. Within a ten-mile stretch, five gorges slice through the southeasternwall of the Blue Ridge Mountains--as though scored by the claws of a bear--from North Carolina down into South Carolina. For most of its length, the Eastern Continental Divide follows the crest of the escarpment. But for those few miles, it jogs north, creating a descending terrace that gives rise to five streams--the Whitewater, Thompson, Horsepasture, and Toxaway Rivers, and Bearcamp Creek.
After walking steadily for two hours, I spy patches of white through a layered canopy of hemlock and pine and an understory of rhododendron. Far below is the top of a waterfall, and it drops another several hundred feet. To get closer, I hike several miles on the Foothills Trail, which leads me up a great ridge, then descends into the Thompson River Gorge. When I hear the sound of water, I go down steep steps toward the cool shade of laurel and hemlock. And there is the river--clear green water, smooth and fast, huge boulders, and a wooden bridge. Blue sky, reflected in the river, shines up in patches through dark foliage.
On the downstream side of the bridge lies a boulder, wide and flat as a banquet table. The stone is cool. I spread out my lunch--cheese and crackers, a sandwich, a tangerine--and give thanks, not for food alone, but for the blessed flow of the river, the boulder, blue sky, and solitude. A jet might pass overhead without my hearing it above the sound of rapids, and I have not seen a soul all day.
Adapted from The Blue Wall: Wilderness of the Carolinas and Georgia, with photos by Thomas Wyche (Westcliffe Publishers, 1996).
The waterfalls and wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Escarpment recently grew more accessible when, starting in 1997, Duke Energy sold some 40,000 acres to North Carolina, South Carolina, and the U.S. Forest Service. For hikers, the area's big draw is the 76-mile Foothills Trail. For information, go to www.foothillstrail.org or contact the Foothills Trail Conference, P.O. Box 3041, Greenville, SC 29602, (864) 467-9537.