condemnation depression despair despondency Jesus reflection Romans the Gospel thought process

Free Range Despondency

The black dog. Depression. Despair. Melancholy. Despondency. Down. Moodiness. 
Does any of that ring familiar to you? Do you, like me, allow some of your thoughts to run free and unchecked? Does the narrative in your head tell you to give up, that it is hopeless? The mind can really be a tangled mess of thoughts, experiences, assumptions and behaviors. I’ve struggled with this kind of thing for several years, so before going to the medical community to address anything chemically off in my body, I sought pastoral counseling to see what the Gospel had to say.
It turns out a lot.
The details of what led me to this point aren’t relevant for this blog, but some of the counsel I received is. The Bible was written for more than just me individually. My pastor walked me through Romans 5, 6, 7 and 8. I’m not able to articulate this as skillfully as he did, but after capturing my reflections and applications of those chapters in Romans in my journal, I felt part of that reflection would be valuable to share here. If you are reading this and feel lost, I suggest reading those four chapters just mentioned to help fill out some of the gaps you may feel in my thoughts, as I am responding to those chapters.
I am either dead under the law or alive in Christ. To the law, I am weak to fulfill it. I am weak to even do the good things I desire to do. The law is good. I agree with it, yet can’t fulfill it. 

Ah! There is Christ!

My condemnation under the law has been poured on Christ, and none is left for me. I am now alive. Yet I am still weak, and look for identity in strength. Poor me, wretched me, hopeless me… FULL of weakness. It is in this gap that I find Christ to be strong. I am so weak that many times I cannot even find words to pray, but the Spirit intercedes on my behalf to the Father, as I am whole in Christ. I am God’s adopted son, even as I am weak. 

God works all things together for my good. All things includes my weakness, struggle, failure, depression, apathy, pride, arrogance, anger, vain pursuits and thoughts. The Father is mine, and in/by the Spirit, I am being transformed more into Christlikeness day by day. Consider who you were 10-15 years ago? I am being made new, more like Christ, but so slowly I can scarcely perceive it. Many times I feel the weakness so fully and tell myself that hope is lost. I become my own judge and forget Christ.

(This next bold/bracketed section is the breaking down of Romans 8:34)
Who is the one who condemns? 
(I do!!)
Jesus Christ is the one who died,
(when it should have been me!!)
but even more, has been raised,
(proving His standing in my place and taking all of my condemnation was efficient to reconcile me to the Father!!)
He is also at the right hand of God
(not condemned Himself, sin has been defeated, death is no more, and Jesus reigns in life!!)
and intercedes for us.
(He is my mediator between God and I, and if Jesus is my advocate when He is the only one to condemn, condemnation left me as Christ left the grave clothes in an empty tomb!!)

and now I say… I AM FREE! I AM FREE!

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28 ESV)
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5 Reasons Why I Still Believe In My Church

The church can be a struggle. I’ve had my fair share of struggles at the church My family and I have been attending for 10+ years; however, those are typically centered around my preferences and misunderstandings. No church is perfect. That’s not an excuse, but a reality. 

Charles Spurgeon once said, “Give yourself to the Church. You that are members of the Church have not found it perfect and I hope that you feel almost glad that you have not. If I had never joined a Church till I had found one that was perfect, I would never have joined one at all! And the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect Church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us…”

It seems that there will never be a shortage of complaints to have about something or someone. Are you the same as me, that once I start complaining, I get tunnel vision for everything that’s wrong about anything? “Be positive!” sounds trite and Pollyana-esque, but there is a hint of truth to that. As Christians, even though our sins have been paid for in Christ, much sin is still present in our lives. Sometimes we have to search with squinted eyes to see where God is at work in each other. At face value, I’m a giant mess. At face value, the church can look like a giant mess. In the midst of the mess, God is weaving something beautiful. 

So as I’ve been contemplating about my church, I came up with 5 reasons why I’m still there. Every member does not succeed or fail at each of these every time across every year, but the mere presence of some things and absence of others is reason to believe God is at work.

1. The church doesn’t try to impress me.

From the first day we showed up until now, I have never felt like I was going to a show. It has never been flashy or over the top. There has never been a music minister leading a concert and soaking up the praise like we were all there to see him. Whether it’s the singing, instruments, preaching, kids ministry, whatever… I have never felt that the church was trying to be anything other than it was – beggar’s who have found bread trying to tell other beggars where we found bread. We get to hear the good news of Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection in our songs and sermons and lives. 

2. The church has allowed me to struggle.

Sometimes I have merely been moody, and other times I’ve gone on the proverbial warpath. I have shown up to small group meetings and made them miserable. I’ve made people to feel bad on purpose. I’ve let friends struggle and refused to help them. I’m a mess even below face value. A ragamuffin, really. I’ve been depressed, confused, demanding, accusatory, and unhealthily speculative. In the middle of my mess, I’ve been allowed to struggle and question and wonder what the heck was going on. While there have been instances of guys trying to fix me (I hate that, and I do that!), I have been given room to not have it all figured out.

3. The church has forced me to think, reason, and adapt to situations and people I’m uncomfortable with.

If you consider what the gospel is and how it crosses all boundaries of class, race, status, and more, there is a lot of diversity within the church. Men and women come from all different backgrounds bringing with them all different kinds of ideas. That is an unavoidable opportunity for friction. We all come from different backgrounds and upbringings. From there, we all bring our own unique baggage, burdens, and brilliance. Everyone in the church is united in Christ, but sometimes Christ is the only thing that unites us. This is something that has had a profound effect on me. Through the church, God is growing and changing and loving his people VIA his people. That is a mind load to think about.

4. The church has allowed me to mourn.

My family has seen broken bodies and crooked minds. From miscarriages to chronic health conditions, we have felt the force of our fallen humanity. We have felt our bodies betray us. A lot of time, there is nothing that can be done. It can’t be fixed or made better or put back together. It just sucks, and that’s it. We have had instances of others just mourning with us. People who will be sad for you and with you is a great mercy. 

5. The church is dynamic, not stagnant.

Decisions have to be made. Directions have to be taken. Some of those have been good, and others not so much. There has seemed to me the ever present question of how can we grow together and with God better? How can we do our ministry better? What changes can we make? Where do we need to adapt, make corrections, reinforce what is working, and do things with more transparency? We may miss the mark, but I am encouraged that the church is not ceasing to aim.

Like it not, we need each other. We are frail and fragile and failing and frustrated. We need to remind each other of the central backbone that carries each of these reasons why I still believe in going to my church: The Lord is at hand. He is on the move. He is at work. One day, we will see the beautiful tapestry he is weaving of this mess of people. One day, we will sit at the his table and eat and drink and tell the old tales of waiting for his kingdom. Be encouraged. Love your church, even if you aren’t loving it well. We will spend eternity together. We must remind each other that there is hope in our hurting. The dawn is coming. The Lord is at hand.

“What is the story of my priesthood? It is the story of an unfaithful person through whom God continues to work!” ~ Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

(While I did not write this as an advertisement for my church but as an encouragement to really seek and contemplate and consider where the Lord is at hand in your own church… you can read more about where we attend by visiting
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Face to Face

Some things have been rattling around in my mind over the last few weeks. I’m just trying to figure some of this life and myself out. You could look at this as a sneak peak into the internal thought process of analysis and decision making.

I need the Lord. Desperately. Subtly, I feel I’ve gone in a “just me and Jesus” direction. I may be on the verge of coming out of that, but it remains to be seen at this point. One of the ways the Lord makes himself known is through his Bride, the Church. The Holy Spirit ministers to his Bride through his Bride. Through fellowship. Relationships with other believers is more important and life-giving that I’ve given a credit for this year. I feel it’s easy to say bitterness has rot my posture toward the church.

Face-to-face time. This has been front and center at my attention over the past couple weeks. Not that I focus on it, really, but that it keeps popping up in conversations, podcasts, blog posts, sermons, etc. Relationships cannot grow, they cannot thrive without face-to-face time. This can be derailed in lots of ways. How much face to screen time takes away from face-to-face time? How many conversations that could knit two people closer together are lost for the sake of eavesdropping into someone else’s online drama or someone else’s white washed social media? Or just shopping and consuming? I don’t want to come to a place where I reject technology, but rather I want to start asking the question, “How can I harness this technology to where it enhances face-to-face time instead of creating a void in the relationship?” This will likely be a balance I will never achieve, but I must never cease to aim for it.

Time. I’m a finite creature. My capacity is only so high before things I engage in begin to suffer and I make halfhearted investments in others. Time is a limited resource, and one I will never get back. When it’s wasted, I feel the seeds of bitterness beginning to root.

When I say yes to something, I say no to something. This is where God, the church, relationships, face-to-face time, and stewardship all come together. What will I say yes to? Bitterness? Laziness? Anger? Prayer? Relationships? The Lord? My wife? My children? If I say yes to staring at my phone or some other screen beyond appropriateness, I say no to play and story time with the kids, board games, deep conversations, honest and open and lighthearted and laugh-filled and scary and fearful conversations? Just some examples. I have several behaviors that I need to change.

Who will I invest in? Who will have access to me? I realize that may sound cold, but I have to be realistic about my capacity.

My wife and kids will have the greatest access to me. This is going to mean they do not get crowded out by others, who will have lesser degrees of access. This has to start at home and branch out from there. Texting, email, social media, etc. Those screen time conversations that can enhance face-to-face time need to take a backseat to my own family. However this has to be the expectation set with the relationships I’m in.

I need the Lord. 

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”
Psalm 127:1 ESV

My wife. 
My children. 
My fellowship of believers. 
My family.
Everyone else.

Fellowship of believers. Those relationships in the church by whom the Holy Spirit minister’s and the father reveals himself. Few are long-term friends, and there are several who are in what I’ve been calling an “ember” stage of friendship. I feel what it looks like, as far as setting expectations, is to tell those closest and ember and beyond relationships my struggle to spend time with the Lord and face-to-face. To explain to them the enhance/void dynamic of technology, and that means I may be spotty in response to them because I’m trying to invest in my family. They will have higher access that most, but not above my wife and the kids. I must be pursuing the Lord above all. I guess this blog post will serve that purpose to those who will slog through it to this point. There may be times my excess ability is extremely limited because my phone may not even be with me. It may be *gasp* in another room of the house or in a drawer somewhere.

Rest is not something I can say I’ve had much of lately, physically or mentally or spiritually. As crazy as it sounds, it sometimes seems like the Lord calls me in the night. “Seek me. I am your rest.”

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
John 15:5 ESV

Categories Kid Friendly Hiking Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area South Carolina The SC Project Upstate Waterfalls Wildcat Falls Wildcat Wayside

The SC Project: Kid Friendly Waterfall Training at Wildcat Wayside

Recently, the kids and I had a couple hours to spend while mommy visited with a friend. We diverted from our normal destination of Paris Mountain to Highway 11 for some waterfall training. I say training because there is a level of danger when hiking around waterfalls. This year, several hikers have fallen to their deaths at waterfalls. I’m aware of at least two death that occurred at Upper Wildcat falls in years prior. Waterfall training is important because there is a natural draw to them, but there are also ways we can enjoy them recklessly that can turn fun into danger in half an instant. There are rules to stay safe while still marveling over God’s amazing creation with awe and wonder. You’re now free to exhale and read on.
This is a relatively easy (I recorded 212ft of elevation) loop hike just over 1 mile with 4 waterfalls. The smallest children may have some difficulty, but the trail is good and the area is beautiful.
We started at the parking area right below the Wildcat Wayside sign. From there, a short set of stone steps led us to Lower Wildcat Falls. Oftentimes in the summer, there are folks selling produce and boiled peanuts at the road while people enjoy wading in the plunge pool below the falls. 
To the left of the falls, the trail ascends to Middle Wildcat Falls immediately. This is probably my favorite section of this area. The plunge pool is more shallow than the one below, and is perfect for kiddies to splash around in. This is also where the training begins. A series of rocks serves as a broken bridge to cross the creek. The kids are not allowed to be in the pool downstream of those rocks, because the top of Lower Wildcat is just beyond them. We splashed around a bit in the sandy bottomed pool at Middle Wildcat. Closer to the falls where it gets rocky, there are a couple “deep” sections, like 18 inches maybe. My son stumbled into it and soaked himself, but fortunately it was a warm day for October. 
Lesson 1: Wet rocks are slick and slippery.

After the rock hop across the creek, there is an information and map kiosk about the park. The “Falls” notated on the map are for a low flow unnamed cascade along the loop trail. Also, there is the top of Middle Wildcat. Very firmly and clearly, it was time for me to give more training.
Lesson 2: We do NOT play at the top of waterfalls.
The trail levels out at the foundation and still standing chimney of an old cabin. Beyond that, the trail forks. You can go either direction, as the trail is a loop. Follow the yellow blazes painted on the rocks and trees. We took the right side path and started gaining elevation. This will undoubtedly be the most difficult portion of the hike for the youngest explorers, as it takes the energy to hike up the hill and they will need the encouragement that “We will go back to those waterfalls on the way out.” It is a beautiful hike along the edge of the valley. A turn and we were at the Falls, which I count as a waterfall but is not that impressive in all honesty. 

Much more is the upcoming Upper Wildcat Falls. Which brought us back into training time.

Lesson 3: People have died at waterfalls.

Waterfalls are unforgiving. Their beauty demands a healthy respect. Admittedly, sometimes the groups I hike with can blur the lines of what that looks like, but that doesn’t change the fact that dangerous areas demand caution. This day, Upper Wildcat was flowing low, but this 100′ waterfall still is an awe inspiring rock formation, and safe as long as you stay on the trail. My two older kids both said,”Whoa!!!” as the trees gave way to bare rock cliffs when hiking on the trail. The Danger signs are in 3 locations, so there’s plenty notice of the need for caution and tempered exploring. You’ll have to cross the creek with a small rock hop.

The trail meanders through the forest next to the creek at a much easier elevation during this section. There are some cool cascades in the valley as Wildcat Creek makes its way from the Upper to Middle to Lower Falls and eventually the Middle Saluda River. These are visible from the trail.

Soon, we were back at Lower Wildcat for some wading in the chilly plunge pool. The kids easily waded up to the falls close enough to touch it. 

This really is a great hike for families. Despite the dangers of waterfalls, if you stay on the trail, it is quite safe. There are lots of things to see, and it’s a wonderful way to get outside. What a jewel we have in the Upstate of South Carolina! With places like this, we can ease our kids (and ourselves!) into the outdoors. If you’re looking for something with a lot of payoff for little effort, Wildcat Wayside should be on your list. My kids loved it.

bushwhacking Gorges State Park Heaven hiking Horsepasture River reflection Team Waterfall Trip report Waterfalls Windy Falls

The Day We Went to Windy Falls

Windy Falls first showed up on my radar over a year ago on the day my friend Luke and I met and hiked together for the first time. There had been talk of trying to hike it, but there were also several reports of people slipping on the Falls and dying there, as well. It was a hike both of us felt like we never needed to have on our list of accomplishments. On the tail end of this past winter, I planned to make an ascent of Narrow Rock Ridge while section hiking the Foothills Trail to get a distant view of Windy Falls, but foggy and soggy conditions factored into that plan being abandoned. A couple months ago, my friend Andy, who had spent several years working different approaches and researching past attempts and failures, led a small group on a successful expedition to the base of Windy Falls. It could be done, but not without difficulty. A few more groups that I’m aware of made successful trips to the base. Then came the invite, and I wanted to visit Windy Falls.
The Horsepasture Drop-Off
I hitched a ride with my buddy Darrin up to Gorges State Park where we would meet up with several friends, some new to us, some old to us. Those who met at the morning rendezvous were Darrin, myself, Luke, Scott, Emily, Johnny, Jack, Stephanie, Kitty, and the infamous Thomas “Badger” Mabry. At 8:45, we hit the trail. The main trails in Gorges are wide gravel roads that are super easy to follow. We left those trails and meandered down uneven trodden dirt to reach the Horsepasture River.
The boulders in that river are massive. The water flow in that river was full and powerful, even though levels were obviously down. Luke and I climbed some of the boulders upstream, and as we sat there watching the force of the water come from above and disappear over an obvious drop below, one of the late Keith Green’s songs began playing in my mind. This place is living in a garbage can compared to what’s waiting in Heaven. Luke quips, “Let’s hope we don’t find out today.” 
House-sized boulder in the upper sections of Windy Falls
The next stop downstream on the Horsepasture River is the Windy Falls terrace, a huge sloping rock where it would be less than easy to meet your demise. When we got there, the conditions were dry, so we were able to carefully explore around it. If that rock is wet, it is also slick, and no attempt should be made to walk on it. At the top of the area, the river rushes beneath a house sized boulder. We made no attempt to get close to the river. A slip up here, and you’re done. About halfway down the rock face is a large separation Crack that becomes a wedge after about four feet. It has been called the Crack of Doom in all seriousness and tongue-in-cheek. (Either way, it is nothing like the Crack of Doom in Linville Gorge.) We took the opportunity to make light of a serious place and play like we were falling in the Crack. 
Don’t slip on the upper terrace
The next section down came with much more difficulty. The path, which was essentially non-existent, split our group up in attempts to find the safest way down. Sheer Rock faces to the left of us, Windy Falls to the right, with the rugged tangle of North Carolina jungle filling in every space between. After using rope to scramble down dripping wet rock faces into standing puddles of black mud, we finally emerged through a pile of boulders onto the clear balcony overlooking the most powerful section of Windy Falls with the most technical section of the route still in front of us.
The Badger enters the Windy Falls keyhole
From the balcony above the plunge pool, with an overhanging cave right behind it, there are two ways down. The first and unfavorable option is over the edge. The water below obscures some hefty boulders that will win against your mass and inertia. The second option is climbing down through the rocks. The easiest way is a tight squeeze through a keyhole. That squeeze can be bypassed with the use of sturdy enough rope, and you can unsafely rappell-lite around the keyhole. Either through or around the keyhole, a rock shelf is the next stop, with the ground another 8 feet below. From here, the rocks angled down toward the water, but another passageway allowed us to travel beneath the boulder balcony into a near silent cave littered with rocks and driftwood beaten to smooth rounded edges by the Horsepasture River. A short scramble or committed walk in the water and we were at the base of the main drop. 
Kitty, Stephanie, and Luke exit the cave
Windy Falls is a raging fury of whitewater as the Horsepasture River crashes down rugged Rock to the plunge pool below. Within the walls of this gorge, the Horsepasture claims full right to its designation as a Wild and Scenic River. 
For the next several hours, the group spent their time eating lunch, taking pictures, scrambling on boulders, exploring ledges to get down river, were joined by Spencer and Stephanie, jumping off and sliding down rocks to swim in the plunge pools. The one thing I really wanted to do for myself was hang a hammock down there, and I was able to find a place after scouting a bit. One by one, the group split as we made our way from the pools, through the cave, out the keyhole, and back up through the boulders and black mud and ledges. 
Darrin goes for one of many slides on the slick rock, with Spencer on the balcony above.
Darrin, Scott, and I stopped at the same pool we visited earlier (where the Keith Green song came to mind), and we got back in the water. Scott took the water leisurely to enjoy a relaxing float about the surface. I wasn’t up to a full swim. Darrin got several more jumps and slides in. If there’s one thing to be said about hiking with Darrin, that dude loves to be in the water. Jumping off rocks into deep river plunge pools and lakes is his thing, for sure. The look on his face, man, he just loves life at that moment. Badger, Kitty, and Stephanie soon joined us, and they too happily entered the waters. It was like other lenses came over my eyes and these thoughts flooded my mind in that contemplative moment:
Team Waterfall loving Windy Falls with abandon
Loving life, there is no question. What struck me was the thought, where does that love come from? How is it that playing carefree in the waters equates with ultimate life? How is it possible that we can enjoy such a good gift as swimming in plunge pools and the sitting beneath the cooling, pummeling pressure of waterfalls? I know that we do, but what precedes that? Deeper questions than any of the pools, for sure. As I meditate on it, that train of thought ends at the Father. Man’s joy is a reflection of the Father’s joy, as we are made in His image. Raw delight points back to the Father, who is the fountain of living water Himself. All these things are gifts and yet, outside of Christ, we are not in a restored relationship with the Father and reject His goodness. We sit, like I did, on the side of the river, not wanting to commit to the waters. (I promise I did not sit out of the water to force that analogy.) In Jesus, the Father beckons us to abandon the shore and plunge into the depths of His reconciling grace to taste the satisfying pleasures of being His.
The walk back to the parking lot was uneventful. I’m surprised we made it the whole day without any timber rattler or copperhead sightings, considering where we had been poking around. For my first visit to Gorges State Park, outside of dipping into it on the Foothills Trail, I’d say it’s going to be hard to beat.
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In Honor of my Friend, Erich

Friendship is something that does not seem to come easily. At least, it is not maintained easily. I believe the story of my friendship with Erich Johnson is worth sharing.
Jenny and I had just come back from a great weeklong vacation celebrating our 5th wedding anniversary in 2009. I was working as a technician at a Toyota dealership, and on my first day back to work, there was word of a new tech starting. My first reaction to Erich was probably similar to most people’s first reaction: this guy is huge. Not in an overweight way. In a crush your skull way. Erich and his wife, Kjersti, and their two kids had just moved here from Washington state. Making small talk, I found they were Christians and had been missionaries overseas. They did not go on mission trips; they were missionaries. They lived with natives in Iryan Jaya, Indonesia for a year, and in the mountains of Haiti for a few months. The stories of these trips and the hopes they brought would color many of our conversations in the following years. However, there was one key event beyond that. One day at work, I see Erich at his toolbox fidgeting about with something. When I walked over to see what he was up to, he asked, “Coffee?” He was making Sumatran coffee in a french press at his toolbox in the shop. It was that moment when I said to myself, “I am gonna love this guy.” And I have. 
Erich and I camping Burrell’s Ford in SC with (not pictured) our friends Chris and Matt, and all of our daughters,
After only a month of working at Toyota, Erich left to work for a family auto repair store on Wade Hampton Blvd., but we would keep in touch.  A couple months behind him, I also left Toyota when he was able to get me a job at the family’s downtown Greenville location. We would regularly meet in the middle between the two stores for coffee, Mexican, fast food, barbeque, coffee, Japanese, Vietnamese, or coffee. In 2011, I was able to transfer to the Wade Hampton store where we would work together again on dirty, burning hot cars during the blistering un-air conditioned heat of the summer. While there, we further built a love for coffee. We would get Counter Culture Coffee from Coffee & Crema and make coffee experimenting with different grinds and brewing mehods. I imagine it may have been interesting as a customer to walk into a family auto repair store to find the technicians brewing coffee in a vacuum siphon over a flame burner.
Erich and I getting ready for some climbing on Crowder’s Mountain, NC.
Not only a Christian, missionary, and coffee lover, but Erich was an adventurer. Originally from Pickens, Erich had worked downtown Greenville at the (no longer there) Rocks and Ropes climbing gym. Over our many lunches and coffees, he began to ask me to go rock climbing with him. Climb @ Blue Ridge has just opened, and after the first time, I dove in. He told me about a store in Traveler’s Rest called Sunrift Adventures where I could get my gear. We were going to Climb @ Blue Ridge semi-regularly, and sometimes we made the drive down to Anderson because Trailhead Climbing had a 50ft wall. Then came the day when Erich suggested we get out on some real rock. We planned for the morning to drive up towards Charlotte and go rock climbing at Crowder’s Mountain. I will remember walking into Starbucks in Gaffney that morning, dressed in moisture wicking shirts (a new thing for me), and the barista asking how we planned to spend our Saturday. Beaming, we said, “Rock climbing.” That would be the first of many outdoor adventures for us, but what solidified my love for the outdoors would come the following year. 
Erich and I on top of the Endless Wall at New River Gorge, WV
We planned to take a long weekend and drive to the New River Gorge in West Virginia. We left right after work on a Friday night for the five and a half hour drive to Kaymoor, WV. After 1:00am, we rolled in to Roger’s Rocky Top Retreat, where climbers were camping before a morning at the crag. For $6, we each got a campsite, showers, a table to cook breakfast at, and a memory that we still talk about to this day: how bad the outhouses smelled. We spent all Saturday climbing ladders and rock walls, through tunnels, and sitting on cliff edges of the Endless Wall. We stopped early and drove up to Summersville Lake because we read there was free camping there at the base of the dam. After a hot day of climbing and hiking, we thought a wash off in the river would feel great. Let me tell you, the water that flows out of the channels of a dam from the bottom of a lake are some of the coldest waters I had ever felt. As we were fixing our dinner, the skies opened up and rain began to pour on us. In what was probably not the best decision, we knew our climbing was shot so we packed up and decided to head home. We were exhausted, and the drive that took us five and a half hours to complete a day earlier would take us over 10 hours to complete this time. That included a consolation steak dinner at Outback, swapping driving every 30 minutes because we were exhausted, and trying to sleep for an hour in some Virginian WalMart parking lot. We were a mess, but we made it back to his house in Pickens safely. We tried a morning hike to the overlook of Raven Cliff Falls, but it was so foggy we couldn’t see past the observation deck.
Erich and I almost to the top of Cabin Trail in August, on our first trip into Linville Gorge, NC.
To recount all of of our adventures even in abbreviated detail would take far too long for this post, but many of them are already in reports on this blog. We would make a return trip to Crowder’s Mountain. We would plan for the Raven Cliff Falls loop, but reroute to DuPont and Table Rock once we found the trail closed due to ice. A third attempt would be my first trip to actually see Raven Cliff Falls. We would hike Carrick Creek Trail at Table Rock State Park with our kids. Eventually, we began to attend church together, and even serve on the ushering team together. We would go on a guys backpacking trip up to TurkeyPen near Brevard, NC, which was a really rough trip because it became a forced march out after the group got separated and had to make up time so one of our guys could get back home for an event. We would stay up late playing Halo (beating it on legendary!), Left 4 Dead, and Gears of War over Xbox Live. We took our daughters to a Greenville Drive game and watched one inning before taking them to the playground and leaving after that. We met our friends Chris and Matt for a daddy-daughter backpacking trip at Burrell’s Ford where we would camp and hike in the rain. We rode the Swamp Rabbit for the first time together. Erich was with me on our first trip into the Linville Gorge, where an ambulance drove past us on Old 105/Kistler Memorial Highway and yelled at us out the window, “Don’t do it!” He was with me on my first hike on Rock Jock in Linville Gorge, where we began planning our first hike along the Lower North Carolina Wall to the Sphinx a year later. Erich was with me on our first steps in the Tuckaseegee River in Panthertown, when we climbed up on the blade of rock below Red Butt Falls and named it Coffee Rock (see the video below), because we made coffee on it in a Jet Boil on a hot August afternoon. We have run the Moonshiner5k night race at Paris Mountain together. We have run the Goodwill Mud Run together, with our friends Chris and Matt. We did The Gorge zipline canopy tour in Saluda, NC together. We revisted Babel Tower to climb down Avatar’s Rib together. Those are some of the places we went and experiences we had that would be some of the contexts in which our friendship would happen.
Life happens. Our families grew, and we would rejoice. Our families would shrink, and we would be full of sorrow. Our families would have dinners together. We would have arguments and disagreements. I eventually left the family repair store to work for Lexus, and Erich would ramp up his schooling to work towards becoming an RN, so our outdoor adventuring together would become less frequent, but that was not what our friendship was based upon any way. Erich left the family store for a large retail chain that would allow him to work second shift while he chiseled away at his degree. Telling me about the benefits of the chain, I skeptically applied to see what would happen. Next thing I knew, we were working side by side again.
Erich and I at Hacker’s Point along Rock Jock Trail on our second trip into Linville Gorge, NC.
Unfortunately, during this time, what began in a short conversation over coffee exploded over several weeks into an escalating sharp and very passionate disagreement. He was temporaily moved to a mid-day shift, but the few hours we were at work together, we would go on for the next several months barely speaking. What conversations we did have were surface at best. On my end, it was an extremely rough and difficult time, and I had no idea how to walk through it. I sought some advice from others in what to do, but it felt mostly superficial and unhelpful. The “you can still be friends” type comments that don’t really help deal with anything. During this time, my daughter Skylar was born, on Erich’s birthday no less. Our families were not at a place where we could share that joy together. I hated what was going on, passing each other daily at work with barely a nod. His family was hurting. My family was hurting. I think we took it out on each other instead of helping each other through it. Instead, we both lost the battle.
Fast forward a few months, and I was back in Linville Gorge to hike L.O.S.T. Our friend Chris was with us, and on rocky outcrop over lunch with Little Seneca jutting out in front of us, with the Sphinx across from us, memories of times I had spent with Erich at several corners of the Gorge, Chris just asked how it was going with Erich. So I told him it has been hard. Without trying to fix me, fix Erich, or fix the circumstances and situation, Chris just heard me and felt that ache with me.
Now convicted of the way I’d been acting, I began to make some forward effort instead of the stand-offish resistance I’d been giving. Erich had just bought a new home, and one of my steps towards reconciliation was helping him move. I wasn’t trying to make up for past hurts, get out of debt to him, or anything like that. It was more of a clearing of the fog from my vision to where I had not been seeing clearly, and stepping back into the friendship to say, “This is what we do under no obligation, because you’re my friend and brother.” There’s nothing to brag about in that, because the steps I took to come to that place were shameful. It is what it is.
Erich and I at the Greenville Drive game
Erich then moved back to second shift and we were working together again. This time was one of the sweetest periods of our friendship as our conversations began to form around finding satisfaction in God. I realize as I type that out, there seems to be a hollowness to it. On the outside looking in, how could that possibly be an interesting thing to talk about? Yet, our conversations swelled with it for months, continually building. It was like a complete reversal was happening, where one conversation escalated into division and sin, the other built into fellowship and glory to God. I can’t even say that if you’d like to have that conversation, I’d be glad to have it with you. Rather, the best way to see this mystery would be as a bystander hearing the two of us having this conversation, entering in if you so chose to. Nothing forced, only the beauty of satisfaction in who God is. That is a crazy concept that is also a wild and untamed truth, and more unpredictable and amazing than any mountain, river, or canyon that we had explored together. 
Erich and I at Elbow Falls on the Tuckaseegee River in Panthertown Valley, NC.
Now, I have moved to a different work shift. If we are to see each other, I have to stay late or he comes in early. We don’t even pass. School is demanding, and our families are a priority. We don’t go to the same church as we once did. We still talk some, but not as much as when we were working every day together, getting coffee together. We are still friends, and we are still making effort to invest in our friendship. Why this post? Well, I miss him. Beyond that, though, I believe our friendship has been one that truly reflects what so many Christian circles call fellowship. It has not been the surface level “how has your week been?” It has been messy, but so much good comes out of the messes.
As I look back on the history of my friendship with Erich, it is smooth and it is rocky. There have been easy times, difficult times, mundane times, extraordinary times, joyous times, and sad times. His family has helped us, and we have helped them. We’ve enjoyed each other, and have been mad at each other. We have given each other good advice and terrible advice. If we had a friendship built on any one of these things, I believe it would have never recovered from the difficulties that have happened. We both find our hope in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because we have been reconciled to God through Jesus, we can be reconciled to each other. That is where our deepest bond is anchored. We may not always be able to have coffee, go on adventures, or work next to each other. We will always belong to the Lord, and we will always be brothers in that. 
So here’s to the honor my friend, Erich, who I love as a brother. I hope this is not merely a nice story or a mushy recollection, but points you to Jesus in whom all satisfaction is found.
Erich on a spire of rock near the Sphinx below the Lower North Carolina Wall in Linville Gorge, NC.
Categories inspiration passions reflection truth

Write What Inspires You

I’ve been wondering where to go with this blog. What’s ahead for The Long Road to Zion?
Well, there have been a handful of ideas that began with questions like… What do people want to read? How do I get the most readers? Who is my target audience? Can I make money off this thing? Can I come up with enough to continually write about if I’m not hiking every week? As a Christian, do I force any truth into awkwardness versus the beauty it is? Is this just a big waste of time? Should a hobby be crafted into something more? What am I even trying to communicate? 
I asked a small group of people a few questions about going forward. I was given several great responses, some of which I would like to share later, but one really stuck out to me. My friend Andy (whose website of trip reports you should definitely read) gave me some really encouraging feedback. Write what I am passionate about. That seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?
At a deep level, I know that I am passionate about my faith, and I know that and cannot sit on it without action (nor do I want to). The problem is not that I don’t want to share that faith. It’s that I don’t want to be fake or corny doing it. Christian culture gives all kinds of input, advice, and even methods to do just that. How to work Jesus into any conversation comes with metrics on buzzfeed-esque “what style of evangelism is yours?” charts. Christians have a lot of noise on how to act and how to be. I do want to talk to you about the Gospel, but I want to do it without any charts or scripts. I want to share how good God is and my hope, not some regurgitated force fed nonsense hoping that you take the bait. That’s ridiculous. That’s what I don’t have any faith to do. Life that resembles a cheesy T-shirt with a ripped-off slogan (you know the type) is not inspiring at all. 
So, moving forward. Does that mean more or less hikes, trip reports, reflections, or Jesus name drops per post? Maybe. Maybe not. I will just try my best to be as real with you as I can be, and what comes out will come out. I want to say what I believe is true, in all categories, and not try and sell you a line.
Of all the things I am passionate about, they are all too beautiful to be crammed down your throat.
carnivorous plants cataract bog hiking horned bladderwort Kings Kaleidoscope pitcher plant Slickum Creek South Carolina sundew The SC Project

Rare Life in the Carolina Bogs

My friend Darrin shot me a text last week about getting in a hike before work, as he was working second shift temporarily. I’ve been on second for a while, so this worked out perfect to head up towards the Mountain Bridge for a morning hike together. I love hiking with Darrin. He’s one of the coolest dudes to share the outdoors with.
As seems typical for my hikes, whatever music I happen to be listening to on the way to the destination gives a prelude to what I’m about to experience. Life for me has really felt topsy-turvy lately, and generally I have been feeling very disoriented and weary. 
In rocks and skies and trees, Your beauty revives me. 
You lift the weight and burden from my shoulders.
Refreshment was coming in abundance.
As we pulled into the parking area, I got to meet long time Team Waterfall member Brenda Wiley and her friend Dan who was visiting from out of state. Darrin had gotten a tip about a cataract bog in the area, and we all wanted to check it out. Before that, though, we would check one we did know of. 
During our Waterfalls on 11 hike, we passed through a bog with the remnants of last years pitcher plants, and the time is about right to see them in bloom now. We made our way to Heritage Falls. Darrin was telling us a story of how a guy who died here after slipping on the slick rock. With low water flow, it seems quite innocent, but that rock gets very slick. Now cautioned, we worked our way down and around to the base of the falls where we visited a very intact moonshine still. Just beyond that, crossing the creek brought us to visit the first bog.
A few steps after crossing the creek, we spotted some fauna sunning itself on the flora. A black snake was hanging out, just taking in the first morning rays. Darrin knelt down and got within near kissing distance of the snake to get a picture of it. The snake simply flicked its tongue and patiently let Darrin take pictures of it. 

A few steps past Mr. No Shoulders and we were at the bog. These cataract bogs form on rock surfaces with slow moving low volume water flow that allows the fauna to perfectly gain habitat, and what fauna we found! Though not at full bloom, we got to see several patches of very full pitcher plants, horned bladderwort, and even some small sundews. All three of those are carnivorous. I have always wanted to see the carnivorous plants in the area ever since I first heard they populated Panthertown Valley. When Darrin mentioned them, I was really itching to see them in my own backyard of the Upstate. Also growing in the area were a couple wild orchids, Grass Pinks. There was also several mountain laurel plants in beautiful bloom.

Pitcher Plant

Sundew, beneath Pitcher plants and Horned Bladderwort

We made our way back to the cars to look for a spot given by a rough description of a non-descript trail entrance (as most adventurers of Team Waterfall begin – this is the pathway to a good time) given by a tip. I love adventures, just gotta say that. So we hiked along a firebreak of a recent prescribed burn area, tip in mind, looking for a wet area. Not long in, the glistening of wet rock glimmered through the burned underbrush. The trail continued on down the hill, but following in agreement with our master waterfallers Darrin and Brenda, we took the perpendicular turn into the burn area. The only real bushwhack to mention is pushing aside a thin curtain of briers, and we were at the bog. This bog, which was christened as Secret Bog on the permanent etchings of Facebook, was much more full than the previous one. Large green layers of plants covered the rocks, with its gatherings of pitcher plants and horned bladderwort. The Grass Pink concentration was much higher here with several dozen plants. There was even a rare mutant Grass Pink with a white flower. Also, blooming everywhere was the familiar mountain laurel. I love to see when these flowers fall off and land in a creek or river. They float perfectly on the water, almost like they were meant for that purpose, with beauty present even in their decay.

Mountain Laurel

Horned Bladderwort growing in the thin sediment

While standing on one patch of bald rock, a bumblebee was buzzing around but not really leaving the area. I don’t know if it was where I was standing or if it was me, but that bee was very interested in me. It must have thought I was a flower or something sweet smelling (his nose apparently isn’t that good), because it landed on me several times and stayed there long enough for me to get several pictures of it with manual focus. Pretty cool experience, though. The flowers and plants and clear blue skies accompanied by friends tied together with a common willingness to endure to such places brings me to feel that the whole thing is such a great and marvelous gift.

It’s funny, the outdoors. We start by going on hikes on a trail, and then graduate to looking for rock outcrops and waterfalls. Somewhere along the line, the adventurer becomes a botanist. The excitement that comes from finding the wildflowers and plants out in the wild is granted much more subdued, but equally amazing and awe inspiring. Consider the flowers of the field, one has said. Slow down. Enjoy the moment, the thisness of where you are and what you’re experiencing. Quiddity, as I first heard it called by C.S. Lewis, is the essence of what it is, essentially. We have a moment with a visual that invigorates a sensation in us, but we cannot keep that forever. Eventually, we must turn around, leave it behind and head to the cars…but I’m on a rabbit trail there.
In only a few short hours during the cool of the morning, we truly got to hear the Earth sing an orchestra of life.  I was freshly reminded of the gentle, reckless, passionate, giving, burden-lifting love of my Father. Reviving. 
Kings Kaleidoscope was right.. 
See the lilies, how they grow. They don’t work or buy their clothes
But if God, by his grace, clothes the grass with great array
Then how much more is there in store
When I seek your kingdom.
I cannot even imagine what those eternal fields will bring forth.
Christianity Daffodil Flats God Heaven North Carolina reflection the Gospel Zion

Reflections in Daffodil Flats

Daffodils by Mark Houser. Used with permission.
“[Daffodil Flats is] The best possible and easiest to sell excuse to bring people to Linville Gorge.” Spencer Clary (@canyoneer_engineer)
Every year during the late weeks of February and the early weeks of March, a seemingly insignificant flat patch of land in the south eastern end of the Linville Gorge erupts into a magnificent yellow field of daffodils. Jenny and I were able to visit just before peak bloom in 2013, but unfortunately missed it this year. Several friends of mine went, via several routes ranging from hard to harder to hardest, so I got to see Daffodil Flats blow up my Facebook feed for a couple weeks. It was during this time that it occurred to me there are many parallels to Daffodil Flats. It acts as a sort of foreshadow of Zion. Not the national park, or even heaven, but when the final chapter of this age is over and the beginning of eternity writes its first page in the New Creation. The kingdom of God that is everlasting. The place the book of Revelation tells us about when, in the presence of God, every tear is wiped away, and death and suffering are no more. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Have you ever heard it said of someone that they were so heavenly minded, they were of no earthly good? This seems to me to be an impossible statement. I submit to you for consideration that if a Christian is of little or no earthly good, then they are far too weak when it comes to being heavenly minded. Does any of that make you think of any Christians you know? What are we known for?
Well, we are known for a lot of things. There are plenty of things I could say here, but odds are that you already have a list in your mind if you haven’t given up on me already. Thank you for sticking around! A couple months ago on a Sunday morning, my pastor asked the following question: What if Christians were known for what they were for instead of what they were against? (Matt Rawlings) What if… just, what if… the men and women and children who claim to follow Christ were known for their supercharged vision of a Kingdom and Age to come? Zion. It’s like we are in a slumber, so busy rolling lazily about in bed that we do not see the adventure that awaits. Yes, the road is long and the winters are cold, but spring is coming!
Let’s bounce back to Linville Gorge. Daffodil Flats is located just off the Linville Gorge Trail, over a mile south of one of the most notoriously brutal trails in North Carolina. Pinch In Trail. From the top to the bottom, the trail takes you 1.5 miles through the rough forest, down a rocky and exposed sunbeaten ridge, to a near mudslide embedded with roots until you finally get to the river 1700 vertical feet later. The Linville Gorge Trail is then far from flat with dead blowdown sometimes covering the trail. I mentioned that there was more than one way down, but that is the fastest, most accessible, most direct combination of footsteps to get there. Then you get out the same way you came in, and it’s brutal when PinchIn Trail makes your heart feel like it will burst from beneath your breathless lungs. That trip to Daffodil Flats is one of the hardest stretches of six miles that North Carolina has to offer. People see the daffodils and whimsically say, “I want to go there! How do I do it?” The response, no matter what directions they’re given, always includes the warning: count the cost. The reward is great, but the road is full of obstacles and difficulties. However, we still love to tell people that the difficult road is worth it. Indeed, it is.
My wife Jenny hiking down PinchIn
As a Christian, how do I see Zion? If I am of little heavenly mind, I will think of this Kingdom with little enthusiasm. Do I have to just be good and hope I get to some ethereal cloud city of harp playing goody-two-shoes? Let’s consider Daffodil Flats as we know it. It’s amazing. It’s awe inspiring. It’s a field of flowers that captures us with a passion to see them for ourselves, despite the path to get there. We who have been there tell those who have not that it is amazing and worth it. This Daffodil Flats exists in a world that is under the curse of sin. Sin is not just doing a bad thing. It is a prison that holds us and this world – including our gorges – in chains and bondage. The world will be made new – including our gorges – and this world will be our world redeemed and set free from the thick and oppressive entropy of sin. To quote Matt Chandler, “All creation is eagerly awaiting its liberation.” The field of yellow that we marvel over every year is like trying to see the real thing in a mirror that is fogged over. Spring is coming.
If Daffodil Flats is what we see in a mirror dimly, what is beyond? What is to come? What is in store for this earth (and us, for that matter) when it ceases to be a hope and literally, physically becomes where God dwells with man? Does that sound like a dream or a drag to you? We read in Psalm 16:11 (ESV), King David (Slingshot Goliath slaying David) saying to God, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” If Daffodil Flats is a joy and pleasure that we behold, yet begins to fade as we turn our backs…what will Psalm 16:11 joy and pleasures mean? How could we as Christians not be excited to tell everyone we know about this? Our excitement for Zion should be an amplified excitement for Daffodil Flats! We tell people to place their hope and trust and joy in Christ with all the same excitement of telling them that it’ll be a good decision to get their wisdom teeth pulled or ingrown toenails removed. Our hope for eternity with God is lackluster. After the hard winter of life, Spring is coming. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Every spring, after the cold icy winters, the daffodils emerge in a field of glory like tiny prophets who proclaim to the world that a resurrection is coming.
Daffodil Flats, at nowhere near full bloom
Maybe part of our slumber, what keeps us in the warm bed of not thinking about too much beyond today, is that there is some bad news involved in the good news – that pesky thing of sin that costs Christians to be shunned with the names of bigot and worse. If you’re still reading and rolling your eyes at me, can I ask you to spend your disbelief very briefly? I saw this thing called sin in a new light this past week. We know from the Gospels in the Bible that Judas betrayed Jesus over a measley 30 pieces of silver. Also, the Gospels tell us that Peter, one of Jesus’s closest friends, denied him to save his own skin. I heard a song this week, and it really struck me. It is perhaps one of the most honest songs I have ever come out of music.
He sings, “Judas sold you for thirty. I would have done it for less. Peter denied you three times. I’ve denied you more. What have we done?” We are all in either the shoes of Judas or Peter. Once they saw themselves as a wreck, the only difference between them is that Judas attempted to atone for himself on his own terms by committing suicide, and Peter came to Jesus for atonement on Jesus’s terms of asking to be forgiven. Sin is not merely a stain on our record, an F on our report card, or a mistake we once made. Sin is our prison, and it can even be a prison that we love. Its presence is still at work in every aspect of life, especially the indwelling remains in my own heart. Sin wrecks havoc against us in pain, death, and heartbreak. You know how all that feels, and you don’t need me to flesh it out. Sin separates us from God, puts us at odds with him as enemies, and the only way to be reconciled is through Jesus. He is our mediator. I’m here to tell you what I am for. I am for where God is. I am for being where God says he will be, dwelling with man, and I want you to be there too. I get no notch on my belt. I don’t get an A on my report card. I don’t get any brownie points for telling you. Jesus is the only door, which stands open. I want you to go, so you can feel what it feels like at Daffodil Flats without the burden of a curse. I am not asking you to behave yourself and straighten up. I’m telling you that there is a Good King, and a great good is coming. That is what I am for.
2000 years ago, when Jesus was crucified, we are given a window into the scene. We read in Luke 23:39-43 ESV – One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

I realize you may be doubting at this point. You may be like the person who has never hiked yet heard reputations of the Linville Gorge. You’re saying, “No way am I going down there.” From someone who has started walking the road, let me say with the most confidence I can give, that the journey is worth it. Yes, there is a cost. Yes, like Daffodil Flats (or any other place in the Linville Gorge, for that matter), it is difficult and takes effort and cuts and scrapes and exhaustion on the long path, but it is worth it because of the wonder and delight that is set before us. The King is a Good King, and he gives us reflections and signposts of Himself and His Kingdom. Reflections and signposts of paradise, unfading and unperishable joy, pleasures at his hand. That’s a key, though. The pleasures are His. If we reject Him, we reject everything, and gain nothing. If we, like the thief crucified next to Him with nothing to offer, only ask Him to remember us in His Kingdom, then we gain everything. We are adopted by the King, become His sons and daughters, and gain everything. That Jesus died to be the door to Himself for us is indeed great news.
When you see the rays of the morning or evening sun paint the skies, or the dance of the Aurora Borealis dance beneath the stars, do you see the reflection? Do you see the reflection in Daffodil Flats of when everything will be made new? That is why we celebrate. Happy Easter to you, dear friend. Resurrection is coming. Jesus’s has already happened, and ours will be next, either to life or death. May your long road take you to the Good King and the paradise that accompanies Him alone. Please, let’s talk about it together.
Let me close with one of my favorite quotes ever, from the late since rising writer Keith Green. “You know, I look around at the world and I see all the beauty that God made. I see the forest and the trees and all the things…and it says in the Bible that he made them is six days and I don’t know if they’re a literal six days or not. Scientists would say no, some theologians would say yes. It doesn’t matter to me…but I know that Jesus Christ has been preparing a home for me and for some of you, for two thousand years…and if the world took six days and that home two thousand years, hey man, this is like living in a garbage can compared to what’s going on up there.”
Some people are far more eloquent and more fully minded towards eternity than I am. A few of those resources are…
Appreciating Creation While Anticipating New Creation (Episode 87) #AskPastorJohn 
Easter Breaks Our Heartbreak (Episode 565) #AskPastorJohn 
Easter Breaks Our Sin (Episode 566) #AskPastorJohn 
Easter Breaks Our Mediocrity (Episode 567) #AskPastorJohn 
How Does Delight in God Fuel Delight in Creation? (Episode 452) #AskPastorJohn 
Tales of New Creation (Part 1) – The Rabbit Room Podcast 
Tales of New Creation (Part 2) – The Rabbit Room Podcast 
Tales of New Creation (Part 3) – The Rabbit Room Podcast 
Heaven. A book by Randy Alcorn
Mere Christianity. A book by C.S. Lewis
The Explicit Gospel. A book by Matt Chandler
Foothills Trail Gorges State Park Heartbreak Ridge Hilliard Falls Laurel Fork Falls Lower Whitewater Falls North Carolina South Carolina The SC Project Upper Whitewater Falls

Foothills Trail: Upper Whitewater Falls to Laurel Valley

Chris and I at the Upper Whitewater Falls overlook as we begin our trip.
It had been quite a while since I went backpacking. Even then, I think it was in the ballpark of 8-10 miles. This would be my longest backpacking trip ever, at an estimated 35 miles. I cashed in a vacation day with work, loaded up my pack (final weigh in at 30.6lbs), and met my buddy Chris at the trailhead. We had a few more interested in joining, but either schedules or forecasts were their reasons for not coming. Perhaps we should have given a little more credit to the forecast that had been all over the map and seemed to guarantee some rain, but we had the time carved out, and dangit, we wanted to go.
Upper Whitewater Falls
We dropped the Matrix at the Laurel Valley access of the Foothills Trail at 8am on Friday. It’s about a 45 minute shuttle over to Whitewater Falls, and we parked in the gate at the main access to the falls (note: there is a $2 per day fee here). By the time we got everything set, covered, double checked, and ready, it was 9am and we were ready to roll into our trek of gorges, rivers, steps, and bridges. The upper overlooks to are easy to access, and the falls are amazing. Upper Whitewater Falls is claimed to be the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River at a height of 411′. It had been a moist week, too, so the water was flowing beautifully. We took a couple pictures of the falls and us to start off the hike, then headed down the trail with all the gusto of a Swedish hiker named Magnus. The overcast skies were already starting to mist, but we were optimistic and having a great time.
The Whitewater River with Upper Whitewater Falls barely visible above
We made it to the base of the Whitewater River, and it is extremely rugged down there with massive boulders everywhere. We had to scramble up some wet rocks to get to the bridge, which would be one of many many bridges we would cross on our trek back to Laurel Valley. Standing at that bridge with the falls above is a powerful place to stand. The energy of the Whitewater River rushing down is a wonder to behold. There is definitely a sense of, “This place would crush me if it went bad.”
The next major intersection we came to was the A7 access, which is turn right for the road and left to stay on the Foothills Trail and get to Lower Whitewater Falls, the path to which is blue blazed. Once we got to the split to the lower falls, the sign at the split said it was only .9 miles. The map from the Foothills Trail conference says the mileage is 1.2. So, there’s some discrepancy between the printed literature and signage, which seemed to pop up elsewhere on our trip, too.
Lower Whitewater Falls
Lower Whitewater Falls was a complete surprise. We hadn’t really planned to hike there, but given the look of the skies, we decided to cash in some of our exploration time here instead of later. The overlook gives a clear view of the gorgeous waterfall. One cool aspect of it is there’s a cave feature in the middle of one of the upper cascades, not that I’d try to access it. That’d be suicide. It’s a 200′ plunge down towards the Bad Creek pumping station. Viewing it from the overlook is quite excellent.
We hadn’t really experienced any rain at this point. Mostly on and off drizzle, which is what AccuWeather called for. We had taken our outer shells on and off a couple times by now. We had some decent visibility, though the distant views were pretty much shot because of it being overcast and a lot of lower mist and fog. Our next big milestone would be crossing the Thompson River.

Thompson River
We made our crossing, and sat on a damp boulder for lunch. As we ate, we talked about waterfalls further upstream, none of which I’ve made it to at the time of this writing. Big Falls came up, and I told the story of an experienced hiker who had a fatal slip. 
As we kept hiking east, we came to the logging roads I assume take you to the top of Narrow Rock Ridge. My initial plan was to set up camp at Bearcamp Creek, and then backtrack to hike up to the top of the ridge and scramble around to try and get a distant view of Windy Falls on the Horsepasture River. We had the time, but with things being as damp as they were, and the skies being as gray as they were, and with the mountains misting as they were, we agreed that the side trip would likely be met with disappointment. That did mean that we had all the time in the world to make the short side trip to Hilliard Falls.
Very short, side trip, actually. We were at the falls in minutes. I had seen some pictures of Hilliard Falls, but I guess I had never looked at the height of it. The creek slides about 50′ down the smooth rock face, and then drops the last 10′ off an overhang into a pool. below that pool, the creek has another 12′ waterfall before running towards the campsite. If you’re camping at Bearcamp Creek (which is less than a mile off) in the summertime, this would be a great place to hang out and cool off.

The author at Hilliard Falls
Bearcamp Creek was our planned campsite for the evening, but it was only mid-afternoon. Our water was getting low, so we needed to resupply at the creek, and I was itching to peel my socks and shoes off to rest them in the chilly water for a few minutes to breathe some life back into them. We had hiked approximately 10 miles (including the out and back to Lower Whitewater Falls) to get to this point. While we were filtering water, the cap for Chris’s reservoir popped off and slowly flowed downstream. The foot soaking opportunity was here. I gave Chris my MSR SweetWater pump, rolled up my pant legs, left socks and shoes on the rock, and waded into the creek. It was pretty shallow with a sandy bottom, so it was easy wading. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the cap before it went through a log pile and over a small cascade. I never saw it come out the other side. I looked downstream several times. Nothing. I poked and prodded around some of the rocks near the log jam, trying to see if the cap got sucked in and lodged, but still nothing. I prayed for that thing to just miraculously show up but after a while, I gave up, and apologetically headed back to the rock we were pumping water from. By the time I got back up to the campsite to sit down, dry my feet off as much as possible, and get suited up again, Chris was already downstream looking for the cap for his reservoir. He still had one Nalgene bottle, but to lose the ability to keep water in a reservoir would hamper the trip, for sure. After a few minutes, he emerges from the bushes, to say, “Well, that sucked….but I found my cap.” It had been downstream. I KNOW I didn’t see it flow down that way, but either way, whether I just missed it or it was miraculous, God answered prayer and Chris didn’t take that loss. What we hadn’t noticed in all the excitement is that the drizzle had turned to rain. 
We had talked about trying to get further down the trail earlier, and that we’d reevaluate once we got to Bearcamp Creek. Maybe the rain would die out like it had earlier, with its on again off again pattern. Bear Gap was another 5 miles down the trail, and we had the daylight to make it. We had the energy to make it. My left knee had started aching right before we filtered water, but going barefoot in the creek made my feet feel a heck of a lot better. Could we? This would be the pivotal decision in our weekend, though only seen that way in retrospect. Dr. Ian Malcolm’s comments came to mind a day later, in regards to so busy asking whether or not we could, we neglected to ask whether or not we should. We would press on to Bear Gap. This decision would effect the rest of our hike in ways we wouldn’t anticipate.

Steep stairs and then the bridge over the Horsepasture River.
We were at the Horsepasture River in what seemed like no time at all. The signs said that Bearcamp Creek (where we had just come from) was 2.7 miles away, with Bear Gap being only another 2.4 miles away. We were more than halfway there. As we came down a steep set of stairs before crossing the suspension bridge over the Horsepasture River, I gave a thought to Windy Falls further upstream. I wondered how long ago the water beneath my feet plunged over that monster falls as it now almost lazily flowed beneath the bridge. The list of places to go never decreases. In fact, when I get to visit one place I’ve been wanting to go, ten more ideas spring up. It’s like a hiking hydra. You can’t beat it, but wrestle with how to be content with and enjoy what what you can. The hiking hydra. Along the trail in this section, we did see a large patch of the rare Oconee Bells growing.

Oconee Bell
As we kept of walking towards Bear Gap though, we started saying we should be there by now. Not in a “I’ve been hiking a long time, I’m ready to rest, where is my campsite” kinda way, but in a “It says 2.4 miles, we’ve been walking an hour and a half, I know we haven’t slowed down that much, we SHOULD have seen it by now. Did we pass it? No way” kinda way. We came out at a forest road where a campfire had obviously been, and no way was that the site. Looking at the map, we had just a short distance to go. We did finally find Bear Gap campsite, but a lot of the trees in the main area had been cut down. Bad news for hammock campers! We crossed the bridge and found another spot to setup. 
It was still raining at this point. The drizzle that we thought promised decent weather earlier in the day proved to only be the tellings of the coming weather. We pitched our tarps as fast as we could and then set up the hammocks. My rain cover had done a decent, but not perfect job of keeping my backpack dry. My waterproof boots were either not as waterproof as they should have been, or we were so wet that my pantlegs got my socks wet which bled water down into my boots. Either way, my feet were wet and cold, socks squishing with every step. (Fortunately, I did pack an extra pair of socks, so I had dry feet during the night). My rainshell had done a good job of keeping my core dry. Quickly, we made dinner. I devoured an entire box of Kraft Mac and Cheese, a summer sausage, string cheese, and a hot chocolate all on my own. It was 8:43. We made an attempt at conversation, but I was exhausted. I fell asleep, with roughly 16 miles behind us that day. Sleep came, but the rain only increased and the sound of it falling on the rainfly was enough to keep waking me up. It would lull, and then pour. Sleep, then tat tat tat tat tat, and awake. So the cycle went all night.

Camp Saturation at Bear Gap. Fogged camera lens reflects the feel well.

When I planned this trip, I never guessed I would spend 11 hours in my hammock. At 7:40, Chris said, “You awake?” I probably had been for a few minutes already, woken by the rain. The darkness of night had given way to the dawn, but the rain remained. Chris had hung his rainshell on his trekking poles to drip dry in the night, except his poles fell over and his coat lay open collecting the rain all night. We started making breakfast, which was oatmeal for me. I was out of water and having hot chocolate or coffee wasn’t worth going out in the rain to me. After breaking down camp, repacking everything except the tarps, I kept my camp shoes and dry socks on as long as possible. It came time to do what I was dreading – putting on the wet socks and boots. It was cold, I was decently warm, and it was like jumping into an ice cold pool to put that stuff back on my feet. No sense in putting on dry socks, though, because they’d be soaked in 5 seconds. Then I’d have nothing for the next night. We finished packing the rest of our gear, prayed to the Lord for the rain to stop, and hit the trail again.

Drenched, Chris and I enter Gorges State Park.

Man, that pack felt heavy in the morning. The rain kept coming. What was only damp while under the tarps a few minutes ago would soon be soaked through. As we entered Gorges State Park, we were drenched. The wetness didn’t leave us for a while, but getting moving again loosened up our stiff bodies and warmed us up well enough. Though my feet were still squishing in my boots, I wasn’t cold anymore. We kept seeing forest service road come next to the trail. The Foothills Trail just kept staying away, teasing us with sight of easy walking, while we kept gaining and losing elevation. Up and down, up and down. Steps and more steps and ridges and contours brought us to Canebrake. It seemed by then that the rain had faded to drizzle to only overcast skies. Lake Jocassee laid before us with aquamarine waters, even if beneath overcast skies, giving us a rewarding and much needed vista to take in. It was nice to get out of the green and brown tunnel and see that we were making progress.

Chris crossing the massive suspension bridge (visible on Google Earth) over the Toxaway River

After getting to Canebrake, the Toxaway River would be coming up shortly. The suspension bridge is huge there, with great views up the river, towards Lake Jocassee, and Toxaway Creek emptying into the lake. Between Toxaway River and Creek, the Canebrake Trail from Frozen Creek Access comes in from Gorges State Park. It’s 5.1 miles to civilization (ha, the road), and we had briefly entertained the thought earlier in the day. We had also entertained the notion of getting back to the Matrix by the end of the day. For now, we would plan to hike Heartbreak Ridge over to the campsite near Laurel Fork Falls and A5, then make a decision once we got there. We were feeling confident, but that was as we walked through the Toxaway campsites towards Heartbreak Ridge.

The campsites there hold a lot of meaning to me, because that’s where my friend Tom took me camping for the first time after moving to South Carolina. We came in via boat, and spent the night there. It was the first trip that would go towards solidifying my love for the outdoors, and the will to complete a trip like the one we were on. As I was reminiscing, Chris turns to me and says, “Welcome to Mordor.”

“Welcome to Mordor” – Heartbreak Ridge begins

Heartbreak Ridge. There were no orcs to report of, but the steps did go straight up the mountain. Time to suck it up, buttercup. The first plateau is a false one, though it has a nice bench to take a break from the madness. “Hey, that throbbing in your chest? That’s me, your heart. By the way, your lungs would like some air, too.” The steps kept going straight up. Not including all the roots, trail sections, or rocks that accepted footfalls, I counted 287 individual wooden steps, which are nothing more than 4x4x18 wooden blocks held into the side of the mountain with rebar. So steep.. but once at the top, we were on a ridge and could make out an obstructed view of the lake. Sometime while we were up here, I noticed my clothes had dried out, and the sun was even beginning to shine through the clouds. Coming down off Heartbreak Ridge really began to remind me of the pain in my knee that started up the night before. It had shown up some in the hike so far today, but overall wasn’t that bad. The downhills really caused it to flare up, even with trekking poles. At one point where we were actually on a forest service road, we stopped at one of the bends in the trail for a lunch break. It was either eat, or not make it off this ridge. The 20 minute break was nice and gave us a chance to consider our camping plans. It was really hard to get moving again, so Laurel Fork Falls campsite near A5 was sounding pretty good. Even though Heartbreak Ridge was a grind, I’m glad we came at it from the west instead of the east. That would’ve been worse, I think. Either way, I know why I hadn’t seen that many pictures of Heartbreak Ridge for the same reason I didn’t take hardly any myself: I was just trying to breathe and remain standing. It’s brutal, and I think will give a tough challenge to any hiker, runner, or backpacker.

The sound of water rushing began to greet us a ways off, and Chris, having been through here before, noted that we were close to Laurel Fork Falls. There is some trailside improvements and tree removal once you get to the overlook, and the falls did not disappoint. I had seen pictures that others had taken from the lake level, so seeing the waterfall from the cliff side overlook was a whole new perspective. This is just beyond the boat access of A5, and only a few minutes away from the campsite. Man, that site looked great. The falls nearby, suspension bridges over Laurel Fork Creek, and plenty of trees to hammock from. Looking at the clock, it was 3:30pm. The campsite looked so inviting, but the tug of ‘we can’ began to pull harder than ‘we should’ again. If we had camped at Bearcamp Creek the night before, we wouldn’t even have been at this decision. Yet, here we stood, weighing daylight against the strength we had left. Camp here, or hike out to Laurel Valley, where my car was parked, 8 miles away. We can make it.

Laurel Fork Falls

We said goodbye to one of the most beautiful campsites nestled into the forests of Southern Appalachia and walked with heavy packs and set minds into Laurel Valley, where the typical rolling woods turned into rugged rhodo covered rocks and boulders. Think of an amazingly large castle that centuries ago was toppled only to leave bits intact as the jungle’s plants and waterways claimed the ruins as their own. About half an hour out from Laurel Fork Falls, we met the first people I had seen since my breakfast stop the day prior. Two couples, one guy carrying an occupied toddler backpack, were dayhiking to the falls. Surely, hopefully they were’nt parked at the same lot we were. We crossed streams and several more bridges within the Laurel Valley Heritage Preserve before we made it to Virginia Hawkins Falls. I have to say, that waterfall is a lot bigger than I anticipated it would be, based on the photos I had seen. Had there not been a couple camping at the site at the base, we probably would have decided to call it a night there. Instead, we pressed on.

The climb out of Laurel Valley was a steady uphill that under normal circumstances would probably haven’t been too bad, but we were worn out. The steep drops to and from the four rivers were now absent, and the trail followed the contour of the hills as we made our way ever closer to the car. I think the last four miles, we didn’t say too much. I remember focusing on breathing to keep a rhythm with my stride, checking the maps, and cursing the in and outs and roundabouts of the trail as it lazily curved its way back towards 178. About this time, a group of four young guys passed us on their way to Oconee coming in from Table Rock. They said we had about an hour to go, but comparing the energy they looked like they still had versus what I felt we had, it was probably closer to an hour and a half for us. We were pushing ourselves now. 

One of the final – and most uniquie – bridges before we started ascending out of Laurel Valley.
Motivation had given way to a march to beat the coming sunset as we tried to wring everything we could out of the remaining daylight. If we had seen a decent spot, we probably would have just crashed there, but then the effort of pitching camp didn’t even sound favorable. Falling onto the ground in just a sleeping bag was starting to sound pretty good when I heard a car. Laurel Valley access! We were nearly there! A downhill and then checking the GPS, the trail would come close to Horsepasture Rd. We made it to that point, still had a little light left, and made the call that it would be better to walk a further distance on the flat road than the last heave-ho up and over on the Foothills Trail. Judge me? Whatever.

A quick joke about losing my keys had to come before we opened the car and unloaded gear. Those seats never felt so good, and my shoulders felt so relieved. Chris had been walking on blisters (he suspects a switch to non-SmartWool socks) since Bearcamp Creek the night before, and when I got home, I found that the shoulder straps of my backpack had rubbed my shoulders raw in places. But really, we had one more obstacle – getting Chris’s SUV. We had parked behind the gate at Whitewater Falls, for security reasons. We just didn’t anticipate that we would be the ones kept out. So on the 45-minute shuttle back up to the northwest side of the lake, we just briefly prayed and asked God to have the gate be open. Around 9:00pm on Saturday, we pulled up and the gate was wide open with two other cars there. The skies were cloudless and the stars shone brightly, though we were amazed at how much light pollution still came from Greenville. Though we couldn’t see it, the rushing roar of Whitewater Falls could be heard a short distance away. God had kept us safe as we did things out of uncharacteristic bravado (though we were feeling more exhaustion and humility once we got to our cars). We learned things we shouldn’t do, and were surprised by things that we did do. Would I do it again? As I drove home that night, I said no way in Gehenna. Now, I say, maybe…but at a lesser pace where I can really enjoy my surroundings. I allowed my “having to get things done” to cloud my judgment, though I don’t necessarily regret leaving the way we did. It was good Type 2 fun. 

Pulling the data from my GPS and FitBit with the help of overlaying the track on GoogleEarth, it looks like it took 94,534 steps to walk 32.5miles. Based on distance and my base weight only, and not accounting for elevation or the extra 30.6lbs of backpack, I burned 9,656 calories.
GPS track overlay of our hike on Google Earth with elevation profile.