Across the trail was a stand of evenly planted pine trees, a remnant of a time when this area was privately owned, first by timber companies and then finally by Duke Energy. My problem was this was the third time I'd hit this same junction today. I was lost. Well, semi-lost. Lost-ish.
I knew a right turn at the junction would climb out of the valley and back to Salt Rock Gap and my car. But here, down in the heart of Panthertown Valley, a maze of unmarked trails and deer paths winds among bogs and sandy-bottomed creeks. Impressive walls of granite hem in the paths, and half a dozen sizable creeks flow over bedrock slabs in their rush to join the East Fork of the Tuckasegee River.
While the trails to the more remote creeks are hard to navigate, the paths to the summits of the massive granite domes are much better known. I think the need to get up high and survey an area is hardwired into the human psyche—the urge to impose order, at least in one's mind, on a landscape. The views from Salt Rock, Little Green Mountain, Big Green Mountain, Black Rock Mountain, and Cold Mountain all give clear views across the valley from different vantage points.
I didn't start exploring Panthertown Valley until about 2002, which put me in the second or third wave of contemporary valley explorers. In the early '90s, a local named Carlton McNeill almost singlehandedly built the trail system there. He shared his trails with friends but made no attempt to publicize them. Kurt Kornegay, another local, put together the first public maps of Panthertown and some of its more accessible trails and sights. It was his hand-drawn maps, and later his A Guide's Guide to Panthertown, that brought me to the area. His guided trips through the valley led to some difficult-to-find spots. Still, there was plenty of discovery to be had.
As I descended for the first time down the old logging road that later became the main Panthertown Valley Trail, I became aware of some of the area's more subtle but unusual aspects. My boots left soft-edged tracks in white sand instead of the normal brown-grey mud. The same sand lined the bottom of creeks, tinted by tea-colored water. The combination of sandy-bottomed rivers and tannin-stained water brought back memories of high school innertube trips on the Blackwater River in the Florida panhandle. At Granny Burrell Falls, a small sliding drop, I stopped and tried to process the incongruity of a slab stone waterfall with a sand-filled pool at its base. Wading in, with the muscle memory of a decade of stepping in Appalachian creeks, I prepared for the feel of soft round cobbles, potholed bedrock, or slippery boulders; instead my feet slowly sank into the mix of sand and mud.
Continuing on, I reached what even then was a well-trod trail to the summit of Little Green Mountain. A semi-steep trail leads up the ridge, emerging on the severely cambered summit of a granite dome, the stone seeming to roll away into a view of the small houses lining the edges of the valley. A path down the side of the mountain leads to the most popular waterfall in the valley, Schoolhouse Falls, a plunging 20-foot drop into a large pool.
This was just the start. As the next couple years went by, I moved deeper into the steeper, less accessible regions of the valley, often emerging onto a trail bruised and scraped, my legs shaking from scrambling up and down the loamy embankments that surround small waterfalls hidden in coves. Winter hikes added the excitement of snow and the danger of solid sheets of ice on the domes. Secret places were marked and hoarded. Close friends were sworn to secrecy on day hikes.
Soon, however, it became clear I wasn't alone in my love for exploring the area; the unmarked paths started to deepen and widen out, only to have another path through the woods to the same destination appear ten feet away. Fire rings popped up everywhere, including many closely spaced on the granite domes themselves, leaving the rock blackened and cracked, the lichens and mosses scorched. Word was out, and explorers with good and bad outdoor ethics were using the valley to satisfy their inner John Muir, myself included. I felt proprietary toward certain parts of the valley, particularly those around the Devils Elbow region, where the sounds of Warden's, Jawbone, and Riding Ford falls lulled me to sleep at night. But the increasing number of campsites along the creek were proof that I wasn't the only one who felt that way.
In 2008, I moved far enough away from the valley that driving there became a major undertaking. The creeks, rivers, and valleys on the south side of Grandfather Mountain became my default area for wandering. I kept making plans to get back to Panthertown, yet somehow I always found myself in one of the neighboring wild areas instead—the Chattooga river, Lake Jocassee, Standing Indian Mountain. It wasn't until 2010 that I finally revisited the valley northeast of Cashiers.
I knew things had changed the moment I pulled into the trailhead parking lot. It was Friday morning and already the lot was half full of cars mounted with bike racks and rooftop cases, many with license plates from faraway places. There was a large sign with a map. I took out my old Kornegay map, its corners torn and the folds taped together, the print fading to illegibility, and compared it to the one on the sign. The new map expanded its reach to include the areas north to the Bonas Defeat Gorge, but many of the trails on the old map were simply gone. In the two years since I'd been there, the USFS had implemented its trail plan. Trails were named and numbered and color-coded. Waterfalls were clearly marked, though some of the names had changed. I felt a pang of nostalgia and perhaps resentment.
As I proceeded down the trail, the feelings intensified. I passed a couple dressed in Renaissance period garb and mumbled to myself about the circus being in town. "You've got to be kidding me," I grumbled as I came to the juncture with the trail that led to Wilderness Falls. A sign now stood there, numbered, labeled, and pointing the way.
A dark cloud followed me the rest of the hike. I grumbled more as I saw piles of branches stacked up where some of my favorite shortcuts had been, indicating that someone would rather I not go there. I passed several people happily hiking along and angrily wondered what was the matter with them. Didn't they realize what a travesty this was? The area had been sanitized and made into a joke. The look on my face surely minimized any interactions with other hikers that day.
My memories weighed heavily on me even after I got home. "I don't think I'll be going back," I told my wife. "It's changed too much." No doubt it had changed and become more popular. The impact of an "official trail system" made the area much more accessible to those who just wanted to hike to a pretty peak or a waterfall. I didn't consider myself one of those. I was someone who wasn't afraid to get lost. This wasn't a state park, it was national forest land. If you couldn't find your way without signs, you shouldn't be here!
A bit self-righteous? Perhaps. OK, definitely. It was as if I had gone back to a house where I'd spent part of my childhood and the new owners had renovated it, erasing part of my history. Anytime Panthertown came up in a conversation, I would immediately go into curmudgeon mode. And anytime you start a sentence with the phrase "back in the (insert decade here)," people are going to roll their eyes, nod politely, and chalk it up to reliving your glory days.
We expect man-made things to change in our lifetime. It's in our nature to refresh and renew. Houses get remodeled, brands get refreshed, fashion changes faster than the consumer can keep up. We expect more permanence out of our wild areas. When something does cause a rapid change in the natural world, we are shocked by it. The rapid dying off of the eastern hemlock is shocking because it's happening so quickly. The change is obvious, and unexpected.
I didn't want Panthertown Valley to change and I resented the fact that it had. Still, I couldn't get one area out of my head, a bushwhack I had made down stream from Warden's Falls all the way out to Lichen Falls. I decided to go back and do it for old time's sake.
On the way into Cashiers, I stopped into a local outfitters to pick up some gear. There, next to the register, was a new version of Kornegay's map. I opened it to find all of the old trails, now marked unofficial footpaths. My planned bushwhack down from Warden's Falls was there, though not all the way out to Lichen Falls. At first I was flabbergasted that the old trails were back, and then a sheepish feeling crept over me. These were never my trails, never my secret spots. The land didn't care who had trod upon it. Many people had moved though the woods where I had, and like me they had tried to do so with a light touch. But decades before we explored the area, there was no wilderness there. It was farms and planted trees. Cattle grazed where oaks now stand. Any ownership I had in my mind was ephemeral.
I purchased the map and peered at it some more. The only thing that had really changed were the dots and lines on the map indicating trails. Things had been given names, and naming things makes them real. It was this tangibility that had irked me. Unnamed things can be whatever you want them to be. Naming them sets them, and names can be shared.
I looked again at the map. The contour lines hadn't changed. They still flowed around the map, defining the same topography that had existed for millennia. Instead of a bushwhack, I decided to hike an established trail, sign and all, down to one of my favorite campsites next to the river at Jawbone Falls. I slept with the white noise of aerating water in my ears. The next day I climbed up to Black Rock Mountain and laid out my sleeping bag and mat on a bed of needles underneath a gnarled pine. I looked up into the clear night skies and slept to the whistling of wind through trees, just like I had a half dozen years before. This hadn't changed because signs were up. I watched the sun come up over the valley, Little Green Mountain a centerpiece, with the sun breaking over Cold Mountain. This, too, hadn't changed.
And the waterfall where I spent the first night? Jawbone Falls is its name now, but when I first started exploring, it was referred to as Middle Warden's Falls. Naming something makes it real, but not for all time. Names can get lost as well.