Monday, October 27, 2014

Sisyphus vs. South Carolina

I caught up with Charlie Zerphey at the highest point in Union County. Beddington Mountain is only 795 feet above sea level but has a four-state view. Thin hair, if not thin air. 
    On Wednesday afternoon, October 22, I parked my faithful old Accord beside a lonely stretch of asphalt in eastern North Carolina and started walking westward along a sandy logging road that crisscrossed the South Carolina line three times. After a brisk mile, I turned left and followed my GPS as I threaded through rows of timber, looking for a hidden hilltop on a bluff above the Little Pee Dee River.
     I kept going up until I couldn't go any higher. And then I was done.
     Standing 180 feet above mean sea level and 75 miles from the beach, I scuffed my sneakers on the highest sandhill in Dillon County. As the pines rustled in polite applause, I completed a mostly solitary multi-year mission to find and visit the highest points in all 46 counties of South Carolina.
     And on the long drive home, I pondered: How do I explain my quest to anyone who asks, "Where did you go on your vacation?"
     Let's see. Last week I visited Liberty Hill, Society Hill, Little Mountain twice, a couple of fire towers, three antebellum plantations, four peanut fields, five gas stations, about a dozen deerstands, and the highest natural land in 23 mostly flat counties, including a few that actually have rewarding views.
     Why, you ask? 
     Because, I confess, I am a "county high-pointer."
     By definition, that means I try to visit the highest point in the 3,143 counties, parishes, independent cities, and other jurisdictions across our great land. But that only raises more questions. Let me try to explain. 

     I enjoy mountain-climbing, and I don't let the absence of mountains stop me. Someday I’d like to climb the highest peaks in lots of states, but I already have all of those within 350 miles of Boone, so right now counties are a lot more convenient. And every county—even the impossibly flat ones along the coast—must have a high-point somewhere. Out in that bayou, there has to be a hummock. So what if nobody in the courthouse knows where it is? That just adds to the challenge.
My collection of county high-points.
A green state is our highest award.
Yellow marks contiguous counties,
 and the blues are outliers. 
To see Charlie's map, click here.
     County high-pointing might be described as a cross between geocaching and jigsaw puzzles, or trivial pursuit and trespassing. 
     County high-pointers might be considered the nerds of the hiking world, competing on foot and online for points that most people would consider worthless. There are hundreds of us, and we are mostly harmless as blacksnakes. Leave us alone and we'll soon move on.
     If climbing Everest or Denali is Herculean, then county high-pointing is Sisyphean.
     You remember Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king who was condemned to push a stone uphill for eternity? He could be the patron saint for county high-pointers. No one has ever visited the highest point in every county. Realistically, no one ever will. 
     In fact, only one person had completed South Carolina before Charlie Zerphey and I—combined age 144—gang-tackled my home state last week.
     Charlie started climbing the state high-points in 1995 after he retired from a newspaper pressroom in Pennsylvania. By 2000, he had 49 states (and I wouldn't bet against him yet in Alaska). Then he refocused on county high-points, and by 2012 he had visited the highest point in every county from Maine to Virginia.
     It might not be too challenging to complete a state—turning it green on our computer-generated mapsif all the points were well-defined and on public property. But county high-pointers have to contend with incorrect or inexact maps, trigger-happy hunters and farmers, and dogs and signs that don't welcome strangers to the knoll in the backyard. Getting close doesn't count.  
     A retired Navy officer from New Jersey named Michael Schwartz was the first to complete the counties of South Carolina. When he finished in 2009, he had to visit nearly 200 locations in 46 counties, including 42 virtually equal possibilities in Dorchester County and 29 more in Williamsburg. Depression-era USGS topographic maps were the best we had then, and though they are wonderfully detailed works of art, they weren't designed to pinpoint county highpoints.
     The puzzle is a little easier today, thanks to precise aerial mapping and newfangled satellite data. Working with GIS officers in several counties and a GIS grad student at Appalachian State University named Zaak Havens, we were able to narrow down the possibilities to about 80 locations statewide. Before last week, Charlie had 21 of South Carolina’s 46 counties, and I had 23. The way the map worked out, we each had to finish several counties individually in addition to 15 together.
You can worship with the Presbyterians
 atop the highest hill in Chester County.
     I was surprised to discover that Union has the best view of any county high-point in South Carolina. Spartanburg also has untapped viewsthere is a private observatory (not to mention a caboose) hidden atop Bird Mountain. And you won't find a prettier zenith than Zion Presbyterian Church on the Chester highpoint.
     If you're perversely inspired to follow in our footsteps, start here. You can drive almost to the top of Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in Pickens County and the entire state. (See how Sassafras is about to become a showplace.) Greenville’s Coldbranch Mountain and Oconee’s Fork Mountain are remote, but you don't have to be a hardened mountaineer to get there. 
     Some county high-points are easy. You barely have to get out of your car to claim Charleston or Richland.   
      On the other hand, you need a boat to visit the Georgetown high-point. You have to brave a swamp in Horry and outwit hunters in Calhoun and Jasper. You may need military clearance in Beaufort and landowners' permission in probably half the counties. High-pointers have to be willing to knock on the doors of strangers. 
     The walks are often short, though not necessarily easy. The maddening challenge for county high-pointers is pinpointing the spot where you need to go. Our No. 1 rule is that you can't claim the county if there's any doubt that you've touched the highest point. If the maps are inconclusive, you have to tag all the possibilities. Where the ground seems level, you are supposed to walk a grid over every molehill. That's why Schwartz spent most of a day in Williamsburg County tromping through fields, briars, and drainage ditches to reach dozens of areas that measured 95 feet above sea level. 
The sun sets on the highest hill in Dillon County.
     I got lucky on a visit to the courthouse in Kingstree and discovered that the northern corner of Williamsburg was marked incorrectly on the USGS maps Schwartz used. This discovery brought a low ridge into the county map, gave Williamsburg a 98-foot summit, and trumped all of Schwartz' hard work. We claimed Williamsburg in just a few minutes.
     On Wednesday morning, Charlie finished South Carolina in a backyard in Lancaster County, an appropriate bookend since he's from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Later that afternoon, I notched my final three solo counties, ending in the wilderness of Mount Dillon.
     I don't know if Sisyphus would be impressed, but I like to think the old guy would be green with envy. Because I’m moving on to other to-do lists, and he’s forever not.


  • If county high-points counted like home runs, Charlie with 712 would be approaching Babe Ruth. My pedestrian career total of 157 is more in a league with Tom Tresh and Clete Boyer. Click here for a list of the national leaders. 
  • My drive to Dillon passed through the time-warp town of Clio, which took me back 30 years to another statewide quest. Clio (KLY-oh, not KLEE-oh) was one of the last high school football scores tracked down by the intrepid Terrell Watts on a Friday night in October 1984the first time The Greenville News published a complete scorelist from every single game in South Carolina. Terrell and our Krispy Kreme-fueled Friday night crew turned that unprecedented accomplishment into an unthinkable streak: For more than 10 years and 13,000 games, we didn't go to press without every score in the state. It's good to once again have the entire state covered. 
  • What’s next? Maybe North Carolina, which has only been completed once, by a state park ranger named Brian Bockhahn. North Carolina is twice as tough as South Carolina. It has 100 counties, including places like Hoke (whose summit is behind razor wire at the abandoned state sanatorium) and Tyrrell (where the high ground is just 17 feet above the tides. With 45 county high-points done in North Carolina, I'm not even halfway. 

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