Sunday, March 10, 2019

Highpointing in the footsteps of George Washington

Green states are the ones where Charlie Zerphey has reached the highest point in every county. Yellow and blue are others where he climbed the county highpoint. 

 After George Washington was inaugurated in 1789 as the first president of the United States, he decided to visit each of the 13 original states in an effort to unify the new nation and to become better acquainted with regional leaders and issues. 
Washington's 1791 Southern Tour
In the spring of 1791, at the spry age of 59, the Father of our Country boarded a cream-colored horse-drawn carriage and embarked south from Mount Vernon headed for Richmond, Va., and the Dismal Swamp in N.C. before spending a week in Charleston, S.C. By mid-May he had reached Savannah, Ga., and he returned via Augusta, Ga.; Columbia and Camden, S.C.; Charlotte, Salisbury, Salem, and Guilford Court House, N.C.; and Halifax and Fredericksburg, Va. (Suffice to say, the government survived without him, under the stewardship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.)
I was reminded of Washington's Southern Tour when I thought about the hiking trips I've made in recent years with Charlie Zerphey, who was born on Washington's 198th birthday in 1930, and now has unified the original 13 states in a way that no other hiker has ever done.
After Charlie retired as a printer in Lancaster, Pa. (another place Washington visited on July 4, 1791**), he decided to try to climb the highest points in all 50 states. He reached all of them except Alaska, and he got halfway up Denali before other members of his team turned back. Content with that, he got a license plate that says "49HIPTS."
Along the way, Charlie also discovered the related sport of county high-pointing, where the goal is to find and reach the highest point in each county. He completed the counties of Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island in 2001, Pennsylvania in 2003, New Jersey in 2004, Maine and New Hampshire in 2005, Massachusetts and Maryland in 2006, and New York and West Virginia in 2009. There's no telling how many miles he's driven—certainly more than the 1,900 miles that Washington traveled. 

Our paths first crossed in 2011, when we were both interested in climbing Beartown Mountain in Russell County, Va., which Charlie needed to complete Virginia. It took two trips, but we finally made in in 2012, thanks to Rick Shortt. 
Then we teamed up in 2012 to complete South Carolina and 2015 when he finished North Carolina*. The last N.C. counties Charlie needed were two islands in the Great Dismal Swamp, where slaves under Washington's supervision once dug drainage canals. Again, our first effort failed because of high water, but on the second try we made it. Our hike to the Pasquotank County high point was nearly 8 miles roundtrip with a net gain in elevation of 9 feet.
 After that, I challenged Charlie to complete Georgia so he would become the first person to complete the county highpoints in all 13 original states. Georgia is no easy task, with 159 counties—more than any other state except Texas. 
 In recent years, we've explored the Georgia mountains, then Charlie spent close to a month seeking the highest natural ground in the flat counties of eastern and southern Georgia. On Feb. 28, I had the privilege of hiking with him as he completed his quest on an obscure hill in Upson County known as Dorster Mountain.
 At age 89, Charlie has reached 975 county highpoints, so his next goal is 1,000, which has been accomplished by only 10 men. The national leader is a Michigan man named Bob Schwab who has summited 2,361 of the nation's 3,142 counties. It is unlikely that anyone will ever complete the national map, because several of the county highpoints are on ranches where hikers are not welcome.
With 16 states completed (including Maine, Vermont, and West Virginia, which were not among the original 13), Charlie ranks third nationally behind Arizona's Bob Packard, 28 states (mostly in the West and Northeast), and Schwab, 27 states (mostly in the Midwest and Northeast).

* COMPLETING N.C.: My county high-point map pales in comparison to Charlie's, though I did complete North Carolina on Sept. 20, 2019.  
** PAPA GEORGE: It was in Lancaster, Pa., in a German almanac published in 1799, that Washington received the nickhame, "Father of His Country."
Charlie Zerphey atop Lookout Mountain, the highest point in Walker County, Ga. On the horizon to the left is John's Mountain in Floyd County, one of our most challenging hikes in Georgia.

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