I have an uncanny and comical ability to get lost, so heading into the woods on my own to explore some of South Carolina’s state parks would seem foolhardy. Setting aside my fear of bears, and armed with a portable GPS and an active imagination, I set out for a ramble along the Middle Saluda River in Jones Gap State Park. Avoiding the ominously named Hospital Rock trail, I instead hiked up the friendlier sounding Rainbow Falls. The crescendo of rushing water fades in and out as I climb higher into the woods along the switchbacks.
The rivers and tributaries of the Carolinas were the powerhouses behind the once thriving textile industry; they were also the means to accessing fresh water that kept the illicit liquor supplies flowing through these hills. This particular region of South Carolina was notorious for moonshiners. Once the reviled backwater of the more refined Palmetto State, the ‘Dark Corner’ is cloaked with legendary blood feuds, a disdain for authority and a refusal to join the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
I first became aware of the Dark Corner from the man who refilled our propane tank last winter. As a local, he knew the area well and pointed to Hogback Mountain, just northeast of our house. While the geographic area remains ambiguous, the general boundaries span from northwestern Spartenburg County to Pickens County and western North Carolina.
The settlers arrived in the late 18th century and embraced the value-added economy of turning corn to whisky, which was easier to transport and less dependent on the fluctuation market value of crops. These outliers lived in tight-knit communities and had a general distrust toward outsiders.
Just when I thought these legendary moonshiners were mostly relegated to myth, their bad-ass reputations capitalized by the legal selling and distribution at liquor stores, I met Robert. An archetypical Appalachian figure complete with overalls, beard and still, Robert was working the still at Hagood Mills, a historic site and folklife centre in Pickens, SC.
Robert, it turns out, is a well-known character around town. He had driven his ‘35 Dodge pickup truck to the site earlier in the day, the tires worn and cracked. Typically he would have some kind of menagerie in tow. This time, it was a rooster and possum (presumably pets) that were crated on the wooden flatbed. Apparently his little dog, a Chihuahua mix, barks at one o’clock every afternoon to remind him that Gunsmoke is on TV.
Robert comes by his pursuit honestly. As he stokes the fire on the primitive looking still, he explains that he learned how to distill from his father who was in and out of jail several times before having to swear off illicit alcohol production for good. I comment at how the fire could easily betray the location of the still to the authorities. That’s why you work at night, Robert explains. Besides, smoke is not longer an issue since what few moonshiners are left now use propane.
Back in Jones Gap, I climb steadily up the mountain in awe of the people who made this trail, carving steps into stones and meticulously placing logs into spiraling stairways to the waterfalls. The squirrels in the woods keep me alert, surprising me by leaping in front of me or scurrying in tree tops, just out of sight and enough for me to imagine a bear waiting to ambush me.
The view at the top is spectacular, of course. The waterfall cascades from the cliff top and I scramble up the side of the hill to try to catch a glimpse of a rainbow. I run into a park ranger who assures me that I needn’t have worried about the Hospital Rock trail. It wasn’t legendary for sending hikers to the infirmary as I had presumed. The lore of the area suggested that it was a route to a makeshift hospital that cared for Confederate deserters. He also tells me that rangers continue to find old stills hidden in the bush along the rivers and streams, further fanning my curiosity for exploring the dark corners of these surrounding hills.