Pickens County

It’s hard when I’m on a trail not to look around and think of who’s been there before. I look up the hill beside me and imagine how the natives might’ve run criss-cross paths through the trees. This was their land long before anyone carved out trails and nailed markers to tree trunks.

I imagine how swiftly they’d move from one spot to another, occasionally someone might have turned an ankle on uneven ground. Or maybe that didn’t happen like it would today. Maybe their joints were stronger, more nimble because they weren’t used to the cushion and control of a pair of nikes.

I’m suddenly embarrassed by my reliance on and loyalty to the swoosh.

The Keowee-Toxaway State Park was not where we intended to end up on that Sunday afternoon. We were headed a little further northwest. Driving through Pickens County always feels like an exploration of home. Of course, I feel that way about basically everywhere in the Carolinas. I’m a sucker for the long leaf pine and palmetto trees.

I was 14 when we moved to Pickens County, and I only truly lived four years of my life there, but It’s as much my home on this particular Sunday as any part of North Carolina at this point. And it’s in my blood.

Devil’s Fork has been on our radar since the first time we took friends to see it. The easy trails give way to beautiful views of Lake Jocassee and a nice spot to swim and kayak. Devil’s Fork is where we thought we were going, but the sign for Keowee-Toxaway is visible from the intersection of 133 and Highway 11. Sometimes plans change.

The people who would’ve run through these trees are my actual ancestors.

With backpacks, water bottles, hats, and bagged lunches we make our way down the path. We’re not counting on catching our meals or going too long without a sip of fresh water. We’re prepared.

It’s several miles before we’ll come out on the other end. There are hills and dips, lake views and areas where you can’t even tell you’re near a water source – these are the spots that seem most authentic.

The lake we’ll pass wasn’t even there with the natives. Every lake in South Carolina is man made. Our northwestern corner of the state once had only dense forests and mazes of rivers, streams, and creeks.

Long before our family had the Sanders name, or owned a farm near town, my ancestors most likely ran through those trees, chasing down prey.

I had a hard time moving to Pickens County in 2002 because I was a teenager, and because it seemed like it had nothing to offer. There’s not even a mall where a girl can buy a new pair of nikes.

But the people who once ran through these trees are my people. Before the Sanders landed on top of a hill by Rice’s Creek, my family knew the animals, the red dirt, and the way the streams carved through the land like natural maps.

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