Riding the Hogback Highway

This week we drove U.S. Highway 176 north to Landrum three days in a row to watch our son play in a basketball tournament at the new District 1 high school. We could have driven faster, more sterile I-26, but taking the old highway has its advantages and insights.

I like to call this route “the Hogback Highway” because anywhere west of town along its length you might just catch a glimpse of old Hogback Mountain. Until the construction of the Denny’s Building downtown, Hogback was the most significant vertical feature in our Spartanburg region.

In the early days before interstates all travelers would have been aware of their relation to Hogback’s 3,240-foot ridge looming on the escarpment thirty miles distant. Now that farming’s no longer our primary industry there are more trees. Hogback’s harder to see. There are probably people who don’t even know it exists, blue ghost looming above Landrum, judging our every human action.

Driving the Hogback Highway is an exercise in landscape perspective and time travel. In twenty miles the road cuts across every era of Spartanburg’s history from the old market town’s surviving 19th century Morgan Square, to Hub City’s Southern Shops where the old trains were repaired, to I-85’s now faded mid-20th century New South optimism, on up into to the deep rural western corner of the county now under serious threat from 21st century California style condo-sprawl.

It would have been a great deal more pleasant to drive out I-585, the four-lane interstate gateway out of town, past the kept industrial grounds and ponds of Milliken and the institutional fountains of USC-Upstate, but instead we drove U.S. 176 through the blight of Asheville Highway because I wanted to feel it full in my face.

Does anyone on County Council ever drive the stretch of highway between Cleveland Park and Business I-85 and feel guilty for the sins and omissions of councils past? Is this what former farm fields must look like when the invisible hand of the free market passes over? Is the ugliness and clutter of Asheville Highway merely the “collateral damage” of late 20th century capitalism? Who can look now on what happened on Asheville Highway in the 1970s and 1980s and call it good?

Drive up U.S. 176 over the new I-85 and you see another past failure of political will and oversight. There’s an Ingle’s shopping center on the right with few canopy trees and little required buffer for the 1970s subdivison behind it. Just across the road a Winn-Dixie shopping center stands empty and abandoned. Who can look at what the free market did here in the last decade of the 20th century at this former rural crossroads and call it progress?

The old mill town of Inman didn’t fare much better than Asheville Highway. The whole strip along US 176 is a snarl of uncontrolled signs, cheap buildings, oversized asphalt parking lots, and abandoned husks of businesses that didn’t make it in the marketplace. Who can call this good?

It’s not until you get up Highway 176 toward Gramling that Hogback country begins to take on its true beauty. There the mountain stands bold and tall over rolling hilly countryside. It’s still rural there. If only there were sheep it might look like rural England.

The old agricultural character of Spartanburg County survives there in the shadow of Hogback. If County Council has a conscious they will take this little rural patch of Spartanburg County and replicate it through planning and land use regulations from Pacolet to Landrum, from Sugar Tit to Cowpens.

Forget the silliness of arguing over the road tax. Abandon the short-sighted idea of selling off our park land. Maybe somebody should rent County Council a van and drive the whole gang up Highway 176 to Gramling, bring along a bag lunch, and talk about what they see along the way, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Then they can set about planning how it will come to pass that some stretches of our county will still look like that spot in 100 years. Maybe in the shadow of Hogback they’ll have a place-based conversion, pass a $25 “save our county” tax, and pledge to pay people market value for key pieces of rural landscape we need to preserve. That would show some progress.

It’s time for a change. For over 200 years Hogback’s watched how humans have moved below it with no plan, no regard for the beauty of this special landscape, governed mostly by those without much vision, led by few, driven by greed and self-interest.

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