Geneva Shaw: At 80, still exploring the mountains on foot

Published 10:00 pm Friday, March 6, 2015

FEATURE COVER Geneva Shaw web


“I love to go a wandering
Along the mountain track
And as I go, I love to sing
My backpack on my back . . .”

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–From a Boy Scout song

If living at the foot of Hogback Mountain near the Spartanburg/Greenville county line is not sufficient to draw her outdoors, earlier years spent in Swain and Graham counties in North Carolina instilled in Geneva Shaw the desire to hike and explore.

That’s not unusual, but though Geneva has already seen her 80th birthday come and go, she’s not lost a bit of her enthusiasm to hike the Carolina woodlands.

She’s a regular on Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) hikes, organized and led by that group’s Pam Torlina.

“I’ve been on most of them the last couple of years,” Shaw explained.

Her family’s roots go far back in the Upstate of South Carolina.

“The guy who surveyed the Cherokee boundary was a relative of my mother’s mother,” she noted. “He was an Atkins.” At that time, whites considered Spartanburg County theirs, with the Cherokee living in Greenville County and in other areas.

“Unfortunately,” Shaw continued, it didn’t take the white folks long to run them off.”

At any rate, Geneva grew up on the farm on which she now resides, just inside Spartanburg County, not far from Polk County. Her parents split when she was very young. Her mother, a schoolteacher, got a job in Swain County when Geneva was nine. A few years later the family moved to Graham County, also in the mountains near Tennessee.

Now she regrets visiting that area so seldom. “I just love that place.” There she became acquainted with some Cherokee people. She fondly remembers the parallel flows of the Nantahala and Little Tennessee rivers, with former running clear, and the latter running muddy from siltation.

“Cherokee is such a beautiful language,” she noted.

While growing up on the farm in South Carolina’s Upstate provided much opportunity for exploring, especially since her grandmother insisted that the children spend little time indoors, it was not until Geneva lived in those farther west mountains that she got the hiking bug.

“We had an old ’37 DeSoto coupe,” she recalled. At times, some 15 youngsters would pile into the car, with her mom driving, and go exploring. As a teacher, Geneva’s mother sometimes took her students hiking, with Geneva joining them. One favorite spot was Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, with its never-timbered population of giant tulip trees.

Finding a particularly large specimen, “we would put our arms around the trunk, to see how many of us it took to get around the tree,” she recalled.

“That was probably my first hike, Joyce Kilmer,” said Geneva, who admits, “I’m always walking in the woods by myself.”

Shaw has undergraduate degrees in zoology and chemistry, and a master’s and PhD in microbiology. Earlier, when she attended the University of Tennessee, she joined the university’s Smoky Mountain Hiking Club.

“Every weekend, we went somewhere,” she recalled. Her former husband got a job in Lawrence, Kansas, and they moved there, which hardly thrilled Geneva especially since, for a time, much of the land in the region resembled the Dust Bowl of the recent past and was defined by drought and dust.

“There wasn’t a blade of green grass to be seen, not a leaf anywhere,” she remembered.

From Kansas, her path took her to Kansas City, Mo., Jackson, Miss. and to Mexico to teach biological sciences. She loved Mexico as she was able to hike there, but for financial reasons, she couldn’t stay.

“I had to come back and get a job and go to work. Moving closer to her roots, she got a teaching position at Brevard College, from which she took her students on numerous hikes. Those hikes involved some thirty minutes of travel each way to and from Pisgah National Forest, and one hour of brisk hiking.

Nothing could keep Shaw off her feet for long.

Living in the shadow of Hogback is certainly inspiring, said Shaw.

“I like it very much.”

Favorite places to hike these days include Pearson Falls, Moore’s Cove Falls and Rainbow Falls on the Horsepasture River, the latter two locations in Pisgah.