Editor’s note: For The Lawson Trek, journalist and 2014-15 KSJ Project Fellow Scott Huler is retracing the journey of discovery undertaken by canoe and on foot in 1700-1701 by John Lawson, the first observer to carefully describe and catalogue the flora, fauna, geography and inhabitants of the Carolinas. The full story of Scott’s trek appears at his own Lawson Trek blog. Selected posts also appear on the Scientific American Expeditions blog and here at the KSJ blog. To see all of Scott’s KSJ blog posts, click here.
By the time the Lawson Trek finished its second segment it was one ecologist down; pal Katie Winsett had begun suffering enough knee pain that she peeled off at a nearby road, allowing Trek patron saint Kathie Livingston to send someone to pick her up. She continued helping and camping, but three walking days took it out of her.
This third segment brought along not a young ecologist but Rob Waters, a friend and colleague who had time to come along because he’s retired. He and I walked together along roadways and on dirt paths through lovely old stands of live oaks and along fields some miles long.
But what was by far the best part of Rob’s companionship was his age. That is, Rob is retired – I’m 55, and he’s a bit older than me, so we took our walking like people our age do: we stretched, and we rolled around, and we grunted, and we gimped along, taking things slowly enough that we didn’t hurt ourselves.
This had great meaning for me because it reminded me: when Lawson took this trek things were very different for him. And I don’t just mean that I have the benefits of antibiotics, modern dentistry, and Buzzfeed. I mean Lawson began his trek the day after his 26th birthday. I’m more than twice his age, and to be honest all the Gore-tex and Velcro in the world – to say nothing of daily doses of ibuprofin, which I and all of my partners so far have gulped in big, Lawson-Trek-sized doses – are not going to make 55 feel like 26.
Which isn’t bad, and I’m not complaining – I’m just pointing out. What Lawson undertook was a very physical business, and every Trek segment brings that home to me. That is, we’re outdoors, all day long, every day. If it’s hot and sunny, we hide under hat brims. If it’s cold, we bundle up. If it’s raining, we get all wet.
Which I love. The first two segments were all camping. We walked and canoed in heat and cold, in sun and rain. I set up a tent most nights. This third one involved no tents, since we stayed in the cabins at Santee State Park, which are, frankly, the lap of luxury. We ended each day with showers (!) and began each day putting one car at our stopping point, drove to our beginning point, and then walked, retrieving the first car with the second at end of day.
This may sound like cheating to you, but remember: I have previously pointed out how Lawson clearly never paddled his canoe, and I will also point out that Lawson didn’t carry much of his own stuff, either. The day he gets out of his canoe he describes “having hir’d a Sewee-Indian, a tall, lusty Fellow, who carry’d a Pack of our Cloaths, of great Weight; notwithstanding his Burden, we had much a-do to keep pace with him.” He describes other Indian guides as he goes along and is less clear about who’s carrying what, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect an English gentleman traveling with experienced traders and Indian guides to have kept away from most of the heavy lifting.
Anyhow, all this walking is hard on a body, and had you hung around with us in our luxe state park cabin while we popped our ibuprophin and complained about our maladies you probably would have laughed. And that was after days of easy walking – next segment I’ll be back to carrying my house on my back, so we enjoyed our ease while we could, and it was a treat to spend the days of this trek very lightly laden: knapsack with extra clothes, journal, copy of Lawson; fanny pack with lunch and water; little belt pack, worn wrong-side-to, with map, notepad, pens, iPhone, and lens kit – and, of course, trail mix. I’m not saying it was a walk in the park, but it was a walk along the road, which turned out to be very pleasant.
Just the same, here’s a picture of me walking down the road during the second trek, just so you can see what I looked like fully loaded.
But that outsideness. When I walked with Katie, she was a champion at reading the forest roads and the lay of the land, perceiving the depression of a swamp from hundreds of yards, recognizing trees and mushrooms and plants. Rob is more of a bird guy, so I loved hearing him watch the skies: “Is that a buzzard?” he said once, as we watched a lone wingspan circling a thermal. “No – that’s more of a soaring bird,” he said. “That’s a red-shouldered hawk. Thank you. Thank you for the show.”
That cheerful attitude never left Rob. After spending much of our first day walking along the asphalt of SC Route 375 we turned onto a dirt path through old fields, and though he admitted he’d be glad to be done, he took infectious joy in the dirt path, and we both just gloried in the loveliness of the last hours’ passage. We were outside, in comfortable clothes, walking among trees and crops, seeing birds above and swamps below, passing beneath swaying beards of Spanish moss. It was not hard to just be happy, seeing the world.
What was most fun with Rob was seeing the modern use of lands that had once been native farms and then probably rice plantations. We passed by an enormous broadcast antenna, and Rob said, “It’s probably broadcasting a fundamentalist sermon even as we walk by.” As for our less-constructed surroundings, we saw mostly tree farms and cotton fields – actually, we saw almost nothing but tree farms and cotton fields, leaving us thrilled when one day we got to see some actual tree farming. Long before we noticed it we started hearing a grinding. We commonly came upon gated forest roads – some of the gates have metal images of birds or deer on them, but the roads are all private and gated, and signs warn you off. The Lawson Trek does its best when possible to respect such warnings.
But the noise grew loud enough that we noticed it, and we kept approaching for more than an hour, and finally one gate lay open with godawful noise emanating from within, so we had to creep in. We had seen clear cut fields, fields of new trees, and fields of uniform growth up to full size, but this was the only time we witnessed actual tree farming. And though nobody much likes a clearcut – and the regular rows of a tree farm look like anything but nature – a tree farm is still a bunch of pine trees, full of deer and wrens and woodpeckers, so we didn’t complain. This Trek was rural pretty, not nature pretty.
All day long we had seen lumber trucks coming and going, loaded with a couple dozen narrowing trunks, or empty and on their way back. Rob recalled a summer he had spent back when they were still logging old growth timber near Seattle – a single trunk of that old growth timber would fill the back of one of these lumber trucks, he said.
Anyhow, we heard the shrieking of the saws, we wandered in to take a peek, and I like nothing more than to watch a big old machine blithely do the work of dozens of people. The trees had already been cut and lay in piles – we watched a front-end loader pick them up and pile them carefully for loading, dragging them through a machine that stripped them of branches and trimmed them when they needed it. The Lawson Trek will eventually become a book, and we may have this week walked by its future pages.
We sat for lunch one day in front of a plantation called Longlands, which we are told is basically a 37,000 acre retreat for Du Pont heirs to hunt pheasant on, but we’ll get more to you on that; until then I promise nothing. But we saw signs for Longlands on every side for miles, always reminding us that the place was patrolled by dogs at night and we were most unwelcome to trespass. Still, the place itself was quite lovely, so we were thoroughly interested in its background. We never seem to be able to raise anybody on the phone (supporting the assertion that it’s a lot closer to a retreat than a working farm), but here’s a picture, and we’ll let you know when we find out more.
Anyhow. I’ve said it before, but if I’ve learned nothing more so far on this project it’s that being outside, walking along the byways, experiencing what this world has to offer – whether a nice walk on a sandy road or a glimpse into tree-farming practices or the sore knees, hips, and lower back that come from just walking around when you’re twice John Lawson’s age – is its own reward.
Coming up next: introductions to two marvelous people – Peggy Scott, vice-chief of the Santee Indian Tribe, a descendant of the people who treated Lawson so kindly, and Val Green, chief of all the Lawsonians, who knows more about Lawson than anyone alive and has kept us on the path from the very start of this adventure.
Stay tuned. And take an ibuprofin. It helps.