By Zach Brockhouse
Up Highway 17 past Mount Pleasant, the land was choked with vegetation. The plants were barbed and poisonous and could grow several inches in a day. Scrub oaks tangled with Sumac. Honeysuckle battled Kudzu. Sawgrass covered every inch of the ground, blades that would cut hands and knuckles, raise painful, itching hives.
Native Americans used to live there. They grew corn and sat on the black sand shores to watch the big European boats coming in. They were the Wando, the Yemassee and the SeeWee tribes. The Europeans were introduced to poison ivy and hornets. The Indians were introduced to worse.
By the time the Revolutionary War began, these tribes were on their way out. The Francis Marion Forest was named for a man they called, “The Swamp Fox.” Most people thought of him as a hero, though there were rumors that he hunted Indians for sport and raped female slaves in his spare time.
This morning we stop at the last outpost before Awendaw and the Francis Marion, a doublewide trailer attached to a bright yellow house. We load up on Mountain Dew and chilidogs. We eat them quickly while Chief gasses up the truck.
The newer looking Diesel pump always has a rough looking trucker parked by it. He sits in the cab, his legs bone-white beneath his shorts and watches us from behind mirrored sunglasses. He smokes and probably wonders what the hell has brought us this far north. We’re lost, he thinks. Maybe crazy. The rips in our pants and the stained shirts, the sunburned necks, the rashes and bites that line our arms make us look like lepers, escaped and sun blinded, stumbling here of all places and no doubt looking for trouble.
The Civil War freed the slaves. One hundred years later, their descendants lined the highways weaving sweetgrass baskets under plywood huts. The tourists came down from the northern beaches to haggle, barking numbers in thick Yankee accents. The weavers watched the cars pass with looks of boredom so profound they could only be matched by the faces of the white children staring back at them.
We’re excited today. Instrument Man won’t be working the gun. I won’t be carrying the heavy tripod over fences and through vines. We have the company’s first GPS, and we’ll simply have to walk around the wetlands with a backpack, a battery pack, and a transmitter. The transmitter is a plastic disc on a pole you can raise above the overgrowth to clear sky.
There is the man who for the better part of fifteen years has been sitting underneath a painted plywood sign that ended up too short to finish. It reads, Boiled P-Nut. He waves as we pass. He still ain’t sold that peanut, Chief says every morning.
We pull across 17 to the access road. We stop at a rusted gate and he gets out to unlock the padlock. I hold the gate while the truck passes and close it behind. I hop onto the tailgate. It’s barely a road with trees grown so close they scrape the sides of the truck, joining the legions of criss-crossed scars from thousands of other roads just like this one, old and forgotten hunting trails and deer runs.
We put on our snakeboots, tuck the pants into them and soak the area in OFF to keep the ticks out. I tuck my shirt in and spray my waist the same way. The chemicals make the cloth feel crisp and cool and the smell will stay with me for most of the morning, a burnt sweet chemical smell that makes the hair on my arms rise.
We find the first pink flag left by a state worker and match it with the ledger Chief has. I raise up the disc and wait for the little numbers to line up and record our position. It’s early days for GPS and it takes a while for each position to be register. We all stare at the numbers and the little LED dots blink until we’re done. Gnats find Chief’s head in the sun and buzz around his ears, some stick to the sweat already coating his neck.
Then we head in, following each flag with a number written on it. This brings us deep into the wetland and the sun dappled pines and honeysuckle give way to a musky cool darkness. The ground opens up and the vegetation changes. I can name every tree I see. Garden Spiders wave between them wherever there is sunlight. They are big spiders. Yellow and black with vertical stripes in their web. They rock back and forth whenever you get too close. Chief occasionally throws them a cricket and we watch as the spider strikes and wraps it up.
It’s nine a.m., but already hot. Eventually around noon even the crickets and frogs will give up and it will become very quiet. We sit around and wonder whether it’s best to go back to the truck to try and catch a nap, play some Hearts—or keep going to the last flag.
We decide to keep going. Pass around the canteen. Light a sweat soaked cigarette, with a lighter that hisses and pops.
The further in we go, the higher I need to raise the disc. Eventually, I resort to waving it back and forth hoping this will induce whatever satellites we’re trying to communicate with to notice us. Leaves and twigs fall around me as I try and shove it through.
Chief and Instrument Man haul their bush axes from their shoulders, axes Chief sharpens religiously every morning with a file. They begin to furiously cut away vegetation to give the disc a clear path to the skies. Animals buzz warnings and for a little while the sleepy little swamp wakes up. Vines and brambles fall. I get a reading and yell out to stop. They lean on their axes and watch me watch the numbers. The numbers blink. Three sets of them need to register to move on. Sweat runs off my eyebrows. It doesn’t drip. It runs like my head is on fire and the quickest way out is over my eyes. I watch until the third number clicks and I lower the disc so I can move without getting tangled.
We finish our numbers and find another old logging road that Chief swears will get us back to the access road which will lead us back to the forsaken little strip the truck is parked on.
We’re hot. We’ve run out of water. We walk in a loose single file through runs made by pig and deer. We know this is where the ticks are, but no one wants to cut a path.
The Civil War is still alive down here. You can hear it in the way people speak, in how neighborhoods are drawn, and the ethnic lines are as clear as fresh chalk. The further out from the cities you get, the more visible it becomes. Chief brings out his metal detector in these spots and the wooden crates of his handmade tool box are alive with slave chains and grapeshot.
Around a corner, parked in a patch of shade blocking the road, is a little camper. We stop, the sight of it striking us for a moment into immobility. Its back is facing us. The sides have been crudely painted to look like a log cabin. Around the little window cut into the sheet metal side, a wooden window sill and a pot of geraniums have been painted.
We approach it wary. Instrument Man scratches at the bandaged Sumac boil on his forearm. Closer to the front, painted in bright green letters that look like Lincoln Logs reads, “Honest Abe.”
Through the driver’s window, a man is asleep. A gas station Styrofoam coffee sits in the filthy arm rest. He’s got a black beard with no mustache. He’s wearing a black tuxedo tee shirt. A road map sits coffee stained and curled on the dashboard. An unzipped duffel bag is on the seat by him, stuffed with clothes and a stovepipe hat. Several pairs of socks are draped over the open passenger side window.
We try to see to the sleeping area in back, but a half closed curtain keeps it from view. The curtain is made from a brown towel. Hyatt Regency is sewn into the corner.
He’s sleeping soundly. Up close he really doesn’t look like Abe Lincoln. He looks like the truck drivers that watch us at the outpost. To save some money on hotels, he’s found this faraway place to catch up on some sleep. I look for the porn magazines hoping to find an explanation for the inordinate amount of porn you find rotting in the faraway fields and wetlands. It’s everywhere, long-abandoned houses, tree trunks. I never go a week without finding some. But he has none. I wonder if he has family back where he came from. I wonder if they miss him.
We leave him sleeping there, find the truck baking in a sun that has moved since morning. We drink ice water standing around the orange cooler and pack up. The shadows are getting longer. The crickets and frogs are beginning to wake.
A corporation was planning to build there. For every wetland they filled in, they would have to build the equivalent elsewhere. Usually these took the form of a scraped together pond or a wet patch between two cement pipes where frogs would gather in the evenings. Sometimes a wetland would be saved when a rare woodpecker would nest there. Usually not. Eventually the whole area would become a business park.
I hope Abe moved in time. Maybe his camper’s still there underneath it all. Maybe someone else will find him in a hundred years.
Photo provided by Zach Brockhouse.