Arts & Culture

Raleigh writer walks trail of 1700s explorer John Lawson

From Scott Huler’s Instagram feed, captioned “the Lawson Trek has arrived at the end of section one: where Lawson himself quit with the canoe and got out to walk. So shall I.” Huler is re-creating the 550-mile trek that English explorer John Lawson began on Dec. 28, 1700.
From Scott Huler’s Instagram feed, captioned “the Lawson Trek has arrived at the end of section one: where Lawson himself quit with the canoe and got out to walk. So shall I.” Huler is re-creating the 550-mile trek that English explorer John Lawson began on Dec. 28, 1700. COURTESY OF SCOTT HULER

In his lifelong journey of education and experience, Raleigh writer Scott Huler has embarked on a serial road trip, and each of us is invited to go along.

Over the next several months, Huler will segmentally re-create – more or less – the 550-mile trek that English explorer John Lawson began on Dec. 28, 1700, when he set out to survey the interior of the young colony of Carolina, possibly for its governing Lords Proprietors. On a map, Lawson’s route made a ragged “C,” starting in a canoe near what is now Charleston, S.C., going inland toward present-day Columbia and Charlotte, and terminating at the Pamlico River beyond Washington, N.C.

Lawson made the trek with a party of five Englishmen and a number of Indian guides, who headed into the backcountry to collect information on what dwelt there: flora, fauna and friendly or unfriendly native populations. They took with them the inadequate maps of the day and hopes of being well received.

Huler, a nonfiction book author, a former news and features reporter for The News & Observer and a former Piedmont Laureate, has set out 314 years later with a similar optimism – and way better toys.

It took years for Lawson to publish a book about his travels. “A New Voyage to Carolina” sometimes has the chirpy tone of a real estate developer’s sales brochure, but it has been an invaluable source of information about the early 18th-century colony. Huler has spent many hours with a brittle original copy housed in a UNC library, trying to get as complete a picture as possible of the landscape Lawson and his companions traversed over two months more than three centuries ago.

As he compares those images with the current lay of the land, Huler is sharing his observations through less tactile but more immediate media forms, including several blogs, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. A book – or some other printed account – eventually will follow.

The trail, approximately

It’s impossible to know exactly where Lawson’s every step fell, and with natural and human forces at work for 300 years, it would be impossible to follow him anyway, but Huler says that’s not the point.

“It’s not so much slavishly following his steps as just doing what he did: taking a long walk, looking around and seeing what you see, and talking about it.” Huler said. “Waking people up to what’s out there.”

The Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT will underwrite Huler’s travels through the swamps and woods, along the sidewalks and highways. Huler is the program’s third “project fellow,” whose classroom is the real world and whose instructors will include those who live along his route or study its history and ecosystems. The fellowship’s stipend will help Huler pay for some of the digital gadgetry he will use to document his route, and for the occasional motel room along the way.

He recently finished the first leg of his trip – eight days from Charleston up the South Carolina coast to Hampton Plantation State Park, much of it spent paddling a canoe in place against strong currents. In his notes on lawsontrek.com, he describes camping during a storm fierce enough to pull his tent stakes out of the ground.

Huler, at 55 more than twice the age of Lawson the discoverer, expects to make at least one more jaunt before year’s end, and several more next year, finishing by the time his fellowship closes out at the end of the academic year.

‘The eyes of an explorer’

Wade Roush, acting director of the Knight fellowship program, said the project could introduce readers to a different kind of reporting, the way Lawson introduced the readers of his day to a different kind of place.

“Science journalism is not just stories about cancer cures or nutrition discoveries or space missions,” Roush said. “It’s about the impact of science and technology on our lives every day.

“It’s almost impossible to imagine what life was like before the industrial revolution. Scott’s project has the potential to be a really useful reminder of how much our continent has really changed.”

For Huler, a large part of the appeal of the journey is heading into the physical world with the mindset of someone seeing something – everything – for the first time.

“The idea is to encounter the terrain with something like fresh eyes,” he said. “To look at what we have with the eyes of an explorer.”

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