With a cup of coffee and a sense of adventure, I groggily jiggled the computer mouse to Google the directions to the ancient Indian Sewee Shell Ring in Awendaw. I rustled my husband's feet in the bed to tell him that I was going to the Sewee Shell Ring and to ask if he wanted to join. He mumbled a "No." I tried to wake him enough to let him know where I was going. He repeated "Sewee" a couple of times—or did he say "Feed me?"
I placed the printed directions in the passenger seat and took off. The Shell Ring is about 10 miles north of Mount Pleasant on Highway 17. After parking the car in the small gravel parking lot, I spied a glass-encased sign and sauntered over to it. It consisted of the normal park jargon. At the bottom, an additional note read: "Be sure to bring water and plenty of bug repellent." I checked my water bottle. It was still pretty full. Bug spray? Uh oh. I went back to the car to check the glove box. Nope, but what's this? It was hand sanitizer. I opened the cap to sniff it. If I were a mosquito I wouldn't bite anyone with this stuff on. So I lathered up with the sanitizer and headed to the trail. Three steps past the sign, I found myself covered—seriously covered—in angry, black mosquitoes. Beating myself to death as I ran back to the car, I sat frustrated, separated from a pathway that led to beauty unknown by a windshield. Turning the key in the ignition, I spun out of the drive with a little kick of gravel, secretly hoping to take out a few of those skeeters. I'd be back.
About a month later, on a cool, crisp September morning, the Sewee Shell Ring called again. I patted myself down for keys then called out the contents of my backpack: water, cell phone, six-dollar can of bug spray, breakfast burrito, and a Dr. Pepper. This time a friend came along, too. She added sunblock to our list of equipment. Before taking off, we renamed ourselves Louise and Clara, after the famous trailblazers Lewis and Clark.
Half an hour later, we inched into the empty, obscure drive of the Shell Ring. No cars, bikes, or signs of civilization other than ours. The blue Taurus looked obtrusive in the tranquil environment. I silently wished to hide it from view. At the entrance were two knee-high, round fence posts blocking the path, probably to deter bikes or ATVs. As we neared the poles, we noticed two items sitting on top of them. One was a pull-tab ring from a '70s-era soft drink can. We chuckled, having shared the era of the pull rings together. The other item was a glass bottle with a piece of paper rolled up inside. Louise opened the loose cork and melted wax top. The bottle and paper inside were still wet. We unrolled the note. It read in kid script: "Ahoy! Be it known that Jack Sam Colby set this adrift August 1, 2011 at Gloucester, MA. Signed and sealed by his scribe, Davy Jones." There was an address on it, but it barely legible. We figured that the person that found the bottle and put it on the pole didn’t want to follow through with the obligation of notifying young Jack.
I put the bottle in my backpack and we headed down the trail. I hesitate to call it a trail, though, as the clearing looked more like an animal path.
Louise picked up a “Critter Gitter”—a four-foot stick with a forked end to pin the critter to the ground. The pine straw was so heavy that it cushioned our steps. Fallen pine limbs were patterned, resembling rattlesnakes lying in wait. Louise continued to poke at questionable sticks and objects while we chattered our way through the path, one behind the other. Skeletal logs of trees long dead were covered in moss lichen. Orange mushrooms shot up occasionally to pop some color onto the pine straw forest bed. A simple placard sat atop a small wooden stake announcing our destination simply as “Shell Ring.”
The pine path opened up to an incredible wide-open vista of marsh. Complicated tributaries wound around a beautiful plank boardwalk.
The tide appeared to be low. We scanned the area for the ancient mounds. A graveyard of uprooted, storm-ravaged trees laid atop of pile of oyster shells to the right of the walk. There were no fences or protective barriers encasing the mound. The mound appeared to continue on as we walked further around the curving boardwalk. We were alone, albeit the scurrying of hermit crabs. The low tide was starving the plough mud and oyster beds of their nutrient—sea water. The marsh cracked and popped like Rice Krispies.
We stood in front of an information pedestal that informed us that we were facing the ceremonial grounds opening in the center of the Shell Ring. The area was nondescript. Park signs offered information about the mounds dating back 4,000 years. Louise and I dropped to our knees on the boardwalk and began to mentally pull off the layers. What we were looking at was tangible, yet vague. I'm not sure what I expected. An oyster shell from 4,000 years ago looks like an oyster shell of today. Composites show that the mounds are piled ten-feet deep. That’s one hell of a oyster roast.
Archeologists have exhausted themselves studying things like these. Why did the Indians mound their shells in a ring like this? The elementary deduction of man/woman struck me: me hunt, you gather. I would guess that the indigenous women didn’t want the oyster shells with juices dripping in their compounds, something akin to taking out the garbage today. Plus, you could only dump something so high before you needed to make another pile. But that’s just my philosophy.
There may not be a line to wait in, a fee to pay, or a fence to go through to get into the Sewee Shell Ring, but the absence of tourism enticement shouldn’t diminish its historic and concentric value. Actually, I find it to be more awesome without the trappings. It is a jewel in the rough. The Louise and Clara expedition will live forever on my mind. A blessed day of laughter and hours of talking on a bench, watching over a secluded ancient shell ring and wondrous marsh. We keep our spirits alive with this sense of wonder and exploration.
Now back to that message we found in the bottle. With that bottle, two worlds collided on the sacred ground of the Sewee Shell Ring. A little boy, anxious and filled with wonder, had thrown the bottle off of a pier in Gloucester, MA. It had traveled 1,190 miles, through Hurricane Irene, to land at low tide in the marsh of the Shell Ring. The bottle was left on a post by someone who had found it interesting, and then was found by others who share the boy's sense of wonder and exploration. I have sent Jack Colby several postcards to the address on the inside of the bottle. It was wet and almost indecipherable in some places, but it sits as a memory in my office today.