S-Town, Maps, and the Passage of Time

SPOILER ALERT: If you’re considering or are just starting to listen to S-Town, don’t read further unless you’ve listened to at least as far as the very end of the second episode.

I mean it.

OK, here we go.

Like John B. McLemore, the man at the center of the S-Town podcast, I’m obsessed with time. Well, maybe not as obsessed with it as he is. But I’m always thinking about it.

Another obsession I have, that we have not, at least by mid-episode 3, heard is (or, rather, was — there’s the first spoiler) shared by John B., is with maps.

(I’m calling him “John B.” rather than just “John” because that’s what the people who were close to him call him. I’m not sure if he liked that or not, but I’ll assume he was OK with it.)

I had already read enough in a review, not to mention on the S-Town website itself, to know that someone else in the story actually dies, and that this most likely would be revealed at the end of episode 2. And, with the heavy foreshadowing early in that episode, it was not much of a surprise to me when it happened — who, or how. (Yes, even the method, which is revealed early in episode 3. That’s foreshadowed too.)

This is a true story of a real person’s life, so I am not trying to make light of it. I felt a genuine loss, and I’ve only known about this person for a few hours.

But let’s go back in time a bit.

I listened to episode 1, and the first 15 minutes of episode 2, when I was out running. I ended up listening to the rest of episode 2 in bed last night, finishing it well after midnight. But before I listened to that final half hour, I spent at least as long looking at satellite views of Woodstock, Alabama in the Apple Maps app on my iPhone… hunting for John B.’s hedge maze. I knew I was close when I spotted the South 40 trailer park that had been mentioned in episode 1.

I might have saved myself some time by searching on the latitude and longitude coordinates rattled off in episode 1 — curiously specific, I thought, even though producer Brian Reed had edited out the last bit, to respect John B.’s privacy. That struck me as odd right away… and also seemed to be a bit of foreshadowing, that maybe John B.’s privacy didn’t really matter so much now.

As I was saying, I might have saved myself some time, but I didn’t feel like going back and hunting for the exact spot in episode 1 where the coordinates were named. More fun to just explore the satellite images until I spotted a circular hedge maze in the woods.

But that wasn’t the first thing I spotted. First I spotted John B.’s school buses… the ones Brian Reed said he was using to age lumber. There were three now, not two. I panned a bit to the west and saw the house, then north and there it was… the hedge maze.

John B.’s house, school buses and hedge maze, from Apple Maps satellite view.

Excited by my discovery, I took to social media. Then I decided to see if anyone else on Twitter had possibly found the maze as well. Of course they had.

Except… wow. That looks a lot different. At first I was second guessing that maybe @RASEC29 had found the wrong maze… or that I had.

John B.’s property as seen in Google Maps.

I mean… where were the school buses? And the house… it looks… so overgrown.

That’s when I knew.

The satellite images in map apps aren’t dated (although I think that may be changing), so I have no idea exactly when these different images were taken. I don’t know if John B. was still alive in the Apple one, or if it’s just that the buses hadn’t yet been cleared away, the maze abandoned, the yard overgrown. And in the light of day, with a better view on my computer, the land doesn’t seem quite as devastated in the later photo as it did when I saw it at around midnight, on my iPhone screen. It’s a different time of year, and a different time of day. Things are brown instead of green, shadows fall in a different direction.

But clearly, time has passed, things have changed, John B.’s world has decayed, much as he obsessed over.

I have so many more things I would like to say, but… time. Also, I’m not even halfway through the series yet, so there is much I still don’t know that is yet to be revealed. Or not.

So I’ll leave it at this. As the quote on John B.’s astrolabe reads, life is “tedious, and brief.” I’m sorry John B. never made it out of his Shit Town, if that’s what he really wanted to do, but I’m glad he shared his story. And I hope he’s wrong about, you know, everything being doomed.

Update: Several other people have now replied to @RASEC29, including @tifotter, who has posted dated images from Google Earth: