Even though S-Town is fact and not fiction, there's no denying that the man at the center of its story is the kind of character you'd have trouble making up Nearly everything he does in the seven-episode podcast defies explanation, including one of his more lasting projects. Why did John B. McLemore build a hedge maze, exactly? His creation of the unique puzzle, the only one of its kind in his hometown of Woodstock, is one of the first things that we learn about this quirky clock restorer. But, as the episodes progress, there are many more aspects to the story that take our attention, and we never really circle back to McLemore's reasoning for building such an arresting monument.
Having been submerged into John B. McLemore's voice and story for hours now, at this point, I feel like I do have an idea of why he built the maze. I think the main reason is simply because he wanted to. He seems to be constantly bursting with thoughts and ideas, so putting that big, beautiful brain to work on something that would challenge him both aesthetically and mathematically must have felt like a relief.
As we learn in Episode 1, the maze has 64 possible solutions and one null set, which you can reach by opening or closing the maze's handmade wooden gates in different orders. The plants delineating the paths within the maze are spaced and planned within precise specifications, so laying it out perfectly would have been a herculean effort. And while a project of that size might sound daunting or even impossible to you or me, I think McLemore relishes those kinds of challenges and uses them to get away from some of the darker thoughts chasing around in his mind.
At the time that S-Town host Brian Reed visited the maze, the hedges were only about hip-high. But McLemore shared that he envisioned them growing over the head of the tallest man, so it was possible to truly get lost in the maze — which I imagine was an extremely appealing concept for him specifically. Later episodes shed some light on the demons that he faces in day-to-day life and the ways he tries to get away from them. I can't see why getting lost in a hedge maze — surrounded by nature on his own property — wouldn't be one of his tactics.
But knowing McLemore, I could be overthinking it. He could have planned and built the maze solely to give his friend and mentee of sorts, Tyler Goodson, something to do on his property. It's suggested in S-Town that McLemore created scores of projects over the years as an excuse to put money in his younger friend's pocket. The maze could have been just another reason to keep him employed and on the property, working side-by-side with McLemore himself.
At the end of the day, though, as much as any listener might think they know John McLemore, none of us really does. He's an enigma, and his reasons for building the maze remain as mysterious as the project itself. There are many plausible solutions, and they are likely all equally valid.