A 2 1/2-year stint living in, and off of, the woods as a young man gave NASCAR's Ward Burton some perspective and peace.
By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 14, 2002
Ward Burton finished his second year at Elon College and still wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life.
He knew he was good at philosophy and sociology but, as Burton learned, what you're good at and what you can make a living at are often two different things. Philosophy and sociology aren't typically high-paying career paths.
Business, his parents urged, go into business. There's stability and money in business, they said. Plus, the field is so expansive you're bound to find something you like in business school.
They had no idea how right they were.
Burton, driver of the No. 22 Dodge on the Winston Cup circuit, finally acceded to his parents' wishes and went back to the North Carolina college for one more semester of business classes. He found that what he liked had nothing to do with business. Or school for that matter.
It was while he was earning subpar grades in economics and business math that Burton decided it was time to do something he knew from years of hunting with his father and grandfather in his native Virginia. He went back to nature.
The next 2 1/2 years changed his life.
"I didn't consciously do it but after a month of kicking around, doing this and doing that, I decided I was going to go back to what I knew," Burton said. "And what I knew well and what I enjoyed was outdoors. I knew of a piece of land where there was a little cabin, and that's where I headed to."
Burton, now 40, trekked to a 2,000-acre plot on the banks of the Banister River just north of his hometown of Danville, Va. The nearest community was 35 miles away. The nearest neighbor: 6 miles.
The plot included a cabin near the river and plenty of nature for Burton to live off.
He plucked catfish and bass from the river. He hunted and trapped for fur and meat. He raised a garden with fresh vegetables during the summer.
The 20-foot by 30-foot "four-stall tobacco barn" in which he resided had no electricity, no running water.
It was bare bones for Burton, who was 21 and 22 years old at the time. And it was exactly the way he liked it.
"I wasn't a hermit," Burton said. "I didn't have a family so I was still dating at the time. During the week I was pretty busy. During the weekend I would have some friends come over. But it was easy living that way. There's a lot of material things now that I certainly don't need. Nice house, swimming pool, things like that. I don't need all that junk to be happy. To be honest with you, the simpler you have your life, the easier it is to maintain and the easier it is to be happier as well."
His brother Jeff is 6 years younger and said he didn't go to the cabin while Ward lived there. But the stories that came out of those woods are legendary.
"If it was a Saturday night and you didn't have anything to do or anywhere to go you could just head out to Ward's cabin," Jeff Burton said, referring to friends. "There was always a party out there. That's one thing my brothers are good at. They know how to party."
Not that Burton's life in the woods was all fun and games.
There was the constant upkeep of the cabin, its chimney and roof, not to mention the toting of fresh water for cooking and cleaning. Then there was Burton's favorite thing: the trapping.
During the winter, when the season was open, Burton would set out a couple hundred traps with the hopes of snaring beaver, otter, muskrat and raccoon. Checking those traps sometimes took more than six hours, starting before daybreak in the bitter cold. But the reward was well worth braving the elements.
"I made a good living off trapping," said Burton, who won the Daytona 500 in February and starts 31st in today's Tropicana 400. "Back then a beaver pelt was about $22 for a blanket, coon was $18, a good otter was anywhere from $20-$30. It would take me until 12 or 1, starting before light to check all the traps. Then the work begins. Skin the animal, dry, stretch ... it's a lot of work."
Eventually Burton found his way out of the woods.
But when he returned to what many people would consider a normal life, working for his family's construction business, he was a changed man.
Little things didn't, and still don't, bother him. College and business school were no longer a concern. Life was different. Burton was different.
"I just kind of went back to my roots. After I came out of that I felt a real peace of mind," Burton said. "I had learned a lot about wildlife and I learned a little bit about myself. Living by yourself, particularly out in that kind of natural setting, you'll get yourself in situations where you have to kind of rely on your own nature of independence as well as some other things that being alone will make you bring out."
Upon his return to civilization, Burton often visited the South Boston (Va.) Speedway, his hometown track, to watch Jeff race on the weekends. One weekend Ward, who raced motocross bikes in college, found himself in a Volkswagen. The next week he was driving a street stock and winning his first race in that class.
"I guess that's when the racing bug bit me a little bit," Burton said. "I had no focus, direction or idea as to what the hell I was going to do but I was (darned) sure gonna beat those guys in street stocks."
In 1996 Burton, who is 24th in the Winston Cup points standings, began the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation in Virginia. The group's aim is to buy and preserve large parcels of land with the idea of using them for education and biological study.
The foundation owns about 1,500 acres and the next spot on its list is the 2,000 acres on which Burton lived. If the foundation can get $1.2-million together by Dec.31, Burton said the final piece in the puzzle will be in place.
"We just have to purchase this last core piece," Burton said. "Once we get that done, we've teamed up with Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries and we can build an educational facility and bring youth and teachers in and kind of give them some of the experiences that myself and other people have had. So we can pass along the message about the outdoors, the history of the outdoors in Virginia and get a good message out to the kids."