I camped alone for five days in the swamp. It was painful. It was beautiful. How would I process my experiences? Would I emerge as the hero I had hoped to unleash? This is the account of my final day.
When I awoke, I immediately checked on the raccoon. I was glad to see he hadn’t been found by any scavengers, flies or ants. Part of me had been hoping for a resurrection – or at least that some carnivorous grave robbers would give the appearance of new life. What I got was a perfectly-still – though untouched – clump of dormant fur.
I had left him alone the previous night, finishing up Habito’s & Jefferson’s books. Living Zen, Loving God ended with the thought that I had “the breath of the Lord” upon me, while Jefferson ended with Jesus’ lifeless body being sealed into a tomb. By that point, my brain was taxed, and I fell asleep in exhaustion.
A part of me was now dead, and I would leave the swamp as I had entered it: alone.
Remembering how painful the entry hike had been five days ago, I ate every bit of food I could find. I needed the carbs, but not so much the weight on my back. Kasey and the kids would be picking me up at noon, so considering the full afternoon it took me to get everything in, I’d need to break down camp right now.
In between tasks, I found myself walking over to pay homage to the corpse. I guess I thought if I visited enough, he’d give me the profound answer I sought. Or, like the trickster he’s known to be, he’d wink, slap a granola bar out of my hand and scurry off, chattering all the way. If I’d just study his sacrifice some more, maybe this all would somehow make sense.
I decided against burying my friend, remembering yesterday’s Parable of the Juicy Caterpillar and the Human Who Interfered. He was also far enough from the water to avoid tainting the supply, and his rabies – if he had it – had died upon the death of its host.
I dragged my belongings from the tents and broke them down quickly. In my raccoon-spirited ingenuity, I had decided I would not take four loads and double back a thousand times as I had on Friday. Instead, I would create a system that would allow me to carry more.
Which of my muscles were the strongest? The shoulders, probably. Shoulders and thighs. How could I leverage these muscles without breaking my back?
What I came up with was a variation on those shoulder-slung bindles you’d always see in classic cartoons. My childhood obsession was classic cartoons.
* * *
When I was about eight, I remember filling a handkerchief with a few favorite toys and tying it to a sturdy stick from the yard. I then proceeded to “run away from home,” though I don’t remember why. Probably because I had to miss “DuckTales” or some other obsession. Fortunately, “running away” only meant hiding on our property behind the farthest tree from our house. Still, it felt like I had been out there all day, and when I was sure my parents had been worried sick, I returned to share the good news that I was still alive.
I had only been gone for ten minutes.
* * *
My not-yet-patented “MegaHauler 3000” looked like a giant tarp filled with pillows, blankets and cumbersome luggage on the surface… because it was. But what made it work was it’s un-patented tent stake, bent over on itself after the tarp eyelets were threaded through. I then tied my belt around the bent stake and dangled it over my neck. On the other side – to offset the weight– I tied off my camp chair. On top of my camelpack, I strapped on a book bag (redistributing some of the heavier books this time), a tent bag to my front, and I used a fish stringer to hold my pants up, harpooning it through a cardboard box that would hold a few more knickknacks. I carried my fishing pole, too, and my tackle box, and I set off down the trail. In retrospect, I get why those hikers weren’t interested in small talk and scurried away from the weird, loud-speaking Turtle Man.
Oh boy, I thought, like a senior cracking open the graduation exam. I was combining everything I had learned, finding the steady determination of the raccoon, steadying my breath before panic came and remaining attuned to my body’s strains so I could shift my weight accordingly. Rather than slow my momentum by stopping to rest, I’d lean against a nearby tree when I needed, squeezing the bulk of the weight between us to give my shoulders a rest. By the end of Whitetail Glen, I had hit my wall.
Despite the fatigue, my raccoon spirit craved forward motion, so I adjusted my belt to hang over my left shoulder, dropped the bulky tarp to the ground and dragged it behind me like a sled.
It was during this final leg that I reminded myself of the ephemeral nature of pain. It was temporary. Even chronic pain – my frequent excuse for holding back – came in waves, so it wouldn’t feel so intense forever.
My calves cramped. Pain was a gift – an indicator of change. Change was good – a reminder of growth. Growth was essential – a hardwired desire that was unquenchable, even in the mind of a pain-phobic second-guesser.
The raccoon ambled down the creek bed, stiff-legged-though-steadily. One step further. Always aware of the burning inside, it took one step further.
In accepting the persistence of pain, I had made it out. The trail opened up to a gravel road, and the horseflies swarmed my sweat-drenched frame. I collapsed on my chair and drank between breaths.
I turned on my phone. Only thirty minutes? That couldn’t be right.
I left my belongings in a scattered heap beside the road. My fear of thieves had been abandoned days ago. If they needed it, it was theirs.
Walking back with no burden but the water on my back, I enjoyed the gentle breeze between the tickle of horseflies. I slowed down my breathing, accepting comfort within pain.
I thought about blood and its symbolism for “life.” About halfway down the trail – between the development homes and the marsh – the horseflies shared their flesh platter with sand gnats. These vampires were abundant in the swamp – the horseflies, the sand gnats, mosquitoes and ticks. Red bugs, too.
All this time, I assumed red bugs were like microscopic moles that would burrow into your skin, only to be suffocated by airtight nail polish. Turns out that’s not the case. In the larval state, the red bug mites crave the taste of humans like most everything else out here. But they don’t technically drink blood. They liquefy the skin cells instead, sucking it all up like a milkshake.
Everything in the swamp – it seems – is thirsty for life. Literally.
Even the raccoon, in its determination to keep moving, possessed an innate thirst to live until the absolute final moment when his breathing ceased.
When I entered the swamp, I had no idea I’d be thinking the most about breathing.
I was planning to finish my 5-Day Challenge docs (which I did), I would find my spirit animal (check), and I would read a bunch of really great books I hadn’t considered before in my daily distraction (done).
But the greatest achievement of all, it seems, was catching my breath.
In keeping my conscious thoughts fixed on breath, the rest of my body could perform beyond expectations. And the more I dwelt on the fact, the more I realized that this knowledge wasn’t exclusive to me. As much as I hate to admit it, I didn’t discover breath.
In Pawnee mythology, Hotoru gifts breath to the humans. For the Inuits, it was Silap Inua, the weather god. Breathing is component of Buddhist mindfulness, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God’s breath is described as having created the world, animating human life and bringing mystical relevance to scriptures.
In Latin, the word “inspire” literally means “to breathe upon.” It was thought up in the 1300s to convey “the immediate influence of God or a god.”
And, of course, there was my late raccoon friend, which could control only its breath during the last few hours of its life.
While preparing for the campout, I had spent hours researching how to recover from snake venom. Though I had grown up hearing about slicing across the punctures, sucking out the blood and spitting it out, the risk of infection made that now inadvisable. Same with the old tourniquet trick. The official remedy for a snakebite is to breathe – deeply and calmly. This slows down the progress of the venom — which is usually distributed in non-lethal doses — giving the victim more time to find a hospital with the anti-venom he’d need.
If I didn’t communicate it clearly enough, mastering the breath means everything, and I was fully aware of this as I trekked back to my camp in one fell swoop.
When I returned to my camp, I looked at what was left. Not too bad.
I visited my spirit animal one last time, thanked God for the experience, and I loaded up my extremities with an even distribution of bulk.
It was only when departing my camp for good that the thought occurred to me: I hadn’t been bitten by a snake. Even in the heat of the summer – when vipers are said to be the most active – I didn’t even see a single serpent, venomous or not.
Come to think of it, besides the bugs and crabs, no animal, reptile or bird came within the protective boundaries of my prayed-over campsite and trail.
The abundant birds always stopped at the trees surrounding my camp. The buzzards, too, came no closer than the perimeter oak. Even my spirit animal, during both of its visits, walked right along the line of three of four sides of my camp, dying just beyond the boundary of my final protection prayer.
This isn’t an attempt to convert the reader to my belief system, or to boast in my powers as an otherworldly shaman. I just thought it was pretty frickin’ cool to consider. It was a profound reminder that the bulk of my fears were unfounded when I relinquished my control to a higher power. Without the mental weight of fear, I could find the clarity I desired.
A fluffy, brown bunny hopped lazily away from my feet. Were I a predator, he’d be lunch. Glad that guy wasn’t my totem.
Since leaving the swamp, I’ve studied up on raccoons. I already knew they were nonthreatening tricksters in Native American myths. Their dark eye masks often hinted at the ability to try out new identities with ease. I had tested this power over the past few days, and this lover-not-a-fighter had somehow worn a mask effectively as a wild man in the swamps.
Raccoons are also indicative of a shy charisma, and of a surprising sociability when approached. They’re characterized by endless curiosity and the ingenuity to solve problems. When I think of a raccoon now, I’m reminded of my own inner strength to find solutions. I have the ability to remain calm and find peace in the midst of surrounding chaos, when I choose it. Though it doesn’t always come naturally, when I visualize my dying friend, I can drown out the noise of all thoughts beyond my breath.
In the matter of whether my untimely death was foretold… Well, only time will tell.
The rare encounter of a dying spirit animal, in many Native American cultures, signifies a dynamic transition, and it reminds the viewer of the power to withstand the growing pains of drastic change.
Like the raccoon, it does me no good to dwell on whether or not I’ll die. The short answer is, yes, I will die. But what happens up until then is largely in my control.
What happens now for me is the bold and tireless growing of Holistic Storyteller. I will seek after my tribe, through more intentional engagement and public appearances. When the audience is big enough, I’ll launch my Living Heroically 5-Day Challenge – an opportunity to help creative types embrace their heroism and accomplish their most ambitious goals.
I’ll breathe on purpose. I’ll find focus with everything within my power, and I’ll accept the tools that might help me focus more. I’ll bring value to the world, for the rest of my life, with fearlessness and without giving up.
As I emerged from the trail one last time, I turned on my phone. What had taken me four-and-a-half hours on Friday had somehow, miraculously, taken only one-and-a-half today.
I crashed onto the chair and sighed, my shoulders convulsing with laughter.
I was far more capable than I had always assumed.
While I waited for my ride, I read more pages of Walden. The horseflies nipped, and I read. I breathed. And when the deafening roar of an SUV announced its approach, I greeted my family in peace.
SWAMP LIFE – Day Four: The Ominous Stench of Death
SWAMP LIFE – Day Three: My Wilderness Healthcare Plan
SWAMP LIFE – Day Two: The Power of Vision
Blessed are the Lightbringers
SWAMP LIFE – Day One: Trying Out Superhumanity
The Immortal Legend Lives!
The Ballad of Okefenokee Joe
Of Hater Blockers & Coal Mines