A few days ago, I went camping in the swamp. I did it alone, for five days, with no electronic technology other than a flashlight. I needed to know that I was capable of more than my comfortable norm. I needed to live intentionally, like a hero. I now recount Day One of that experience:
The SUV coasted along the highway. I watched the interplay between asphalt and trees, between nature and industry.
Mentally, I was taking inventory of my luggage, while one part of my brain tried recalling edible swamp plants, and yet another focused on appearing confident & calm in front of my family. The air conditioner, too. I remember thinking how nice the car air conditioner felt as my wife drove toward Fort McAllister State Park, heat waves rippling on the road. I thought about Okefenokee Joe, and how he survived eight years in similar conditions, emerging with a swagger that couldn’t be faked. I wore his face on my T-shirt to fake it, nonetheless.
It was Friday afternoon, and I had finally completed all the tasks that would allow me to end all human contact until Tuesday. (I did agree to turn my phone on once a day to text my survival status to my wife. But other than that, seclusion.) We pulled up to the park — zooming past the registration booth, thanks to the free parking passes our local library provides.
This was it. I’d be a different man when the SUV picked me up on Tuesday. Whether just pocked by bug bites, killed by a pit viper or maimed by an irritated alligator, I didn’t know. That was the fun of this whole hair-brained scheme.
When I was four, I had the incredible fortune of leaving an all-American neighborhood & spending the next two years in the West African wonderland of Sierra Leone. Were it not for that experience — and the countless pains & dangers I observed — I probably wouldn’t be interested in a campout. I would’ve been fine with fitting in. Since my return all those years ago, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism of “civilized” societies. I obsess about the universal truths that bring meaning to so many cultures & civilizations — past all the trends or irrational norms.
One such truth was that pain is inevitable. In the midst of their frequent pains & uncertainties, my childhood friends in Africa possessed an unbridled joy that I couldn’t describe. That joy was born in the knowledge that pain — no matter how blindingly intense it can be — is rarely fatal. In fact, pain can only be fatal once in any person’s life.
My son’s scream of terror interrupted my thoughts. He had just opened the car door to help me unload, when a horsefly dive-bombed his head. As the boy slammed the door & jostled his groggy sister, an Apocalypse-level swarm of inch-long vampires clinked violently against the glass.
“Love y’all,” I croaked, gulping and rolling into the swarm.
That’s how it started. I flung my supplies into a heap on the gravel, waved goodbye & examined my map. If I played this right, it’d be only about two or three miles of walking down Redbird Creek Trail. Then, I’d arrive at the primitive campsite away from other humans.
After some strategic loading & condensing, I realized this wouldn’t be one trip. The library books alone would require two treks in. Curse that addiction…
The fluttering & thirsty threshold guardians reminded me that standing still wasn’t an option, so I balanced whatever my hands, armpits & back would carry, and I crossed over into wilderness.
What felt like about a mile of struggling with around 50 pounds of gear was, in fact, less than a hundred winding yards. I remembered that the rest of my belongings were just lying in the gravel for any old visitor to plunder, and I dropped this load to the side and headed back for another.
It took three more trips to haul all my gear away from the thieves in my mind — each time forcing my muscles to clutch their burden a few steps further than the previous drop-off point. Proudly, I had made it to a sign that taught travelers about Copperhead snakes. Wait… Copperheads?
I found the strength to carry that last load a bit past Copperhead Bend. Realizing the urgency was no longer to get my belongings away from human scavengers, I checked the map and remembered: I don’t do directions.
When I lived in Sierra Leone, I remember having a really tough time determining the difference between my left and my right. Since a pair of conjoined warts grew on what I learned was my right thumb, I learned to “check my thumbs” any time I had to determine the difference between the two. For years, that’s what I did.
Later as a child, I saw a PBS special that said some people just lack the magnetism in their noses to adequately gauge directions. I assumed that was me. When I began driving as a teen and didn’t know which way to turn to get to the next town over, I had decided that I didn’t have an ounce of magnetism in the entirety of my body.
* * *
A tickle on my left leg brought me out of my thoughts. It was a white-spotted Lone Star Tick (called a deer tick in these parts). She’s the kind of tick that carries Lyme disease, and she was hungry for a hot meal. I flicked her away, noting that I knew it was my left leg, even this many years after my warts had faded. I had to keep moving or more ticks would find me. I needed to know directions, and my “I don’t do directions” mantra couldn’t accompany me this week.
As I pushed further along the trail, my body rebelled. First the joints; then the muscles that surrounded them. In a few spots, the pain broke through to the surface, forming blisters & lesions. As the shadows lengthened, I remembered the other three gear piles along the trail.
I’ll drop this here so they’re not so far from camp, I thought, looking back at how far I’d come. But how far is camp from here?
I studied the map again. It definitely hadn’t accounted for the subtle curves I had just passed along the trail. Maybe I could go a little further—at least until I saw something that matched the map.
Onward I pushed, sweat dripping & blisters stinging. A sharper curve revealed itself. Maybe it matched the one on the map. Maybe I should turn around while I still had the energy to get more bags.
No. This was where I’d challenge my default mindset. Despite the tingling in my arms, I’d push forward toward the camp.
I pushed past what I would later call “Give-up Corner” and I’d ponder its significance as I walked. With no one around to hear me complain, I could only find my strength. As my body insisted that it needed more rest, I assured it that there would be relief at our destination, with the comforts & safety that it craved.
With nothing more to do than take another step — with all justifications for turning back quelled — my thoughts wandered.
When I reach my goal, I’ll have a mental image of my whole journey for the day.
For now, though, my target was that curve just ahead, or the grove of trees after that, or the uprooted oak beyond that. It was in this way that I found my camp—a clearing around the corner from an observation deck.
As I trekked back to the other three loads, I was unencumbered — not just because my achy shoulders were free of my first set of bags. The bloodsuckers were still merciless. This far into the marsh, it was more sand gnats than horseflies. The lightness I felt was in the slight familiarity with my surroundings.
Coming up ahead was the area I’d call Snakeroot Pass (because every root you walked over looked like a deadly serpent). After that, I’d push myself toward Squirrel Mill, greeting my chattering new friends. (Thanks to Hurricane Matthew, Squirrel Mill looked like a lumberyard from all the fallen and diced trees along the side of the trail.)
I continued this way, naming natural landmarks, startling deer (at Whitetail Glade) and pushing ahead with a vague sense of what to expect. I found my first set of belongings just before Copperhead Bend — a set of four water jugs that had inflamed my knuckles a few hours ago. I walked on and shouldered the load that was farthest from my camp.
The mindset of visualizing my mini-goal, and focusing only on the actions that would get me to my final destination, hearkens back to every moment of success in my life. In the swamp, pushing beyond my not-so-heroic physique’s capabilities, focusing intently on these goals made all the difference.
As the sun dropped and I realized I’d be physically incapable of going back for those essential gallons of water, I pitched two tents (one for sleeping & one for food storage). I climbed on top of my homemade bedroll, and I breathed heavily as sweat saturated the fabric beneath.
I had survived the first leg. Hordes of tiny sand gnats were able to come & go through my tent’s mesh as they pleased — and they greedily came more than they went. Nevertheless, I was safe. Once I regained a few minutes of energy, I began to read Living Zen, Loving God. The sand gnats feasted, the itching was unbearable and I finally relented and turned off the flashlight that attracted them.
My stomach growled as the vampiric swarms gorged themselves on my flesh. I wondered if any of those gnats appreciated my messianic sacrifice, body broken for their well-being. With the first challenge survived, I was now planning to go 24 hours without food. I had forgotten that part. And somehow, I’d need to find the energy to go back for 40 pounds of water. It would also be storming all day come sunrise, so I should prepare for that…
I slept lightly that night — itches and aches competing for attention while the varied nightlife howled “Hear me! Hear me!” in discordant tones. Somewhere between the arthropodic clicking of fiddler crabs under my tent, and the distant Hutt-like bellow of an amorous alligator, I rested. I knew that I had walked at least 10 miles already, and I’d be able to face whatever challenge Saturday would bring.
And challenges, it certainly brought…
SWAMP LIFE – Day Five: Resonance
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
The Immortal Legend Lives!
The Ballad of Okefenokee Joe
Of Hater Blockers & Coal Mines