A few days ago, I went camping in the swamp. I did it alone, for five days, with minimal electronic technology. I needed to know if I was capable of more than my comfortable norm. I wanted to live heroically. I now recount Day Two of that experience. (Click here for Day One)
As I woke up on Saturday, I hurt. This is what I dreaded most about camping, having an autoimmune disorder that manifests often in the joints. I stirred a bit, which caused swarms of overstuffed sand gnats to flutter.
Ugh, I thought. You’re still here.
Luckily, my pain seemed localized in my lower back, and the sand gnats were more than happy to distract me from its sharpness. At least I didn’t have the usual upset stomach. My abdomen gurgled.
There’s nothing in there to be upset… but I’m not gonna eat.
A few hours after I announced my swamp retreat on Facebook, I got a message from Thom Brucie. Some of you will recognize Thom’s name from his incredibly helpful guest post on scheduling your creative time.
Years ago, Thom told me, when he was studying folklore in New York, a Native American explained the ritual of finding one’s animal totem. Though these “vision quests” had taken on different forms throughout the diverse tribes of North & South America, the standard idea is that the initiate seeks purpose as he transitions into maturity.
Per his tradition, Thom’s friend recounted venturing into the woods alone, without food for 24 hours, seeking some sort of profound experience involving an animal. After marking a protective circle around his camp, he stayed put. He remained in that circle, in a concentrated state, until he heard a rabbit late at night. For him, the subtle experience meant he was now able to hear nature in a distinctly new way, and he always seemed to notice whenever a rabbit was within a mile from him. This man’s attunement with nature seemed to bring him a heightened awareness that lasted at least until Thom’s visit.
When I walked toward the camp the afternoon before, I found myself drifting in and out of prayer — mostly because I didn’t want to die from snake venom miles away from humans. Taking a cue from Thom’s friend — and realizing I’d have to come back to the trail to retrieve my precious water — I prayed for safety along the path as I doubled back and forth to shoulder my gear. That night, I prayed for both protection & enlightenment along the perimeter of my camp.
Despite the risk of appropriating a culture I didn’t have the right to claim (though I am 1/64th Cherokee), I’ve always been drawn to the psychology of symbolism and its positive effects. I didn’t expect to grow a squirrel’s tail from my encounter—or head-bang a dying pine after befriending a woodpecker—but I thought if I increased my mindfulness, that could do me some good. If I was able to attach certain positive affirmations to a specific animal, seeing it could do wonders for my psyche and realign my focus when I least expected it. (For example: If my animal ended up being an owl, I could remind myself to seek wisdom whenever I heard the barred owl’s hoot.)
And so, as the floodwaters battered my tent Saturday morning, I prayed. I pondered. I listened for whatever a rabbit might sound like, but I heard not one carrot smack or a “What’s up, doc?” at all. As I shifted back and forth between spiritual and reflective texts, the thunder rumbled (or was that my stomach?) and I thought the obvious:
Nothing’s gonna engage me in a storm this strong.
The rains died down a bit by midday, so I broke out my emergency poncho. I’d have to get the water now or risk losing it to some thirsty hiker. With only one gallon left in camp, I had no choice. I slipped on my sweaty shoes, and I trekked out into the rain — not a creature in sight.
I wasn’t long on the trail when the floodwaters rushed down harder, creating a liquid haze in the air all around. It rained so hard that Redbird Creek Trail was now a swiftly-moving creek (Just “Redbeard Creek,” I guess). Soon, I had to decide whether it was smarter to slog through the waters in my cloth tennis shoes, or to walk along the sides and risk the ire of brush-clinging ticks or hidden snakes. I did a bit of both, and in less than a mile, the puddles had saturated my shoes and the rainwater had soaked up to my knees.
Between the blinding rain & the swamp steam, my glasses were more of an encumbrance than a help. I took them off in intervals, squinting at the assortment of path roots & praying that one of them wasn’t a snake.
It’d be just my luck that my spirit animal ends up being the rattlesnake that puts me in the hospital.
Maybe a thunderbird? How cool would that be if my spirit animal turned out to be a thunderbird? Maybe if I see a bird at the same time when it thunders, that can count.
Another loud crash, and I ducked under a palmetto. Weren’t vision quests supposed to be peaceful?
I thought about waiting out the storm under the cover of the fronds, but as I squinted at the trail both ways, I saw that I was literally in the middle of nowhere. And palmetto fronds have this inconvenient tendency to sway when blown, so I was still getting drenched. My cargo pants were now soaked up to mid-thigh, halfway up my pocket. If my emergency phone got wet, there’d be no way to check in with Kasey the next day. I thought of how helpless she’d feel not understanding my silence, expecting the worst had happened. I had to march on. Standing still would cause nothing but grief.
The trail creek widened, and the current flowed my way. I was a salmon, breaching the ankle-deep water toward Squirrel Mill… Then Whitetail Glade…
No deer were there to startle. Do I have to keep starving a second day if no animals show up?
Giving up was still not a comfortable choice. The water jugs had to be around here soon. I kept walking, like before, soggy wounds reopening, squinting in the haze.
So this is how you repel biting flies, I thought, chuckling at what felt like the funniest thought in the world.
Lightning silhouetted the pines. I kept marching, sloshing, squinting and second-guessing roots.
I finally came upon the first water jug. I had placed it on a stump last night, when my knuckles would no longer clasp.
It was still there!
I now had the ability to survive until tomorrow. Taking a page out of yesterday’s playbook, I kept marching, to the furthest of the water jugs. There were three jugs here, bunched together as I had left them. Such relief! Such joy at the thought of not having to hike further up the trail and tell the park ranger I had failed.
I clasped the jugs, and my joy quickly faded. There’s a reason bodybuilders used this kind of jug for resistance training. They’re surprisingly heavy. And bulky. And sometimes those sharp, plastic seams cut right into your finger meat. A few hundred yards later, I slammed the jugs into the mud.
By this point, I had collected all the remaining containers — two in each hand — and I was looking desperately for my landmarks. Forearms searing, I had tried every trick from yesterday to will myself toward each mini-goal I could. My mind was hopeful, but my body just couldn’t keep up.
I needed water to survive. Well, water and air. Was that too much to ask? If you can provide your body with those two things, you can usually survive most problems.
Everything else is just inconsequential. It’s all sand gnats, except for water and air.
I smiled. Life was feeling lonely without my sand gnat swarm. I lowered my hood to let out trapped steam.
Rainwater streaked down my face, and I breathed.
Water and air. Water and air. Breathe… Feel the water… The water surrounds me. Breathe in the air and feel the water. I have everything I need. Just breathe. Breathe…
It was in this moment of finding peace that something caught my eye off the edge of the path. Is that a snake? Is my spirit animal a snake?!?
I wiped off my glasses and put them back on, inching cautiously toward the creature. Nope. Just a stick. A stick that looked eerily like a snake, though. Like a snake that could wriggle through the handles of these water jugs…
The water jugs!
I snatched up the snake-stick and threaded it through the first jug.
There’s no way it’ll hold when I load all this weight. This place is nothing but dead wood.
Breathe… Feel the water, and breathe…
I threaded all four jugs onto the stick, leaving room for my neck in the middle. Taking a deep, intentional breath, I lifted the stick over my shoulders and… the stick held. My forearms spasmed with glee.
As I made my way back toward the camp, I tromped through the rushing waters like Paul Bunyan. I had figured it out! The re-proportioned water jugs were so much easier to carry, and I wanted every creature to look outside of its cozy den and admire my mastery.
Sure, the yoke was hurting my shoulders, and I could feel it scratching my neck with each step, but I was moving forward, and I would arrive soon at my camp with everything I needed to live this week.
The rains weren’t so bad now. I could see through the haze, and my glasses weren’t completely fogged. I soon rounded past the observation deck, knees wobbly & arms numb. I marched through my camp until dropping beside the food tent. It was finished. I squirreled away the jugs and sat beside the saltwater creek in a saturated camp chair. Let the rains do their worst! I had conquered the day.
I breathed heavily, wondering how to get in the tent without soaking everything. The rain felt good, and the thunder had passed. I saw movement in the woods.
On the other side of the bank emerged a scraggly little creature, looking like a bathtime Pomeranian. The masked omnivore looked pathetic and soaked to the bone as it ambled my way, never acknowledging me, but crossing the low-tide creek with steady determination. Exhausted & driven, it climbed the creek bed and made its way up the bank at the perimeter of my camp. I stood up and raised my chair to let it see my immense height. I was sure he would’ve hopped in my lap if I hadn’t.
Nevertheless, the raccoon ambled along in crafty confidence, skirting the outside of my camp, never looking me in the eye.
That’s me, I thought. That’s my spirit animal. My patronus is a raccoon!
And in that brief moment of celebration, the creature disappeared. Not a sign of him anywhere. I didn’t want to get too close, because I couldn’t tell if he was sickly or just soaked. Nevertheless, I prayed with gratitude. I pondered the significance of the raccoon in stories—a chaotic little tinkerer, off to make the most of an experience most would call misery.
I was a raccoon, and I had all I needed to survive the rest of the week. My stomach gurgled, and I laughed.
I knew what a raccoon would do now, and I feasted on canned goods and granola while the sun went down again.
Tune in tomorrow to read about Day Three: “My Wilderness Healthcare Plan”
SWAMP LIFE – Day Five: Resonance
SWAMP LIFE – Day Four: The Ominous Stench of Death
SWAMP LIFE – Day Three: My Wilderness Healthcare Plan
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