The following is a chapter from The Rucksack Letters. Order your copy now.
Courage is resistance to fear; mastery of fear; not absence of fear. -Mark Twain
July 20, 2001 – Ocala National Forest, Florida
I’ve discovered old habits today – the need to move, the road calling again to celebrate new places and stories. But I promised Kevin and Jen that I would meet them here this weekend, so I’ve decided to stay here for a few more days. I reasoned that I needed to expand my living space a bit. Two nights in a tent with nowhere to move as rain pounds on the canvas is enough. I need some breathing space.
I found some Visquine a few yards behind my campsite – what was once a camper’s refuse is now a gift from the gods. With some duct tape, clothesline, and my MacGyver survival guide, I fashioned a shelter to cover my tent and hammock, as well as giving me room to cook, eat, and live in inclement weather.
I still have the car. When I first decided to take this journey, I planned to return the car to where I bought it, accept the damaged credit report – like drilling extra holes in a colander – and set out on foot. The day I left, I was having breakfast with the Rosencrantz I mentioned earlier – that he might report to my family that all was well – when he told me to remember the story of Abraham and Isaac. I didn’t see the relevance of the story at the time, my mind reeling as it was, but I remembered it well.
For one reason or another, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on the altar. Abraham is horrified to do it, but follows the will of Jehovah, invites his son to the top of the hill, and ties him up. Abraham raises his knife to finish the deed as Isaac struggles and squirms to free himself from the ties that bind when God says, “Stop, Abraham. I was just testing you.” Meanwhile, Isaac, who is now scarred for life, has just messed himself on the altar.
I realized two things from that story. The first, obviously, is to never let anyone tie you up on an altar. No good can come of it. The second thing is that I still have the car. I’ve written a letter to my debtor requesting leniency, having faith that they will be paid eventually. Besides, it’s really not going to do the auto finance company any good if I just drop it off and renege on our contract. I still plan to pay the full amount, but not on the agreed upon schedule. I’m sure they’ll understand.
I went into town after finishing my shelter, and stopped for gas and directions to the nearest Big Lots, a great place to shop on a budget. The cashier at the convenience store didn’t know where to find it, but a shirtless yeehaw with tattooed shoulders and a three-day beard assured me that if I took a right at McDonald’s at Highway 441, it’d be down the ways a bit. About 15 miles. I thanked them both and headed toward the highway.
A ways down the road, there was a quick sign for Highway 441 and a Burger King on the corner. I took the right in the confused hope that in the South, just as all soda is called “Coke,” all fast food might be “McDonald’s.” I underestimated the yeehaw.
The realization of this occurred as I watched my trip odometer pass the fifteenth mile, and I wondered how badly I truly needed the supplies. I came to a roadside produce stand with a “Hot Boiled P-nuts” sign out front and pulled in. The smell from the big, iron kettles made me rethink my budget. After all, a drive through the back roads of Florida just isn’t the same without hot boiled peanuts.
I stepped into the stand – a chain linked gate was rolled to the side – the padlock hung open for business. Ma and Pa Kettle were in the back of the store – him working on the daily crossword, her snapping green beans. They gave me proper directions, and I realized the quick road sign I’d taken must have also said, “ahead.”
I asked about the peanuts – three bucks for regular or Cajun. Then I asked which was better because I knew he would let me try both. He rolled his cart carefully through the open gate and parked it by the kettles. He took the lids off both kettles, accidentally bumping the cart.
A big, metal tray hit the ground with a crash before I could catch it. I picked it up as he picked up the large sifting spoon, brushed off the dirt with his hand, and dished me up some good ones. I didn’t worry about the dirt he may have missed. You tend to get a little less picky about those things when you bathe in a creek.
But, man, those peanuts were good. I opted for the Cajun, and they burned hotter as I went, tossing shells out the open window for my little ant friends. I assume they eat the shells.
I finally found Big Lots right where the yeehaw said it would be, noticing an old theatre in the same complex. Like most other old movie houses, this one had been closed but was still being used for entertainment. I saw one in Orlando that was being used as a jewelry store of all things. But this particular theatre was now the Florida Sunshine Opry house – the marquis bearing headshots of local celebrities and the nights they would be performing.
There was a cute little 13-year-old in a cowboy hat and studded shirt who played here two nights ago and a fiddle player last week. Six or seven acts were booked throughout the month, and I imagined their lives outside of those nights – just ordinary workaday lackeys like the rest of us who feel the need to share part of their lives in song – the modern artists and musicians who lack the contacts or savvy for commerce, but just love to play and sing. The next show of any kind wouldn’t be until next week, so I finished my shopping and returned to camp.
After the boiled peanuts for lunch, I made some macaroni and cheese for dinner. I’m getting adept at eating little and can actually pull my belt to the final loop. Jen gave me some vitamins, so I’m staying healthy just not necessarily well fed.
I went back to Freak Creek by moonlight. Halfway there, I wondered about the durability of my batteries – the generic brand I had bought for $1.50 a pack, which had already died in my other flashlight. I wished I’d gotten the copper top. Hoping to conserve power, I turned off the light, and darkness jumped. I felt fear creep in as the “Bear Crossing” sign I had seen on the road earlier flashed in my mind.
The path was before me as a white/gray strip, but I couldn’t see what was beyond it and wondered if it saw me. I turned the flashlight on again, seeing only shadows among the trees and thickets. I imagined the worst thing that could happen – I go swimming, a storm rolls in, the flashlight dies, and the ranger finds me in the morning with my leg chewed off. Exasperated with my own imagination, I turned off the flashlight and said, “Screw it! I’m going swimming anyway.”
I walked slowly as my eyes adjusted to the absence of light, and stepped heavily in the feeble hope that it would scare away any snakes, bears, or hyenas – I think I saw a sign for them, too. I reached the water’s edge and scanned the top of the water with my flashlight, looking for the glowing red eyes of hunting gators my Dad taught me about when I was a kid. Fortunately, I didn’t see any and struggled to muster the courage I wielded in the light of day.
I took off my sandals, dropped my shorts, and waded in. The water was cold, but I was driven. I stood to my thighs and watched the moonlight shimmer on the water, moss hanging from cypress in pearl bouquets. A harsh swat of my hand to the top of the water was the announcement of my arrival for all who might be interested. I took a deep breath and plunged into darkness.
I hoped for the freedom that I found the day before. I hoped for peace and tranquility on a hot, July night as fairies disguised as fireflies tempted the water’s surface. I hoped for a lot of things, but what I got was cold. Damn, it was cold. I tried swimming, moving around to increase my blood flow, and raise my body temperature. Uh uh. No way around it. It was cold!
I reached the shore shivering and dried my more delicate parts with my shorts – laughing at the bold stupidity of not bringing a towel. I strapped on my sandals and headed back to camp, thankful again that I was the only one in the area. Still refusing to use the flashlight, the path was remarkably visible by the light of the moon. It’s amazing how acute your eyesight gets when your testicles are frozen. I made it back to camp wet, cold, and naked, but still in one piece. I have yet to see any hyenas.