The following is a chapter from The Rucksack Letters. Order your copy now!
Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants and to serve them one’s self?
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
July 18, 2001 – Ocala National Forest, Florida
The second day of my second week on my journey toward somewhere found me in Ocala National Forest. In pounding rain, I noticed the clay road I was supposed to take per the map I found on the Internet. Ten minutes from a raging storm – after sliding sideways as often and as quickly as moving forward in the wet, khaki mud – I found a spot to set up my tent and call my home with at least 20 minutes until the next Florida shower.
I quickly put up my tent and threw whatever I thought I needed to weather the next rainfall inside, feeling raindrops fall slowly from the edge of the clouds, as I hooked on the rain fly. The rain beat softly on the canvas, much more so than when I was driving. I set up my shelter for suitable living and relaxed to read James Kavanaugh in the soft rhythm of weather.
As with every July day in Florida, the rain soon stopped, the sky cleared to blue, and the sun shined again, as my license plate promised. I set to the trails with my yet unused compass and two hours until darkness would fall. The path behind my camp led me to a dirt road with signs proclaiming it was closed to motor vehicles, allowing me to amble at my own pace, and I looked for roses to stop and smell. Not being native to this wilderness, roses were hard to find, so I settled for a strange moss I found in bunches along the trail and carried a piece of it with me as I walked.
It was light green in color, almost sponge-like in texture, a soft expanse of branching and intersecting webs. I’ve heard that moss is edible – that it is actually good for you. Personally, I think moss has gotten a bad wrap. Some say moss has all kinds of insects and bacteria living within its tendrils. I mean, sure, Spanish moss does, but what can you say about Spaniards? They’re a hospitable people.
I think a lot of people get moss confused with algae. Don’t even get me started on algae.
Not yet ready to test any theories of culinary mysteries without more knowledge, I opted to pass on the snack but carried it with me in fear that I may use the compass wrong, get completely lost, and depend on this moss for my very survival.
Truth be told, as I walked down the road, I was looking for the Rainbow Family, that mysterious clan of people who gather in forests to pray and dance and sing. I had heard that they frequented the area, but they were nowhere to be found as I meandered down seeming paths, which ended in walls of palmetto.
Other than the occasional beer bottle or cigarette butt, I saw no sign that anyone had ever been there. Though I knew the forest was charted, and every inch tread before by human feet, it felt virgin to me.
With the setting of the orange sun through pines of solitude, I returned to my camp, all the while, realizing that I was, indeed, alone in nature – the closest soul five miles away – more free than I had ever been. I rocked in my hammock and watched the stars grow brighter past the trees that suspended me. A foot off the ground felt like fifty as the gentle sway of nylon mesh carried me to tranquility, and my life was changed.
Morning brought blessed reality. I saluted freedom – stretching and groaning in my BVD’s just outside my tent – cool, soft dew under my feet. I returned to the hammock and meditated on the moment, the day, the journey, the life, which came back to the moment as it always does. I wolfed down a few granola bars, put on my bathing suit, and hiked to Alexander Springs.
I greeted a family of locals who had taken the morning to swim and walked to the edge of the boat ramp where the cypress-sifted water lapped softly on the shore. Minnows danced waltzes in shades of amber to the music of children’s laughter, and I sat for a while talking with the parents of the three kids swimming. The father told me that the name of the place was Freak Creek. I asked him why, knowing full well that the Rainbow Family had a part in it, but he said he didn’t know. They told me that Alexander Springs was closed due to an alligator in the swimming area.
“It costs three bucks a person there anyway,” the father said in a cracker drawl. “At least it’s free here.”
It truly didn’t matter to me since I thought this was Alexander Springs.
When the family left, I was alone by the cypress water that shimmered in blackness where the light dropped. Things lurked in those depths that I had no fear of when I was a boy but made me hesitate as a man.
When I was a child growing up in Florida, we would occasionally have rattlesnakes on the property – curious devils my mom hated but that could hold an eight-year-old’s attention for minutes. Occasionally, we’d cook the rattlesnakes we found on the property. Ever eaten rattlesnake? “You know you’re a redneck if…” But I never saw them as I ran through woods and plunged into creeks with the yells and yips of childhood. With all the noise I made, I rarely saw much of anything. When I was in college, I often came home to wander those woods in the soft and steady steps of adulthood. I saw copperheads, rattlesnakes, moccasins, alligators. They must have just moved into the area after I left for school.
So as I waded into that mysterious water, I thought back to the bravado of my younger days, when no water was too dark, no tree too tall, and no mud too dirty to avoid an excursion – when fear only existed on Creature Feature and in campfire ghost stories. I went in as a child. And I yelled my head off! There wasn’t a snake or gator or man-eating fish that didn’t hear me and run for quieter sanctuary. There was a little dance ceremony where I declared myself “Man! King Of All I Can Yell At!” but you don’t want to know the details.
In all honesty, I went in slowly to my waist, noticed the etchings on my bathing suit drawstring as it floated shortly in front of me, and jumped in with No Fear. Then, I just started swimming – to the far side of the creek where the water was too cold for extended visits, under the water to feel sand and sticks that I couldn’t see but were fears that must be faced. I momentarily enjoyed the stillness and serenity, breaking the silence with a Tarzan call from the rope swing with great splashes of water, and pretty soon… there was no fear at all.
As adrenaline flowed, the water warmed, and I could bob peacefully without shivering. I sat on water in a shaft of light that heated it ever so slightly and found what I had wanted – pure and ultimate freedom – to sit in a shaft of light naked and without fear. I told God I would do whatever He called me to for only a bit more of this.