The following is a chapter from The Ruckack Letters. Order your copy now!
“Not all that glitters is gold. Not all that wander are lost.” -J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring
July 22, 2001 – Ocala National Forest to Osceola National Forest, Florida
Kevin and Jen came to my home in the forest yesterday as planned though a little late due to my poor directions. After they pitched their tent, we spent most of the night huddling and laughing under my Visquine fortress as storms flurried through the area. They, too, thanked MacGyver for his contribution.
Jen loved the storms, cheering as thunder cracked, growing more excited as the time between flash and crash grew shorter. I felt as though I was suffering when trapped in the malice of a storm, but her love of the phenomenon forced me to see the slightest glimmer of silver in the lining of the clouds.
In the morning, when the rain had subsided to a clear, blue sky, I took the two of them to Freak Creek for a swim. Some locals had camped at the riverside the night before. They swung as acrobats from the rope swing, hanging upside down and ending in twists, spins, and flips before gracefully breaking the surface. Kevin and I emulated their stunts with jerky flailings and back-slapping drops to the water but could never match the ease or grace with which they performed.
The locals’ car hadn’t started in the morning so I offered one of them a ride to town for some essentials while they waited for the rest of their friends to arrive later that afternoon. He had a tattooed nametag directly over his heart that said “Jay” in Old English letters – a tightly shorn head and gangly arms and legs. Though I asked him direct questions about the area – he had lived in Ocala for six years – he had little positive to say about the experience of being a resident.
“You’ve been here six years and haven’t learned to love this yet?” I asked. “I’ve only been here four days, and I’m in heaven.”
He smiled a bit and told me that he camped at the creek every weekend, filling his weekdays with remodeling trailers at $1500 a pop – though it was usually a three month job – and trying his hand at amateur motor sports. He loosened up a bit as we talked stock cars and heroes of the runway. He had been there the day that Earnhardt died and swore that Dale had been in worse accidents. “Just something about the way he hit that time,” he said, pausing as if in somber reflection. “It was a bad day at the races.”
He seemed to spend longer than necessary in the store, buying beer and cigarettes as I waited in the parking lot watching Sunday traffic, but he eventually came out and offered me a smoke on the way back. We talked a bit about the Rainbow Family, who wouldn’t be there for months, which led to the inevitable question of drugs. He discussed it calmly, assuredly, as it if were just a fact of his life. And it truly was.
He spoke of younger days of acid trips and drug-crazed lunacy; youth-gone-wild rebelling against whatever came up. And he talked of slowing down and limiting himself to beer and ganja – the soft stuff which allowed him the luxury of being just enough off his game to still stay in it. The drugs were a release – escapism through pharmacy – from a life he found unsatisfying. He saw it not so much as abuse, though he had been there before, but as a means of coping with a cruel, harsh world that showed little hope to a forlorn redneck.
I dropped him off at the creek where he offered me a few beers for my trouble and returned to my camp to find Kevin and Jen just finishing lunch. A cool breeze cut through the hot sun as we sat there, three old friends eating baked beans and drinking Busch Light on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of nowhere, and I felt it a shame to leave. But we’ve had plenty of those moments in years gone by and are sure of many more in years to come. So I soon packed my car with all I possess, hugged my dear friends vigorously, and left another home.
I watched Jen’s face sink into Kevin’s chest as I started the car. She quickly turned and smiled, so I wouldn’t see her pain, but the worry in her eyes through the rearview mirror reminded me of my mother’s, and I shed a tear for both of them as I drove beyond the trees.
Part of my hope for this journey is to see how others live – peace and joy found in community and faith. Before I left Sarasota, I did some internet research on various communities around the country that would allow me to experience a different aspect of American life, contacting many of them to see if they might suffer a visitor. The meager amount of planning I did led me first to Williston in search of a Greek Orthodox monastery, the name of which I can neither pronounce nor spell. I found the land among horse ranches and stables, past the melon fields and oak trees with moss hanging lazily in the warm afternoon.
A word to the wise: should you ever decide to visit a monastery, don’t go on the Sabbath. Not a creature stirred on the property as I made my way to the main building and knocked on the French doors. Several moments passed before the sackcloth on the other side parted a bit to reveal wondering eyes above a beard as dark as the cloak on the body below. He opened the door and motioned me to the back of the house, tendrils of hair hanging listlessly from his temples. I nodded and walked back to the side, rethinking the extremely poor timing of my visit.
Not wanting anyone to break any vows over little old me, I opted to wait in the yard, where I could hear the faint echoes of chanting from within the house. There was a big dog tied to a tree in the yard whose back I could scratch without bending over. He seemed glad to give me a tour as far as the 20-foot length of rope would take him, and I enjoyed every inch of it. The property looked like a plantation with sprawling pastures and ponds with canoes and lily pads. Though rules I haven’t the patience to understand kept me from human contact, there was a peace about the place that could not be denied. Nevertheless, a peace that was not meant for me. When the dog tired of me and laid down again under his tree, I returned to the car and headed north.
Daylight fading brought me to the Osceola National Forest where I saw visions of my possible future in an abandoned camper off of Gum Swamp Road. It was propped up on cinder blocks in the middle of nowhere, attached to nothing but surrounded by echoes of home. Children’s swings hung from a nearby tree next to a rusted out charcoal grill. It looked as though no one had lived there for years, but someone had obviously lived there. I realized the possibility that I’m a popped lock away from making it my home. And the thought is daunting as I’m realizing how bad it may get. Do the opportunities for failure outnumber those for success?
An orange, clay peninsula stretched into a gray little pond which was nowhere near as beautiful as Freak Creek, but offered me a place to sit and watch my last sunset in the state of my birth as the hum of I-10 whispered through the trees.
I’m wondering what I have learned in five days or if I have learned anything at all. Maybe there is nothing to learn in the sanctuary of nature; maybe it is a place to unlearn. I face fears as strange noises break the silence of night, bushes move, and shadows shift. And all that I can’t understand must be left to mystery as I close my eyes to them and drift off to the orchestra of God. Living simply each day, forgetting what society has told me to need. I understand how, for years – and even in parts of the world today – people find happiness in nothing. They merely exist, and find comfort that being is the essence of life. And that is enough because that is all they have.