|Now make haste, go into the village before us. Upon entering you will find a miniature tyrannosaurus rex upon which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks, say unto them "the Master has need of it."|
So here, chronicled, are some of my experiences for your enjoyment..
The light was already dim as I drove my motorcycle off the country road and onto the squampsite. The October sun had just dipped below the western tree line, and the cabin now stood an ominous dark structure, almost hidden under the canopy of two huge half dead cypress trees. I road down the overgrown path towards what would be my home for the next month. As I past the derelict barn and the heap of old rusted farm machinery, a realization crept in like the cold seeps through your coat in winter. This was going to be a frightful evening. The landscape, which had been unsettling during the day, was now downright terrifying in the twilight. The nape of my neck prickled and my heartbeat picked up as I neared the rotting wooden fence that surrounded the cabin. My tent was pitched just behind it, under the canopy’s dark outline. I had originally planned on clearing the broken glass from the cabin and staying inside it. This was about the time that I thanked God that I had brought a tent instead. There was no way I was going to set foot inside that thing now that it was close to dark. To the right and to the left of my tent were two lines of trees about twenty yards apart. They pointed all the way back into a thick, rugged thicket. Though there were farms on either side of this property, I was hidden from the world. The feeling of isolation sunk into me as I hid my bike next to the overgrown telephone pole a few yards away. It would do if I had to make a quick getaway. I cut the engine, removed my helmet, and listened.
The wind exhaled a long breath through the tree branches, brushing leaves together and snapping dead twigs, finally forcing their eviction. Crickets chirped and jumped from one square of matted hay to the next. You don't hear them jump, so it really just sounds like the largest raindrops you've ever heard occasionally falling from the sky. They did not fall at a high enough frequency that makes you forget their presence, but instead occur irregularly and rarely enough that each jump is profoundly surprising. In my heightened state of awareness, every one sounded like a footstep.
If you have never spent the night outside or in an unfamiliar place alone, you've got to try it sometime. Your senses jump to super human levels of sensitivity, especially your hearing. As my Uncle Stephan—a tried mountaineer and outdoors man—would say, “when you spend the night outside alone you can hear a mouse fart a mile away.”
That's really how it was. I could hear everything for miles around. A dog would bark all the way past Preston Rd and I would jump as if a ravenous pack of coyotes were at my feet. This never turned out to be the case, but my squampsite was not without its dangers.
Every night after work, I'd ride in on my bike underneath a starry sky, hide the bike by the telephone pole, cover it in a tarp, and start to gather wood for a fire. I'd pack hay and twigs underneath broken fence posts and branches, strike a match, and it would go up in seconds. I'd sit back, smoke a cheep cigar and just feed the fire for hours. Every 45 minutes or so, I'd hear something moving right across the fence. I could tell from the sounds it made that it was small, about the size of a small dog. But it was only fifteen feet away, and it was annoying (scarring) the hell out of me. It was especially terrifying when I zipped myself into my tent and I could hear the thing padding around my fire. I would just be about to doze off when it would scamper from the tent to my fire pit and back. It would scare me just enough to make my nights miserable. I slept in that tent for 10 nights before I found out what that thing was. I was digesting a delightfully dense portion of St. Therese’s Story of a Soul, when the aggravating beast began its usual nightly ritual of making lots of noise and hiding when I tried to see what it was. I walked over to the fence, about three feet away from the noise. It stopped. I returned to my place by the fire, my curiosity unsatisfied. I picked up my book again and dove back into Therese of Lisseux. Just as I was about to grasp the meaning of life, once again the noises start back up. I tried to ignore it and read, but my eyes would just scan over the words without making any sense of them as my mind began to imagine what it could be. A fox? A possum? A poisonous snake? A HUGE RAT!? I knew now, I must kill or be killed. There was only enough room in this squampsite for ONE! I picked up my shovel, determined to slay this huge rat—that must have been what it was—and strode toward the noise courageously. The noise stopped. I couldn't see anything in the darkness, just the fire casting long shadows on the cabin. I slammed the shovel down on the ground and grunted loudly. If I could not slay it, I would give it a taste of its own medicine! Maybe I could scare it away. I layed about me and banged on the fence, on the tree branches, on the old over turned rusty office chair beside it. I made a lot of noise, and when I was quite done, I returned to my chair, still holding my shovel. Seconds later I heard it move again. This thing was making a fool of me. This time, I just stayed absolutely still. The noise came closer, it moved along the fence till it was only about five feet away. I sat still. It came closer, right under the fence, and I could just see its dark outline begin to take shape. It stepped into the light.
It was a skunk.
My friends, this is how I know that there is a God. It is an absolute miracle that the thing didn't ink me in the FACE when I was banging around with a shovel.
That indecent, however, happened after I had already pushed through most of my fear. The first three nights that I spent at the squampsite were downright terrifying. The third night I came back late from hanging out with friends (who were, by the way, very curious as to why I smelled like campfire), and instead of making a fire and calming myself down, I attempted to go strait to my sleeping bag. This was not smart. It was the windiest night we'd had all fall, with the wind howling through the trees. The tent's lose material flapped so loudly that it sounded like a thunderclap on repeat. I tried to let the haunting melodies of Bon Iver lull me to sleep, but alas, it was not to be. I simply could not calm myself. What must have been an hour passed, and another hour passed, and still I could not shut out the noise and the fear that came with it. Finally, I was just beginning to lose consciousness when atom bomb exploded right outside my tent. My mind raced to keep up with my heart as adrenaline hit my bloodstream like fire. I immediately knew what had happened, but it didn't matter, the damage was done. I would not sleep tonight. My shovel had been standing upright, and the wind had blown it over. It was the loudest noise I'd ever heard.
I made a fire and spent the rest of the night calming my nerves. When little traces of light began to creep up on the outline of the eastern treeline, I finally pulled myself together and went to sleep.
I woke up to the sound of sirens and men yelling.
I must be caught! THE COPS ARE AFTER ME! Or maybe the caught someone doing drugs at the cabin by the road. NO I'M DONE FOR!
These thoughts and more flooded my mind. I didn't even stop to close my tent. I ran to my bike. The sounds got closer and in my morning haze I just couldn't piece it together. WHAT THE HELL WAS GOING ON?! The siren was on the property, across the other side of the treeline, but it was moving at a deliberate pace, not as fast as a car. Huh.
And was just about to drive out of the gate and make a run for it when I saw what was causing the commotion.
It was a bicycle race. It went all along the road and right across the treeline. The cops were there to make sure no cars hit the bikes. I realized that my bikes two stroke engine was going to do absolutely nothing good for me in this situation. I shut it off, pulled it up next to some trees and waited for the race to end. I waited and waited as a continuous stream of men and women passed right by. I ended up three hours late to work. What do you tell your boss in a situation like that?
For the most part, however, my time at the squampsite was one of exterior incident, but of inner conquest. Joseph Campbel wrote on the mythical hero's three part journey. The hero could not be a hero without a time of separation. He writes: "The hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. . ." (30). Though I didn't have an oriental prison, or cult like secret society on the top of a mountain, or the Judean wilderness, or swampy moon, the squampsite, for me, was such a region of supernatural wonder, separated from the normal world. Like Batman, the Apostle Paul, and Luke Skywalker, my time in the wilderness was defining for me. I left that squampsite a different person than I had arrived. The experience has settled deep in my soul, pinning me up, proving to my doubting self that I am, in fact a man. Such experiences, once common to a culture, are no longer understood or valued by our safe and comfortable suburban society. But something tells me that this safety is really a facade, and that as this time of crisis continues to deepen and take form, men are going to need their own proving ground. Hero's now, are once again needed. Maybe not to slay dragons, perhaps, but to lead families, to father movements, to be bastions of strength and integrity in a world that is increasingly dark and cynical. These are no less daunting, no less heroic. For Campbel, the hero's time of separation leads to initiation. He writes that “fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won" (30). Think of Luke Skywalker's encounter with Darth Vader in the cave. Finally, the hero's time in separation ends with return. Campbel writes: "the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power
to bestow boons [gifts] on his fellow man" (30). The hero comes back "from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection)" (246). This is the hero's legacy. I don't believe that I'm done with wilderness, but I think every man needs this turning to take place occasionally in his life. It's the heart of story, and unless we want a boring, un-consequential, comfortable life, we will find the wilderness and seek it out.
I'd love to hear about y'alls wilderness experiences, so hit me up with them. I'm sure some of you have had wonderful, terrifying separation's and some equally as powerful returns.
–Joseph Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949