(see lst part for beginning of draft novel)
….I should have realized Jake was well versed regarding the Smokies. I imagined how the Cherokees or other tribes might have spoken of the great Shaconage around campfires, and what secrets they knew. The coffee took the early morning October chill from my bones, but didn’t alleviate an underlying annoyance with his attitude. The flyer joined the greasy sandwich wrappers and used napkins in the bag. I glanced at the man I knew carnally and socially, but not philosophically or intellectually. A day’s stubble darkened his face and gave it a decidedly rakish appeal. His tree trunk neck still held color from a summer’s worth of exposure to the elements. Unruly dark hair trailed over the collar of his flannel shirt. He was a cross between a lusty pagan beast and a misogynistic poser. I began to doubt I’d have an opportunity to probe his inner self.
Jake’s insistence on keeping a window rolled partly down allowed moist, frost promising air in, which kept the inside temperature low. I couldn’t shake the chill or figure out how to turn on the hand warmer I’d pulled from a vest pocket. I wanted to talk about so many topics—my latest corporate ethics case, for example. He didn’t relate to what he called my money grubbing “pseudo-philosophical corporate voodoo doctor” work. He appreciated one-syllable subjects: sports, stocks, sex, beer, bread, and bed. I decided to test his mood.
“Do you think some of our heartland companies and schools are becoming communistic hotbeds? Isn’t it ironic we seem to be heading toward patterns former Communistic countries abandoned, at great personal cost? Karl Marx said . . .”
“Willy, I thought we were leaving my politics and your philosophies behind. No, absolutely not; change the subject—or sit back and continue your revelry. I was enjoying the quiet.”
“You pompous piece of pilgrim poop. At least I have philosophies, but I wasn’t philosophizing or trying to yank your atrophied political leg. I wanted your opinion on what I think is becoming a crisis. Some people are confusing communism and democracy, rights and privileges, ethics and morals. Money still seems to do the talking. Pour enough money into an equation and people go along with anything.”
I snatched my jacket from the back seat and draped it over my shoulders. “OK, we’ll talk later. I’ve been looking forward to relaxing—kinda laying back and gazing at the celestial canvas and . . .”
“What makes you think we’ll be relaxing? You’re going to get the workout of your life. You might learn something besides the philo-pseudo rhetoric that fills your head most of the time.”
“Rhetoric!” I slung the word back at him. “That’s almost a compliment, although I’m more a sophist than a rhetorician. That’s not what we talked about; this is supposed to be a sublime vacation—for both of us.”
“Quit shouting, I’m right here,” Jake huffed.
In a quieter tone, I told him I’d help set up a base camp, then he could ‘work up a sweat’ all the way to old Smokey’s top. I said I’d keep my own pace—and soak up nature my way.
“Judging by the way your backpack rattles, you’ll be soaking up things fermented by nature.”
“Right,” I explained, “libations are part of my plan to—enhance the experience. And if you’re within earshot when I pour, you’ll have your tin cup out—begging for a drop of dago red to go with your freeze-dried K rations. You’ll wish you had two fingers of bourbon to relieve the chill.”
“You know,” I paused and chose my next words carefully, “You seem to think doing nothing is doing something wrong. Relaxing isn’t wicked, emptying out clutter, sitting back and taking a—Thoreau like enjoyment in just existing is a truly grand thing. Let’s just see how it goes, OK Jake?” I glanced at him but got no reading.
“I’ve researched this wilderness thing; I’m prepared for every eventuality short of grand old Shaconage blowing its top.” I grabbed a sweet roll, and its yeasty, spicy aroma enveloped the jeep’s interior. Reluctantly, I handed Jake the second roll, which he immediately devoured, then he poked the side of my cheek. I battered his hand away and deliberatively took several tiny bites before putting the rest of the roll in my mouth.
The lush panorama and full belly produced a momentary calm inside the jeep. Jake’s hands gripped the wheel as the roads grew increasingly twisty. I thought about my greatest puzzle, reduced to simple terms was simply “why am I here?” Was I foolish to think there might be answers in these pointed peaks in the distance when the last fifteen years of unrelenting inquiry had failed to provide a solution or shred of solace?
If the answer to why I’m here was to ‘be a positive influence in some people’s lives,’ then I could check that box. Then what? If the answer was I’m here ‘to stir and spice the cosmic stew,’ then how do I overcome the blandness, the angst of existence? Perhaps there was no answer, except for one of my own making. Was Sartre right when he wrote in Being and Nothingness, that what you see is what you get? In the grand scheme of things, did it really matter whether we did nothing during the next seven days, or tramped over 100’s of acres of pristine forest? In the enormousness of this century and the millennium before us—what did it matter what either of us did?
I must have nodded off; I vaguely recall dreaming of buckskinned Indians pointing to a hillside deep within an ancient forest. Standing next to these bare chested braves was my nainie, the person I loved most in this world. She’d been re-interrupted, but was still very much a part of me.
Jake shifted position, eased the window down a few more inches, and cleared his throat. Fall smells of damp, rotting foliage mingled with burning maple and hickory. Heady forest fragrances filled the jeep and chased out the last remnants of warmth. I jerked awake, yawned, and pulled my arms through jacket sleeves. I recall reading part of a road sign; we were either nearing or leaving Pigeon Ford. Ahead, multi-colored neon lights wavered in the morning damp like a misplaced Las Vegas oasis.
“Appears the day-trippers are still in bed,” Jake said. “That’s good. I want to blow through this commercial trap. Another 30 miles or so and you can help me search for the turnoff sign.” He said because of the intermittent fog, the logging road would be tough to spot. He told me to look for a small, round green marker with tan lettering, on my right.
I interrupted and pointed out what looked like a quaint restaurant up ahead. A sign indicated it served lumberjack meals. I told him we could call it an early lunch, and with seven days of roughing it ahead, it would be grand to fill up (and I really need to use the facilities). I thought it was curious he called the picturesque little town a ‘commercial trap?’
“No stops, no traps,” he replied. “Suck in the clean air. We’ll be climbing soon.”
We crossed railroad tracks, and roads with hairpin turns, then passed through an arched tunnel that had been cut into the mountain. It was heavily decorated with graffiti. The view upon emerging from the tunnel was breathtaking, but the roadway was now dirt, gravel, and potholes. My head bumped the ceiling several times. In the rearview mirror, I saw dozens of multicolored lights blinking from the tunnel. Jake said I imagined it. He didn’t recall seeing the graffiti either.
He continued his rant. “You’ll forget all about the gaudy little towns, predigested news, electricity—the pitfalls of civilization.” He hand smacked his knee. “Damn, we made great time. I’ll have a deer gutted and skinned by dark.”
I was irritated, but also curious about the tunnel we’d passed through. According to a bent over, rusted sign, we were now in an unauthorized area. What did that mean? Jake insisted it was perfectly fine for us to be there; he’d gotten permission from park authorities. Was this one of the haunted Smokies spots I’d read about? I chuckled, and recalled the tale of Spearfinger, a shapeshifting bad witch with an obsidian middle finger she used as a death blade. She roamed these hills looking for victims—especially children—whose livers she craved. Another book said something called a corpse plant, a parasitic plant like mistletoe, grows in heavily shaded areas of the park. The plant resembles human fingers, drained of blood. Folklorists mention that should you encounter the ghost of a civil war soldier, Indian hobgoblins, or apparitions of jilted lovers that plunged off nearby cliffs, you should nod your head and back away slowly. And now I really had to pee.
Professor Foster Beechum jotted some words in his lab book and saw that Canter and local police had tried to pinpoint where this tunnel was. They considered and dismissed the Bote Tunnel in Cades Cover and a tunnel under Clingman Dome Road; a concrete arch bridge over Raven Fork and a truss bridge over Fontana Lake. There were tunnels made by moonshiners and bootleggers that park officials blew up, after declaring the stories about hidden tunnels were hoaxes. It was rumored well disguised tunnels had been dug during the civil war and were still in use. The best-known, most heavily graffiti’ed tunnel was around Bryson City; it’s part of the road to nowhere. Canter concluded it was unlikely to be the place described in Ms. Rhyderth’s manuscript. Several police offered that she simply dreamed about a tunnel, or was thinking of a tunnel somewhere else she’d passed through previously.
Beechum stretched, rubbed his hands together briskly, and formed a triangle. He sat very still until a picture of Willy’s tunnel materialized. It did exist. He shook his head, drew a crude sketch, and wrote locals continue to report bizarre incidents in or near this tunnel, which floods frequently, including finding dead feral pigs, grey wolves, cougars, and corpses of small animals. Two families, located within ½ a mile (at either end of tunnel) were murdered in the early 1920s. Cars that turned off the motor while inside the tunnel had to be pushed out and restarted after clearing the tunnel. In the 50’s there were three (unsolved) lover’s lane murders committed within 100 yards of the tunnel. In the 70’s two teens were found dead in the tunnel (drug overdoses). Origins of the tunnel date to late 1890s and tie into the death of seven men hired to clear the tunnel. They were killed when dynamite went off prematurely. Cleansing of the tunnel in 1990s by members of a Nashville coven and a Vatican trained Unitarian minister appears to have been effective. No additional murders reported since the late 1980s when 3 tourists died in a car crash near tunnel; one of the tourists was decapitated.
The vivid lights and smells of civilization were far behind us. I yelled at Jake again that I needed to pee. He nodded, and held up his ‘wait’ finger. I pressed my thighs together and searched for a topic to distract me. It was Saturday, the 6th or 7th day of the week, depending on where you lived. We were starting our adventure on a day many considered to be an end day. When Rome ruled Europe, weeks consisted of eight, not seven “market related” days. As the empire expanded, soldiers stationed in Egypt and other exotic locations were introduced to the pagan seven-day week. Around 321 ACE, Emperor Constantine decreed the seven-day week a law.
Saturday’s a day of rest in some cultures, though few people I knew ever rested. According to the old jingle I recited in grade school ‘Saturday’s child had to work for a living.’ I was born on a Saturday. Thanks mom—if only you’d held your legs together for another day. Perhaps I would just work today setting up camp then take the rest of the week off.
Most Latin-based languages named each day of the week after one of the seven celestial bodies known in ancient times: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 8601 decreed Monday to be the first day of the week. Native Americans used a four-day week, perhaps to honor the four directions. The most accurate calendar makers, the Mayans, used a 13 and 20-day week system. It was amazing that a seven-day week could be agreed to by most of the world. US calendars still begin with Sunday as the first day of the week.
My head began to throb; I rubbed both temples, then squeezed the soft pad of flesh between my index finger and thumb. The need to pee was urgent. What a sadist. I tried to distract my biological urges by recalling other tidbits. The word ‘week’ is derived from the old German word meaning ‘to change.’ This trip just might be a game changer. I suppose I was at the age at which you either make a conscious decision to be committed to one individual—or to stay single and independent forever. Operative word being ‘committed.’ Into the sticks, the middle of nowhere; why did I agree to this trip again? What was that trick question one of my California professors asked? YOUARENOWHERE. Most saw You Are No Where. I saw You Are Now Here. Then again, HERE appeared to look like NOWHERE from the view out my window.
Jake eventually spotted the small faded sign he’d mentioned to me earlier, and veered onto a partly hidden narrow dirt and gravel logging road. He jumped out and locked his hubs into the 4-wheel ‘on’ position.
“Whoa pilgrim. It’s my turn. If the rest of this road is as rough as the first few miles, my kidneys will never make it to camp.” I grabbed toilet paper from the top of my backpack. “Don’t leave me stranded,” I shouted, “be right back.” My posterior did not welcome the brisk 45-degree air that greeted it. I wasted no time completing my mission and ran back to the jeep, feeling enlightened and thinking a mellow yellow sun would be most welcome to dispel the chill that had taken up residence in my bones. About three miles up, Jake got out again to undo the padlock on a heavy wood and steel enforced swing gate, using the key a forestry buddy had loaned him. I drove the jeep through, and Jake attended to the call of nature before swinging back up into the driver’s seat I’d vacated.
Twice Jake turned onto still narrower trails. The jeep climbed higher into thick forests of mist moist trees and dense vegetation. I soaked up scents wafting by. An odor resembling sweet woodruff made me think of German May Wine. The smokiness of seasoning wood reminded me of bacon—and that I was hungry again. Crunching tires and an occasional ping of water on already wet leaves added to the woodland sounds. Jake drove off the logging trail as far as the furrow of a trail would allow, and stopped between two spindly bright orange stakes.
He began unloading gear. Then he barked at me to grab my backpack and the water container. He said our camp was over the ridge—due west.
I strained to find the ridge’s top, and wondered how I was going to haul myself up the steep incline, let alone bring the backpack and ten-gallon container of water. “Ah Jake, I think I’ll wait for the next shuttle, however, I insist you go right on up. I don’t suppose there’s a general store nearby? I’m famished. I’d settle for a beer, a barrel pickle, and a handful of salty crackers.”
My words echoed through the sodden trees. Jake ignored me. He was already one third up the steep hill. Muttering under my breath, I hoisted on the pack back and grabbed the water. The heaviness of the container forced me to make a crab like ascent up the hill. Ten minutes later, gasping for air, but with the chill chased from my bones, I reached the top of the ridge. Another spectacular view. The wind spoke with purposeful eloquence and brazenly blew down the open front of my jacket, nudging me forward. The world below sparkled splendidly, like an enormous, contented cat.
Jake was already setting up a four-person tent. I could see he had established where the campfire would be and the water jug would hang. I attempted to descend towards camp. About half way down, I lost my footing and literally slid into camp, landing unceremoniously on my stomach several feet from the unlit stone circled campfire.
“So, you took the unauthorized shortcut! What were you doing up there?” Jake shook his head and raised his eyebrows in a way that never ceased to annoy me. “Let’s get camp set up pronto; I want to hike over to Red Man Bluff.” He pointed. “It’s a few miles due north. Why don’t you dump about half the garbage out of your pack and your vest, and leave it inside the tent—or just bury it like a time capsule of useless 21st century artifacts?” Jake finished hammering in the last tent stake and tested the lines for tautness. He continued his tirade. “The only thing of use might be a short wave radio. Did you bring one? No, that wouldn’t have been on your list, would it?”
I stood up slowly, brushed the dirt and leaves off my clothes and shook like a wet dog. In a raised, semi-squeaky voice I told Jake I’d brought a pocket sized radio. I didn’t want to listen to a wooly screech owl or radio free China—since I was already in foreign territory. I added “thanks for your concern over possible broken bones.”
Jake had stripped down to his T-shirt. Sweat molded the black cotton to his body. A dark bandana absorbed moisture from his brow as he chopped and stacked loose firewood against the overhang of a leafy tree that would provide partial coverage from the elements. Growls from my stomach were replaced by signals from my nether region. I kept staring at him chopping wood. I wanted to tell him he could hike to Red Bluff all by his lonesome, and when he returned, worn out and needy, I’d reintroduce him to the pleasures of civilization—clean, perfumed, and decked out in lavender silk long johns. I’d spoon-feed him caviar, and sponge the grit from his body. I would…. Instead, I just sighed and said, “Go ahead Mountain Man. I’m staying here, communing with the elements. If you bring back anything eatable, make sure it has the USDA stamp of approval on it.” I also asked him to bring over the rest of our gear.
“Suit yourself Willy. You always do. See you tonight. Try to stay dry and keep out of trouble until I get back. You can manage the rest of the gear; it’s great exercise.” He slapped my rump, and picked up his jacket and bow and quiver.
I took a deep breath, and thought about screaming, loudly. I decided to give him a big fake grin instead. He’s a man; what did I expect? I’ve got Mother Nature to myself. I can do this. I propped the pack against a rotted tree stump and felt gingerly to see if anything was broken. Satisfied everything was intact, I pulled an assortment of items from my vest: whisky miniatures, matches, hard candy, a knife, and some post it notes. I rooted under a pile of leaves and found dry kindling, then crumbled several post it notes atop my triangular pile of twigs, sprinkled a few drops of whisky on the twigs and lit a corner of the paper. As the fire caught, I fed it the rest of the kindling and searched nearby for larger sticks and dry, broken branches. Once satisfied it had “caught,” I rearranged some of the large round stones Jake had placed around the trenched fire pit, and leaned an assortment of larger, nearly dry firewood against the outer rim of stones. I also dragged a thick, bare tree limb over to the campfire to serve as seating. My hands were dirty and smudged; I wiped them on my jeans and grimaced.
Jake had reached the top of the ridge; I was still hopeful he might fetch the rest of the supplies—the cooler filled with gourmet delights, the leather camp stools, extra tarp, fishing tackle, the other water container . . . He headed north; damn it. I dug my mess kit out and produced a collapsible drinking cup; to the cup I added the miniature contents, a splash of water from the jug, several pieces of dried fruit and a piece of hard candy. “Almost an Old Fashion,” I said aloud, and took a tentative sip.
The sun must be on vacation. The slate gray sky looked unfriendly, but the fire’s heat was welcome. I usually love the rain—but I’m not sure I would love being wet for seven days. I fed a few of the thicker branches to the fire, and after downing the last of my drink, reluctantly left the circle of stone, wood, and warmth to inspect the tent and arrange some gear. Then I went in search of more firewood.
The children in the Cat in the Hat got in trouble on a rainy day doing things they wouldn’t do under fair skies. Some people are affected by full moon madness; others get depressed by rainy, foggy, sunless days. Ken Kelsey said he was always trying to “drag people out of the fog.” I guess that’s what I do also. What trouble can I get into here? I’m a free agent; I make my own rules—as long as those rules are respectful of mother damn nature. Maybe I’ll discover what’s left of me after divesting myself of everyone else’s rules, including Jake’s. I need my own philosophy, just one brilliant theory.
I estimated it was around 3 p.m. Jake had been gone several hours. I bet he thinks he’ll find me cold and miserable. Though I didn’t relish trekking back to the jeep, the thought of gourmet treats persuaded me to brave it. I pictured myself dragging the cooler behind me and pulling it over the ridge. Without the heavy backpack, I told myself, the trip to the jeep will take half the time. I can do this.
The rest of the gear still sat at the foot of the jeep, where Jake had left it. I opened the cargo door to check that everything had been unloaded and noticed a luggage cart wedged half way under the seat. Jake had offered to pick me up from the airport last month, after I returned from a west coast conference. He was in a playful mood. In his anxiousness to get me inside and upstairs, he’d forgotten to return the cart. “Eureka!” I blurted out, and unfolded it, then loaded the cooler of gourmet goodies, a tarp, the second water container and a campstool onto it, and bungee corded it all in place.
I rolled and tugged the cumbersome load up the steep hill, stopping frequently to free the cart’s wheels from tangled roots and remove soggy leaves. The second trip might have actually taken longer, but the thought of the luxuries I’d soon be enjoying kept me straining to reach the top of the ridge. At the summit, I was tempted to simply let the cart tumble into camp as I’d done earlier, but didn’t want to risk breaking the eggs, bruising the fruit, or mashing the pate foes-gras and cheeses. Carefully, I eased the cart down the other side of the ridge.
Before opening the cooler, I attended to the fire, which was sputtering and needed fuel only slightly more than I did. Finally, I loosened the cords and opened the lid. The cooler was packed with fishing gear, Jake’s gutting knives and skin stretching apparatus, a pair of binoculars, his mess kit, some canned and dry goods, and a foil encased magnum of Bordeaux.
I slammed the lid and uttered oaths into the afternoon quiet that reached the tallest tree tops. He’d left my food behind, replaced it with—gear! A light, chilling rain began to drizzle and sizzle onto the fire. Quickly, I found and chopped near their roots two tall saplings, stripping the branches and testing the strength of the makeshift poles that would support the extra tarp and partially protect the only source of heat and only means of cooking. I used the small axe and Jake’s gutting tools to dig rough holes in the mossy ground. I stood on a tree stump and tied the other end of the tarp to the thick limbs of the sheltering oak tree by looping some twine through brass holes in the corners of the tarp and pulling tautly. The makeshift roof kept the quickening rain from dashing the fire out. It would be fine as long as the wind didn’t blow the rain sideways. Panting, I stacked piles of dry firewood closer to the tree and covered another smaller pile with loose plastic. I hoped I’d moved enough to last through the night. Damn you Jake, double damn you, I shouted, you carried this mountain man theme too far. What did he intend to fill the cooler with—fresh mountain trout and choice hunks of bear meat?
I rummaged through the cooler and pulled out several packages of dried food. Um, oriental pepper steak . . . dehydrated beef, snow peas, onions and water chestnuts in a ginger soy sauce. So where’s the friggin fried rice and fortune cookie? I filled my collapsible cup to the rim with Bordeaux and chugged the contents. It just doesn’t get better than this. Then I put the pot from my mess kit on the tent’s floor and dumped in the packages of food, water from the canteen, and some wine. Yum.
Leaving the dry tent, I ran to the roaring fire and rolled a flat stone, about 8 inches in diameter, near the fires center. Sparks flew upward, resembling frantic fireflies, and fizzled just before reaching the tarp ceiling. Soon the stone would be hot. The bright fire and coals would help cook the food. I had to pee again. Two dozen yards from the camp, I squatted and recalled a movie fragment in which a couple of nature lovers randomly peed over a large area of forest to keep animals away—and safe from hunters who liked to stake out the area. That made sense, but would the rain wash my scent away? Drops of icy cold precipitation plopped on my exposed backside. I wondered if I’d get a chapped butt; I didn’t have enough lotion to protect my tuchleedeen for the next seven days. Buggers!
The pot was bubbling, and I refilled the canteen with water and my cup with wine. The rain had stopped; smells issuing from the pot were making me delirious. I found a chocolate bar and devoured it. None for Jake, who was a confirmed chocaholic. Next, I made biscuits, adding a pinch of dried herbs, and half poured, half squeezed fat dough lumps onto a tin plate and rested the plate near the other edge of the fire, atop some neon orange coals.
Inky darkness and a thick gray mist surrounded my tiny outpost of civilization. The woods were alive with noises, many of which I recognized—the hoot of an owl, the lovesick call of a wolf or wild dog, the steady ping of rain on foliage, the crackling and sputtering of fire, and the whish of a wind that moaned like a keening spirit. Musicians sometimes rely on nature’s music for inspiration. I retrieved the radio and amid static and 70s oldies, ate by firelight; et voila—home sweet wilderness. Except for those other sounds, an occasional scratching, clawing noise—and a low throated growl issuing from somewhere west of camp.
The radio offered nothing but dead air now. I tried other channels, but found nothing. Using my fur lined hat as a hot pad, I grabbed my dinner pot and the plate of slightly flat, browned biscuits and dug in. Not bad; I’m sure the wine helped. The lumpy biscuits absorbed every bit of sauce and I finished the entire meal in less than ten minutes. Now what? Damn Jake—this wasn’t what I had in mind at all.
The last time I’d been camping was during my sophomore year of college, with Sy Jones (Jonsey), Spacy Cayce, and Myra, who would become Mrs. Jones after graduation. None of us wanted to go home during the Thanksgiving holidays. Instead, we headed to Nags Head, which was experiencing a rare late autumn heat wave. We couldn’t afford hotel rooms, however, Jonsey had an old VW van. We assembled a motley assortment of camping gear, beach umbrellas, air mattresses, and enough money for gas and food. During the ride, we sang and told raunchy jokes. Cayce had a steady girlfriend, who’d flown home for the holidays. He was too bony, too blond, too goofy for me. He thought I was peculiar and bookish. We were good friends in spite or because of our differences—never a dull minute.
Nags Head is part of the Outer Banks originally settled by Native Americans, though that’s not the story told in school. European explorers didn’t discover new, virgin lands, nor were the natives uncouth savages. The Algonquians, Chowanogs, Hatterask, Lumbees, and Poteskeet had lived here for 1000s of years.
Nearby is where Virginia Dare disappeared in the late 1500s, and former Vice President and duelist Aaron Burr’ lost his daughter Theodosia in the early 1800s. There’s a legend that Virginia, the first English child born in America, had a dispute with a native medicine man and was turned into a white deer that occasionally appears to visitors. Its waters are a graveyard of downed and shipwrecked pirate, passenger, and war boats and planes; it harbors skeletal remains of those killed violently or drowned. This is where Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard hunted, and was in turn hunted and killed. I read a story that Nags Head’s name didn’t come from its horsehead shape on a map. It came from pirates and smugglers that led old nags with lanterns tied to their necks along the shoreline to trick merchant ship captains into believing they were seeing harbor anchor lights. Ships would run aground and pirates would salvage the wrecks.
Lighthouses began dotting the Carolina coastline in the late 1700s to protect shipping traffic. In earlier times, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It stood as a monument to a Pharoah’s imagined greatness and was a guiding beacon for over 1600 years. The architect of the lighthouse, Sostrastus, son of Dexiphanes of Cnidus, was an impressive man. He built the first skyscraper. The lighthouses’ base was granite; the building blocks interlocked and were cemented by molten lead. Arab sources say there was a polished bronze mirror atop the lighthouse, lit by oil fires at night. Its light could be seen up to 50 kilometers in the distance. There was a rumor the light ran on batteries for many centuries and the mirror did double duty as a death ray. It seemed to be both a symbol of aloneness and empathy, of pagan grandeur and swagger. The Nags Head lighthouse was a mere penlight by comparison.
Jonsey parked the old bus in a corner space, close to the tallest sand dunes and scrub grass. Myra squished her bare feet in the sand and announced the weather and the beach was fricking fabulous—to die for. She didn’t know then how apropos those words would prove. At our makeshift campsite in the hollow between two dunes, we planted tattered beach umbrellas in the sand, threw old blankets and beach towels down, and dug a pit nearby we lined with aluminum foil, charcoal and whatever driftwood we could find. At midnight a fat turkey, stuffed with stale bread cubes, sausage, onions, celery, garlic, sage, a stick of butter, and a handful of herbs would be placed into the hot coals of the pit, along with foil wrapped packets of sliced potatoes, carrots, and squash, infused with lemon zest and white wine. Tonight they’d roast clams, ears of corn, and any fish we could hook, trade for, or beg from the surplus catches of other campers.
I was pleasantly surprised the late November sun felt so toasty warm, and walked along the water’s edge. The cool sand massaged my feet. I could have gone home to California for Thanksgiving; why spoil a holiday? My mother and brothers would expect me to be their maid in waiting, even though we had a house staff of two. Dads would spend half his time at the office, and the other half snoozing in front of the TV. Someone would eventually ask me about school—but the question would be rhetorical. No one wanted to know I found the lectures fascinating; or that I’d just ended an affair with my Sociology professor. He’d neglected to mention he was married with children, and worse, he liked to brag about his coed conquests. No matter, he wasn’t that attractive, though he could spin tantalizing tales about Samoan natives, prehistoric mounds, and caves full of erotic drawings and symbols.
The money my nan and parents gave me at high school graduation, combined with several academic scholarships, allowed me to take a heavy class load without worrying about earning extra income, though it left little for extras. I bartended and clerked in the campus bookstore when I needed cash. I had a difficult time selecting my career major. Dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps by attending grad school in New England, and obtaining a Pol Sci degree or MBA, like my brothers Wyatt and Theo were doing. Poor dads was haunted by the have not austere war years, though he didn’t really experience hunger or holes in his shoes. He was never comfortable about fine things—and always reminding us our posh lifestyle was temporary. He taught my brothers frugality; he only made me realize that if life was indeed ephemeral, every new day should top the previous one.
The dishes were clean and drying; I refilled the mess pot with fresh water, returned it to the flat rock, and filled Jake’s extra pot with water as well. I slurped down a cup of semi hot tea and used the rest of the water to perform a sponge bath, then donned my lavender long johns. Camping in the Smokies isn’t that difficult, I thought, except for the fire. I didn’t know how to keep it going all night.
I was clean again, though my hair retained a pungent, smoky smell. I collected the wine, dishes, and radio, and returned to the tent. I had a pleasant buzz and a sense of satisfaction over conquering the elements. Years ago, at Nags Head, my pleasant buzz nearly got me killed.
That first night at Nags Head Cayce had cleverly bartered and begged for supplies. It took just a bit of song and dance and miming to acquire massive quantities of local fish and produce, and a case of assorted beers. Myra made her special twisted challah bread, and I contributed a pound of butter, a dozen lemons and limes, a tin of homemade raspberry thumbprint cookies, and a jug of domestic white wine. The haul was not bad for four broke college kids. Other campers were drawn to our roaring fire, enticing smells, and Cayce’s guitar licks. They brought bowls of pasta salad, wieners and fixings, and more alcohol. Bongo’s and a flute accompanied Cayce’s guitar. Myra was persuaded to sing mournful ballads until her voice acquired a Janis Joplin throaty hoarseness.
Jonsey served as host and clean-up crew after the last morsel of fish was consumed; around midnight he placed the turkey and foil wrapped packets into the smoldering pit. He covered the pit with sea grass and announced everyone was invited to return tomorrow for a Thanksgiving feast. I crawled up into the camper and fell asleep immediately. Myra and Jonsey slept on the beach, wrapped in blankets and each other. Cayce and his guitar wandered over to another campsite.
For Thanksgiving breakfast, I mixed up a gallon of my special whiskey sours: frozen o.j., lemons and sugar, a 5th of whiskey, a jar of maraschino cherries, and my secret ingredient—beer. Myra baked corn fritters, and dusted the plate with powdered sugar. Myra and I nearly finished half of the first batch of whisky sours. The guys had gone off to fish and barter. They returned in time to sample a new batch of fritters, and presented us with a fifth of tequila, a gallon of dago red, and a small jar of white lightening that nearby campers had graciously donated for the feast. Cayce lit a fat doubie and passed it around. No one, including myself, thought about pious Pilgrims or the abysmal way we’d treated Native Americans.
In the early afternoon, I decided to test the November waters and plunged headfirst into the frothy Atlantic. The water was surprisingly mellow. I swam out as far as I could. The sun was jewel-like; I daydreamed about striking up a short, but meaningful relationship tonight with the long haired guy at the next campsite. He was attractive, in a Samsonish, all angular edges, tight, worn jeans sort of way. As I floated on my back, I mused that I might switch from pre-law to psychology since I was always analyzing everything. The brisk water further out and the exertion unsettled my buzz. I decided to head back, however, after five minutes of paddling, I wasn’t any closer to the shoreline, in fact, I seemed to be further away. Stinging waves, full of sand and bottom debris, broke over my head and pulled me under. Between gulps of air, I yelled, hoping someone walking nearby could hear. I only succeeded in gulping more seawater, and was tiring. My muscles burned as my alcohol haze retreated; I understood I was caught in a powerful undertow. Or perhaps the ghosts of those previously drowned wanted a new playmate.
I fought a sense of rising panic, and tried to relax and float, to rest my aching arms, but the waves relentlessly assaulted and tossed me like a popcorn kernel in a vortex. The sun snickered—or conspired with brother Poseidon to press me beneath the water. Then, for just an instant, passing clouds blocked the glaring brightness. Now the sun resembled the full moon my nainie loved. I could almost hear her voice urging me to break free. I kicked hard, and with waning strength swam parallel to the shore, head and body underwater, desperately trying to escape the undertow. I surfaced and used the lighthouse to mark my progress. I had also swallowed so much seawater my stomach began to spasm. But I kept kicking, and when the next wave broke, I summoned energy from my core, as nainie had taught me, and pulled as hard as I could to catch a rising wave heading towards shore. I broke free of the undertow, and rode the wave to shallow water as the sun reappeared. Feebly, I paddled to knee deep water and collapsed on my side.
I remember heaving up foamy remnants of beer, juice, whiskey, and partially digested corn fritters. I shook uncontrollably; my skin was one giant mess of goosebumps. The ocean is the perfect vomitorium. It mingles your bilge with bits of shells and fish parts and removes it for you. It even provides a salt water gargle. I lay there shivering until I recovered enough strength to stand and drag my sand and sea battered body back to camp. Not a single person was there to share my victory. The sea is definitely a man—it wants you unconditionally. Screw you Poseidon, Neptune, Manannan!
I sat numbly on a sagging beach chair until Jonsey and Myra returned from a game of beach volleyball. They saw my hair was a tangled, matted mess. Jonsey said I looked hilarious and Myra thought I’d been attacked by a couple of berserk campers. Despite their protests and concern, I would only say I’d taken a sea cure to remove all of last night’s and this morning’s toxins from my system. I grabbed my beach bag and trudged over to the bathhouse, where a long, tepid shower washed my near death encounter down the drain, leaving me feeling strangely empty and alone.
Myra, who would become the poster child of Jewish mothers, suspected something awful had happened. Cayce was mellow and unflapped; Jonsey actually thought I had taken a sea cure. It was one of those light bulb moments that changed me. More than thankful to have survived, I felt I’d been given a reprieve. If I had died, I would have passed into oblivion unnoticed. That wouldn’t do. When I returned to school, I changed my major, one final time, to a Philosophy Psych combo. It took several years of additional schooling, and the encouragement of one particular professor, Dr. Foster Beechum, to earn a Ph.D. I persevered and succeeded—graduating at the top of my class.
In the tent, as I drifted into dreamland, the wind stopped moaning and began to serenade me with a melodious whistling sound that was almost a lullaby. Trees clicked wooden limbs in three part harmony. The lilting music was likely sent by Mother Earth, rather than Saturn, god of fear and destruction. If this was an initiation by nature, I’d passed the first test.
About an hour later, Jake returned to camp. I think he was pleased to see the small, spitting fire, now semi protected by the tarp and an extra row of stones that banked the fire’s warmth toward our tent. With one eye open, I watched him set the lantern down and hang a string of four large, gutted trout and several skinned rabbits (at least I hoped these were rabbits, not squirrels) from a high limb and rebuild the fire. It took him several minutes to locate his mess kit and cooking tools. He made lots of noise, but I didn’t stir. He greased an iron skillet, placed the trout in it, and added dried herbs and liquid from a squirt bottle. Jake placed a battered lid over the fish and buried the skillet under a coal intense section of the fire. Then he scooped hot coals over the lid.
To appease his grumbling stomach, he chewed on a piece of jerky and devoured a protein bar while he secured the camp for the night. Then he opened a can of baked beans and ate them cold. That nearly made me gag. Leaning over, he let water from the jug trickle down his face and into his mouth. He banked the fire, entered the tent, and sniffed. I assumed he caught a whiff of my favorite musky perfume. Later, I realized he detected alcohol and smoke. His rough hand brushed a strand of hair from my face. I pretended to be sleeping; he’d left me alone for nearly eight hours. He tugged off his boots and outer shirt, and within two minutes, he was asleep.