March: upon checking in at the airport of Guayaquil, Ecuador we were asked whether we’d been in China or Italy. Entering the USA we’d seen noticeboards warning for Corona virus. It’s a far away business for us, Corona, though not for our relatives in Europe, it seems the virus has gotten a hold there. It seems they all comply with what the government asks them?
People speak of ‘self-quarantine’ and ‘stay home, save lives’ and ‘stay healthy, stay safe’. All I care about is my ankles. I have developed so much pain in my, by now, swollen ankles, that walking is out of the question. Kickbiking can not be done anymore.
For a week I have my feet in a higher position.
The patch of forest we are in is small, situated between a path where cyclists and walkers trot. Florida once must have been one enormous forest, now, much, of course, is bulldozed for housing schemes. Pest control businesses, tree specialists, garden architects and real estate agents are feeding on the American Dream. I see many big houses made of wood, a hollow arch and some columns to give the owner a boost. At least one car port, a boat, a RV under a roof, a large patch of manicured green grass, a few remaining trees and an alarm system is what characterize Florida.
The back of our camp has a private ‘Health Park’ where we fetch water. One dead-end path trails nearby. We are relatively unseen, that is, if we keep our fires and profile low.
And so I sit.
Waiting for my ankles to heal.
They heal very slow, if at all. I am not taking any medication nor specified threatments.
I wonder, how boring this forest is. There is absolutely no life going on. ‘I can’t even make pretty compositions’, I complain to Geo.
But the creativity is raging, so I duck down, mostly on all fours, and seek beauty where none seems to exist.
And then, a whole new world opens.
Incredible beauty is uncovering before my very eyes.
Aside from spiders, who are tiptoeing the blanketing of leaves, I discover frogs. They are small and agile and it takes me very much patience to chase them. It hurts my ankles to squad down and follow their quick jumps. Each frog tries to out-jump the lens which is poked in their tiny face. I keep chasing them, having not much else to do.
But after 20 minutes the crouched position I sit in, hurts my ankles really much.
However quick these little creatures are, in the end, I win. Or so I feel like. The frogs seem to be afraid by the lens so close in their presence, but after countless jumps they seem to ponder: ‘Obviously, I am not being attacked, let me wait a minute and see what this chasing is all about?’ and in that very minute, I take my chances.
Their camouflaged beauty. Their perfect creation. Their tiny eyes.
The fluidity. Their transparent bellies.
The apparently carved bodies. How their fingers hold themselves.
I see God in them.
After the frogs its the lizard’s turn.
The lizards seem to have the same thought pattern as the frogs: ‘Who or what is this creature so close to me?’ Perhaps they marvel at the shiny disk, the lens of the camera, so near to them. At one point however, the lizard seems to really gauge up the situation and, as I see it, he poses perfectly still.
I start to make new friends when Geo is out to either fetch water or buy groceries. Regularly Geo has to kick 30 kilometers to get items we need. My new friend, I forgot its name by now, is poisonous green and shows its bulge underneath its throat. I am elated when the lizard is full forced trying to impress me, or scare me, or perhaps in for mating with a same sort. And I limp around the tree he’s posing on.
I feel I get to study their miraculously patterned skins. The elasticity of the bulge under their heads. The ribs that seem to poke through their thin green covering.
At times some of the lizards are studying me too. I think it is possible to befriend them.
Hairy creatures land on the books I read. I always have my camera besides me because the forest is far from boring by now.
The woods at night felt totally different from walking there in daytime. The place was operating under the principles at work at night, and those principles didn’t include me*. I meet with a possum, seemingly abruptly disturbed by my presence, as I am unexpectedly venturing towards the kitchen area at night.
Besides all that wondrous activity, I say to Geo one day: I have the feeling the Corona affair will force shops to close here as well, can you please get me material from Hobby Lobby?’ And so Geo kicks through characterless Gainesville, picking up a solar panel (since we have so little access to electricity), Indian Wagh Bakri masala tea, new Bibles and a bag full of embroidery material. A day later the Hobby Lobby is closed, along with all other ‘non-essential’ stores.
Funnily enough, liquor stores and pharmacies are always open. And while the hospital crew choreographs tacky dances, the television makes believe they’re working their dancing butts off.
After a week I start to loose hope that my poor swollen ankles will ever get back to normal. On Geo’s advice I start a week treatment with Ibuprofen. Within a week my ankles are back to normal.
Within 2 weeks I can kick short distances. Soon I lift the burden from Geo’s shoulders to fetch water and groceries.
Staying in the woods start to become burdensome. Its not that we care for the Corona much, though we are in a sort of self-quarantine, such a new fashionable word. We are more concerned about our visibility. Stealth camping for a night, or two, is a different matter than stealth camping like a homeless does.
When one starts to settle as in living life abnormally normal, than one does not want to be seen. Each time one of us exits the patch of wood, we need to assure we are not seen by anyone jogging, walking or cycling past when we emerge.
We must keep our fires low, especially now with the Corona affair, fires are forbidden, since each and every fireman needs to be alert for the virus. Somehow. I guess the fireman needs to hose down the virus? Of course, we surely do not want to risk a forest fire in Florida. Having no valid USA health insurance by the way.
Falling trees is another risk. Branches crash down on nearly a daily basis. When the sound of a collapsing multi-story building is to be heard, it turns out to be a crashing tree.
I fear the day a police or some official will turn up, either alarmed by someone having placed an anonymous phone call to the authorities, or a neighbor being frightened by smoke fire. Either way, I do not want Geo to pay American prices for not abiding the rules.
Because when a single tomato at Publix costs $2, how much more will a fine for trespassing, fires and vagabonding be? Apparently, being homeless is an offense in Florida.
Getting into and out of the woods brings both of us mental stress. When I start the minimum of a 20 kilometer ride to get our groceries, washing our dirty laundry in between, I feel truly homeless. Mostly because my nails are continuously dirty. Each swing of my arm loosens a remarkable odor and washing our underwear in the sink of a Walmart toilet feels not quite right.
Traveling allows you to determine life with a different measure. Living a travelers life is wholly different altogether. I carry wads of dollars and an expensive new camera, I bring back Nordic salmon and organic coconut sugar yet my smell and dirty look does not match.
Each morning I sit at a makeshift chair, a fire going, chai at hand. While reading and embroidering I enjoy the slow brightening of the serpent green forest. Its a spectacle of the most boring sort, but since I have noting else to do, its a great live show nevertheless.
Once my ankles are able to carry my weight, we start to make our temporarily home more comfortable. Even Corona-proof. Though we are not able to stock-up on toilet paper, Geo buys enough canned food and basic staples to get us through a few weeks of possible oncoming difficulty. We are in touch with Walt, he and his wife Leslie would have hosted us in New York City for 4 nights. We looked forward to this Warm Shower meeting, by now canceled. Our outside news comes mainly from people like Walt, though I refuse to believe that a society made dependent will be left helpless overnight.
Our toilet spade is being repaired with dental floss and power glue.
We try a Dakota system but fail.
I go for a more comfy outfit, and start wearing Geo’s pair of trouser. I clip the back of the waistband together with a safety pin.
Geo built a chair and two toilets. We notice how much we feel the need to start our own home.
I rearrange my Big Agnes tent about 6 times, always finding a safer spot with less branches prone to crash on my sleeping head.
I finish embroidery projects by the week.
And when a particular smoky fire alarms my mind, we decide to shift camp another few hundred meters to the back. A beautiful uprooted tree will do perfectly as my kitchen. Geo need to dig a new cool pit, built a new chair and arrange a new fire pit.
I start to bake bread, since I have more energy and still oceans of time. In fact, it is a relief not to break up camp each day. A relief not to seek time for contemplation. A relief to simply enjoy camp life. We both rather disliked the constancy of having to find camp spots, searching for food and water. Perhaps because the surrounding did not give anything in return? So far, Florida has been out of proportionately boring to us.
A rainy day and more to come has us decide to put up a tarp above the kitchen. Together with the tarp above Geo’s tent and my own little tent a bit further, I see an ever sprawling homeless settlement.
How can we explain the grid of paths, come to existence by brushing away the fallen leaves.
Would an official also praise our toilet pits, the separation of gender even?
What would he think of the uprooted tree in which I have made my kitchen cabinet?
We have a pit for daily groceries, the earth and bark covering keeps our veggies cool. Outside temperatures rise to 34 degrees.
We have a pit for dirt bags, so squirrels and possums can not get to it. We have a pit for emergency use.
There is a bath-room sector. Not often enough used, though temperatures make us sticky and dirt pastes between the creases and underneath nails, but fetching water is not the easiest of tasks.
We have a dish-wash division too. Geo has made a lead to get in and out of the forest, because, though it is small, we keep losing our tracks. We are always disoriented by our own false security of knowing our position.
So, would an official be able to find us by following his smoke detector senses, would he be pleased, proud we are such dapper outdoor-folk? Would I be on my own, I could use my innocence, use my naivete wits, hoping he’d fall for that. With Geo by my side I simply do not want him to be responsible for getting us out a risky allotment, with a penalty to pay, never a moderate one in the USA.
Therefore, one day, we leave. Four weeks have been enough fun, enough of a hassle to get water and electricity. To always feel on the run when charging electronics somewhere. Fetching water at the private hospitals has us made suspicious, especially when Geo washes himself or when I rinse underwear. The stress of being seen start to burden Geo too much, the possibility of crashing trees keeps me awake a little too often.
A few days before we leave, I am in utterly contentment, I see men trotting through the forest. Men from a city, elegant, straight backs, in a confident manner they move in a backwash. All dressed in a dark trench-coat; it are deer on their way to the creek right behind us. Not very special when you let your thoughts deepen, but in times of Corona where everyone needs to stay inside, I think it wondrous to have this freedom. For the fourth week our live is outside, in a bubble of comfort and insights. We are all marionettes, so far evolved -a thought we love to address to ourselves- that we have become totally dependent to the hands that moves us. Like deer, we are in search among buildings, we seek that what feed us.
A car is hired. An Airbnb arranged. All camp grounds in Florida are closed, but one.
March 2020. *Excerpts in Italic from ‘Killing Commendatore’ from Haruki Murakami