I sat there, in front of a small campfire just off the road in Northern Florida, beating the crap out of myself mentally. I seared my eyes in that fire, as darkness pressed in on all sides. I finished one smoke, then rolled and lit another just to deepen the suction of the downward spiral. Once again, I had failed miserably at quitting smoking. Literally: self-depracatingly, miserably. Once again, my addictions were pounding a lesson into me – a lesson of unfortunate cycles, a lesson of courage.
Suddenly an idea came to me – if I could only deprive myself of the ability to smoke, I’d be able to quit. Go somewhere that doesn’t offer tobacco. In the mind of an addict, such places seem pretty rare, but I was headed for South Florida and the vast wilderness of the Everglades – they don’t sell cigarettes in the swamp, do they?
Yeah, this could work, yeah… if I could commit to a few days without even the possibility of buying more tobacco, I just might actually succeed this time….
The idea grew in my head over the next few days. I was surrounded by spectral faces of all the innocent children that have ever watched me smoking; urged toward resolution by the sheer paradox of smoking while biking, and haunted by images of the blackened, cancerous lungs of emphysema victims. “Just get past the point of no return, and you’ll have to quit.”
I dreamed at first of a sort of vision quest, something really extreme – walking butt naked into the swamp with nothing but a compass and a water bottle for twenty four hours, then staying put for another twenty four hours, then finally walking back, a new man. I quickly deemed that idea as preposterous, as well as rather more dangerous than I’m used to. The thought of crossing water at night with Everglade gators eventually spurred me in a slightly different direction. By the time I neared the Ocala National Forest(where there are no gators – only poisonous snakes) I had a better, if slightly less extreme, plan.
I found the state-wide walking path that crosses the Forest, and walked my bike into the palm bushes for a mile or so, until I was nice and deep in the vibrant Florida wilderness. I followed a disused logging trail even farther, and made a base camp amidst the sea of frondy thicket.
That night I smoked as much as I could, half trying to consume as much nicotine as possible, and half just trying to get rid of what I had left – dumping my tobacco pouch onto the fire seemed like sacrilege, even here on the verge of quitting.
In the morning I broke camp and carefully stashed everything in the thicket, under tarps and palm fronds. I marked the location anonomously with some cabbage leaves and a burned stick, and set off down the trail with my journal, a long-sleeve shirt, two water bottles, my compass, my lighter, and some garbage. Not only was I forcing a smoking cessation, but I also decided to fast for the whole time too, and brought no food, and I took a vow of silence for the interim. I guess I felt I needed to make up for the lack of gators. I would be gone for three days.
A majestic bird of prey took wing, high in the arrow-straight pines. The sun winked and dappled through the canopy, and the moist ground was spongy and springy around the rocks and roots of the trail. The soil was carpeted in places with cute little yellow blossoms, dislodged by the raindrops to decorate the forest floor.
I strolled through this moist paradise. I walked and walked. I meandered; I wasn’t in a hurry. I passed over a dam, crowded with fisher-men and -women, speaking not a word. A happy fisher-fowl was busy diving for a second breakfast amidst the jam-packed schools of trout trying to swim against the dam. Water flora of the brightest green floated on the brown water of the tributary. I breathed deeply of the rich air, content to be surrounded by the wilderness.
The biggest grasshopper I’ve ever seen landed on a branch across the trail, buzzing erratically at me for a quick size-up before launching off again. At the site of a freshly fallen tree I used my multitool to carve a walking stick – it’s got a nice sharp wood saw on it(a little bent). I nicked it on my knuckle, once during that project; blood spilled I considered proper sacrifice for the branch I had harvested. But maybe it was just a nic-fit.
The terrain changed, from mushroom-friendly palm and pine forest, to sandy cactus bushland, then to grassy pine savannah. At one point I heard a crackling noise in the woods – is that fire?. Investigating, I stealthily approached the source of the noise, sneaking up on some forestry workers administering a controlled burn with a small flamethrower. I watched for a few minutes from my hiding place, and shortly they got in their truck and drove off down the rough truck track, for lunch maybe. And they left the “controlled” fire burning!
After they left I closed in on it, and watched it flame on, having a disconcerting leave-no-trace dilemma. Eventually I convinced myself that they must know what they’re doing; I guess even fire starters need a lunch break. And I wasn’t about to dump my dwindling water supply onto their fire.
I came to a campground, full of motor-sports aficionados, somewhere deep in the 600 square miles of off-road trails of the forest, where I had hoped to refill on water – but there were no facilities, only pit latrines. I said nothing to the campers I passed, and hastened away from the noise of their ATVs without any hydration. I guess I didn’t want to bother them with my not-talking.
I stopped and wrote in my journal as I sipped at the last of it: an aching scrawl describing the pain in my hips and feet, which weren’t used to so much walking, peppered with motivational phrases and exclamation points.
I continued on, walking walking walking. I passed a man with his dog, and nodded. I passed a set of shoes and a picnic blanket, apparently abandoned, on the side of the trail. I struck off the path in numerous areas, to see what things looked like from the middle of a grassy sinkhole, or to put my hand to a grandfather oak covered in moss. I leaned down to inspect a curious fungus, and realized at the same time that it was getting too dark to see properly. That was also when I realized that I had forgotten to bring a flashlight. I stood there, looking around the sandy valley I was in: the site of a forest fire, full of blackened shroom-studded stumps and thorny brush. The trail was marked with subtle blotches of orange spraypaint on every third tree or so, and imagining trying to navigate that in full darkness began to worry me. I wasn’t thinking about a cigarette, but I was sore, tired, hungry enough to lick a cactus, and very thirsty…
Somewhere inside me, with the same addict’s voice with which I am so familiar, my mind decided not to go any farther, and to spend the night here. A well-justified decision, to be sure – the snakes lay on the trail in the evenings; yet still, it was a defeat of my willpower.
I collected a massive pile of firewood as the sun went down, and plopped down exhausted in the dirt, facing twelve-or-so hours of lonely darkness. A bonfire in isolation; not my original plan, but still shamanic enough to leave my guilt over stopping at a slow ebb.
I spent a few hours in a semi-meditative trance before a healthy campfire, and let the thoughts run through my head. They weren’t the nicest of thoughts… I worried about the long hours of nightime ahead, and about the rigors of the day to come. I worried about reaching Miami and the challenges that awaited me there. (And I began to fiddle around, wishing for a smoke.) I wasn’t happy; but I suppose that was the point. I allowed my mind to wander to all the uneasy, in-denial places. The shadowy corners and subconscious re-direction zones of my psyche. I told myself, “If there’s something depressing in there, bring it on. Now is the time.”
And on it came… I was a sorry fool for trying this, I was a despicable human being for the mess I’ve made of myself. I was alone, I was weak, I was afraid, I was confused. I was doing everything imprecisely and in the wrong order. I was a failure. And the only reason my weak-willed fingers hadn’t made a cigarette to smoke, was because I had trapped myself out here in the middle of nowhere.
That night I wept more than I ever had. My sorrow and self-pity wallowed; the forest listened, but did not reply. The night grew colder and the little bubble of heat from the fire wasn’t enough. I was shifting about constantly on my little patch of tear-soaked sand; either my knees and feet were too hot and my back too cold, or vice versa. Once I pulled out the rubbish I had brought to throw away(hadn’t found a garbage can yet) and remembered: The tobacco pouch was in there! After frantically digging through the trash and carefully upending the packet, like a true addict, I found I really had finished it the night before. But god damn it, I would’ve done it, despite the mission, if there had been any left. Point of no return.
I began to realize, sitting there – as uncomfortable as I think I’ve ever been – how much I really like to be warm and content, even if it’s just the relative comfort of a tent and sleeping bag. Just because I’m an extreme cyclist doesn’t mean I have to enjoy eating mud for breakfast, does it? Something changed that night in me, perhaps a little reality settled its disruptive weight into my fantasies, perhaps it was a reckoning of my addiction to hardship… (Wait, I’m addicted to hardship?) Or perhaps it was that devil on my shoulder, whispering in my ear all the reasons I deserve to stay comfortable. Whatever it was, I realized I wasn’t a pussy just because I treated myself well. I do believe that discoveries are made more frequently the farther you venture from your comfort zone – only dead fish float with the current – but that night I think I reached a working balance, between uncomfortable yet elevating hardship, and letting the soft animal of my heart want what it wants. I’ll swim upstream, the difficult direction, but there’s no use in battering my head against the dam.
I saw all my fears splayed out before me, and they scared me. I realized that I cannot avoid being afraid, despite my outwardly courageous attitude. I was paralyzed by the darkness welling out of my spirit; the daunting weight of every challenge I could possibly encounter crushed down upon my chest and pressed the tears from my eyes. And after what felt like an eternity, prostrated in humiliation, facing shadowy demons, my mind reached desensitized overload, and the terror receded, slowly becoming nothing more than an emotionally exhausted fugue. As the night dragged on, I lay curled in a dusty bedraggled ball, unable to think nor sleep, staring numbly into the fire.
Then came the dawn; that hope from the East, that banisher of nightmares, that primal symbol of pheonix renewal and human perseverance. As the magical dream of the night smoldered and the sky began to grow lighter around the edges, I arose, somehow transformed. I had made it through the night, past the point of no return and to the other side.
I went back to my bike.