The Lower Five Acres *
A Road Story
I'm held up in a place where few more than God and the Devil know exist. God because he created it, and the devil because he knows people who live here. It's Vietnam in ho-dunk Florida just below the flood plain. Property lines are protected by bad dogs, marked by barbed wire and bamboo. Who would want to live here except people with no need for company? Some of them growers, others hermits, barely tolerating their own neighbors much less a city boy from the suburbs.
Wildlife gets half a chance to inhabit these wetlands. We saw a bobcat just off the front porch this afternoon, and not long ago it was commonplace to see 6 to 7 1/2 foot Indigo's. Then a neighboring hick decided to protect his chickens with a sawed off shot gun. Now the snakes are gone, and so is he.
I'm starting to learn more about distance, literally and figuratively. Distancing my heart also has its pay-offs and consequences. I'm forced to look inside and stop relying on conversation or a crowd to whisk my thoughts. What I desire is becoming clearer and more frightening as I realize what I would have to leave to get it.
Night has fallen outside the van. There isn't a trace of light other than the stars which obviously prefer this forgotten refuge. Dogs constantly bark a mile or two off leaving an unsettling urgency in the air. But I can breathe here. This is a place void of the race of consumers, modern day zombies who worship TV and cell phones and somehow believe that America will take care of them. Being here makes me wonder, when did we get so lazy? How long are we going to buy into the examples of our greedy leaders while sacred places like this are chopped up like fine chocolate and sold at auction to the rich?
It all started when, Robbie, a friend of mine who makes his living blowing glass, told me he knew a spot where I could sleep through the night. Conveniently, the same place Robbie could pick up an ounce of quality hydroponicly grown herb. The only shit worth putting in your lungs if you'd been at it as long as he has.
So, the perks include no cars, no planes, no lights, and no-nonsense Gary. He is the one to reckon with. I can tell right off that he runs the show. He's a gentle enough guy but definitely not to be fucked with. Generally, he likes things done his way and in an orderly fashion, not to be an asshole, but it just works out better for everyone that way. I like the way he laughs and acts out his conversations. They say when you see things you dislike in someone it's just a mirror reflecting what you don't like about yourself. Gary speaks his mind and shows no prejudice. If he thinks someone is full of shit, he comes right out and tells him. He even admits to not having patience with his own grand kids, not that he doesn't love them, he just can't comprehend their having to decide whether they want to stay home and play Game Boy or get ready to go sailing.
Gary is kind of a wiry guy and in great shape for his age. I'm guessing he's nearing 60, but he can still fit in the same jeans he wore in high school. He's a muscular guy, not like a boxer or a weight lifter, but like a street fighter. Lean and agile. Although he's only 5'7", his confident stance makes him seem a bit taller. He's normally dressed in neat jeans, a quality pair of broken in leather shoes, and a wrinkle free short-sleeved shirt that shows off the Zig Zag man tattoo he wears on his right forearm. His gold and silver hair hangs just below his shoulders matching the moustache and beard covering most of his face, leaving only his story-filled eyes. I see history in them. Eyes that watch the land. Eyes that have seen thousands of sunsets and understand the wonders of the earth.
Gary's idea of making a living isn't working for the man for a check every two weeks hoping for some kind of retirement pension after 40 years. It doesn't make sense to him to throw his life away like that. Instead, Gary doesn't work hard for anyone except himself and his own. Gary has a big heart, and a man like that would cross a half frozen ocean for someone he loved. I'd like to think I see a bit of myself in my new friend.
It isn't hard for me to blend in. I'm used to lifestyles of folks who live a bit on the perimeter. I grew up fast and learned about life through three older brothers. By the time I was seventeen, I had seen more than most twice my age. Although I've outgrown some of the addictive traits of my new comrades, that's not to say I haven't replaced them with some other types of dysfunction.
Dinner is great, of course. After all, I'm hanging with hippies who know the importance of home grown and organic. During our feast of fresh Florida grouper and smoked shrimp marinated in a blend of oil and herbs, I watch as Robbie, Tracey, Gary, and Loni kill two bottles of vintage wine and share at least two joints before dessert. Tracey passes on the weed and nurses her wine from one of her husband's hand blown goblets. Even though I've been clean for over 20 years, I'm not made uncomfortable. After all, I do have quite a history in the business myself. Now though I make my living as a gypsy musician, and there isn't much I haven't been exposed to. More importantly, my hosts aren't shallow. The apple crisp is the best I've ever tasted.
Gary's wife, Loni, knows when to speak and when to chill. When Gary has something to say, it's best to let him have the floor. But Gary knows he's got everything he needs in Loni, and he'll be the first to tell her. A meal doesn't go by without at least one well-deserved rant of praise. I've been around men who sit down in their freshly washed clothes to a heart cooked meal who pay more attention to the TV than their wives. Not here. Hard work is appreciated. I did refer to Loni as Gary's wife, and for all practical purposes she is, but not legally. There's something about the homestead law that provides a big tax break. I'm not good at digesting conversations involving complicated scenarios and numbers, but what I understand is that the government gets less if they stay single. I'm not sure if they are more in love with each other or with the life they live together. I'm not sure that it matters. I've never seen them kiss, but not everyone is a love-struck Romeo like myself and, besides, look where it's gotten me.
For convenience sake, I stay parked outside the new house on the first night. Gary built this place while he and Loni lived in a trailer on 5 acres below the flood plain. From what I hear, that is where the magic lives. Their new house is nothing too fancy, but exactly the kind of home I would like to live in. The doors are all magenta and nicely clash with the loud purple tiled floor. One of Gary's six-foot hand-made fountains rattles as the water makes its three-inch drop to the next level with no splash. The spacious family room rolls comfortably into the kitchen. It's neatly organized with enough earthy art to make it feel like home. It's simple. I can relax here. I can think here. I could live here.
After dinner, we throw some fifteen-foot branches over a six-foot round ditch filled three feet deep with burning coals. At first glance, I think a piece of meteor has fallen still hot from the sky, carving a perfect circle in the yard. Sparkies shoot 100 feet above the massive fire, and the faces of the onlookers glow in gold as we lob dry dead pine branches on the sacred flames. A couple of times we have to hunt down a surviving sparkie that makes it back to the ground still burning. Power is all around us. What has become so ordinary to my new friends is reshaping my very being. Life is like that every day if we're brave enough to seek it, exhilarating and exhausting.
I'm not quite used to these Florida nights yet. In the winter it can be a moderate sixty degrees in the early evening but gradually gets colder little by little. Without fail, the cold wakes me just enough to realize I'm not warm enough to sleep but too tired to do anything about it. They say down here it's the humidity that makes it so hot, but in my van it's the humidity that makes my back hurt from the cold. I usually get up early, giving myself permission to nap later in the warm sun.
It is Loni's idea to take the kayaks out. Gary has some fence holes to dig, so she asks me to tag along. I learn a lot on our drive through the county on our way to the public boat ramp. Loni points out the parade of trucks sharing the road with us. All kinds of different rigs filled to the brim with unknown cargo, turning down suspicious roads. In poor communities, folks don't have time to investigate. They are too busy working to make ends meet. This doesn't go unnoticed by the corporate world and politicians who need a place to dump their shit. That's saying it nicely. It's much worse than shit. It's hypodermic needles from the hospitals, aborted embryos from the clinics, blood from the morgues and every form of piss and jizz imaginable. Out here they call it sludge. It's the by-product produced by our water sanitation centers. It's a world wide problem. Everyone's got it, and no one wants it. Some geniuses came up with the brilliant idea to dump tons of this sludge all over this flood plain. Well, even dumb hicks are smart enough to figure out when it rains in a flood plain everything, including sludge, gets washed out into streams and is distributed everywhere from here to the ocean. It is obvious to me that meeting Loni is no coincidence. She is a pro-active environmentalist and an expert on sludge. Along with Gary and a couple of friends in the county, they are fighting the David vs. Goliath war. Their only profit is a safer community to live in.
We cut through an RV campground that takes us to the river. I help Loni remove the sand bags and bungee chords that hold the boats in place in the back of the small pick up. Loni steadies my boat until I get comfortable, then we quietly slip off to the west leaving our audience of retired men gathered in a circle in their golf carts and on their three wheeled bicycles.
Seeing the size of the gator makes me more excited than scared. I feel blessed in the presence of my sixteen-foot ancestor. I imagine the years he spent surviving his predators. Now he's a victim of encroachment born out of greed and negligence. The river's path forces us to paddle a few feet from the bank where our acquaintance rests in the cool dark mud. We are face to face with the king of these waters.
I count the bumps on his tail to tell his age. Much the same as if I were counting the rings on an old tree stump. This is an old boy. He's an all-knowing creature speaking to my soul, sharing his adventures and allowing me a glimpse of the past. It takes us by surprise when the giant lifts his left arm in a half circle toward his head. I would have preferred an undetected passing but the Universe has more in store for us. My heart is beating hard as panic numbs my thinking. Now is the true test. Trust in our silent bonding or paddle for our lives. The majestic gator effortlessly lifts his head and in two swift turns disappears into the black water beneath us. Accepting the fact that he could be anywhere and is certainly in control, I follow Loni's lead and paddle as fast as I can downstream.
Tonight is to be my first below the flood plain. Gary and Loni escort me along with Mag, their black and white Jack Russell. I like Mag. The first time I saw her, I opened the door to the camper and she jumped right in and gave me that look. Certain things become more noticeable when you're living the gypsy life. It's easier to see souls. I had this feeling Mag was an ancient loyal traveler, and she made me feel welcome right away.
Dusk is approaching as we arrive into the pull-off that leads to the lower five acres. I can feel the shift of power as it begins to take shape. Being here is like entering a book of long ago. My ears open, and I can finally relax and listen. All my senses are awakening. Layers of clutter and chaos are unraveling as the woods swallow me. We stop beyond the gate. The posted No Trespassing and Bad Dog warnings rattle as I drag the steel door along the sandy ground.
Gary is yelling to me to throw the chain around the post and make it look secure without actually closing the lock. A bold hand-painted sign nailed to a tree reads in English and Spanish: Honk Horn! We drive down the crushed shell road into a jungle of Palmetto, Bamboo and Cypress and pull up alongside of grandmother tree. A huge cypress nine feet around at four feet tall. Gary asks me how old I think she is. He says she is at least 300 years old. He tells me to touch her and I will feel her vibration. I put my palms on her waist and look straight up her length, and I think I do feel something. Some days later, Gary makes a call to an expert and, after describing the tree and its dimensions, he says grandmother is most likely 1300 years old.
We decide to hike the river along their property line. Only six months ago, the ground we are walking on was the floor of an eight-foot deep river. This place molts itself like a snake sheds its skin. To live here in peace you must live in the moment. The ever-present reality of change makes this clear. This swale is our teacher. Out here, it's obvious to me that all I'll ever own is the love that I create. But, I have always been afraid to let go. When I love someone or have worked hard for something, I want to possess the object of my desire and never let go. A life's energy can be wasted on the illusion of need leaving so many doors to opportunity unopened. Appreciate what you see today because after the rains all will be transformed, and a new life will begin. Any kind of so-called improvement to the land here is just a waste of time. Permanence is laughed at by the gods who steer these waters.
We cross a couple of beat up bridges that the last flood had its way with and stoop in between some wire fence 'neath a no trespassing sign. We are on John Redder's property. He built a huge square house on 15-foot stilts for his daughter. It never occurred to John that his daughter might not want to live alone in the middle of a swamp. She ran off up north and left the unfinished house for the neighboring ghosts. I walk up the twenty wooden stairs and take a seat on the swing that faces the creek. I feel like a millionaire outside my mansion overseeing my land. I feel lonely.
The excitement of the open run is taking Mag back to her prime. For a short while she is a two-year old pup again hunting the land, flushing quail and squirrels. They almost lost Mag a few months back. She is an old girl. She was losing all her hair, and it was getting hard for her to get around. Loni found an herb that comes from a Neem tree. I think they grow in India. After force-feeding it to Mag, her hair grew back, and she re-gained some of her spunk. It was as if she was reincarnated in her own body. The neem provides marvelous shade, is a natural spermicide, smells like jasmine, and restores youth. Gary and Loni have already ordered a few young trees and some seed.
A wall of bamboo divides John's property. The house behind it is also not occupied. No longer occupied that is. And that is just as well for Gary. Apparently, no-nonsense Gary and Roger didn't see eye to eye. Roger would frequently show up unannounced. This is not a wise habit in these parts, especially knowing the property is guarded by bad-dog who's soul purpose is to attack at first sight and ask questions later. Well, being the dumb ass Roger was, he would bring along a stick to tease the dog. One day, bad-dog had enough and tore off half of Roger's hand. It took Gary and a friend fifteen minutes to get the dog to release its lock-jaw grip from Roger's right hand. There was a court date set, but they never made it past the deposition. The law is very clear out here when it comes to trespassing. It doesn't matter who you are. Not too long ago, Gary and bad-dog successfully fought off sixteen of the sheriff's police in the pouring rain. Apparently, they found some reefer growing on the property just to the west of Gary's land. They figured they could accidentally, on purpose, wander on over to Gary's place and check on his gardens. Gary accepted the wage of war and headed them off at every pass. He greeted them with a "get the fuck off my property" and non-stop growling and barking from bad-dog. Over an hour of this had Gary covered in mud and exhausted from adrenaline rushes, but for now, the winner of the battle. The edge is never far away for people like Gary. Taking chances is what keeps him young.
It is dark when my friends head off to the house leaving me in full custody of the lower five acres. Finally, I am truly alone. It's been so long since I've felt this free. I'd be lying if I said I'm not a bit nervous, but with every passing minute my unease is replaced with a slow comfort. It's a chance to get to know myself again and to become more aware of my connection to all life. My body is humming to a low frequency that grounds me. I am becoming part of the picture, not just walking on top of the earth or passing a tree. I am the tree. I am the earth. I can see my breath in the light of the stars. Time is now measured in heartbeats and movement of the constellations.
I begin to notice the voices of the night creatures, their glorious symphony performing in perfect harmony for their virgin guest. Two owls, who are just ten feet back in the black of the woods, begin to talk. I've heard owls plenty of times before, but never involved in such an intimate conversation. Gentle whoo's mixed with playful cackles and clicks. I feel more like a welcome guest than an intruder. I have particular fondness for owls. They have made special appearances in times of great decisions, bringing me strength and encouraging me to continue on my path. Years ago, a spiritual woman told me that she saw an owl on each of my shoulders. She said they were my Guides. I've read that a visit from an owl can be a sign of death. I've never experienced this myself. Maybe it doesn't mean death literally. Maybe it means a part of me dies in order to be reborn a wiser being?
Whatever it is, it's powerful ju ju, and tonight is no exception. My Guides are here, and I'm sure there is a reason. To get a better view of the night sky, I head to the wooden porch, which hangs off the right side of the trailer. The whippoorwills make their first contribution to the concert as I lay down in the middle of the deck. The stars are pulling me into a trance like staring into a million dancing fires, far away fires burning for me and all of my nocturnal comrades.
The birds' spring songs wake me long before the morning sun. The cold of the night hangs low keeping the ground wet with dew beneath a slightly transparent layer of fog. The colors of the coming day appear one by one brightening the perimeter, eating away at the night's last breath. I sit cross-legged and watch through the steam of a hot cup of tea as morning breaks.
After breakfast it is warm enough for a luxurious shower on the porch. Standing naked to the world beneath a steady flow of heated well water, this is the perfect cure for my chilled bones. The smell of sulfur takes some getting used to, but it is a small consolation for this piece of heaven. I wrap a towel around me and bow to my surroundings. I thank the earth for sharing this space with me and ask permission to visit again.
Goodbyes have never been easy for me. Sometimes the road feels like one long stretch of goodbyes. It's one of the prices I pay for the life I live. I've learned to accept the pain of leaving what I have grown to love knowing it's a way to more love. You can always tell seasoned travelers by the way they leave you. The sadness is balanced with the importance of the journey. While living on the road one inherits certain understandings. Also, it's impossible to enjoy the privilege of a secure home with the usual conventions and seek the wonders and adventure of travel at the same time. Road dogs connect on a different level, knowing that the best is in the here and now, taking what's important from each meeting and leaving the rest behind. Some of my best friends I've met only once, but they live forever in my heart. It makes me wonder if we aren't all interconnected, passing needed information from one to another until we finally fit into our place in the universal puzzle.
I cued the CD player to my bootleg copy of Richard Betts Highway Call as I head up to Gary's to thank him and bid him farewell. I've found that certain rituals can help with the sting of leaving beautiful people and places.
Gary is filling the golf cart with stone for the driveway of the lower five acres when I pull in. Loni and Mag walk over from the gardens. As always, they ask me if I need food, a shower, or some good drinking water. How blessed I am to be treated like this by folks I just met two weeks ago, and how many times over and over I get exactly what I need to continue my journey. I'll never forget Gary's handshake, leaning towards me with his other hand on my shoulder. Loni gives me a wink and a strong hug and invites me back anytime. I jump in the camper with the windows rolled down, hit play on the CD player, and sing along with "Long Time Gone." I watch in my rear view mirror until their waves, blurred with tears, shrink behind me.
Soon I'll be doing eighty on Interstate 75 northbound, but for now I'm getting my last look at these heavenly wetlands. I sometimes pretend I'm looking out at Africa. I've never been there, so it's easy for me. There are vast stretches of open land with an occasional patch of trees. Kingfishers stab at the water while blue herons and ibis walk delicately anticipating their next meal. The ancient looking wood storks mind their business as the gators lie motionless in the cool mud looking like statues. My Guide appears as a red-shouldered hawk escorting me for the first few miles of my long journey home. Am I leaving home or going home? There was a time when I could tell the difference.
Looking back on Robbie's phone call now is like a dream, I was up in Minneapolis busking at an art fair. I shut down early when it started to rain, and I was making some ice coffee in the van when I saw Robbie's name flashing on my cell phone. I could tell by Robbie's voice something serious had happened, and what I was about to hear would change my life. One of Loni's long time buds, Margi, asked Gary to accompany her and her new friend, who happened to be a helicopter pilot, to help take some aerial photos of sludge sites. Gary couldn't understand how Margi could arrange for these flights so cheap until he met Charles, the pilot. It all made sense when Gary saw that Charlie was sweet on Margi. Gary pulled Margi aside and tried to bail on the trip, realizing that he might not be as welcome understanding the circumstances. Gary had better things to do than be a third wheel in a small copter. Margi assured Gary that everything was cool, and she had already talked to Charles about another passenger. If it hadn't been such a perfect day, Gary would have blown it off and drove himself home. They flew for a little over an hour getting some great shots of sites they could never have gotten any other way. They had one last site to visit when Margi realized she was out of film. She thought she had two more rolls but discovered they were empty containers she forgot to clean out of her case. Charlie offered to set her down by the cars so she could make a run for more film. Rather than waiting at the landing, Charlie and Gary decided to kill some time cruising over Gary's land. Gary had always been curious what could be seen growing on his property from a plane.
They dropped Margi off and agreed to meet her in 45 minutes. Gary and Charles never made it back to meet Margi. No one will ever know why the helicopter went down. Ironically, they hit the ground at the bend in the creek just 100 yards or so from the lower five acres. This was the same spot that Gary and Loni took me hiking on my first night below the flood line. I remember Gary saying how much he liked that place. It's fitting that Gary would be scattered on and absorbed by the very land he loved so much. He turned to dust blown by the wind. Part of him rode the stream all the way to the ocean and part fertilized the very ground he worked.
About a month later, Loni took a full cash offer on the lower five acres. Since Gary was the bread-winner, Loni needed the money to make ends meet. A retired couple who ran an art society in Sarasota thought Gary's place would be great for exotic exhibits and a nice get away from the ever populating Longboat Key. The first improvement to the land was to widen the path and create room for parking. Grandmother cypress was in the way of progress, so she was chopped down and sold to a local who made tabletops out of her. Of course, the new owners kept a couple of the tables. They make great conversation pieces.
* A fictional short story based on Kraig's travel
* * * Dedicated to a brave fallen comrade, a true Floridian, Gale (Housecat) Hunsinger