INTO THE WOODS
The sweaty tale of one woman who chucks it all to go Thoreau in the woods of Central Florida
Originally Published August 4, 2005
I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely … .
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
It’s another typical day in Orlando. The thermometer is inching toward 100 degrees, but the heat index is easily closer to 110. I am sticky with a mix of sweat and the muggy air of a post-thunderstorm afternoon. Though most would be racing toward an air-conditioned building on days like these, this summer I have chosen to forgo such luxuries and instead center myself squarely inside humid hours such as this – spending my summer camping out in Central Florida.
Rewind to May 2005. We’re wrapping up the longest spring we’ve had in Central Florida in a while, but no one’s complaining, except when looking toward the summer and the ominous hurricane season. Bush is entering the fifth month of his second term, and I’m still coming to grips with how the hell my country could have let it happen. Gasoline prices are at an all-time high and climbing.
Meanwhile, my little corner of the world is changing rapidly. I’m approaching graduation from the University of Central Florida; four years and a lot of raised hell later, John Hitt and company can breathe easy knowing I’ve set foot inside their military-industrial-academic complex for the last time. The whole ordeal – graduation – seems fairly anticlimactic, so much so that I see no reason to waste a few hundred bucks on the cap and gown and pomp and circumstance, and decide to skip the ceremony. Besides – now I’m free from the chains of the academy and the concrete jungle that is Orlando. Time to see the world!
I set my sights south – South America, that is – and prepare for a summer of exotic sights and strange encounters. I plot a seemingly foolproof scheme to get my broke ass down there, thanks to a few grants, with the hopes that I can live peacefully, traveling and studying far from the excesses of corporate conservatism, consumer culture and Mickey Mouse.
Except, in the end, my scheme wasn’t so foolproof. One of the grants fell through, my plan sprung a leak and my trip sank, leaving me back at square one, just in time to receive my student loan notice. The reminder was the icing on the cake of my already looming (yet statistically average) credit card debt, and, surrounded by a sluggish employment market and an economy spiraling downward, I experienced my first dose of foreboding financial fright.
Welcome to the real world, indeed.
With the revision of my summer plans came the re-evaluation of everything around me – my work, my studies, my hobbies, my place of residence. It seemed I was destined to stay in Orlando after all, despite how much I despise the city’s expanse of urban sprawl. I had secured some work for the summer months. New opportunities for independent studies, down paths more enriching than what I could have been spoon-fed at UCF, were opening. And I had an abundance of enjoyable activities with which to fill my free time – when I could find it, that is, between hustling jobs to try to pay the rent. If I wasn’t entirely unhappy with my future prospects, at least I was feeling lukewarm about them.
And then it hit me: The longer I stared at the four walls around me – and at the stack of bills they seemed to create each month – the less I felt as though my hours of work were being exchanged for something I really value.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. … Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?
Just a few firing synapses later I had a brand-new scheme plotted: I didn’t need the house, much less the expenses it engendered. I’d been there less than a year, and it was just a simple student rental. And if I was going to stay in Orlando, I would need a heavy dose of escape from the concrete, construction and congested highways that suffocate me as I traverse this city. It just didn’t make sense to slave all day at a dead-end service job, only to feed the profits of a lease-management company, all the while feeling robbed of my leisure, scrambling to spend free moments finding solace in some faraway natural sanctuary.
To this quandary there seemed only one solution, as spiritually as it was financially motivated: to pack up and head to the woods. As in, literally, move my person and possessions off the grid as soon as possible.
For a moment, it all seemed just one step over the top, yet the more I developed my plan, the more smoothly it fell into place. Some very gracious friends happened to own undeveloped acreage on a local body of water (I can’t be more specific than that, see below for the reason why) in a fairly remote area; another friend gave me a spacious camping tent. It was a match made in heaven, or rather, the outskirts of the city, where I was introduced to the little parcel of land that would become my new home.
Of course, Orange County officially frowns on the idea, and has zoning rules against erecting tents as semipermanent structures, and against not connecting to water and sewer lines. Imagine: You buy a piece of property and The Man won’t let you do with it as you please. Big shock.
One can apply for an exception, if, say, you want to generate your own power or collect and dispose of your own water using alternative but sanitary methods. But I tried to reach the county to figure out how to accomplish this and played the standard game of voicemail tag before surrendering. I’d have to live both off the grid and outside the law.
There were a lot of things to consider: the summer heat, without air conditioning; the rainy season, with all the mosquitoes in tow; how to cook without a real kitchen; how to keep clean without a real bathroom. But these were minor details that contributed to the major adventure I was about to embark upon.
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
All the matters of moving into the woods seemed manageable, until I began to survey the home I was about to leave and all the belongings stored inside. When you think in terms of moving into a tent, you start to understand how many things are truly unnecessary. Rooms and rooms of stuff; junk, really. Where will I find space for my multifunction food processor? Or all those tapes that were supposed to teach me French? I began to think like a camper, and the clutter began to smother me.
Thus, I began “the purge” – stripping down my belongings to only those things which I really need, whittling away at all that I have acquired in my quarter-century. A huge yard sale, several giveaways, pages of listings on Freecycle and a big trip to Goodwill later and I had finally condensed my assets to the essentials.
So the baggage was shed, trails were cleared, the tent was erected. I was home at last.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
The first few days were quite an adjustment period. At first the sun was a dagger in my eye through the windows of my tent at an awfully early – and unpleasant – hour. But now it provides me a gentle rousing from slumber, much kinder than any alarm, and the waking birds even give me a reliable 20-minute snooze. Moreover, something about rising and resting with the sun has reinvigorated my mind and body, setting me in tune with the cycles that surround me.
The woods are filled with things that go bump in the night, and at first it set me on edge. But it only took a few nights to know the difference between the sound of a frog hopping up a tree and a squirrel scurrying down it. Now I go to sleep to a symphony of insects and the sound of trees as their leaves sway in the wind.
To be certain, I live the “modified” version of life in the woods. I still benefit from the technologies of modern man. For instance, while I sometimes take advantage of heavy afternoon rains for bathing, most frequently I make use of my $6 solar shower, a five-gallon neoprene bag with a rubber hose attached to the bottom. It’s far from a wonder in water pressure, but if you rinse off and scrub up really quick, and maneuver it just right, you can step back into the real world wearing at least a facade of fresh and clean.
My water is either bottled in gallons for drinking, or collected in a rain barrel to feed my plants or fill the shower. Despite my urge to find an old-fashioned washboard and make do, I still travel to the coin-operated laundry to take care of my dirty clothes. And while I’ve researched “humanure,” and have used a tree a time or two in the past to support my daily squats, I now dispose of my more personal waste in the handiest bit of camping technology I’ve found yet – the Luggable Loo.
With my new schedule, I spend less time worrying about my finances, checking e-mails and catching up on current events, and much more time doing the things I love. Besides, the humid heat in the heart of the afternoon doesn’t encourage the brain and body to work too hard. Thus, at my new home I have painted more, read more, played more guitar and in general enjoyed my time as leisure in a capacity far greater than when I had all the luxuries of modern life within arm’s reach; and this from a once-professional workaholic who would bookend days preparing a to-do list and clearing voicemail.
We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us!
All of which is not to say I haven’t been working. Besides my summer job, I’ve put in time toiling at the camp. It’s quite a task preparing land to be lived on – cutting and chain-sawing and clearing in a way that conserves the natural landscape. But all the sweat has been a spiritual gift in itself; not to mention a far better physical workout than I could get at any gym. And I have felt my work more as play than as labor.
Most people ask how I can live without air-conditioning. The answer is I have developed a new appreciation for shade. We are, after all, human, and our bodies quickly adapt to our surroundings if we agree to let them stretch beyond what we perceive as our comfort zones. It only took a few days for me to prefer a cool breeze on a still afternoon to the frigid piercing of a thermostat set too low.
You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.
Others ask why I’m not lonely. In reality, I’ve never felt more connected with my friends in the wild. The bugs and the frogs share their calls in a rhythmic pattern throughout the day, and I soon learned which birds send which songs on the wind. A wise old owl often croons me to sleep in the tree just above my tent. The thunder has never echoed more grandly, and the lightning never put on such a majestic display. If I’m quiet on my morning walks, I’m often greeted by a family of otters or a pair of deer. All these creatures I first met in petting zoos are now frequent guests in my own backyard. Not to mention the beautiful backdrop to my every moment: the lush, rich scenery of green, untouched earth.
Even my food tastes better these days. There is an ease to having all the modern appliances at hand to prepare a meal, but nothing tastes finer than some seasoned beans and rice simmering long on the camping stove, or grilled veggies by the fire. When you are growing and harvesting even the smallest amount of your own food and hunting wood for your fire, the extra time spent in preparing your meal is rewarded deliciously.
In this process, I have come to appreciate the quantity of waste we so hastily produce; in the woods, your trash doesn’t disappear in the back of a big truck. When it piles up just beside your bedroom, you learn the importance of “waste not, want not.”
Of course camping in the Florida summer isn’t without its difficulties, many of which I didn’t anticipate. I am still a part of this computer-driven society, so when I do find myself needing to use one (say, when trying to write an article about living in the woods), it’s an adventure to make it happen. Sometimes, when the weather is especially inclement, I find myself relying on my circle of good friends – which I am truly lucky to have – a situation that has taught me a hard lesson in humility. While my cooler will keep food cold for a few days, the soggy mess it leaves is a pain in the ass to clean up. The one appliance I do sorely miss is a refrigerator.
And no matter how much scrubbing I attempt, at this point I doubt I will ever really get my toes clean again.
While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.
Still, the rewards have been countless – perhaps none more than the new gratitude I have for each day and the new eyes through which I view it. See, the longer I live out here, the more I come to understand how imprisoned we are by a lifestyle that values efficiency and convenience. We are trapped by the daily grind, to work and to bed, laboring over and over in this way so we can acquire something bigger and better, something that is supposed to make our lives easier, all the while separating ourselves from each other and from our source. The deeper we connect with technology, the more disconnected we become from the earth that sustains us, the people who surround us and, most regrettably, ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Henry David Thoreau. I have yet to build my own dwelling, although I’m inspired by the idea. I drink bottled water, use a plastic toilet and still truck my clothes into town to do my laundry. Nonetheless I’ve chosen sweat over stucco walls; the buzz of bugs over the hum of appliances; a Coleman camping tent over wall-to-wall carpeting. In short, I have elected to give up many of the conveniences of modern society to search for a life more simple – and in my surrender have found myself all the richer.