Below is an account of three days I spent in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. My hope was to record some music I had been working on and get ‘off the grid’ for a few days. I made a video for one of the songs I recorded with footage I shot while at the cabin: Click for video. I’m not as good at editing video as I am at surviving in the wild. Thanks for reading.
There I was, completely naked running through a grassy clearing of the forest in a torrential downpour… ‘Graceland’ blasting from the cabin… “There is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline”…
I suppose reading Hemingway after a long day of shuffling through databases and spreadsheets is a lethal combination for a man in his late twenties staring down thirty. It makes you want to clean your rifle, stare down a lion, stab a bear in the heart with a razor sharp walking stick, sleep on the ground, and warm yourself with whiskey from a canteen. It makes you want to do things that are flat out impossible between your gated community and your cubicle. In times like these, you can almost see your testosterone leaking out on to a Pottery Barn catalog.
That bleeding, dreaming, wistful fool was me before I returned… to the wild.
A local dentist and music supporter named Eddie White offered me his cabin for a weekend of writing, recording, and relaxing. He warned me that it was ‘very rustic’. I began to salivate like a Portlandian at a Subaru dealership – nay, like a wolverine about to demolish a baby hare. I could see myself already- smoking a tobacco pipe, beaver pelts tied around my waist, strolling through the forest, pulling copperheads out of the trees and biting their heads off to extract their venom to make poisonous darts with to protect myself from poachers, fashioning homemade bear traps out of river rocks, Spanish Moss, and sticks I carved with my pre-WWI era Bowie knife, tasting deer droppings to track down the buck that would I would kill, skin, filet and make a nice brine for out of the brackish water from the southern boundary of the property. The only question is how to fit all these fantasies in my new 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee without getting it dirty.
But there it was, my chance to get away from all these PEOPLE that have long been inhibiting my natural sense of hermit-like survivalist behaviors. I don’t need Jim Cantore to tell me it’s going to rain. I will rely on my left foot to swell just a little when the barometric pressure drops. I don’t need Comcast to pump high definition Discovery channel into my home so I can observe the mating habits of water buffalo. I will go out into the woods and walk until I find some water buffalo humping in a creek. I don’t need somebody with jumper cables to give me a jump so I can drive to the grocery to have somebody else put a can of food on a shelf that a robot cleaned gutted and sanitized. I’ll walk out into the river, stand completely still until a rainbow trout swims between my camouflaged legs. Then, I will reach down with my bare hands into the crisp river rapids, grab the trout by the gills, and beat it to death on the river bank. I don’t need to call Vivint because I can’t remember the code to disarm my home security system. No- my mind, my eyes, my ears, my wit, and my 10″ Bowie knife are all I need out here in the wild to protect myself. Give me 48 hours and I will be the Alpha and Omega of this jungle forest. But, I do need ample daily sunlight to recharge the solar power cells so that I can run my MacBook Pro to record my music with.
On the afternoon of September 28th, I embarked into the wild for a respite at Eddie’s secluded cabin. I packed granola, wine, my pipe, a flask of whiskey, bottled water, my brown hat, a few shirts and pants, some journals to write important things in, toilet paper, and a host of musical instruments and recording gear. The hope was to get away from everything, feel removed and liberated, get some rough recordings of some new songs, and turn the cell phone off. The hope was to feel that aloneness of being completely incommunicado with the world. This isn’t to be confused with loneliness. Loneliness is being alone when you would prefer the company of another. Aloneness is the preference and contentedness of not wanting anyone around. My desire for aloneness was not because I was tired of being around any one person or any group of people. It was simply a craving to go somewhere that is truly wild, to find a place where I am the cog, the wheel, and the compass. I wanted the thrill of knowing if I walk far enough, I will get lost and I am the only one that can help me. I wanted to be somewhere even Verizon couldn’t track me. These days you have to really work, really try to find a place where you can experience aloneness like that. But, Eddie White found it years ago, and was kind enough to share it with me. I will never disclose the actual location. But suffice it to say, it’s past the end of a small highway, 11 miles down a gravel road, then 5 miles down a dirt road, then another many miles down a ‘road’ that doesn’t even have tire tracks it is so untraveled. You wind back and forth through evergreen forests, dilapidated shacks, an old blue truck, cypress swamps, and the thickest vegetation you can imagine. At times you can’t see more than 100 feet deep into the forest. Then, right when you think you are about to fall off the edge of the world, the forest opens up into a small grassy clearing atop a hill where the cabin sits. It is a plain gray structure with three stories. The first floor has a kitchen equipped with a rain barrel as your sole water source, old copper-bottom pots and pans, mismatched coffee mugs, dried goods to survive on should you become trapped there, and a large bottle of cheap brown rum. There is a wood burning fire place in the center room, a table made from limbs hauled out of the forest, shelves of books containing the classic works of Walden, Homer, and R.L.Stine. There is a massively large chunk of cypress wood suspended from the ceiling as if Daniel Boone had an abstract installation exhibit in the ‘Trading Post’ wing of the Guggenheim. There are rocking chairs that face large floor to ceiling windows to sit and reflect on the great expanse. There are scraps of paper with lyrics from soul searching artists who have sought reprieve here in the years before my arrival. The cabin is not dirty but has an appropriate amount of sediment about the floors and shelves to prove its authenticity. Beside the kitchen are two bedrooms on either end with bare mattresses on the floors. On the east end of the main level there is the wash room which consists a 20 gallon aluminum tub with a hose connected to a hole in the bottom that leads through the floor and out into the woods. Directly behind the kitchen is a tiny little nook that caught my eye when I first walked in. It had interesting rocks and artifacts methodically laid out atop the table beside a book about native southeastern tribes and a magnifying glass. I liked this scene. It also had a window by the table that I could see out into the grassy clearing to spot approaching intruders.
Upon climbing the wooden steps to the second level there were two sets of bunk beds, several flash lights, a record player, some children’s paintings, and a dart board. I was reminded of the dartboard that, through many twists, turns, bars, vans, sweat, and blood, led me to this remote and nameless place on the earth, miles from civilization. Up the next flight of stairs, guided by a birch limb handrail, was the highest and most appropriately named room in the cabin – The Crow’s Nest. It was a 4′ x 4′ room surrounded by windows with nothing but a wood stool and wood stump. You could see atop the smaller trees at the edge of the ridgeline and eye-to-eye with the massive grandfather cypress trees for as far as the fog would allow.
100 yards south of the cabin, down a gradual hill and scattered oak trees, is a blackwater creek by the name of Echaw. It is dark to the point of being opaque, moves at the speed of molasses, and reverberates the calls of birds from miles down the stream. There is a 10 inch wide board that leads from the riverbank, atop the creek, and onto the dock. The water gets deep very quickly – about 6 ft. immediately into the creek. The dock is a floating dock and measures about 10ft by 8ft. You can sense you are far from alone when you are by the creek. This is assuredly the place where the area’s wildlife visits on a daily basis. On my first visit to the creek, I took my blade and walking stick. Upon approaching the creek, I splashed about with my walking stick to let predatory creatures like alligators know I was in the area. I did not see any adult alligators though I did see several baby gators, of about 12″ in length, swimming less than 5 feet from the dock. I searched about for the mother, keeping my guard up and my knife ready at all times. The unbeknownst locale of Mama gator did deter me from swimming in the creek. The last thing you want to confront when skinny dipping is your girlfriend’s father. The second to last thing is a mother gator. I was also on the lookout for Agkistrodon contortrix a.k.a.Copperheads. I was still desperately in need of their venom for my poisonous darts. And, copperheads are much easier to find that the elusive Phyllobates terribillis a.k.a. Poison Dart Frog.
10 yards east of the cabin was the outhouse. It was an amazing structure for what it was and heralded as the best view of the Echaw Creek. It was boarded on the back perimeter of the structure and screened in on the front so you could see out for several hundred yards across the swamp. I concluded this is ‘the best view of nature when nature calls’.
I sat up my recording station in the little nook behind the kitchen with all the beautiful rocks on the table. I liked this room. It was small and sonically dry. It had very ‘Hemingway-esque’ artifacts in it; field guides, blue tip matches, and a snake bite kit. So, I unhitched my blade from my belt and spent the good part of day 1 finding the best microphone placements. My goal was to record guitar and vocals for 4 songs. Some of the songs I would have to finish writing while I was there. I left them unfinished going into the weekend knowing I would be at a places well-suited for introspection and all of those ‘writerly’ things us non-confrontational, writerly people look for – silence, leaves, birds, cliché associations between nature and humans, and no signs of any political or apocalyptic activity.
I shifted between working on music for a few hours, then going outside, making a point not to stay too indoors too long. It would have been a shame to be in the wild yet separated from it. So, for every little journey I took my blade and my stick. I assumed the stick might be used to clear spider webs from my path and thwart off any large attackers. The blade was for when the fighting became hand to hand- when Mama gator is thrashing me about in the creek, when the bear has my leg in its mouth and is dragging me to his den, when the mountain lion and I are tangled up and rolling through the brush down a ravine.
By the end of the first day I had finished the acoustic guitars and vocals for a song called, ‘New With You’. I had started this song about a couple months prior after taking a friend to the airport at 5AM one day. Seeing the sun come up and planes taking off, I was reminded of the excitement of starting a new journey. I was reminded of the feeling of knowing you are about to go somewhere you have never been. That unique feeling of excitement is born from the anxiety of not knowing what to expect being defeated by the desire for the unexpected. That said, I thought ‘New With You’ was the perfect song to start with there, on a journey to place I had never been.
To start the day, I drove to the nearest speck of civilization, a general store about 20 miles away to get a cheap bottle of wine. On my way back down the tracks and trails to the cabin I listened to Guy Clark’s ‘Dublin Blues’ album. If you haven’t heard it, take the fact that you are 3 pages deep into this rambling, overly dramatic blog as a cosmic sign to look up Guy’s music. Here are the songs you should start with: ‘Dublin Blues’, ‘Black Diamond Strings’, and ‘Randall Knife’. I must have stopped 4 or 5 times along the way through the forest to the cabin just to get out of my car and look around. It was very misty that morning. A dense fog hung about 8 feet above the ground in every direction. It hugged every tree trunk, every cypress knee, every fern, shrub, and fallen log on the forest floor. The thick canopy of tall cypress and pine trees protected the lingering fog from the sun’s evaporating heat. Looking around, it felt like I was in a different world. I was far from the horse urine and salt water taffy-scented downtown Market. I was miles from the wafting, pungent toxic brew of paper mill clouds that swirl up and down the streets of West Ashley and North Charleston.
Back at the cabin, with all of my microphones and recording setup in place, it was time to start really laying down some tracks. My goal was to leave with four recorded songs. Outside the cabin on a tree swing, I finished the lyrics to the second verse of ‘Cover of Night’, a song I had been working on casually for a few weeks. I have a habit of working very hard on the first verses of songs and losing that attention and direction on second verses. But, being aware of that, I wanted to really make sure I used my time in the wild to be very deliberate and clear with the lyrics to the songs I was working on. From the time I started playing music I have always held to the thought that people don’t relate to guitar tone or drum reverbs. They relate to the words that stand atop the music. Now that I’ve offended YoYo Ma, Esteban and every other instrumental artist in existence, I’ll get back to my self-absorbed diatribe. I finished the acoustic guitar and vocals for ‘Cover of Night’ within a couple hours. After a 30 minute trek into the wild, I returned alive but without the red fox I had hoped to trap. The next song I worked on was ‘She Sees Something’. This is a song about a husband whose behavior makes everyone wonder why the wife stays with him. She seems to be the only one who sees something in him worth dealing with all that he puts her through. This song was also unfinished until I got to the cabin. I did the majority of the writing in the Crow’s Nest of the cabin. There is a spoken verse at the end of the song. I blame/attribute that to listening to ‘Randall Knife’ by Guy Clark on the way to the cabin that morning. After I finished tracking guitar and vocals on ‘She Sees Something’, I recorded a sweet little song called ‘Sweet Pea’. This is one of those songs that came so quickly, I barely had time to write down a verse before another came to me. I suspect this is a song that I will like more than most people. I have a lot of those… a lot. But, I don’t mind it. It would be foolish to write only for the tastes of other people.
Around 3PM that afternoon a storm blew in. The cabin had a beautiful tin roof that was nice to look at but echoed and amplified every rain drop that fell upon it. The noise of the strengthening storm made it impossible to record. I took that as a sign to have a seat, watch the rain, and relax. I walked over to an old dusty CD player on a shelf in the cabin and hit ‘Play’. The accordion and drums of Paul Simon’s ‘Boy In The Bubble’ began playing. Volume and rhythm was blasting through the cabin, shaking the copper-bottom pans. Oddly enough, this is one of my all-time favorite albums, ‘Graceland’. His lyrics were pulsating though the wood floor boards into my leather boots, ‘these are the days of miracles and wonder’. Something came over me that I can only describe as unabashed joy. The song ended and I had already made complete sense of what was about to happen. And then it did. The CD clicked to the next song, ‘Graceland’. I took off my boots, my hat, my shirt, my pants, and then Why the hell not? … my underwear. I ran out the door and into wild. There I was, completely naked running through a grassy clearing of the forest in a torrential downpour… ‘Graceland’ blasting from the cabin… “There is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline“. I knew how ridiculous this was, but it just didn’t matter. I was laughing harder than I had laughed in a long, long time. I felt the wet grass beneath my feet and it was cold and electric. The music was blasting through the trees. And as the rain poured down on my body, I kept thinking:
I can’t believe I’m doing this. This is not something ’I would do’. I’m not X’d out at Bonnaroo!’
But it was joyous and undeniable. After a few laps, I returned to the cabin with a smile a country mile wide. I was proud of myself for some reason. I think I was proud that I seized one of those rare, weird opportunities in life to do something ridiculous and harmless that does nothing but make you happy and youthful.
The rain persisted most of the rest of Day 2. But I didn’t mind. I was still beaming from my Graceland streak. I had one simple goal for the last day– use the outhouse. I think my intestines sensed how far I was from a flushing toilet and went on strike. But, my urban-metamorphosis wouldn’t be complete ‘til I lay my droppings upon the earth.
I awoke to quite a surprise on Day 3. But, let me first remind you how remote this cabin is. It had been 48 hours and I hadn’t heard or seen one single sign of another human – no engines revving, no train whistles blowing, no neighbor’s baby crying through the walls. The only noises I heard in the last 48 hours were the forest’s and my own. So, to walk out of the cabin and see a dog on the porch was shocking to say the least. I instantly turned into one of those neurotic, suspicious mountain hermit survivalist freaks that think the government is watching them with satellites from the moon (that they never landed on). I was unsettled beyond belief. I grabbed my knife and stick and scouted the perimeter of the property. I thought to myself:
This dog has a collar, so it must have been tamed by a human. Where is that human? He must be close. Is he as suspicious of me as I am of him? Has this dog been trained to find other humans and lead his master to them? Was a battle afoot?
I shouted into the morning fog:
Come hither and show yourself, stranger of the land! If you come in peace, you shall drop your weapon and proclaim your given name! You are atop claimed land and shall fall under my knife to protect it! This is thy one and only warning. Thy next movement will be to spill blood from your chest!!
Despite my announcements, the stranger was nowhere to be found. It was just me and this rogue beagle. He was quite skittish at first, which made me wonder, was he lost? If so, how long had he been out here? I lured him close with a bagel… a bagel for a beagle. He eventually came close enough for me to see his collar. It had a man’s name and address. I had never heard of the city from which he came. I then thought about my own dog being lost in the woods. I would certainly want someone to bring her back to me. But, what should I do? I had been looking forward to this trip into the wild for so long? I couldn’t waste my last day on a dog that may or may not be lost. Could I? I fed him some more food to make sure he wasn’t starving. He ate very quickly. I gave him some water but he was less interested. After feeding him he was much less skittish and began to gently nudge and snuggle up next to me. He started licking my hand and burrowing his nose into my arm. I had found a friend out here in the lonesome forest. It was actually kind of nice to have a comrade out here, especially one that doesn’t talk. I said to him:
You can be my lookout. We can hunt together. Where I lack swiftness of foot, you will lead the way. Where you lack cunning and ingenuity, I will lead the way. When winter comes and chills our bones, we will keep each other warm. When danger comes to our door step, we will fight together, back to back ‘til toil takes us both. A friend of this depth deserves a name. Beagle, you are now and forever, Cecil.
Cecil patrolled the lawn of the cabin while I recorded my music. He never barked. He was a quiet and loyal companion. He could hear when I left my recording room and went toward the cabin’s main room. He would charge up the steps and look through the glass door to see if I was OK. I fed him throughout the day to reward his steadfast concern. This continued through the morning and into the early afternoon. That was until I heard a noise in my headphones as I was recording. The supersensitive Neumann recording microphones could hear things inaudible to the human ear. I listened closely. It sounded like a human voice in the distance. I turned up the volume in my headphones to be sure. Sure enough, I was no longer alone. I was in clear and present danger. I grabbed my knife, slung it around my waist, chugged some liquid courage and stepped into battle-mode. I thought to myself:
This bastard isn’t going to take me down without a fight. I will lash his face like the claw of a bear. I will demolish his flesh like a coyote’s bite through the belly of a rabbit. I will Alpha and Omega his ass until he begs for mercy. And as he begs and pleads, he will quickly learn that mercy is not the way of the wild. Survival is the only way in times like these.
I busted through the door with a rebel yell. I quickly spotted the intruders. There were two of them across the creek screaming at my dog! What kind of low-life, mouth-breathing imbecile steals another man’s dog? I sprinted down to the creek, blade unsheathed, ready to rock and roll in the blackwater. As I approached them, I began to size them up. They were both clad head-to-toe in camouflage. And then I put two and two together – the funny looking antenna on Cecil’s collar & the camouflaged intruders. Cecil was a hunting dog. The dog-thieving bastards were hunters. Cecil was not mine. Cecil is a hunting dog named ‘Junior’.
The hunters were calling him to jump across the alligator-ridden blackwater creek. Cecil looked at them and whimpered. He edged to the end of the dock, but wouldn’t jump. My first thought was that he simply preferred my company to theirs.
I don’t blame you, Cecil. We ‘clicked’, man!. We were like yin and yang, peanut butter and jelly, Cheech and Chong, Sonny and Cher.
But, he belonged to the hunters. As I stood on one bank of the creek and they stood on the opposite, they asked me,
Hey bud, canya get Junior to swim across?
I said, Uhhh yeah… how?
They replied, Well I guess yer gonna hafta thow’em in da creek.
‘Throw’em in da the CREEK?!’, I thought. ‘Are you f***ing MAD??!?!’, I thought but did not say.
Yeah, I’ll throw him in.
My mind flashed back to Day 1 when I saw baby alligators swimming in the exact spot I was about to fling my fluffy friend. I imagined 5 seconds into the future, Mama gator snagging poor, defenseless Cecil in its jaws and pulling him under to his death. I imagined the motion-picture version they would create of this story – the hunters and I would be staring into each other’s eyes across the river, each blaming the other for Cecil/Junior’s premature death. But, Cecil is Junior and he was not mine. So, I scooped up my dear friend, and launched him into the creek. He landed with a splash, plunged beneath the water for a split second, and then resurfaced. He adeptly swam to the other side without a problem. Junior seemed very excited to see his owners. And begrudgingly, that made me feel good, I suppose.
Shortly thereafter, nighttime fell on my last moments at the cabin. I sat there in a wooden rocking chair, in a quiet little cabin, in a quiet little forest. I finished documenting my adventures in three notebooks. The records were to remind me of the details of my adventures years later. But, as soon as I wrote them, I knew that time will make the details unimportant. Time will also likely make the songs and lyrics I wrote there unimportant. As I sat there listening to yesterday’s rain drops still falling on the tin roof and looking out into the dark woods, I was no longer afraid of what lay in the darkness outside those walls. I sat my knife and flashlight on the table, walked out the door, through the darkness, and down to the creek one last time.
Somehow whatever was outside those four walls helped me make good sense out of a lot of things that were changing in my life. No one is ever going to be as brave and interesting as Ernest Hemmingway all the time- certainly not I. No one is ever going to be as wise and witty as Garrison Keillor all the time- certainly not I. But, here is what you can do. You can find a little quiet. You can find something that makes you a little scared and a little excited. And, you enjoy it. You just enjoy it. You enjoy it like nobody is watching. You enjoy it with absolutely no expectations of yourself. You enjoy it like every dart you threw at a map, every flat note you sang, every roadside breakdown in Wildorado Texas, every birthday candle you blew out, every hangover you languished through, every dime you gave to a bum, every penny you picked up off the ground, every person you swore you would never speak to again, every person who laughed at your shoes in second grade, every bit of advice your parents gave you that you ignored for fifteen years, every mistake, every blessing, every turn you took when you were lost on purpose led you to this exact moment that you were designed to enjoy. And, you enjoy it like it will never ever happen again. Let yourself enjoy whatever it is and however it makes you feel. Enjoy it the second it arrives because it is already straddling the past. Bravery and wisdom come from finding and enjoying the pleasures of life before they are gone. It makes you a better friend, a better man, a better husband, a better father.
As I drove up the dirt road, past the old blue truck, and pulled onto the paved highway that led back to town, my journey quickly drifted into my past. My phone began buzzing with text messages and voicemails from the last three days. Ambient city light began hiding all of the stars the forest revealed. I recounted, in my mind, my intentions and the outcomes of my journey. I didn’t defend myself from a bear attack or trap a mountain lion. I didn’t start a fire with rocks and leaves or make poisonous darts. I wasn’t even returning with battle scars and beaver pelts. All signs pointed to a city-boy that was scared of the dark. But, I was content… and happy… and proud. And it turns out, I returned from the wild with exactly what I didn’t know I needed.
By Tyler James Mechem