After a week at a hostel in Miami Beach, I was ready to get off the grid and unplug for a while. Between the socially-outgoing vibe of the hostel, the frenetic pace of the neighborhood and city, and the chaos of the national political scene (which I compulsively kept up with on my smart phone), I needed to go quiet. So I picked a campground in Ocala National Forest to spend a few days of downtime before continuing on my travels.
This particular campground, Lake Delancy (East), appealed to me because it was primitive and isolated and reportedly little-used. When I showed up yesterday, maybe five of the thirty-some sites had vehicles in them. I picked an empty one for myself, set up my tent, ate some dinner, and right at nightfall fell asleep in the tent. After a week of navigating a shared hostel dorm (and the lack of sleep that comes with that), my own sleeping space felt so comfortable and relaxing.
An hour or so later, maybe (I had no clock or phone on me), I woke up to a bright light shining at my tent, a helicopter buzzing overhead, and a loud voice saying, “Hello?” In a half-daze I said “Yes?” as I sat up. The voice said, “Sheriff’s Deputy. Do you mind if I talk to you for a minute?”
I put turned my lantern on, found my shoes, and got out of the tent. A County Sheriff stood in my campsite, his patrol car parked on the dirt camp road. He asked me how long I’d been there. I told him I’d just set up earlier that evening, and asked why. He told me that they’d found a pickup truck at the campground registered to a “missing and endangered person.” He’d registered for one night, a week ago, and hadn’t been seen or heard from since. The deputy explained to me that the “endangered” part meant, in this case, the man they were looking for had gone off of some type of medication. He asked me if I’d seen anything that could help, and I said no. He told me they were going to start a search soon, using the helicopter, dogs, people. And then he said sorry for waking me, and I went back to sleep.
By the time I woke up the next morning, this morning, eight or so sheriff cars had already gathered just a few campsites over. They had a number of ATVs that took off in formation as I cooked my camp-stove breakfast. More law enforcement cars showed up. They set up tents. They ran a generator, played classic rock. So much for my down time in the woods.
It frustrated me. After breakfast, though, I did something I’ve been doing every morning for the last few months – sat down to write at least three pages. As I wrote, my frustration took form on the page instead of in my head, and I was able to see outside of myself. To put myself in the place of this missing guy’s family, for example. I’m having my vacation day disrupted; they’re having a foundation of their life disrupted. And then there’s the missing man himself. He came out to the campground alone, unplanned, like me. Why did he pick this campground? What made me pick this campground? How might we be similar? Was he, too, coming out here to get away from something? Did he feel like he had a choice, or was he compelled to? And what choice do I have? This escape was not an escape. How many actually are?
I packed up my camp shortly thereafter, deputies talking loudly, emergency vehicles coming and going. Just as I disassembled my tent, and over the noise of the generator and the deputies, an owl, somewhere in the trees between my site and the operations base two hundred feet away, hooted with more strength and force than I’d heard an owl in my life. I stopped, and so did the deputies. Thirty seconds later, the owl hooted again. I looked up into the trees, trying to see it, and I noticed the deputies doing the same. The owl had stilled them too, if only for a minute. Had stilled us together.
I finished packing, and sat in my van as the engine warmed up, looking at my atlas and wondering where to go next. Trying not to expect an escape, but wondering what would come. Trying to not have expectations, I drove away, and thought of the missing man. Would he have driven away if he’d had a choice?