“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” –Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray .
Today, I will discuss a few specific interactions I had with people here on the Florida Trail that have changed the way I view my own hopes and fears, and may in turn do the same for you. Their personalities and lifestyles could not be any more different from one another, but the wisdom they left me with was the same. To gain context for how the timing of these interactions played out as I hiked farther North each day, consider reading Part 1 of this post.
When I arrived at the designated campsite, just before 7PM, there was already a tent set up- an ultralight MSR 2 person tent with carbon fiber poles. As I sloshed through the standing water that was surrounding the picnic table, a mass of bushy red/brown/gray hair and beard peeked out of the tent and welcomed me. As he stepped out and put on his green, mock-gator-skin Crocs, he asked where I was headed. He’s a big guy: tall and stout, with calves like tree trunks. He must be thru-hiking, I thought. After I told him of my year plan, I asked him the same. He said he was just going as far as he could in the next few weeks, because he’d have to be going home to Virginia soon, but that he had already come a few hundred miles. He stuck out his hand, and introduced himself as “Kitchen Sink”, and as I shook his mitt, I introduced myself as “Dudetrek”. As is customary with hikers who spend a lot of time on the trail, he pointed out the water pump, the next driest camp spot, and warned me of possible rain tonight before we made any further small talk. I spent a minute or two refilling my water bottles, and when I returned, he had pulled a flat disc from his pack, slightly larger than an IPhone, but significantly lighter. On the backside were 2 highly effective solar panels, and as he propped it up in the nook of a tree and flicked a switch, bright LED lights lit up my entire campsite with more light than both our headlamps could produce together. It’s called the Luci: 8 hours of sunlight gives you a few nights of power, he told me, and it only cost him $15. “Would you like some oranges?”, he asked. “I’d love a couple, thanks.” From his tent, he hollered, “do you like salmon?”. I paused for a second, knowing fully well what my answer was, but not sure if this was an offer, or simply a question of curiosity. “…Yes I love salmon”, I responded, hoping for, but certainly not expecting, the former. To my great surprise he returned with oranges and a vacuum-sealed filet of salmon, pre-cooked and peppered. I laughed from my throat in disbelief, glanced at him and asked if he was certain he didn’t want or need it, and when he assured me that he did not need it and was happier giving it to me, I laughed again, this time from deep in my belly- a laugh of pure, mirthful joy. I thanked him heartily, and as I dug for my spoon, my sole eating utensil, from my pack, I asked him where he was from in Virginia. Oddly enough, he said, he was from the same small town that John the van-camper was from, and even stranger was that they both carried the same type of pistol. The real oddity, I would come to learn as we conversed over dinner, was really how drastically different they were from each other.
When I met John the van-camper, I was walking through another designated campsite, and he had also offered me oranges- ones that he had picked from wild trees that were so sour they were almost too hard to get down. He had long straight hair where he wasn’t balding, and wore torn up jeans and a loose plain red t-shirt. He told me about meeting other thru-hikers, mentioned that he had brought some of them into town for resupply and that he could do the same for me if I needed it. I really did, so I stayed there that night, ate some warm Chef Boyardi by the fire that he had offered me, and listened about how he had lost his family in a car wreck, and how he found peace in traveling across the country from free campsite to free campsite. He showed me pictures of vine-woven baskets he had been taught to make and sell to floral shops by a man near Lake Okeechobee, then showed me a video of how he caught an alligator on his fishing line but couldn’t pull it up on shore. His best story, however, that was also accompanied by a series of photos for proof, was about how he had to fend off a rabid raccoon by throwing rocks at it for half an hour until a hunter heard the ruckus and shot it for him. In the morning, as he drove through a heavy fog to the Walmart where we would both pick up our week’s worth of food, we listened to Hank III and talked about our favorite live concerts. Sure, John was a little rough around the edges, but he was a really genuine dude that shared his food with me and went out of his way to help me stock up for the upcoming week. Kitchen Sink was just as kind and generous, but he showed his roughness in a completely different, and definitely more constructive way.
So when Kitchen Sink told me that he had also met van-camper John, I asked him if he saw the photos and videos I had been shown. Indeed he had, and he had also been subject to a racist rant when he told John that he was in politics. “Politics? How so?”, I inquired. In short, Kitchen Sink is a self-described political dissident. He publishes articles in political journals and newspapers, participates in a think tank in DC, works to uncover secret and classified documents through the Freedom of Information Act, and participated heavily in Occupy DC, even claiming to have contact ties with Edward Snowden in Russia through another journalist friend. He showed me photos of a group of protesters pushing through a fence onto the steps of the Capitol Building, one in which he stands in the middle with two fists raised and head tilted back, which he remarked should have made the news. For most of his life, his profession as a chef of world cuisines allowed him to travel and make friends wherever he went, but now, while he still owns his own restaurant, he has been able to spend more time in politics because of an inheritance he received after his father’s death a few years ago. His mother is a professor in one of the Earth sciences at James Madison University, and his father was a military man that came from a line of gunmakers. His mother instilled in him a great love for Earth science, and for his next trip, he will bike across the Southwest, hunting for fossils, but his interest in guns only goes far enough to warrant him carrying a pistol during his hike. He stressed to me that he had researched concealed carry laws in Florida thoroughly, to prevent any police officer giving him a hard time about it, which he said had happened 12 times in roughly 20 days on the trail. Each time, a sheriff or deputy sheriff would be waiting in their car at a trailhead, which is remarkable, considering that I hardly ever see any vehicles at the trailheads, and each time they would ask him the same questions: what is he doing here in Florida, does he have a gun, and how is he funding all of this- all fairly typical questions, but not when asked nearly every day in odd and remote places. He would answer honestly each time- that he was on vacation, he did have a registered pistol, and that his finances were his own private concern, and they would leave him alone each time, but he told me not to be surprised if we see a sheriff at the trailhead tomorrow morning.
When we were both up and stirring in the morning, it was still drizzling on and off, and we shared breakfast during a period of dryness. He made coffee and muesli with banana chips, and while he turned down my offer for it, I mixed some of my recently purchased granola into my share. I had learned much about him the night before, and was dying to know how one becomes involved in, and seems to succeed in, so many things at once. Clearly Kitchen Sink was an intellectual- he’s the type of person whose mind moves a million miles an hour, and has such a breadth and depth of knowledge that one really has to be in their wits to hold conversation with him. When he pulled out his tablet to show me pictures the night before, he had to exit out of a 1000+ page manuscript that he was reading to pull up the photos. But intellect can’t be the only thing that gets someone into a think tank, and I wanted him to tell me what would. I struggled to ask for what I truly wanted to know, but he understood my intention without hesitation. He reiterated how his work as a chef helped him gain so many connections that became useful later on; commented on how intellect is only useful to a point, giving the example that reading all of Shakespeare’s works would definitely teach me something, but if wouldn’t make me a better guitar player, and that’s what I really want to do, than Shakespeare is not worth reading; warned me of cognitive dissonance, as in when we convince ourselves we don’t want something that we actually do want, simply because it is unattainable, or like when a creationist Christian sees the layers of sediment in the grand canyon and asserts that the layers must have formed during Noah’s flood, despite evidence of carbon-dating and fossil specimens, etc.; quoted Oscar Wilde with the exact quote I began this post with, then proceeded to use the details of Wilde’s life to accentuate his last point: in life, when trying to achieve a monumental goal with many hurdles along the way, we can either do it, or not. That is all. No matter how humble the beginning, no dream is impossible unless one simply does not try to achieve it. One day, he said, he will see me playing in Carnegie Hall and will be that guy in the crowd who insists he knew me long before anyone else. If he says me at Carnegie Hall, I said, it would be strumming on the sidewalk out front with a sign that read “need money for next adventure”.
As we cleaned up from breakfast, the sun began to break through the clouds and we both packed up in haste, trying to make the most of the opportunity. Just before leaving camp, I played him my go-to song for going back onto the trail- Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again”. We approached the road and started to bid each other farewell, when from across the road a Sheriff Deputy pulled over to Kitchen Sink and spoke with him for a moment before driving off.
Over a week after meeting Kitchen Sink, I made my way through Oviedo, a suburb of Orlando, trekking on bike paths next to busy highways, through residential communities, or on the regularly cleaned sidewalks of business districts. In the scorching sun, having so many accessible sources of clean, ready-to-drink water was a real treat. By mid-afternoon, I was already 20 miles into my day, and getting quite hungry with the temptations of sushi, pizza, burgers, ice cream, and everything in between all around me. I practiced my resolve and held out on my hunger until reaching the local grocery store, Publix. As I crossed the parking lot to reach the sidewalk, a young dude with long, wavy dark hair stared at me with a baffled look on his face, saying, “what…where you headed man?”. I grinned and pulled out my map, tracing with my finger the long red line that crossed peninsular Florida all the way from Key West, and pointed to the little green square just north of Orlando. “This is where I’ve hiked so far, this is where I am now, and this is how much more I have to go”, I said as I continued to follow the red line through to Pensacola. “Bro that’s crazy. You must be taking lots of pictures,” he said, gesturing to the camera draped around my neck- “do you post them online?”. I pulled a wrinkled ziplock bag from the pocket on my hip belt and withdrew from it my card, which has links to my website and the affiliated social networking accounts, and handed it to him. “On the trail, hikers give each other trail names as a way to identify their personality, to tell a story, and to generally make their names easier to remember.” He was wearing a red collared shirt, tucked in, with a K-mart name tag that read ‘Lucas’, which I glanced at quickly to get his name. “So there might be a 4 or 5 Lucas’ on the trail, but if you went by ‘Big K’, chances are you’d be the only one with that moniker. My trail name is Dudetrek and it is also the name of my blog.” He looked at the card for a moment, then took a deep breath in and looked at me without exhaling for a few seconds, as though filled with questions and not sure which to ask first. “Do you…want to sit down and talk for a minute?”, he said with a heavy sigh. Having spent most of my day lost in my own thoughts and without anyone to share them with, I recognized that had all the time in the world to chat with this curious stranger.
We took a seat on the bench on the side of the shopping center and introduced ourselves- I gave him my real name this time. As he lit a cigarette, I asked him to tell me about himself, and this is what I learned, though not necessarily in the order I learned it. Lucas works at the Kmart in Oviedo, processing incoming shipments, and generally moving things that need to be moved. He has not worked here for long, as he just moved to the area; recently enough that he hasn’t made many new friends yet. He lives with his grandmother now- after being orphaned when he was young, his uncle took him in, only to end up abusing Lucas and getting himself sent to jail. He’s happy now that he and his grandmother can help take care of each other, and he cares immensely about her. Lucas is 21, plays League of Legends competitively, is passionate about drawing, and likes to rap over beats his friends make for him. He was shocked to learn that I am 21 too, in part because of how old I look, but also because of the nature of my adventure. How someone his age could be living such a drastically different lifestyle was beyond him. I tried to explain that this sentiment goes both ways, and implored him to tell me more about his story. He was quite open with me, and even pointed out how strange it was that he felt he could be so honest with me. Maybe it was because I was an impartial stranger who was willing to listen, or maybe he had just been feeling lonely and needed someone to talk to, maybe both. The latest chapter in his life story, he told me, was filled with doubt and uncertainty. His dreams of becoming an artist, a rapper, or full-time gamer all seem to conflict, and he knows he’d have to be incredibly lucky for even one of those things to lead to a real career, but he doesn’t know what he would want to do otherwise, in a professional sense. One thing he knows for sure, though, is that he doesn’t want to work at Kmart forever. “Trust me, I know how you feel, dude.” I told him about my first big adventure- walking across America right after graduating high school- and how I was determined to prove that happiness and success are not measured by a set of standards, but by our individual processes of self-reflection; not externally, but internally. There’s a lot of pressure in our society to live a certain way as an adult- to get a degree, start a career, get married, raise kids, retire, and then die- and this pressure comes from all around: from parents, from academia, from our peers, and from the all the forms of media that idealize and capitalize this lifestyle. I told him that the only apparent truth in this non-fulfilling system is that we will all die one day, and we can never know when that will happen. “So,” I asked him, “the question is, what is it you want to before then that will bring you the most happiness and fulfillment?”
Contemplative silence for a few moments, a few verbal false starts, then a simple “It’s complicated”. “It certainly can be, but do not let that discourage you. This,” I elaborated, pointing to my map, “is the big picture: this, for me, right now, is Key West to Pensacola- the overall destination. The answer to that question for your own life can only be found through honest and intensive self-reflection. You might consider what positive affirmations you can draw from your past. Beyond that lies the little picture- the little green square on the long and circuitous red line- in which one must make specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound goals that build on each other towards the completion of the big picture: this is the journey that will take you wherever you wish to go. As a very wise man recently told me, do be not blinded by cognitive dissonance, and remember that the only way to fail is to stop learning, or to simply give up.” In that moment, I became keenly aware of the irony of myself giving advice when just days earlier I had been asking for it, and I made sure to tell Lucas this is not just my philosophy of the world, but the accumulation of many philosophies. There have been so many people that have helped me along my way, and by digging deep into our dreams and analyzing the many pathways to happiness and fulfillment, I just hoped that regurgitating the lessons I had learned from so many others would help him find the sense of purpose and drive that he was searching for. As he put out his cigarette, I thanked him for sharing his story with me, and vowed that, as a channel for the stories of people from so many different backgrounds and circumstances, I would share his with others along my lifelong adventure as a way to proliferate the abundant wisdom that such a diverse and mostly unrelated group of people can offer, if only one piece at a time.
For you, Dudetrek reader, I hoped you have gained some wisdom from the yarns I have spun about a few of the folks that really made my Florida Trail experience special. Next time, I will recap the final stretch of my time hiking through the Sunshine State, and then do a review of all the gear I used from start to finish. Cheers, peace, and be wise!