It took two showers to wash the funk of three days camping in the wilderness off of me. That and a swim. In a couple of days I’ll be semi-satisfied that I no longer smell like I spent three days bicycling in a jungle.
I arrived in the Hell Hole Wilderness area of the Francis Marion National Forest on the heels of a May thundershower. In the darkness, the misty roads were disorienting. My dashboard GPS, which speaks to me in a robotic male voice I call Bob, only served to make matters worse, commanding, “Entering unverified area! Use caution.”
Bob didn’t know diddly. He kept telling me I had about 15 miles to go and I knew it was a flat-out lie. But the further I drove, the more confused I became. I found a Forest Service spur road, number 198A that was also labeled Hell Hole Road. It wasn’t the one I knew, but rather was bushy—overgrown—and even curvy. The smell of wood ash stirred by rain on a fresh controlled burn filled my nostrils.
Bob commanded me to “Make a u-turn, if possible” and my iPod shuffled to Cyndi Lauper.
I had to escape
The city was sticky and cruel.
Hmm. And I thought girls just wanted to have fun. I gripped the wheel tighter and wondered if I was going away from Hell Hole campground or towards it.
The road grew thick with toads. Thick like an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Though I needed some air, I rolled the window up so I couldn’t hear them when they popped under my tires.
Finally 198A came to a t-intersection. I glanced at Bob and his screen showed a blue dotted line connecting me with a target-shaped destination. I hung a right. I’d get there eventually. The road grew straight and flat and cypress trees in the headlights gave my mist-limited vista a feel like something out of a sci-fi movie. I strained myself for a glimpse of headlights to confirm that my comrades were out on the roads. They weren’t. Ah, well, it’s a wilderness area—there isn’t supposed to be traffic.
Toads hopped everywhere in front of my tires. I usually swerve. There were too many. There were so many I saw them hopping over each other. Twenty minutes and maybe two thousand amphibians later, I spotted the campground, though I use the term loosely. It’s a two acre clearing the national Forest. There are two meat poles, a big steel trash can that rednecks use for target practice and a concrete picnic table. No electricity. No water. No bathrooms. We use the woods.
* * *
I found out why there no one was out cruising the roads. Everyone was in the campground, the cars circled like covered wagons in a cowboy movie. And there in the center of it all was my brother Jeff and his bride Miss Punkin plus old friends and some yet to be made. I was home. Yes, Cyndi Lauper is right–I would drive all night to get there.
Understand that this is an annual event, a reunion of sorts. Snake hunting is the term we use for this activity but it is a gross misnomer. We do not hunt snakes, at least not with guns. We look for them and catch them. It is an act of intimacy, this rendering an uncooperative reptile into your hand. You are touching it against its will, if they have a will.
So we go out herping and visit and play a lot of music and gather around a fire. But our purpose is clear. We are re-aligning ourselves with nature under the pretense of hunting snakes.
Operating with special permits from appropriate state and federal wildlife agencies, we count, catch and release any animals we find. Mark their locations with GPS coordinates. Share the story of the species with others. We talk about the habitat, the impact of hurricanes and drought and humans.
Like me, some choose to camp in the national forest. Others stay in at a Holiday Inn in Monck’s Corner, which is quite a distance from Hell Hole Wilderness. There is an occasional commuter from the Charleston area and even from near Georgetown. We are an eclectic group consisting of a mixture of naturalists, fans of the indie rock band The Floating Men and borderline TFM stalkers. Looking around I saw cast of characters easily described as Southern gothic, a jumbled mix of tragedy and triumph, part refugee and part genius.
The lovely Miss Punkin helped me unload a few things from my truck and we pitched half a camp in a few minutes. I chose not to erect my tent in the dark and possibly end up sleeping on a hill of fire ants. And even if it is me, I think there is something just right about a middle age woman willing to sleep in the back seat of her pickup truck. It strikes a pose between self-confidence and self-flagellation. I sleep there because I want to.
I was already stinking. To avoid being carried away by mosquitoes, I slept with the windows rolled up tight, tangled in my sweaty sleeping bag and worried about whether or not I’d be getting enough oxygen. But I woke surprisingly fresh; the seat of my truck apparently is shaped so that my shoulders and spine were in perfect alignment all night long.
The night had passed without rain, but everything in our camp was soggy or covered with water and soon my running shoes were squishy. My matches were so damp I couldn’t light my stove. Still, I’m such an early riser that I managed to make it to the closest convenience store in nearby Jamestown. There I was dazzled by a staggering array of exotic coffees and creamers. I chose Kona and half-n-half. What the hell. After briefly considering bathing in the ladies room sink, I purchased a bag of ice and, feeling like a little bit of a cowboy, headed south for Hell Hole.
* * *
I am the bicycle guide. I guess. Maybe the bicycle geek. Three years ago I decided that we might see more snakes, turtles and lizards from the seat of a mountain bike than a truck and started leading small groups of eager cyclists on a thirteen to fourteen mile out-and-back on Hell Hole’s main road. I have a high dollar road bike that’s high-tech, light and fast and I consistently can’t live up to what my bike is designed to do. But on these gravel roads on a heavy steel-frame hard tail with knobby tires, I can kick ass. One year I sent tee shirts that read “I Survived Cycling with Jackie” to those who rode with me.
This year I was expecting to ride alone, to maybe make a day of it. But Jeff had more participants than guides and low and behold, Gordon and Ronnie brought their bicycles and had the guts to go out with me for a second year. I arranged for people in vehicles to give us water when they passed us and told Gordon and Ronnie that I had packets of Hammer Gel should they need it.
Right down the road from camp I spotted a swallow-tailed kite, a dramatic, graceful raptor that winters in South America. It is a species of special concern in the southern states in which it occurs. We see them every year, but I proudly pointed it out to my two cyclists. These kites have deeply forked tails and are a blue color like where the sky meets the horizon on a clear day. Gordon and Ronnie didn’t know how lucky they are to see it, but I did. I would report it to the Citizen Science for Swallow-tailed Kites Network. Last year they gave me an actual refrigerator magnet for my effort.
Later I spotted a medium-sized alligator as it slid into the road ditch. Ronnie and Gordon didn’t see it and snakes weren’t crawling. By this time last year I had caught two snakes and detained another one. It felt like we were in a steam bath, but the temperature really wasn’t that high. Maybe seventy-five, not ideal but plenty warm enough for crawlers. I’m being generous to describe the mood as subdued.
We reached the end of Hell Hole Road and started back. Soon I saw what I thought were people in the road ahead. In Hell Hole, I’m never sure if what I see is a mirage or not. But finally I realized it really was someone. Eddie, Patrick and Ty materialized on the road, arms extended and thumbs out as though they thought I could pick them all up on my bicycle and ferry them from the swamp. They had spotted an alligator, scared it into the water and just took off on foot to look for more neat stuff.
Ronnie and Gordon caught up and we went with the Hade family to where they had pulled their car over for the gator. Of course it wasn’t there. These gators are savvy and go into the water fast if they feel pressured. They have good eyesight and keen hearing and since they have been harassed before, they usually don’t linger in an area this accessible to people.
Ronnie found it, though, on the opposite side of the road, its prehistoric head sticking out of a culvert. The six of us clustered around the culvert, and I was certain the gator would disappear in a swirl of black water. I thought wrong.
It stayed while every frigging one of us tramped onto its culvert and then it stayed some more. Eddie got close, really close and patiently took photo after photo, grasping for just the right light and exposure and angle. I stepped down the ditch a few feet and into the edge of the water to take some photos of my own.
Since we had permission from state and federal agencies to handle reptiles, I’d quizzed Holmes—which is what the fans call my brother—before heading out. Hey, Jeff, should, uh, opportunity arise, can I catch an alligator?
“Hmm. They’re not endangered any more. But they’re not clumsy and they are really fast, even on land,” he said. “And this year’s hatchlings—remember the mother’s not far away and she’ll get pissed if you mess with her babies.”
Then he gave me a conspiratorial little smile, one that said, ok, you didn’t hear this from me but, maybe one a foot long or so.
Gordon and Ronnie and Patrick and I pow-wowed while Eddie continued to take photos and Ty played around in the road. They wanted to call Win. Win, they reasoned, would try to grab it. But between all of us, we didn’t have a cell phone with enough battery to text anybody. Good thing we hadn’t encountered a venomous reptile.
But my womanhood was threatened a bit. Call Win, my butt.
“I’ll try to touch it,” I said. “But it’s too big to grab.”
I had handled alligators and crocodiles before. Small ones are easy enough to grab bare-handed and bigger ones can be handled with the proper tools. This one was maybe four and a half to five feet, its snout easily broader than my hand. It would take two hands fast on the snout, simultaneously, flawlessly, to avoid being bitten. Knowing myself rather well, I worried about getting the clumsies and rolling into the water, where it might slash me with its claws.
This alligator, it was way too large to hand-grab and I knew it.
Still, you will never get this close to a wild gator, at least not outside of a national park where the animals have no fear. I could, though, envision counting coup on it, extending my hand and touching its snout as it quickly submerged.
I could also imagine it slashing its head sideways and ripping the meat off my hand.
I stretched out on my belly on the culvert and cameras came out.
“Whatever you do, don’t get my butt in the picture,” I said. “I will kill you. I mean it.” They, being men, understood.
Time stood still. I realized the water was clear though dark orange from the tannins in it. The gator was tantalizingly close, a beautiful thing, eyes rimmed in gold lamé. My face was maybe a foot and a half from his. I extended my hand to six inches from the reptile. My fingernails, polished pink and shiny with my own gold bands, glistened in the sun. I hesitated. Okay, no, I suddenly went chicken. I choked. But so did the gator, which submerged just as I paused.
I am so down with no emergency room visit.
* * *
Meanwhile, Holmes and Miss Punkin got lost, really lost, in the swamp. For an hour and a half. Jeff, who has become somewhat of a techno-geek, went temporarily insane and left his cell phone and GPS in their Land Cruiser. They tried following the sun. They finally nagivated back, zeroed in on the music of the frogs. Punkin, I said, I’ve been in a swamp with Jeff and I can tell you he can get lost with a GPS in his hand. I’ve been lost before and I know it’s true what they say in the Westerns. You do go in circles.
* * *
A front blew through and the weather went from sort of okay to really chilly. Folks snacked and napped. Steve and Sylvia arrived and Cris mistook Steve for a stray dude wandering into our camp. Pam and Tyler came in and put up two tents. Junkman and his girlfriend put up a tent. I noticed him trying to pound pegs in with his knife so I produced a rubber mallet for them. I must own three rubber mallets, having had days when I couldn’t get a peg in the ground for nuthin’. At any given time, I can find one of my mallets. Good thing. Everybody needed it.
Then we went back out cruising for reptiles. This time, I took them in cars. Alysen and Misty rode with me. It was party time. We started with my iPod on shuffle again and then we rocked out. Every artist had a story, split between my softer, flatter accent and Alysen’s high-pitched and very fast mountain twang. We got hung up on Prince for a while. I could barely drive for dancing.
Back on shuffle, the iPod spat out Billy Idol and by some improbable cosmic occurrence shuffled back to Cyndi Lauper.
I was dreaming as I drove,
The long straight road ahead.
How likely is that? A machine with almost 4000 songs, set to random shuffle, picking up one of maybe two Cyndi Lauper songs on it and playing it twice in one day’s time? Not very, I thought.
Alysen had a story about that, too. “Cyndi Lauper. I ‘member I used to like her better than Madonna. Tried to dress like her. ” I grinned, mentally envisioning tweenaged Alysen and Misty decked out in some mixtures of clunky beads, ripped lace and plaid with crimped pink hair and pouty lips.
Later I had the pleasure of taking out Junkman and his girlfriend Sarah, who I promptly nicknamed Junkwoman. Nice kids, first Hell Hole experience. I let them drink beer in my truck. Junkman, I was told, holds the dubious distinction of being the only Floating Men fan ever arrested at a Floating Men concert. He served twelve hours of hard time for trying to talk a policeman out of taking his friends to jail. We talked a lot and quite naturally didn’t see any snakes but found two dead hogs and a dead pit bull near the meth head’s trailer. Such is Hell Hole.
Back at camp my matches had dried out enough that I could start my stove. I cooked butterfly pasta. Tossed it with some olive oil and canned smoked salmon. No capers—according to Miss Punkin, the Monck’s Corner Food Lion was fresh out, though I hardly think there was a Memorial Day Weekend rush on capers. I put some olive oil in a cup and sprinkled it with Italian seasoning, served it with French bread and offered it up to the public. I guess I stunk so badly that nobody but Jeff’s old college friend Lauren took me up on it.
People drifted in and out of the campsite that I occupied with my gal pal Cris. In Hell Hole, Cris is in her happy place. Happy with carrots and white bean hummus. Happy with spring water. Happy with blackberries and yogurt. No wonder she’s a stick. Me, I gotta eat something with major carbs. I have a little tool box full of necessaries. Instant oatmeal. Seasonings. Olive oil. Jiffy pop. Mustard, ketchup. Crackers. Tuna.
Junkwoman looked shyly at my box. “Do you have any marshmallows?” She asked.
But of course. I even offered to pull the skinny wire legs off my plastic pink flamingos to use as skewers. Too bad the Leap-people weren’t there. Michelle, I’d bet, could produce something Starbucky.
Everyone arrived by the fire. It was as large a Hell Hole gathering as I’ve ever seen. And as quiet. Where’s Leftwich when you need him? No one was loud or drunk and disorderly or the least bit boisterous. Ty ran around quietly playing with a turnip he found on the ground. We sat close by the fire, partly for the warmth. People left and came back with blankets. It was that cold. No snakes? No wonder. And no worries.
Jeff took requests from each of The Floating Men’s studio CD’s. Win’s friend Randy nabbed me and got me to serve wine that he and his wife Kim had concocted. Home-made blackberry merlot. It was damn fine stuff, though fortified, he said with some real alcohol. I took it real easy, produced some clear plastic glasses and served it like communion, circulating quietly through the chairs. Coffee, tea or me ran through my head.
Holmes, sans indigestion this year, gracefully played the requests. Then he took a short break and launched into his new material with Punkin holding a flashlight onto his notebook full of lyrics. Good stuff. No, great stuff. Not a soul heckled him or talked out of turn. Near the end (wink) I thought I saw Eddie nodding off. Then he got up and put Ty to bed in the back seat of their car. The wilderness area biologist arrived late with his wife and three daughters. We talked after Jeff was through singing and I wished they had come sooner. True, the guy was fine (A Georgia alum and all) but his wife could’ve been the life of the party. Gordon cranked the TFM on his motor home stereo and a few stalwarts hung around the fire and visited over marshmallows.
I was snuggled down in my sleeping bag, rated to zero and oh-so-comfy by 11:30. This time in a tent.
Morning found me energized though stinkier than ever and wanting to head to Jamestown for more Kona and cream and maybe–just maybe–a sponge bath in the sink at the convenience store. It was not to be. That scoundrel Bob had stayed up all night partying and his battery was as dead as my tent peg mallet. I located a semi-dry match and made coffee in my enamel percolator on my stove and Cris boiled some water for my powdered eggs.
They were simply not edible. But Hell Hole, being a little bit of a temporary commune, took care of me.
Pam popped up, handy with jumper cables and cars were hastily rearranged to let her Mustang Ka-Thunk, a girl car, couple with my Honda. Randy showed us how to connect the terminals and Bob purred to life, basking in the afterglow of his chance encounter with a real American auto.
Randy and Kim and Amanda and Paul and Hope and Win cooked enough eggs and bacon for the entire camp. They offered and I accepted, my appetite for eggs apparently whetted by the disgusting powdered stuff that I had tried to reconstitute in its pouch. We folded the eggs and bacon in giant flour tortillas and I spiked mine with Tabasco and shredded cheddar.
Hell Hole? Hell, yeah.
Then I took Miss Punkin on a run down Hell Hole and to the old cemetery off Yellow Jacket Road where we saw a flock of turkey hens and admired a little plastic saxophone that’s always on one of the graves. We stopped and watched woodpeckers in the tall stand of long leaf pines at the intersection and I whipped out my Antsy McClain CD collection. Punkin said nice things (though her colorful use of the English language would make a sailor blush) about the cover art on Way Cool World and we couldn’t stop laughing so we sat there and listened to “Skinny Women Ain’t Hip” and watched red-headed woodpeckers where we should have seen red-cockadeds.
She is getting out more because of changes in her office. I’m glad. Her laughter is contagious, her wit keen. Both of my brothers have excellent taste in wives.
We didn’t see anything of great significance but this is not failure. The sun was bright, though, and the day promised to be warmer. Maybe someone would catch some snakes before the day wrapped with the Ghost Tour on Pawley’s Island, but I knew it would not be me. Like many parents, I get the guilties for taking some me time. And there was a lad at home and he won’t be twelve forever.
I left Hell Hole at noon, gassed up and put the iPod back on shuffle. Inexplicably, just before Summerville, Cyndi Lauper came on again.
I drove all night
To get to you
Is that alright?
I drove all night.
Yeah, I probably will next year, too.
I remembered this essay and posted it today due to the duplicity of Led Zepelin. Driving home from the grocery store, the radio was playing “Fool in the Rain.” When I got home and got out to unload the groceries, “Fool in the Rain” was playing on my iPod, which I had set up outside by the pool. I laughed out loud.