I go feral fast.
That wouldn’t surprise anybody who really knows me, but the years I spent on the road in America in my twenties aren’t easy to see, here in the last year of my thirties. It’s 2011, and I’m sitting beside a cheap tent in a big, dark wood surrounded on all sides by the houses, lights and clearly audible roads of civilization. My lap is a graveyard of dead mosquitos, illuminated by the glow of my screen and prey to my fast hands.
Perhaps ten square miles, at the end of the Central Line, you just get off at Theydon Bois or Loughton and walk out of London and into The Wood. Epping Forest is not a big wood. It’s big enough that you could get thoroughly lost, and walk for an hour in any direction except the straight lenght of it, and hit civilization. But along the straight length it’s a few miles, and if you stay to the center of that, and occasionally dart off the path into a patch where they’ve cleared the scrub, or something’s made a side track, you pretty soon get the idea that, yes, this is The Wood. A small fragment remains of the Forest which once so dominated the hinterlands of our minds.
The fox got a pretty good crack at my food. A highly entertaining encounter with bears, and a few stories about the far, far more devastating mice trained me to be very animal-aware camping in the US. The bears were in a dangerous configuration indeed: mother and two cubs, highly habituated to humans, mooching like oversized labradors. They woke us all up in the middle of the night as two yahoos tried to scare them out of the back of their pickup truck by driving around the Yosemite parking lot, honking and hollering. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dumber thing, but apparently everybody, even the bears, escaped unhurt. I left a couple of plastic bags by a tree when I walked down into town to find some network and saw him skulking around when I came back, unable to master either the yoghurt or the peanut butter.
GPS turns out to be quite helpful for camping illegally in the deep wood. It’ll reliably get you within 20 meters of where you want to be. Closer than that is pushing it, so you want some kind of clear, visible landscape feature to navigate the rest of the way from. A ten meter error on your waypoint, and another ten meters on where you’re standing doesn’t seem much, but if you’re doing this in near-darkness, or a real thicket, and the woods all look the same, soon you’d have issues. I wouldn’t trust GPS in a real crisis, say to find a survival cache in the middle of nowhere without other markers, but it’s fine when the price of failure is only some inconvenience. I used to joke about planting a series of survival caches in rural Colorado, five gallon plastic pails buried in the ground, with an assortment of shelter, food, ammo, medicines and so on, with a regular math formula to calculate the GPS coordinates of the next bucket – a survival trail for crossing territory in the event of something Truely Horrendous happening. Add something to deflect IR tracking, and you’d begin to have a survival technology.
That was in 2002, when Americans were sending anthrax to each other in the mail. I worried that it might escalate from weapons-grade anthrax to weaponized smallpox, and the next thing we’d know, a third of the human race would be dead. They have it, you know, weaponized smallpox. If you ever want to scare yourself to death, google “engineered mousepox” and extrapolate to what must logically exist in the classifed domain.
They were pulling anthrax from somewhere out of the biowar establishment in America and mailing it to people in 2002. That’s actually far, far scarier than 9/11 when you think about it, because anybody with access to anthrax probably had access to agents which are infectious in the general population, like smallpox would be, and if they’d shipped one of those instead, goodbye Berlin, goodbye New York, and possibly goodbye civilization.
The laptop is eerily silent. The fan has a little daemon that turns it off when the machine is cold, and there’s enough of the chill in the air that, resting on my laptop, it makes scarcely a sound. There isn’t even a hard drive, going whirrrrrr in the background, so it’s just me, the birds, the mosquitos, and the incessant drone of traffic half a mile away on one of the through roads.
I found a tentpeg here earlier, and the remains of what must have been quite a large fire.
I don’t camp with fire. It’s illegal most places. Back in the first thrill of discovering advanced combustion, I had a little battery powered stove, not a wood gasification stove, something older and cruder. I spent a few weeks in the woods outside Santa Cruz, under a tree on top of a hill out the back of a national park. It was a cow pasture, and the views were amazing. Every few days I’d walk a kilometer or so down to the stream and pick up some water, sitting by the side of the water boiling it with the stove. I didn’t mind carrying shit then. Now I’d take bleach and, once it had purified, kill the taste of the chlorine with a pinch of vitamin C. A teaspoon of bleach left in a gallon of water overnight will get most things. You can probably use less if the environment is warm, and don’t use a fancy bleach with pine scent either. Simple bleach, and a pinch off the side of a fizzy vitamin C tablet.
You’d think someone might have tried that in Haiti. It’s funny how little cross-over there’s been from survivalism and backwoods camping to disaster relief. It’s all bikers and dog walkers here in the mornings, but the mindset, once acquired, only needs the slightest sniff to set it off again.
Colorado was fierce, but it was on freight trains that I went feral. Iowegian was said to make a living hooking Iowa girls on smack and selling them in Mexico, one every couple of years. I can’t even remember the road name of the guy I caught it off. He was an army ranger, they said, in Vietnam. Mother died when he was 13 or so, and without a father he walked off the farm and lived as a migrant laborer until the war. He pulled the eyelets out of his boots because they could reflect light, which I suspect was an affectation rather than ingrained habit. But he had something, a certain lean grace, and it was impossible to believe that he had not killed, and probably at close range, quietly and quickly. I went feral watching him over the course of a few days, the space and the slience of his presence, so different from the flagrant alcoholism of the Freight Train Riders of America, and the clanking bouyancy of the anarchist contingent. Jim – was that his name? – was different. He was feral.
Very strange things happened on that trip. It took forever to get from coast to coast. Just getting from Iowa to Minneapolis took five trains, the first a mob-handed obscenity where 17 people got on one moving freight train. It was as subtle as a brick. Listerine Tom helped the first of us on the ridable boxcar, and a mad scramble got the rest up.
You’d never believe how many moving freight trains I’ve gotten off and on. It’s less than a dozen, but it’s more than a couple. Skillful freight riders never, ever get on and off a moving freight train. They wait for the crew change points, a few miles outside of town, where trains pause and new staff alight. Wiley hobos hop off then, and take the half-hour trek into the city. Amateurs, and the daft young, like the anarchists and I run alongside, matching velocity with the train, then grab for the ladder of a grain car or, when conditions are good, make the chest-height vault to the box car. You can recover easily enough from missing a ladder, but missing a box car can plant you under the train very, very easily. I only did that one once or twice.
I learned about people, too. The despair and self-destructiveness of the hardcore gutter-dwellers. The cheerful amorality of the FTRA, and their surprising and staunch defense of one of their members who happened to be gay. Their outrage at discrimination against them because they weren’t cartoon hobos.
The brotherhood of the road are no more, or at least much reduced, by lengthy federal pound-you-in-the-ass prison for interfering with critial infrastructure. It’s a “get out of here ya bum” misdemeanor no more, freight train riding. Now they mean business. I’m sure plenty still ride, but the tone’s gone from youthful hijinks and the remnants of an old way of life to the grim pragmatics of the security state.
But I was writing about feral affairs
It really starts kicking in for me, on this unscheduled break, when I start to see mosquitos not as predators, but as prey. Pretty soon my hands snake out almost by themselves, and *bam* another one bites the dust. The woods feel different, when you realize that a few bites don’t mean nothin’ compared to the satisfaction of seeing another of the little bastards ground flat against a goretex sleeve. Sure, the tent’s a cheap Quencha pop tent, just a little bigger than is enough for one person. There’s no weather here, no wind, no hail, no surprise snow or midnight gale. It’s England’s green-and-pleasant, but out in the woods I wear shorts and squat on the ground, smelling the air like an animal.
It’s an attitude. You forget, pretty soon, when you’re crossing more than a few dozen miles with a pack on your back, what civilization is or is for. The little gadgets – how far the LEDs have come since I was a lad! – come from somewhere, sure, but once you’re on the trail they’re essentially magick, they Just Work. As I said I don’t camp with fire, not even with a stove, it’s just too much weight, too much hassle. Hard bread and dry cheese, a bit of sausage, stuff like that. Dense foods that pack tight and keep well, and are easy to nibble on in short stops. Nuts are almost perfect, half fat, half protein, that and honey-in-a-tube – the weight of your stove is three or four days of grub, if you’re rolling that way. Don’t neglect the space blankets, too – Adventure Medical Systems heatsheet is the size of a proper quilt, easily big enough for two and a small palace for one. I’ve spent a lot of time under space blankets, and the extra few quid for the good ones is entirely worth it. They don’t even make that horrible noise.
The fox failed to penetrate the peanut butter. I ate it with a spork, pondering the chocolate bar with the pawprint in bear drool on the paper wrapper, that we once ate as a trophy the night we survived the bears.
Civilized is a state of mind. It’s a way of seeing the world that masks or annhilates all the complexity of nature, and its simplicity too, the simple fact of four inches of leaf mulch crawling with bugs, and the warm, moist air of an English summer, and the occasional mammal, darting through the brush, trying not to be seen. None of that is in a supply chain, or the absent sterility of a supermarket. It’s not about walking into the woods – anybody can do that – it’s about not trying to make the woods seem more like home.
That’s what passed from me to Jim, or whatever his name was, around the camp fire. I realized, somewhere inside, that he’d walked away, out of the mess and the fuss, out of the framework of expecations and stories which made up the life that everybody expected of him, and into the life of a travelling man, hauling a pack, working hard with his hands, and living each day from sunrise to sunset.
Colorado nearly killed me. I spent a year at 7500 feet with a chronic lung infection editing a book that some people credit with turning the balance against war with Iran back in 2004 and 2005. I was never the same man afterwards – the confident stride of somebody who’d marched by fits and starts half-way across a continent, who didn’t need to sleep more than every other night or so if interesting things were happening, all that was gone. I’d pushed too hard and broken my body holding up the world for the brief moment when the load landed on me. I’d taken on a little of my own death, seen myself as expendable for the greater cause, and nobody is truely young after that. Once you know it’s not about you any more, whether that realization comes to you as a parent or as a humanitarian or as a hero, something changes.
I came out here because I needed to be in the wild. Epping Forest is not The Wild, but it’s like it enough that if you’ve seen The Wild, and you’ve got a vivid imagination, you can make the little mental leap and see it here. You get to the point where you can’t feel any people around, where it’s just you and the odd thing or two rustling the holly bushes, and a quiet, glowing screen.
I don’t know quite what happens next. I have a bad feeling about this year, something primal and primary that I can’t shake. I could have rearranged my life to stay in London but I didn’t, I took the gig in Ireland, which is in a place far, far from anywhere, and which has – did I hear that right – 5000 acres of Beech woods up on the hill. It gets cold in winter there, too, last winter was brutally cold, but that’s a lot of woods for not that many humans, and even in the worst of times, folks would stay warm. Plenty of food in Ireland too, not that they’re organized to grow it, but farming is worthwhile on such land, even if generations of cultural practice say that they should be an evolve, technical, professional economy, and not mere peasants, grubbing around in the dirt.
I just wanted to be in a place where, if something dreadful happened, I could watch it on TV, not wonder where my next meal was coming from now that the supply chains have gone down.
Something’s coming, I recon. I haven’t had this feeling since the year before 9/11, the sense of something having come off the rails, something sliding downwards into a worse, more complicated world. I left for Colorado six months before 9/11, some premonition of trouble, something that told me it was time to go, that I did not want to be in the city any more, as a matter of urgency. If a biowar had come of those antrax attacks, I’d have seen it with two person-years of food piled up in the bedroom, and all the basics to survive tucked away in one place and another. I never did build a network of GPS caches – that’s a community project, not something for one guy who can’t drive, and the scenarios where it would have been useful – most people would rather be dead than live in a world where a five gallon pail of lentils and wheat is a treasure trove to be sought out by a mission armed with a precious GPS tracker and solar panel.
I don’t want you to think I’m paranoid, but we’re surrounded by much, much worse futures that the one we’re currently in, and I wonder how long our luck can hold, now that Al Queda is free of Osama bin Laden’s “I won this one, mate” stabilizing influence, and with the US going bankrupt with all the cultural forces which might make their next president the right wing one that gets written up in the history books where they talk about the end of America as a positive force in the world. I am not saying that it is all going to end, but I am saying that we are running out of a certain kind of luck we have grown used to having, and the collection of forces which are pushing us down further have passed a critical mass, so it’s now hard to see a world five years from now in which the Western Democratic Consensus still holds.
I am a certified apocalypse technician. If you see me running, try to keep up.