The only thing we have…

In the summer of 2007 I went camping. It was a last-minute decision to get out and see more of the area I had recently moved to. I was new to Tennessee but an experienced camper and was excited to get into nature, if only for a night. One Saturday morning I packed a bag and drove forty-five minutes to a state campground, paid for a spot for the night, and settled in. In truth there wasn’t much to settle. I planned to sleep in my van. All I was really concerned about was leaving the campsite behind and hiking the trails. So as soon as I parked I emptied my pack of non-essentials, grabbed a bottle of water, and headed into the woods.

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Near the head of the trail were other campers, but soon enough the trail cleared and it was mostly me and nature. Having grown up living and working at a camp, I felt in my element. The woods of Tennessee weren’t too dissimilar from the woods of Ohio. I kept an eye out for wild edibles, the few I knew: buttercups, wisteria, mint, various berries, and my favorite, sassafras. In Ohio I’d often forage for sassafras saplings in order to boil the roots to make sassafras tea. But despite appearing familiar at first look, the Tennessee wilderness offered up none of these comforts from home. The ground was mostly level so the hike was easy. At one point the trail led to a dry creek bed. I followed it, my feet sinking slightly into rounded river stones. Eventually the creek disappeared underground. I tried to follow but the cave entrance was choked with sticks and bramble. I climbed back to the trail and kept going, my depleting energy supply masked by my enthusiasm for the outdoors.

An hour later I decided I’d had enough and started to make my way back to my campsite, and this is where things started to go wrong. I didn’t want to go back the way I came because I’d already seen it. I wanted new surroundings, new sights to take in. I figured I had a good sense of direction and could ditch the trail and make my way back to the camp. I hadn’t seen any “stay on the trail” signs so figured this would be a fun adventure.

When I claimed to be an experienced camper, it was a bit of an overstatement. Yes, I had been camping since I was very young, and even spent seven years living and working at a camp. I would often take day treks into the woods, leaving the trails behind in favor of unmolested wilderness. But I also knew the boundaries of the property. I knew the trails backwards and forwards. My confidence was built on knowledge and experience of the grounds. In Tennessee I still felt that confidence, but it was a lie. I knew a little about how to survive in the woods… at my camp in Ohio. I knew nothing about where I was in Tennessee. The result of which was, I was soon lost.

People make bad decisions when they panic. Panic sneaks up on you. At first, you don’t even realize you’re panicking. You believe you’re thinking on your feet, making decisions as you go. It clouds your judgment. It certainly clouded mine. I knew how to get back to camp. I had walked a straight, perpendicular line since abandoning the trail. All I had to do was turn around and walk back. I would eventually reach the trail and then I could walk out. Easy enough. But panic told me it would be better to keep going straight. Or left. Or right, maybe. Eventually, I’d find another trail that would lead me out. Or maybe I’d find a road and could hitchhike to the camp. I checked my cell phone for signal. Maybe I could call the rangers and get rescued. I dialed the ranger station, but the signal was lost before anyone picked up. I eventually did find another trail. It looked like a farmer’s access road. It led to a fenced-in field. I had to be at the boundary of the state park. I followed the path for a while, until it got too muddy to walk on. My shoes were caked in mud. I was exhausted. The sun was setting. I was out of water. Wait…

The sun was setting. The sun. I knew the trail head was east of my campsite, and the trail itself ran mostly northeast. I left the trail going northwest. If I kept the sun on my right I could walk south and find either the trail or the campground. I retreated down the path until I found the point at which I’d come across it, then headed south. I felt like I was finally making a good decision. Hope rose within me that I’d get back to my campsite and get a good night’s sleep.

Eventually I did find the path again. About that time, I also began to feel rather embarrassed. I’d made stupid decisions. I knew better. But overconfidence betrayed me. And I let my emotions get the better of me. Eight hours after setting off, I made it back to my van and collapsed. I didn’t even make a fire or eat dinner. I gulped some water and went to sleep.

Looking back, that experience was a turning point of sorts. It wasn’t a conscious decision but soon after, I started distrusting my emotions. I distanced myself from them, preferring instead the cold rationality of logic. I could trust it. It was rigid, it didn’t change. I had never been an overly emotional person to begin with. But I withdrew even further. Where I had once been sentimental, I threw away many of my sentimental keepsakes because they didn’t serve a practical purpose. I started having to fake emotional responses in social situations so as not to appear depressed. And I wasn’t depressed. I was quite happy, actually. Or maybe content is a better word. Emotions could lead to hurt. Logic and reason didn’t. They were my allies.

I feel as if this story should go somewhere from here, but that’s where it ends. There is no world-shattering epiphany that emotions are the real virtue and I should embrace them, as painful as they can be. Our culture certainly seems to be trying to tell me this, that love is all I need, that true happiness is an emotional experience. But is that true? Or does it have to be true for everyone? I’m not saying emotions don’t serve a purpose. I would never say that emotions aren’t valid, at least to a point. Emotion and logic are, in the end, two sides of the same coin. Without logic and reason, mankind would not have advanced. The same could be said for emotion because there would have been no passion to drive man forward. Perhaps my logic, too, is driven by emotion. After all, I feel as if this story should go somewhere from here. I feel.

As a storyteller I must know, be intimately acquainted with, human emotion. In order to accurately and effectively communicate the human experience I must know loss, love, hatred, bitterness, regret, desire, rejection, anticipation, joy, anger, bliss, and awe. These aren’t found in logic, but it is logical that I be familiar with them. These, and also fear. Fear of being hurt. Fear of getting lost. Fear of emotion, because it isn’t controlled as easily as reason. Fear is the thing I fear most of all. F.D.R. was on to something. And that’s why I’m writing a horror movie/book. To explore the emotion I dislike the most. To mine the depths of human emotion. To become a better storyteller. To write better stories.