“I think I got a parasite from eating an undercooked muskrat brain,” I said to the doctor and group of students at a school of Chinese medicine in Sarasota, Florida.
I had been having digestive problems since eating the muskrat stew several months earlier at Teaching Drum Outdoor School in northern Wisconsin. At Teaching Drum, for half the price of a year’s tuition at Berkeley, you can live in a wigwam, eat roadkill (it was delicious, actually) and have a white male guru teach you about how Native people are supposed to live. I decided it was not for me.
In my early 20s, I spent some time visiting rural, land-based “intentional communities” — or communes, as they were known in the ‘60s — in the Midwest, such as Teaching Drum. In the world of activism, some people would have deprecatingly called me a “lifestylist.” In the words falsely attributed to Gandhi, I wanted to be the change I wished to see in the world. I took the idea of conscious consumption to the extreme: I wanted, to the extent possible, to be outside of the industrial economy.
And the element of adventure in this fossil-free challenge was undoubtedly part of the draw. When I was 20, I had walked from Illinois to Arizona. This time, my goal was to sail to Central America and study Spanish while volunteering and learning from indigenous people about healthier, more sustainable and less corrupted ways of living.
The plan, you could say, was light on details.
I headed to Gainesville, Florida, where my sort-of boyfriend at the time was living in a tent in a forested city park. He had come to know a nerdy high school math teacher in the neighborhood named Suzanne, who let us use her bathroom and kitchen. Suzanne knew about my sailing ambitions, and she introduced me to Johnny, a sweet, soft-spoken and impossibly attractive Southern boy.
Johnny had sailed from Mobile, Alabama, to the remote fishing community of Cedar Key, Florida, with his girlfriend, but their relationship did not withstand the journey. He was heartbroken when I met him and was mentally and physically stuck in Cedar Key. But he dreamed of a transcontinental cooperative sailing fleet — and bold, idealistic, unobtainable visions were right up my alley. I went to live on his boat.
Cedar Key is no place for a sailboat, lacking a port because of shallow coastal waters. Johnny was “anchored” (read: beached) precariously in a shallow inlet, where his boat would occasionally tilt more than 45 degrees at low tide. I remember waking up to glass bottles from the galley crashing and sometimes shattering on the floor.
In this town, I spent a month or two getting paid piecemeal to patch clamming bags for some wealthy, conservative, military types. After my fair share of smoked mullet, breakup depression and southern machismo, I decided to move on.
I began hitchhiking to Sarasota, where I knew I would find some interesting types at the New College of Florida. Things went well on my journey until I got stuck outside of Tampa — nobody would stop for me. It began to rain, and as I got closer and closer to saturation, I began cursing all the drivers passing by.
Suddenly, a silver sedan pulled over. As I approached the car, the window slowly rolled down, revealing a young, buff, Brazilian fitness trainer in gym clothes. “You must be getting wet,” he said. “You can come home and dry off at my place.” I would reveal the events of the following 24 hours, but this is not the Sex on Tuesday column.
He dropped me off downtown, and I spent a few days poking around Sarasota before finding a job at a suburban organic market-farm. Word was that the landowner, Farmer Bill, had huffed a little too much fresh chicken manure. He was gaunt and had a shrill voice and wild hair. Sometimes Bill could be heard screaming at farmstand customers, but somehow, his stand remained popular. The 5-acre farm was abutted by a golf course, a forest and a subdivision and buzzed with hippie farmworkers, suburban Florida consumers and crazy Farmer Bill. It was a very odd place to find oneself.
At that time, I met a fellow who trapped invasive feral pigs for the county government. He would trap them and fatten them before slaughter on day-old discards from a local bakery, then sell or gift them to friends. A coworker of mine had a nice backpack to sell, and it was about time for me to hightail it out of Florida after abandoning my sailing fantasy. Before Suzanne took me on my first freight train-hopping adventures back north, I traded a cooler of fresh wild pig meat for the backpack and said my goodbyes.
Looking back, I was propelled along this winding path as much by obsessive-compulsive behavior as by environmental ethics. But the principles we may adopt and the unconventional paths they cause us to go down can lead to some unforgettable and meaningful adventures.
On my way out of town, I got a cheap treatment for my digestive ailment at the local school of Chinese medicine, as well as a parasite test. The day I left the state, my test came back negative. Within days, my symptoms cleared.
I concluded: I guess I’m just allergic to Florida.
Mark Shipley writes the Thursday column on his experience as a Gen X transfer student. Contact him at [email protected] .