I spent the week leading up to this experiment gathering the essentials. This meant buying lots of tomato and apple juice, gallon jugs of water, bug spray, matches, gloves, and stealing pens from my gas station job. I told my parents what the plans were. They were supportive but insisted I bring my cell phone in case anything were to happen. They didn’t want their son to pass at twenty.
My camping spot was on a high bank of the Red River which my parents live on. Its the state divider between North Dakota and Minnesota. The river, which flows north to Canada, has a strong current. I guess their thinking was that if I started drowning I could yell for a passing skunk to find my cell and ring 9-1-1. Be rescued before caught floating through Manitoba without a passport.
The morning came for me to head to the woods. I spent the night before piling supplies into a kitchen counter heap. I turned in much too late. Before I went off to camp that morning I had to bike to my grandma’s and mow her dike. It took over an hour and left me sweaty and bug bitten. Then I had to carry my supplies to the woods by hand. I loaded things inside a backpack, hauled as much in my arms as strength would allow, and made the mile-round trip three times. I stepped through dried clods of plowed dirt in a field that was just now beginning to bud green. Soybeans I think. By the time I had everything at camp it was late morning. I was fucking exhausted. Dirty sweat dripped into my eyes. The sting of this kept me awake.
A week before this I’d prepared the camp site by clearing out weeds and gathering fire wood. The site is in a flood zone and so held hunks of driftwood in all directions. But I still had to dig my hole. I laid out my juice and water, unpacked some things, erected my chair, and set to digging with a yellow handled spade.
The ground was hard and wet which made each scoop heavy. Sometimes I’d stop and nestle in the hole, testing to see if it was big enough. During these breaks I’d try find comfort in the growing bed. There was none to be had. I got back out but now with wet dirt both on my back and throughout my thick hair. I stuck my foot to the shovel and pushed it down again. The scoops of earth piled up beside my new home. It took an hour to complete. The hole ended up being three feet deep and long enough that I only had to slightly curl my six foot frame.
I brought a tent with me but no poles. The idea was to use it as a mosquito net. I was to sleep zipped inside this shapeless bag, using its screen to breathe through. After digging my hole I fitted the tent to it. Crawled down and zipped myself in. It was uncomfortable and hot. I hadn’t brought any blankets or pillows so my neck lay unsupported. Wrapped in that thing I must’ve looked quite silly. At least I wouldn’t have to sleep ’til after dark.
That afternoon I gathered more firewood. To gather was to walk as far from camp as I felt like dragging something, find busted logs or fallen branches, then hoof them back. I’d lose half my load from dropping it or a rotten log crumbling apart. I wanted to keep my firewood plentiful. Knew I’d like a flame at night. And as the no food days went on I’d probably grow too tired to drag fresh fire fuel back. After gathering a decent pile I sat in my plastic chair and journaled about the morning.
The journal was the most important part of my experiment. I wanted to document what I was thinking and going through in the woods. I wanted to see where my mind went as the days went on. I didn’t even know if I’d ever read through it but it had to be written. It was intended to be private as I wanted to be uninhibited in whatever I put down. I was depriving myself of books and music and masturbation — writing was all I had. It’s always been the medium in which I’m best able to organize my thoughts. So I was excited to have the opportunity to tread through my mind in isolation, scribbling down whatever I discovered.
That first night I started my fire a bit before sunset. I wanted its smoke to spread before the mosquitoes really came out. Growing up on the river the mosquitoes were horrid and often made it so you couldn’t go out on summer nights. I used crumpled old newspaper and kindling to get the flames licking. The warmth felt great. I scooted my chair forward and let the skin on my arms tell me when I was close enough. I realized I hadn’t spoke aloud in quite a while. I belted out an elongated whooooo. I was doing it. Camping in a hole. Night one. Things were good.
I tried going to bed around eleven. Left my fire going as I wanted it to easily relight come morning, though mainly because I hoped it’d scare off critters. Growing up in the country, surrounded by woods and fields teeming with animal life, I was always cautious venturing out on our land. Now on this first night I couldn’t stop thinking what if a mouse or skunk or lynx showed up at camp. Or if a beaver came in off the river and chewed apart my legs to build his dam.
Inside the tent bag every noise became amplified. Something came buzzing near my head and as it fluttered against the vinyl it sounded like an attack. My heart blew up. Now I thought I heard something walking. From inside the bag I began quivering. Covered my face with hands. I’m a total wimp and these noises were doing me in. I wanted to shout to scare whatever away, but zipped in the tent I had no means to run or fight. Just a mummy waiting to be raped.
I imagined myself trying to run while zipped in, hobbling a few feet before tripping into fire. Vinyl fusing itself to skin as I burnt to death. I feared if I yelled then whatever was sniffing around would jump on me and attack. A coyote biting my neck or a mouse chewing both eyeballs. A creature filling my hole with dirt ’til just a foot stuck out, its sock half off and toes nibbled away. I couldn’t control my imagination. I was going to die.
Eventually the noise, whether real or imagined, went away. I felt cold and jarred. Couldn’t sleep. The dirt was uncomfortable. I began thinking how fucking dumb I was for not bringing a pillow or blanket. For doing this trip in the first place. It felt false when I knew safety was only a few minutes’ walk away. This was more experiment than experience. Maybe I should just pack it in and write this off as a failure. I lay awake with these thoughts all night.
I waited until sunrise before getting out of my bag. I stoked the fire to grow it once again. Laid down newspaper to rest my face on and passed out in the dirt. It was actually very comfortable. The ground was firm but level. Fire crackled every now and then. It heated the half of my body facing the flame. Hey, this wasn’t so bad. I drifted into some real sleep.
Around nine I awoke. Wiped dirt off my arms and neck. Took a photo of myself with a 2 written on my hand.
I bought a cheap disposable camera to document the campsite and the beginning of each day with a photographic self portrait. The number on my hand was so I’d know what day the picture was from. Out there I had no mirror. But I figured my beauty levels were still high. They weren’t.
After gathering wood I took my plastic chair down the steep bank to a little beach. I used well-rooted plants and long branches to steady myself. The beach was a thirty foot stretch on the water’s edge. It was made of dirt and tree roots that stuck out the side of the steep embankment. I journaled and looked on as fish jumped out the water, watching the rings expand from where they flopped back in. Journaling didn’t work for long since the feet of the chair lopsidedly sunk into the ground. I tried starting a fire under the exposed tree roots popping out the bank. No go. Part of why I chose this spot for camping was I thought the beach would be great to relax and write on. It wasn’t turning out that way.
I spent my day back up the bank writing, gathering, and burning the fire for fun. All were just something to do. I laid on the ground and looked up. It was the beginning of June and so the trees were thick with leaves. They were so high and dense you could hardly see the sky. Just little slivers and patches of blue. With their big green bushy tops I imagined them to be overgrown broccoli. The kind my mom grew in her garden and threw away once infested with worms. I thought perhaps worms would rain down from the trees as if some mischievous god were sending them to splat my face and wriggle up my nose.
Once the sun set dread took hold again. I burned the fire for hours after I was dead tired. Felt so paranoid. Sat cross legged by the heat. Listened to sounds of fish flopping on the river and feared they were beavers coming to attack. I started shouting at the woods in every direction in hopes the noise would steer away any critters. “Fuck off mice. Fuck off skunks. Fuck off deer.” Every ten minutes I’d repeat a refrain like this in all directions. After I finished telling the woodland creatures to fuck off, I sat in anxiety waiting until I felt enough time passed that I could say it again. My fire was bright. Voice was loud. But I was spazzing out.
I zipped myself in the tent bag again. From there I could see the light of the fire by looking out the screen against my face. The trees were no longer broccoli but instead darkened sentinels watching over me, full of ammo such as squirrels and mice. Their bushy leaves blotted out the starlight. It was too dark. I spent the night shouting out to the woods from my bag. I patched together an hour of sleep. I was waiting for the sun to finally rise. And it did. I unzipped from the bag, built up the fire, and once again went to sleep on the forest floor.
It was now day three. I took my picture. Decided I was going to swim across the river to Minnesota. Bank to bank was the length of two stone throws. I’d done this swim before but here I was on a river bend and the current was especially strong. And I was on my third day of not eating. I hadn’t even drank much juice. I was subsisting on water and held little hunger. I wasn’t really burning through much energy with my lazy days beyond the gathering of wood. I’ve been a good swimmer all my life so didn’t worry. And since I was alone I decided to do it naked.
I pulled off my clothes and left them on the dirt beach. Looked at my body. It was starting to tan as I’d spent the past couple days laying out. I mentally prepared for the swim. My biggest fear wasn’t losing energy but having a beaver chew my penis apart halfway across the river. I decided that to rectify this I’d cup my cob with my left hand and use my right and legs to get me across.
I waded into the water, dipped my body, covered my dick, and started kicking. Immediately the current took me. But still I thought I was okay. I paddled harder with my legs and began swinging my right arm. It chopped into the water. A broken paddle. It was then that the entirety of my energy drain became clear. I really had nothing in me to swim across a peaceful river, much less one with this much current. It began sucking me north toward Canada.
The piece of land on the Minnesota side I hoped to land on was now thirty feet to my right. I decided to risk having my cock eaten and began swimming with both hands. Halfway across I went under. I was only beneath for a second but swallowed water. Pain shot up my nose and I grew dizzy. My thoughts jumbled. I kept kicking my feet. Felt thankful for a lifetime spent on a bicycle. I got three fourths of the way and was still drifting upstream. It seemed I was going to drown.
Even if I got to Minnesota there was now no bank to land on, just straight ninety degree mud walls that stretched ten feet to the forest floor. I was so dizzy. Went under again and again. But I was real close now. I turned on the emergency boosters and got close to the shore. The water grew shallower. I grabbed thin roots sticking out from the embankment. The current was such that my legs still drifted upstream. But at least I was latched. Root by root I pulled my way over to an area of flat land. The water was shallow enough for me to walk in. I eventually got to a real piece of shore. I flopped myself on it and sunk into a pile of muck. I was fixed to a place now. Out of the water.
I was sick. Completely dizzy and my head pounded. But the mud cooled me. While on my knees I threw up some of the water I’d swallowed. My stomach was so upset I thought I had to shit. I crouched but nothing came. I took hold of my situation. I’d never even had a close call with drowning before this. I ‘d been ridiculous in thinking animals would come eat me in the night but this was real. A near-death experience born from my own stupidity. How was I going to get back to camp?
I sat in the mud for twenty minutes thinking of what to do and letting my body recover. The mud dried and stuck to me. I peeled some and it took leg hairs with it. I thought maybe I could go look for a farmer on the Minnesota side. Explain to them what happened. Imagined myself walking up to a farmstead. A naked long hair slathered in mud, approaching a house, asking for help. “Sir, I’m not a crazy man. Just a wannabe adventurer without his clothes. Willing to rake your yard in exchange for a ride to North Dakota.” I’d have looked like a nutter. Taken a shotgun blast to the chest. Fed to the skunks.
I thought of walking on the Minnesota side until I could see my parents’ yard. From there I’d wait until someone appeared. But then I’d have to explain why I was out there naked. I decided my best option was to swim back to camp. I felt like I could do it. Had faith in myself. Was pretty sure I could make it now that I knew what to expect. I’d start off strong and compensate for the current by beginning upstream from camp.
What I did before taking off surprised me a lot. I prayed. Shot up a prayer to the sky. “God don’t let me die.” At this point I’d been an atheist for several years. Did not believe in God or gods at all. Had been raised Catholic but drifted away from it years before. And along with my parting from Catholicism, I abandoned all religion or belief in the supernatural. I’ve never been an enthusiastic atheist — I simply just don’t care. A creator or supernatural being doesn’t make sense to me, and thus I don’t believe to the extent that I don’t ever think about it. So I don’t know why I did it. I didn’t believe. It wasn’t as if my atheism was shaken. Perhaps it was an instinct put in me from a childhood spent at Mass every Sunday. I was willing to bargain with God even if it was just to induce a semblance of comfort in a desperate time.
And so I took back off for the North Dakota side. For camp. The swim started pretty well. The current hooked me but I was prepared. It was actually pulling me in the direction of camp. I swam hard. But halfway across my motor began sputtering once again. I had zero energy. Nothing in my body nor mind. I began feeling dizzy and lightheaded. I momentarily blacked out and went under. Came back to and got my head out of the water.
Now I swam with a desperation I’d never known. My legs felt like rubbery planks but my brain made them move. You are a river creature, Nolan. You can do this. Kick, paddle, kick. Good job, legs. I went under another time or two, felt sick, felt like giving up and letting the current take me away. It wouldn’t be so bad. My body would get stuck after a bend or two on a log pile downstream. It wouldn’t take my parents long to find their son. From their pontoon they’d find the corpse: Naked, pale, bloated, bobbing against sticks and beer cans caught up on the bend. Eyes chewed out by mice, dick chewed off by beavers, and kidneys removed by organ thieves roaming the river.
But I didn’t get carried off. I forced myself to keep going ’til I hit shore. I got the upper half of my body onto my dirt beach. I lay in the mud while my legs were still submerged in the tugging Red River. I plopped my head into the mud and just breathed. Holy fuck, I made it. Again I was nauseous, dizzy, and gasping for breath. Muck was in my eyes. But at least this was the end of my swimmer’s journey. All I had to do was walk back to camp and crash out. Felt so thankful to be alive. Looked up at the broccoli trees. A worm rainfall wouldn’t be so bad.
And then a beaver dived into the water just fifteen feet from me. Had it been up at camp sniffing for cock? It was swimming my way, or so it seemed. I jumped onto shore and ran up the bank to camp without even using roots to keep me from falling back. I looked down for the beaver. It was already gone.
I laid myself on the ground beside the fire pit. There was no more flame but it didn’t matter. I was safe and at camp. Out of the water. My dick hadn’t been eaten. Nothing could’ve been better in that moment than laying next to my pile of ashes. I imagined heat coming off them, the ghosts of flames from before.