If you didn’t make it to the Ferry Plaza on Monday, you really missed out. Four excellent writers shared stories of Wipe Outs. One of them was Paul McHugh, who used to be the Outdoor Editor for our local S.F. paper. Now he’s freelancing and he has a book coming out early next year. Since he’s one of us, we’ll be planning a launch event, you can be sure. Also reading was Joanna Biggar, who used to write for the Washington Post and who’s taught workshops with me in Greece, Ireland and Italy. We’ll be taking a group to Costa Rica in January. Still a little room; you’ll have to let me know if you’re interested. The brilliant, very talented Natalie Galli read as well. You can read her work in Italy, A Love Story and many of the Tavelers’ Tales Best Women’s Travel collections. Elisa Sawyer was also back with a performance piece.
You know, unpleasant experiences make for great stories. Paul McHugh actually selected one of my worst adventures for his Wild Places anthology. Here’s an excerpt:
When I was a blithely disobedient little girl, my father would threaten, with a malignant air, to throw me into the Okefenokee Swamp. He could not know then, and doesn’t know to this day, I’ll bet, how thrilling a prospect that seemed. O-k-e-f-e-n-o-k-e-e. The very name was magical, and I rolled it around in my mouth with other delicious words like “Ubangi” and “Kilimanjaro.” It is, in fact, possible that my unspoken desire for that forbidden place was the secret font of all my future misbehaviors.
Years passed, and I almost forgot about the Okefenokee and about swamps, in general, until I arrived one midnight at the Valdosta airport on a then all-important corporate job. Dead beat and cranky, I sarcastically asked my cab driver what sights there were to see in Valdosta.
“Well,” he drawled, “not far from here, there’s the Okefenokee Swamp.” He said this, I think, with the same tone that my father had used on his ill-behaved daughter, but the subtlety was lost on me at the time.
I had enough sense not to insist that we drive the 120 miles west so that I could try to wander into a swamp at midnight. But a flame had been fanned on a very old fire. A new Okefenokee fever consumed me.
My journey into the Okefenokee Swamp took place a few years later. Constant companion, Lawrence, and I rented a two-person canoe and paddled out into the web of narrow channels that flow through it. The world around us was a strange mixture of the dreadful and the sublime—a place in which 700-pound alligators cruise canals in which egrets, ibis, herons, and sandhill cranes gingerly wade. Regal flags of purple iris spring from the same mud that nourishes the hair-covered, liquor-filled basins of carnivorous pitcher plants; and lilies open like celestial white crowns next to the sticky tongues of bladderworts.
“Look, Lawrence,” I’d suggested before we got going, “shouldn’t you give me a quick canoe lesson or something?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Lawrence, “you’ll pick it up as you go along.” His confidence must have short-circuited my prudence.
A waterway filled with poisonous snakes and carnivorous reptiles is not the best place for canoe lessons. I kept trying to focus on improving my skills, on using the oars properly, on attempting to steer, but the surroundings proved too distracting. A wandering focus, however, was deadly. The embankments on either side of us were lined with alligators dreamily soaking up sunlight. In spite of my efforts, our canoe kept heading straight for those reptiles and the snarl of cypress knees that formed a natural canoe trap.
“Listen, Lawrence,” I said my voice dripping stress. “Let’s just stay in the center of the channel, OK?”
Lawrence complied and gave a mighty oar stroke that sent us around a bend in a new course toward center where a 14-foot alligator happened to be easing its way through the waters.
“Paddle back,” Lawrence barely breathed.
Paddle back? I hadn’t even mastered paddling forward.
The alligator watched us as we tried to maneuver past, submerging like an enemy submarine until only its eyes were above water …