MONDAY, APRIL 19, 2010
You learn a few things being stranded on an island. Okay, really we weren’t completely marooned, but it felt like it. Nine of my best college friends and I had just been dropped off on the beach of Little St. George Island, an uninhabited estuary preserve. The fisherman gave us the kind of smile that says, “I’ll probably return to find these guys dead,” wished us good luck, and pulled off in his boat. So there we sat: 10 guys, four kayaks, 25 gallons of water, food for the five days, and all our camping gear. The plan had sounded great- four of us would kayak to this uninhabited island, and the fish charter tour would drop off the rest of us and our supplies. However, when we arrived on the island, instead of the palm trees and sandy beaches we expected, we found a forest that looked like it had been napalmed in Vietnam.
Apparently, a fire had swept over the island the year before, wiping out the lush paradise we hoped for. So there we sat, not knowing exactly what to do. Behind us was water, in front of us a burnt forest. After discussing our predicament, we decided the best option was to hike down the beach in search of the tropical paradise we hoped for. The only problem was we had not expected to hike with any of our gear, food, water, kayaks, a cooler, or a guitar. We argued for several minutes about the best way to transport everything down the beach, and when no one found a good solution, we decided to “work harder, not smarter,” and just carry as much as we could, leaving the kayaks behind. We could return later and retrieve them. What started out as a show of manliness and determination turned into a “death march” about half a mile down the beach. The 90 or 100 pounds of food, gear, and water each of us carried became immense burdens. I had a backpack loaded with gear and carried a 40 pound container full of water. As we plodded down the beach, each foot sinking into the sand, I couldn’t help but feel this is the closest I’ll ever be to being shipwrecked. Our group looked like a rag-tag, exhausted group of sailors on an uncharted island. This was an adventure. Soon our so-called adventure wore into an exhausting hike. I would look about 100 yards ahead to a tree or stump, and tell myself I could make it. Once I reached my way point, I fell down in a heap of heavy equipment. Slowly, surely, we continued down the beach. Each member of our group faced the mental question of whether or not he could continue. And yet, when he looked up and saw his brothers next to him, he found strength. We were in this together. I often think about community and friendship. So often it can be a selfish notion. We have friends because they make us feel better, or are at least entertainment. But what do we give to our friends? I usually feel I have so little to offer.
At that moment, though, we had everything to give each other, precisely because we had nothing left. The simple fact that we were in this mess together was a bond of strength. As the sun reddened our bodies, as our heavy loads cranked into our muscles, as our feet blistered with each laborious step, I felt strangely lightened. The looks of determination, of pain masked by words of encouragement, told me I could keep going. In the end, the trip turned out to be all we hoped for- we kayaked with dolphins, we had a huge bonfire on the beach, we saw a shark, we met two mysterious coyote trappers, but most of all, we learned to live together. The individual spirit of each melted into a love for one another.