After the 10 days spent in the woods, I was invited to stay at an old artist friend's home. This artist chose to remain anonymous, so I'll refer to them as Anonymous Artist, or Anon for short. We had emailed back and forth a couple of times, and had settled on a day to meet up, so I packed up the
DragonWagon, and headed to Anon's place. They had 5 acres of land, considerably wooded, where I could camp. They had a bathroom with a shower that was accessible to me, and an art studio I was able to use to work on a couple of commissions I had lined up. One was a little too large to work on in the woods, so I graciously accepted the offer to use the studio, while the other I had already started working on while I was out there.
When I got to the house, Anon was noticeably ill, coughing and looking exceptionally tired. Anon explained that a family member had gotten them sick, and it was the worst illness they'd had in over a decade, so it was hitting hard. Anon had an art show coming up in a couple of days, out of town, which required loading and set up. They were very worried about how they'd be able to manage it, feeling the way they were. I offered to help however I could. Anon was an oil painter, using canvases anywhere from 2'x2' to 4'x6', and with 11 works, this was no small load. On top of that, they had to load up the tent and hardware to display the works, since the show was outdoors. Anon had one young family member coming to help, so the van would be full, with no room for another. I was asked to stay in the studio for the weekend, to watch the place and feed the dogs. I assured them that whatever was needed of me, I was willing to do.
The time came to load the van the next day, and it was no small feat. There were the pipes to the tent, the canopy, the display walls, 7 of the 11 works that were over 3'x4', cardboard between the works for protection, blankets for extra protection, display table, folding chairs, cooler, luggage, and people. Anon sat in a chair too weak to help, but to stubborn not to try, doing their best to direct the process. From experience, things had to fit a certain way, or it would not fit at all. After much effort, the bulk of the load was tightly wedged in the van. Anon then realized that there were a couple of things needed to be purchased, and since the family member was too young to drive and Anon too tired and sick, I offered to go for them. I purchased the few things that they were lacking, and returned promptly. Upon my return, Anon was just getting off the phone with another family member, who had convinced them that there was no way they'd be able to manage by themselves once they got there. They would need more help. Anon asked if it would be okay if I came along. I told them whatever they needed was fine, but I didn't want to be a nuisance once there. They assured me it would not be a problem, they'd be staying with family who had more than enough room for everyone. I quickly packed a small bag, locked and hid the DragonWagon, and loaded the rest of the van. I was to ride in between the two front seats, sitting on the cooler.
The art show went well, and Anon's family received us warmly. It was a good weekend of working and learning. We set up the tent the night before the show, got all the works arranged, and headed back to the house for a few hours of sleep before coming back out in the morning. I got to walk around and view other artists' works, talked to a few, and learned a few things. There were painters, digital artists, jewelers, chalk artists, 3D assemblage artists, photographers, charcoal artists, and more. One artist in particular caught my interest. He did fine line illustrations, and much of his work was based on dragons (can't imagine why that peaked my interest). We talked for a good while, as I asked questions and pleaded for advice. He told me of his early beginnings, the peak of his career, and the hard hit from the recession with steady decline since. He explained how the field is not what it used to be, but if one adapts, it is possible to make it. It was quite an enlightening conversation.
Once the art show was finished, and we were back to Anon's house, I insisted they get some rest while I unloaded the vehicle. I was afraid that if Anon were anywhere near the scene, they would be obliged to help, and their health was a concern at this point, even several days later. Anon was very thankful, and very tired, so they rested while I put everything back where it belonged. I was then getting ready to set up in the woods of their backyard, when they insisted I stay in the studio, where there was a couch I could sleep on. I insisted that it would not be a problem for me to stay outside, but they were much more insistent that I stay in. I thanked them kindly, and got to work on my commissions.
The first of my commissions I had already started to sketch out while I was staying in the woods for those 10 days, so I was well into it. I was comfortable with it, and it was very much in my own style. I was asked to draw a dog from a photo, the only challenge being that the dog was jet black. That had me a little worried, not knowing how well it would turn out, but as I picked up momentum with it, it proved to be a good result. I was quite proud of the outcome. The second commission, however, was of a horse trotting through a field. Horses are difficult, because they are powerfully large creatures who show the daintiest of grace. Getting the proportions right and the demeanor of the "light as air" horse was very challenging. It's easy to make it look too heavy, too grounded. Anon helped me incredibly by giving me a fresh look at it every so often. Anon is infamous for honesty and bluntness when it comes to others' works, which is invaluable to the progression of a good piece. When I work too closely with photos, I sometimes begin to lose sight of the grand picture, and draw myself into a corner. Having an experienced artist advise me along the way was incredibly refreshing. The result was the best I've had yet. I took on a style far from my own comfort zone, and couldn't be more proud of the outcome. I owe Anon immense gratitude for the guidance along the way.
Heading Out to the Gathering
Once my commissions were complete, it was time to head out. The location for the Rainbow Gathering in the woods was finally made public, so I knew where I was heading. I'd stayed with Anon for about a week and a half, doing what I could to help out while they recovered. Anon cooked a huge breakfast for my departure. As I was packing the wagon, getting ready to go, Anon came out with a camera asking to take some pictures for some art students. Anon said I'd make great source material. Imagine that, kids painting my likeness? Though unlikely, I did like the thought of inspiring someone to draw or paint anything. We left with many thanks to each other, and promised to keep in touch. It was a priceless visit for me.
I took a short walk or 3 or 4 miles to the Burger King just outside the Ocala National forest. I wanted to check in with the family before disappearing into the woods again. I had also been in touch with another friend who had managed to find the magazine article that was written about my adventure. Remember when I was walking over the bridge and found a lady waiting at the other end with a camera? She actually published the article, and it turned out really nice. Sadly my name was misspelled, but otherwise a very good article. My friend was going to meet me at the BK, and give me a few copies she'd saved for me.
I decided, before heading into the Burger King, to find a place to camp for the night, since I wouldn't be meeting up with my friend, Miranda, until around 4. I wasn't sure if it would be dark before I'd get a chance to find one, so I might as well do it first. I found a wooded area near the BK (not hard this close to the national forest), and headed in. There was a lot of trash in these woods, and several dirt roads. I walked past at least three shopping carts strewn about, a couple of campfire spots, and lots of abandoned clothes. It seemed many people had stayed out in these woods, whether in the past, or recently. I went farther into the woods until I saw little evidence of trash or "campsites," and found a concealed corner to park the wagon. I'd have to hide it, and set up camp at night so as not to make it too obvious to find. I moved a few loose branches out of the way, and started to back the wagon into the bushes, when I suddenly heard a distant, "heeeeeeeyyy!" I looked around, and just up the dirt road, maybe 100 ft away, was a man staring right at me. Shit. I've been spotted. "Heeeeeeeeeyyyyy," he hollered again, "you drink beer?" he held up a large can. He was inviting me over. I mulled it over for a second. He didn't seem to be threatening at all, but could I trust him? A random guy drinking alone out in the middle of the woods? I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, and answered, "sure, thanks." Maybe I'm too trusting. Maybe I should've just turned around and left. Maybe...
He offered me a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I thanked him, and after a brief examination of the can, I opened it. I didn't unstrap the wagon from my waist. I didn't sit down. I kept one hand close to my walking stick. I kept my ears alert for anyone else around. We drank and chatted. His name was Jason, and he'd been homeless for a while. He did odd jobs here and there to get by, was divorced, had kids out in Tennessee, and was fighting a cold. I told him about my own travels, about my art, and that I was heading out for the Rainbow Gathering. He mentioned he had taught himself to draw at the public library, but hadn't done it for a while, so I encouraged him to pick it back up and never stop. He mentioned he'd heard of the gathering but hadn't ever been, so I suggested he attend and check it out, since that's what I was doing. Once the conversation was winding down, and I'd finished my beer, I offered him a can of chicken rice soup I happened to have with me, to hopefully fight off the cold he had, in thanks for the beer. We shook hands, and I left. He seemed like a nice guy, but I couldn't leave the wagon out here now. I took it with me, back out of the woods, to the BK.
As I was crossing the road to get to the BK, I saw a guy sitting at the corner, holding up a sign that said "SMILE." As I got close, he saw my wagon, smiled and waved. I waved back. "I guess you're here for the same reason I am," he said. II told him I hadn't initially come here for it, but stuck around once I'd heard of it. I asked if he was hungry, offered to buy him something at the BK. "I could eat," he confessed, getting up and grabbing his pack. He carried a backpack and a blanket covering some sort of poles. He was barefoot, and wore a bandana holding up his dreadlocks. He introduced himself as "Priest." I'd heard that the Rainbow people take on nicknames for these events. I parked the wagon outside the BK, within eyeshot, and in we went for some lunch. While in line to order, an older gentleman, with a Navy veteran's cap on came over inquiring if that was my rig outside. I told him it was, and I could see curiosity light up on his face. He was about to ask something else when Priest interjected, saying we were heading out to the national forest. The veteran looked at him and asked if we were travelling together, and I told him I'd just met Priest outside. "Oh okay, I guess I just want to talk to him then, looks like he's in it for the long haul," said the veteran referring to me. I guess this didn't sit well with Priest, because as the vet looked down at my toed shoes and inquired about them, Priest immediately stepped back into the conversation before I could respond. "Oh I walked through a pair of those last year walking from the Keys," I could tell the vet was not amused by Priest's interjection. I explained to the veteran that they were very comfortable, and worked well with the low arches on my feet, and another girl who was in line with another gentleman got curious about them as well, "they're comfortable??" I turned to her and told her I'd walked well over 200 miles in them with no problems at all. Priest then stepped in and stated he'd been walking for over 500 miles... With this, the conversation, and everyone's curiosity, was stifled. The girl and the gentleman turned back to the counter, the veteran said a quick "good luck" and headed back to his table. Priest smiled, apparently proud of his one-upmanship. That could have been an interesting conversation to have with a group of random strangers, but it didn't seem Priest liked the attention being away from him.
Sitting down to eat with Priest was a little unpleasant for me. He was a boaster. If I had an opinion, he had a better one. If I'd done something, he'd done it twice, or bigger, or better. After just a couple of my own statements in the conversation, I could see where this was headed if I tried to say anything else, so I took to asking questions about the gathering, see if I could learn anything interesting from him, instead. He'd been going for 8 years, and knew quite a bit about them. I didn't learn much from him since any question I asked went into a story about something completely different, so I left it at that. I was getting nothing useful from him, and his mannerisms were unpleasant. He was very cocky, and seemed to "know it all." I finished my lunch quickly, and we headed outside.
We met another guy in the parking lot, clearly going to the same place. He introduced himself as Polar Bear, and had just come from the site for the gathering. He said he would've loved to have stayed, but had other pressing issues outside of the state to take care of. Priest was determined to describe his own pressing issues, steamrolling the conversation. It was around this time I decided to part ways with Priest, wishing him luck on his travels, and that we might meet up at the gathering. I would have liked to talk more with Polar Bear, but not at the price of being around Priest any longer.
I went back into the BK and got in touch with Miranda, to see if she was still good to meet up. She had an appointment to get to, and was getting out of work late, so she would have to reschedule. We were to meet up later in the evening. I decided I'd better take the opportunity to find a spot to camp before it got dark out. I found a different part of the woods, deeper in still, with no trash and no sign of people. I covered the DragonWagon with the tarp, being sure to use the brown side so as not to be so visible, then covered it with branches. I took a few steps away from it, and almost completely lost sight of it. I had to be sure to get good landmarks to get back to it. On my way out of the woods, I heard a couple of voices up ahead. Two men were also walking out of the woods in front of me. Well, this woods were definitely populated. I'd have to be careful on my way back in. I waited until they were out of sight and earshot, then headed out. I realized that I'd taken a wrong turn, because when I came out of the woods I was at a different place than when I went in. I hoped I would do better at night to find the wagon again.
I eventually met up with Miranda, and we managed to catch up. We hadn't spoken since high school, but had kept up loosely on Facebook. I met her boyfriend, who was genuinely curious of my adventure, and her daughter, who immediately headed for the play pen. She'd brought me three copies of the magazine, and I thanked her. When they left, I sat down to read what the article.
As I reached the original entrance to the woods, I saw a few people in the parking lot. Some restaurant workers were taking a break out back, some people were sitting in their cars while parked, and some people were coming in and out of the restaurant. I didn't want to be seen walking into the woods, so I decided I would take the alternate route I'd mistakenly taken on my way out. It was well enough out of the way that no one would see me in the dark. I reached it, and stopped just as I went in to the tree-line. I couldn't see a thing, it was too dark and the trees too thick. I took a few steps off the trail I was in, into the bushes, cracking some branches under my feet. I sat down, closed my eyes, and listened. I allowed my eyes to get used to the dark, and gave my ears a chance to acclimate to the sounds. I waited for about five minutes, sitting with my eyes closed, before I got up and started walking. The moonlight was piercing through the canopy of the trees, shedding enough light to see, and the woods were dead quiet on ground, only making slight rustling noises up in the branches. I took slow deliberate steps, listening for voices or footsteps. I took my time getting back to the DragonWagon, and when I reached the last landmark, I stopped, waited, and looked around, listening. When I was satisfied no one had followed, I walked over to where the wagon was, only I didn't see it. I looked back at my landmark to be sure I went in the right direction, which I had. I looked around, and couldn't see it. My heart started to pound quicker, louder. I took a couple of steps forward, held out my arms, and hit a few loose branches. There, only two feet in front of me, was the DragonWagon. Damn I'd done too good a job with the camouflage. It was right in front of me and I couldn't see it, knowing it was right there. I waited a couple of hours before setting up camp, since it would be a noisy process. When I was satisfied no one would be coming around, I set it up, and went to sleep.
Tomorrow I will be heading out into the forest for the Rainbow Gathering. I am both excited and apprehensive. I have heard, from a multitude of people, really great things and really terrible things about it. I've been told it would be an unforgettable experience, something not to be missed. I was told that the people there are amazing, loving, and accepting. I was told everyone helps everyone else, and that people there are great. On the other hand, I've been told people go there to steal. I've been told criminals go there, the homeless take advantage of the kind, and a truly unsavory lot attend. I've been told not to go, and I was told not to miss it. I don't know what to believe or what to expect. I've questioned my decision of going a few times. My conclusion is to go and see for myself. One of the things I've set out to do on this journey is to experience life for myself and come up with my own conclusions based on my own experiences. I will take the warnings seriously, but I will show up with an open mind. I'll hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Who knows what will happen.