​Once, when asked where he goes to write his stories, Ernest Hemingway famously quipped, “In my head.”  That casual dismissal belied a spirit of adventure and deep desire for tactile knowledge, compelling Hemingway to seek out remote parts of the world, to walk that proverbial mile in another’s shoes.

Over a year ago, I was presented with a peculiar story by my editor.  She told me about a group of girls on a camping trip, thirty years ago.  She was, at the time, twenty years old, and full of a sense of adventure and love of nature that compelled her toward counseling other young girls’ sense of adventure.  The climax of her story was a certain canoe trip that left her forever changed.  For reasons you’ll eventually learn, that trip – and the strange tale of survival it fueled, earned the title, Follow the Water.
Considering whether to pursue the re-telling of her story, I – no different than Hemingway – undertook research into this curious practice of cultivating the exploration of nature, fraught with certain dangers.  My research led me to interview several current and former counselors, including a certain young lady who experienced the journey as a nine-year-old.  Two common denominators between most of these women are:
1 - a profound sense of resiliency; and,
2 - an ability to re-frame their reality.
That latter tendency led me to conclude that the only possible way I could do justice to the tale was to “walk a mile” – more specifically, kayak about four miles downstream and back on the Loxahatchee River, through one of the most remote corners of the Everglades.  With our intrepid guide – one of those former counselors – my friend and I set off onto the murky currents.  Within seconds, he became the first casualty, flipping his kayak with a ker-splooosh!...and emerging – baptized in the unforgiving waters of the Loxahatchee.  My course of baptism was, you might say, a bit more repetitious…and far more daunting.  A casualty of that day’s battle was my cellphone.  Deep in “Davey Jones’ locker,” its absence over the past week has given me ample time to think…
Those thoughts compel me to consider a couple things: 

  1. the remarkable optimism and gifts of mentorship such people display.  Scouting, for example, is a labor of love in which adults “pay forward” their knowledge and appreciation for nature and gifts God has bestowed, shepherding children toward adulthood – teaching them how to safely navigate the world of nature; and,
  2. the profound responsibilities these counselors shoulder in caring for the children in their charge.

Our intrepid guide on this comedic little tour of hell was a lithe, slender lady, who has lived her life near this river and knows it like the back of her hand.  Her remarkable grace and calm demeanor belied the absolute terror she must have sensed watching her bumbling charges thrash about, as we struggled to return upstream, against a current that – by her own admission – was among the strongest she’d ever seen.  It was, for the entire three-hour excursion, a study in contrast between poise and panic, awareness and oblivion, balance and buffoonery. 
I suspect it was my surroundings, during a particularly unfortunate “de-boarding,” that gave rise to a dream this week: 

       Gator #1:     "Hey, here comes breakfast!”
     Gator #2:  “Now remember, take the tender, tasty bits…leave the crunchy parts for later.  It’s Sunday…that means smorgasbord!”

​Humor aside, we emerged – charged with energy, imagery, and tactile awareness of the experience of survival.  Though I’d barely scratched the surface of those sensations, it was exactly what was necessary.
W. Edwards Deming, the process engineer and oft-attributed savior of the Japanese automobile industry following World War II, coined the phrase, “There is no substitute for profound knowledge.”  He was referring, at the time, to the difference between theoretical engineering and hands-on knowledge of the automobile manufacturing processes that influence the outcome of vehicle quality.  But the axiom aptly applies to nearly any process-oriented endeavor.  I learned that lesson a couple times, the hard way.  Those are the lessons we carry with us.  Thankfully, our intrepid guide possesses that level of knowledge.
The process of writing this story – a story about girls and young women – requires adherence to a strict discovery process through interviews, research, and now, a plunge into a tropical river as primal as the millennia during which the river – teeming with all its life forms – became a brutally intimate stage on which evolved the survival of the fittest.
To be clear, I neither claim – nor delude myself – that the stories I write “in my head” rival Hemingway’s.  After all, he immersed himself in the Spanish Civil War for nearly three years; I just splashed about in an untamed river for three hours.  However, the profound knowledge it yielded will fuel, energize and refocus this story in a way I couldn’t otherwise hope to conjure.

All photographs by A. Laing

​Looking back, a week following my “baptism,” I am humbled by the strength and fortitude demonstrated by these women.  Truly, I marvel at their courage, and admire their ability to smile in the face of inherent dangers from their intrepid travels. 
Now, because I have tasted the brackish, muck-filled waters of the Loxahatchee, been swept under by a ripping current, seen things that reminded me of ever-present dangers, and been physically challenged to my core…I have a clearer sense of the world of Follow the Water.  I look forward, more than you know, to sharing that world with you – authentically and unforgettably – in all it’s quiet fury.

For a sneak peak of sample chapters, consider joining me on Patreon.

Back to blog

Leave a comment