I didn't have a good name for the feeling until I read George Orwell's 1984. At the time I found myself facing an alligator, the best description I had came from my younger brother. He used to say, after nearly falling to his death as Mario in Super Mario Bros., that he had "cweepy baws" — the sensation of your testicles crawling up into your gut.
I'd have told you that facing an alligator — alone, far away from an EMT — had given me the cweeps, but that's not nearly strong enough to convey the chilling effect it had. Orwell, naturally, said it much better.
When Winston Smith, 1984's hero, sits to write his secret thoughts in a journal, thoughts that could have him killed by his government, he hesitates. It's a pause pregnant with terror: "A tremor had gone through his bowels."
Like most moments of horror, it was 99 percent imagination. In the end, there wasn't any harm done to me or the gator. But that's getting ahead of my story.
A hankering to unplug from society consumes me sometimes. One of those moments came two years ago. The Okefenokee Swamp, located in the steamy pine forests of South Georgia, seemed an ideal place to get away. And it was for the most part. But near dusk, I was unsatisfied. Too many people around jabbering about what people jabber about.
It wasn't just society I wanted to get away from. It was the whole of human language. I've experienced that before, but fleetingly, and I sought it again — the awe and divine terror of being alone: just me, the sound of wind in my ears, and the big blue open sky.
On my way out of the swamp, I saw an opportunity. Beyond a barrier fence there was a rise in the earth that led to a flat, narrow plain that stretched ahead of me in a straight line as far as I could see. That plain, I'd later learn, used to be a railroad line during the days when lumber barons cut deep swatches into Okefenokee Swamp for its valuable cypress.
The tracks has long been removed, but the berm remained. Running parallel was a narrow channel of water. On one side of the berm was a dense thicket of nappy pines and other soft woods. On the other side of the water was a vista of cypress and Spanish moss.
There's something they don't tell you about the Okefenokee — the echo.
The berm I was standing on was a lone point of elevation. From there, I would see just over the canopy and into the gray thick of the swamp. Otherwise, it's flat. You don't expect sound to bounce. But it does. Even a cough ricochets off something, and it comes back in diminishing sound waves, like the wailing siren of an ambulance on its way to the hospital.
Not enough has been written about the psychological effect of the echo. I'd imagine few things make you feel more alone, more seduced by the fear of the wild, more snared on the brink of the guts of chaos, than an echo, especially if it's the sound of your voice hopefully calling out to an unknown recipient whose response is a dim reflection of you.
And then, about three miles into the swamp, when I had achieved that sensation I'd been searching for, that feeling of isolation and awe, I met an alligator.
Talk about a buzzkill. Still, I was safe for the moment at the top of the berm. The reptile was half in the water, half out, resting its long chin on the bank of the channel. It looked emaciated, like it hadn't eaten in a long time. Or maybe, I thought, it was old and had died right there in plain sight. A gator, I guessed, would hide otherwise.
Not that I knew anything about them. I watched Discovery. That's it. What I did know with certainty was this: If that gator was dead, I was going to poke it with my finger.
Some things must be done if it's possible to do them. I've felt that way since I was 5, the age I leapt off the deck of a tug boat as it was preparing to dock just to see if I could span the distance between it and the wharf. Of course, I didn't realize I could have been squashed like a bug if I had misjudged the gap and slipped between the boat and the wharf. But I knew I could make it. Never mind that I nearly gave my 25-year-old dad a heart attack.
Same with this could-be-dead gator. I was going to poke it just to see what it felt like.
I was nearly certain it was dead, and excited by the prospect of poking it. But just to be sure, I found a few rocks. A shot across the nose, I thought, would be a good test.
It's not everyday your bowels tremor. This day mine did. A beat after the stone left its vision, the gator moved its head. Just slightly, but that was enough. Like Winston Smith fearing the retribution by his authoritarian government, my guts, too, turned to water.
It's unlikely a gator will run a human down. But it's also true that he can outrun you. Figuring that I was wrong about it being dead and right about it being able to run after me, especially after throwing rocks at it and unkindly planning to poke its dead body, I decided not to take any chances, and I beat it. Seriously. I ran for a long time.
On reentering the society and the whole of human language, I can't say I learned much. I'll still go for long walks by myself, seeking the feeling of being utterly alone with nature. I suppose if there is a moral, it's hardly one to share with the kids: If you want to poke a dead alligator with your finger, don't be surprised if it's still alive.