Heart of Ocala

I Love the sound of an acoustic guitar under the night sky, alongside the gritty tune of a travelers song on the sidewalk. I could sit there for days, listening to impromptu jam sessions by people who barely know each other. I think the best musicians are the ones who can pick up the harmony for the guy playing next to them. Add something, change something, and create a rhythm from what was nothing.

Shane mentioned that we were heading to Ocala. I had been hoping with everything in me that we would meet someone along the way who was headed in that direction. I’ve had the words of Micah in my head for days, ever since the pastor spoke the words at my great-aunt’s eulogy in Wisconsin. “Do Justice, Love Kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

When I think of what it means to Do Justice, I think about all the gifts that we’ve been blessed with, and the ways in which we can do justice to those gifts. Jesus tells us that we do justice to the gift of life by giving it back to God in all of its fullness and Glory. I’m doing justice to the gift of gas money and transportation by sharing the ride with anyone we find who needs one.

Chris, Danny and Anthony explained that they were headed to Ocala for the Rainbow Gathering. I tried to hide the excitement in my voice as we offered them a ride. I’ve never been to a rainbow gathering before, and I’ve always wanted to go.

After a night spent camping in Gainesville, a day at the Occupation sharing a spaghetti lunch, and the drive to Ocala, Chris pulled out a piece of notebook paper with hand-written directions to the gathering. We were parked at a Winn-Dixie just north of town so that we could find the location on the GPS before we left. I hadn’t thought everything through to this level. We were running on the last of our gas money, with an empty bank account and no idea what was going to happen next. Our ultimate destination was Tampa, so that we could visit my friends Ben and Lam, and we had figured out that we had exactly enough gas to get there. Ocala was basically on the way to Tampa, which is why we told the travelers that we were headed there in the first place. But I didn’t realize that the Gathering was going to be much further out of the way than just the city of Ocala. Shane found the location on the map and showed it to me and Rob. It was another 70 miles down the road, deep in the heart of the Ocala National Forest.

While Shane and Rob and I shared that look… the look that says “holy crap what are we gonna do?” our new friends waived over their shoulder as they walked toward the Winn-Dixie. “We’ll be back in a few minutes!” Chris said with a smile. I didn’t have time to wonder what they were doing. I was staring at the map, praying.

“God, did we bring them to Ocala just to say ‘here ya go, you’re on your own from here’ and get on down the road to Tampa?” I’m ashamed to say in all honesty, despite the icky feeling I had in my gut as I muttered that prayer in my head, I was leaning toward this choice. Thank God that I tend to go with the flow. As Shane and Rob shrugged their shoulders, as if to say “so what? We don’t know if we have the gas to make it. Big deal.” Danny started explaining his reasons for being on the road, and I didn’t want to interrupt.

A few moments later, Chris and Anthony reappeared with huge smiles and excitement in their voices. Chris set a huge box of food on Jethro’s tailgate. “It’s right before sunset!” Chris explained. “Most grocery stores go through the deli section and the produce section and throw out the expired stuff right around now. It’s all just sitting on the top of the dumpster!”

We all gathered around the box and examined the contents. 2 large unopened plastic containers of cooked fried chicken that was still warm. 2 containers of buffalo wings, 2 pound cakes, and a few bags of veggies. It was enough food to feed 20 people, and none of it was bad or damaged. Chris went through the box and explained. “The deli is closing soon, and they won’t sell the chicken. So they throw it away. The veggies have a ‘sell by’ date, or maybe it just doesn’t look as pretty as the other ones on display. They just waste this stuff! Glad they leave it where I can get to it…”

We had a good dinner, and as we drove the rest of the way to the gathering as the sun sank behind the horizon and the moon rose with the stars, I wondered what the Gathering would be like. I was nervous as we drove down the dirt roads in the dark, and I wondered to myself if we would still have the gas to make it to Tampa.

Late that night I walked down the dirt road with a dark canopy above me, the big dipper sparkling and the palm trees shining silver in the moon.  I thanked God for bringing me to a place where I could be alone and seek some solace in the stars and the grit of the gravel under my feet. Someone told me a long time ago that we all need to recharge. They told me that the act of giving something small, like a pair of socks, should be so full of our love that when compounded over time it’s physically draining. If it’s not, then we aren’t doing it right. I recognize now that the moments in which I recharge are moments like this… in solitude and prayer. Standing in front of something beautiful, wrapping myself in the silence of nature, it’s like medicine for the soul.

The next day I stood at the campsite watching Shane climb a tree to wrap a piece of cord around it, and I tried to suppress the goodbyes crawling up my throat. I didn’t want to leave. We had just found the perfect place to pitch a tent, and the seven dogs running around camp were getting along beautifully. Indy was next to the kitchen, rolling around in the dirt with a 6 week old shepherd puppy that was intent on getting a good grip on Indy’s floppy ears. Zuzu was laying down by Danny while he explained to another camper how Chris had stretched the animal hide over a gourd to make his bongo. There were 8 guys holding up the giant tarp with a beer slogan on the top side that would become the roof of the kitchen, while the children played next to the fire. Life is good.

“We hope to be back in a week or so,” I told Danny when I hugged him goodbye. The sadness was in all of us as we pulled away. I had a feeling… just a hunch, that we wouldn’t be back. Life is calling, and the people here have it figured out in a way that most people don’t. If we can create community out here with practically nothing, we can create community everywhere.

I remember an old man who stared at me intently after I told him that I traveled alone. “What are you out there looking for girl?”

This question has popped back into my head lately. It’s been appearing as I find it, rather than having set out with an intention. I remember stating 2 years ago that I was looking for the heart of people. I was looking for “the hopes and dreams, the passion and the focus of a nation that sees life through a million different lessons. I desired to redefine the words struggle, faith and generosity and discover the moments that these three things collide. I desired to demonstrate the truth; that we get what we give.” Along the way, I think I’ve also discovered community. I’ve discovered the church that the rest of the world talked about 300 years after Christ. I’ve discovered the Good News. I’ve discovered the unbreakable human spirit that pulls us up out of our misery and poverty and teaches us to walk and live in the explosive gratitude that spills out an abundance of love onto everyone around us.

We rolled into Tampa on our last gallon of gas in Jethro. Thankfully our friends gave us a place to park him and use Bubba for our giveaways downtown. By the time we left a few days later, 5 people had come together to get our gas south, and many more had donated to fill the truck. I got a phone call the day we left Miami from an unknown number. When I answered, I was excited to hear Chris’ voice on the other end of the line. Before we had reached the Ocala forest, I had written my cell number on everyone’s tshirts. I learned from Michael in Savannah that giving someone a piece of paper with my number on it is next to useless. It’s much easier to keep track of a tshirt (especially if it’s the only one that we have) so I always keep a sharpie marker close by.

Chris said that they’re back on the road. The Gathering turned kind of crazy after we left, and he said we’d be better off not going back. It’s not lost on me that I received this phone call less than 30 minutes after asking Shane if we had enough gas money to go back. We didn’t, but we considered it anyway. Our friends were there, and we had collected a few camping supplies that they could use. But this phone call from Chris confirmed the choice. It will be better to just make our way North…

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