Panic on Shades Creek

2013-12-06 06.14.59What happens when one man tries to make urban camping a thing.

Written by Phillip Ratliff


Afternoon rush hour had already swept over 21st Street when I began my bike ride over the mountain toward Shades Creek trail. Strapped to my back was a black North Face backpack weighing a good 20 pounds, loaded with enough food and supplies to last well into the next day. There was a tent, rented from Alabama Outdoors, and a brand-new lightweight sleeping bag, purchased from the same. There was food—Go Picnics, cereal bars, raw almonds, trail mix—twice the calories I would normally ingest over a 24-hour period. This was camping, I rationalized, and camping is work, strenuous, physical work.

Though it may seem a contradiction, camping is also the opposite of work. It’s fun, a wholly unnecessary thing we do to connect to something. Usually, that something is nature, and to a large degree my intent in heading to Shades Creek was to bask in nature. I was, however, engaged in a peculiar category of camping: urban camping, camping well within the confines of a city limit and in a place not designated for camping, surrounded by human activity that had nothing to do with camping. Besides urban camping, one could say I was stealth camping, transgressing a site’s intended function. Shades Creek trail is for running and cycling, the wooded patches serving as buffers between creek and road or trail and adjacent development. I would be sleeping and eating in one of these buffers.

Camping requires imposing obstacles: defining what you can and cannot do within or bring to the camp environment. Usually, there’s something primitive about that environment, but not necessarily. Located a few yards south of Lakeshore Drive, a few minutes’ bike ride from big-box stores, several restaurants, a hospital, a high school, and a university, my destination was the result of several decades of human activity. Setting limits would be more arbitrary than camping at, say, a state park, where choices are removed. Essentially, urban camping means engaging your survival instincts with one hand while short circuiting your chances, if ever so slightly, with the other. There’s nothing logical about urban camping, just as there’s nothing logical about dunking a basketball given all that we now know about ladders. I would eventually find, during the dozen or so hours I would spend haunting Shades Creek, that this had nothing to do with logic. Over the course of the evening, irrationality and ultimately panic would descend on my tent and me.

Once over Red Mountain, I made good time. Downtown Homewood was a matter of coasting and holding my lane against motorists who would poach my position should I flinch. I have overcome certain fears, bullies in vehicles being one, an accomplishment that goes against my more passive, and as some might say, Zenlike nature. Staring down a technical portion of a mountain bike trail has shrunk, so to speak, cars and their honking drivers down to a good size, a healthy, reasonable size. It’s a useful skill, holding a lane; that made passage along parts of Broadway go fast. Nevertheless, when I reached Edgewood’s alley system, running parallel to Broadway, I finally felt free to relax my vigilance, throttled only by the backpack, which had grown heavier it seemed, and the sweltering afternoon heat, which was approaching triple digits. Coasting off of Red Mountain felt something like air conditioning, but as the terrain flattened, it felt more like being in a pan or bowl into which the August heat had sunk.

A water fountain stands at the trail’s western entrance. I filled two water bottles and texted my wife, Abby, who had been tracking me through my phone’s GPS. A few minutes later, she was pulling off of Columbiana and into the trail parking lot to snap a few photos and offer up additional advice. We walked east along the trail toward a site I had scoped out earlier that week. Fifteen minutes later, after crossing a bridge, through a narrow swath of trees, the woods widened from the trail, extending about a hundred yards from the trail to a chain link fence.

2013-12-06 05.55.12-2I had only a vague idea of what supplies my backpack held. Abby, who had packed it, briefed me on its contents and offered a few words of advice. There was the tent, a one-man nylon unit held up by a Y-shaped skeleton. The tent had two layers, one a bug resistant mesh, one an optional water resistant outer shell. There was food, a flashlight, water, washcloths, soap, a towel, a tiny first aid kit, and bug spray. We discussed general safety issues and urination strategies. Abby reached into the backpack and pulled out a black handle.  “I bought you this,” she said. “Click this lever and it unlocks. It’s almost like a switchblade. Keep it with you.” I clicked and unfolded a stout blade.

We said goodbye and I continued to set up camp. The tent went up in 15 minutes. There was ample food and I felt the need to sample from the bags of trail mix and dried fruit. A five-gallon paint bucket resting against one of the site’s many trees became my trash can. Over the next hour, I would stuff five or six wrappers in the bucket. I unrolled my sleeping bag and lay atop it to gauge how comfortable sleep would be. A rolled-up towel supported by the backpack became a makeshift headboard and pillow. From this vantage point, through the glade’s tapestry of spider webs, afternoon joggers were visible. They passed one after another, bathed in sweat, some at a trot no faster than a walk, unaware that a swimming pool’s length away a sweaty man in a brown tent was staring past them and the trail they were on, across Shades Creek and into the blur of thrumming Lakeshore traffic. I dozed off for several minutes.

It was noticeably darker when I woke, the floor of the woods now carpeted in dappled light. It was a pleasant sort of light but, as I reflect on the trip, I have concluded that it is when I woke up from this short, hot, uncomfortable nap that my camping experience changed. Offsetting the bursts of sunlight were shadows, and in those lurked a doubt of sorts, a questioning of the benevolence of my species and the goodness of nature. Could someone be watching me, someone volatile, or desperate, or sociopathic, or maybe just greedy and lacking impulse control?

Though it was nearing dusk, Shades Valley sweltered on. Joggers continued filing past me. Conditions inside my tent approached the unbearable. Target, air-conditioned and just two miles to my east, would surely reinstate me into coterie of humans. There awaited power for my phone, magazines, urinals, Diet Mountain Dew, and urinals again. I unlocked my bike, positioned the white bucket at the trail edge and headed east, careful to count the number of bridges I had crossed, to corroborate the white bucket’s account of where I had pitched my tent.

How can you go to Target and still call it camping? It’s a skeptic’s question, which I answer with more questions. How can you have a tent? A knife? Food you didn’t trap, gut, scale, hook using pre Iron Age methods? How can you camp using millennia of collective human wisdom? Why not revert to being a single cell organism and absorb nutrients from a puddle of rainwater? At some point, campers avail themselves of something modern: a tent, a knife, harnessed fire, knowledge, a camp store, bipedality, shoes. Target is a natural outgrowth of human survival instinct, an advanced phenotype, the way a dam is for a beaver or a shell is for a tortoise. Its products, one could argue, are natural—even the polysorbate 80 binding its ice cream’s fat molecules. What makes camping camping isn’t natural purity but that humans can enjoy more primitive choices to the extent they so desire. Dogs don’t camp. They wander in the woods, sleep outside, eat garbage they find and do lots of things campers do, but I wouldn’t call that camping because the dog can’t. I, on the other hand, can include a trip to Target in my camp routine if I want to. And at that moment, dehydrated, hot, bored, listless as a febrile newborn, I very much wanted to. I spent two hours in Target’s fluorescent icebox of an interior, watching Netflix and eavesdropping on workers arguing over when to close the snack bar, as my phone charged.

I left the store reluctantly and entered the east trailhead on my bike. After only minute into the return trip, the trail was pitch black and the woods humming with cicadas. I held a flashlight in my left hand and counted bridges. To my left, logically, predictably, was the white bucket, my cue to dismount and strike a right angle to the trail. I scanned the woods with the flashlight, and spotted my inert blob of a tent, crawled in, and zipped it closed quickly.

On my phone were books and homilies, SNL skits and movies. I watched Anne Hathaway pretending to be Claire Danes in Homeland and wondered if it would be awkward if the two actresses were to meet at a party. I read portions of 19th century priest John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, in which he answers a critic accusing him of lying. Newman’s treatise is considered a masterpiece of logic, something I felt I needed there in the woods. I listened to a sermon on the Transfiguration, the physical manifestation of Jesus’s divinity on Mt. Tabor. It’s a pivotal point in theology, when the union of nature and God are manifest, Jesus is bathed in white light, and Moses and Elijah appear. St. Peter, at a loss, offers to construct each a tent.

The woods were loud with traffic and insects. My eyes adjusted, and the woods sharpened into shapes: trees, my bucket, the clearing where the trail cut, the chain link fence behind me. I found myself scanning the familiar shapes in front and behind in search of motion. I spent three hours oscillating between sleep and hypervigilance, nodding, straining to see pink or green eyes, listening for the paws of coyotes and hooves of feral pigs. “I’m invisible here,” I told myself. “Maybe that means I’m protected.”

“But invisibility is an impediment to those who might help you, and it’s shared by who or whatever else might be sequestered here,” was my caffeine-soaked imagination’s counter argument. Should I lie on my stomach, to protect my eyes in case of animal attack? Or on my back, holding my knife out, in hope that it sinks between the assailant’s ribs, into a vital organ? What if I were unsuccessful in landing a fatal blow? My screams for help would surely be engulfed by white noise.

I can count two panic attacks in my past. One was set off by emotional stress, the other, physical. The physical stressor was a cast, a plaster cast, the sort that emergency room physicians put over broken arms and legs. I had broken my hand, but the cast extended from my fingertips past my elbow, locking my arm in the same position a sock puppeteer uses. After several hours of forced sock-puppeteering, as it were, I was pacing my apartment floor furiously. I called the physician and begged him to take it off. He refused. The next morning, I found an orthopedist and was fitted with a much smaller cast. Even so, I eventually removed it with a serrated knife.

The rising panic of Shades Creek seemed familiar. It was hot and itchy and trapped with me inside a shell. Rather than pace a room, I rode the trail, heading west, away from Target, toward Columbiana, the road from which I entered the trail. Riding was my attempt to slough off my invisibility, and enter, once again, the human world. I found one, a human, a homeless man, asleep on the trail under a light. It was jarring to see him there as I whizzed by. It was a half-minute before the significance of the supine shape on the asphalt registered. I turned my bike around. The man was sitting up when I reached him.

“Hello. Sorry to wake you.”

He mumbled.

“Do you need food? I have lots.”

“No. I’m good.”

“What are you doing here? Are you a traveler?”

“You could say I’m a traveler.”

“Can I ask a few questions?” My journalistic instincts were aroused.

“Nah, I’m busy.”

He rolled over and fell back asleep.

I referred to the sleeping man as homeless. For all I know, he was an urban camper like me, albeit a more successful one, since he was doing what I couldn’t, sleeping. Urban camping and homelessness look the same, but there is a distinction that may only be apparent to urban campers. They want to be where this man was, asleep on a trail. It was a blow to my self-image as an urban camper that I sure as hell didn’t. I aimed my bike at the intersection of Columbiana and Lakeshore.

2013-12-06 06.17.03-1Where I ended up, Circle K, is a hub of sorts, even in the early morning hours, flooded with gasoline smells and rumbling engines and harsh white light emanating from poles and garish signs. Inside, there were newspapers, bottled drinks, beer and wine, potted meats and cardboard pastries covered in crunchy glazes and filled with jelly and reconstituted fruits. I set my helmet on a counter, asked for a socket, downed a Starbucks iced coffee, bought a USA Today (which, at that point, was yesterday), and contemplated my future as an urban camper. Customers, all young men, paid for gas, maybe beer, and left. Where were they going?

After 45 minutes, having reached no definite conclusions, I pocketed my phone and cord and began pedaling north on Green Springs, toward Broadway along Shades Creek. A gazebo and picnic table had recently been built near the creek. I sat down and felt a buzz. It was Abby, texting.

“My phone is showing you on Green Springs??? That’s not right. You better not be riding around. That’s not safe.”

“Feels safer than being in The Blair Witch Project.”

“You OK?”

“Can’t sleep. Freaking out.”

“Freaking out??? Ok, well I’m worried. Do you want to come home?”

“No. Sticking it out.”


I texted Abby about the homeless man, the convenience store.

“I hope he doesn’t steal your stuff.”

“He couldn’t find it if he tried.”

“Let me know when you get back.”

Shades Creek trickled behind me. The light over the gazebo was soft and houses, in the aptly named Edgewood neighborhood, emitted a pleasantly human yellow glow. I found a secluded corner behind the Edgewood gazebo and peed some four hours’ worth of Diet Mountain Dew and Starbucks, my trickling in symphony with the creek’s.

“Let’s try this again,” I thought. It was a resolute sort of statement, a castle of straw built on a bedrock of doubt and neurosis, in retrospect, but I nonetheless pedaled past Circle K and into the west trailhead. The homeless man had vanished. I pedaled further into the woods, no flashlight this time, cocksure, my eyes fixed on the trail’s yellow line. “There’s the white bucket!” I thought, and 90 degrees and a hundred yards to its right, my tent. And what’s inside that tent, breathing in the putrescence of fetid kudzu? A homeless man asleep on my new sleeping bag, the Blair Witch girl filming her last video, snakes, rabid dogs, possessed hogs, a plague of frogs, prophets glowing with eerie light, psychopaths, sociopaths, their girlfriends, Squeaky Fromme, the Underwood deviled ham logo sprung to life? I sped up.

Abby was sitting on the porch when I pedaled into our parking lot 20 minutes later. She told me she had felt a sort of symbiosis, sleeping nervously, waking up when she imagined I did.

“You’ve been following me on the phone?”


“I’m coming inside.”

Physically, I had become a composite of several of my most troubling mental images, by all appearances, a deranged domestic intruder one should subdue and question later. Spider webs covered my arms, face, and chest. Grime clung to me like a bad spray tan. My sweat-drenched shorts hung limply on my hips. My throbbing ass, an artifact of several hours of cycling and clenching, gave me a pronounced limp.

“Where’s your helmet?” Abby asked.

“Helmet? Do I not have it on?”


“I don’t know. Circle K, probably.”

“Aren’t you worried about someone stealing your stuff?”

“I’d pay thousands of dollars not to go back there.”

I ate pot roast, not because I was hungry, but because Abby, not a gorp factory in California, had made it in a proper Crockpot. I stripped and showered, dressed and fell asleep. At some point before falling out, a transformation had taken place. I was Phil again.

2013-12-06 05.59.22-1Two hours later, I, Phil, civilized, coffeed, and still groggy, was driving back to Shades Creek. Joggers were already on the trail, which the sunlight had demystified. To the trail’s south, a woman was walking her dog. The dog, a spunky, white West Highland terrier, bolted in and out of the woods, pulling ever nearer to my abandoned campsite. Maybe they were now its squatters? Doubtful. Even in the morning light, finding the site took effort.

The smallness of the tent struck me. I had attempted to sleep in 90- to 100-degree heat in what amounted to little more than a large nylon jumpsuit. I rolled up the tent, then the sleeping bag, stuffing each in their pouches. Stray items went inside my Target bag. While toting the three bags toward the trail, my shoe, miraculously, found fresh dog crap, presumably a gift from the spunky Westie. A doody-caked Nike, in light of the night before, seemed tolerable. Circle K management, I discovered a few minutes later, had secured my helmet. They probably didn’t deserve having me scrape my shoe on their curb.

I had undone in a few short minutes what seemed a few hours earlier a personal, psychic, and metaphysical disaster I will forever associate with the misguided phenomenon that is urban camping. Camping should allow a person, a man, to remain a man. I descended from that noble state, away from higher order thinking, to the cusp of reptilian brain function. I will bike-camp alone again. I must or die in shame. I’ve already begun pricing one-man tents. But when I camp alone again, it will be on my terms, not urban camping’s.

And it sure as hell won’t be in August. I’ve thought about the anxiety of that moment. Abby has diagnosed it as heat-induced paranoia. I’m not sure that’s a thing, but I doubt that urban camping is much of a thing. I did experience something while doing something. I’ll unpack that experience over time, perhaps in Target, while munching on nuts and dried fruit, while cycling, or maybe while I’m jogging at dusk along Shades Creek, drenched in sweat and sensing in the shadows the invisible gaze of woodland eyes.

One Response to “Panic on Shades Creek”

  1. Ed Munson says:

    A most enjoyable read. Imagination was not not an issue, on the reader’s part. Though from Montgomery, my wife and I are quite familiar with the Birmingham area……….or so we thought. Our familiarity has been limited to weekend escapes and dinning at our favorite restaurants……The Highlands and Bottega. Familiar as we are, Mr. Ratliff’s article was truly entertaining. “Panic On Shades Creek”, simply put, was fine entertainment.

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