I make a beeline for the mussel beds, but since our landing, the tide has come in, transforming the landscape. In the diminishing daylight I have to negotiate a new route and, in doing so, spectacularly misjudge the depth of a saltwater creek and am now not only up to my elbows in cold water but also sinking into oily mud. In this very instant, I grapple for the first time with the idea that, should something just like this happen, I am well and truly fucked. I have a mental image of Duke scouring Ruffle Bar two days hence and eventually coming across my uncallused hand protruding from the mud at low tide. I’ve let my geographical proximity to the city lull me into thinking that I could never really be in any bona fide danger. But in this panicked instant, I grasp the idea that I can be bested by the wilderness, even with the Empire State Building in full view. With considerable effort and a fresh perspective on my own mortality, I extract myself from the waist-deep mud.
Our Protagonist’s Quest for Sustenance and Warmth Comes to Naught.
Mollusks, it turns out, can be terribly single-minded when you attempt to remove them from their moorings. I’d imagined that gathering the mussels would be akin to picking grapes from the vine, but I soon realize that I would need some elbow grease and the pliers of my Leatherman to pry them away. I inadvertently crush a great many mussels before I manage to yank off a puny one and throw it into the kid’s pail that I’ve found. A streak of lightning lights up the sky immediately followed by a deafening thunderclap. I suddenly realize that, wet and standing in a salt marsh, I am well qualified to be struck. I harvest two more dinky mussels before the worsening conditions send me scampering back to base camp.
My survival book says that “standing deadwood” is choice fuel for a campfire. En route to camp I quickly snap off the brittle—if slightly damp—limbs of a tree that has long since expired. I re-pin the tarp to the now oozing soil, throw what I’d gathered inside, and jump in after it. Like Duke’s dinghy, the deck of my hovel is now a sandy puddle. Water has even got on and into my bag containing my books, spare T-shirt, notebook, and—most critically—my book of matches. Of course, the outdoorsy books say to bring large wooden matches in a waterproof box, but again, I made an ill-advised shortcut. I set to work kicking sand to the perimeter of the shelter to dam the rainwater spilling into it.
In the black of night, Manhattan gives off a sickly yellow glow, and the twin red lights of the Gil Hodges blink in the distance. The wind picks up and whistles right through the shelter, leading me to dig down into the earth so my bed is essentially a damp, steep-walled ditch bordered by a parapet to keep out the pooling rainwater all around. It’s then, lying in my shallow grave, that I begin to shiver. I am far too damp and cold to sleep, so I intermittently read by flashlight, in the knowledge that at some point during the night the batteries will be spent and I’ll have no further distractions from my discomfort. I discover that my flashlight radiates a considerable amount of heat. After using it to consult my survival book, I press the hot end to the numbest parts of me. It seems that though everything is now damp, half of my book of matches has somehow survived the worst of it.
I read that in the absence of any man-made flammable materials (my books and notepad are now too damp), strips of birch bark are nature’s touch paper, and it just so happens that birch branches are what I’ve used to make the skeleton of my shelter. With my knife, I cannibalize my home from the inside out, peeling off swatches of bark and cutting them into ribbons. I collect them in a little pile on the lip of my shelter and arrange my damp, dead twigs in a wigwam shape over the top of it. It takes very many attempts and I am down to just two matches before I finally have a little flame going. The twigs don’t catch but instead hiss and steam a little bit. My kindling is spent, my last match is used, and I realize the full gravity of this self-inflicted danger. I think about death. Specifically, my death. I think about how unsympathetic I feel when I hear about death by misadventure; when someone meets a sticky but self-inflicted end from base-jumping, running with the bulls, climbing Everest, etc. It’s just asking for it; theatrical hara-kiri. Then I think about how much less sympathy my own ridiculous demise will garner.