So I was out at St. Marks hiking with a friend named Moshe. Moshe is a fascinating guy–he grew up running with gangs in Los Angeles, converted to Judaism, got a law degree and worked for former California governor Pete Wilson for awhile, then moved to Israel, joined the Israeli army, wrote a book about his life (a truly interesting account, which he’s currently shopping around), and then moved to tranquil Tallahassee.
We were on mile three of a thirteen-mile hike when I saw something dark and large to the left side of the trail, way up ahead.
I stopped and looked at it with my binoculars.
“What is it?” Moshe asked.
“I thought it might be an animal, but it looks like it’s just a large bush.”
I put the binoculars down, and that’s when the bush turned sideways and the dark blob, even from so far away, clearly became an animal of some kind. At first, a chill went down my spine, because it was so far away that it looked like it was something human but deformed traveling on all fours. Only when I looked at it again through my binoculars could I confirm that it was a pig.
“It’s a pig,” I said to Moshe. “A very large pig.”
“Yes,” Moshe replied. “It looks a lot like a very large pig.”
“I’ve never seen a pig out here before,” I said to Moshe. “I didn’t even know St. Marks had wild pigs.”
“Well, that’s definitely a pig,” Moshe said.
We stood there as the beast scented the air. Then, it began, from more than one hundred yards away, to run toward us.
“It’s running toward us, Moshe,” I said.
“Give me your walking stick. I need protection,” Moshe said. Earlier, he’d told me this was one of the first times he’d gone out walking on a hike without a weapon, since all of his previous hikes had been in the Israeli army. So he must have felt somewhat naked.
So I gave him my walking stick, while I pulled out my blade–a wicked serrated-edged four-inch buck knife that was really the biggest weapon I felt comfortable carrying out there, but which gave me some sense of security.
And then we stood there, watching this thing charge toward us. It had started its charge from so far away that I had a chance to take a couple of blurry photos (they look creepy–a little like stills from a piggy Blair Witch Project; if you scroll down on this thread, you can see them.).
Moshe and I also had the opportunity to discuss strategy. It occurred to me that perhaps we should do something other than stand there armed with a walking stick and a four-inch blade.
“Moshe,” I said, “I know what to do if attacked by a bear, but not a wild pig. Have you ever seen a wild pig before? What should we do?”
To which Moshe replied, “Oh, I’ve come across wild pigs several times.”
Which temporarily made me feel a little better about the situation, until he followed up with: “I was in the Golan Heights in a tank, though, so I never had to figure out how to defend myself against one…”
The beast came rapidly closer, and now it was making a noise like some kind of demon-spawn –a banshee growling that didn’t sound like a pig at all and kind of freaked me out. Now I could see that it was almost the height of a large German Shepard, although twice as wide.
It never occurred to us to try to wade into the swamp to either side of the trail and climb a tree. It never occurred to us to run, I think because we didn’t feel we could outrun the thing.
So instead we braced ourselves for impact, so to speak, and the pig charged closer, still making that god-awful sound. I could see its teats swinging by then, and later we figured it might have had piglets nearby. It was a dirty gray with that bristle-pad hair some hogs have. It looked like it had just come up from the seventh level of Hell.
Closer and closer came the pig. Fifty feet. Forty feet. Thirty feet. I swear, there was nothing survivalist about the instincts that let us stand there. It was just not knowing what else to do. Twenty feet, fifteen, and the something cracked in the pig, some mental loop that had sustained it during its long charge became uncoiled, it came to its senses, and with a mighty howl (I can only describe it as a howl–a most unpiglike sound) it aborted its charge and sped off into the swampy underbrush to our right, now making a gravelly wailing sound like a hundred banshees. Then it ran back down the trail and off to the left, out of sight.
Moshe and I just stood there, kind of wondering if it had really happened.
“Well, now we know that a pig’s ass can look a lot like a big bush,” I said.
“I wonder if those pigs are edible,” Moshe said, brandishing his walking stick in triumph as if he were a ninja. “I wonder if they’d be good to eat.”
“I’d rather not find out,” I said.
But it was not over yet. First of all, we had to either turn back or hazard walking by the spot at which the pig had disappeared into the underbrush on our left.
The situation still seemed so unreal that we didn’t even really think about the possible danger in continuing, and so, still brandishing our walking stick and our knife, we walked forward, alert for further sounds of wild piggery. Once we had passed the spot the pig had disappeared at, we relaxed a little bit. Moshe seemed more laid back about it than me, but, then, he hadn’t had the experience of encountering either a jagarundi or Florida panther out there, as I had the year before. Still, I don’t think it had really hit either one of us that we might’ve been in danger.
We continued on in our hike through the pine forest and swamp, successfully getting through the part of the hike I call “Southern Gothic” for its black water and cypress knees and sense of quiet foreboding. We then looped around to the area that’s a precursor to the lakes and salt marsh, with its shimmering marsh grass (my favorite part of the hike–in the right light, especially in the winter, the plains of marsh grass, broken up by little islands of palmetto trees, look luminous and unreal, the quality of light unearthly–like something Turner might have painted had he come to Florida). In this precursor area, which is half-marsh, half pine forest, the trail curls around on itself.
So when I first saw movement on the trail ahead, it was with the relief that it looked like whatever the hell this new thing was, it was on the *other* side of the canal of water that lay on the right side of the trail.
I stopped and looked through my binoculars.
“What is it?” Moshe asked.
“I don’t know.”
And I really didn’t. It could’ve been a deer, but it looked a little shorter than a deer.
“Is it a…pig?” Moshe asked.
“I’m not sure. But whatever it is, it’s on the other side of the water.”
Walking forward, with the path looping back to the right, it quickly became apparent that the animal was actually on *our* side of the water. It stood underneath a palmetto tree, and after another quick look, I could now tell it was a pig. A big pig with little tusks.
It just stood there, staring at us from about thirty feet away. Under the palmetto tree. It wasn’t moving, and we had to get past it to continue the hike. At this point, it would have taken longer to hike back than to go forward, since we were in mile eight.
While deciding what to do, I took a quick photo that wound up looking like a tree with something that looked a little like pig hide wrapped around its trunk.
“Give me that,” Moshe said.
“It’s definitely a pig.”
“I know, but I need something else to defend myself. I feel vulnerable.”
And so now Moshe stood there brandishing the walking stick and swinging the binoculars like bolos or a slingshot. I hurriedly put my camera back in my knapsack and got my knife out again.
The pig just stood there, sizing us up. This one wasn’t making any god-awful noises, which somehow seemed more ominous.
The longer the damn pig stood there, the angrier I got, for totally irrational reasons. Certainly, the pig had more right to be there than I did. But Moshe had never gone on a hike in Florida before. I’d promised him alligators aplenty, and yet we hadn’t seen one yet, even though we should have seen twenty or thirty by then. Instead, we just kept seeing goddamn wild pigs. I felt, in an odd way, like a rude host. Wild pigs were no substitute for that staple of natural Florida, the alligator.
“I can’t believe it’s another fucking pig,” I said, my attempts at suppressing my usual sailor’s diction shot to hell. “Another goddamn motherfucking pig. Never seen a pig out here in twelve years and now all we see are these goddamn fucking pigs. This sucks. Dumbass pigs.” (Although, to be honest, this second pig was a beautiful russet color.)
“I think we should go forward,” Moshe said. “Or maybe not.”
“I think we should charge the fucking thing,” I said, and, seeing a three-pronged huge branch lying on the trail beside me, proceeded to pick up this wooden trident-lance. It was heavy as hell, but carrying a small tree in front of me made me feel a lot better. My clothes and hands were smeared with ash; the branch had been the victim of one of the rangers’ controlled fire burns. I had my knapsack on, was clutching the branch awkwardly, and still had my knife out, as like to cut myself now, with that hand also helping hold the friggin branch, as do the pig-beast any harm.
Then we heard a rustling down below us, near the water, and saw another couple of pigs, rooting through the underbrush. Fuck. It was *gang* of pigs.
“So let’s do it,” Moshe said. “Let’s do it.”
The beautiful deadly russet wild pig stood oblivious under the palmetto tree watching us with its little black marble eyes. The other pigs had scattered when they noticed us. But not this one.
So this was it.
“Yeah, let’s charge this motherfucking pig,” I said, and so saying, we ran toward the pig, yelling and making as much noise as possible, Moshe swinging the binoculars over his head and brandishing the walking stick while I hauled the Impossible Weapon like some kind of cut-rate lumberjack, confident that the pig would have to crash through four feet of sharp branches before he could get to me.
The pig stood its ground, and for a long moment, we thought it might charge us, but instead, when we were within ten feet, it let out a little squeak, and turned and fled, running down the dirt embankment, and into the water.
Once it was in the water, Moshe stopped brandishing his binoculars and I put down the small tree.
There was something about the pig in the water that made our efforts seem somewhat of an overreaction, perhaps even ridiculous. What was it exactly? What quality? I think it had to do with the way a pig swims–or, at least, the way this pig swam. Its whole body was underwater except for its ridiculously large, burro-like ears, and its huge electrical outlet nostrils.
I watched it swim away and thought that perhaps we had been driven to our Lord of the Flies moment too rapidly. Perhaps all of the wild pigs at St. Marks were cowards, bluffers, and buffoons, bad at poker and pool–full of bluster but not much else.
At the far side, the pig seemed to hesitate in its flight long enough to moon us with the shrubbery of its ass before disappearing into the long grass.
“Fucking pigs,” I said. “Stupid fucking pigs.”
“You are good at defending yourself,” Moshe said. “You know how to defend yourself.”
Yeah, I thought, it’s always a good idea to pick up a small tree, even if it half wrenches your shoulder out of its socket.
The rest of the hike was anti-climax. We saw an otter and, scarred by our experiences thus far, I almost expected it to climb out of the water and come at us with a revolver or something. We also finally saw our alligators before, tired and sweaty, we made it back to the car.
Later, several friends who had had experiences with wild boar said we’d been lucky. And, certainly, when my friend Forrest Aguirre pointed out the deer-eating wild pigs of Wisconsin, it felt like maybe we had been lucky. But I’m more of the opinion that the goddamn motherfucking pigs of St. Marks are just cowards. And it’s a good thing, too, because “eaten by wild pigs” is not a dignified thing to have etched on one’s tombstone.