Horn Island 34: A Personal Mindquest to Meet the Magic Hour, Let go of Distractions, and Coexist with Nature

Horn Island 34 was many things for me.

It was a chance for me to reconnect with real wilderness camping, adventure on the island, hike, swim, kayak, survive storms, sketch, read, write, photograph, bird watch, alligator “hunt,” and occasionally spot sharks. It was a chance to make nature-mediated-art and search for/document inspiring natural forms and patterns in the landscape.

And in some ways that I did not expect, it was a personal mind quest to meet the magic hour, let go of distractions, and co-exist with the island. It was a chance for me to detach from technology, reprioritize my focus, and rediscover a new kind of independence that can only happen when you maroon yourself on an undeveloped island.

An unforgettable adventure, this was my first experience camping out on the island, but it was MCA’s 34th year making the trip out. Led by Don DuMont, my friend and colleague at MCA, the program follows the American artist, Walter Inglis Anderson, who spent the years between 1946-1965 drawing and painting the landscapes and life on the island.

We spent 9 days on the island, one day shorter than planned because of a tropical storm. In the evenings, Don would read passages from Walter Anderson’s journal. In this spirit, I’ve included a collection of some of my journal entries, photographs, and videos from my experiences living on the island.

The Arrival

The island’s landscape is striking with long stretches of white sand and rolling dunes, contrasted with dramatic shadows. The sun is hot and bright, reflecting off the water and sand. Shade is scarce, but there is some natural shade that provides refuge from the sun. Tall pine trees, palmetto bushes, cacti, and small groves make up most of the greenery on the island. In some vantage points, the landscape feels rich with lush greens and blues (mostly inland by the lagoons), but in others, it feels starkly different, with an isolated-apocalyptic vibe with limbless dead trees, driftwood, and sticks.

I arrive on one of the last boats to the island and begin to set up camp. I find a spot tucked away from the shoreline between two large dunes off of the lagoon with a nice north/south breeze. A thunderstorm in the distance keeps me motivated to set up my shelter before doing anything else. I fill garbage bags with sand to secure my tent. In the end, twelve sand-filled garbage bags secure my tent to the ground. It is hot and the sun is strong so I go for a swim to cool down. I join the others at basecamp to sit in the shade and relax for a bit. After some time, I go back to my tent for a nap.

The Shore

Sitting by the ocean, I watch the tide come in and out. Along the shoreline, interesting patterns emerge from the tide, creating dynamic, overlapping contours in the sand. Thin strips of seaweed exaggerate these marks, adding contrast and depth. These patterns catch my attention and I consider how they might translate as dynamic digital renderings and 3-dimensional forms.


The Thunder Storm

The thunder and lightning start over the mainland, across the sound. It looks like it is hitting Pascagoula pretty hard. The sun sets, red, pink, and orange. We watch it disappear behind the horizon. The lighting keeps the skies lit up. We sit on the beach at basecamp and watch. It’s like a strobe light, making it difficult to focus. Hard, fast, strikes hit the earth and water. It stays warm and dry on the island with soft winds coming from the north. After a few hours, the wind stops and the temperature drops quickly. The storm is coming. We disperse and brace ourselves.

The wind picks up from the north. The front side of my tent is pushed inward, at some points, almost flat against me. I hold it up, hoping my tent doesn’t buckle under the weight of the wind. The storm moves closer and soon it is right above me. The wind feels less severe, but then the lighting comes. Loud blasts. I can tell the strikes are close. I hold my breath, but relax as I remember that this soon will pass. As it does, the wind picks up from the south but the thunder softens. I start to drift to sleep, in and out. I’m not quite adjusted to my new home, but I trust my tent and so I rest.

The First Morning

I didn’t sleep well the night before. I’m still adjusting to all the new sounds on the island. I wake up early, with the sun, to cook breakfast and make coffee. I make breakfast and coffee most mornings on the island and enjoy the quiet time. Oatmeal, almond butter, trail mix, dried fruits and nuts, couscous, tuna. After some writing and sketching in my journal, I clean my dishware in the ocean, gather my things, and join the others at basecamp. When I arrive, I discover that the storm knocked down basecamp. It really was a pretty epic storm.

The Southside Excursion

I hike to the Southside today to discover more of the island and get a better sense of my surroundings. We stay close to the inland area first, stopping by the edge of a lagoon to see if we can spot any gators. There are two in the lagoon sunning. They aren’t too big, about 5 feet long. We watch for a while and then continue on, this time walking closer to the shore. There are many shells on this side of the island and the sand is darker, probably because this ocean-facing side of this island gets a lot more wind. Walking and exploring the island, we observe, discover, and contemplate the landscape, wildlife, and marine life. There are many birds—pelicans, ospreys, skimmers, and sandpipers are my favorites. We also see a lot of crabs on the shore. It is interesting to think about what nature can teach us about its rhythms, systems, and mechanics, and what it can teach us about ourselves, our relationships with ourselves and nature, and our relationships with each other.

There is a special shade tree that we hike to. We stay there for a while. We write, sketch, photograph, talk, nap. Time feels like it slows down on the island, but it feels pleasant. After the tree, we swim and play in the waves. The water is rougher on the ocean side, but it makes for fun swimming. That is, until, we spot a shark. We hike some more and start to feel tired so we head back to camp.

The Southside Again

We hike over to the Southside again today. We talk about the challenges of being mindful and present on the island, enjoying it and experiencing it, in the moment, but also being conscious of making recordings and documenting things. We follow a similar hike as the day before but this time, thinking more about documenting and recording what we see.

The tidal patterns in the sand look very different on this side of the island. They are more like dune shapes versus contour lines, with deeply defined edges and shadows. I take notice of the forms and patterns of the sand, comparing the landscapes of the north versus the south. Perhaps there is an interesting visual comparison I can create across the north side, Mississippi Sound and the south side, Gulf of Mexico that expresses the tide variations, water, and movement recorded in the sand.

The Island Miracle

I meet the others under the shade tree. What was lost has now been found. The island returns my hat. I lost it the day before, not sure at what point or when it happened, I was doubtful it would return. It washes up to shore not far from where we sit. It is an island miracle.

The Injury

I see an osprey perched over its nest and move closer to take a photograph. I step directly on a stick with bare feet. It stings, but I don’t think much of it. I notice later it is bleeding and I need to return to camp to clean and bandage it. My first injury. I hike an hour in the high sun to get back to my camp. It’s hurting now. I clean it, disinfect it, which stings pretty badly, bandage it, and wrap it with duct tape. I kind of feel like a badass.

The Day Trippers

The weekend weather is warm and sunny and sure enough, it brings the day trippers to the island on their motorboats, with their floaties, and their beers and their loud music. It’s a strange site after camping so primitively on the island, now for three days. I return from my hike, foot injured, to find a group parked directly in front of my tent. Annoyed, I walk up to my tent to find my first aid supplies to clean my injury in the ocean. Petty, probably, but I am bothered that they couldn’t find an open spot on the beach that was not in front of someone’s tent. Later, I think, this is the first time I really start to think of Horn Island as my Horn Island.

The Surprise

Each evening, we gather at basecamp for dinner. It is a time where we share stories, eat, relax, and enjoy the sunset. We finish dinner and watch the campfire. Later, some of us walk down the beach and regroup west of basecamp. There is a very welcome, very pleasant, very cool surprise for us. We hang out pretty late this night, chatting under the stars, sharing life stories, having some laughs. It is a great night with great friends.

The Lagoon

We take the kayaks out and paddle west toward the lagoon entrance of Garden Pond. The weather is beautiful, clear skies, and the water is still and blue. We reach the opening into the lagoon and it is very shallow. I can see straight to the bottom. There are many crabs and stingrays. We paddle through the narrow entrance and it quickly opens back up into a large pond. I am hoping we might see some alligators, but we do not. We paddle around the edge of the pond and through the center. The sun is flickering off the water. The landscape is very lush, blues and greens, and there are some good views of pines and osprey nests. We make our way back to the entrance area and find a sandy spot to dock and have lunch. We eat and then I spend some time scavenging for wood for an art project. I load up my kayak, pack up, and we head back to camp.

The Drawing Machine

I’m feeling a lot more acclimated to the island. It’s day five now. The day trippers from the weekend are gone and we have the island back to ourselves. I meet friends for coffee in the morning but leave early to finish building my wind drawing machine. Interested in exploring nature-mediated art making, I set up a large drawing machine that moves and makes marks on fabric via the wind. I finish installing the machine and plan to let it draw throughout the week. The machine consists of four wood boards, suspended rope, and markers attached by fishing line. Below the structure is a fabric canvas attached at four points with zipties and sandbags. Both the suspended markers and the fabric moves in the wind, making an interesting, a certainly festive installation. Happy with my work, I plan to let it draw while I go for a late morning hike.


The East Tip

I make it to the East tip of the island today. I walk along the north shore for about two hours, stopping here and there. The shoreline feels like it goes on forever. I pass by some friendly faces on the way. There is a wonderful breeze. Storms off the north and south shores keep the air cool. The sky is cloudy, which offers some shade from the sun. As I get closer to the tip, I walk through some inland water to make it all the way to the edge. There are many birds, so many birds that you can’t count. The pelicans land in a group on the very tip. I watch them fly around and land for a while. They are so graceful. There is a heron standing in an inlet body of water and I watch him for some time. He is funny. He has long legs and reminds me of a lanky teenager getting used to his new body. I sit down and eat some lunch on a log. It sounds like the storms are getting closer so I gather my things to head back to camp.

The Magic Hour

Walter Anderson describes the magic hour as the time of day where the sun would begin to set, the air would cool, and the sky would shine hues of pink and blue along the horizon. We describe the magic hour as the moment on the island where you begin to let go of your mainland attachments and priorities and begin to connect with the island. I notice this transformation today when I begin to feel more at home on the island, and no longer just a visitor to the island. Making my first hike alone on the island today, I start to see Horn Island as my own, and other distractions start to fade away. I feel less concern for time and feel more mindful in the present. I lose track of time. I appreciate the storms, the clouds, the sun, the birds, the ocean, the sand, the sky, the island.

The Walter Anderson Trail

It’s another hot day on the island. I skip breakfast this morning and go to basecamp for coffee. I pack snacks in my day pack and get ready for a morning hike on the Walter Anderson Trail. We pass the broccoli tree, cut across to the Southside and head west. We walk through the dunes that border the east-most lagoons. We see two alligators sunning. We walk around to another vantage point. On the shore, there is an alligator impression in the sand where one rested earlier in the day. We linger for a while and see four more alligators swimming in a row, following one another.

We continue west, walking up and down the dunes until we reach the shade tree. We stop for rest, water, and food. We continue on to find the trail, which is marked with a mustard bottle. We find the trail and begin to make our way through. The hike takes you inland and back to the north side. It is full of cacti, brush, and other greenery. Unlucky for us, it is also full of horseflies. They are everywhere and they are intense. Unfortunately, I fight the flesh-eating horseflies more than enjoy the scenery of the hike. Jogging, Flailing, Cussing. I try not to be so distracted that I step on a cactus or worse, a cottonmouth (which I know are back here).

When we return to the north shore, the ocean breeze blows away the remaining flies. We hike back east until we find a place to relax and swim.

The Downtime

Everything you do—the hikes, the meals, the baths—take a lot of time and energy to do. But, there is also downtime. And, on the island, it doesn’t consist of social media, texting, TV, and all those other mindless ways to spend time. On the island, downtime is for thinking, making, writing, reading, observing, napping, learning, and it is time well spent. I think a lot about how I spend my downtime on the mainland. Am I more productive with time on the mainland or am I just filling in the gaps with unfocused tasks? On the island, everything is focused, even downtime. At first, I feel like time moves slower on the island, but now, it feels like it is moving faster.

The Knife, Rope, Duct Tape Epiphany

I find a new sort of independence on the island. I wash and hang my clothes. I work on my tent. I make food and coffee. I gather water. I do these things at home, but not like this. On the island, the priorities are clothing, food, shelter, and money doesn’t help supply any of these things. Working with your hands, building and creating things, being self-sufficient is truly rewarding here. I learn some new knots, which I use in some of my island creations. On the mainland, I leave the house and think, phone, keys, wallet. Here, I leave my tent and think, knife, rope, duct tape.

The Headdress

It is super hot today. The hottest day so far, and it has been a very sunny, very cloud-free, very rain-free week, with the exception of a few evening storms. I’m tired of the heat, and it is hard to do much of anything today. I stay at basecamp most of the day and swim in the water. It is headdress day so I spend some time in a shady spot at basecamp working on it. I venture out for supplies, but the sand is burning hot, so I don’t go too far. I find some film-looking material. There are a lot of hermit crab shells on the shore, so I also pick up a small one. I collect some seashells, sticks, and other found items that look creatively promising and return to the shade. I start to build a headdress with rope, knots, and sticks, but it falls short of anything interesting. I look at the film and think about how I might make something like a veil. If I cut the film into short pieces, I could connect them with rope and duct tape. This is a slow process, but it is relaxing, untangling, cutting, and adhering. I work on this for a while and then fasten a rope around it that can tie around my head. I puncture two small holes into the crab shell and attach that to the center of the veil headband. It has a Wonder Woman feel to it. I love it. I wear it proudly.

The Grill

Today was hard. Did I mention that it was hot? It was so hot, above 100 degrees. We help make dinner and manage the grills. We are all pouring with sweat, standing over the hot grills, on this hot day, flipping Spam patties. At first it is a bit chaotic, but eventually, we get into a rhythm. Still, a sweaty rhythm. It is hard work.

The Pier

It is a little cooler today, but still warm and sunny. I wake up early for coffee. Some are going fishing today to feed the camp. The annual fish fry celebration is tomorrow night.

We take the kayaks out and boat to the pier. The pier is about three miles down the coast where the Ranger’s station is located. It is the furthest west that I have traveled on the north side. I would like to go to the chimneys but it is too far of a journey for an afternoon trip. We paddle close to the shore on the way toward the Pier. We make it there and plan to sit on the edge, but there is a piece of the Pier missing. I decide I’m not confident enough to balance-beam my way across and so we hang out at the base of the pier. We watch the sandpipers along the shore. We have lunch and make a return trip. On the way back, we are way out in the ocean, far from the shore. It feels amazing, open air, wind, dark waters. We make it back to camp and sit and talk and drink coffee.

The others return from fishing. They are back early. I hope they have caught a lot of fish, but wonder if they have caught very little and have given up for the day. They did catch a lot.

The Tropical Storm

The storms are rolling by in the distance. Over the last few nights, we have had more. There is a tropical storm moving in from Florida. They say that it will hit the island on Sunday. We venture over to the Southside after dinner. The air cools way down and the wind switches direction, a sign that the storm is coming. We hurry back to our camp on the north side.

The storm comes, but not until later. I wake up in the middle of the night from the thunder and lightning. My tent is secure and I feel safe. I fall back asleep to the sound of heavy rain. It is cool and comfortable, and I curl up in my sleeping bag for the first time the entire trip.

The Evacuation

I sleep in this morning because it is finally cool. It is the coolest it has felt all week and the rain is still falling. I lay in my tent a little longer. I finally get up and out of my tent. The rain sounds louder than it actually is. It’s only drizzling out. I walk to basecamp to join the others for coffee.

In the midst of learning how to make my first pot of coffee at basecamp, it is announced that we are being evacuated off the island. The tropical storm will be here tomorrow, Saturday, not Sunday. Everyone has to be off the island by 5pm today. The trip will be ending a day early.

The evacuation is slow. We do not see any boats for a while. We have some help bringing people and supplies over early, but our charter boats are delayed with other things. It is not until mid-afternoon that we have consistent transportation off the island. It is a lot of hurrying and then waiting. I’m still on the island, waiting. It will take at least another four loads surely, maybe five.

I’m sad to leave the island. I want to stay with my friends. Or, go down with my friends. Either way, I will take one of the last boats back. Last to arrive. Last to leave.

The Last 30 minutes

Everyone and most of our gear is off the island. I sit with friends, with the last of our gear, under the last of our shade tents. We are the last on the island. For this brief moment, I forget about the storm and want to stay. We have laughs and enjoy this special time together. I will miss Horn Island and my experiences here.

In one of Don’s evening talks, he says something that sticks with me. He says, This is Horn Island… this is my Horn Island… this is your Horn Island… this is our Horn Island.

I feel like I am part of something special.

The mention of we in my journal entries refers to my colleagues and friends who traveled with me on the island. Special thanks to Don DuMont, Adam Hawk, Joe Morzuch, and Remy Miller for making the experience so wonderful. 

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