There’s more to this thistle than meets the eye…
On a run through New Orleans City Park this past Saturday, something caught my eye. My runs these days are a sorta walk-run combo, so I’m not opposed to breaking my stride to satisfy my curiosity. I’m at a point in my life where finding the unexpected is more important to me than reaching some particular cardiovascular fitness milestone.
I was pleased to find a few thistles blooming, right at the shoreline of the lagoon. When you think of New Orleans flora, “thistle” is not one of the first plants to come to mind. Not for me, at least. So these prickly, lilac-colored-bloom beauties were a pleasant surprise.
They were in a fairly secluded area of City Park, set back about fifty yards from the nearest roadway, but only a few feet off the paved walking path. I don’t like to run with my phone, so I made an intention to return the next day for a more leisurely picture-taking expedition.
That’s where the story comes in.
I was out and about early on Sunday morning, so I cheated and drove to the thistle spot. Or rather, I parked near there as I made my way back home. Traipsing the fifty yards across the grass and fallen oak leaves, I could see someone was already there ahead of me. I first thought it was a photographer, setting up to get their own thistle pic. (Photographers are definitely not a rare sight in City Park.)
As I approached, I could see it was a man closing up a backpack. It looked like a nice, solid backpack, not something cobbled together. And he seemed pretty intent on his task—striking camp, I assumed—and not so interested in the nearby runners and / or amateurish iPhone photographers.
But still, I had to do one of those instant threat/need assessments. You know, all the questions and answers that run through your head in a split second. “Does this person look dangerous?” Maybe, but he’s behind and bent over his pack, so it’s not like he’s lying in wait. “Does this person look like they need help?” He does not look like he needs or wants help. “Is this person supposed to be camping here?” Probably not, but I’m not about to call him out on it.
So in that instant, I decided to proceed with a few quick thistle pictures, but not dally doing it. I told him “Good morning” as I approached the lagoon’s edge. He looked up, but didn’t respond. (That’s when I got the idea that he neither needed or wanted any kind of attention). I took the photos, and then hightailed it out of there.
Being a fiction writer, I’ve had nothing but possibilities running through my head ever since. Daylight savings time had begun just about seven hours earlier, so did backpack man think he was striking his camp earlier than he actually was? Was he wondering why so many runners, walkers, and just general people were out so blooming early?
And then, don’t get me started on the thistles. Are they a sign for off-the-grid backpackers, “Here You May Camp”? Kind of like the scarlet pimpernel? Or does some scout come and seed them for off-the-grid backpackers? Is there a Secret Society of the Thistle?
Reality still creeps in. I don’t want it to seem like I am making light of this person’s circumstances. I get the gravitas. Outdoor living is tough, and especially so if it’s not by choice. My sense was his was mostly by choice. But my sense has been wrong before.
Which brings me to one of those things I’ve learned about writing, my writing, in the eight or so years I’ve been at it. And here it is: ideas for fiction—even the zaniest ideas, especially the zaniest ideas—are rarely worth pursuing if they aren’t backed up somehow by the weight and gravity of the real world.