Welcome to Blue Springs Creek, in the Ocala National Forest, where Lee Allen Young lives on a raft he calls the Huckleberry Finn with a faithful mutt he has named Becky Thatcher.
A barefooted man of 59, he says he is looking for Tom Sawyer — that is, he is looking for the kind of free and irresponsible life all but gone in modern Florida. He has no bank account, no credit cards, no telephone. "Civilization," Mark Twain once declared, "is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities." Young has no spouse, no commitments, no immediate plans except to fry a few fish for supper.
"I've done so much for so long with so little I can do almost anything with nothing," he says.
One thing you can say about Lee Allen Young. He knows how to get by whether he's on a raft, on a horse or in jail.
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If we run out of oil, if the Internet stops working, if Publix suffers a shortage of vittles, if the vacuum cleaner breaks, if the Florida Legislature refuses to fund anything but golf course construction, Young probably will do okay. He owns no computer or golf clubs or gas guzzler. He's got a broom, a dog, a fishing pole and what more than likely is the best raft east of the Mississippi. If he must, he can row, paddle and pole it.
About 16 feet long, the raft was born a decade ago as a canoe to which he added Styrofoam outriggers. Then he built a 10-foot-wide deck on top of the canoe and the Styrofoam. On top of the deck, out of cedar, plywood, bamboo, rope and a vinyl tarp, he erected a hut. The hut contains a propane stove, one chair, a single table and three storage tubs for his meager belongings. He has a flashlight, canned goods and a small collection of turkey feathers. At night he yanks a string and a bed rolls down from the ceiling.
He owns the clothes on his back, plus a few other garments he has fashioned out of cowhide and deerskin. He has many tools that require no electricity. Young is an elbow grease kind of guy.
He builds furniture when he has a mind to, walking sticks and little wooden icons he sells to tourists sometimes for $10 or so. A rambling man, he lacks close friends but knows a lot of people who stop to say hello and listen to his stories. If they get too chummy, if they ask too many questions, if they rub him the wrong way, he pushes the raft off the bank and drifts away.
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"Always do right," Mark Twain once told an audience. "This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." Young is 19th century man who has mainly tried to do right while somehow managing to do some wrong. Want to know what he dislikes most about the 21st century? "People are rude," he says. "They steal. They rip you off."
Civilized people who need help dial 911. They hire lawyers. He isn't the kind of man who calls the cops or consults an attorney to fix his problems. His first impulse is to take care of bad business on his own, which is not the 21st century way.
Easier to avoid modernity. Most nights he ties up to shore near a boat ramp close to Otter Street, which is near Raccoon Street and Possum Street. Most of us would consider his home environment the sticks. But some nights the inhabited side of the creek gets noisy. He can hear televisions, stereos and 21st century Florida creeping closer.
So he pushes the Huckleberry Finn off the bank, heads down the creek a mile, ties up to a cypress stump and listens to the calming after-dark symphony performed by alligators, owls and pig frogs. "All my life I've tried to find a place where I can go 24 hours and never hear a motor," he says. "It's near impossible. There's no place to hide."
He was born in Virginia; his mama, alone with four other young mouths to feed, sent him to live in Bradenton with an uncle who apparently was unhappy with the assignment. The boy made himself scarce and got away as soon as possible.
He threw newspapers on front porches, dug ditches and toiled as a bottler in an orange juice plant. An experiment in structured living — he joined the Army — lasted almost a decade. On his 23rd day in Vietnam in 1970, he says, a mortar shell exploded over his quarters. A buddy lost his foot and he lost a chunk of his right calf.
So today he flies an American flag from the stern of the Huckleberry Finn. His Purple Heart is stowed in a safe place onboard. His terrific scar always is visible below the cuff of his short pants.
The shorts come off when he takes a bath in the creek, soaps up and watches for snapping turtles. He has been bitten by sand flies, chiggers, wasps, honeybees, yellow jackets, mosquitoes and ticks but never a turtle. Sometimes alligators bother the catfish he hangs on a stringer behind the raft. Cottonmouths haven't joined him in the galley.
"I've been lucky," he says. "I've never been hurt. I'm fast and I'm careful."
He has no money to pay doctors, no savings except what he keeps in his pocket or the coffee can. On paper, he's as poor as can be. He sells about $2,500 worth of furniture and wooden trinkets in a good year. "But that's enough for me to live pretty well."
He considers himself a rich man.
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Young is the first to admit he has been unlucky in love. Over the years many women have drifted into his life, stayed a while, then vanished. At present "I'm not hemmed in by nobody," he says.
In 1987, he announced to wife No. 1 his intention to leave Arcadia, in Central Florida, and head out west to Wyoming — on horseback. The divorce followed. Over the next decade, life in a mule-drawn covered wagon failed to be the dream marriage for his next two spouses.
Speaking of mules, he has always liked them, even though, like women, they sometimes forget to return his affection. One ornery fellow butted him in the mouth, resulting in the huge gap in his smile today. Otherwise, he is a good-looking man with a neat beard and wiry build.
In 2000, as he worked his way back to Florida from Wyoming, he dug graves, built fences, shoed horses and labored as a land surveyor to feed himself. For a spell he lived in Atlanta, where he says he developed a website for a fortune-teller.
Unfortunately the seer neglected to warn him about trouble awaiting him in Florida.
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Huck Finn smoked a pipe. So does Young. Lighting up, he draws the vanilla-flavored smoke into his lungs, cranks up the 5-horse engine and aims Huckleberry Finn up the creek. He doesn't like motors except when the wind is blowing. The coughing Johnson reminds him of his lost canoe.
Four years ago he built a canoe while living on his raft on the Oklawaha River near Fort McCoy. He used an ax to hollow out a log, built outriggers and felt like a Seminole Indian warrior when poling it through the shallows. Folks who visited the fishing camp to look at his canoe often ended up buying his cane furniture and hand-carved doohickeys. The newspaper in Ocala even published a story for his scrapbook.
One day a couple of guys came calling. They told him he was a sucker to sell his furniture for such a low price. They said they could do better. He has little interest in business, but this time he said "go ahead and try." They loaded his furniture on their vehicle and drove off. When they returned, the furniture was gone and so was all the money. Traveling expenses, they told him. Young thought he had been swindled.
The police report filed on Oct. 3, 2008, by the Marion County Sheriff's Office reveals the unsavory details, about how Young showed up at the alleged swindler's house with a loaded pistol and threats to do some harm. "Things got out of hand," says the police report. During the ensuing wrestling match for the pistol, shots rang out. The bullets missed, but blows from Young's fists made contact, leaving victims bruised and bleeding.
He was arrested and charged with a second-degree felony. He pleaded guilty and served 155 days behind bars.
When he got back to his beloved raft on the Oklawaha River all his tools were gone. And so was his beloved canoe.
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As he navigates the Huckleberry Finn from his place on the stern, Becky Thatcher, named after a character in Tom Sawyer, lies across his feet. Smoke from his pipe floats above the homemade leather cap he has decorated with wooden beads that spell out "Captain Natural," another one of his names.
"I found me a nice dead cypress tree off the creek in the woods," Captain Natural explains. "I've started another canoe."
The log is a ways back from the creek, hidden among the maples and the cabbage palms, the ferns and the poison ivy. As the squirrels chatter and the red-shouldered hawks cry, he replaces his shorts with the loincloth that makes him feel as wild and as free at Huck Finn on the Mississippi. He starts hacking at the downed tree with an ax, first here and then there. It's going to be 16 feet long, he says. It's going to be better than the canoe that was stolen, he says. This time he will be more careful with the canoe. He'll lock it to a tree if he has to. By God, the canoe will be his masterpiece.
Becky Thatcher watches for a while and then trots off to squat in the ferns next to the Huckleberry Finn, which bobs silently in the current as if modern Florida has never existed.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.