Billy Hastings whittled away a small slice of bark with the same pace at which he told his story.
Everything is slow and steady.
Sitting on a chunk of a white oak tree trunk he'd cut to be the perfect dimension for a stool, Hastings allowed the fire he stoked all afternoon to keep him warm. He started his day hoping to harvest a deer and fill one of his archery tags, but with no luck, he choose to build a fire and take advantage of a semi-warm day for late December.
"This is perfect weather," Hastings said. "I could sit here all day. This is my heaven."
It's a small piece of heaven. Hastings owns less than 10 acres situated in the Mississippi River bottoms north of Quincy with a one-lane gravel road leading to a small cabin. There's no electricity or running water. It's sparsely stocked, and the main feature is the wood-burning stove that serves as the only heat source.
"I don't need much," Hastings said. "I just some space for me."
At that moment, Hastings picked up a handful of shaving from the stick he'd been whittling and tossed them into the stove.
"Smell that?" he said. "That's the best smell you'll get. That's fresh oak burning."
Hastings closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"I'm comfortable here," he said.
Not as comfortable as he once was.
"This was my sanctuary, I guess you'd say," Hastings said. "That's been lost."
Twice last fall, Hastings headed to his cabin for a weekend away only to find it had been compromised. Both times, someone had used a hammer or similar tool to break the lock on the door. The cooking utensils that hung on one wall were stolen the first time. The tools stored in a cabinet on the other side of the cabin were taken the second time.
Other things were broken or trashed. So instead of hunting or relaxing, Hastings spent his time cleaning up and securing his cabin.
"Angry," he said. "That's the best word to describe it."
He sat there shaking his head from side to side as he told his story.
"Why would someone just ruin things?" Hastings said. "I'll never understand that. You can tell I don't have much here. There wasn't much to steal. There was no reason to trash everything. Hell, this isn't Alaska where you have to find a place to get out of the cold and the snow just to survive.
"It's winter in Illinois with no snow on the ground. Hell, ask me for a key and I'd probably give you one."
Hastings isn't the first person to have a little slice of heaven turned into a little corner of hell by those who don't care.
Stories of river camps being vandalized are not uncommon. Hunters have duck decoys stolen every season. Lawn mowers and boat motors that aren't locked down in a shed get taken.
It all comes back to the question Hastings kept asking as he described his ordeal.
Why can't people trust their property is safe? Why do people find it acceptable to be thieves, vandals and vagrants? Why does it have to make a trustworthy person cynical?
"I don't want to change," Hastings said. "I want to continue living my simple life. I'm going to sit in front of my fire, sip my cup of coffee and whittle these sticks because it's what I love to do. What I want those hooligans to know is you can take my stuff, but you never get my spirit.
"If I have a breath to breathe, I'm going to be outdoors. No one takes that away."