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Tripping on Florida's West Coast

Listen.  I wish you could hear what I hear.  I hear crickets, the occasional flicker of fire in the grill.  Hushed footsteps through gravel.  Such a contrast to where I was this morning.  Now, it’s just me, alone with the quietude of nature and the soft darkness.  I’m facing a bayou, blocked in by trees, with the moon directly over me, and the stars just beginning to shine.  How long I’ve waited for this moment.

Today I am myself.

I drove into Madiera Beach and sat my oiled body down on the sand.  Two South American men in their fifties wandered by.  Through a cracked eye, I watched them watch me. “Pretty,” they said.  “Pretty, pretty.”  “Yes, boo-tiful.”  The tone was kind, not sleazy.

Then to Johns Pass, where white-trash beauties in gauzy cover-ups strode by, hairy men in tow, past knickknack shops and wooden ice-cream stands.  Old, married couples stopped in every store to touch fringed rayon dresses and sniff incense sticks.  I purchased a hemp anklet with silver beads and a dead baby shark preserved in an oily blue bath.  Why do they do that?  I wondered, as I looked at the gaping hole by which it was hooked.  Wonder and disgust.  I had to buy it, but not for myself.  It was so different from all the other sunny, plastic items that were for sale.

The marinated steaks are on the grill.  Corn in their aluminum envelopes.  Tonight, I will feast.

The conference is behind me.  A different body, a different mind was in attendance.  Everything went according to plan, to my plan.  I smiled a lot, a sincere smile, but it didn’t come from within me.  It was that corporate charm that oozed out of my pores, out of every visible orifice.  “Hey, Press!”  I would hear from across the lobby.  A mulatto man waved and grinned, then walked on.  I didn’t fit the middle age, family paunch, golf tan crowd, but I was accepted because I wasn’t a threat.  Just some pretty thing wanting to ask a few questions.  What was the harm in that?  I lucked out and got a hospitality suite for my stay.  The third night, there was a party in the hall just outside my door.  “Now I know you’re going to offer me a beer, right?”  The mistress of leading questions.  “Sure!” was the slurred response from the source.  Ah, the aggressive bitch gets her way.

There’s no one here to ask for a beer, but I smuggled the last Heine of a six-pack from the hotel.  Mmmm…time to check on dinner.

The drive to Sanibel Island was beautiful.  The Sunshine Skyway was an engineering delight, stretched yellow pillars towering above the blue waterway.  I passed a subset swamp, filled with stubborn lilies clinging to their pads.  Nice.

Two hours later, the causeway to Sanibel.  All of a sudden, I was transported from endless stretches of highway to lush, tree-lined single-lane roads.  Unintentionally drove to the lighthouse, where a white sand beach mirrored a turquoise Gulf.  Fine, I’ll try the other end of the island.  On the way, passed a nuclear family taking Kodak moments with a medium-sized yellow snake.  Wildlife just sits around here.  We must amuse them.  I was determined to get to Bowman’s Beach, supposedly, a secluded shelling area.  Not so much.  There were about fifty other cars there.  No matter, there was still a lot of parking.

You wouldn’t believe the raw wooden bridges cutting through the vegetation.  There were cacti, broad-leafed bushes and tiny sunflowers.  It wasn’t just green, it was olive, forest, gold, crimson, chocolate.  Beautiful colors everywhere.  Then I got to the beach.  I’ve never seen so many shells, and indeed, young and old alike were pledging the Sanibel stoop.  Puddles of shells, lakes of shells, a whole sea of seashells.  I walked in water thigh high, hoping for a glimpse of a conch or sanddollar.  I felt the sun on my back as I searched.  Each find went into an empty Starbucks Vanilla Frappucino.

Then, on to Captiva Island.  My intent was only to drive around, gawking at multi-million dollar houses that overlooked the sea.  I got sidetracked by a beach, just over Blind Pass Bridge.  It wasn’t really a beach, I suppose, more of a sand bar.  Grabbed my camera and headed over to a cluster of fishermen overseen by a blue heron.  The heron was a looker, and he knew it.  I snapped four close-ups of him, at my own leisurely pace, while he preened and offered me his best sultry look.  Enough.  I later saw him vogue-ing for other visitors.

I lay my towel down and waded into the bay.  The sand was supremely gucky.  Slimey.  Ick oozing all between the toes.  Then I saw a beautiful, perfect shell.  It was hidden amidst a clump of stringy seaweed.  When I picked it up, I was a little surprised to see three crooked legs waving at me in an irritated manner.  How would you like it if someone upended your home, playing God in your little world?  I put Mr. Crab back.  He didn’t say a thing.

The shelling here was a bit more optimistic than on Sanibel.  I found a small handful of beautiful, tiny shells.  One with vertical burgundy stripes, three spirals smaller than the last joint of my pinky, and three live baby clams.  Purple, orange and red.  There were quite a few of these baby clams, and after burrowing the first few that I found deep in the wet sand, I decided I must’ve been meant to have some.  These are now housed in an empty box of Camel lights.  My little piece of Florida trapped in a nicotine canister.

Then the drive back to civilization.  Getting lost in civilization.  Horrid.  All that self-sufficient cockiness is gone.  Cracked open the red wine, Alexander Valley Vineyards cab, vint 1995.  Slammed the marinated pork chops on the grill with last night’s corn, and I’m all set to eat in about 15 minutes.  Finally.

The sunset brought tears to my eyes.  I suppose it was the moment, but I don’t think so.  I’m in love with life all over again and my soul is filled with satisfaction.

Venice was called due to rain, so I spent the morning meandering around St. Petersburg.  As I only want to remember the good, I’ll only record the beautiful.  A shy baby squirrel.  A gaggle of pelicans.  A gentle old couple feeding squirrels and birds.  A café, iced coffee and postcards.  With the exception of a subdued, gray skyline, the Pier was a disappointment.

When the sun came out, I was headed to Passe-a-grille Beach.  The sand was indeed like sugar, which I sifted through my fingers to reveal a handful of small, perfectly shaped shells.  The soothing sound of waves and wind comforted me.  There was a little congestion, but not enough to turn me away.  I was almost at peace.  Almost, because a seagull decided to share my lunch and plucked a bite of seasoned pork chop out of my fingers.  The seagull was almost apologetic, as I felt only a slight tug before I realized I was no longer holding my food.  I quickly turned around to see a triumphant, if guilty, bird, flying away.  “Fine.”  It was more amusing than annoying, a clear sign that beach living had erased my irritability.  I tossed the remainder of my food in the sand, only to see it snaked off in an instant by scavengers.  They weren’t a threat, only making their living.

There was no plan today.  I just wanted to wander around and be wherever, whenever.  I drove north on 699 toward Caladesi Island.  I never made it there.  I did manage to stop at a 7-11 to call Randy, realizing that he needed my door code to take care of Vestka, and he asked how I was.  “Out of film and out of cash,” I replied.  When I got back to my car, I realized, I really was out of cash.  I had left my wallet in the Madeira Beach bathroom.  Of course talking to Randy would make me realize my mistake.  He always seems to be there to right a wrong.  A sense of shame and guilt surfaced that I hadn’t felt in a long time.  How could I have done such a thing?  I raced back to Mad Beach, praying, crossing my fingers, and practicing superstitions, like positive-thinking and hopeful visualization, that I hadn’t thought of in years.  I had seen one or two coppers making their rounds, and I imagined a car chase back to the beach and a hurried, guilty explanation.  Finally, back in Madeira.  I pulled hastily into a handicapped spot with time on the meter and ran, literally, into the public outhouse.  A Hispanic woman in 80s lycra-wear looked at me in the mirror.  I ignored her, instead focusing on a child’s backpack in front of the stall where I had left my wallet. “Excuse me,” I said, as I peeked through the crack in the stall.  I could spy my wallet, sitting there on the foremost roll of toilet paper, sitting there accusingly.  “Oh,” said the woman, and she moved the backpack.  I opened the door, grabbed my wallet and walked out feeling like the biggest goddamn fool in the world.

This called for a foot-dunking in the waves.  I walked to the water’s edge and washed away the shame.

Then, I drove toward Sand Key and stopped at Crabby Bill’s, where a line of diners spilled out the door.  I wasn’t in the mood for service, so I headed to the produce market, where a dingy, glass encased cooler housed a line of seafood.  I grabbed a menu, really a paper placemat, and considered my options.  “A pint of clam chowder and a dozen oysters on the half shell.  To go.”  One potato and a lone acorn squash for the grill.  Sixty cents.  I didn’t know what I was going to do with dinner, but how can you pass up a seafood dinner for six dollars?

As soon as I got back to the car, I opened the heavy styrofoam container and juiced up an oyster.  As I felt the essence of saltwater slither down my throat, I knew what I wanted to do.  I wanted to find a secluded beach and picnic by the sunset.   In the last half-hour, I realized that it wasn’t money and material possessions that should be guiding my life, but inner satisfaction (a cliché because it is seeked by many and attained by few).  All the work-related worryings and concerns evaporated, flowing from my fingertips into the steering wheel and out the cracked window.  Is this what it takes?

On my way north, I didn’t know where, I just knew north, I passed through Belleair.  Beautiful houses lined the waterfront, with motels and condos interspersed.  The houses without the gates, without the walls, were the most stunning, because they were confident in their beauty.  They seemed to know that as welcoming as they appeared, only the invited would cross the threshold from street to residence.

Then I saw a sign for Sand Key park.  It beckoned me as destiny would.  This is where I would have dinner, this is where I would watch the sunset.  I picked up the pace.  The sun seemed to linger, waiting for me to settle before it called to the night.

Finally the turnoff and a sharp veer into the left lane, obstructing no one, and I was in the park.  Strangely enough, it was like the entry into a cemetery.  Evenly spaced palms and minimal signs.  I popped three quarters into the meter and headed for the beach.  The sand was hidden by a cement barrier right up until the wooden access path.  Then, paradise.  A long stretch of sand, a clear view of the horizon and me.  I slouched my beloved gray hood over my orthopedic cast and sat down to enjoy the moment.  What first?  The oysters.  They’d been waiting patiently to be savored.  And had I found the place.  One bird sat hopefully watching, every once in awhile, lifting his head to call to his friends.  “Food!”  he said.  “Nope, not this time,” I replied.  I finished my meal, then headed to the water to wash out the styrofoam pint, readying it for shell collection.  I looked back at my belongings, and they were already being ransacked by a gang of avians, hoping against hope to find something unguarded by man-made materials.  “Dumbfucks,” I muttered.  “No food left for you.  It’s all gone, can’t you see?”  They couldn’t, and flew-hopped away disconcertedly.

The birds remained for a good half-hour, while I combed the sand for perfection.  Finally, when the sun was about a foot from the horizon, I replaced the container’s plastic lid and bundled up to watch the sunset.  The birds, about a five-foot radius from me, stood facing northwest.  I couldn’t figure out why.  Then ten minutes before set, they left to form a cluster just in front of me.  They were joined by these amazingly striking black and white birds with a stunning red collar.  It was a postcard view.  The sun setting in the background and fifty-some birds waiting by the water.  Ten minutes before the sun set, they took off, in what looked to be a choreographed dance.  They flew out over the water, teased it with their wings, and arced to the right.  I was speechless.  In exchange for resisting their begging, they allowed me to watch them perform.  To watch them live.  I can’t tell you how that made me feel, seeing these birds fly.  I didn’t want it to end.  They were silhouetted black against the sky.  Then they were gone.  I turned my attention to dipping pelicans.  They dove into the water, then bobbed up to float gracefully.  It certainly didn’t look like a hunt.

As the sun set, I felt that I was in a private moment.  (And it goes back to the moment.)  This was one of those minutes that will never erase itself from my life.  I wondered, when was the last time that I stopped what I was doing to watch the sun set?  It’s one of the greatest beauties of all time, and I had let five years worth of sunsets pass before realizing that I had misplaced my priorities.  Now, here I was.  Curled up in a white towel, gray hood zipped up over wind-mussed hair.  I was here, not to leave until nature told me I could go.  I am myself again.  I am crying.

My last full day in Florida.  Woke up this morning with the warm sun shining in through a small crack in the window coverings.  I took off to Venice, Midol in hand, to try my luck at shark teeth hunting.  Easier read about than done.  And I have a nice burn on the back of my shoulders to prove that persistence isn’t necessarily a good thing.

As soon as I settled my belongings, I headed for the water.  I noticed a man in a t-shirt and shorts lifting handfuls of shell slurry up to the sun.  It looked like a ritual.  Kids with styrofoam noodles and inner-tubes played all around him.  My turn.  I felt self-conscious as I squatted in the foam, not knowing exactly what I was looking for.  I didn’t know what shark teeth looked like, as I doubted they looked anything like the ones hanging from leather strings in tourist traps.  Fifteen minutes later, I grinned.  Sitting shining amidst my pebbly hands was a tiny, triangular piece of ivory.  It was perfect.  I felt very, very smug as I trudged back to my ground.

Triumphantly, I gorged myself with cinnamon gummy bears.  It’d been a long time since I had a craving for these.  Must be the hormones.  After trying to lie down and enjoy the sun, I had a restless urge to find more teeth.  Crazy.  I looked around.  Most people were searching by the water, but I saw a stretch of shells that must’ve been left by the last high tide.  I’d look there.  Within ten minutes, I’d found two blackened, fossilized specimens.  Over the next two hours, I found a good handful, several of them sharp enough to prove a point. The mantra, “just let me find one more,” echoed over and over in my head.  The only thing that stopped my search was something only fellow sisters would understand.

I headed back to St. Petersburg.  Back to my comfy cabin and the cool nylon of my sleeping bag. Took the sweetest 40-minute nap I have ever had.  I left the door open so the fresh air could lull me to sleep.

At 5:30, I headed back to Sand Key park.  How could I return to Chicago without a single photo of a Florida sunset?  Inconceivable.  As I pulled into the circle to get change for a dollar, I spied a large, black triangle in the drive.  Could it be?  This wasn’t Venice Municipal Beach, what goes?  But indeed, it was the largest shark tooth I found.  And what a beauty.  A quick prayer of thanks for the gift that let me forget why I left Venice.

There were more people on the beach than there were last night.  Families, generations, stood facing west.  An old woman leaning on a three-footed metal cane turned to look at me.  I smiled at her, she smiled back.  It was as if we were sharing a secret.  The waves were red from the fading light. A woman passing in front of me apologized as if I owned the sunset.  That was odd.  I smiled and shrugged in reply.  Perhaps she thought I was taking a picture.  No gulls, a lone pelican.  I suppose last night’s performance wasn’t meant to be photographed.  No matter. Although tonight evoked no tears, I am entirely satisfied with the beauty I’ve seen on this trip.

I’ve learned to love again.

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