The AmeriCorps taught us that Martin Luther King Day was “a day on, not a day off”, which meant that Chris and I would spend weeks planning a large volunteer service event for our communities, to paint murals, plant gardens, renovate schools…Well, for the past five years MLK Day has marked one of our most relaxing weekends of the year. That’s because this is typically the weekend we head to Sanibel Island, Florida, for a few blissful days in the sun with Oma and Zadie during their annual winter escape from chilly Rhode Island. 2016 marks the first year that we won’t be able to make it, so as a tribute to the wonderful memories we’ve made there, we are honoring this special tradition with a post on our blog. This trip is extra special because it actually inspired our “microtripping”; we took our first trip to Sanibel after our first semester in Atlanta, and it worked out perfectly: a long weekend and a short flight meant we could spend quality time with family and still fly back Atlanta in time for classes or work – viola!
Until we visited Sanibel, I could only picture coastal Florida as a jumble of towering condos blocking the view of the ocean, vast expanses of strip malls stretching endlessly amidst the palms, and crowded beaches brimming with rowdy spring breakers. To our relief and surprise, Sanibel offered the complete opposite: a quaint, green landscape fringed by white sand beaches and mangroves, where ice cream parlors and houses on stilts are the tallest buildings around and the bike path is as crowded as the road. It’s hard to believe that this crescent-moon shaped island was once nothing more than a sandbar. Its position just off the coast of Florida, near Ft. Meyers beach at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee river, now makes it a popular vacation spot. Along with neighboring Pine Island Preserve, it also serves as an important wintering spot and stopover for migrating birds, such as red knots, dunlin, and Western sandpipers. Because of this important sanctuary for wildlife, a large portion of Sanibel is now protected as the Ding Darling Wildlife Preserves. Interestingly, Darling was a pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist who, after drawing some conservation cartoons, was appointed by his bff President Franklin D. Roosevelt as head of the U.S. Biological Survey, the precursor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Combining his two passions, he designed the Blue Goose logo, the national symbol of the refuge system and a prominent symbol of Ding Darling.
Most of our bird-hunting happened at Ding Darling during our visits, but because Oma and Zadie always arrive on a Saturday, we also had the chance to come early and rent a car to explore the other wildlife areas further down the coast. These adventures usually took us through the alligator-lined swamps of the nearby Everglades, the biggest national park east of the Rockies. Between the swamps is a wonderful network of lookout points and boardwalks just off the main road where you can get disconcertingly close to the alligators, or sit back and watch the wading birds flip fish into their mouths. Many companies offer airboat rides through the water, but this has caused significant damage to the local ecosystems, especially the mangroves, so we boycotted them and instead took one of the many boat trips that sails around the coast or to neighboring islands.
After exiting the swamp our first year, we accidentally stumbled on one of our favorite places in the area, which gave us a glimpse of a different kind of “wildlife”. We were staying in Naples and decided to head downtown for dinner, not expecting much out of a town that looks the same as every other upscale shopping development in America. As we were roaming the sidewalks our ears perked up at the sound of “Galway Girl” drifting from an Irish pub. Ever since watching Gerard Butler serenade Hilary Swank in PS I Love You, a hopelessly romantic chick flick (that I still highly recommend), I’ve had a special place in my heart for this song. I instantly dragged Chris inside. The source of the music was a “band”, who was actually one man in a bright Hawaiian shirt surrounded by all kinds of instruments, deftly playing many of them in harmony at the same time. After we spent a moment admiring his skills, we slowly looked around and realized that the average age in the bar was at least 75, and we were quite obviously the youngest people there by over 40 years. There are many instances where this might describe a boring scene, where we would turn around and walk out the door, but not in Florida…This is where retirees come to party! Requesting song after song, many of them wedding songs from 50 or 60 years ago, it was hard to find a space on the dance floor with nearly everyone in the bar on their feet dancing waltzes, polkas, swing, Irish jigs, you name it, until well past midnight. This is when we would typically sneak out, exhausted but amused that we could never keep up with the older crowd, and because nobody had to work the next day or week (or ever), the party kept raging on.
Saturdays began our annual routine of meeting Oma and Zadie at the Fort Meyers airport, stopping on the way home to do a big grocery run for the week, then heading to the familiar pastel colored apartment tucked neatly away by the sea about three quarters of the way up the Island. After unpacking, it was time to pour a glass of wine and cook a big welcome dinner, usually inspired by Oma and Zadie’s trips to Asia. Dinner was always a hands-on cooking lesson led by Oma. One of our favorites, which has since become a staple in our home, is battered whitefish in a sweet and sour stir-fry sauce, made with catsup and cucumbers and served over rice. This was always followed by ice cream and, on lucky nights, warm gooey brownies to make it an extra delicious melty treat.
After dinner, when all of us had relaxed for the evening, we would remain at the table for hours listening to stories from Oma and Zadie’s world travels and academic adventures. Ponce De Leon’s search for the fountain of youth led him to Florida, and although he never found it, this may be as close as you can get — an annual storytelling weekend, where family history and events are passed down from generation to generation, which will outlive each of us. This is one of the things we most looked forward to during these trips. Chris has a knack for asking the right questions to get Zadie going, and we would sit there, constantly shaking our heads in disbelief, for as long as he could physically speak, recounting one unbelievable story after another with Oma fact checking and filling in the details along the way, until exhausted, we would call it a night and tuck Zadie into bed. We heard about Zadie hosting Eleanor Roosevelt at UConn; watching the McCarthy hearings in a smoky bar in Philadelphia with Zadie’s adviser; applying for academic positions during which Zadie was advised to change his name to something not recognizably Jewish; the move to Brown University; crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a ship for a year of sabbatical in Denmark; research in China involving many trips over a long period of time; celebrating an anniversary during one of these conference dinners in China; living in Thailand and being invited to dinner at the King’s house while they were there; a stop over in Persia afterwards; being incarcerated in Malaysia during protests; a stopover in Fuji leading to a grand conch shell expedition; a refreshing getaway at the Belagio…these provide just a small window into the incredible lives Oma and Zadie have led and the 100+ countries they’ve visited, but we feel so lucky to have had the time to listen. After these storytelling sessions, we usually felt inspired to pull out an intricate puzzle with no edges and stay up way too late talking and trying to piece it together with Oma.
After a late night of of puzzling, it was a battle to wake up each morning before dawn to make it to the beach for the sunrise. With a steaming mug of coffee in our hands, we groggily took the path from the condo over a small bridge crossing a mangrove-lined inlet, past the coconut trees, and onto the beach where the sound of the waves and the ocean seemed louder than any other time of day. It washed away everything else. We would watch the sun come up over the water, a huge firey ball that lit up the ocean with an orange glow. Our only company were the serious shell collectors who began their hunt early to earn first pick of the huge conch shells, starfish, sand-dollars and horseshoe crabs freshly washed to the shore. But they were few, and it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. Then we would slowly make our way, lost in thought and conversation, to the tip of the island and back. A couple hours later, the coffee long gone, a few shells in the mugs instead as souvenirs, the path home would come into view again and we would eagerly head home to join Oma for a big breakfast.
Sunday was a special day because of the weekly farmer’s market near the center of town where we’d go with Oma to stock up on freshly picked tomatoes, melons, strawberries, avocados, and peaches, along with a loaf of fresh bread. When we’d bought as much as we could carry, we’d head back to the house and pack a classic Goldstein picnic (avocado, cheese and hummus sandwiches and fruit), then drive to the beach to relax in the sun and watch the waves lap the shore, or go on a long walk down the beach in search of shells.
On the way home, usually perfectly timed to just before dusk, we would do a slow lap around the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge to see which wading birds had come out to put on a show. There were always herons and ibises galore, and the anhingas reliably spread their wings for us in a graceful pose for the camera. But the roseate spoonbills captivated us the most. They weren’t quite as dependable, but every now and then a huge flock of these bright pink flamingo-like creatures would cross the sky or descend into the water in a fit of splashing. The refuge is also a haven for many threatened and endangered species, such as the Florida Manatee, Wood Stork, and American Crocodile, but we were never lucky enough to catch a glimpse of these majestic animals here, though we did see them in some of the other refuges.
Then, after such a full day, we did the only logical thing we could think of: retire to the living room, crack open a fresh IPA from Cigar City, and put on the playoff game with the Patriots (and occasionally 49ers) .
Mondays were wide open which generally meant renting bikes for the day (except for one kayak excursion) and seeing where the wind took us. The entire island is only 12 miles long, and every inch is covered by a bike path. We would spend the day weaving in and out of the wildlife refuges in hope of seeing a rare ground bird or a gopher tortoise, then cycle to one tip of the island for huge ice cream cones, then to the other tip for the gorgeous beach. One very memorable year, we hired a “chaufer” to draw Oma and Zadie by carriage around the island. Everyone got a kick out of the trip, most especially during our lap around Ding Darling – we spotted a shortcut, but needed a staff member to open the gate, so I found a ranger and described the situation, then listened as she pulled out her walkie talkie and radioed to headquarters telling them “you know those things slaves used to use to pull their masters in? Well, it’s like that. They want to use the shortcut.”
It was always by sheer willpower that we gave in to the last day of vacation, and we usually spent at least a few minutes going over the excuses we would give our bosses and how much we would be willing to spend on a new plane ticket to stay just a little longer. But to be safe, we went all out on our last day, starting with Zadie’s favorite: fish and chips for lunch at the Green Flash cafe on Captiva Island, a remote strip of land connected by a thin bridge to the tip of Sanibel. This cafe has a beautiful deck right on the water, so we could look out over the ocean, reminisce about the trip, and soak in some last rays of sun before returning to the cold.
And finally, once we’d fully admitted defeat, we would reluctantly pile in the car and begin the journey to the airport. Luckily, the highway passes by some of the best wildlife refuges in the area so it was easy to make one of these our last stop, taking some final memories of nature with us as we boarded on the plane. Six Mile Cypress and Audubon’s Corkscrew swamp sanctuary were two of our favorites, each with well groomed trails and boardwalks that made it easy to push Zadie on the winding paths through the mysterious swamps and mossy trees. On these last strolls, our senses always seemed a little more alert to the fresh air, the melodies of the birds and insects, and the striking rainbow of greens that surrounded us. We always felt rejuvenated on the plane ride home, but looking back now it’s clear that this is not just because we had a few days to relax and unwind, but more than anything, it’s because ultimately we are able to suspend the normal stresses and distractions of everyday life and take the time to really understand each other and enjoy each others’ company. This type of pure interaction is so rare these days, but so refreshing – maybe Florida really is where the fountain of youth lies after all.