Allow me to put this in context. I like the great outdoors in urban areas, say, Central Park in NYC, or from a car window, as I drive past the Everglades National Park. I can enjoy these sites in small doses, during the daytime, as in guided hikes through the Great Smokey Mountains, or through the rainforests in Puerto Rico.
But never, in a million years, did I ever consider “overnight camping” in the wild, unpredictable Great Outdoors a viable option on my bucket list. It doesn’t matter now because apparently it was on my husband’s list of things to do “with the family,” and I had no choice but to oblige him and our caravan of very eager children.
Someone suggested visiting Bahia Honda in the Florida Keys. Located in Big Pine Key, this public park is flanked on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other, by the Gulf of Mexico. A very narrow strip of land makes up the park and its environs: campsite, marina, various nature trails, and a fragment of Flagler’s Florida Overseas Railroad.
We left the warmth and safety of our home on December 26th loaded to the “gills” with fishing poles (I don’t fish), a borrowed tent (B bragged 8 could sleep comfortably in it), a shocked dog (Jack was, by far, the most traumatized by this trip), OFF! insect repellant (useless against the no-see-ums), bikes, flashlights, and enough food in the
unlikely event we were left stranded.
Our campsite was adjacent to the crystal blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Our home for the night was a 20 by 40 lot, with a picnic table, grill and privacy hedges on either side. We had an enviable and uncluttered view of the vast sky — a sight we would later truly appreciate while gazing the stars.
As B pitched the tent, our kids fluttered around us, gleeful and excited. I confess, I too felt a touch of their eager excitement. But alas, ignorance is bliss. As we set off to fish (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence), I was buoyed by the earthy, organic experience we had embarked upon. I didn’t even object to the foul odor of chum (dead fish parts) emanating from the dripping bag of bait Blas had picked up for this fishing expedition. I went along with it because the wind was in my hair, my kids were bathed in sunlight, and the furrow, which as of late had taken residence in my beloved’s brow, had somehow, disappeared. Besides, B was certain he would “catch” our dinner and cook it on our grill — like a 21st century frontiersman.
All was well in the world. I felt a strange solidarity with the other campers as we rode past their relaxed smiles and waving hands. I thought of the bygone 60s, of the hippies warming their hands around the campfire while singing Joan Baez songs; these were my thoughts as I pedaled toward the ocean, family in tow. The kids played on the surf — a low tide had left the shore with small wading pools.
We explored Flagler’s Folly, the abandoned railroad system Henry Flagler built with the hope of connecting the Florida Keys to the mainland. A portion of the rail system still stands and can be admired up close from a bridge in the park. B and the kids fished off a pier clearly marked “Dangerous current” and “Swimming Prohibited.” Initially I panicked while the kids fished off the pier with B, but after a while, I acclimated. I know. Judge me.
The kids loved the experience. All in all, 12 fish were caught: grunts and snappers. I wasn’t anywhere need this catch and release exercise. I was sitting near the shore, marveling at the forgotten concept of voluntary solitude and how marvelous it actually felt. Wow! Alone with my thoughts but well accompanied by an interminably long but well written novel. What a fantastic idea!
The kids stayed with B as he fished, but sometimes they hopped on their bikes and pedaled from the scraggly rocky hill, to the shore beside me. They poked pinkish blue jelly fish with drift wood. The sun warmed our backs. Our contentment fulfilled us. The hours and minutes of our day, it seemed, had us nestled in a comforting embrace.
Fishing, or the rituals of fishing, were (or are, it seems) a perfect antidote for B’s stress. And by stress, I mean the troubles that follow you even after you’ve left work, even after you lock the door after a day’s labor, even after you’ve imbibed a few but knots insist, and they stiffen your hands, neck and back. Stress, the unwanted guest who knocks at 2 a.m. and keeps you company in the quiet hours as everyone, it seems, rests. Fishing the blue waters, where the Gulf and the Atlantic meet and crash, restored him. And in a sense, restored our family unit.
We rode our bikes to a sundry shop where the kids got ice cream cones and had a chance to view up close a manatee. Its back bore the cuts and scratches from propellers, yet it didn’t shy away from people or the boats in the marina. It skimmed the surface of the water and it allowed itself to be touched.
Leaving the marina we noted dusk was soon approaching, so we hastened back to the camp grounds to bathe and prepare for dinner. One might refer to this moment in our adventure as a turning point or critical moment; the tenor of our trip would soon take a decisive turn.