Jewel Key: Friendship and Escape in the Everglades -The Toast

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Morning is faint on the horizon, a hint of red lipstick on a little boy’s cheek. You tighten the straps that marry your kayak to the roof of your car, sleepily admiring the way the plastic yellow boat complements the shiny blue Toyota. You lock the door of your house, leaving behind a few lonesome houseplants and a scraggly vegetable garden.

It’s I-75 South all the way. The spring sun kisses the left side of your face, weak at first but gaining strength with each passing mile. It’s been nine months since you switched coasts to attend graduate school. You miss the Atlantic. You think about your friends leaving the other coast in their caravan of cars, driving with daybreak at their backs. You’ll go south three hours while they’ll go west for two, and you’ll meet where the paths collide: the Gulf Coast Visitors Center at Everglades National Park, gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands. (Are there really ten thousand? You’ve only been to five.)

Your mind wanders out to sea as you meditate on the river of asphalt stretching before you, waiting for the moment when the manmade melts away, when grey becomes green.

You pull into the parking lot and try not to think about the last time you were here and the boy you were with and the way he slept with his head in your lap on that bench under the sea grape tree while you waited for the rangers’ station to open. It was winter then, and there was already a line of people waiting to sign up for islands to camp on. Fishermen with their tan hats and fast-drying pants, Columbia labels on their breast pockets. Tourists smelling of suntan lotion and sweat. It’s late April now and you and your love have not seen one another for many months. You are beginning to accept this.

You know from experience that there are many paths through the tangled barricade, although they are never as straightforward as you’d like them to be.

The parking lot is nearly empty. It’s a risky time to be camping in the Everglades, with summer biting at the bit, bringing with it monsoons of mosquitoes and rainstorms made of gunpowder. You pull up next to the only other cars with colorful kayaks strapped like tropical fish to their roofs. Your girlfriends look tired. Half-hearted hugs are exchanged. Everyone moves slow, emptying the cars and organizing gear as if underwater. One of the women goes to the rangers’ station to fill out paperwork: emergency contact information, license plate numbers, a float plan. She adds fake names to your roster in order to fill all the spots at your island campsite, although it’s not likely you will have to fight over space. There is no cost to camp this time of year.

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At the boat ramp, while filling water bottles and stuffing supplies into plastic bags, you’ll discuss the weather and hypothesize about the mosquito conditions. “It hasn’t rained in a while,” one friend will say. “I think we’ll be fine,” another promises. A few fishermen load their boats alongside yours, sharing their own predictions and weather reports. Out here, the men’s coolers are filled with bait and beer. But you and your girlfriends bring no poles and no fishing licenses. The holds of your kayaks carry cheap bottles of champagne, tarot cards, and garden-grown vegetables.

Looking out from the shore, the mangroves form a wall between you and the open ocean. They are the guardians of the mainland, protecting the shallow shores from strong winds and damaging storm surges. But you know from experience that there are many paths through the tangled barricade, although they are never as straightforward as you’d like them to be.

The tide takes you out. You’ve checked the charts to make sure this will be the case. You learned that lesson the hard way. Everyone’s in her own boat, breaking away and coming back together, like waves meeting the shoreline before slipping out to sea again. You stop at rocky outposts and shallow sandbars to tie your boats together and take swigs of champagne while floating in the sea. A few boats pass by, but mostly, you are alone.

Out here, your vision is misleading. Even with a map and compass, the landscape is difficult to read. From afar, all landforms look identical in height and color: mangrove islands blend into one massive unit. The only way to truly know where you are is to press onward. It is in getting close to the land masses that individual shapes take form. As you move forward, your bright yellow kayak an insignificant blip on the water, islets emerge from the patchwork of greenery. An opening materializes in the middle of a mangrove forest that looked solid a few minutes earlier. What you think is a pass becomes an empty inlet, a confusing cul-de-sac. A wrong turn can mean an extra hour of paddling, or more depending on the winds and current.

The direction of the sun’s rays, your position on the water – all of these factors drastically alter what you see. You’ve learned to constantly look behind you, taking mental photographs of the landscape so that you will find your way easily when it is time to return. Bread crumbs won’t help you here. On the water, you are an ant in a bathtub, a feather amongst mountains.

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As time passes, what you first take for silence becomes loud, a complicated suite of wind, water, wildlife. The full-bodied echo of space and sky. You like to be ahead of the rest, on the lookout for the landmarks you have come to recognize: a lone tree island, a dilapidated dock, the smear of a rocky shoreline between olive green mangroves. You think back to the place you’ve left behind, that wilderness of nondescript strip malls where your only cairns are neon signs. How many times have you driven circles around packed parking lots, trying to find a way out? Big box stores provide poor bearings for beings who prefer to be out-of-doors.

Soon, this place will melt away the intrusive reminders of papers that need grading and emails that need answering. The memory of sharing a canoe on these same waters with the boy you thought you loved bats its wings on the outskirts of your mind before taking flight. Then, all you are left with is this: a painter’s palette of blues and greens, terns dive-bombing for lunch, trout splashing as they jump to evade their underwater foes. This your heart understands.

After a few wrong turns and moments of tense uncertainty, you finally spot the spit of land that will be your home for the night. Still, it will take you nearly an hour to reach the soft sand. In the Ten Thousand Islands, sand signals the place where landmass meets the open sea. You have successfully navigated the mangrove labyrinth, and this is your reward.

When you get close, you jump into the shallow water and wash the heat off your body. The others will soon join you, their laughter mingling with the call of an osprey, the shrill shriek of seagulls. In the far distance, an outboard engine hums. For some, it is time to head inland with their catch, to clean fish on wet docks and stock freezers with silver bodies that once pulsed with life.

Your friends haul their boats onto the shore, quadriceps and calves engaged for the first time all day. Clothes are shed and bathing suits, too; they won’t come back on until it’s time to head homeward, and even then. You and your crew have been known to paddle in the nude from time to time.

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You wade back into the water, basking in the shallows, floating, drifting, dreaming. The days are getting longer. There is nothing to do but this.

After a while, you turn onto your stomach and begin to swim. In any direction, it does not matter. Your feet flutter behind you and you lift each arm in turn, pulling the water with cupped palms. These hands that once spent their days poking seeds into wet soil, pulling weeds and shaking precious earth from their roots. These arms that devoted dark nights to coaxing life from wheat and water, shaping dough into boules and batards. These same hands that now fill the hours typing word after word in a windowless room, turning page after worn page of dusty library books.

With each stroke, you move your body forward, gliding through the water like a strange fish with a halo of long hair. You follow the shoreline without getting too close; it’s so shallow there you could walk, and you do enough walking in your regular life. This weekend, it is your arms that will take you great distances.

You keep swimming around the bend, out towards the sea. You can feel the tide coming back in. It pushes you inland, and you fight it stroke by stroke. After a while, you give up and find refuge on a small outcrop of mangroves, climbing onto a piece of driftwood. You watch the world from your perch, wind on skin. Navy waves meet a horizon unfettered by buildings or smog or shrewd sirens. Only a few wayward clouds and a ball of fire making its way west.

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Back on shore, the girls are setting up camp. There will be no one to share the island with but raccoons who will fiend for your fresh water and dried mangoes. In turn, you each wander into the mangrove forest and return carrying bundles of sticks and fallen branches. Out here it can be hard to tell the dead trees from the living; the plants have adapted to their salty, windswept landscape, and their limbs are hardier than most. One of you will collect coral rocks that litter the sand and arrange them into a half-moon.

A bit later, you will all face west to bid farewell to the light and point at the first star to glow in the periwinkle sky. You will find it hard to believe, as you always do, that it is you who is turning, you who is constantly in flux. But this place reminds you that transformation is nature’s way. Each time you come here, you see the changes that the sea and wind make on the landforms. Islands merge. Sand gets swept away. Trees fall into the sea and new life is born. Permanence is a myth.

The clear night brings a dark chill. You drape a sarong over your body. A fire is started. The sky is grey with starlight. Darkness like this is impossible to find where you’re from. But even here, the big city lights whisper on the eastern horizon.

After the flaming logs have turned to glowing coals, a grill is set upon the rocks and dinner preparation begins. You’re not sure how, but island dinners always manage to be basic and decadent at the same time. Sweet potatoes are tucked in with the coals; whole onions sit atop the grate where, with time, their bitterness will turn to sugar. Someone’s brought spicy Italian sausages, another a box of giant Portobello mushrooms. You’ve brought plantains to roast in their thick yellow skins, your lover’s legacy. Like him, you’ll slit them open and dress the smoldering platanos maduros in lime juice and cayenne pepper before passing them around your circle of hungry friends. All the while, the tannic taste of red wine mingles on your tongue. You’ll save the bubbly for the morning; island breakfast is always served with mimosas.

The night air is light with wind and laughter. The circle becomes smaller as, one by one, women wander to the tents for sleep, bellies full and spirits blithe. On a night as clear as this, no rain fly is needed. You lay atop your sleeping bag, in the company of sleeping friends and winking stars, salty wind washing over you. Outside, raccoons rattle the kayaks but give up when the hatches won’t budge. Stillness falls on the island, except for the rolling waves that seem close enough to kiss your toes.

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You’ve been feeling unmoored as of late. Disoriented. For a while, you blamed the breakup. But now you recognize it’s more than that. Some people can rip roots from dark soil without a care, leave one world for another as if transplanting was easy; you are not one of those people.

You listen to the quiet hum of your best friends’ breathing, the ocean baptizing the shore again and again. This moment is the closest thing to home you’ve felt in a long time.

In the morning, there is no hurry. The return trip is carefree. You frolic in the shallows and sing loudly to the sky, emptying the last of the liquid from glass bottles. Only once do you make a wrong turn, but you quickly correct your mistake.

Back at the dock, the breakdown is swift. The boats are emptied of the remnants from your weekend — sand, bottles, and gear stuffed haphazardly into dry bags. You spray everything with the hose to rinse away salt and sand. Kayaks are loaded back onto cars; bodies bear down on nylon straps to attach vessel to vehicle.

Usually you and your friends stop to eat a victory meal at the nearby fish joint, but nothing’s open around here during the off season. You’ve got a longer drive than the rest, and the sun is beginning to take its leave. You grab a few granola bars and throw them into the front seat. Hugs all around and you’re back on the road, the wavering sun brushing your left cheek once again.

There will be ocean in your eyes and summer on your skin and your mouth will pucker for days, pickled from saltwater.

You turn up the radio for company, keeping vigil for the dusty jacket of a Florida panther. Your mind skirts the piles of papers and books waiting for you on your desk, the week’s worth of dirty dishes in the sink, the puddle of dirty laundry abandoned on the floor of your bedroom inside a silent house in a city you don’t want to know. When the skies turn to ash, you pretend the fluorescent signs are the reflection of stars on the ocean.

Later that night, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, your hair crusty with salt and sand, you’ll smile at your reflection. There will be ocean in your eyes and summer on your skin and your mouth will pucker for days, pickled from saltwater. Sitting in front of your computer screen, fingers tapping plastic keys, you’ll run your tongue over your lips and return to that moment, perched on the driftwood, when everything you knew was blue.

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All photos by author and used with permission.

Carmella loves tropical fruits, hula hooping, and Florida. You can follow her adventures at The Restless Writer.

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