If anyone out there reading this ever dated me, I’d suggest you get down on your knees and thank the deity of your choosing things didn’t shake out between us. I am, indeed, the worst girlfriend ever.
I love the Florida Keys and have a tradition of going there every year. El Cap, too, loves the Keys and from day one has enthusiastically joined me on my annual pilgrimage. This year I wanted to see the coral spawn, which happens on the reefs during the August full moon. As I no longer receive a regular paycheck, I had the (I thought) brilliant idea to go camping at Bahia Honda State Park.
Friday morning, we packed the RoadTrek with meals, reading material, cameras, and swimsuits. Friday evening, we arrived at the park, which – thanks to not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Tropical Storm Erika, remained relatively empty. Friday night, we used a touch of bug repellant and had no real issues when we took Calypso and Banyan for a walk to the beach by the marina. We swam, frolicked, gazed at a summer moon from the transparent water… basically, it was paradise.
And then we woke up Saturday morning. El Cap stepped outside to walk Banyan, and when I opened the camper door to go outside, he looked frantic.
“Get back inside!”
The look on his face was sheer alarm, so I did. My first thought – because this is where my mind goes first – was that he’d found a dead body behind our camper. My second thought – because this is also where my mind goes – was how shitty it was of him to hog a dead body all to himself. My third thought was that he loved me enough that he would never not let me share in the moment of finding a dead body. This last thought gave me enough peace that I stayed put until he returned inside.
“Mosquitoes!” he said, opening the camper door and ushering Banyan inside – along with a small colony of the Florida state insect.
“I’m sure once the sun’s up they’ll dissipate,” I tell him, and walk outside and cover myself in DEET. We take a bike ride, hang out in the camper, but the one thing El Cap is noticing (and I am not) is the way the mosquitoes don’t seem to abate. We are both covered in chemicals, but the chemicals only seem to work for me. (I should note that even when I don’t wear eau de DEET, I get bit less than most people.)
Saturday night, I want to repeat Friday night and suggest such. El Cap, at this point thoroughly not amused by the mosquitoes that he swears continue to plague him, dons his rain gear (yes, rain pants and jacket, and yes, it’s the Keys in August, so you can imagine how pleasant that was for him) and we walk down to the beach. Except, unlike the night before, the walk is punctuated by El Cap’s staccato swatting and slapping and puffing as he bats at what I am starting to suspect are imaginary mosquitoes. He is dressed like the Gorton’s Fisherman and I am wearing a sheer sundress. I think all of four mosquitoes approach me, which leads me to believe these mosquitoes have somehow heard of me, or El Cap may be overreacting. I grow steadily more irritated at what I’m perceiving to be some made-up trauma, and I tell him in short, clipped words that once we get in the water, the mosquitoes will abate.
They do not. He removes the Gorton Fisherman gear and runs, screaming, into the water. This is a man, I’d like to remind you, who has been bitten by a rattlesnake. The mosquitoes, he said, chased him in the water and stayed there. He keeps dunking under the water to relieve their apparent biting, but he tells me, “I can only hold my breath for so long.”
We shower and return back to then camper, with El Cap’s self-flagellation growing increasingly more frenzied. The mosquitoes still show almost no interest in me. All I keep thinking on the way back to the camper is “He needs help, because he’s imagining things. Therapy can help him. He’s so stubborn. He’ll never admit the mosquitoes aren’t real.”
We get back to the camper. He removes his rain gear.
He has so many mosquito bites on him that his back, chest, scalp, fingers, toes, and legs look like the most severe case of the chicken pox you have ever seen. His face has so many bites on them it just looks like red, puffy skin with two nose holes, a slit for a mouth, and squinty eyes.
At this moment, I realize I am an asshole. I also realize we have anti-itch spray but not antihistamine. Why would we? I haven’t reacted to bites in years. I had no idea I lived with the human mosquito magnet.
“I know you didn’t believe me,” he says quietly, “but they really were biting me.” At least, I think that’s what he said. The puffy bites around his lips made it difficult for me to understand him.
Sunday morning, at El Cap’s gentle suggestion, I check Hotels.com to see if there are any reasonable hotels around. That’s where I discover the Islander, which is not only the first place I ever stayed in the Florida Keys but also a hotel I love dearly but rarely visit, has ridiculously low rates. It seems the same tropical storm that ruined my chances of a moonlit snorkel to watch coral reefs have sex also drove people away from the Keys, which may be why I snag us two nights at about half what I would expect to pay.
The Islander is atypical Keys lodging in that it has a hot tub, two pools, beach, restaurant, bar, screened patios, and – this is crucial – no mosquitoes. OK, so really, it’s the beach and the no mosquitoes thing that makes them stand out for us.
El Cap had a dream about mosquitoes chasing him last night.
This morning, though, the welts have started to fade, although the memory, I’m sure, will live forever.
Show of hands: Who among us hasn’t laughed at tourists getting their food stolen by the seagulls? I know I’m guilty of laughing. To be fair, gulls often “steal” food only after the tourists who had been feeding them decide to stop feeding them because they selfishly want to eat, too. That’s not how seagulls work, y’all. Nevertheless, feeding seagulls is some sort of weird fascination for people visiting our St. Pete Beach for the first time. I don’t get it; don’t you people have pigeons and ducks and crows at home? Seagulls are just like these birds, only they crap a lot more and get far more aggressive. Pixar had it right in Finding Nemo: Rats with wings.
I have such disdain for the tourist/seagull dynamic that when my friend Andrea and I went to get ice cream at Paradise Sweets in Pass-A-Grille this afternoon, I snorted derisively (in my head, of course, because I am, above all, a lady) at the cartoon depicting a seagull stealing a lady’s ice cream cone and warning customers to be careful with their cones. What kind of idiot do you have to be, I wondered (again, in my head) to lose your ice cream cone to a seagull?
Karma, man. She’s a harsh bitch.
So Paradise Sweets serves Working Cow ice cream, which is this awesome local ice cream. Andrea turned me on to a new flavor combination: A half-scoop of pistachio and a half-scoop of salted caramel. In repayment, I offered to show her the secret sidewalk, so we started north along the beach, eating our cones and engrossed in our conversation.
When you live in Florida and spend any time at the beach at all, the sounds of gulls becomes white noise, much as I imagine the sounds of traffic must be in New York City. Which is why I totally didn’t realize a mean pack of predatory seagulls (but I repeat myself) were air-stalking me until one of the bastards swooped down and grabbed my entire cone as I was lifting it to my mouth.
Andrea, for her part, laughed at me, then got busy protecting her cone. She walked stooped over, trying desperately to stave off the gulls, who had tasted
blood salted caramel ice cream and wanted more. As you can see from the picture, this was not what anyone would call an “optimal ice cream experience” for Andrea.
Of course, in the end, the gulls won. I should point out that Andrea is a master naturalist, a park ranger, and a member of the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. When the gulls finally bested her, she looked at them and yelled, “I WORK TO SAVE YOU!”
The gulls, for their part, remained unimpressed. Well, unimpressed with Andrea. They seemed pretty happy with the ice cream, though. I wouldn’t be shocked to read their review of Paradise Sweets on Yelp later.
The best part, however, came a few hundred feet later when a couple of women who, judging by their being in bikinis in 60-degree weather, were tourists, essentially accused us of feeding the gulls (who were still following us, despite Andrea’s cries of, “We don’t HAVE any more food! Go AWAY!” which is exactly what John Audubon said the first time sea gulls ate his ice cream. True story.)
Anyway, the moral of this story is, eat your ice cream inside. Or carry a BB gun when you walk with it on Pass-a-Grille Beach. (This post, I should not, is neither Andrea nor Audubon Society approved.) Either way, I leave you with this super-cute picture I took of Andrea right after the gulls outwitted her:
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but perhaps not for all the reasons you might think. While the rest of the world dreams of tropical vacations as they shovel snow, Floridians know a winter Florida seascape has staggering beauty unparalleled by (although breathtaking in its own right) northern snow-covered vale.
One of the finest venues for watching our winter skies slowly turn from a bright white-and-blue watercolor into a streaked pink and orange and purple symphony is Fort DeSoto, the county park at the southwestern edge of Pinellas county.
WHO:Pinellas County runs Fort DeSoto, with a spot of help from the Friends of Fort DeSoto.
Visit the park anytime between sunrise and sunset, although the sky grows gradually more beautiful as sunset gets closer. From about 3:30 p.m. on is optimal sky viewing time in the winter months. Remember, too, most of the park closes shortly after sundown, so you’ll want to park by one of the two fishing piers if you plan to stay much past sunset.
WHAT: Sunsets in winter seem to take longer. Although technically a sunset takes roughly seven minutes, winter twilight lasts longer than summer twilight. But don’t go for the sunset alone: the seaside has a beauty unparalleled in winter. December 21 marks the Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and since ancient times cultures have celebrated the signs of rebirth that come with longer days following the Solstice. To find signs of new life, head for the trails along the East Beach or Arrowhead Picnic Area. The beach daisies popping up, the new shoots of growth on the trees, the blossoms you do not see in summertime beachscapes – these are all signs of a new growth cycle.
WHERE: Anywhere you have a clear view of the water makes for excellent sunset viewing of course, but Fort DeSoto remains the crown jewel of Pinellas beaches. People flock to the north beach and the fort itself for sunset, but the overlooked East Beach showcases a brilliant display of twilight colors this time of year. The Arrowhead Picnic Area makes for a great place to explore the winter foliage, although its water views face east. Finally, the Paw Playground, fishing piers, and surrounding beaches remain open after rangers close the gates to the east and north beaches.
WHY: Christmas coincides with winter solstice because celebrations already existed and it was easier to convert pagans if they could switch one holiday for another. Those pagan celebrations happened for a reason, and if you step outside and look around, you will understand on a primitive level why, even before we grasped the formal concepts of cell division and germination, we celebrate new beginnings in the world around us this time of year.
Question: Five dollars for Fort DeSoto; parking fees vary elsewhere along Pinellas beaches.
US 98 in Florida is a treasure trove of food. El Cap and I are eating our way west this week.