Every day I walk. Before coronavirus — and that’s how I think of everything now, before and after coronavirus — these walks happened sandwiched between work, a way to escape the dozens of daily tasks pulling at me. My FitBit compels me to walk 15,000 steps a day, bumped up from 12,000 right before it all went to hell earlier this month. The steps don’t matter as much as the mileage: I shoot for between four and six miles every day, and, with little exception, I get those steps in Gulfport.
If I take the most direct route, it’s a mile from my house to O’Maddy’s, which is across the street from Boca Ciega Bay. I rarely take the direct route because — as the savvy mathematician will note — that would only give me two miles, half of my minimum. Before COVID-19, I’d walk through downtown, but it’d be a challenge to get the steps in because I’d stop at the Beach Bazaar to say hello, or at Stella’s for a shrimp omelet, or Sumitra for coffee. Yes, I was moving, but the shrimp and feta omelet with a side of grits erased any good the extra steps did. Also, El Cap wondered why it took me four hours to walk three miles.
So I started walking elsewhere. Now, Gulfport’s not a large city; geographically, it takes up two-and-half square miles between St. Petersburg and the unincorporated area of Pinellas County. If this leads you to believe, as my friend Amanda said, that I’d run out of new places to walk, think again.
Gulfport has alleys. Lots and lots of alleys. They’re not always the prettiest, and they’re rife with that fine Myakka soil, which is to say I have to wear actual shoes (not my Columbia flip flops) if I want to walk the alleys. That’s fine; on the days where I feel the most anxious, I’ll walk seven or eight miles, and I only did that once in those flip flops before my knees reminded me that age may be a state of mind, but not for them.
Even when I’m not anxiously pacing the city for eight miles, there’s plenty to discover on these walks. Yesterday I found a cul-de-sac I had no idea existed. Last week I found a stash of dock pilings, free for the taking. Since January, I’ve found about six bucks in spare change, including a five dollar bill. I’ve listened to about four or five audiobooks, although I can’t bring myself to cue up The Handmaid’s Tale right now.
I’d forgotten, I think, how much fun it can be to roam through Gulfport with no real purpose. I’m finding Gulfport Easter Eggs everywhere — an alley fence decorated with old signs, a mural hiding in plain sight, little fairies perched in tree branches. Every street, every alley, every walk is a game of hide and seek, and I never know what I’ll find. Skeleton wearing headphones and Spock ears? Check. A fence with a Dr. Seuss quote? Check. A bejeweled mailbox? Check. I see so many of these I started posting them on the Gulfport Chamber’s Instagram page with the hashtag #GulfportScavengerHunt. Nothing soothes my soul more, it seems, than seeing Gulfport doing what Gulfport does, and these little surprises on my walks epitomize what I love so much about this city.
Those pilings? When I mentioned them to my neighbor, she casually asked me where they were. I assumed she wanted some (we both have an affinity for nautical decor.) Not even 15 minutes later, she came to our door and told El Cap she had a present for us; she and her wife took the kids and their big-ass pickup truck to get three for us (look for a new mailbox soon!) That five dollar bill? I didn’t feel right keeping it, so I went to A Friend Who Bakes. El Cap has a scone problem and Brittney is his enabler; I figured I found the money in Gulfport, so I should spend it in Gulfport.
These walks, in more ways than one, are a balm for my soul. Walking Beach Boulevard these days is panic-inducing; Gulfport’s downtown looks like it used to look when I moved here 17 years ago: Plenty of parking, a few — but not many — people on the streets, and businesses devoid of customers. Those who aren’t open all display a variation on a sign we all know well, about COVID-19-related closures. I can’t stop in Stella’s for an omelet on a whim (although I can get one to go.) I can’t walk along our beach. I can’t stop and see Deacon at GulfPerk, order a chai, and pretend I’m not going to order a gluten-free donut. All the things I can’t do as I walk downtown trigger a fight or flight response in my brain and, honestly, the shortness of breath that comes with panic attacks is not what I need right now.
Here’s the thing, though: Walking through the rest of Gulfport makes those walks downtown less panic-inducing. Everything is horrible, but at least we know everything is temporary.
Everything, I hope, except Gulfport. I would miss the walks.