There’s No Place Like Home For The Flor-idays: Weeks 13 & 14

Hello and happy 2022 to our fine readers. We hope you’ve recovered from your New Year’s celebrations and have already completed the process of giving up on your resolutions. Since we left you, we’ve been largely “off the road” – until Sunday, when we packed up Linus and the rest of our lives and headed here, to Port St. Joe, on Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

Near Panama City Beach, FL – Jan. 2022

We began our time here in the Sunshine State in Fort Myers with a rolling, multi-day Christmas extravaganza, starting essentially as soon as we arrived late Friday afternoon. For those who may not be familiar, the traditional Italian Christmas Eve, designed to depopulate the oceans, is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Ours was more like the Feast of Four Fishes, but I was so happy to see my parents and get out of the car that it might as well have been 20.

The Yule Log is a little different down here, and it’s not exactly a white Christmas. But this is what the holidays are like now; swapping evergreens for palms, snowy New Jersey hills for sandy beaches. As far as we could tell, this was the first Christmas that both my parents and I had ever spent outside the New Jersey/New York area. My parents finally left the Garden State and my childhood home behind last summer, buying a home in the Bonita Springs area of southwest Florida. It always made sense – both my mom and dad’s sides of the family have largely relocated there already, and I was frankly worried my mother was going to drop dead from stress if she had to put up with another northeastern winter. Long story short, they’re pretty much already consummate Florida people. Half the time I call, they’re hitting a new happy hour, grabbing drinks at some rooftop bar, or heading to the beach. My father has already been rechristened “Bonita Bob.” Needless to say, I’m very happy for them.

With their house still under construction, we stayed in the home they’d been renting the past few months. However, we did get to check out the progress, which looks pretty incredible. It even backs up onto a nature preserve, ensuring they’ll always have green space behind them. But I’ll hold my applause until they can actually live there.

Christmas day was fairly low key. The real celebration was set for the next day, when my cousins and family friends arrived. But as far as low-key Christmas days go, Sanibel is a pretty perfect place to have one. My Aunt Tracy is lucky enough to live in this paradise, operating what essentially serves as a bed and breakfast based on how many people come to visit her. But – can you blame them? Sitting on the beach in the sun, drink in my hand, I could not.

Sunday was a delightful post-Christmas Christmas, when my cousins arrived and our family friends drove out for a day of catching up, eating, and of course, more beach time. It was such a nice change after the previous Christmas, spent just with my parents in freezing NJ, following a difficult two-week quarantine.

Of course, the third member of our traveling party settled in rather quickly. He even got to explore a just-slightly-too-small winter cabin-style cat house (Linus isn’t much overweight anymore – let’s just call him husky or big-boned). This was one of my mother’s Aldi finds, something that has become something of a hobby since relocating to Florida.

Speaking of my mother’s newly acquired Florida hobbies, another of these is thrift shopping. Thrift shops in Southwest Florida aren’t like any thrift shops I had imagined before. They’re filled with the oddest mix of clothing – half seemingly brand-new, designer-level clothing or high-end furniture and appliances, half ratty t-shirts from high school sports or cruises that Mom found while cleaning out the closet. There are thousand dollar chairs being sold for $5, because, well, who knows? There’s technology I haven’t seen or thought of in decades. There are some things that are just plain inexplicably weird. It’s a recipe for some of the best and worst shopping I’ve ever done. We (Me, my mom, my Aunt Tracy, my cousin Van and his fiancée Sara-Sun, and their tiny, unspeakably photogenic chihuahua Trixie) set out to see a bunch of them on the Wednesday after Christmas

You have to understand the weirdness of some of the other stuff though. It’s a technological graveyard, without anything old enough to actually be fun and retro. And then there’s just some plain bizarre stuff like the marionettes you can see below. In the end, I left with some $4 shorts, a $20 suitcase to replace my recently split previous one, and a handful of other trophies sure to help swell my new suitcase to the breaking point once again.

I’ve been coming to the Fort Myers area in some capacity or another for more than 20 years now. But as far as I can tell, this was the first time I’d been to the downtown area of the city, which is surprisingly charming in an Old Florida way, and only about 15 minutes from my parents’ rental (as is, apparently, everything else in the Fort Myers area.) My parents, now surprisingly adept Southwest Florida tour guides, pointed out spots like the Ford and Edison Winter Estates, where Thomas Edison liked to fish for tarpon and Henry Ford decided to use Spanish moss to fill early automobile seat cushions, which did not work for obvious reasons. Downtown also includes the awesome Beacon bar, which really had some incredible views of downtown and the Caloosahatchee River.

Fort Myers is also home to what I can say without question is the most objectionable piece of sushi I’ve ever encountered – raw conch. The same conch that lives inside those giant shells, and makes relatively tasty fritters and chowder. I typically enjoy unusual foods, sometimes to Morgan’s intense fascination and revulsion. But this did not even have novelty value. Think of the texture of biting your own tongue, mixed with the extremely faint flavor of plastic floating in low-tide water. Quite simply, it was a textural and taste nightmare that I’ll remember on my deathbed.

Just say no to conch.

On Friday, it was unfortunately already time to say goodbye to my family and depart Fort Myers. But our time in the Sunshine State was far from over – it is the Floridays, plural, after all. So north we went, to the frigid tundras of…Baker County, just west of Jacksonville. In actuality, high 70s and sunshine greeted us after our five-hour drive to Morgan’s parents’ home, where we’d left a month before to head to New Orleans. This time, Thanksgiving was replaced by New Year’s Eve, with all of the same energy from last month’s softball game channeled into delicious food and drinks and midnight firework shows.

Despite some comically delayed final fireworks and a small fire afterward, it was one of the best private firework shows I’ve ever seen. Afterward, the post-show began, which largely consisted of Morgan’s brothers and cousins shooting Roman candles, occasionally even aiming at things other than each other.

On New Year’s Day, we did….pretty much nothing. The day after, we did…pretty much the same. Fascinating travel writing, I know. And we know this looked and sounds slothful when described. But for 13 weeks now, that kind of day just hasn’t existed. The kind of day where we can sleep in, read out on the porch in the balmy January Florida sunshine, take a walk*, binge-watch True Blood and NFL Redzone, and feel no compulsion to go anywhere or do anything. I can speak only for myself in saying I feel compelled to go out and do things as much as possible when we’re on the road – sometimes to my own detriment (Morgan is much better at this.) We had a few days like this the previous week also, though even those involved getting in the car and driving to Sanibel. After 13 weeks, we both needed a taste of restfulness and were glad to get it.

You may have noticed the asterisk in the previous paragraph on “take a walk.” Generally speaking, I enjoy walking, and would have probably enjoyed walking around the Smiths’ neighborhood in most cases. It’s a pretty peaceful slice of country, blissfully quiet other than the occasional passing train, car on the nearby highway, or, more noticeably, distant gunshots.

I had perhaps made it a quarter mile down the road when out of nowhere I see a medium-sized Pit Bull-ish dog tearing ass straight for me. For a second, I thought this was how I was going to go; mauled by a free-range attack dog because I’m too restless to sit around for a whole day. But it was quickly apparent that she was just curious who I was, and wanted a little attention.

(I have no photos of this dog, as I didn’t think to take one in the heat of this equally stressful and ridiculous moment. I will admit it briefly crossed my mind trying to snap another picture while writing this, before realizing two seconds later how completely insane that idea was. But suffice to say, she was pretty sweet.)

She followed me for a few steps, then a few more. After a minute, it occurred to me I was walking further and further from Morgan’s parents’ home, now unwillingly leading along a dog that could probably eat me as a snack if it chose to. So I turned around. It had to go back home when I passed the area it came from, right? Wrong. I didn’t even know which house it had run at me from, and this very excitable pup was providing me no help. I called Morgan, who, despite her best efforts, didn’t have any better ideas than the one I did – maybe it will just go away?

I made my break for it when the sweet girl was distracted stalking some nearby buzzards sitting on a fence down the road. I trotted back down the driveway and proudly told Morgan of my success in losing my canine follower. In what I can only assume is finely trained comic timing, the dog then rounded the corner, gleefully wagging its tail at us.

Now, the two of us are walking this dog back down the road, still bereft of ideas. Thankfully, we were rescued by Morgan’s mother Daphne, who let us hop in her truck as she led the dog back home and hightailed it out of there. Lesson learned: take extra steps to ensure you don’t accidentally bring a semi-stray dog back to your girlfriend’s parents’ house.

This is especially true in that they have quite a bit going on on their property these days. We arrived as Morgan’s father Danny was finishing up digging a gargantuan hole for a pond on their property. Here it is, with Morgan for scale. Eventually, this will all fill in with rain and groundwater (as well as some fish) and form the central feature of this part of their land. It’s all pretty impressive, an much larger than I expected when Morgan used the word “pond.”

This was also the week I became a Florida Man. Yes, it’s true – I can feel the recklessness and disregard for the law coursing through my veins already. My assimilation into the Florida Man hivemind was relatively painless, all things considered. I didn’t even have to drive to my putative county of residence, Okaloosa. After some truly soul-crushing experiences at the DC DMV, it was a shockingly easy one-hour process to bid the final remnants of my DC residency goodbye. It’s a new year; time for a fresh start.

Still, as sentimental as I can be, it was still a bit of an unmooring experience. DC was my home for my entire adult life – only a few years shorter than my entire time growing up in New Jersey. I identified with the District more strongly than I ever did with Jersey, I suppose because I chose it myself. I spent years working local news, learning the most absurd minutiae about the city, and visiting just about every neighborhood while managing properties. While, yes, I am a Florida resident as far as the law is concerned, I certainly don’t feel like a Floridian. We’re truly in transit at this point – no going back.

In reality, the end of the week might be best represented by a half-page of blank space. Most of those who know me know I’ve been dealing with gluten intolerance for more than five years now. Most of the time I can push things a bit and eat fried food, drink beer, and escape with nothing other than some indigestion. This week was not one of those times. Some combination of fried shrimp, fish, or banana peppers (surprisingly tasty, all things considered) put me down for the count Thursday and Friday. I had some fairly big plans for my time around Jacksonville, a city that’s fascinated me for a while. I was finally going to get to the beaches, including Boneyard Beach. I was going to spend some time checking out the museums downtown, maybe hopping on the water taxi. I was even going to try to hike the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail. I accomplished none of these things, but I did learn that some TV station is playing King of the Hill nearly 24 hours a day, and there is a definite limit to the amount of Bar Rescue and True Blood I can binge watch before I lose my mind.

My one northern Florida adventure other than the DMV was to the site of the Battle of Olustee, now a state park. As far as Civil War battles go, it was Florida’s biggest. It was also pretty bad one to be a Union soldier, where you were more likely to be injured or killed than all but one other battle in the entire war. Other than a small visitor center with one of the longest informational movie I’ve ever encountered (35 minutes!) and a few questionably worded monuments, the main attraction is a informational trail around the battlefield site.

For what’s basically a simple oval, it was surprisingly disorienting – primarily, because of how everything looks exactly the same, no matter which direction you look. The place definitely had an eerie feeling, certainly not lessened by the charred remains of controlled burns throughout the entire area, or the presence of numerous nearby prisons (along with signs warning drivers about prisoners working.)

Our time at Morgan’s parents’ house wrapped up with a murder. That is, a murder mystery dinner party. I played Casper Qwerty, a shy, sweaty, nervous IT guy who struggles to talk to women he’s interested in (not a bad pre-Morgan description of me, honestly, minus the IT part.) Morgan was the mysterious vegan entrepreneur Al Majors, and we and the rest of the characters did our best to ferret out the murderer in our midst. Even if my stomach forced me to retire from the party once the culprit was discovered, it was still a ton of fun.

As absolutely lovely as it was seeing both of our families for the past few weeks, it’s been a great feeling to get back out on the road again. It’s apparent already that Port St. Joe and the Forgotten Coast are a wonderful combination of strange and beautiful. Thanks as always for reading, as it took just about everything in me to get a massive, two-week post out while feeling crappy. Still, I’ve always felt the best writing is the one that gets finished – and this one is done.

Here’s to our health, and see you next week,

Nick and Morgan

4 thoughts on “There’s No Place Like Home For The Flor-idays: Weeks 13 & 14

  1. I was exhausted just reading this! Wish we could have spent more time together. Hopefully, the house will be completed when you visit next. Meanwhile, I’ll be scouting out more thrift stores to visit. Miss you.Enjoy your adventures and be safe.❤️

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