Gator Aid

The very word “swamp” makes me itch. Visions of marauding mosquitoes, clouds of black flies, and other inhospitable creatures come to mind, so I had no real interest in visiting Okefeenokee Swamp. Still, the swamp called to me before I had completely passed the entrance to the Okefenokee Swamp Park, so I cut across the highway and headed down the five-mile road. Part of this journey is about facing my fears, and I fear mosquitoes the way some people fear bees. The bites swell enormously at times, and often the site of old bites itch when I get a new bite as if to welcome the company. (I still have scars from all the bites I got last summer.)

I sprayed myself with the most natural bug spray I could find (some eucalyptus & lemon thing manufactured by Repel that Consumer Reports had found to be as effective as Deet) and hoped for the best.

About a mile in, I got caught behind a car parked in the middle of the road. Young boys were hanging out the window, so I glanced to where they were pointing.

Oh, my. Alligators!

I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me to look for alligators in the swamp, maybe because I hadn’t seen any in Florida, but it was a great thrill to see the beast less than ten yards from my car. Very respectfully, I got out of my car to take a photo, then continued to follow the car. Several other times those same boys aided in my spotting an alligator.

This wasn’t the first time I received such gator aid — at Davis Bayou, I was taking a photo of a heron when a woman walking her dog came and pointed out the alligator all but hidden in the mud a few feet from the bird.

I’ve always known I wasn’t observant (I’d be one of those witnesses to an accident who wouldn’t be able to tell you the color of the cars or even the victims), so I was glad of the help in getting attuned to looking for the prehistoric creatures until I could find them for myself.

Almost as big a thrill as seeing the alligators was seeing the lily pads with blooming flowers.

On my way out of the park, I again stopped by the side of the road. No alligators, but I did see turtles sunning themselves on a log. (They were shy and slipped into the water before I could take a picture.) In the quiet, I heard a long low call, too gutteral to have been a bird, but I never discovered what sort of creature made the noise.

The lovely outing was made even lovelier by the lack of mosquito bites. I can’t verify the efficacy of the spray I used because to tell the truth, I didn’t see or hear a single mosquito.

Still, I am just as glad I didn’t hang around until dusk so the day-shy denizens of the swamp could find me.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***

 

Turtle Time

I have spent the past three days on Amelia Island, taking walks and resting. I’ve been fighting a cold or a sinus infection. I don’t know which — sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. All I know is that I’ve been congested, enervated, and had a tendency to crankiness. Even worse, I haven’t been feeling the thrill of this journey. In my defense, it’s hard to be wide-eyed with wonder for weeks on end (eight weeks so far!), especially if one is fighting to breathe.

Still, this has been a lovely place to roam around — walks on the beach and hikes through Egan’s Creek Greenway, a 300-acre nature preserve. On all those excursions, the biggest joy, besides the lovely scenery of course, was catching glimpses of turtles. Often they were shy and slipped into the water before I could get a photo, but a couple of times they stopped and pretended to be rocks. One fellow even posed for me.

Despite signs warning about the presence of alligators, I didn’t get to see one. The rustling in the bushes that I thought might be an alligator turned out to be a rabbit, but I did see a lot of dragonflies and one lone cardinal.

My idyll on Amelia Island is coming to an end. Tomorrow I head into Georgia. I hope I can ditch the crankiness and muster the enthusiasm necessary to make the most of the opportunity. There is so much to see and experience and be grateful for.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

The Difference Between Today and Some Future Tomorrow

I was talking to a woman about grief today, and I realized something. It doesn’t get better, it gets different, and in that difference, we can find happiness again.

Easter Sunday marked the sixth anniversary of my life mate/soul mate’s death, and except for a brief acknowledgement of the day, it passed without incident. No tears, no upsurge of sorrow. Just . . . difference. I’m different, I think. (It’s hard to know for sure — I can barely remember what I was like back then, barely know what I am like now.) But for sure my life is different.

At the moment, I am in Florida, staying a couple of blocks from the beach, visiting a woman I had never even heard of a week ago. (Oddly, because of my blog, she knows me very well.) It doesn’t even seem strange to me, this almost blase attitude when it comes to visiting strangers, though I am sure that in my more cautious days, such behavior would have appalled me. But I have learned that unlike other authors, I don’t have fans — I have friends. Most of those friends are as yet unmet, as yet unheard of, but friends nevertheless. It is our shared sorrow, our shared determination to find renewal after a devastating loss that connects us. Because of this, there has never been even a moment of discomfort when I do finally meet these friends.

The difference for me, the difference that allows me to find happiness despite my missing him, is a willingness to embrace life no matter what it brings. To accept myself without censure. To simply be wherever I am or who I am with.

As the years continue to pass, when the seventh, tenth, fifteenth anniversary comes, there will be more differences. More opportunities for happiness.

For those of you new to grief’s journey, I hope you will find comfort in knowing things will not always remain the same, that in the difference between today and some future tomorrow, you will find joy again.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***

The Atlantic Ocean!

A few days ago, when I couldn’t figure out where to go next, I got an email from a woman I didn’t know, inviting me to come stay with her on Amelia Island. I accepted.

I hear your sharp intake of breath at my foolhardiness, but such a visit is not as risky as it seems. The woman lost her husband two years ago, and between us there will always be a bond of shared pain and struggles for renewal after the devastating upheaval of our lives. Besides, I’d never been to that island on the east coast, and my goal for this trip had aways been to go all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The roads from New Port Richey to Amelia Island seemed a ridiculous mess of twists and turns from one highway to another, so I opened the Google maps app on my phone and followed where it led me — through orange orchards, past emerald fields where white birds grazed among black cattle, and onto forested roads.

I stopped for the night at a fifties era motel in Starke, and took a stroll on a red brick street lined with old houses and moss-draped trees.

Now I am having a picnic on the beach until it’s time to visit my new hostess.

And afterward? A zig through Georgia, a zag to North Carolina, and then west again.

But I am getting ahead of myself, anticipating future moments when this particular moment — my arrival at the Atlantic Ocean — is worth savoring.

I hope you are savoring your moment, too.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***

What Comes Looking

During the long drives where there was nothing to break the monotony of the view of beautiful tree lined roads, I would slip into a zen-like state — alert and aware, in the ever-present moment, just letting thoughts drift into and out of my head as they wished.

One of the thoughts that popped to the surface of my mind fully formed is that this journey is not about what I am looking for, but what is looking for me. I let the thought slip back into the murk, but now I realize how true it is. The most satisfying moments of this journey so far have not been the things I specifically set out to see, but those that found their way to me. Things beside mosquitoes and whatever chomped on my ear, that is.

I have sipped grand marnier while looking at the stars with one person who found his way to me, and nibbled popcorn by a bonfire with another. I simply stood, so fully in the moment that I didn’t even think to take a photo when a crane, like a stooped old man with hands clasped behind his back, walked down the street, picked his way across the yard to me, and then meandered back down the road.

But the most awesome of all that came looking for me was the weedy sea dragon.

We went to the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa, which was interesting (especially the coral reef modeled after the reef off Dry Tortuga) but not particularly astonishing until we found ourselves in a darkened alcove away from the hordes of unsilent children. There, in an aquarium by themselves, flowing in the water like creatures from a fairytale, accompanied by dreamy music, were the weedy sea dragons. We stared, mesmerized, for at least a quarter of an hour, as these fantastic creatures slowly danced their stately waltz.

It seemed impossible these dragons were real. Though they are of the seahorse family, they are quite large — at least eight inches long — and look more like a leafy plant moved by water currents than an animal moving under its own power. Such alien beauty!

Sometimes on this trip I have lamented the sameness of things. After a while, a house, no matter how historic or ornate, seems like just another house. A tree, no matter how different from its fellows, seems like just another tree. A body of water is always water.

But nothing was like this leafy sea dragon. And somehow this being from Australia found me, touched me (metaphorically speaking), and let me go.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***

A Trip of Treats

This has been a journey of many treats. I had hoped the trip would include much hiking, but I seem to be in a sedentary mode with all the driving and the visits with friends. In an effort to break that pattern, I took a side road that was supposed to intersect with the Florida National Trail, but I never found it. (I have a hunch that parts of FNT, like parts of the California Coastal Trail, exist as an as yet unrealized hope.)

When I realized I had passed the trail, which followed a shortcut back to the freeway, I considered going back but decided to keep moving on down the road, and I am glad I did. Such a treat! It was a beautiful drive among trees, past spectacular beaches, and through beach towns. Driving across the water on intercoastal highways was a special thrill.

The most memorable part of that leg of the journey was Bonita Bay, a recreational area run by the Air Force. It seemed strange to me that a war engine would be involved in something so trivial, but it wasn’t as surprising as it would have been before I learned that the Army Corps of Engineers runs campgrounds all over the country.

Even more memorable, at the end of the road, I met in person a fellow author, Coco Ihle, author of She Had to Know. I enjoyed hearing the story behind her book, which is based on her own search for her long-lost-now found sister, and I have been privileged to see her in her own milieu.

Coco is amazing! Everything she touches turns to beauty. Whichever way you turn in her house is another fabulous piece of art, collected from her world travels, bought at a bargain from Big Lots, or created by her. To my delight, she keeps her Christmas tree — perhaps the most beautiful tree I have ever seen — set up most of the year.

She kindly let me take pictures, to post here, and even let me post the fabulous photo of herself when she was a belly dancer. (Coco is the woman who encouraged me to look into belly dancing for myself.)

Besides all that, we have been playing tourist. We had dinner at a restaurant in a Greek town on the sponge docks. (A one time, sponge was a bigger industry in Florida than even oranges or tourism.) We ate on the docks, with the Anclote River flowing by and a sandhill crane keeping us company.

Now we are off to see the Florida Aquarium, another incredible treat in a trip that has been nothing but treats.

See you when we get back!

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***

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Driving into the Distant Past

My night camping at Davis Bayou worked out so well, the next day I headed for Pensacola, hoping to get a campsight at Fort Pickens in the Forida part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, but that campground was full. I did get a chance to see Pensacola Beach with its white sand and dark turquoise waters, which was nice. I felt cold on the beach, but there were hundreds of people in meager swimsuits playing in the water, sunning themselves, or walking around. Ah, youth.

I might not have been lucky in finding a campsite for the night, but I was lucky to meet someone I have admired for six years — Mike Pettit, writer and promoter extraordinaire. We had a fabulous seafood lunch at an oyster bar near the beach, and an even more fabulous conversation.

But even good friends must part, so eventually I headed down the road.

Not finding another campsite, I continued driving. But even that part of my day was spectacular. For many miles, the moon rose in the middle of the road directly in front of me while the sun set in the middle of the road directly behind me. Truly a unique sight.

As lovely as the celestial evening was, that was not the highlight of my drive. The highlight was the revelation that came as I continued to drive the tree-lined highway. Ever since I left central Texas, the highways have been forested. Trees, mile after mile of trees for hundreds of miles. And today I realized the awesomeness of what I was seeing.

Although in many cases, the trees didn’t extend very far off the road, they were thick enough to appear endless. As if the highway were cut through an eternal forest.

Once upon a time, a forest did cover almost the whole of the United States. And as I was driving, it suddenly felt as if the highway were like a path to the past, and I could see that primordial forest all around me, millions upon millions of acres, and because of those hundreds of miles I’d driven, I could sense the forest’s magnitude and magnificence. What an experience!

I thought I was spinning my wheels, just driving, driving, driving, when all along I was preparing for the great revelation. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, though I don’t know what.

I do know that in the future, when I look back on this adventure, one of my fondest and most inspiring memories will be my long and seemingly unending drive into the distant past.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***

Down on the Bayou

I hadn’t camped for a couple of weeks — a combination of visits with friends and bad weather — so I looked forward to my first foray back to tent living. The campground was full or rather, almost full. I lucked out and got the last space at Davis Campground on the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi. I had no idea tourism had picked up, but apparently this week hordes of people are on the move — spring break, Easter break, the last foray of the snowbirds, and the spectacular weather.

Since I could only get a space for the one night, I was glad of the new tent I had purchased. The big tent is too much trouble to set up and tear down for one night, and I feel vulnerable in my backpacking tent among the RV behemoths, so I needed another tent for one night stands. The new tent worked perfectly, though since the campground was surrounded by wetlands, and the land itself was saturated, I did experience a lot of condensation. And I was cold. (The temperature got down to 40 degrees, maybe even lower.)

The trails in the park were short, mere walks instead of hikes, but they suited me since I hadn’t done much walking recently. I could feel myself smiling as I wandered — I seem to be much happier with my feet planted solidly on the ground. And the stunning views, of course, contributed to that feeling of well being. Best of all, I saw an alligator on the shore of the bayou! I had seen an alligator just a couple of days previously, but the poor thing had been designated a town mascot and was being held captive in a large cage. The free alligator didn’t act any different than the penned one. Both just lay there looking prehistoric, barely even twitching as people stared at them.

And I realized something. Even though so many places look alike, it is the moment that makes the difference. Watching a particular alligator in a particular marsh separates that marsh from all the rest. Or seeing a particular leaf on a tree separates it from all the rest.

Adding to my own peculiar moment, when I got back to my campsite after dark, the men in the sites on either side of me — strangers to each other — came to look at my car. They each had a flashlight and scrutinized every inch of the body and engine. Like boys in a toy store.

And maybe that’s all any of us are — children in a toy store, grabbing whatever experiences we can.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”

Daunted

I’m about to head out on the next leg of my journey, and I’m feeling a bit daunted. Up to now, I have had at least a smattering of knowledge about the states I have visited, and I have known people along the way, which has made a huge difference. During the next few weeks, I will be in states that I know only by legend. I will have lunch with two or three people in Florida, and maybe stay a couple of nights with a friend there, but otherwise the coming states loom friendless. Heavily trafficked. Populated by billions of insects. And expensive.

Florida particularly seems daunting because if I merely cut across the state, which is a great distance by itself, I would miss much. And yet, the thought of traveling the length of the state twice (down and back) is overwhelming. Do I want to see the keys? Do I want to see the Everglades? Do I want to attempt a visit to Dry Tortuga National Park, a tiny island closer to Cuba than the United States?

If I were honest, I’d have to say, “not particularly.” There really is no place I’d like to visit more than any other. The truth is, everything is beginning to run together with very few regional differences. Of course the rainy states are greener than the dry states, but those seem more changes in spectrum than anything — the same but different. And people are the same everywhere — mostly kind with an occasional jerk for leavening. There are more southern accents in the south, but there are southern accents everywhere in this mobile world of ours. And many businesses are identical. (I went to a movie theater in Tucson that was identical to the one I had been in a few days and a few hundred miles before. Even the posters on the wall were the same. I had to stop to catch my bearings because for a second, I didn’t know where I was.)

Despite my momentary lack of enthusiasm for this quest (though quest for what, I still don’t know), I am drawn ever onward. There are things to see, people to meet, national parks to visit. And blogs to write.

Daunted or not, I’ll see you on down the road.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***
My Louisiana friend and I stopped to play on this adult jungle gym. So much fun! The azaleas are from her back yard.

Spinning My Wheels

This is an odd sort of journey I am on. In some ways it’s better than I imagined because of the people I have met and and those I have re-met, but the original focus of the journey has been lost somewhere in the thousands of miles I have traveled.

I expected this trip to be sort of a sampler hike across the United States — driving a bit, camping, hiking, then taking off down the road for a couple of hours until I found another great place to camp and hike. I envisioned a spiritual journey, a deeper connection with the world and myself, but what I am getting is perhaps more precious — a deeper connection with people. It turns out that instead of occasionally visiting folks between bouts of camping, I have occasional bouts of camping between visiting folks. Not a bad trade-off.

Still, there are many times when I wonder if I am just spinning my wheels, traveling to no purpose. Yesterday was such a day. Although east Texas is vastly different from west Texas with shades of green rather than tones of taupe, the scene blurred after several hours, especially when, except for a few urban breaks, the view remained the same through northern Louisiana and Mississippi. And most especially when it rained, turning everything a misty gray.

I never expected to have days of driving such vast distances, never expected to drive in the rain, but what else was there to do? I couldn’t camp where I had planned in the piney woods of Texas, couldn’t even drive the roads I wanted because of flooding, so I took the high road. (There was still flooding, but the water had receded from the roadbed.) Every time I stopped to get a motel to wait out the rain, the rain stopped. So I continued, and so did the rain. Lots of rain.

I’d forgotten that not all places experience the long twilights of the west, so it came as a surprise that as soon as the sun set, it grew dark. And the rain got worse. And lightning and thunder came. And I got lost. I had gotten off the highway because a motel was supposed to be at that exit, but the motel turned out to be a mile down a narrow road, so I got back on the highway. Or so I thought. I ended up . . . I don’t know where.

Dark. Rain. Traffic. Yikes. Luckily, I found a place to turn around and somehow ended back on the interstate.

I did finally find a place for the night — an isolated motel with no gas station, store, or restaurant nearby. Only cows. The rain continued most of the night, and is still misting.

During that interminable drive, I let thoughts drift into and out of my mind, though as the miles and hours passed, the wheel-spinning thoughts came more frequently. And stayed. I wished I could go back to my father’s house. Wished even more I could go home to Jeff. Wished I knew what I was doing.

But my car wheels kept going around and around, taking me . . . somewhere.

Despite the rain and what could have been self-defeating thoughts, I did end up accomplishing something — I am now a scant 100 miles away from meeting a dear friend.

And so the wheel turns . . .

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

***

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