I’m in Florida. It’s a Thursday morning. We have a full day of flying ahead of us which, much to my embarrassment and even shame, is something I am dreading. “Imagine the pioneers,” I think to myself. “The months of travelling – hunger, cold, and even death – to get across the country. And here I’ll be doing it in two flights. Just seven or eight hours of actual flying.” It’s miraculous really. And yet . . . there’s still the looming motion sickness ahead of me. The cramped and claustrophobic hours of feeling slightly trapped. We only have a few more hours before boarding, and I’m tempted to spend them sleeping in our comfy all-white hotel bed. But Mike convinces me we ought to make something of our last day of vacation – even if it is only a portion of a day.
And so . . . the Six Mile Cypress Slough. It’s how he plans for us to make something of our day. As we drive there (shortly after 9:00 am) he jokes about The Six Mile Cypress Slough being “the cherry on top of any truly good vacation”. I laugh and we pull into the parking lot of the preserve. The woman at the entry to the slough asks us if we’d like to wait for a guided tour. We explain we’re pressed for time and would like to just explore on our own a bit. “It’s a one and a half mile loop,” she tells us, motioning to the boardwalk ahead; and we’re set free (me raising my eyebrows at Mike and whisper-demanding to know where my other four and a half miles of slough are).
But, Mike was right. It is a lovely little ending to our trip. A short walk in and an older couple motions for us to look to the end of a muddy trail leading to a swamp where five, striped, baby alligators crowd together in a spot of sun. I wonder out loud if their mom is nearby. The man guffaws. “Those alligators are on their own now,” he’s assures me. “Their mom has long since left them.” But, in quiet, once they’ve moved on, I tell Mike that simply can’t be right. After all, in the book No Fighting, No Biting from my childhood, the mom alligator always took her two baby alligators (Light Foot and Quick Foot)fishing; and she always scared away the large, male alligator who occasionally tried to eat them.
We see turtles, birds, snakes, and, at a different swampy pond, an adult alligator (most likely the errant and irresponsible mother). All along, Mike’s been saying he just wants to see otters and baby boars. The otters are a no-show, but two-thirds in to our walk, we come upon two women and a little girl standing on tiptoes, pointing and whispering. “It’s boars!” they tell me. And sure enough, after a bit of straining our eyes at rustling bushes, we see them – several small, black boars. A local with a giant telephoto lens walks by and grumbles angrily about the boars. They’re not native to Florida and destroy much of the habitat. But we still like seeing them.
Four days earlier Mike and I were boarding the red-eye flight that would bring us here. I’d spent the prior week getting everything ready to leave our seven children in the care of others. Grocery shopping, cleaning, readying simple meals, arranging transportation for school and piano recitals and violin practices and activity days, celebrating Daisy’s birthday (which we’d miss while away). A day or two before the trip Mike had come home from work and, upon seeing the notes I’d taped up, asked where the new wallpaper had come from. But, I just wanted to make sure everyone would know what to do and how to handle . . . every eventuality . . . in the universe.
Despite all of my readying, I was still burdened with a fair amount of anxiety as our plane took off. All through the strange, dark, cramped flight I was – in semi-surrealness (as I attempted, and mostly failed, to sleep) – offering anxious little prayers over my children and those watching them. I was worried Summer would wake at night and be afraid and confused by my not being there, worried getting so many kids off in the morning would prove too much, and worried about a thousand illogical small things that didn’t need worrying about.
But arriving at our hotel, walking out on the warm, but windy, white-sand beach; getting a few hours of a nap; and, mostly, calling home that night to find everyone in fairly high spirits – claiming that all went fine and well with the day -- was enough to let me sigh out my anxiety and begin truly enjoying this rare vacation with just my Mike.
In between arrival at the beach and “Six Mile Cypress Slough”, there is: walking from our fairly quiet beach spot along the sand and in the gentle waves of the ridiculously warm gulf water (who knew!?) down to the pier -- full of beach goers (some tanned to a state of sheer leather), restaurants, and shops full of swimwear, shark’s teeth, and sea-shell covered jewelry boxes. There is swimming, stumbling onto a bed of sand dollars (that I eagerly begin to collect for the kids before realizing they are all still living), and there is stopping at over-priced ice-cream parlors and eating out – one night right on the beach with a live band playing behind us.
There is laughing over being referred to as Mike’s “girlfriend” – pregnant as I am and with seven children at home; and marveling over the foreign beauty of this area of our country. (It isn’t so much “beach” as it is the crazy amount of unfamiliar green stuff growing thickly everywhere here that gives rise to an occasional but intense longing in me to move here – just as it did when we stayed on Georgia’s St. Simon’s Island years ago. I don’t love muggy, and surely I’d miss fall leaves and changing seasons, but I feel constantly in awe of the beauty of this area. “How on earth did anyone settle here?” I am constantly re-asking Mike. “I just picture ships landing, the explorers walking up the beach and, upon reaching the edge of the sand, saying, ‘We’ll simply have to turn back. There is no possible way of getting through all this crazy thick growth. And it seems to be teaming with panthers and alligators and crazy bugs and who knows what else! Let’s just leave some non-native boars for kicks and head on to someplace we won’t have to cut our way through every step of the way.’”)
One day we follow a rough and fairly impatient tour guide on small two-seater sideless boats that allow us to zip about through an area of ocean known as “Ten Thousand Islands”. Some of those on the tour seem a bit unprepared for the speed with which we are expected to go (and lack of gentle tour-guide involvement), but Mike and I love being out in our own little boat buzzing through this area where, guideless, one might surely be lost for some time. We see dolphins and a ray and stop on one small island to collect sea-shells for the kids.
There is a fair amount of mentioning how much the kids would love this or that. It’s inescapable; and, it seemed a grave loss not to have my “real camera” and team of children to photograph in such gorgeous scenery; but mostly there is constant appreciation of – not just the adventure – but of the uninterrupted days of being able to be wholly wrapped up in one another; of being able to have a small time-out from all the real life things that must (and probably should) fit their way into a marriage and a family – work, making dinner, caring for kids, helping with homework, doing chores, paying bills, etc. – and just focus on one another; just be reminded that everything else is just . . . extra to the two of us all bound together.
And . . . I hate abrupt endings, but . . . I think that’s pretty much it!