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On the beach, even Santa can dream

February 29, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Somewhere on the beach in Florida, I lost my earmuffs.

Now if you're wondering why I needed ear protection on a sandy strand in the Sunshine State, that's a story that will take a few minutes to tell.

It begins with a couple of good friends who spend a month on Florida's gulf coast each February and who invited us to share a week with them.

These are not rocking-chair porch people, but dedicated hikers and lovers of nature and the outdoors. Their great hobby is to collect shells along Florida beaches, where they wash up in great size and quantity, as opposed to Ocean City, Md., where you're lucky if your best specimen is as big as a shirt button.

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The best time to collect shells is before anybody else gets to them, which meant arriving at the St. George Island State Park shortly after daybreak and combing the beach for nearly five miles until we reached "the point." There a combination of current and sand bars yield the top treasures.

That slow walk - so you won't miss anything - may take two or more hours, one way, and temperatures that required sock hats and layers of clothing at first light gave way to tee shirts later in the day.

Spectacular is an overused word, but it's the only one fit to describe the scenery in this park. The sand is as white as table sugar and along the entrance road there are large circular dunes 20 to 30 feet high, some topped with small hairy vines that suggested that pale balding giants, buried up to their necks, were staring across the island to the bay. On others, gnarled pines bent down by the wind made me wonder if trees can have arthritis.

Unlike yardwork - raking leaves or weeding - which can leave plenty of time for day-dreaming, or worse, worrying, prospecting for shells requires concentration. That's because the best ones can be half-buried. Hunting in pairs is some insurance against passing up the good ones. And there's someone to share the triumph when you dig a sand dollar or fighting conch shell out of the muck at the water's edge.

When it's done, your calves ache and you pop a cold soda and ride off slowly, savoring scenery that includes oystermen tonging for shellfish on small boats in the Apalachicola Bay and long-legged shore birds as they snatch fish out of the tidal pools, let them flop on the bank for a while, then pick them up and swallow them whole.

The people we met were so friendly and courteous that it seemed hospitality training must be a required course in the school system. The vacant stares we're used to seeing from fast-food restaurant clerks were replaced by eye contact from people who genuinely seemed to care that we got where we were going, or found what we were looking for.

And so after a week of not spending eight hours a day looking at a computer screen and deleting hundreds of e-mail solicitations for pharmaceuticals and dirty pictures, I began to wonder if I really had to go back up north. (Given the slow pace of progress in Washington County, I could probably spend five years away and not miss much.)

It seemed a vain hope. The newspapers in the region are tiny, with the publishers doubling as reporters and photographers. And paradise hardly needs a P.R. man.

And then we went to downtown Apalachicola, an historic area with picturesque architecture and a group of entrepreneurs who have (so far) resisted the temptation to sell cheesy knick-knacks. On a corner a block from the waterfront stood a large tavern and package store. The renaissance seemed to have passed it by, which might have been why it was for sale.

Visions of being a restaurateur began to flood my brain like high tide coming up the beach. I would bring Maryland-style crabcakes to the South, where most cooks seem to feel that the more bread you use, the better. My mother-in-law's vegetable and chicken-corn soups would round out the menu, along with my wife's homemade carrot cake. I would trade my snow shovel for a flowered shirt and become a beloved local character, offering pithy observations on the topic of the day as I greeted my patrons.

Even as I had these thoughts, I knew better. I've worked in restaurants and know that if you own one, you've got to be there all the time. And unlike blue jeans, which can be marked down if they don't sell this week, food that isn't sold now gets tossed out, with no way to recoup the money you spent to get it.

The final eye-opener came when our host pointed out the real-estate listing, which said my dream would cost me $850,000. Even at half that, it would be unaffordable. The best I could hope for would be five years of hard work, after which my flat feet would give out completely, forcing a sale that might not cover my debts.

But having a dream, even for a minute, is better than not dreaming at all. As we packed up the van, I was still thinking of menus and music and where to get a bargain on salt shakers. My good mood didn't evaporate completely until we got to North Carolina and I went into a men's room at a rest stop. A minute later a small boy came in as I was washing my hands.

"You look just like Santa Claus," he said.

I laughed and left, wondering briefly why any parent would let a small child go unescorted into a public bathroom.

And then I thought: I really am like Santa, because for this year the ride is over and I've got to go back up to the cold north.

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