Thursday, March 14, 2019

Summer Storms

Terrifyingly beautiful and violently calm. 

The old boat launch was empty. Abandoned, practically. Mildewed picnic tables and a sanded-over concrete boat ramp showed obvious signs of neglect. Not unwarranted neglect, mind you. Yellow caution tape haphazardly strewn between two posts served as a warning to keep visitors off of the dock beyond. With large sections missing, posts leaning, and splintered slats half peeled away, the wooden structure had obviously seen better days.

But the coffee black waters of the Saint Johns felt good, and the short swim to the only intact section of dock proved relaxing after a hot summer day in the sun. With and no ladder for help, it took some effort to climb onto the broken dock from below. Effort well rewarded, however, as the view of the massive river opened up to the north. The company of a close friend alongside was more than welcomed, and a relatively cool, slightly sweating beer still tasted good on a muggy evening.

One of the many nice things about having close friends is the ability to just enjoy each other's company. Sure there's plenty to be said, but there's a time and place. Often simply sitting in relative silence is just as enjoyable as deep conversation. And so the evening was spent less in conversation, and more in staring out across the calm waters while slowly sipping lukewarm beer.

It wasn't really the water that was being stared at, however. It wasn't a pretty sunset, or passing boats. Nor was it even an attempt to soak up the final few hours of sunshine. The sunshine was long gone.

In the distance to the North slowly moved a massive storm. Your typical Floridian summer afternoon storm, but are they ever really typical? Though they're practically a daily guarantee, each remains different than the next. Every day, around mid morning, you can watch as a tiny puff ball of a cloud begins to build as it lazily moves across the sky. By lunchtime the puff ball has become an actual rain shower, and by the afternoon, a full fledged thunderstorm.

This storm was no different. In fact, it hadn't been long since it had moved over this abandoned boat launch. Gone was the sweltering sunshine. Gone was the gentle lapping of waves against the shore from a hot summer breeze. Gone was the quiet clanking of the nearby sailboats' rigging as they slowly rocked in the water. And gone was the deafening buzz of cicadas in the trees.

Instead the waters ahead lay mirror flat as the still, humid air slowly settled in now that the breeze was gone. From the dark woods on shore came a gentle white noise from thousands of raindrops as they fell from the Spanish moss draped Live Oaks, signaling that the storm had passed through. And in the distance came the occasional flash of lightning, reflected off the river, followed by a low, trembling report. The storm rumbled steadily away to the north like a giant, dark purple/blue wall, with occasional lightning flashes from within outlining its growing, irregular shape. To the West, the sun was blotted out by the anvil-like shear which cast a shadow on the old boat launch. And to the South, other afternoon storms shined brightly as their white and orange shapes quietly approached in the evening daylight.

And so the evening was spent sitting on that broken dock, watching a storm slowly roll away. Ironically, the entire reason this dock sat half destroyed and abandoned was because of a storm. And it's strange to think something so powerful and violent can set a scene so peaceful and calm as the one this particular evening.

What is it about a storm?


Much like staring into a fire, there's no accurate way to explain what it's like to watch a thunderstorm. No words can describe the slight flutter of nervous excitement as the all-too-familiar buzz of the emergency broadcast system blares through the radio mid-song, or flashes across the bottom of the TV screen. Nor can they describe the startled flinch that's received when a lighting strike comes a little too close. Or that feeling when a strong, cold gust of wind pierces through the humid air of a summer afternoon, signaling the approaching weather.

Storms are something terrible to be in, yet a joy to watch from a distance. There's no controlling them, and perhaps its their raw power and fury that makes them awe inspiring.

One thing's for sure; there are few things in this world as humbling yet exciting as a summer storm.

They're terrifying, beautiful, violent, and calm. All at the same time.





Friday, March 1, 2019

From Beach Bum to Mountain Man

It had been a good day, all things considered. The tourist season was just beginning to take off again and I'd happily spent my morning taking tourists kayaking in Salt Run off of Saint Augustine Beach. With the warmer weather already here, I was looking forward to a nice long season of guiding. 
 

Things had changed a little bit from my time living in Casa De Pantelones. I still hung out with all my usual friends, but as crazy as it sounds (really crazy actually), now that I simply lived on the other side of A1A with no regular beach access, I hardly spent time on the actual beach. If anything, I'd walk down to the neighborhood pool and relax there. So yes, I lived within 600 yards of the ocean, but no, I rarely wandered across the highway, down several blocks, and then over the sand dunes to the water. When you're that big of a bum, you can't be bothered. 

We were living in a gated community just off A1A and given that it was gated, we were the youngest residents in the neighborhood by about an eon. There were a few decent neighbors, but absolutely no shortage of nosy ancients who had nothing better to do than watch our every move and write HOA about the slightest infractions. Nastygram letters never ceased to arrive in the mail, and we even had one neighbor who went so far as to dig through our recycle, discover we were putting pizza boxes in said recycle bin, and write us a letter explaining how we aren't supposed to do that (you can recycle them, FYI). 

There was one afternoon, in fact, where my roommate Brad and I were swimming at the pool and enjoying a beer. Two older men walked into the pool deck, picked where they were going to sit, then proceeded to give us the stink eye for a while. After finally realizing that awkwardly staring at us wasn't effective, one of  them finally piped up. 

"How'd y'all get in here?" he asked, rather uppity. 

"Through...The gate?" I responded, taking a swig of beer and motioning toward the pool gate. 

"No, smartass. How'd you get into Seagate (the community)?" 

And with giant grins, both Brad and I responded, 

"We live here"

"Where?" asked the now grumpier old man

"Clambake Court", I told him flatly. (Yes I realize all the jokes you can make from Clambake, we already made them all)

It took the old man a second to register what he'd heard, and he disbelievingly removed his sunglasses to reveal a pair of untanned, sunken, and wrinkly eyes. 

"Holy shit. There's people living in Seagate under the age of 50?"

Interactions like this became relatively common. At least until the whole neighborhood knew who we were. But the nosiness and rude letters never ended. 

It wasn't until I got home from my day of guiding that I checked my mail to discover a letter from our landlord. And upon reading it, my day went from pretty good, to pretty awful. For the SECOND time, our landlord was reneging on our lease agreement and kicking us out early so he and his wife could move back in. 

I won't bore you with the details of the following weeks, but just know that Bruce Philips of Saint Augustine is right up there was some of the biggest pieces of shit I've ever had the misfortune of dealing with. 

So we were all set to be homeless. Again. And the thought of going through the motions of finding a new place made me physically ill. 

From the time I moved away for college in 2009 until this particular day in 2017, I had moved at least twice a year, every year. I didn't own many things, in order to make moving that much less painful. But it's painful regardless. I was exhausted. 

Over the past two years I had visited Montana a couple of times and began seriously wondering if it was a place I could live in. I knew the winters would be brutal for someone like myself, but the place seemed awesome. So I told myself if I had to move one more time, I was going to just pack it all up and go to Montana to give it a try. 

So as I sat there, reading the letter informing us that we were getting kicked out, I realized what was about to happen. 

"Looks like I'm moving to Montana". 

------

Everything from that point on happened pretty fast. I sold the Gheenoe along with most of my other junk. I kept a dresser, some clothes, my kayaks/fishing gear, and my fish tank. I shotgunned my resume out to a bunch of different employers within the Wildlife Ecology field (I spent all that time getting the degree afterall), and within a couple of weeks had received an offer from the Bureau of Land Management in Butte, MT as a seasonal wildlife technician. 

Aside from being two hours from Missoula MT, I knew nothing about Butte. And to be honest, I didn't really care. It was a job that I managed to land before I even had a place to stay. So I took it. I soon found a place to rent in Missoula and before I knew it, I had loaded everything into the truck and was driving west.   

If you've never physically driven across our great country, consider yourself lucky. Its terrible. Just fly for Christ's sake. 

I lucked out in that I have friends scattered all across the country. So I made the drive from Saint Augustine to Pensacola to see my family. Then Pensacola to Bentonville Arkansas to stay with a friend. Then Arkansas to Denver to stay with others. Finally Denver to Missoula. 

When I finally arrived in Missoula, I swore to myself that I'd never drive anywhere ever again. I really didn't enjoy the drive. But I was now in a new city, and excited to be there. Sure I'd moved a ton in Florida. But aside from -barely- living in southern Georgia, I'd never resided outside of the sunshine state. 

My "new" place was (and still is at the time of writing this), just an old house right in the middle of town. But it's close enough to downtown to walk, and I have a little yard with a garden, and a garage for my kayaks and my brand new toy:


No sense in having a Gheenoe out here, so why not a raft? Over the years I learned to not only appreciate but also enjoy coldwater fly fishing, so it only seemed logical to own a raft. 


--------

The job with BLM was actually pretty fun. I dealt with Aspen research and to make a long story short, I essentially got paid to hike around the mountains with a chainsaw. 


The only drawback of the job was that it was in Butte. Not only is Butte and pretty terrible town to begin with, it's also two hours from Missoula; a daily commute I couldn't commit to. So rather than drive back and forth, I opted to use the camper shell on the back of the truck for its intended use and actually camp. I'd leave Missoula at 4am Monday mornings, camp out of the truck Tuesday through Thursday night, then drive back after work on Friday evening. 

The whole concept doesn't sound too terrible on paper. But the logistics and reality of it got old VERY quickly. I'd wrap up a long day of working in the woods only to drive back into the woods again to camp. I was lucky enough to have access to a shower at work, but there's certainly no toilet out in the woods. Fun fact: it can start snowing in AUGUST. I woke up one morning to discover snow had built up enough outside to seal the tailgate shut and trapped me inside. Cooking? I either had to pick up fast food while I was in town, or...


Bottom line, it got old. So as thankful as I was to have had such an easy transition across the country, I was thankful when the job ended and I found myself back in Missoula full time. With hunting season right around the corner, I looked forward to what this new change in lifestyle would bring, and couldn't help but think how different things were going to be now that I wasn't a beach bum anymore. 


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

From Swamp Thing To Beach Bum

"I simply can't take it anymore"

That was my quick and dirty answer to everyone when they asked why I was moving out of South Florida and leaving my job as guide in the Everglades. It had, in fact, broken me. 



I knew prior to moving south from Gainesville to Boca Raton that if I was to ever grow tired of anything, it'd be the people. And that's exactly what happened. I actually loved what I did in South Florida. Even though people who are close to me heard me bitch quite a bit about my job, I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. From the time I picked my guests up, until the time I dropped them off, it rarely felt like work. The rest of the time, however? I really REALLY didn't enjoy. 

Sure there were some bright spots.

I met some cool people. Got to experience some fun things that aren't offered anywhere else. But for the vast majority of my time in South Florida, I simply didn't like it. West Palm Beach to Homestead is essentially one massive city. The biggest city that I've personally ever been in and after a while it took its toll. Commutes to and from work ranged under 10 miles but took hours. The cost of living was outrageous. And the people? I won't blow smoke up your ass...

The people are shit.

 Like I said, I met some cool people, but for the most part, the people are terrible. And not even one demographic over another. Just the people in general. 

I've read several "studies" and reports about urban living. How it can lead to aggressiveness, poor mental health, etc. Though I won't argue with anything they have to say, I really think it just boils down to this: Too many people, too close together. 

The way I see it, you're allowed to be a terrible person and essentially get away with it there. Say, for example, you're at a bar. You drunkenly decide to completely show your ass. Fight the bouncer, throw drinks on someone, whatever. End of it all, you get kicked out. 

So what?

There's so many people that there's almost ZERO chance that you'll ever run into any of the ones you just pissed off ever again. Try that in small town USA and you'll suddenly find yourself with no friends and a bad name for yourself quite quickly. There's no accountability, and I think that just leads to worse people in general. 

Another thing was that I found it extremely challenging to find people who shared the same interests as me. Aside from beer drinking, the only other hobbies I have revolve around the outdoors. Fishing, kayaking, spearfishing, hunting, etc. But when it came to many of the people I met, the most "outdoorsy" they ever got was laying out on the beach. Many had never even seen an Alligator, despite living in South Florida their entire lives. So what in the world do I have in common with them?

There was one evening after work that I stopped by the bar in Deerfield Beach and sat down to unwind before heading home. It wasn't long before two girls my age sat down right next to me. I introduced myself, told them what I did, and chatted with them for a while before finally one of them, Chelsea, stopped me mid sentence...

"Oh my God...so I have to ask...Would it be weird if I got your number to give to my boyfriend?"

"...umm...what?"

"He's a huge outdoorsman and he's been down here for years and hasn't met anyone who's into what he likes"

Fast forward a week and Chelsea's boyfriend, Shaun and I are spearfishing off of the Pompano Beach pier together and are still friends to this day. 

Yeah I made a few friends, but bottom line, I simply wasn't enjoying living there. At one point I actually managed to get so stressed I successfully gave myself Shingles (listen to Terry Bradshaw, it sucks).

Yeah dude. Live around the ancients long enough and you catch that kinda shit. 

 I needed to make a change. ASAP. 

As luck would have it, I have friends scattered all over the state of Florida. I knew that I didn't want to move back to Gainesville. Yes the town is great, but I'm not in school anymore nor am I 21. Unlike most people from Pensacola, I'm still avoiding moving BACK, so that was a pass too. My sister lives in Jacksonville, and that region was a place I'd yet to spend much time in, so why not? I began looking for places and it just so happened that one of my best friends Kiersten was looking for a roommate in a beach house in Saint Augustine. For cheap. 

Put me in coach. 

So I quit my job, led a couple of friends through the Wilderness Waterway one last time (at least I keep telling myself one last time), packed everything up in the truck, and drove myself up to Saint Augustine Beach. 

A 3 story beach house that overlooked the ocean sounded infinitely better than pretty much anything I'd encountered in South Florida, so I was ecstatic. In order for the house to be so cheap, however, it meant living with 4 other people. 

I originally had my reservations, but it didn't take much time for me to fall in love with the beach life and not mind living with 4 others at all. I shared a bathroom and kitchen with a guy named Richard, and we happened to take over the 3rd floor of the house which meant every morning we awoke to a sunrise directly over the ocean. It also took almost no time for all of us to become very close friends. Myself, Richard, Kiersten, and the other two roommates, Casey and Brad, became almost inseparable during our time at this beach house. Days were spent lounging (as I had no job yet), evenings were spent walking the coquina littered beach with beers, and nights were spent partying as often as possible. Eventually (and drunkenly) we decided to name the house/group Casa De Pantelones based off of a painting on the wall that said "Ain't No Party Like A No Pants Party" (yes our name was wrong, I told you we were drunk). 










The whole "moving across the state with no job" thing worried me at times, but thanks to years of seasonal work, I've learned to not be one to fret too much about employment. I'd eventually find -something-. Even if it meant scrubbing toilets with that 5 year college degree. Money is money, after all. 

What I wasn't expecting, however, was to be browsing craigslist one morning and discover an opening for a Kayak/Naturalist Guide right there on Saint Augustine beach. Not to sound full of myself, but I was a shoe in for the position, and it was quickly my full time job. A fact that my mother, upon hearing of said position, and always worrying about my future, simply responded with a sigh and, 

"You always manage to land on your feet...don't you?'

And so I spiraled into a life that I can only describe as being a massive beach bum. I didn't surf, but I kayaked every day. I showed people manatees and dolphins, talked about ecological change, and actually kinda used that degree that I got. I wrapped up work around 2pm at the latest, and I went back to Casa De Pantelones to party on the beach with my friends. Every. Single. Day. Days that I didn't work, I jogged on the beach in the morning, went kayak fishing, and celebrated that I had a day "off". There was a few week period that I didn't even bother wearing shoes. Barefoot, sweat stained, mildly hungover, and sunburned was how I existed. And to be perfectly honest...



I loved it. Who wouldn't?

It's during this time that I began to write my book. I was the proud new owner of more time than I knew what to do with, so why not be somewhat productive? Also, for those those of you who follow my snapchat, this was also the time when I unexpectedly made a best friend in the form of a cat named Jimmy. 

As a lifelong rule, I've disliked cats. Jim, however, was an exception. Maybe it was his three legs, his orange charm, or my incessant need to draw on his missing arm using phone filters. Regardless, he remains one of my favorite animals to this day, and if you miss him, there's always this instagram profile that I may or may not have shamelessly made for him: 




Then came the day that our asshole, massive piece of shit, lint licking, mom-please don't-read-these-cusswords landlord decided to cancel our lease 8 months early to instead rent to some of his friends and take our entire security deposit. Casa De Pantelones was no more. 

An easy solution would be to find another house, right? In theory, yes. But in practicality (and against equal opportunity housing laws) no one was willing to rent to 5 different adults who were unrelated and not married. The rental market in Saint Augustine is garbage. If it isn't snowbirds who'd rather rent vacation homes than monthly residences, it's bottom feeders like Phil Martocci (see previous "landlord") who renege on lease agreements. So in the long run, we couldn't find a place all together and had to split, just a few months after I'd settled into a new town. 

I soon moved into a different house on the beach with Brad and Richard, while Kiersten and Casey found an apartment together a few miles away. Sadly, life on the beach was nothing more than a shadow of what it used to be. Was it still fun? Absolutely. Was I still a beach bum? Pretty much. I did pick up a second job as a salesman pushing Citrus, Pecans, Fireworks, and Wine (like I said, money is money). But my initial life and introduction to Saint Augustine was long gone. Looking back, it was one of the most memorable, enjoyable, and fleeting few months I've ever experienced. I quickly found myself in a gated old folks community on the wrong side of A1A. We were the youngest in the neighborhood by around 40 years and between nosy seniors and the homeowners association, my time there was VASTLY different than my time in the previous home (those stories are for another post). 

My time in Saint Augustine was infinitely better than the time spent in South Florida, but much like my life in Casa De Pantelones, I would soon find it too, to be fleeting. After all, one can only be a beach bum for so long.