Bird in Hand

Living less than a quarter mile from the ocean and my own beach access, it took a number of years before I thought to visit the small oceanside park on the coastal road about two miles south of my house, even though I pass it each time I drive to or from the bridge to the mainland. And then, one recent and still dark summer morning, upon completing my weekday exercise regimen early, it occurred to me to head over to the park to cool down in the surf there for a change and to check things out in general and maybe take some photos.

Parking in the small lot on the west side of the road, I walked across to the wooden walkway and followed it east. I soon realized though that I’d taken a wrong turn and should have veered north at a fork I had passed earlier. The walkway I was on ended at a small observation point sheltered from the elements by a weathered gazebo with a built-in bench. The route I had wanted to take was to my left, its white wooden railing rising above the tall grass before it and its steps down to the sea visible when I crouched and peered through the foliage just so.

I had meant to return to the walkway’s fork posthaste but then decided to first take advantage of my current location, so I made my way to the gazebo and sat on the bench. The sea was calm that day, the surf next to nonexistent, and there was a thin haze that brought a soft, dreamy feel to the watery world laid out before me. The sky was mist-softened as well and painted with a rosy wash nearest the sea, morphing gradually to a subtle yellow-tinged cream closer to heaven. When a line of seagulls flew by heading south just a foot or two above the water, I snapped two or three photos in quick succession. Then I lay the camera down next to me and relied on my eyes instead to capture a more panoramic scene than possible with the lens I had brought. I soon slipped into a soothing meditative state. After a short (or maybe a long) while, the sun appeared on the horizon like a god incarnate, blessing me with its celestial early morning presence. I became aware of my inextricable relationship to the sea, and to the sky, and to the sun, and to the universe.

Before the sun completely separated itself from the horizon, the memory of my original mission went off inside me like an alarm, filling me with an adrenalin rush and causing me to stand abruptly, collect my camera, and turn to retrace my steps to the fork. However, upon returning to a calmer state of mind and realizing that the mist would soon dissipate in the sun’s heat and that the dreamy colors would wash out in the brightening light, I chose instead to continue walking west past the turn, all the way back to the parking lot and my car for the short drive home.

Touching Base

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From time to time, I succumb to some visceral need to walk across the Vilano Bridge to the mainland and then back again. When that occurs, I park my car in the Publix parking lot some minutes before sunrise—good lighting and only joggers up and about‑‑walk across A1a, and head westward along the pedestrian lane on the north side of the bridge. Once I reach the mainland, I re-cross A1a and walk east along the south side of the bridge back to the island. Depending on how fast I walk, how many times I pause and for how long, the trip takes between 45 minutes and one hour.

My goal is always to consider the early morning comings and goings along this stretch of the Tolomato River and to record those things that interest me visually: a visiting sailboat newly moored, dredging operations, fishermen in waist-deep water casting for sea trout, and so on. Accordingly, I carry my best camera with my most powerful telephoto lens strapped around my neck and cradled in my arm both, as it is a heavy combination.

From the north side of the bridge, I can see the Camachee Cove Marina ahead of me on the mainland and a few visible houses and docks at water’s edge to my rear, but my eyes tend to fix on the river itself and the vastness of the untouched marshland along its western bank and the canopy of live oaks stretching north to its east. Looking through my camera’s viewfinder, I enjoy seeking out in turn the three creeks I have fished, just to see if anyone is there now: Robinson’s Creek, the southernmost and across from where I used to live in a beachside condo on Ocean Hollow Road, then Poncho Creek, and finally Indian Creek, which is right across the water from my house on Third Street, where the island’s width narrows to less than half a mile. Unlike Robinson’s, Poncho and Indian Creeks are shallow, allowing only kayaks and light boats like my own to navigate them, which makes for more peaceful exploring, fishing, and observing. Because I find more comfort in the quiet of rowing and sailing in my current state than in the dependable power of my small but noisy outboard motor, I invariably head toward the more easily reached Indian Creek these days.

Returning along the south side of the bridge, I can make out the Castillo de San Marcos, the Bridge of Lions, and the lighthouse on Salt Run across Matanzas Bay. Closer at hand on the mainland side stands the Great Cross commemorating the spot where Pedro Menéndez first landed in 1565. Up ahead, of course, lies Vilano Beach and my car. As I near the bridge’s summit, my gaze is drawn to the line of houses along the river’s bank. They stretch south from the marina and the fishing pier to the small sand beach at Porpoise Point and the St. Augustine Inlet. From these houses, long wooden docks stretch deep into the river toward the edge of the north-south channel. At this time of day, a handful of boats power by in both directions, all heading to some favorite fishing location most likely. When I’m very lucky, I see one of the boats of our town’s fishing fleet—there are four, I believe‑‑coming home through the inlet after an all-nighter off the coast, its nets held up just above of the water and spread along the length of long spars that reach out from both port and starboard sides like wings extended for flight and swarming like gnats above them, an escort of gleaning seagulls and pelicans.

By the time I reach my car, the combination of all of these things: the river and its creeks, the houses and their docks, the boats, and the long history of this place all work together like ingredients of a therapeutic brew, making my mind a little less battered by troubling matters regarding my own sojourn on earth than it had been before the walk.

From my car, I gather my shopping bags and head toward the Publix doors. My step is light, and I am aware that will be short-lived, but I cherish it none the less.