Treasure Island

You ever wonder why you choose to connect with a particular person? A chance conversation, initiation of future plans? This is how one of my childhood best friends and I ended up taking a 24 hour adventure with a semi-stranger to St Petersburg.

The lead-up to this adventure was a loose plan to collect seashells on a certain distant beach, then a boat ride that got rescheduled (and then never materialized), and the exchange of a business card regarding a shop of a spiritual nature. These forces collided into a fully formed plan that started and ended in a Cracker Barrel parking lot in Fort Myers, Florida. This plan led us first to St Pete’s, and then resulted in a troubled night on Treasure Island.

My childhood friend ( who I will call Peggy) was tagging along on a business trip of mine to this area on this weekend. A few months prior, I had formed a friendship with a woman I briefly worked with who lived somewhat nearby, who I will refer to as Mickey. Her spiritually has drawn me to her, and we had spent some time together bonding over our connection to the natural world over the past couple of months. Her niche was rocks, gems and nature-based crafts and jewelry. Mine was outdoor adventures, nature and logistics. Sometimes those interests, along with the spiritual aspects of those activities overlapped. We inspired each other through our conversations.

A couple months ago on a trip to this area, I had booked a sunset boat cruise in St Petersburg as an activity to do with my mother and my brother’s girlfriend. We had been compelled to cancel those plans due to discovery that great hordes of people would be mingling in that exact area during the time of our booking. I had rebooked the boat tour for the next time I had scheduled to return, and now that weekend had arrived. I had three tickets for the boat ride, so I had invited Mickey to join us on this overnight to St Pete’s.

We started the journey with a drawing of one tarot card each, to set the intention of the trip. Mine spoke about accessing one’s creative side as a way to nurture spirituality, which seemed rather fitting, and tied into our next stop.

We had been compelled to come into St Pete’s early due to the allure of a business card handed to Peggy a month before with the address of a particular shop in this town and random advice to go check this place out. We had arrived at the specified address, and made our first in a series of arguably poor decisions in deciding to get a latte at a coffee shop first. At the time, it seemed like a great idea, but potentially it lead to some consequences later that derailed our plans, for better or worse.

After this pit stop, we happily entered the store on the address of that card, which seemed to fit the description of our destination if one wasn’t reading too carefully. There was magic and temptation in there. Also, Mickey began telling me of a spiritual festival the following month where she would be selling her wares that would happen to coincide with my next work trip. A half-baked plan began to form in my head to spend time with her at this festival. We also quickly realized that we were not in the right place (or were we?) and that our actual destination was around the corner. Once in the right shop, I was drawn to a book of poetry, while Peggy was being tempted heavily by singing bowls, and dealing with the ramifications of singing bowels, likely the result of the latte.

As Peggy was running back and forth between the bathroom and weighing purchasing decisions, Mickey and I began a discussion of the spiritual significance of the number 14. Some synchronicities had recently aligned in my life that connected to that number. She told me this number represents going on a spiritual journey, a journey of which a psychic just revealed to me last month that I was at the beginning of, but that was going to get more intense as time went on. I believe now that Mickey is somehow a part of this spiritual journey, although I haven’t yet figured out her role….unless it is simply what I illustrated prior in this story.

After this, we made the second in a series of arguably poor decisions by deciding to check into our hotel next. This hotel had not been our first, or even our second choice, but ultimately had been decided on by Peggy due to cost and availability. It was also almost a half hour away.We spent valuable time on getting to and considerable money on booking what turned out to be a somewhat sketchy hotel room. Our third bad decision was taking way too long to tear ourselves away from an emotional story that Mickey was telling us to get ourselves to the boat slip at the appointed time.

If we all had been a little bit more cautious and controlled, we would have easily made it on time, as we had rolled into town a good 2.5 hours before the boat left harbor. But what can I say, the three of us were valuing emotional energy over physical energy at these critical moments.I realized too late that we needed to leave, and then another poor decision was made. Or, poor timing of a gastric situation that slowed our exit (no names will be mentioned here).

And then ultimately a parking situation derailed the whole damn plan. We had no idea that our destination was in an area that everyone else in town decided they wanted to be on a Saturday night. Any available parking spots were light years away from the boat with the blue banners at Pier 23 that we were desperately trying to reach. I dropped the other two off and made a valiant effort to find a place for the car before our ship sailed, but alas, we failed in this quest and the Tampa Bay Discovery Eco-Tour left the harbor without us.

No dolphins would be seen by us, and also neither the mystical mysterious Aurora Borealis that everyone on our social media seemed to be seeing in our absence.

We did see some incredible banyan trees draped in twinkling lights in the nearby park, though, where a harpist played a tune heard only perhaps by the man laying on a blanket in front of her – an audience of one for likely the loveliest melody that couldn’t be heard. A “tacos and tequila” festival raged on at another nearby park. Boats rocked in gentle waves in the marina.Patrons flocked to nearby bars and dined at outdoor tables at swanky restaurants. Pretty girls walked by, maybe on first dates or with friends, a night out on the town. On the way back to our sketchy hotel room, Mickey filled our heads with tales of catching fairies on camera in the woods, of seeing shapes in the clouds, of potentially other-worldly energy sending her messages of peace and goodwill.

We got back to our place in Treasure Island, and set off on foot for the highest rated restaurant in town, where we dined on shrimp, fish, pizza, drank a little and listened to some live music while we watched the people around us. Bellies full, we wobbled like penguins back to our shit-show hotel, where a toilet issue plagued us into the night. We ended up calling the manager late, late into the evening to come help us. He was a bit lippy about it and made a comment that sent us all into “fierce mode”, but finally showed up with a young man who deftly fixed the problem while the older manager putzed around playing the hero.

Our feet were nearly black with grim from walking barefoot on the disgusting floors. I had to wash my feet and then scoot along with my clean feet on a hand towel to get to my bed without getting my feet dirty again. There was some kind of moisture retention bag in the closet that was filled past the appropriate level, which had us all feeling a bit icky about the air quality.

We all wanted to crash at this point, but began imagining issues in the room beyond the obvious. Peggy went down a rabbit hole of mold research and slept with a hand towel over her face, scratching at imaginary bedbugs. I slept next to her in a full bed (not a queen as we expected), closer than we have ever been before, on low-budget low thread count sheets for a full five hours with my CPAP humming quietly. Mickey laid awake for hours, silently freaking out with I think excitement and anxiety about the condition of the room. By the time she finally went to sleep, I was waking up with gastric issues and worried of waking up my dear Peggy with snoring in our abnormally close bed positions.

I watched the sun come up slowly over the marina behind us, until it’s rays shined so brightly through the window that we all woke up with a start, thinking someone had turned on a light switch.

With great effort and sudden readiness, we left the room in pursuit of this hyped-up seashell situation. We listened to the anthem I chose for this trip, “Florida” by Taylor Swift, from her brand new album The Tortured Poet’s Department that I had been listening to steadily the entire week of my work trip here, as we drove south along the beach resort town to Pass-A-Grille Beach. I had read on the Internet that the best shells could be found here, even better than legendary Sanibel.

It turns out that either the Internet had false ideas, or we had been beaten out by close locals or over-eager tourists. Or maybe it was not a lucky day for shells, much like Peggy and I’s experience yesterday on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. Peggy sat quietly on the beach, looking at her phone while Mickey and I combed the surf and picked through the layers of cockleshells looking for a real gem, like a welk or some other beautiful spiral shaped things. All we picked up were a few specimens of a regular variety with perhaps a nice touch here and there, nothing terribly spectacular.

It reminded me of interviewing and hiring staff members at my workplace this past week, so many casts, reel in only to throw back out again, looking for that special something.We tried again at some other beach on the way back, with less luck but a slightly more enjoyable feel. After this, we returned to our room to wash up, eat cold pizza leftovers and pack. There was a situation involving a two dollar gip and a display of fierceness from Mickey, some tension with the hotel management that Peggy had to smooth over during our exit. The two dollars and good faith was restored, and Peggy gave us lessons in diplomacy as we drove away shower-less from our rat-trap motel on Treasure Island, vowing in our hearts to never return there again.

We returned to the Cracker Barrel and briefly waded through the huge after-church Mother’s Day crowd to take a quick opportunity at a restroom. We briefly took one last short drive together to check out some nature at a nearby preserve before Peggy and I needed to make our way to the airport. We made one quick stop at Raceway to share the sweet experience of gas station fro-yo. We then ate club sandwiches at the airport, making it to boarding just in the nick of time.

As we wrapped up this journey, we discussed the reasons why Mickey had become a part of my life, and what lessons she brought to both Peggy and I during this trip. All of us walked away feeling like we had a great adventure, despite not achieving any of our specific missions. This trip was not in vain, despite the fact that we missed our on the boat ride, the good shells, and on discovering the reason why our road led us to that particular shop. It might be months or even years for us to see how this part of our journey affected the way we think and perceive the world, but somehow this was meant to be a part of our path.

We are thrown around in this life by the winds of Chaos, ever so often hitting up against each other to polish our edges and bring out our inner shine. This night on Treasure Island was somehow a part of this shaping. Our paths will continue to collide and the end result we can only ponder as we make our way to our next grand adventures, treasuring the memory and the lessons we gave each other along the way.

Animal Attraction

Definition: The power to pull/attract animals towards oneself.

First Saturday of the new year, and I am once again driving through the fog and feeling like I am risking life and limb to follow through on my intention to go birding more this year than previous years. This day, I am heading southeast towards Seabrook, to Pine Gully Park, where the Houston Audubon hosts a bird walk on a monthly basis. I have invited two friends there, two ladies that I met in the fall that I suddenly have been spending a lot of time with. Lisa is a friend of a friend who I met at a hippie bar and discovered we shared a love of the outdoors, and Katie is a woman from my book club that turns out lived just a few doors down from me the first few years, including those COVID years when I would have loved to have a friend that I could have met outdoors for walks six feet apart or something, a time where I was really missing time spent with friends. We each made our own separate way through the fog and met up with the group in the parking lot.

Our group set off with the bird walk leader Stennie, who demonstrated a technique called “pishing”, where you make a specific sound to attract the birds. This “pishing” was very effective towards the end of the walk at attracting a Ruby Crowned Kinglet who spent quite a bit of time in the trees close to us, visible to the naked eye. She also took the time to show us particular birds in her field guide and describe their field marks for us.

We had a group of 8-10 of us, and one person in the group was making use of “playback – use of an app, probably Merlin, to play calls on occasion to try to lure the birds out. At one point, a Red Bellied Woodpecker was so attracted to the call that he came flying right towards us, and then stayed in the area for a bit, going from tree to tree trying to figure us out. The use of an app to draw out birds is controversial, but I ask, what is the difference between using technology and using old-fashioned “pishing”?

Our time on the walk was coming to an end, and to tell you the truth, I was looking forward to being done because I was restless to move on to the next thing (going to Maas Nursery and then lunch), but when we walked past the cemetery, we saw a couple of beautiful birds that we had not yet seen. We waved Stennie over and she identified them as Eastern Bluebirds (which I have seen before, but for some reason did not recognize today = probably because I I am rusty in my birding skills).

Easter Bluebird, viewed from Katie’s binoculars

In the end, we had logged 18 species and felt like we had learned a lot. After this, we headed over to Maas Nursery, where there was so much to see that it was almost bewildering to make choices. We do want to come back in the spring, but perhaps on a weekday, but it is notoriously crowded come spring time. Several interesting feasts for the eyes and inspiration for garden dreams. I am not a person who is normally interested in plants, because I am no good at caring for them, but I would be willing to take a day off work to go here again in the spring, because I would in fact like to invest in creating a space for pollinators and birds in my backyard.

Later, I contemplated these methods of attracting birds and how I felt about them personally. When we as a society got to the point where we were ready to loosen COVID restrictions, I had found myself in deep need of new female friendships. When I struck up new friendships, I would try to pay attention to what that woman liked, and then offer this activity to attract this new friend out to spend time with me. I am pretty open-minded and have a wide range of interests, so it is not like I am faking interest in an activity to get them to feel more connected to me (a mistake I made with my first husband), but sometimes the things they like aren’t exactly the first things I would think about when trying to find an activity to do, such as going to a drag brunch or Thursday night karoake. But I look for these opportunities and then invite them to them, in a way that reminds me of Stennie pishing at the bushes, hoping to intice this new friend to come out and show herself, and spend time doing something she likes, in order to get to a place in our friendship where I feel secure.

Because I do this myself, I don’t have an issue doing this with the birds, but it also depends on the situation and what the risks are to the animal. In this case, winter time, just drawing them out a little seems harmless, but once breeding season begins, it can be unfair because it is confusing and could be stressful. Without the use of this tool on this bird walk, we likely would have only seen probably half the birds that we saw, and it might have felt like a waste of gas and time to drive so far out there for birds we probably could have seen closer to our house. I did get to spend quality time deepening my relationship with these two women, though, so for me, it would have been worth the drive.

First Light

It’s New Year’s Day, and my headlights are cutting a path through the dense fog at 6:30 am. There are times where I can see at best two stripes and one reflective spot in front of me, and then there are times where the fog was so dense I could barely see the front of my car. I am questioning the sanity of my decision to sacrifice staying up to greet the new year in order to get up early and drive through these conditions, but I made this decision to be true to my intention to do more birding in 2024. I am traveling 40 minutes southeast of my house, towards Brazos Bend State Park to meet a more experienced birding friend who invited me to join him. He wanted to meet at sunrise, which is the best time to start a birding adventure. I planned to break off after a couple of hours of this to go hiking with my hiking group.

We met at the 40 Acre Lake parking lot. I had gotten there first and was ogling a Ruby Crowned Kinglet when he arrived. We walked a couple of loops around the first little patch of woods by the bathrooms in hopes that the Prairie Warbler would appear, but this rare bird did not show today. Then we started our slow journey around the lake heading towards the observation tower, then continued along the spillway to Elm Lake. We were armed with our binoculars and our phones, using eBird to log our finds and Merlin to “listen” for and help pinpoint where to look and who to look for. As birds of a feather tend to flock together, sometimes so do birders, and we ended up walking and spotting birds with a couple and occasionally a lady who was wearing a Gulf Coast Bird Observatory shirt.

One highlight of our walk was when I was looking at Spanish moss hanging from the trees and realized one spot was not shaped like the others. When I got a look with my binoculars at it, I realized it was a Barred Owl. We saw a lot of the usual suspects and a few birds I had not logged before or weren’t sure what they were, so it was helpful to have my birding friend confirm an ID for me. We had taken a right at the intersection with Elm Lake, and the tree line next to us was very birdy. One of the birds we identified in that group was a Black and White Warbler, which was a fun find.

Around this time, it was time for me to turn around to go meet up with my group. As I approached the spillway, a large number of ducks started flying over the lake, and I struggled to identify them. At this point, I wished i had brought my camera to get a photo to examine later. All I have now is my imperfect memory and a list of birds from eBird that are likely to be seen this time of year, but I cannot confirm that any of the ducks that are supposed to be there this time of year are truly what I saw. I ran into my birding friend Steven later, when I was hiking with my group, and I asked him if he had seen those ducks but he had not. It might always remain a mystery what they were.

I’ve been thinking about those ducks ever since, and about mysteries, and about intentions. Lately, I started talking to a therapist about some personal issues. One of the tools he had recently taught me was to “catch a thought”, and examine it for truth. Sometimes when we ask ourselves “Is this true?”, it is like driving through that fog on the way to the park or looking at pictures of possible duck suspects on Google in that the answer isn’t always clear.

Same with trying to cast a vision of the upcoming year. We can state our intentions or make resolutions, but in the end, the way the year will unfold will be somewhat of a mystery. Last year I told myself I was going to concentrate less on hiking and more on birding, but in the end, I went hiking 80 times and I only logged 16 birding checklists on eBird. I also started the year with an idea of which friends that I wanted to be intentional in spending time with, but at the end of the summer, I found a new group of special “unicorn” friends that ended up being a wonderful surprise. One has turned out to be a “new best friend”, and she met up with me on this group hike and we went to lunch together afterwards. I am going to hold this door open for the potential of more wonderful surprises like that, and treasures like this great morning looking for birds at “first light” with an old geocaching friend.

Auspicious

The gray catbird calls out, an auspicious sound,

Does he know the secrets of the forest?

Does the catbird know whose bike I found

Balanced up against a tree, no one around?

What about the blanket fort I found in the clearing?

Does he know if it’s a homeless camp, is that what I’m hearing?

The secrets of Ballenger Creek

Held in a tiny little meep