Finding Florida:  Back to the Islands

By Mitch Traphagen (

SANIBEL ISLAND, FL - The clouds were low and thick on the darkening horizon. I was sure that I was going to miss seeing the sun melt into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Slowly and imperceptibly, however, the line where the Gulf waters met the sky began to glow golden, the sky and clouds became midnight blue. I laid back on the deserted beach and watched as the deep colors of dusk raced to replace the brilliant sunshine of day. Most definitely, God knows how to put on a light show.

Paradise means something different to everyone. For me, watching this light show, hearing the waves end their long march on a deserted beach, maybe Sanibel Island is paradise.

Of course paradise generally doesnít come without a cost, or even some pain. That thought became abundantly clear as I watched blue smoke fly from the tires of the large truck ahead of me. In one form or another, that thought probably went through my head in the milliseconds that it took to search for a path that would not result in my death.

It didnít help that I was in a construction zone. On a bridge. With high cement barriers lining each side of the road. The truck driver attempted to change lanes. Apparently he discovered mid-lane-change that the left lane may be too narrow for his truck. He panicked and slammed on the brakes.

My choices were to veer to the left and risk instant death in the traffic that was piling up behind the truck or to veer to the right and pray that I didnít get squashed into the cement barrier.

I veered right.

Many people talk about how dangerous motorcycles can be. In this case, if I had been in a car, I would likely have been in an accident. Being on a motorcycle allowed more maneuverability - and allowed me to squeeze through a small opening to safety.

After the construction zone ended, I finally worked up the nerve to pass the maniacal truck driver. I shot him my dirtiest look. Unfortunately my helmet probably blocked most of the daggers I tried to will out my eyes - but it didnít matter anyway. The truck driver was seemingly oblivious to the chaos he created behind him.

Despite that pulse rate enhancing experience, there can be only one word for the motorcycle trip from Ruskin to Sanibel Island: Joy. The skies were huge and blue, the weather just right. Although I sorely missed my reliable 20 year old Honda, the new Suzuki taking me south rumbled pleasantly, she seemed eager to explore new ground.

Aside from the occasional threat of a painful death, few things can compare to traveling by motorcycle. Standing a midnight watch a hundred or more miles offshore in a sailboat is just about the only thing I can think of that comes close to the feeling of freedom that a motorcycle cruising down a highway provides. The pulse of the engine, the smells of the trees and warm earth and blue Florida skies all come to life on a motorcycle.

And the opportunity to meet new and interesting people is always available on a bike.

Interstate highway rest areas are quickly rising to the top of my favorite places. Apparently travelers cooped up in their cars for too long appreciate the ability to get out and communicate with the outside world - even if it is just another person who has also been cooped up in their car for too long.

For many travelers in this situation, a cruising motorcycle is like a giant magnet.

A rest area on my way to Sanibel was no exception. I had just returned to my bike when an elderly woman approached me to ask if she could have her picture taken next to it. She wanted the picture to send to her son. "Of course!" I told her and even took some pictures of her and the rest of her family. It was a nice encounter, a simple exchange that made an already bright day even brighter.

Traveling by motorcycle allows me to return to the basics, to appreciate the more simple things around me.

Back to the Islands

Aside from killer truck drivers, the only other gauntlet lying in my path towards paradise were the seemingly endless stoplights of Ft. Myers. I can only say that I hope that city gets a quantity discount from stoplight manufacturers, they definitely deserve one.

In the several thousand miles that Iíve traveled around Florida on my bike, Iíve paid the same tolls as the largest of SUVs. Paying a toll, on a motorcycle is a whole new tale in acrobatics and timing but that is for a different story. The toll booth on the causeway bridge that connects Sanibel Island to the mainland, however, held a pleasant surprise - reduced tolls for motorcycles. Between that and a very patient and pleasant toll booth attendant, the discounted toll was just another simple day brightener.

Arriving on Sanibel Island is like arriving in a different world. The superheated blacktop of the Ft. Myers roads fades into the lush tree and vegetation lined, slow moving traffic roads of a quiet little island.

Sanibel doesnít have the down-home friendliness of Cedar Key. But that is not its role. Many people, often myself included, come here to escape. They escape northern winters, pressure and/or drudgery in the real world, they escape the same-old, same-old routine that happens in life.

There is no flashy nightlife, there are no fast food restaurants and there never will be. Except for a long-time Dairy Queen, Sanibel has passed an ordinance to prevent them from being built here. There is not even a stoplight.

Sanibel is where you go to actually feel your blood pressure drop. It is a place to go to re-acquaint yourself with the simple and basic pleasures of life, to allow yourself the luxury of appreciating a day coming to an end, to greeting the coming nightfall.

For more than a decade now, Sanibel Island has been deeply intertwined in my life. It was on Sanibel that I first came to realize that I could free myself from the 105 hour weeks in corporate hell. On that same trip, in February of 1993, I also realized that I could free myself from the dark grip of Minnesota winters.

A few years later, it was on Sanibel Island that I absolutely knew how much I loved the woman who would eventually become my wife.

It was on Sanibel Island that I mourned and recovered from a significant personal loss.

On many trips south on our sailboat, the island was a marker, a milestone on our slow passage.

Sanibel Island holds a very special place in my heart.

Virtually every time that I am able to go back to the island, I return to the same little motel on the beach. It is not owned by a faceless corporate monstrosity, it is quiet and you pretty much need a map to find it. My cell phone doesnít work well here, which is another perk. There are no amusement parks, no fast food-joints and no tourist traps within walking distance of this little slice of heaven. The beach, however, is literally just outside the door.

For me, there is no finer place, no majestic mid-town Manhattan hotel that can compete with the little Tropical Winds Motel on Sanibel Island.

The beach that lies just outside my door seems to present the world to me.

In addition to the billions of shells, the occasional piece of flotsam turns up, each holding a story that I will never know. Looking out over this incredible beach across the Gulf of Mexico makes me want to be there - to go out there to discover. Watching a sailboat drift by in the distance makes me wonder what it is like on board, what are the people doing and thinking about? Is the passing little island a milestone for them as well?

For me, however, Sanibel will remain a retreat. Seven figure home prices are far beyond the reach of small town photojournalists. I am certain that if I walked into any real estate office on the island with a half million dollars in a briefcase, few agents would even bat an eye. There is little to be had for that paltry sum.

Among the reasons for that is Sanibel Island is one of the few places left on the coast that is not lined with high rise hotels and condominiums. Three floors seem to be the maximum, and even those are tucked into the trees off the beach.

The beach is open, there are no fences, and you can walk from one end of the island to the other.

Heading Home

Ominous dark clouds threatened to change the nature of my ride home. On my way out, I stopped at one of the small supermarkets on the island to buy one of my wifeís favorite treats - an elephant ear. I am certain that the two of us have never visited the island without having elephant ears from Jerryís Supermarket.

In the storeís nearly empty, off-season parking lot, a tourist walked up to tell me about a ride he took on a rented motorcycle the day before. He told me that he lived in The City - for him, the meaning was clear and there was no need to add the words "New" and "York" to his description. He said that after a few friends had been killed on motorcycles, he decided to give it up. He thought it was so great being able to ride on the empty Florida highways.

Empty Florida highways? Like entering a new world by crossing a bridge, like seeing it getting dark versus watching the light show of a day coming to a close, like escaping, even for a short while, to a little sliver of land in the Gulf of Mexico - it is all a matter of perspective.

Fortunately, in Florida anyway, with the right perspective you can usually find what you are looking for.

Mitch Traphagen Photos

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