From The Observer News (www.observernews.net)

Finding Florida
Finding Florida: The Paradise Down The Road
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
Nov 24, 2006, 23:08

On Sanibel Island, the nightly light show doesn’t end when the sun disappears beneath the sea. Pictured above, the last rays of day make for a spectacular transition to night. Mitch Traphagen Photo
SANIBEL ISLAND, Fla
– Years ago, in a different life, I worked on the 45th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis.  Every day I would make the long drive in horrendous traffic from my suburban apartment to the ever-growing nightmare that was downtown.

But in the summer and fall – before the horror of winter began – I would take the occasional Friday off from work.  Just as I did on any other day, I would get in my car and join the traffic heading downtown.  But instead of stopping, I would jump on a westbound freeway and head out of the city. 

I purposely chose to fight rush-hour traffic because I wanted to experience leaving the city while everyone else was driving in.  Occasionally, I could see the faces of the drivers as they made their way to work – unhappy, some almost twisted in agony.  I swear that some would actually mouth the words “Help me!” as they looked longingly in my outbound direction.


In those younger days, I could make it all the way to Miles City, Montana, before calling it a night.  By Saturday, I would see mountains – a dramatic change from the flat heartland I had left only 24 hours before.  The air was different – as was the sky – as were the people.  I felt great.  I felt alive.


On those trips I would always make it a point to send myself a postcard from wherever I ended up.  I would almost always write the same thing:  “Having a great time – wish I was here,” and then mail it to my office address.  A few days later, my secretary would drop it on my desk while visibly rolling her eyes.


I would then spend a good part of the morning staring at the card, seeing my own handwriting from just days ago and remembering what it was like to be in that place.

That memory was all I had to hold on to during the months when my office view revealed nothing but the dark and icy grip of winter. 

But then one February I was sent to a meeting at a company location in southern Georgia.  I asked our travel service to include Fort Myers in my return travel arrangements.  It was then I discovered Sanibel and it was then I discovered the feeling of being alive even in winter.


The seatback of a fish-shaped lounge chair frames a shot of the Tropical Winds Motel. A throwback to a different age, this beachfront motel provides a valuable commodity: Tranquility. Mitch Traphagen Photo
A short time later, I returned to the island on a refugee flight from Minneapolis.  On that trip, I discovered my own small piece of paradise – the Tropical Winds Motel.  Coming from a time in the previous century, in a world that has changed in unimaginable ways, that little motel on the beach has remained unchanged.  Over the years, I kept returning, but life has a way of going by quickly and three years had passed since my last visit.


Considering the hurricane of development (not to mention a real hurricane) that has swept over the Gulf coast of Florida, it was a pleasant surprise to find Sanibel Island remarkably intact.  McT’s Restaurant is still there, as is The Timbers, She Sells Sea Shells (say that five times fast) and Jerry’s supermarket.  Pulling off onto the quiet street for the Tropical Winds, I saw that here, too, paradise had survived – the beach, the gulf, the quaint little motel – as though out of a memory.


Coming here is a little bit like going to your parents’ home after a decade or so and finding your bedroom as you left it.  It’s a good feeling and it’s comforting.  Chaos may be swirling all around this little island – but not here.  Not now, anyway.  There still isn’t a stoplight and there still aren’t fast food restaurants on this island.  Jerry’s still has the best pecan elephant ears, and the parrots living in the courtyard are still crabby.


There is an interesting convergence of life on this island.  The very wealthy strive to fight the excesses of their success while pedaling bicycles along the quiet roads with the abandon of children.  The tourists from the more serious and colder states wander through the small shops and on the beach with wide eyes, secretly wishing this was their home.


Tropical Winds manager Faun Rogers starts to giggle as Minneapolis Star-Tribune photographer Tom Wallace takes her picture. Mitch Traphagen Photo
And everywhere the magic of this place comes to life.  In the shops, people are friendly and they speak to you as a person rather than just another annoying tourist.  When I pulled into the parking lot and stepped out of my car, a woman approached and said, “You must be Mitch.”  Faun Rogers, the co-manager of Tropical Winds, has the look and comfortable demeanor of someone who has spent a great deal of time on an island paradise. 


If anyone visits this little beachfront motel and longs for something more, perhaps a re-evaluation of priorities would be in order.  Beauty and tranquility are valuable commodities, after all. 


My room for the night was well suited to the incredible location.  A throwback to a simpler time, it was clean and cozy, and the refreshing salt air directly off the gulf filled the bedroom with a cool breeze.  Although available, there was no need for air conditioning.  The Gulf of Mexico took care of that just fine.


Like the fall colors in the mountains of Tennessee, sunset on Sanibel Island is a nightly art show of God’s incomparable talent.  There are no words or photographs to accurately convey what you see.  And from my motel room, I only had to step off the lanai and walk down a short sandy path for a front-row seat. 


The magic, however, doesn’t end when the sun finally stages a dramatic departure beneath the horizon of the sea.  While the sunset is almost a visual overload, the beach still holds a feast for your remaining senses.


There is something tranquil yet incredibly eerie about standing alone on a beach before a large body of water in the dark of night.  That feeling was intensified because there was no moon and also because of Sanibel’s prohibition against lights on the beach.  It took several minutes for my eyes to adjust, and even then, it was a world of muted contrast between the barely visible white sand, the white of the breaking waves near shore and the deep black of the gulf before me.  Above, millions of stars twinkled with their ancient light.


In front of me, there was nothing more than the soothing sound of wind and waves and a dark sea stretching for hundreds of miles.  “What’s out there?” I found myself wondering.  But I knew – I had been there before.  In years past I had stood on this beach and I had been out on the sea – both at night.  But in the dark, anything is possible, and all my senses were tuned for things that I could not see. 


I forced myself to walk on, closer to the dark water.  Minutes passed and thoughts of the unknown changed to a feeling of peace.  This sea is very large and I am very small.  Being alone on the beach brings that message home.  On a dark beach, there is almost nothing else but to look inward.


Sanibel Island’s nightly light show is provided free of charge by simply being on the beach at the right time. Mitch Traphagen Photo
Too soon it was time to leave the island.  Leaving from visits years ago while still a resident of Minnesota always became an exercise in lingering.  I would drive a bit and see a dead palm frond to pack in my suitcase – or perhaps a shell to put in my pocket.  I would delay reaching the bridge to the mainland for as long as possible. 


When I would arrive back home, I would hold those objects and still feel the energy and peace of Sanibel.  Though now I live just a hundred or so miles away, nothing for me has changed.  I drove again off the island with shells in my pocket and sand in my shoes.


On Monday morning, I went to the office to pick up my mail.  A postcard had arrived with the words “Having a great time!  Wish I was here!”  In my pocket was a small seashell rounded smooth by untold years of rolling waves.


I’ll hold on to those things until the time comes for me to return.  I will be back – back to the little motel on the beach, back to watch God’s hand bring a gentle end to the day, back to look inward while standing before the fathomless dark sea at night.


And it’s all much easier now.  After all, paradise is just down the road.






Click on one of the following for more sights and sound from Sanibel Island:

Broadband Gallery
Dialup Gallery



© Copyright 2006 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing