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An island of respite

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image Mitch Traphagen photo

An Observer News Florida feature. Photo gallery inside


Although I don’t know from experience, one of the big advantages to wealth must be the ability to escape the teeming hordes, the unwashed masses from which I myself hail, those crowding the Five Guys, amusement parks, and Times Squares of the world in the hopes of finding a moment’s respite from an otherwise seemingly drab existence of worrying about making the mortgage payment and saving for the kids’ college education. 

There is a place in Florida, a wrinkle, perhaps, in the growing stratification of our society, where you can find the true respite afforded to the wealthy while making only a relatively small ding to the college fund.

It is safe to say that if you are reading this newspaper, you can’t afford to live on Sanibel Island. It is an expensive place to live where a small cottage costs hundreds of thousands and the prices quickly ramp up to a beachfront estate for $8.9 million. It is an enclave for the one-percent, a respite from the hordes and masses and, through some twist of fate, it still has a welcome sign figuratively hanging out front. While not inexpensive, it is a place to escape the world for a while, with the handful of extra dollars required easily justified in the first few moments of realization that, for all intents and purposes and with a little planning, you can virtually have the island to yourself. Sanibel Island is Florida’s paradise, somehow remaining hidden from those who choose to accept snuggling up next to sunburned, tanning-oil-smeared tourists on the big beaches.

There is no stoplight on the island. With the exception of a long-standing Dairy Queen and a Subway hidden in a convenience store, you won’t find signs for fast food restaurants clamoring for your attention on Periwinkle Way, the island’s two-lane main street. On a day in September, before the circus of snowbirds come back to Florida (and generally even after), it is an experience in utter peace, tranquility and solitude. The woman at a souvenir shop smiles warmly and greets you, the cashier in the liquor store shares a joke and laughs at your offering in return, and the employees of Jerry’s Supermarket seemed unperturbed, downright pleasant even, when you lock up the self-service check-out lane by combining multiple varieties of multiple-priced delicious baked goods into a single box.

Down past Periwinkle Way, a few miles down Sanibel-Captiva Road, lay a throwback to a more simple time. There are numerous such places on the island, with wonderful names like the Kona Kai, the Anchor Inn, and so on. The Tropical Winds Motel, however, is special. Located on the beach, the soft white sand ends only at the doorstep of the small, screened lanais outside of each of the handful of rooms in the 1950s style building. For me it is special as one of the first places my wife and I ever slept under the Florida sky. Today, the rates are higher than they were 17 years ago, but the charm of the place remains and is well worth the increased price of admission. It is a rare place in the ever-changing Florida landscape that has stood the test of time and has remained standing. Indeed, in a life sorely lacking in guarantees, it is a place to go where peace, indescribable beauty and tranquility are guaranteed. Besides, the motel simply isn’t big enough to accommodate a horde or even a single teeming mass.

The blazing sunset sputtered out behind a low-lying bank of clouds, but the magic of the nightly island show was still omnipresent. The water, kicked into whitecaps from a strong west wind, changed from blue-green to a deep aqua, a color that my mind could almost feel, but could not articulate. Only a handful of people were on the beach, few enough to feel as though the expansive beach was ours, the trails from the Tropical Winds still visible in the diminishing light. There is no neon, no lights painting the sky — both are as unthinkable as a velvet Elvis in the Louvre.

As darkness settles in on the beach and the island, it is possible to get a true sense of scope in the universe. With the water of the Gulf of Mexico cascading from infinite ocean waves in the darkness, the lack of lighting, mandated by law to avoid confusing nesting sea turtles, opens the sky for an incredible show of stars that light the way along the short trail back to the darkened motel. When looking up at the sky and hearing the slap of the waves, it is possible to be aware of your true size in the immensity of the universe that is unveiled before you. Yes, I may be small but so, too, are my problems. My joy, however, is as boundless as the sky above and the sea crashing beside me.

She must indeed sell seashells. For as long as I’ve been coming to the island, the She Sells Sea Shells store has remained a comforting landmark located just past the toll bridge to the island. I miss the little take-out place, Any Fish You Wish, now forgotten in a stream of new restaurants and shops that characterize the places where tourists and climatic refugees congregate in the Sunshine State. But the turnover on Sanibel is much lower than in most places. She Sells Sea Shells is proof of that, along with Jerry’s Supermarket and the souvenir shop that is an unnecessary but compulsory stop whenever we are fortunate enough to visit the island. It feels good seeing familiar things, and despite that the employees don’t know us, it is much like visiting an old friend.

It was with old friends that we enjoyed a quiet Saturday night on Florida’s hidden paradise. Gathered on a wicker sofa and chairs in our two-bedroom motel room decorated with tropical accents, our dreams were articulated, our laughter sustained long into the night. Outside the infinite waves crashed onto the otherwise quiet beach, the stars of an immense universe twinkled brightly above. We may be small, we may not be wealthy, but for that night, we were at home in a place we could never afford to live. The respite was ours and it felt good.

092012 Sanibel Island - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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