By Jim Ross
I am standing on the beach at North Captiva Island, Florida. It is 4:30 on a July afternoon and I’m gazing at the most beautiful natural sight I’ve ever seen. The sun shines onto the sea, making the Gulf of Mexico look like a giant sheet of wavy green velvet on which a million diamonds sparkle. Before me is a strip of white sand. Behind me is a dead tree, perched on the edge of a protected preserve overgrown with palms, sea oats and salty scrub.
Like most Florida residents, I grew up someplace else. I was raised and educated near Chicago and came to Florida during college for reporting internships at the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald. At age 21 I returned for a full-time job at the Times.
Florida is a top newspaper state, and I rode a tide of young journalism school graduates who stormed ashore to Do Great Things. The Herald was exposing Gary Hart. The Times was a writer’s paper that nurtured future Pulitzer winners. Florida was the place to be. Leaving home was tough, but I wanted to make a splash.
The years passed and most of my contemporaries left for bigger professional waters: Washington D.C., New York, the Midwest powers. The glory days faded. Florida newspapers still do excellent work but they struggle financially. My Times bureau closed in 2007 because of corporate cutbacks. I went to the Ocala Star-Banner.
Despite it all I remain in Florida. I am 46, and I have lived here more years (25) than anywhere else. Why? I have no extended family here. I don’t have Disney season passes. I can’t fish, can’t hunt, can barely swim. Man has yet to invent a sunscreen strong enough to protect my fair skin. The middle-management, parental “life” that I lead — editing copy, chauffeuring kids, mowing the lawn — could be lived anywhere. Show a video account of my average day to a stranger and he won’t know in which state the action is happening.
Defending Florida residency is no easier at the macro level. The land is famously crammed with condos, golf courses and strip malls, and populated with grifters, confidence men and rapacious developers. Hurricanes threaten and cockroaches terrorize. The writer Jeff Klinkenberg reminds us that in Manhattan we can get mugged, but only in Florida can we swim in a lake and get eaten alive by a dinosaur — an alligator.
My siblings ask why I don’t move back home to Illinois, which they never left, and no easy answer comes to me. Inertia, perhaps. Resistance to discarding adult comforts like church, doctors and schools. Reluctance to abandon a job that pays the bills. Are these reasons or default positions?
Then one Sunday I load my wife and three kids into the mini-van and drive four hours from Ocala to southwest Florida. We ferry across the choppy Gulf to North Captiva Island, which can’t be reached by car. The hot sand singes my feet and the salty sea breeze brushes my face. I squint west into the horizon, hoping a dolphin will leap from beneath those sparkling diamonds.
And I realize: I am a bit exposed, unmoored, unsettled about my place. But that has an unexpected positive side. It leaves me open to these unguarded moments, these rushes of awe and pride for my adopted state — and for myself. I left home, built a life and raised a family in this crazy, intoxicating, magnetic place. I didn’t stay on, or return to, familiar shore.
Not far from where I stand, spread on the beach like a tray of jewels, are countless seashells. They have exotic names like conch, whelk and heart cockle. They are pearl white, chocolate brown, coral green. Some are ridged, some fluted, some smooth to the touch. Step on one and you’ll be cut. Hold one in your hand and you’ll see a unique, dignified beauty.
Some shells will be gone with the next tide or the one after that. Others will remain ashore until who knows when. There’s no telling which fate awaits which shell. But the ones on higher ground, the ones least likely to drift back to sea, look perfectly placed. From a distance they are part of some random, motley design. Up close, they rest comfortably in the sand, as if they have somehow nestled into that one spot in the world where they were always meant to be.
Jim Ross is city editor and columnist at the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner and an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Florida. His journalism and essays have been published in the Star-Banner, the Gainesville Sun, the Tampa Bay Times, Clockhouse Review, the Little Patuxent Review blog and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. He also has an essay forthcoming in Chicken Scratch. He can be found @jimross96 and on Facebook.