About three quarters of the way down Rose Garden Road in Cape Coral there's a small, usually empty, parking lot off to the left with a sign reading, "Glover Bight Trail". The "trail" is actually one of Cape Coral's newer boardwalks. At 1500 feet, it meanders through saltwater wetlands and exposed mudflats towards an observation deck with views of Glover Bight. The bight, itself, is a small bay and anchorage at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. It's also one of the few remaining ecosystems supporting smalltooth sawfish, a dwindling species listed as endangered since 2003.
The Glover Bight boardwalk begins at the immediate edge of the parking lot, marked by the only opening the tightly-knit mangroves afford. Leaving my lonesome car behind, I entered the verdant hallway of trees. Nature's temple is found beneath a canopy of leaves. Sun and shadows bounced and crawled against each other, across my skin, as living vegetation rubbed shoulders with the mid-spring breeze. Brilliant white sunlight found its way through crowded, clustered branches, falling in mosaic patterns across everything in sight.
Southwest Florida boardwalk-walking is a pleasant, though predictable, experience. Having journeyed the complete lengths of dozens of protected wetland boardwalks, I usually know what to expect going in. Always the same, gray, slip-free material underfoot. Lots of trees. A few flying insects. Invisible spider webs wrapping around your face. I wonder where the hell the spider ended up. Noxious-scented mud in the dry season. Alligator water in the wet season. Mystery noises in the thicket and the unlikely snapping of twigs in all directions. What makes those noises? And, most importantly, no other people … even when the weather's perfect.
This lack of pedestrians makes the whole boardwalk concept enigmatic to me. I think of modern commercial and residential development. I think of suburban sprawl. I think about how hard it is to get a government, even city government, to do anything for the good of nature or the enjoyment of conservationists. I think of the emotionless bureaucratic systems we've willingly put into place. Then I look at the miles of little-known but immaculately maintained nature-based boardwalks crisscrossing this part of our state, labyrinths of mindfulness, reminders of how much we've already lost and inspirations of how important it is to save what we've got left.
All these thoughts leave me wondering how any of these boardwalks ever got built in the first place. I'm not naïve … I realize most parks and conservation areas are the token public-relation tithes local governments force money-hungry developers to pay before they're allowed to rape and pillage much larger parcels of natural beauty. But, who are they were built for. Who uses these places?
I mean, I've never been a big fan of other human beings, so it's completely logical for me to frequent these shrines of people-less-ness. But where is everyone else? Am I the only visitor?
I often see evidence of others having walked before me. I read their journeys in the empty beer cans, candy bar wrappers and scattered pieces of clothing they've left behind. Why do I find single shoes and pairs of pants in the wilderness?
I'm not always completely alone. I do occasionally see other people out there. The divorced dad with his weekend child. The determined dog-walker. The outdoorsy middle-aged woman with her well-worn walking stick. All taking mute, insistent steps and adhering to their self-imposed vows of silence. We cross paths, hushed and suspicious, barely making eye contact … shaken back to surface consciousness until the rogue footsteps fade and our deep communion with nature pulls us back beneath its spell.
We come to the boardwalks and nature trails to be alone, away from other people. Some of us are answering a primal call towards the small pieces of landscape that money and pollution have not changed or ruined yet. Some of us need a place away from parents, spouses and other authority figures. Some of us need a safe place to exercise. Some of us are looking for a place to drink underage beers and smoke illicit substances. Some of us need a quiet place to think or heal. Today, I've come looking for the words to fill this unwritten idea of a personal essay.
Walking into the mangroves instantly takes me elsewhere. The scents change, from car exhaust and hot pavement to plant-released oxygen and compost. Memories tied to my sense of smell electromagnetically crackle their way into visual existence. Scenes from my adventurous childhood organically montage across my thoughts.
After-school hours and weekends allowed me ample time to explore all the nooks and crannies of my hometown. I'd set off on foot and follow whatever trails and paths revealed themselves to me.
Back in the future, a sharp contrast exists between my childhood and adult perceptions of the places I found. Knee deep in creek mud … septic runoff . On a wide, clear path through the woods … high tension power line right-of-way increasing my odds of childhood cancer. Climbing fences and investigating unused factory buildings … unlawful trespassing. Excavating an intriguing depression in a small patch of forest, possibly a Native American firepit … shuddering at the look on the old man's face when he angrily told us we were digging up a grave containing the charred remains of several of his previous pet dogs .
As I turn the corner, swooning somewhere between narcotic memories and the omnipresent-now, an awakening comes to me. I stop and stand still … all at once realizing I can not hear the sound of a single gas engine. Nothing but gentle breezes, rustling leaves, mating birds and snapping twigs. The audible pulse of nature.
I cross a raised area in the boardwalk, the only stretch with high sides. I slow down and look around. Why have they built sides onto the boardwalk here, but nowhere else? Up on my tiptoes, and peering down into an area most people would never look, I see a pile of trash. Who would cart all this trash out onto a nature trail to dump it?
Closer investigation reveals the pile of trash as an upended shoebox containing handfuls of addressed and stamped envelopes, hand drawn pictures and a few small trinkets. Who uses these places?
Curiosity piqued, I press slowly onward. Around another bend I reach an observation tower and a set of steps I assume are for kayak portaging. I begin my ascent of the tower, reading the myriad vulgar graffiti and declarations of love others have etched into the railings and floors. Torn letters and envelopes litter the surrounding dark marsh, written in the same hand as those in the shoebox. A brokenhearted adolescent mourns the end of a puppy-love relationship amidst the trees and sky?
The top of the observation tower rests above the mangrove canopy. A surface of leaves stretches out in every direction. The only significant mark of human existence is the hulking fortress of the Tarpon Point Marina high-rises currently under construction to the southwest.
Fiddler crabs click and dart back into their holes as I continue the remainder of my short journey to the end of the boardwalk. Mission accomplished, I stand on the deck overlooking Glovers Bight. A couple covered benches grace the wooden platform. A set of stairs descends into the water. And a sign adorning one of the wooden posts asks visitors to call if they see any smalltooth sawfish while they're here.
But this walk has not been about the bight for me. It's been a meditation on the identity of my fellow boardwalk-walkers, a question on the soul and purpose of sacred places and the people who visit them. Who are they? Why do they come? What does this place mean to them?
As I turn back the way I came, I realize I can not just allow the shoebox and letters to die their slow death in the mud. They revealed themselves to me as evidence, a story needing to be told, an unmasking of my invisible companion boardwalkers and their unseen intentions.
The well-hidden cache of correspondence proves nearly inaccessible. I try to utilize sticks and other crude tools to facilitate their collection … all to no avail. It becomes apparent I will need to leave the safety of the boardwalk in an effort to consummate their retrieval … down into gator central. Why have they built sides onto the boardwalk here, but nowhere else? I shudder at what might be living beneath the very stretch of boardwalk I'm standing on, but can not allow my petty fears to stop truth from being revealed. Trembling at the foul set of teeth I envision clamped onto the flesh of my leg, I pull myself over the railing, hop off of the edge and land on the surface of the marsh with a dull, squishy thud.
I whisk up the papers in a blur of blinding adrenaline and scramble back up to dry sanctuary, fistfuls of soggy parchment in my hand. Would not it be awkward if the original owner of these letters showed up now? I head back to the trailhead at a quick clip, jump into the only car in the parking lot, lock the doors and head for home.
Once home, I fan the moist paper and smudged ink out across a wide table. Pages on top of envelopes, on top of drawings, on top of more envelopes. All dated and signed, with full names, addresses, and a postmarked stamp on every single one. Putting myself into forensic detective mode, I began analyzing the records, searching for their plot line, looking for the revelation I was surely meant to receive.
Slowly, a gritty and harrowing drama of family problems, legal troubles and love gone wrong came into focus. Letters postmarked six years ago, but wished away into the marsh within the past two days. Why now? The recent journey these letters had taken opened more questions than their written contents revealed.
What did I learn?
Who uses these places? People a lot like the rest of us. People who need to think about new things and forget some of the old. Why do they come? For the same vague reasons we all do. What does this place mean to them? What does it mean to me? What does it mean to you? I suppose our personal meanings are similar as snowflakes … all pretty much the same, but no two exactly identical.
I gathered up the letters, paper debris of a human life, and gave it all a proper disposal. My mind throbbed, freshly imprinted with old memories someone else was actively attempting to erase. I should have let my fellow traveler's secrets decompose undisturbed in their shallow watery grave. I can not think of a more fitting setting … a memory cemetery right in the middle of the place we go to be alone. What secrets have I let the boardwalk keep ?
Every childhood and town has these kinds of lonely, empty places. Abandoned houses. Paths in the woods. Corners of empty baseball fields. Boardwalks through the wilderness. Places with no admission fee and no supervision. Places with no entertainment and no other people. Places that do not judge. Places that accept and forgive.
Strange, how these forgotten places are the ones we remember most.