About three-quarters of the way down Rose Garden Road in Cape Coral, there’s a small, usually empty, parking lot on the left with a sign that reads: “Glover Bight Trail“. Tea “path” is actually one of Cape Coral’s newest boardwalks. At 1500 feet, it meanders through saltwater wetlands and exposed salt marshes to an observation deck overlooking Glover Bight. The bay itself is a small bay and anchorage at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River.It is also one of the few remaining ecosystems that support the smalltooth sawfish, an endangered species listed as endangered since 2003.
Glover Bight’s boardwalk begins at the immediate edge of the parking lot, marked by the only opening offered by closely knit mangroves. Leaving my lonely car behind, I entered the green corridor of trees. The temple of nature is under a canopy of leaves. Sun and shadows bounced and crawled against each other, across my skin, as living greenery brushed against the mid-spring breeze. Brilliant white sunlight made its way through the huddled and bunched branches, falling in mosaic patterns over everything in sight.
Walking the boardwalk in Southwest Florida is a pleasant, if predictable, experience. Having walked the full length of dozens of protected wetland boardwalks, I usually know what to expect as I enter. Always the same non-slip gray material underfoot. Many trees. Some flying insects. Invisible cobwebs wrapping your face. I wonder where the hell the spider ended up. Noxious-smelling sludge in the dry season. Crocodile water in the wet season. Mysterious noises in the thicket and the improbable snapping of branches in all directions. What makes those noises? And, most importantly, not one other person… even when the weather is 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 difficult it is to get a government, even a city government, to do something for the good of nature or the enjoyment of conservationists. I think of the emotionally bureaucratic systems that we have voluntarily set in motion. Then I look at the miles of little-known but immaculately maintained nature-based boardwalks that criss-cross this part of our state, labyrinths of mindfulness, reminders of how much we’ve lost, and inspirations of how important it is to save what we’ve lost. left.
All of these thoughts leave me wondering how these boardwalks were built in the first place. I am not naive… I realize that most parks and conservation areas are token PR titles that local governments force money-hungry developers to pay before they are allowed to rape and loot parcels much greatest of natural beauty. But who were they built for? Who uses these places?
I mean, I have never I have been a great admirer of other human beings, so it makes complete sense for me to frequent these sanctuaries of people without people. But where is everyone else? Am I the only visitor?
I often see evidence that others have walked before me. I read their travels in the empty beer cans, candy wrappers, and scattered pieces of clothing they’ve left behind. Why do I find loose shoes and pairs of pants in the desert?
I am not always completely alone. From time to time I see other people out there. The divorced father with his son for the weekend. The determined dog walker. The middle-aged woman enjoying the great outdoors with her well-worn cane. All silent, insisting on the steps and adhering to their self-imposed vows of silence. We pass each other, silent and suspicious, barely making eye contact… jolted back into surface awareness until the wayward footsteps fade and our deep communion with nature draws us back under its spell.
We hit the boardwalks and nature trails to be alone, away from other people. Some of us are responding to a primal call to the little bits of landscape that money and pollution have yet to change or ruin. 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 have been looking for the words to fill this unwritten idea of a personal essay.
Walking into the mangroves instantly takes me elsewhere. Odors change, from car exhaust and hot pavement to oxygen and compost released by plants. Memories tied to my sense of smell sizzle electromagnetically on their way into visual existence. Scenes from my adventurous childhood are organically mounted in my thoughts.
The after school hours and weekends gave me ample time to explore all the nooks and crannies of my hometown. I would go out on foot and follow the paths and paths that were revealed to me.
In the future, there is a stark contrast between my childhood and adult perceptions of the places I found. Knee deep in creek mud… septic runoff. On a wide and clear path through the forest…high-voltage power line right-of-way increases my chance of childhood cancer. Climb fences and investigate disused factory buildings… illegal trespassing. Digging an intriguing depression in a small patch of forest, possibly a Native American campfire…shuddering to see the old man’s face as he angrily told us that we were digging up a grave containing the charred remains of several of his former dogs.
As I turn the corner, passing out somewhere between the narcotic memories and the ubiquitous now, an awakening comes. I stop and stand still…suddenly realizing I can’t 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 section of the promenade, the only section with high walls. I slow down and look around me. Why have they built boardwalk sides here but nowhere else? Standing on tiptoe, and looking into an area most people would never look at, I see a pile of trash. Who would take all this garbage to a nature trail to dump it?
Closer investigation reveals that the trash pile is an overturned shoebox containing handfuls of self-addressed, postage-paid envelopes, hand-drawn drawings, and a few small trinkets. Who uses these places?
Curiosity piqued, I moved forward slowly. Rounding another bend I come to an observation tower and a set of steps that I assume are for kayak hauling. I begin my ascent of the tower, reading the myriad of vulgar graffiti and declarations of love that others have carved into the railings and floors. Torn letters and envelopes littered the surrounding dark swamp, written in the same hand as the ones in the shoebox. A heartbroken teenager mourns the end of a love affair between the trees and the sky?
The top of the observation tower rests on the mangrove canopy. A surface of leaves extends in all directions. The only significant mark of human existence is the massive fortress of Tarpon Point Marina skyscrapers currently under construction to the southwest.
Fiddler crabs click and return to their holes as I continue the rest of my short journey to the end of the boardwalk. Mission accomplished, I’m on the terrace overlooking Glovers Bight. A pair of covered benches adorn the wooden platform. A set of stairs leads down to 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 ride hasn’t been about the bay for me. It has been a meditation on the identity of my fellow walkers, a question about 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?
When I go back the way I came, I realize I can’t let the shoebox and letters slowly die in the mud. They were revealed to me as evidence, a story that needed to be told, an unmasking of my unseen companions, the walkers, and their hidden intentions.
The well hidden correspondence cache is almost inaccessible. I try to use sticks and other rudimentary tools to make it easier to harvest… all to no avail. It becomes apparent that I will have to leave the safety of the boardwalk in an effort to consume his recovery… towards the alligator power plant. Why have they built boardwalk sides here but nowhere else? I shudder at what might be living beneath the same stretch of catwalk I’m standing on, but I can’t let my petty fears keep the truth from being revealed. Shivering from the disgusting teeth I imagine embedded in the flesh of my leg, I throw myself over the railing, jump over the edge, and land on the surface of the swamp with a soft thud.
I pick up the papers in a blur of blinding adrenaline and head back upstairs to the dry sanctuary, handfuls of sodden parchment in hand. Wouldn’t it be awkward if the original owner of these cards showed up now? I make my way back to the trailhead at a brisk pace, hop into the only car in the parking lot, lock the doors, and head home.
Once home, I fan the damp paper and smeared ink on 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 postage stamp on each. Going into forensic detective mode, I began to sift through the records, looking for her plot, looking for the revelation she was sure to receive.
Slowly, a gritty, harrowing drama of family woes, legal troubles, and love gone awry came into focus. Letters postmarked six years ago, but she wanted to go to the swamp in the last two days. Because right now? The recent journey these letters had taken raised more questions than their written content revealed.
What I learned?
Who uses these places? People really like the rest of us. People who need to think of new things and forget some of the old. Why do they come? For the same vague reasons we all have. What does this place mean to them? What does it mean to me? What does it mean to you? I guess our personal meanings are similar to snowflakes…all more or less the same, but no two are exactly identical.
I gathered the letters, the paper remnants of a human life, and gave them all a suitable arrangement. My mind throbbed, freshly imprinted with old memories that someone else was actively trying to erase. I should have let my traveling companion’s secrets rot unperturbed in his shallow watery grave. I can’t think of a more appropriate setting… a graveyard of memories right in the middle of where we’re going to be alone. What secrets have I let the boardwalk keep?
Every childhood and town has these kind of lonely and empty places. Abandoned houses. Paths in the forest. Empty baseball field corners. Walkways through the desert. Places without cost of admission and without supervision. Places without entertainment and without other people. Places that do not judge. Places that accept and forgive.
It’s strange how these forgotten places are the ones we remember the most.