Florida simply has some of the most gorgeous state parks in the nation. By my count I've been to 12 of them, a mere sampling of the great variety the state offers. There are so many state parks in Florida that instead of calling it The Sunshine State, it really should be called The State Park State. There's such an abundance of natural beauty in Florida it seems that every few feet they've cordoned it off, let nature grow (mostly) unchecked, put up a sign and declared it protected public property. Some of the most spectacular beach scenery in the state is available to anyone and everyone for just a few bucks entrance fee. This very fact ticks off real-estate developers badly and causes them to develop stress rashes and require potent anti-anxiety medication. State parks are not relaxing for them. Too much unspoiled beauty nags at them and keeps them awake at night. They want to view it through the insulated bay window of a high-priced condo, not alongside your everyday tax payer who comes to enjoy the land. Developers don’t go to state parks. They go to meetings about how to build around state parks.
On Columbus Day I found myself joyfully jobless and relaxed on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I happily ventured into yet another of Florida's lovely parks, this time with John, who loves state parks as much as I do. John is full-blooded Native American and was raised on a reservation in the Southwest. I am a mish-mosh of native and white and European blood and was raised in England. We have a very different backgrounds and yet a strikingly similar worldview. As we drove into Grayton Beach, a wonderful park ten miles or so east of Destin, (for the bargain price of four bucks!) I wondered briefly if it bothered him on any level to have to pay, even that small sum, to gain entrance what was once was Indian land and was later taken over by the Europeans (aka early American developers). I decided against asking his feelings on this subject, most especially because, after all, it was Columbus Day and it seemed poor timing to be querying any American Indian about being required to pay up to access property on our national holiday celebrating the granddaddy of all land grabs. Looking over at him in his tropical t-shirt and Panama Jack hat, he seemed like he didn't have a care in the world. Florida is good for that kind of peace of mind, I've found, so I didn't bring up the heavy bits of America’s history.
Grayton Beach is on the Florida panhandle. It's a compact and peaceful park with wild dunes, scrub oaks, a very picturesque hiking trail and a beautiful white sand beach out of the view of cars and condominiums. There is a bounty of migrating butterflies in October and seeing them on the beach is sweet enjoyment. Walking through the sand towards the ocean, I was delighted to note how clear the water was. This part of the panhandle is known as The Emerald Coast and for good reason. Here the Gulf of Mexico literally glows green in the sun and is mixed with shades of deep blue and turquoise. It's a visual and visceral treat to walk through the sugar white sand into the green sea.
The water was very calm and the waves low. We could see fish darting around in the shallows. We wondered out loud what kind they were. John waded out and found a very large crab burrowing into the sand. We watched it through the waves. He found another crab, a small hermit crab and picked it up. We looked it over as it stared back at us from inside its shell. John placed it gently back in the water. This relaxing walk was a great way to Zen out on a warm afternoon, to play like children, being interested in everything around us. This is why I think so many people like being at the beach. Besides the agreeable weather and vistas, the beach brings us back to childhood, to the essential nature of ourselves. It invites us to play, to slow down and notice things. No one finds fault with you if you are lazy, silly or absorbed in play at the beach.
As I walked and splashed around in water just over my knees, I thought life just couldn't get any better than this. I was totally fixated on the underwater world I could view from my stand-up perspective. My complete focus was on some black and white fish zipping about near my toes. I was one with them and the world was perfect calm. Then…it happened. In my peripheral vision, I saw a fin break the water about 10 feet to my left. In life and Steven Spielberg movies this means only one thing. My complete attention shifted in a nanosecond and my head whipped around like a tether ball hit by a gorilla. Holy crap! A shark! There it was in the same world as me, in the same water as me: a five-foot long bull shark. Swimming in water about three feet deep. I backed up and out of the waves (I don't remember it, but before I knew it I was on the beach).
"John!!!!" I hissed – talking in a low voice as if the shark might hear me and pop out of the water and chew me like a piece of gum before I could reveal its location. His eyes followed my finger as I silently pointed at the large shadow cruising the shallows.
"Wow. What do you think it is?" he asked cautiously.
"It's a developer," I whispered. Then, sailing straight into denial, I added, "Or maybe a dolphin."
He gave me a flat look. "That's not a dolphin," he said, "I may be from the desert but I know that's not a dolphin."
“Okay!" I said, giving up on the denial because, after all, it was a shark and as I remember denial is what got the mayor into so much trouble in "Jaws".
"Let’s wait for its fin to come up above the water, it probably will in a minute," I said. We followed as it swam parallel to the shore for about 25 feet before starting to turn slowly toward deeper water. John studied the shark through his binoculars even though it was fairly close to the beach. I was completely riveted. So riveted I totally forgot that I had a camera hanging off my wrist, causing me later to think if it had been Bigfoot or a UFO or Tom Cruise having sex with an emu, I'd have been an utterly useless witness. I would have had to, with head hanging, explain to Geraldo Rivera and the world why I - the chosen witness - had not taken a picture of the phenomena and finally proved the fantastical real. No Kodak moment for your state park gal.
As we watched it move along the shoreline, I was struck by two things: First, I finally realized where film composer John Williams got the idea for that famous theme music now such a part of our pop-culture consciousness. Dun dun dun DUN. That's the exact sound your heart makes when you see an apex predator and you're on the wrong end of the food chain. The blood speeds through your veins causing a pulsing vibration in your head, two seconds before you scream SHAAAAAAAAAARK and fall over dead. One minute on this beautiful beach my pulse was at coma level. The next minute I saw the fin and - dun dun dun DUN- blood was stampeding through my veins.
The second thing I noted: this fish was swimming slow and easy. It was chillingly casual, not noticing or caring that it was it was causing a nervous thrill in its viewers. We were deeply impressed by its cool.
"He obviously doesn't scare himself " I said somewhat stupidly to John, as we watched the creature move casually on its way, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson at a movie premiere, gliding through the glassy water, slow and steady, sensing its place on the ocean's A-list. As the shark turned out towards deeper water, its fin broke the water again. There it was: the visual that spawned a million nightmares.
We noticed some families with children playing in the waves a little further down the beach so we went to warn them to keep a sharp eye out. They were very friendly and surprisingly calm about our news (the beach really IS relaxing, I'm thinking at that point). Everyone thanked us with big smiles and removed their relatives from the water. John and I returned to our beach walk. After a few minutes we turned around to see if any of them had disregarded the warnings and dared ventured back into the ocean. The beach was totally empty. Not only had they all gotten out of the water, they had left completely. Split. It was like they were never there at all.
I nodded. "Like it was land shark or something." I said, referencing the old SNL skits.
I didn't say anything else about their speed exit, but I didn't go in the water any further than ankle-deep for the rest of our jaunt.
"Well," I teased John later, knowing he is always a bit nervous when we go swimming in the ocean, like everyone else who has been to the movies since 1974, "You took that shark sighting very well indeed."
"It was exciting because were on land" he said simply, "If we'd been in the water, I would have been worried."
So in conclusion I offer to you that Florida, with its many state parks, is a nature lovers paradise. Go. Support them and enjoy them. I really do like to view the wild things, as long as I see them before they see me.