We are driving through the ample forests of Gulf County, Florida, toward the beach. There are parts of this drive so serene and tree-laden that it will make you smile for no apparent reason.
The longleaf pines are still recovering from Hurricane Michael. Many are bent at diagonal angles like they’re ready for a nap.
You should have seen this place a few years ago. It was buried in a buffet of debris. They’ve made a lot of progress.
There was a time when all I did was drive. I lived on the road. Slept on the road. Ate on the road. It was the life of a writer. And I loved it because I’d always wanted to try the writer’s life on for size.
I had already lived the life of a sheet-rocker, a bar musician, a busboy, a telemarketer, an Elvis impersonating termite exterminator, etc. Being a real journalist was the stuff of dreams.
My first boyhood aspirations were to be a newspaperman, roaming the landscape with a steno pad, looking for stories and “hot leads.”
When my mother gave me my first typewriter, the die was cast. I started walking around wearing my father’s crumpled fedora with a white card in the band that read “PRESS.”
“Got any hot leads?” I would ask elderly Mrs. Simpson, who was watering her rose garden.
“I used to,” she’d say. “But after I started having kids, men quit noticing them.”
And as it turned out, being a writer on the road was great. I drifted like a feather caught in the gusts of I-65 traffic. Never touching the ground. Always floating from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee to Wherever. Searching for hot leads.
You learn to live out of bags with wheels on them. You learn to hate airports. You do your laundry in hotel sinks and iron your pants by placing them beneath a hotel mattress. You live on food that comes from hotel kitchens which tastes like extra-firm hair gel.
You get pretty good at taking naps in the passenger seat while your wife drives the rental car to some podunk town where you’re supposed to give a speech for the Rotary Club. Or maybe it’s the Moose Lodge. Or the VFW. You can’t quite remember.
Maybe you’ve been roped into calling bingo numbers at the Sleepy Senile Retirement Facility. You’re good at calling bingo.
Either way, the pandemic ended all that. The old life is over now. The travel. The hotel gruel. The ceaseless nights of parties laced with loud music and casual bingo.
At first this new normal didn’t settle with me. It was like I’d lost my job. Which, of course, I had. I’d been fired. I was grounded. Wingless. Dead in the pond. Sorry, Charlie. No more hot leads.
Then life got a little sadder because over the following months I learned how nonessential my occupation truly was. Which turned out to be a good thing.
Every man learns he’s replaceable sooner or later. And it’s a valuable lesson. You can get so involved with your own tiny world that you start to think YOUR world is the most important. It’s not.
In your private delusional universe you’re the leading actor in your own made-for-TV drama. But it’s all a sham. In life’s proverbial made-for-TV drama you are in fact the guy who cleans the movie-set porta pots for Henry Winkler.
Once you learn how nonessential you really are, it’s actually a lot of fun. You feel less pressure. You realize that the Moose Lodge will survive without you. The elderly people at Bedpan Alley Retirement Villas can do bingo without you. Everything will be okay.
So something shifted inside me. Our lives took on a different pace. And after I pouted about it for months and months (and months) and months, I finally settled into its sluggish rhythms.
The first thing that happened was my wife and I quit watching so much TV, we started reading more, and exercising. We even started eating more vegetables, too. Which means I’m now consuming lots of fiber. Which has always been my mother’s highest aspiration for me.
When I was a boy, my mother used to have a morbid fascination with whether I was “going” regularly. She would often ask personal digestive questions in front of my friends. “How is your tummy?” she’d ask. “Do you need to ‘go-go?’” If my mother would have been born a superhero, she would have been the vigilante who crusades against constipation.
What I’m getting at here is that I slowed down when the pandemic hit. I finally realized how ragged I’d been running myself. I had no idea how hard I’d been going. How much I’d been traveling. How little sleep I’d been getting.
Why is it that we’re the last people to see what we’re doing to ourselves?
Ah, but it feels so nice to be in the warm lap of Gulf County once again. Traveling. Roaming like we used to. Just for leisure.
I see the long patches of desolate highway and the tilted hurricane pines. I can’t get enough of these palmettos, the large-leaf grass, prairie foxgloves, lemon beebalms, and the goldenrod.
I’ve changed. I’m not the same guy I was last year. Something inside me is different. Something in my head has been altered. Maybe I’m better for it. I wasn’t sure I’d make it when this pandemic started. Now I see how silly that was. I’m making it. I can still call a mean bingo game. I’m still looking for hot leads.
And you wouldn’t believe how much fiber I’m eating.