Do you have a place that you’ve visited that you go to in your mind during stressful or trying times? Perhaps it’s a mountain top perch giving way to a glorious snow-capped vista or a watercolor sunset along a white sand beach or maybe it’s even a place that harkens back to your childhood when things seemed much simpler. I am certain you can think of that place for you. No matter where it is or if anyone else has even heard of it, it is your place where for a few moments you find peace. You close your eyes and for a fleeting second you swear you can smell the bouquet of the old-growth pine forest or feel the sea-breeze as it gently caresses your face. Your place is just as you remember it. It hasn’t changed a bit since you last visited. And you want to freeze that moment and bask in its serene rays indefinitely. But, alas, you cannot.
My place is a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida’s Everglades, called Pavilion Key. Lately, I have found myself frequenting Pavilion Key quite a bit. As a graduate student anxiously waiting to find out if my thesis committee approves my work and the pressure to find a job during a time of economic uncertainty mounts, I find myself drifting off to Pavilion Key almost daily.
Pavilion Key is part of the Ten Thousand Islands area of Everglades National Park and is only accessible by motorboat (or if you are me, canoe). The Ten Thousand Islands section of the park is aptly labeled—its labyrinth of unnamed mangrove islands make navigating the waters difficult and have undoubtedly led to numerous National Park Service search and rescues. However, once you voyage beyond the sometimes choppy seas of Chokoloskee Bay and distance yourself from Everglades City, you enter a place that few casual visitors experience—the backcountry. Paddling in the backcountry to Pavilion Key is a surreal event, but can be a strenuous enterprise if tidal forces are against you. The fauna is spectacular with ospreys and pelicans darting overhead, and dolphins playfully swimming in your canoe’s wake.
Then, out of nowhere it seems, the mangrove maze gives way to the great immensity of the Gulf of Mexico. You are in open water now and the lack of a horizon makes it seem like you are paddling, but not moving. Pavilion Key is situated four miles out into this brackish expanse, but with each stroke of your paddle you are a few meters closer to this jewel of an island. Soon, you can begin to discern the shapes of trees, perhaps the outline of a tent, and the unmistakable teal blue of the Port-A-John.
Finally, your canoe begins to scrape bottom and you scurry out of your vessel and moor it on the fine sand beach. Now, the fun begins. You must explore the island. The thick mangrove jungle of the island’s interior is not easy to traverse, so you stick to the coastline where you find a bevy of dead horseshoe crabs, along with all sorts of other sea-life the incoming tide jettisoned onto the beach. The sand is rife with gorgeous orange and white shells. This is common for most of the islands in the Everglades, which are known to have some of the most spectacular shelling beaches in the world. You could walk the beach for hours, but decide to head back to the canoe to retrieve your gear to establish camp before sunset. With your tent assembled, you settle in for the most amazing sunset you have ever seen. The various shades of orange, pink, and purple could never be imagined, even from the palette of the most skillful painter. After the array of colors disappears, the campfire begins to crackle and you become lost in its coals. A guitar is played, a bottle is passed, and you begin to think you know what life is all about. You relax in your tent and fall asleep thinking for once you are looking forward to tomorrow.
The tranquility of the sea lapping at the sand, the relative isolation from the real world, the camaraderie associated with my friends who made the journey as well, the unmatched connection to Nature, the realization that my problems are trivial—Pavilion Key is my place. What’s yours?
By: Aaron Faust