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Just about everyone knows someone who has been bullied, in ways big and small. Understandably, though, many victims are reluctant to speak about their experiences. We found some who aren't.
BY LOUIE CASTILLO | Clearwater Central Catholic High
For me, a Florida boy whose closest encounter with snow is the crystals of ice forming on a fresh Popsicle milliseconds before it melts in the sun, a winter road trip is a relative thing. It’s joyous, but not something that needs to be relegated to the winter months as an escape from the season’s cruelty. In fact, a road trip in Florida is good for what ails you pretty much any time of the year, like spring break, when what ails you is the interminably long stretch since winter break. • To help you hold on until that delicious spring vacation, here’s a report from my family’s winter road trip, nay road mission, the likes of which only Florida can bring. Start making your plans, or at least dreaming your daydreams.
The first mission of the six-day trip down the Sunshine State and back was to deliver my grandmother safely to her home in Fort Lauderdale (which we were using as “base camp” or BC on our adventure). Once Grandma (whom we’ll call Precious Cargo) was safely delivered, we would wait a few days in hopes of scoring waves on the East Coast beaches, always more of a hot spot for surf than our Gulf of Mexico. Next, we’d drive down to the Lower Keys and spend time on a few coral reefs as well as take in a lunch or two in Key West. • Once settled in the town of Sugarloaf Key, beloved by our family, the only thing on my mind would be fishing and spear-fishing. After three days, we’d head back up to BC to see how our cherished Precious Cargo was doing and to catch a little more R&R (and a little more surf hunting) before heading back home to Largo.
1. SURF’S UP, SORTA
Our journey began like a lot of family vacations, with my dad and I at each other’s throats, fighting over how to pack the car. Our little black Nissan Versa was busting at the gills with our gear, including an 11- foot stand up paddleboard, a 6-foot 2-inch surfboard, two spear guns, fishing rods, luggage and snorkeling equipment. My dad and I were arguing over the placement of a spear shaft which, I admit, was thrown in rather carelessly by me, its razor sharp point now precariously pointing toward my little sister. We quickly remedied the situation by putting a cover over it.
The goal of returning Precious Cargo and her smiley attitude was the push we needed to start the four-hour journey. Despite the rocky start, the car ride was peaceful, with the most notable happening being the number of times my dad listened to Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto (nine, I kid you not).
We arrived at BC around 6:45 p.m., too dark to sneak in a surf session but enough time to mingle with the characters Precious Cargo calls neighbors at the Tennis Club of Fort Lauderdale. The people who live there are among the most pleasant on Earth. “Hellooooo, so good to see you” rang out repeatedly and the never-gets-old “you’re so TALL. I remember when you were that little naked boy playing with your grandma’s broom.”
On this evening, however, they were complaining about the cold (60-degree) weather. And so of course I grabbed that rare chance for a true Florida native, blurting out, “Yeah, this is nothin.’ Up north in Largo it’s been getting down to 59 easily.” Sorry, just had to.
The next day, Dad and I hit the Fort Lauderdale beach by noon. The waves were fairly big by Florida standards, 3-4 feet with a few 5-6 footers thrown in. (Surf lesson: Florida is surrounded by a large continental shelf, which blocks a majority of the swells headed in our direction. A true surfer honors what is given him.)
After spending a good 30 minutes trying to park, we finally got a spot north of Birch State Park on A1A, a little farther down from the extremely crowded (hence wave rich) first peak. My dad rapidly slipped into his wet suit. Me? Pshhh, board shorts all the way.
Dad casually grabbed his trusty old yellow A-tach boogie board, something he has owned since before I was born, while I frantically unstrapped my 11-foot SUP and paddle. Not the best choice.
The waves, lurching and fast moving, were more suited for my Xandu shortboard (left at BC.) And more suited for using a leash, also forgotten. Impossible to execute on an SUP, I nonetheless took a deep breath and pushed myself out, paddling as fast as I could to attempt the duckdive that would have helped me on the Xandu. A wave swept my SUP out from under me and sent it to the shore, where I raced to catch it before it took out some unlucky tourist. Curse you, Poseidon.
After a few more unsuccessful attempts, I saw a set coming on the horizon so I turned my board shoreward and started paddling. My momentum picked up as the wave started pushing me, and I switched my straight-up paddling stance to sideways for surfing.
Locked into the wave, dropping down its face, I pressed on the back of the board to lift the nose up to keep it from hitting the water. I saw a big wall of white water right in front of me, so I knew it was time to exit, angling the paddle behind me so it would act like a rudder to steer me away. As I avoided the white water I looked back at what was left of my first wave and saw it was a solid 4-footer.
Sweet. I had escaped the disdain of my fellow surfers (a recent issue of Surfing Magazine likened SUP-ing to “admitting total failure in life”) and had a pretty good start to my vacation.
2. IT’S KEY: WE’RE NOT AT DISNEY
Two days later, we’re in the car pointing due south to Sugarloaf Key. The natural scenery along the way is beautiful, but the trip is a little sad at the same time. The Keys are one of the last places still not “Disney-fied” like so many others, yet every time my family and I take that glorious drive down U.S. 1 we notice more and more 7-Elevens, McDonald’s and convenience stores.
This is no time for sadness, though, for we have finally reached Sugarloaf Lodge, the sacred dwelling ground that personifies true Old Florida. A favorite story you still hear at the Tiki Bar involves the original owner drinking with famous journalist (and personal hero) Hunter S. Thompson who once, in their alcohol fueled revelries, beheaded a pig and put the head in a toilet. You can read all about it in Thompson’s Songs of the Doomed. Unpack your bags, Sweetie, we’re home.
3. SPECTACULAR SPEAR-FISHING
No sleeping in here. By 7:30 a.m., I’ve watched the sun rise and hiked from the lodge to a hidden spot. I put on my mask and snorkel and dive under.
The bubbles clear and the beautiful Florida Keys water sets in. Fish dart through plants and under rocks. After a few minutes, I cock the band on my Beuchat Espadon spear gun and start finning my way to an underwater structure I remember from our last trip. I’ve pictured the mangrove snapper it harbors on many a nights while my aquarium on my dresser hummed in the background.
The structure appears to be some kind of submerged chain-link fence, in relatively shallow water (15-20 feet), so I take another deep breath and dive down.
This is the challenging part of spear-fishing, the stalk. Land hunters will talk about the challenge of stalking a whitetail through the woods but, hey, pardnuh, at least you can breathe, and your prey doesn’t dart off annoyingly in a speed-flash of bubbles.
Wait, what’s that? A looming shape came out of the murk. Jeez, what a time for the Jaws theme to start playing. It’s coming closer and, yes! A grouper! Already picturing the feast we shall have I aimed my gun, the 2 foot shaft straining against surgical tubing like a horse just waiting to be let out of the gate.
“Stop!” said a tiny voice in my head. “Grouper season is closed! This will be the last dinner outside of jail you’ll eat in a while!”
“Pipe down, weakling!” said the hunter, also in my head, but I pulled away as the grouper continued to taunt me, swimming closer and closer. “Yeah, das right, I’m bulletproof untouchable!” Begrudgingly, I head up to the surface for some air.
Here’s an observation about spear-fishing. You tune out everything. Your lungs beg for air, the pressure seemingly crushing your head and the cold water chilling you to the bone. The only thing that matters is the prey that you, the predator, are hunting.
Lest you think my favorite part of spear-fishing is the actual killing, on the contrary, that is my least favorite part. At its core is the most amazing thing: You’re a shark, and it’s a coin flip. Either it’s heads, you capture your prey, or tails and the prey escapes. That’s a kind of intimacy you seldom get with rod and reel.
I dive down again, just as a little mangrove snapper — mangy as I like to call them — swims up. It’s a little on the smaller side, but it’s definitely got some meat. Target locked. I raise my gun and schlink, the spear fires and the fish keels over dead. I remove the snorkel from my mouth and place a little kiss on the fish. “Thanks brother.”
4. FISHING WITHOUT SPEARS
I must say there is no sweeter feeling than clipping through the Atlantic around 15 knots knowing that somewhere nearby there are fish just waiting to be caught.
My dad and I took an afternoon jaunt down to Key West for an offshore fishing excursion aboard the Tortuga IV, a charter fishing boat that docks near the historic Turtle Krawls. As we expected, the majority of passengers were experiencing such a trip for the first time, and admittedly, I did get a kick listening to some of the landlubber conversation.
“Oh Henry, I’m feeling sick.”
“Don’t worry Sheila, it’s completely normal for your face to turn green. It’s the sea air!”
My dad and I had strategically placed ourselves on the port side of the boat away from the sun, and in no time we were reeling in snapper after snapper. We ran through two buckets of bait, and by the time we switched out our second bucket we had about 11 yellowtail between us. However, adhering to regulations, only four were big enough to keep. For my last cast of the day, I let my line down — sink, sink, sink — and then cranked the reel three times slowly. Suddenly wham, something smacked the bait with vengeance. I hurriedly cranked but the line wouldn’t come up easily. There was a fish on the other end, not a snapper but definitely one that loved to pull. After about the third crank, the fish came up, aw, a red grouper.
As I brought my quarry on board, the deck hand told me what I already knew. “Great fish! But grouper season is closed!”
I held up my X-pound grouper, and as I carried him over the edge to toss him back, he caught my eye and seemed to say, “Yeah that’s right man, my cousin from Sugarloaf told me about you! Yeah, das right bulletproof!”
Word travels fast in the sea.
5. HERE, TARPON, TARPON
The Tortuga pulled into the Key West wharf a little after sunset. While we filet the fish, we noticed a man we had seen on our last trip, the one who would lean off the pier, dangling a fish carcass in front of the well-known school of tarpon that enjoyed constant feeding from arriving charter boats. A la Steve Irwin, he would hold the carcass inches above the water, to make the tarpon jump out after it. “Lou, it’s the Tarpon Man,” my dad whispered loudly.
Tarpon Man heard him and quickly turned around, “Ahh, heck no, I ain’t doing that again. I’m lucky to have all my fingers!”
Then he hollered to a buddy, “Ronnie, get this boy a carcass.”
I took a deep breath. With my dad holding onto my legs, I leaned over the dock dangling the carcass just like Tarpon Man had demonstrated. It was after sunset so the only way I knew there were tarpon in the water was by seeing flashes of silver when the moon hit their scales, and when their dorsal fins broke the surface looking suspiciously like sharks.
Suddenly one snapped out of nowhere. I just want to clarify something. It is completely normal for one’s scream to go up an octave when one is startled. Scream notwithstanding, I was courageous and held my ground, when suddenly my arm was up to its elbow in a tarpon’s mouth. Just like that the tarpon was gone, and my arm was still intact, although it was now missing a fish carcass.
6. MORE SIGHTS TO SEE
Time for us to eat, we headed into our favorite raw bar in Key West, the Half Shell Restaurant, where the staff is always happy to cook up a visitor’s fresh catch. My body was sore, blistered from the sun and salty from the sea air. I stunk of fish bait and sweat, and I couldn’t have been any happier, until my dad broke the reverie.
“Holy cow, Louie, is that Dale Earnhardt Jr.?” he whispered.
I tried to be casual, and turned around. Yep, there was the driver of the trusty No. 88 National Guard car eating oysters two seats over.
Anything can happen in the Keys.
7. FABULOUS FLORIDA
Before we returned to Largo, we left Key West and headed back up the East Coast to check on Precious Cargo, then up to a favorite surf spot, Hobe Sound, where at the pavilion we passed Accordion Guy, and the Parrot People. We have seen them before, and when you’re lucky, the Accordion Guy plays a tune the parrots sing along to. I got in a few good waves on my Xandu, but, as luck would have it, this time they were high rollers, more suited for the SUP.
No matter. It was a glorious Florida road trip.