Creative destruction

While switching gears into gap-year logistics mode, I’m hoping to keep you entertained with stories from my first blog — sanity-saving diversions posted while writing my Master’s thesis. This one seems appropriate now as I’m already seeing holiday shopping ads (before Halloween?!) and because, tonight, I’m going once more to camp with friends on Shell Key before shoving off on bigger adventures. “Creative destruction” was originally posted January 24, 2012, at afairban.blog.usf.edu. Enjoy!

After the Holiday of Mass Consumerism comes the Great Purge, most visibly symbolized by the laying of sweet-smelling trees at the curb. This year, I collected four Christmas trees from my neighborhood that were fated for the wood chipper and set them aside for a much more spectacular demise.

I find manual labor a good way to balance days spent writing. In the last two weeks, I tackled the biggest chapter of my thesis—combining field notes and other materials from the last four years into a coherent narrative, something I’m calling “Ethnography of a Policymaking Process.” Sounds kinda dry, right? Well, the subject happens to be garbage, so it’s occasionally pretty juicy.

“Rastaflage” at rest on Shell Key

All puns aside, this involved some serious slogging. So I tried to keep my sanity by hacking off the Christmas trees’ branches with a machete (because that sounds normal, right!) and sawing the trunks into nice little pieces for the fireplace. I also saved the tops and trimmings for a bonfire, cutting them to fit in my trusty old canoe, “Rastaflage.”

By 9pm on Saturday, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Over the past ten days, I’d written about 50 pages and cut up the Christmas trees (plus a few dead limbs from the yard). In the last 24 hours, I got a camping permit for Shell Key Preserve, packed my gear into a dry-bag, and loaded the truck with spruce and fir. I hit the road at 10:30pm and picked up a friend on route to Ft. DeSoto Park.

The weather was perfect (forecast 60-78F temps and light southerly wind). By the time we launched, the tide was outgoing, helping to push us on our way. What little moon there was had long since set, so we had a nice view of stars—and even saw a meteor!—while paddling the placid waters. I’ve always been amazed at how far away this place can feel despite being so close to downtown St. Petersburg, and this time was no different.

After beaching and unloading the canoe, and setting up the tent, we commenced building a bonfire. I hadn’t packed much kindling and the Christmas trees were still green, so I ripped little strips from the camping permit while trying to keep the important parts (name, date, etc.) intact. But once it got going, the sap-laden wood burned like gasoline.

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A boat full of drunks motored too close to shore and ran aground about 50 meters away from us. Rather than backing off, the skipper throttled the twin outboards forward, which succeeded in getting them as far up on the bank as possible. Meanwhile, the tide was still running out. The engines screamed for mercy as they were trimmed almost completely out of the water, sucking sand and spraying misty rooster-tails.

“I hope these guys don’t get stranded here with us,” I muttered, considering it a very real possibility as they jumped overboard and tried pushing the boat every which way. After what seemed like a noisy eternity, the boat finally came free, but one of the crew was left standing in knee-deep water while the rest of them fumbled over the controls. There was all kinds of shouting, but no light other than the boat’s red, green and white running lights. Just as I started to say, “Do NOT…” I heard someone on the boat yell, “Why don’t ya’ swim for it!”

“You have got to be kidding,” I grumbled as I trotted to the water’s edge with my flashlight beam searching for the poor fool in the chilly water. Thankfully he had enough sense to stay on his feet, and eventually got back in the boat. They headed for the open Gulf of Mexico and I hoped not to read about their disappearance in the newspaper.

I returned to the fire, and not long after that climbed into my sleeping bag. I awoke before dawn and wandered out from the tent to take photos in the warm light of a cool morning. The sun emerged as a big orange ball behind the Sunshine Skyway bridge, and it seemed to immediately raise the air temperature. After re-kindling the fire, I went for a refreshing swim. The water temperature was a brisk 65F, according to NOAA’s robot-voiced weather woman broadcast on the VHF radio.

Sunrise behind the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which spans the mouth of Tampa Bay

Sunrise behind the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which spans the mouth of Tampa Bay

Breakfast consisted of an apple, leftover roasted potatoes, and spicy dark chocolate. We packed up and got on our way in time to ride the inbound tide. There were deep gashes in the sand, now about 10 meters from water’s edge, where our would-be maroons broke free of the bar last night. Paddling back alongside Ft. DeSoto, we were accompanied by a pair of dolphins most of the way. We also saw a loon, visiting from up north like many of his human counterparts. It was a fine way to punctuate a productive couple of weeks.

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