A&E Columns

This must be the place: “Sudden illumination, sudden awakening or simply kick in the eye”

Vero Beach is on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Garret K. Woodward photo Vero Beach is on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Garret K. Woodward photo

Peering through the window blinds of the motel room, the sunshine felt yesterday afternoon was long gone and now replaced by an early morning haze of clouds and a slight drizzle.

Lacing up the running shoes and zipping up the waterproof jacket, I headed out and began my run. 

Exiting the Sea Turtle Inn parking lot, the rest of Vero Beach, Florida, was either still in bed (many hungover from wild-n-out Friday night shenanigans) or simply didn’t want to trek around the picturesque beach town in the cold rain — freezing to the natives, but somewhat warm and welcoming to someone like myself from the mountains.

Pushing along Beachland Boulevard, the sounds of my shoes splashing happily through small puddles and passerby vehicles of affluence and prestige. Chugging by Mulligan’s Beach House Bar & Grill and down the wooden steps to the shoreline. Waves of sapphire flares crashing into ancient earth. Howling winds and raindrops sliding down the waterproof jacket.

A week earlier, my girlfriend, Sarah, and I were in Charleston, South Carolina, for the final day of 2023. The sheer spectacle of rock acts Futurebirds (at the Charleston Music Hall) and Hiss Golden Messenger (Charleston Pour House) as the ball was dropping way above the Mason-Dixon Line in Times Square.

The official end of the holiday season, at least for this go-round. A blur of Uber rides zipping around the old port city, across bridges of grandeur and innovation, ducking down centuries-old streets of cobblestone and ghosts of the past in the rearview mirror. Massive mansions of old money families and high-end hotels/inns, all within a stone’s throw of The Battery and Charleston Harbor.

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By early afternoon on Jan. 1, it was a celebratory New Year’s pint of Guinness at The Griffon, a longtime English-style pub in the heart of the French Quarter. College football on the glowing box in the corner. Thousands of dollar bills taped, stapled or glued to the interior walls from floor to ceiling, countless names of folks who sauntered in by chance or on purpose, eventually meandering to somewhere else in the endless ether of this universe of ours.

And almost one full week into the New Year, Sarah and I were now on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. After the immense sadness and lingering gloom of the recent holidays due to the passing of her father after a bout with terminal brain cancer, it was decided to head down to The Sunshine State to see her brothers (all four of them) with the five siblings together for the first time since the passing of their mother in 2022.

Two of the brothers reside in and around Winter Haven, Florida. One is based in Dallas, Texas, the youngest still on the family farm outside of Goldsboro, North Carolina. Sarah looked at the opportunity to reconnect with them in-person as a sort of serendipitous moment of happiness and renewed focus of who she is and where she came from amid a fog of grief and haphazard emotions.

Thus, we booked an inexpensive flight on Allegiant and headed south for the family reunion. Snowflakes and a harsh, whipping winter wind walking across the airport apron for the ramp onto the plane. Swap that weather for 70-degree temperatures and a soothing sun. If anything, I was just happy to see Sarah smiling again and looking forward to something besides somber holiday feelings.

Trotting along the shoreline of Vero Beach, a euphoric sense of self and of place washed over me. Although I aim to always be present and be aware of a moment (any moment at-hand) as it is occurring in real time, I doubled down to snap a few mental images of how the wind and raindrops felt against my skin, how loud the waves were rolling in from the great beyond and how pleasant it was to be lost in thought — all alone and in a fluid motion of pace and rhythm, my stride remaining steadfast since middle school.

Visions of the massive nature of 2023 for me, you and all of us, now silent and tucked away in some overflowing shoebox in the closets of our collective memories. Miles traveled and faces encountered. Meals devoured with gusto and images/words processed from an array of digital ways and means. It’s nothing and everything and everything in-between. It’s meaningless and meaningful. No matter, just be kind, eh? Be kind and say yes to the curious unknowns that lie just around the corner, eager to surprise you in due time.

Circling back down the beach towards the wooden steps below Mulligan’s, the wind was now at my back, my stride opening up more, my pace quickening with a joyful haste of movement and freedom only felt in this singular activity that is running, especially running with nowhere to necessarily be for the rest of the morning.

Back up the wooden steps, but not before one more quick glance at the mighty Atlantic. Waves of sapphire flares crashing into ancient earth. Howling winds and raindrops sliding down the waterproof jacket. Jog back down Beachland Boulevard. Small puddle splashing with sandy running shoes. Vehicles of affluence and prestige zoom by headed somewhere, anywhere.

Stop at the next intersection. Sigh for one glorious second before continuing on — a good, deep sigh of gratitude and grace amid a world seemingly gone mad. Walk across the parking lot of Vero Insurance as a shortcut to the Sea Turtle Inn. Knock on the door of Room 4. Await the smiling face inside to let you back in the humble abode. The girl from Goldsboro who arrived in my life almost a year ago.

Pack up the travel bags and crank over the engine of the rental car. Pull out of the parking space and head west for Winter Haven. Beloved faces to be seen and held soon. Some of the faces unknown to me, only to soon become fast friends of kinship and happenstance, stories shared and memories created. Onward.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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