Frozen Couple Seeks Warmer Climate

Mrs. Hoke and I are Southern. Of the South. We like our chicken fried and our peas blackeyed. We also are quite fond of the sun and are genetically wired to be suspicious of things like frozen water falling from the sky. “What? This doesn’t make sense!” we holler while scraping the ice off our windshields.

We lived for a couple of years in Baltimore and those winters were probably the deepest either of us have experienced. I think it was 1993 when the city really got socked in and “shut down.” So we hiked over to The Wharf Rat in Fell’s Point and drank beer all afternoon as still more snow fell. It helped.

My point is that we are aware of winter and like it well enough on TV, in movies, and in made-for-TV movies, but it gets to us. Especially Mrs. Hoke because she’s from Florida and in late February I will sometimes find her perched on the sofa wrapped in a blanket staring despondently out the window muttering “I’m from FLORIDA, dammit!” under her breath.

This year, we decided, would be different. This year we would go south and have a few days of respite from gray skies, chilling winds, and closed-toe shoes. We settled on Clearwater Beach, Florida because I found a deal for a suite online and it’s close to Tampa and we’ve got friends in Tampa plus Cigar City Brewing Company is in Tampa and Ybor City is also in Tampa and I like a cigar now and then and Tampa was the hub of US cigar production back before we had phrases like “Bay of Pigs.” I took some notes but this isn’t a travelogue in the sense of…well…a travelogue. Just some highlights, photos, and a couple of videos. Ready? Let’s Go Tampa! (sorry)

We arrived at our hotel after a 12 hour drive (the last hour plus devoted to creeping and sitting still in Tampa rush hour traffic) and the clerk told us our reserved room had been “trashed” by the previous guests who were currently in jail for disorderly conduct. But they had a plan and put us up in their “sister hotel” across the street and upgraded our reserved room to one overlooking the pool and also kicked in a couple of giftcards to IHOP. What problem exists that pancakes cannot remedy? I do not know its name. Many a man has been buoyed up and out of his slough of despond by light golden cakes of pan. To say nothing of the restorative effects a side of bacon has upon the most downtrodden among us. Verily and pass the boysenberry syrup.

Despite being roadworn we wanted to go do something after being in the car for so long and so we met our friend Mike Handley at Dunedin Brewery for conversation, really good beer, and some loud jazzy jambandish music by a local group. I think they were called “Royal Noise.” They were really good but I was glad that we were sitting outside. And that there was a glass wall separating us from their sonic thundermakings. They were really good, but—in my best old man voice—too loud to enjoy. Also—still in my best old man voice—where’s my soup!?  What!? I didn’t order soup!? Oh…okay then.

The next day I got up early and went on a 17 mile run on the Pinellas Trail. This is a 40+ mile Rail-to-Trail that runs right through Clearwater so I was able to run from our hotel and finished with a jump in the pool. Worth noting, I think, is that in February I ran in shorts and a short sleeve shirt and it was still damned sweaty. The Pinellas Trail wasn’t the most scenic Rail-to-Trail I’ve run, but there was still some neat stuff to see. For instance: I detoured off the actual trail into a park and ran a loop around a lake and took a bunch of photos of a great blue heron poised on the shore waiting for whatever great blue herons stand on lake shores waiting for. Stock reports, maybe. (Please note that I very nearly typed “stork reports” but I respect y’all too much to stoop to that sort of thing.) There was also an old tree draped with Spanish moss with a murder of crows in the branches muttering and croaking and flapping. I stood there on the trail for a while watching this scene. It was a bit out of range but I took a few photos anyhow and present one below for your consideration. Also in the “stuff I don’t see at home” category was the flock of roseate spoonbills that flew overhead as I ran across a bridge from Clearwater to Clearwater Beach. No photo. Sorry. “Roseate” means “pink,” if that helps you paint your own mental picture.

Post-run we ate at IHOP. Because pancakes are very good for recovering from sweaty 17 milers. I took a nap. We moved over into our upgraded room with a view of the pool. Then we drove into Tampa to pick up our race numbers for the Gasparilla Distance Classic we were running in a couple of days (15K for me, 5K for Mrs. Hoke). There was a big expo for the event and we wandered around a little bit. Our favorite thing at the expo was/were Natalie’s juices. Wow they were good. We bought a jug on our way back to the hotel later that evening. Try it if your grocer stocks it. In advance: you’re welcome.

From the expo we drove over to Ybor City and had a snack and a beer at Tampa Bay Brewing Company. We may have had more than one beer. We sat on the patio and had a nice view of a plaza across the street—good people watching. If I were a better sort of writer I would here insert interesting facts about Ybor City for you to read and think “Wow! That’s an interesting fact!” Alas, that ain’t me. At least not today. Next time we go we’ll take the historical walking tour and then you’ll be yelling at me to shut up already with the interesting facts about Ybor City. So look forward to that, I guess. I went into a couple of cigar shops, but no clerks offered to take me in back to sell me their top secret Cuban cigars so I only bought a couple of things I hadn’t tried previously. You might also be interested to know that I was unable to find a panama hat. Or one that met my exacting hatstandards anyhow. And right here is a shortfilm of me trying to hail a trolleycar in Ybor City and failing:

We left Ybor City to meet up with Mike at Cigar City Brewing Company and tried a couple of their beers. Now, if you are a beer nerd (the sort who knows what Beer Advocate and Rate Beer are) then you will also probably know that Cigar City Brewing Company is one of the breweries in the US that always scores high in the ratings. If you are not a beer nerd then I apologize for the previous sentence. Our friend Mike, for instance, is a beer nerd. Makes his own beer, even, and typically has a couple of taps of homebrew running. This does not stop him from going out and trying beer at other places. Mike might be my beer hero.

On Saturday we got up early to drive back into Tampa to run our races. I would go first and then Mrs. Hoke’s would start 2 hours later which meant I’d be back in plenty of time to cool off, change clothes, stretch, have a “beer” (Michelob Ultra? Why?), and make it to the finish line to cheer her in. I used this run as a platform to do some speed work meaning I’d pick up the pace for a mile and then ease off for a mile. It worked well enough and it was fun to zip around folks. Over the course of the race I high fived a guy dressed like Elvis (twice) and accepted a strand of Mardi Gras beads from a couple of guys offering them to the runners as we raced by. Fun.

I finished and got some food (LOTS on hand—this is a seriously big event), claimed my “beer,” and got cleaned up and back to the finish line in time to see Mrs. Hoke run down the chute. I picked up a nearby safety cone and used it as a megaphone yelling “Run Mrs. Hoke! Bring honor to our household!” She did great, of course, and the people standing near me wished they had thought to use a safety cone as a megaphone.

That night we joined Mike and some of his friends for an impromptu music party at one of their homes. Within minutes of entering this roomful of mostly strangers I had a freshly constructed mojito in my hand. That, friends, is hospitality. Our host informed us that he and our hostess had been married for 35 years and that in her first marriage she had baked “all the time” but that tonight—tonight!—we would all share in the first ever pie she had baked for him. Well now. We all had a slice of 35-years-in-the-making pie at the end of the evening and agreed it was really good. And that she needed to bake another one and invite us back for breakfast.

Sunday morning we sat on our balcony sipping coffee and watched a guy clean the pool. I truly love watching other people work when I’m on vacation. It deepens and/or amplifies the level of idle leisure I’m pursuing when I can watch someone else toil. I wanted to yell “Clean better!” at him but Mrs. Hoke told me not to. She’s a good influence like that.

We drove down to Lakeland to attend the morning service at Lakeland UU because we’ll be presenting “5 Happy Things” there in 2015. I’ll also be opening a show for Eric Taylor at their “Friends of Joe” music series so we wanted to look at the space and meet some folks. Their focus that Sunday was on the “Rally in Raleigh” and it was inspiring to hear these folks talk so enthusiastically about their participation in an event in our home state. Great service—we’re looking forward to being back next year.

Sunday evening we supped at The Columbia: one of those old restaurants that has a lot of history and—happily—great food. We had paella, sangria, flan, and I can’t remember what else but it was all extremely tasty. We’ll be coming back in 2015, I suspect. Our waiter was one of those quietly competent sorts who struck me as having worked most of his career in this very restaurant taking care of folks like us (though I didn’t ask him so I guess he could be a gym teacher who weekends at the restaurant). Photo of Columbia's lovely interior right here:

After supper we were too tired from the day for another brewery so we drove back to Clearwater Beach and while Mrs. Hoke relaxed in our room I took a walk on the beach with a cigar. There were a few clusters of people out swimming in the night and the sounds of their laughter and splashing was carried on the breeze. Way out over the Gulf lightening flashed. I pulled off my shoes and walked along feeling the tide come and go.

The next day we drove to Weedon Island Preserve and rented a couple of kayaks so we could spend the day paddling the canoe trail through the mangroves. It was pretty much perfect. The mangroves were so thick in spots it felt like we were paddling through a tunnel. Tiny crabs clung to many of the plants. Did you know tiny crabs climbed mangroves? Me neither! We saw lots of birds: pelicans (your typical brown variety and later a few huge white pelicans), ibis, herons, and some osprey fishing. At one large stretch of open water there were scads and scads of mullets flopping and splashing and we paused for a while to watch and listen to their floppy splashy dance. What an entertaining fish. I don’t understand why hotels and resorts waste their money on ho-hum koi when they could get a floppy splashy mullet. Here's a shot of us making our way through the mangroves:

As we paddled back to our put-in/take-out spot we saw several stingrays near the shoreline kicking up a cloud of sand as they swam away from our approach. We started paying more attention to what was going on beneath us and fished up a conch and a whelk with our paddles. And then as the take-out came into view the guide pointed out a pod of dolphins fishing nearby. We paddled a bit closer—giving them plenty of distance—and watched them surface and dive and listened to them breathing as the sinking sun threw a soft reddish-orange glow on the water. Now. If I were the sort of person to use the word “magical” right here is where I might put it to use. If I were that sort of person.

That evening we got together with some friends we hadn’t seen yet and caught up over a couple of beers. Beer: the drink we caught up over. Hm. Not much of a slogan. Oh well.

I guess that’s it. Nothing that interesting happened on our drive home. Sort of an anticlimactic finish, ain’t it? Are you perhaps the sort of person who likes some kind of “takeaway” message at the end of something you’re watching/reading? Like how at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life” we are reassured that yes, in fact, every time a bell rings an angel gets his/her wings? Okay then. Your takeaway: (1) If you’re ever in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area absolutely clear a day and go paddling in the mangroves (Sweetwater Kayaks will set you up with a boat). (2) Go eat at The Columbia in Ybor City. And walk around Ybor City. Don’t try to buy a hat in Ybor City though unless you have lower hatstandards than mine. (3) Pay heed to the sighs of your dear one(s) as winter stretches and the skies remain gray and sunless. There’s a place for us. Don’t cry for me Argentina. The end.

PS: I shot another shortfilm while we were there. This one entitled (with apologies to Charles Darwin): "Evolution of the Species." Enjoy. (Or something.)


Monte McCraw June 23, 2017 @09:04 am
You have an easy going storytelling talent. I look forward to the next one
Joanna March 03, 2015 @08:46 pm
Oh, Todd. That "evolution of the species" is just about perfect, cinematically speaking. Thanks so much for sharing it with the world.
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