After arriving late to the kayak tour, I spent the next hour trailing behind twelve other kayakers. I liked being at the end of the line because I could take my time and not feel rushed. I also love nature more than most people, so I absorbed my surroundings slowly and intentionally.
In the quiet of the early morning, I could hear birds cackling, crickets humming, and fish splashing in and out of the water. Everything around me was alive with intensity, as though there was a symphony playing and every living being performed a part. The sun was luminous and sweltering, but it felt snug against my skin. Sunlight danced along the water's edges and throughout the greenery and bark that bordered the trail. Nature was at peace with itself, and I was one with nature.
It was my first full day in Sanibel, and I felt that heightened sense of gratitude that's born at the beginning of a vacation when you have so much adventure left to experience - the kind of recognition that fills and expands in your stomach until you're consumed with a renewed appreciation for life. This was the sensation that I came to Sanibel to revive. The missing piece from my life that led me to book a solo trip, and I was simply grateful to be feeling it again.
When the tour had finished, I hopped on my bike feeling like I had mastered the art of kayaking, and headed toward The Sanibel Bean for a large iced latte. Before the tour, I had stopped at a restaurant, The Island Cow, for a coffee. While the barista was making my latte, I went to the bathroom and when I returned to pay, the manager had mentioned that someone had already paid for me.
He said, "Now you can pay it forward in whatever way you want! And when you do, mention that you got the idea from The Island Cow. That's going to be our new thing!" He chuckled and then walked away into the kitchen.
I kept that in mind when I arrived at The Sanibel Bean. The woman behind the counter appeared to be in her seventies and not entirely confident in her position as cashier. I ordered a coffee and told her that I wanted to give her $5 to pay for the coffee or pastry of whoever came in next. I felt so excited to "pay it forward Island Cow style" and had the largest smile on my face as I handed her cash. She looked at me with bewilderment.
"I don't understand..." she said.
I then proceeded to tell her what happened at The Island Cow and how I just wanted to anonymously pay for whoever came in after me. She continued to stare at me like I had asked her to solve world hunger.
"Hold on a moment. Let me ask my manager if I can do that," she replied, as she took four steps toward her manager who was already listening to our conversation. She lowered her voice as she spoke, as though she was divulging top secret information, and as though I couldn't hear her.
When she was done summarizing what he had already heard, he replied, "No. We don't do that."
She returned to the counter and said, "Sorry, hun. We can't have cash lying behind the register. That's a real nice gesture of you though! Maybe you can try doing that somewhere else."
The New Yorker in me wanted to explain how simple it was to use my $5 bill toward the next person's order, that she wouldn't be letting cash aimlessly sit behind the register, but I just smiled, grabbed my coffee, and told her to have a good day.
When I was unlocking my bike outside, two men in their twenties pulled up next to me and began locking their bikes.
"Hi!" one of them said.
Something I love about traveling south is that strangers tend to act like friends. People feel a little warmer and more approachable outside of New York. This is especially true with airport staff outside of JFK and LGA. You'd think working at New York airports was like being detained in a prison, where as people down south seem grateful to be working at all.
"Hello!" I replied.
We began talking and I learned that they were from New York too - about six hours north of me near Rochester. They were life-long friends who were staying at one of their aunt's houses in Sanibel. They had a jam-packed week of touristy plans and family dinners, but we ended up exchanging numbers so we could grab a drink or catch a sunset at some point that week. I rode away toward my hotel happy to have met fellow travelers from New York and excited to spend time with new people.
The next few days were spent sprawled out on the beach with Pina Coladas and my books. I had gotten into somewhat of a routine each day. I'd wake up, take a bike ride into town to get coffee and a pastry at The Sanibel Sprout. The Sanibel Sprout was both a coffee shop and health food restaurant with vegan and gluten free treats and a beautiful outdoor space with monsteras and pink roses surrounding their picnic tables. After eating breakfast and reading my book, I'd ride back to the hotel, making a few stops along the way at stores I hadn't noticed in my travels the days before. Then I'd set up camp on the beach, taking breaks swimming in the bath-like ocean, and having lunch at the hotel's tiki bar with the bartender, Ramon.
One day I rode my bike for eight hours, stopping at stores for gifts and trying new food and drinks at various restaurants. When I arrived at the end of the island at the Sanibel lighthouse, I saw dolphins swimming close to the shore and jumping out of the water only a few feet away from people standing in the ocean.
Throughout the week I met locals who had moved to Sanibel in their twenties and thirties and never left. I spoke with a few store owners who told me to reach out to them when my book is published so they can add it to their collection of inspirational and motivational products to sell. One of the bartenders that I spoke with while having dinner at the bar told me about his life-long career in the restaurant industry and how there was nothing else he ever wanted to do with his time. He loved creating an experience for his customers and guessing which type of cocktail would best suit their personality. He enjoyed people watching and getting to know the backgrounds of his patrons - something he thought made for an interesting life.
Each day I adored my alone time but also loved talking to someone new. On my last night there, I had made plans to meet the guys from New York, Taylor and Tyler, at The Tipsy Turtle, the only bar on the island open until midnight.
When I walked into the bar, a couple was playing live music which sounded more like karaoke. Dollar bills with handwritten notes in Sharpie marker lined the walls. Some bills had scribbled love notes on them, others included a list of names and locations from passing travelers, and others said things like "Nancy sucks ass and smells like sh*t." It was a very eclectic collection of dollar bills.
I ordered a beer and listened to the band's rendition of "Brick House" while waiting for the guys to arrive. Taylor, who had told me in texting conversations earlier that week that his nickname was "Zeef" walked in, and we hugged as though we knew each other for years even though our friendship spanned five days. Tyler was hungover and couldn't make it, so Taylor and I ordered Coronas and spoke about our individual lives.
I told him my reason for booking a solo trip and my recent battles with panic attacks and cyclic vomiting syndrome. (I still can't get over that name). I explained how my life was rapidly changing and I wondered if me getting sick so often was a spiritual purging of my old life.
Taylor opened up and revealed some of his own issues - things he wished he could change and others he's learned to live with. We spoke to each other honestly and openly, the way two life-long friends would, and we both noted how we loved that even though we just met, we felt like we'd known each other our whole lives. Then, after a few too many beers, I mentioned with complete sincerity that his long hair and kind eyes made him look like Jesus. This is something we now bring up in our weekly texting conversations - our friendship's first inside joke.
Before we left the bar to go our separate ways into the pitch black of night, laughing about running into the fictional "Sanibel Serial Killer" on our bike rides, Taylor thanked me for telling him about my anxiety and recent success with therapy. He said that I inspired him to be more open about his anxiety - something he never disclosed to anyone before - and to research therapists in his area. That interaction alone made my trip worth it.
After parking my bike outside of my hotel room, I walked to the beach for one last midnight visit and laid in the sand staring up at the stars. Everything was black except the ocean's natural luminescence and the tiny pockets of light peering out from the night sky.
I laid there smiling, feeling proud of myself for creating one of the best experiences of my life while I was by myself. I understood that no matter what happened within me or around me that I would always be okay.
I would always be okay because I always have myself, and I have proven to myself time and time again, that I am enough.
I always have been, and I always will be enough.