On She Goes

Reconnecting with Nature on Cayo Costa

Finding refuge on a small island off the Florida coast.

Simone Martin-Newberry
Simone Martin-Newberry
June 5, 2017
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Our destination was four nautical miles from the west coast of Florida: Cayo Costa, a small island accessible only by boat. Getting there meant a flight to Miami, driving across the southern tip of the state through the Everglades, north past Fort Myers, west to the northernmost end of Pine Island, and finally onto a ferry that would take us to our campsite. It was an ambitious journey, but I felt pulled by the promise of reconnecting with nature, exploring island trails padded with dry pine needles, sunlight streaming through Spanish moss, and the sound of waves washing up over arched mangrove roots.

I needed a break. I needed to find refuge in nature.

It was February, and I was ready to get out of frigid Chicago. I was ready to trade it in for somewhere wilder. In the city, even in public parks and nature reserves, our minds flash back and forth between the beauty of the environment and the mess that lies beyond: traffic, noise, pollution, expectation, assumption. When I wander the public green spaces near my home in Chicago, it’s impossible to disappear in the same way I do out in the wild. In the city, my form is dense and solid and reflected back at me in the eyes of every passing stranger. I needed a break. I needed to find refuge in nature.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that home is a mutable concept, a feeling that swells whenever I’m somewhere green and leafy. In Florida, even in the middle of the winter, the sun is persistent, and the plant life responds accordingly: spreading and climbing and twisting ever higher toward the brightest light. Surrounding myself with growth and warmth isn’t just appealing in the winter—it’s essential. It allows me to return to the version of myself that walks slowly, crouches low to the ground, sits, listens, lingers.

Foliage of Cayo Costa
photo by Simone Martin-Newberry

The day after flying to Miami, my boyfriend and I packed our bags full of camping gear borrowed from family and set out toward the Gulf Coast. Venturing beyond the city, my ears started ringing with warnings about unfriendly territory, front lawns staked with Confederate flags, disapproving looks from Southerners who could tell we weren’t locals. I worried about being stranded far from comforts and conveniences: paved roads, reliable phone service, other people of color. But during the first leg of the trip, the long drive through the northern edge of the Everglades, we saw no people at all. The road was flanked by thick walls of pine and palmetto. Every few feet, an opening in the brush would provide a brief view of the river of grass, the swampy marsh that distinguishes this ecosystem from all others. I watched bunches of bluestem sway in the wind and pointed out the herons, orange-billed ibises, and turkey vultures circling overhead. My chest began to fill with anticipation of the feeling I get when I go out into nature. The simultaneous expansion and contraction—being aware of my infinite smallness in the biosphere and acknowledging that the vast diversity of the natural world also exists within me.

After hours of driving west across the Florida peninsula, we arrived at Jug Creek Marina, a tiny pier inhabited by big brown pelicans, anchored by a cluster of weathered wood shacks. Our sun-bleached ferry pulled in, and we carefully climbed aboard, watching the bright turquoise water as it bobbed the boat and bucked against the hull. When the boat pushed off, the distance between us and the cottages on Pine Island quickly shrank. I realized we were finally untethered.

When we made it to our destination, it was a relief to shed the skin of urban survival. On Cayo Costa, away from the light and noise of the city, I found myself able to breathe again. We made our way to our reserved campsite, a sandy patch surrounded by trees, outfitted with a picnic bench and a fire pit. While setting up our tent in a nook among the brush, we slowly let our ears acclimate to the sounds of our new surroundings. It took awhile for both of us to realize that the low, pulsing rumble in the distance wasn’t the hazy roar of traffic we were used to hearing. It was the ocean.

photo by Simone Martin-Newberry

That evening, I walked down to the beach and fell into easy conversation with kind strangers looking for the same things I was: peace, discovery, connection. I watched the sunset glow through spotted sea grape leaves. I listened to my feet scuff along sandy trails and slowly let my eyes adjust to the darkness of the moonlit night. Beyond the gaze of the city, I was able to be absorbed into the island. Feeling, sensing, I disappeared and became faceless energy. Lifted up against the full, black dome of the sky, my dark hands dissolved into loose shapes, organic matter, cosmic dust.

The next day on Cayo Costa brought discovery. We considered renting bikes or kayaks to get a different perspective of the island but ended up choosing a simple morning hike. On an island inhabited by only a few dozen people at a time, we ended up having most of the trail to ourselves. Walking the earth with just our two feet, keeping our eyes open to the new sights around us, our senses sharpened, calibrating toward the quiet and easily overlooked. Our skin warmed under the touch of the unfiltered sun. The fine, white sand dusted up around our feet, its smell rising to prick our noses. Our eyes catalogued the island’s full spectrum of green: bright, wet moss, subtle live oak, fading resurrection fern. I discovered the specific rhythm of the ocean in this part of the country, the soft lapping, lazy against the shore. And I rediscovered the person I am out in nature, where there are no mirrors, no one to see me, no one to specify where the land ends and I begin.

Walking the earth with just our two feet, keeping our eyes open to the new sights around us, our senses sharpened, calibrating toward the quiet and easily overlooked.

Out in the wild, connecting with nature is simple. Our bodies want time away from the pace and pressure of contemporary life, and after the drive, hike, or ferry ride, slowing down is the easy part. But there are moments when, even in the middle of the city, we can take the time to observe and absorb the natural world around us. It’s sudden, like the first daffodil sprouting from a bank of snow; surprising, like a falcon nesting overhead in the crevices of a high-rise; bold, like the amber glow of a full summer moon. There’s beauty in knowing the joy of time spent with nature and especially in knowing that same joy, that same freedom, is available to us in the city, too.

When our return flight landed at O’Hare, we deplaned into an early spring. The sunset shone bright, and the bustle of the city slowed as neighbors soaked up the unexpected warmth. That day the city was still solid with ice and asphalt, but I knew it was softening. I knew bright green leaves would soon return. I knew, soon, I’d be watching nature erupt all around me. And then, I would be home.

Sunset at Cayo Costa
photo by Simone Martin-Newberry