For a year, I knew I was going to speak in Florida and made plans for a four-day fishing trip to the Florida Keys. Freddie, my friend, brother, and outstanding dentist, has won the World Bonefishing Championship three times. He has often invited me to join him there.
Bonefish are a sporting game fish that live exclusively in shallow saltwater flats that surround the world’s coral reefs and islands. The flats off the Florida Keys are acknowledged as the “Bonefishing Capital of the World.”
I landed in Key West on Sunday morning, where I was greeted with the news of an approaching hurricane. It crossed my mind that this might cost me a day’s fishing, but it didn’t linger. We were on the water within two hours, looking for the tell-tale signs of bonefish feeding. Our guide poled us through the flats on flat–bottomed boats that skim the shallow, crystal-clear water. Below me I could see sharks (at least five species), rays in abundance, and a barracuda after leaping mullet. The sea is full of multi-colored grasses that move with balletic grace.
Bonefish are spectacular fighters. When they take the hook, they’ll run your line out whistling like the high-pitched squeak of a speeding zipper. When you bring the fish close to the boat, they’ll make another run; it’s thrilling, and we release them unharmed. By the time we got home Sunday night, the news was that Rita was increasing intensity and bearing down on Key West. Sick people and visitors in RVs were told to evacuate immediately. But, the sky was still clear the following morning, so we went out again. It wasn’t until the wind picked up and the rain started to fall that we came in.
As we drove back toward Sugarloaf Key, there were lots of cars coming in the opposite direction, and then we heard on the radio the official notification for everybody in the lower Keys to evacuate. My initial reaction was an “oh shit” moment. How could this be happening to me? I had planned to be here for four days, was having a blast—it just wasn’t fair. I had another speaking engagement at the end of the week, and there was no certainty that the airport would be functional if Rita got stronger as she approached. When we heard the announcement that the only road through the Keys might close by midnight, we were passing the Marathon Airport where I got the last rental car.
Before leaving, Freddie told me to call his close friend Steve, whom I’d met just days before. He handed me Steve’s number and directions to his house, saying it might be hard to find a room. It’s my style not to reach out and ask for anything, I’m happy to respond to others’ needs, but it’s always been hard for me to ask. I like being holed-up alone in hotel to eat when I want, read all day, write, and sit in a hot tub.
By the time I get to Homestead, at the southern tip of the mainland, all the motels are full. I’m on my way to Miami and look at the directions to Steve’s house. I’m on the Florida Turnpike at just the exit to get off. I call Steve for directions, and by the time I get there, he has a martini waiting, and a tray with cheese and crackers. It was a warm and wonderful way to end a hectic day.
The next morning, I watched Rita’s wind and rain pelt South Florida, from a picture
window overlooking Biscayne Bay. Sitting safely in the middle of the hurricane, experiencing such awesome power, provides an opportunity to reflect on life’s existential questions (meaning, purpose, and what we need to learn). Awe is the mechanism by which we tame the ego and learn how to be present in every moment.
I flew to Pittsburgh, where I spoke as Rita was approaching the Texas-Louisiana coastline. That evening I watched the evacuation, the cars stalled on highways. Having just been there and done that, I knew the feelings of helplessness and fear of Rita’s awesome power. I also remembered the kindness of strangers, people opening their homes, sharing gas, water, and helping neighbors board up homes and businesses. Later on, I went to a benefit rock and roll concert at the Mellon Arena for the victims of Katrina.
The DJ emcee thanked the crowd for showing what the heart of Pittsburgh is all about. Then he plugged their beloved Steelers, which brought cheers from the crowd, and introduced Franco Harris. Franco said he was proud to be part of this city and to live in America where people come together as a nation to help each other through hard times. Then an incredible band opened with the most astounding rendition of the Star Spangled Banner I have ever heard. Slowly the crowd, mostly younger (although to me everybody is younger), began to stand. The scene brought tears to my eyes: a ceremony of awesome power uniting community and nation. Rita was rolling, and people connected with each other in ways that liberate the human spirit.