Most of the boats in our class cary a device called a chart plotter, the marine version of the mapping apps many of us have on our mobile phones. These devices have detailed charts. Our route takes us down American and Canadian rivers, but predominantly along an inland coastal highway. This route is so common that charts mark it with a bold magenta line labeled the Intercoastal Waterway.
Early in the loop, Eddy Johnson gave me some advice I didn't fully understand until today. He said the trip gets more interesting when you take the time to come off the magenta line and leave the guidebooks. We'd passed several points of interest, some remote wildernesses and some kitschy to the point of gaudy like the fiberglass stones called Bama Hinge. Yes, it's what you think it is. Some are in guidebooks but not the ones presented by loopers. Some are local hideaways.
As a longtime mountain biker, I loved getting off the main trail. The best drops, the nicest views, and the most unusual wildlife encounters were all off the main trail. We thought of trails as tap roots that served as attachment points for more adventures.
As we sat in our ranger tug on a balmy Sunday, we debated whether to check off another iconic mark from our list, a restaurant on a tiny island called Cabbage Key. As mostly vegans, we wouldn't even eat much of what was on the menu. It was a long holiday weekend so the place promised plenty of crowds with the wakes, sniffles, and coughs that invariably go with them. A couple planning on joining us ran aground and had been up all night getting their boat off the sandbar so they cancelled. We were debating whether to take a trip to one more crowded bar in a literal sea of them when we got a text. Another couple we'd met a few days ago invited to take us to a local hideaway called the Tunnel of Love. With the advice to leave the magenta line ringing in our ears, we took the invitation.
Just a few minutes later, Craig and Peg pulled up to our swim platform in a twelve foot hard-bottomed dinghy with a powerful 20 horsepower motor on the back. It seems we'd be traveling in style with the power to rise above the chop of the bay, a technique power boaters call planing. As we skimmed over the tips of the tiny waves on plane, Craig expertly guided the craft, zipping close to the crab pots because they had to be placed by vessels with a deeper draft. The smell of the pungent salty seas was powerful but fresh as the bright white sand and deep green mangroves met the turquoise sea. We passed hunting osprey and playing dolphins in the short trek past one tiny island called a key, then the next. Just as it seemed we'd be settling in for a longer trek, Craig smoothly swept the tiller to his left and the boat slid to the right, pointing right toward a dock.
We had a brief conversation with a couple just on the verge of departure, a family Peg and Craig knew well. After catching up, we again picked up the pace and swept toward a tiny path cut through the mangroves. We'd seen several tunnels like this one before, but none quite so densely packed. We brought up the motor until it just tickled the tops of the waves, dialed back the speed, and slid into the tunnel, squeezed from the shallow bottom below, the sharp edges from the freshly cut mangroves on the sides, and even light branches above. I worked to keep the sharpest branches off of the boat, and Craig continued to weave his way through the tiny passage. This tiny tunnel would never show up on a chart, and the only mention in any guidebook would warn tourists away to prevent puncture damage to dinghies and people.
Those books are wrong. The path opened up into a tiny stretch of beach, and after walking a couple of dozen steps, we emerged into one of the most beautiful stretches of beaches I have ever encountered. These pristine shores were clearly visited by locals since long dead hurricane damaged tree trunks were decorated with patterns of shells, plants, or whatever adornments the sea provided.
The beach was impossibly lovely, the water wonderfully fresh, and the cold splashes felt like bubbling laughter on our skin, washing away the fear that stems from leaving the magenta line. The place made conversations between us all more vivid, and the vivid colors told stories our words could not.
Eventually, we settled back in the dinghy to tend to our old dog and our appetites. Along the way, we met the new loopers and stopped for a drink, the unofficial docktails wiping away some of the frustration from grounding a boat on the second day of their loop.
To us, this serendipitous slice of time, and others like it, don't represent the loop. They *are* the loop. The answered invitation to adventure is like Bilbo stepping out of the front door into the unknown. The unyielding single magenta line fades, but faintly remains as the root of a trail system we can use to plan new adventures.