The next morning, we slept in. Sunlight slanted through the shades across the windows and a dozen people curled deeper into their sleeping bags laid out across the floors. It was a slow day: deep cleaning the churches, returning vans, tying up final tasks. When everything was finished, we piled into the cars and left Lakeland behind. Windows down at sunset, wind slammed against my face for the hour drive down to St. Pete on the coast. We made it to the beach as the last wisps of light were fading away, and we all ran stumbling down to the ocean. Waves tumbled up onto the shore, and we cracked beers and sat in a circle, quietly sharing our thoughts and feelings about the week one by one. Translations were whispered even then, because not everybody in the circle spoke the same language. We laid out sleeping bags and blankets and shared more Yuenglings and overripe plums, wiping the sweet juice into the sand, and the constellations circled overhead and I could almost perceive the rotation of the earth. We all slept in a great pile on the sand, curled into the blankets against the chilly ocean wind as the whispers of the sea lulled us to sleep.
And we woke to the sky’s blush. We ate breakfast in a small diner with sand still in our ears, and then we began to part ways. One car headed to the airport. Julia took the rest of us up to downtown Tampa where we got coffees and shared a few final moments, and then suddenly it was just me and Olivia on the curb with our packs and no plan. We let the gravity of that one sink in for a moment.
We sat outside the café for a while longer, reflecting on the things that had happened this week and marveling that it had all culminated in this moment. We’d all been discussing plans on the way to Tampa, but nobody had known what they were going to do until the moment we parted ways. For me, it felt good to shoulder my pack once again. And Olivia had just made a spontaneous snap decision to stay in Florida with no plan or place to stay simply because it had felt right.
Inside the coffee shop she met a couple of couchsurfing activists who told us about a hostel they were heading to later to play music. Then we wandered, down to the beautiful river, scoping out spots to sleep and write. We ducked into a café on the water and the friendly cute barista gave us a dozen tastes of gourmet gelato even though we weren’t buying any. I got a glass bottle of Coke and we came out to the grass by the river where Olivia read this awesome lesbian Chicana poetry out loud and I watched ripples in the drifting water clouds.
Eventually we hiked up to the hostel for some live music, got lost or missed the building somehow, and walked about two miles in the wrong direction, a ninety minute trudge through poor black neighborhoods with people on porches staring at us. Our bags were heavy but we kept pressing on because we refused to give up the search. “Maybe we’re almost near somewhere,” Olivia suggested. At literally the end of the road, we sat down on the bench at a bus stop and scratched our heads and tried to decide what to do and how to get back. We were hungry and we wanted to find something to eat, but it was getting late, so maybe we should head back immediately if we didn’t want to walk back that way after dark? But where to now? Keep trying to find the hostel? Back to the river? To a coffee shop to write? “Wait,” I finally said. “First, before we do anything else, let’s figure out why we came all the way up here. I don’t know what it was, but there must be a reason, when you are on the road, things always—” I was interrupted by a guy who pedaled up to us on a rusty bicycle, plastic bags dangling from the handlebars. He wore a huge beard and wild beautiful long wispy shadows of gray hair. “You guys hungry?” He reached into the plastic bags and handed us two paper plates laden with burgers, carrots, and rice. His name was Frisbee Jim. He gave us a bottle of grape juice too, and a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter that he wouldn’t let us refuse. “I hope I’ve been a blessing to you guys,” he said before pedaling away. “I hope you pass this on.” The sky was a raging sunset when he left us. Olivia and I stared at each other. “So—did this or did this not just happen,” I said as the clouds boiled. “A guy on a bicycle interrupts my question of why we walked all this way in order to give us dinner?”
We took a city bus back to downtown in search of a café but we couldn’t find one that was still open. So instead we stood there trying to decide what to do and talking to everyone who walked past us, easily making new friends. Eventually we walked into a CVS and bought a couple cold drinks and then headed down to the water to write.
So here we are, down by the river, planning to sleep right over there next to this bridge, it’s warm outside, our bellies are full not because of money spent but because of generosity shared, and tomorrow is nothing but the unknown. We write for a while, down at the edge of the river by the lights by the water where jumping fish ripple the reflections of the stars, our sleeping bags already laid out under that tree up the hill in the cover of reeds. When we finish writing, we lean against the railing looking out over the river and our great talks continue, we talk about travel, identity, society, the universe. It feels good to have someone out there with me even for just this day or two, this is the first time someone has joined me in this way, I’ve traveled with other travelers I’ve met, but never just had somebody join me on the streets of a city and wander around getting lost and meeting people and eventually curling up next to a river beneath stars. But tomorrow I will be alone, and tomorrow I will be on the road, and if I am sleeping thirty feet from where I sit now writing this, what does that mean about home?