Travel Stories, part 2
December/Collier County, Florida
At the end of a bumpy road in an old Florida town lives an average man.
As a photographer, this town is one of my favorites. It has very few places where you can take a photograph, and the locals don’t seem to like photographers, so it is a strange place to be a favorite. But perhaps the best part of being a photographer are the brief encounters you have with real people, the real conversations you have, the real connection you make with other human beings.
So on a late December evening, I return to this old Florida town in hopes of photographing the full moon rising over water. I park my car on the grass next to a narrow canal, grab my two camera bodies, and walk to the end of the street. From my research, the house at the end of this little peninsula should have a perfect view of moonrise. It is about 50 yards to the last house, a bright green clapboard structure. As I round the corner, I see a silhouette of a man seated on a weathered screened-in porch and say loudly, “Excuse me, good afternoon sir.”
“Who’s there?” the man shouts without turning.
“My name is Rich, good afternoon,” I reply, wondering if he is blind.
“What do you want?” He barks, still without turning.
I explain that I’d like to take photographs of the moonrise over the water from the edge of his property.
“Fine, I got no problem with that,” he replies. “Name’s Jonesy,” he says, finally turning his head slightly. “I can’t see you, I’ve got a hernia. Hurts right here.” He points to his sternum. Not the common place for a hernia, I think.
“No worries,” I reply and take a few more steps so he can see me.
The man is seated on a stool, wearing an old pair of jeans, a weathered green t-shirt and glasses. “What’d you say your name was?” He asks.
I repeat my name and my desire to photograph moonrise and step closer to the porch to give him a business card.
“Sure, take all the pictures you want, I got no problem with that,” he shrugs.
I thank him and tell him I’ll be back in about an hour to set up for moonrise.
“Guy two doors down gotta’ dog, he barks, but he’s friendly,” he adds as I leave the property.
The town is really just a tight jetty of land that sticks out into the water. There are a few restaurants on a tiny thumb-shaped bay, and a real fish market. The other dominant feature is a tightly-packed trailer park, decorated with Christmas lights for the season.
I walk up the bumpy road, past my car and into town. At the edge of the narrow canal, a couple is cutting and cleaning their catch on a fillet table. I continue into town, and a pair of older couples seated on a picnic bench enjoying the late afternoon sun surprise me with a friendly wave. The light is getting softer now as the sun slides towards the horizon. I see the commercial fishing boats along the pier in the little bay and turn into the parking lot to survey the location.
"You can't come in here," says a 30-something man who pops out from behind a truck. He is wearing the high white boots of a commercial fisherman in these parts.
I wave and turn 180 degrees.
"Thank you," he says. His comment surprises me in this gruff old Florida town.
I continue onward, walking past a couple of restaurants lining the little bay. There are several cars turning around me as guests arrive for dinner. A dusty black pickup truck roars past, perhaps the same one that the man popped out from a moment ago. At the end of the little bay is a bar/restaurant, mostly empty now, but with a few musicians on a small stage preparing for the night's entertainment. A police car is parked just ahead, and the Sheriff suddenly appears and our eyes meet. I give him a disarming wave, and he slides into his cruiser. Turning around the end of the bay and coming back up the other side, I see an opportunity to photograph the commercial fishing boats with a long lens and walk over to the water. I peek around a small yellow-painted building and find a leg and foot sticking out, propping up a door, with the person mostly inside.
"Excuse me," I say loudly.
A startled middle-aged man pops his head out.
"Didn't mean to surprise you, but do you mind if I take a couple shots from this property," I ask.
"No, go ahead," he says, and returns to washing something in a sink that is inside the door.
I grab a couple shots in the nice light, and then continue down the opposite side of the bay. There are homes and buildings here blocking the views and I continue to the end where I find a messy lot with a nice, unobscured view of the bay. There are a couple decrepit "No Trespassing" signs dangling from a post. I look around but see no one. So I settle for taking a couple shots from the street and turn around.
I snap a couple more shots of weathered nautical gear scattered around town.
Then I remember that I talked to the GM at one of the restaurants last year about taking some photographs while on the property, so I walk back to the other side of the bay--a trip of maybe 120 seconds. I duck into the darkness, and at the receptionist desk I am informed that the GM is not in today. I leave a business card and head back out into the warm evening light. I exit the parking lot and meander down to the bend in the road, where there is a large restaurant on the water, with signage proudly announcing that it has been operating since the mid-1800s. Today, it is closed.
I return to the street and turn right and can now see my car along the finger canal. The whole canal is bathed in warm light. There is a man cleaning his skiff and I notice that I might have parked in his spot. So I stroll down and start a conversation with him. He is in his mid-40s, and he owns a small weekend house on the island. I apologize if I parked in his spot; he tells me it is not a problem, he isn’t using it. I promise to be out of his way in an hour. I open the trunk to grab my tripod, while we talk a bit about the fishing and the town. An alarm from an astronomy app bings on my phone giving me a five minute warning before moonrise. I excuse myself, thank him for his patience and walk back to Jonesy’ house.
I can smell the cigarette smoke before I round the corner. I spot Jonesy in the same spot where I left him, but this time he is puffing on a cigarette.
“When’s the moon coming up?” he asks still facing the same direction.
“Couple minutes, less than 5,” I tell him.
“Setup wherever you want,” he says. “I ain’t going nowhere.”
I walk to the point, set up the tripod, mount the camera, and look up. And suddenly, there is the moon, giant and tinted in the pinkish hue of early evening.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to cut the grass today,” he apologizes.
“Not a problem for me,” I shrug, getting to work.
“Take a shot of the Sheriff!” he calls out. I look up and a police boat is entering the bay from the right.
“I don’t think so,” I call back, and hear him chuckle.
Photography is a lot of “hurry up and wait” and then just a lot of rushing when the light is right. I get the focus set and start snapping some shots. There is still a lot of light and I want some glassy water so after a few shots I add a 10-stop filter.
“Why don’t you come back here?” Jonesy suggests.
I’ve taken enough shots at my first spot, and I need something a bit more interesting in the foreground, so I walk around to the side of the house facing the water and see a little pier, maybe 25 feet long. Sure enough, there is a better foreground from this perspective. I get the camera set, and start shooting.
“Where’d you park?” Jonesy asks.
“A couple houses down, over on the canal.”
“You can park here,” he offers.
“Probably too late for that,” I think aloud as I continue to work. “I talked to your neighbor and he said it was fine to leave the car there for a little while.”
As the evening darkens, I realize I forgot my remote shutter release in the car. There are clouds creeping in from the top and bottom, and I realize the moon is going to be blocked in a few seconds.
“I think we are going to lose the moon for a bit,” I announce to Jonesy.
“Yep,” he says now from a standing position on the exterior deck.
“I won $10 on the scratch off lottery today,” he pronounces.
“No way, congrats,” I smile looking back at him.
I snap a few more shots using the camera’s shutter timer, and then the clouds begin to encroach on the moon.
“Man,” I moan, “I forgot something in the car. I’m gonna’ leave my cameras here for a second,” I tell him.
“Not a problem,” he says through a puff.
So now I take off running back to the car.
“Run Forrest, Run!” he chuckles. I realize now that Jonesy has a sense of humor.
A grab the remote shutter release and run back to my spot.
“You didn’t miss nothing,” he tells me.
The moon is still behind the clouds as I attach the remote shutter release.
“Sunrises are beautiful here too,” he says. “You fish?”
“I do, I fly fish” I tell him.
“You can’t believe what swims past here,” he says nodding at the dock. I notice a light has automatically turned on at the edge of the tiny dock.
“Like what? Sharks?” I ask.
“Sharks, rays, dolphins, all kinda’ fish,” he says. “You ever caught a snook?”
“Yeah, I have. Caught some little ones yesterday.”
“I want to show you a picture of a fish I caught before you leave. You ain’t going to believe the size of this fish,” he says proudly.
“Sure, sure,” I say, wondering what I am getting myself into. “How long have you lived here?” I ask, awaiting the moon’s reappearance.
“15 years,” he says.
“Nice spot to live,” I say to him.
“Yeah it is. A rich guy owns the place and I’ve been taking care of it for him. But he’s sick now, so he hasn’t been down for a while.”
The top of the moon begins to emerge from the clouds.
“I gotta’ get the place fixed up now that all these are million dollar houses,” he says, referring to the steady rise of home prices in recent years. “But I ain’t been feeling good. I got this hernia,” he says pointing to his stomach. “But the doctors don’t want to do nothing about it. I can’t do a lot of things, can’t bend over and tie my shoes.”
“You sure that’s a hernia?” I ask. “Might want to have someone take another look at that.”
“The muscles are all torn up. I can’t get a doctor’s appointment. I got insurance but it takes a month to see a doctor.”
“Torn abdominal muscles, huh? Can they operate on it?” I ask with the moon almost full again.
“Yeah, but they say they don’t recommend it.”
“Maybe get a second opinion?” I offer.
“I want to, but it take a month to see a doctor,” he repeats.
“I might be inclined to try the surgery if you can’t do anything,” I say.
“No I can do stuff, I just can’t do all the things I need to do. I worked a couple hours today,” he says.
“Where do you work?” I ask, leaning forward to look at the emergent moon through my camera.
“At the big restaurant.” He names one of the restaurants down the street but I don’t understand him.
I start taking shots with my remote shutter release. I experiment with a few different settings to try to get smooth water with a long exposure, but without losing focus on the moon moving higher in the sky.
After a few minutes of silence I hear, “It’s my birthday today.”
“Oh yeah? Happy Birthday, Jonesy.” I say.
“68” he pronounces.
“68 today?” I lob back.
“No, not today. At noon,” he clarifies.
I think to myself that is an awfully precise birthday.
“You were born at noon?” I ask.
“I gotta’ go take a leak.” He says. “You want a beer?”
“No thanks, Jonesy,” I say, “I have to drive back.”
“How far’s the drive?”
“About an hour.”
“Traffic is bad, everyone is coming in for New Years,” he says.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a bunch of people going through red lights recently,” I add.
“Gonna’ be crazy tonight, everyone coming in around New Years.”
“Are you going into town?”
“Nah, I ain’t going nowhere,” he repeats.
With that, he is gone for a few moments, and I am left to the quiet of the water, and clouds, and breeze, and the moon. I remove the 10-stop filter and adjust some settings. These are the moments—the oneness with nature—that I love as a photographer.
“You ever think back when you were young?” he asks on his return.
“Oh yeah, all the time,” I say.
“I mean like in high school and after high school,” he clarifies.
“Sure I do. It doesn’t seem that long ago but time goes fast,” I offer.
“Man we did some crazy stuff. Crazy. But it was so much fun.”
I let him speak but he doesn’t add anything more, just sighs “Crazy, but we survived it.” And he takes another swig of his beer.
A few more minutes pass.
“I’m here alone,” he announces. “My wife went back to the Indian reservation. Her brother got sick up on the reservation so she left to take care of him.”
“The reservation down here?”
“Yeah,” he said, as if it there were only one. The reservation is only about a 30 minute drive from where I am standing.
“How long ago was that?” I ask wondering if I should have not pry.
“Three years. But we talk. We’re good.” He sips his beer.
I continue shooting as the moon ascends and a beautiful line of moonlight reflects across the bay.
“Well, I’ll be out of your way in a few more minutes,” I say.
“I wanna’ show you that fish before you leave,” he reminds me. “So what do you do with these pictures?”
“I sell artwork to a lot of hospitals and medical offices.” I reply.
“I’d like to get one of your pictures.”
"Sure, no problem. Just give me your email address and I will send it to you,” I offer.
“I don’t got email,” he retorts.
“OK, well give me your address, and I will send you one.” I pull out my cellphone to enter his address.
“I’ll pay you for it,” he says.
“No, you don’t have to. You let me shoot on the property, I will send you one. What is your address?”
There is a long pause and some confusion. He starts to give me the address and then corrects it.
I read it back to him.
“No, that’s not right,” he says and gives me some changes.
Again, I read it back to him. “You gave me a street address and a PO box, which one do you want me to send it to?”
“There aren’t any mailboxes for these houses. Send it to the PO box but you also need the street address,” he directs.
I return to my work, and take a few more shots as the moon begins to dissolve behind the clouds.
“I think that’ll about do it for me,” I say, pulling my head back from my camera.
“Let me get that photo,” he says and disappears inside.
I start packing my gear and have a last look around on a beautiful night.
“Here, here it is,” I hear him calling from inside before he reappears on the porch.
I walk over and turn on my phone’s flashlight. Sure enough, it is a massive snook.
“That’s enormous!” I exclaim.
“Caught it right here,” he points to the little dock. “You can’t believe the fish that swim past here.”
“Nice fish,” I nod and hand him back his picture.
“There’s a lot of big ones right here,” he says.
I look over to the little pier and see fish swimming in the small dock light.
“That’s a great fish.”
He starts to retreat to the porch.
“Well, thanks a million, Jonesy. I appreciate you letting me shoot on the property.” Since my phone is still in my hand, I figure I better check his address one more time before I ship him a photo. I read aloud his address.
“No, no, it’s 105 not 519” he shouts.
“105?” I ask, thinking those numbers are very different.
“Uh, yeah, it’s 105,” he stammers.
We review the entire address one more time. I’m feeling less confident than when he originally asked for the photo.
“Which way you going out?” he asks.
“Just round the same way I came in,” I say.
“Oh, okay, cause there is a big hole on the other side of the house.”
“Come back anytime,” he says.
“Thanks, I’ll send you the photo. And happy birthday. Maybe have another beer.”
“Nah, I can’t drink too much,” he says as I snap the legs together of my tripod.
“Nice to meet you,” he says.
“Same here, and maybe have that surgery, Jonesy,” I muse aloud.
“Docs don’t recommend it. I don’t know, maybe I will. Be careful getting out of here,” he adds.
“I will,” I say as I lug my cameras and tripod around the corner of the house.
“I’ll be seeing you,” he calls out in the darkness.
As I start down the bumpy road, I can barely hear him say “Have a good night.”