Category Archives: Summer Vacation

The Adirondacks: A Small Place With Big Allure

On September 12, 1901, when there were maybe just a few hints of fall color touching the Adirondack Mountains, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt went for a hike. Vacationing with his family in his beloved North Country, he decided to climb Mount Marcy, New York State’s tallest peak at just over 5,300 feet. While hiking, some local man named Harrison Hall was trailing Roosevelt, carrying probably the most important piece of paper he’d ever held in his hands—a telegram with news of President McKinley’s life-threatening injuries. The Vice President got down the mountain, boarded a wagon and made it to a railroad station where he inched his way across New York State to get to Buffalo where McKinley had been shot. McKinley died on September 14, and Roosevelt was sworn in as America’s 26th president.

I think of this story every time I’m in the Adirondacks, which is where I spent this past weekend. Why this story? Because I think of how this understated 6.2 million acres of landscape used to attract some of the biggest names and most adventurous people. I mean Theodore Roosevelt chose to spend his down time here, where, 114 years later, I was spending my down time. This got me thinking how the Adirondacks’ timelessness appears indefatigable despite forest fires, global warming, and industrialization. Thirty-one years after Roosevelt became president, Lake Placid, the region’s biggest hub, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and did such a good job hosting that they got the gig again in 1980, drawing some of the world’s best athletes to this tiny town surrounded by blue peaks. The area, once known for back country lumberjacks and rural poverty, was now under the global spotlight entertaining some of the best of the best who had crossed sea and sky to reach this place. Today, the Olympic Games tend to go to bigger places with bigger budgets, and presidents vacation in luxurious locales like Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii. The Adirondacks is not Aspen or Jackson Hole; there are some four-star accommodations and awesome eats, but it’s still mountain country where grizzly guys are out in the open driving their rusting pick-ups. Outside of the American Northeast, people have heard of the Rockies and the Ozarks and maybe even the Smoky Mountains and the Olympic Range, but few people seem to recall the Adirondacks unless you specifically say “Lake Placid, where the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union” and then you get a nod of recognition.

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On the ground, Lake Placid obviously looks quite different than it did during Roosevelt’s visits or even the 1980 Olympic Games. Towns, like lakes and mountains, are their own ecosystems, always evolving and adapting, as they should. But while kayaking alone on Mirror Lake yesterday morning, I looked around the mountains and sky reflecting off the water’s surface, Mirror Lake living up to its name, and thought of how much nature still manages to move us even while we’re all IV’ed to our smartphones. The buildings and roads in between the Adirondacks’ peaks and valleys change, but the impact the region has on those who live here and visit has not. There are still many, many places throughout the Adirondacks where you can’t get any cell service, and as long as there’s no emergency, this feels like a wonderful thing. To kayak alone on a serene lake without my iPhone on me, to be out there early enough before all the paddleboarders and boaters woke up, and to feel like I had the sky and lake and mountains all to myself, was intoxicating. And I imagined this was the pull that Theodore Roosevelt felt when he hiked Mount Marcy nearby. Maybe, like me, he thought “This is mine,” even though we knew otherwise.

There are countless beautiful places on this earth—the Adirondacks and Mirror Lake being among them—and it’s getting harder to keep them beautiful. Lesser-known corners of our planet struggle to hide from capitalism, climate change and population growth. Globalization means just that, where everyone’s backyards are connected even if it doesn’t feel so. When I kayaked across Mirror Lake, I thought “How much longer?” The state-protected Adirondack Park is home to 3,000 lakes and ponds and 30,000 miles of streams and rivers, including the birthplace of the Hudson River; Mirror Lake is shockingly pristine compared with some of the others. Powered boats aren’t permitted and no one is dumping cow shit into it unlike the farms surrounding nearby Lake Champlain, the almost-sixth Great Lake that divides New York and Vermont (equally stunning though not as clean as it could be). The clarity of Mirror Lake’s shoreline sometimes reminded me of the Caribbean. Yet the area deals with salt contamination due to aggressive salt use as part of winter road maintenance. Folks there shovel more than 100 inches of snow per year; 86 percent of salt and chloride buildup has been directly attributed to road salting to help keep roads as dry as possible. Pollution comes from neighbors, too: many of the Adirondacks’ lakes suffered depletion due to acid rain as a result of wind patterns mixing with Midwest plant emissions.

Thankfully, there are already signs of ecological recovery, for mountain folk are fiercely protective types. Because of their efforts, we had a gorgeous, lazy day on a pretty clean lake Sunday. No floating garbage. No slimy muck pooling at our feet. Locals and tourists apparently playing by the rules. I’m so grateful for this region and miss it the moment we leave. It’s a side of the American Northeast people don’t think of; our colonial history and that stress-junkie lifestyle that defines the Boston to New York to Washington, DC, corridor often overshadows the quiet, mountain interior that appealed to Roosevelt. But it’s still there, and if you have the chance, go and experience it before it changes into something I wouldn’t recognize.

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A Short Meditation on New York City Dog Pee

New York City smells of dog pee. This is a cyclical event and very similar to the time when it’s ok for women to wear white pants, usually beginning around the Fourth of July festivities and wrapping up around Labor Day weekend. Everyone who lives and works in this area knows this. There are who-knows-how-many-dogs being walked across the Big Apple at this very moment, pissing everywhere, not caring whether it’s Fifth Avenue or some unlit corner in Alphabet City. And while dutiful dog owners have their little plastic baggies in hand, ready to swoop and scoop poop, there’s nothing anyone can do about dog pee. Even long after hot city sidewalks soak it up, the heat hits—and it hits hard—followed by the stickiest humidity the Northeast can deliver, and before you know it, you can’t smell anything but dog pee even if you’re back home in your own house, your own yard, feeding backyard chickens.

Anyone who can afford to leave New York City during peak summer months goes somewhere else. They go to the Hamptons or Fire Island or the Jersey Shore, where a third of the male population is named Anthony. We go to California.

Is the dog pee smell really that bad, you ask, that you have to go 2,700 miles west just to escape it? I think we lose the dog pee smell by the time we drive over the George Washington Bridge, but really, the yearly summertime schlepping to California goes beyond getting away from too much urine, not feeling safe wearing flip-flops around the city, or seeing too many people wearing black even when it’s 90 degrees out. Perhaps it’s more about what we want rather than what we don’t want, that coveted California lifestyle, the freedom to wear flip-flops anywhere as Californians do, the predictability of knowing it will be sunny just about every day, where avocados are priced at seven for a dollar and are so plentiful, Los Angeles bartenders mix avocado cocktails and guys in aprons scoop avocado ice cream.

Next month, for two weeks, I get to pretend I’m a Californian. I’m stupidly excited about this. I’ll be in San Francisco buying groceries, taking the BART, eating sushi here more than once because it will be near my apartment, perusing the shelves at City Lights, ignoring shuttle buses teeming with Google or Facebook employees. Yeah, I’ve been reading about how San Francisco is changing. Money has a tendency to ruin things: relationships, childhoods, cities. Since my 20s, I had a thing about living in San Francisco, and then the job opportunities brought us to Seattle, then to Washington, D.C., then to New York. To know a city deeply, you need to know its smells. Seattle always smelled of fish and coffee to me, which isn’t that bad as far as urban scents go. D.C. always smelled of dry-cleaning and power. Really. Power has a smell. It’s very musky. In a few weeks, I will have the chance to figure out San Francisco’s smells. I’m hoping it’s baked sour dough, although that could just be optimism talking. Maybe after all these years, I dodged a bullet. Maybe there’s a San Francisco smell and Mark Zuckerberg is financing the cleanup right now. I haven’t been to San Francisco since 2012 when I froze my butt off one late-August day, but perhaps the city has gotten too classy for me and lingering smells of any kind just aren’t tolerated anymore.

It’s just as well. I find myself more drawn to SoCal dreaminess anyway. My eyes have shifted to Los Angeles, which, like New York, is a place where a crappy coffee shop can peacefully coexist with an amazing coffee shop, where the mediocre and the really effing-awesome can be found on the same street, just perhaps with less dog pee in L.A. I haven’t quite figured out L.A.’s smells yet (feel free to enlighten me), but I’ve always liked its energy. New York City is the wrong kind of kineticism, there’s a stress addiction here I find exhausting. When you stack eight million people on top of one another, things get tense, which leads to pet therapy to alleviate stress, which leads to dogs being walked and peeing everywhere. Spread folks out on a beach like a blanket, surround them with salty sea air and mountains, and, well, maybe things slow down a bit, long enough to enjoy a crappy cup of coffee or some avocado ice cream.

Thoughts on Money and Travel

Normally, I use this little online soapbox to talk about various destinations I’ve enjoyed over the years. But what was the journey like leading up to these trips?

Five summers ago, we bought our first house and moved into rooms that took forever to fill with furniture. About six weeks later, the recreational soccer season began and I registered our daughter, for the suburban soccer field has always been the go-to place to ingratiate yourself, the place to meet other parents, get the lowdown on the community, learn where to buy cheese, craft beer and organic produce and to find out who mows their lawns at unreasonable hours. This whole move was about our daughter. This was the town with the award-winning school district, so we took on a ton of debt to care for an aging colonial house in a neighborhood surrounded by McMansions so she could get the best public school education northern New Jersey had to offer.

It didn’t take long for me to feel out place. The town is populated by financially-stable families who are either second-generation middle or upper-middle class, not first-generation middle class as we are. The grandparents were educated entrepreneurs, not cafeteria lunch ladies or school bus drivers like mine. The parents are now lawyers, doctors, and managers in business with nice gigs at places like NBC and UBS. We know two people who are in the creative fields; they are both musicians and married to one another. Otherwise, we haven’t met many other creative types here and no one talks about the books they’ve read because everyone is too busy working hard to pay for this lifestyle.

I was at the soccer field in early September when it still felt like summer, watching my kid chase a ball. It had been about two months after we had unpacked. I began eavesdropping on a couple of moms sitting nearby on bleachers. One was complaining about her husband being late to some household renovation discussion. The lighting was being redone, she needed his input, their house was worth a million or two, the designer had a lot of questions, why couldn’t he be on time? These women had amazing manicures and their hands flew like agitated, coiffed birds.

I turned to my husband and said “I need to join someone’s revolution in South America stat otherwise I’m going to get stupidly soft here.”

Fast-forward five years and I still hate it here, but the kid is getting that great education, she has a great circle of friends, we have equity, and I too-often book trips to escape. I always had a case of wanderlust. I daydream of driving around the West Coast in an Airstream—which always looked like a mega-metallic Twinkie to me—picnicking my way north or south, reading books, writing whatever, answering to no one or nothing, not even an alarm clock. My husband is on board with this idea once our kid finishes high school. He moved around a lot as a kid, hated it, and firmly believes (and I agree) kids should have roots. So maybe these are girlish dreams to have at age 42, for the suburban parents I’ve met here tackle their responsibilities with gusto, chauffeuring their children to the gazillion activities they think will give them that competitive edge for who knows what, and, if anyone resents this suburban parent rat race, no one is saying so out loud, not even after too much wine at backyard barbecues.

So I book trips. I booked trips before we moved to this snobby suburb, but now travel has become a kind of lifeline, my way of holding on to a me I still recognize and like. Since moving here, we’ve gone to France, Mexico, Japan, Iceland. We have gone to California almost every year (Mike’s company is based there), we visited Colorado twice, and Canada, five times. All these trips would have easily covered the cost of a major kitchen renovation as well as several other home upgrades, for our house is old and crumbling in some places plus we would increase our property value. But we have postcards, not an open-concept kitchen with granite counter tops. We have great cocktail party stories about getting lost in Tokyo and biking Quebec, not new bathroom tile. I sometimes wonder if the frequency of our travels gives the false impression that we are rich, and here’s where the thoughts on money come in.

Three years ago, I left a communications manager job in which I was held in high regard. It wasn’t fulfilling, I had always wanted to be a novelist, and I thought, if not now, when? I could’ve stayed, collected regular paychecks every two weeks, lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests, say yes to everything in the hopes that I would get another promotion and/or bonus, build up my retirement savings, maintain a decent working gal’s wardrobe, continue to pay through the nose for after school care and commuting (my commute averaged about $8,000 per year; getting across that Hudson River every day is not cheap, folks), and go on family vacations probably twice a year while watching my dreams of writing a novel ebb away because I’m not the type who can scribble plot on deli napkins in between meetings.

Instead, I’m under-earning. Way under-earning during what should be peak earning years. Juicier, larger projects that used to be easier to come by as a freelance writer are now fewer and far between. Budgets get cut. Projects fall through. The Internet continues to cheapen everything related to writing and publishing. Experts always advise to diversify; I have more clients yet less income, which goes against the equation many of us were taught. Every freelance writer I know is being low-balled for his or her work, and we’re all working harder now just to grab those smaller assignments that perhaps a decade or two ago we could have afforded to pass.

Despite this drop in income, I still travel though sometimes I question whether I should chill out, ignore my suburban surroundings and just save more and spend less. Two days ago, I hid from the Canadian wind by curling up and reading inside a Starbucks at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City. I read about Scratch magazine, a publication covering the writing life and money, or lack thereof, coming to an end after two years. Scratch didn’t paint a rosy picture of the writer’s life—no one makes any money, which made me wonder if my choices were too financially risky after all. And then I read this great article by Chelsea Fagan about money and travel. Usually articles about money and/or travel remind me of what I’ve done wrong, but this one was so validating I read it twice. Fagan writes: “Encouraging that person to ‘not worry about money,’ or to ‘drop everything and follow their dreams,’ demonstrates only a profound misunderstanding about what ‘worrying’ actually means.”

I almost stood up at Le Château Frontenac and applauded. Holy crap! Someone finally said it. Out loud. On the Internet.

But, hey, Katrina, you quit your job, you’re following your dreams now, and you’re thanking Fagan’s candor from the lobby of a four-star hotel where you once stayed. All true, Internet, but here’s the thing: I spent my teens, 20s, and 30s working jobs I didn’t like to dig myself out of debt. We should all do stuff we don’t like for extended periods of time because it makes us appreciate what we really do like. I had six figures of debt when my daughter was born in 2004. My parents didn’t have bachelor’s degrees or any money when they were married and then when they divorced while I was a teenager, there was even less money to go around, and let’s just say getting child support from my father wasn’t easy. Money was so tight I missed out on my high school French class trip to Quebec City because I couldn’t afford to go (and I was the only student who didn’t go). My mother occasionally borrowed $20 from me—my earnings from babysitting, strawberry-picking and bussing tables at the town country club—to fill her gas tank to get to work. Growing up, our financial situation was precarious, and the cost of this dysfunction would be mine to pay off for years. I had to borrow to go to college, as most of us do, and worked a number of odd jobs to continue to afford college. I used credit cards to buy groceries and make ends meet. I once borrowed $3,000 from an ex-boyfriend (obviously, a super-nice guy, whom I did pay back in full). I didn’t come from any means whatsoever. Low expectations were encouraged, verbally and otherwise. I sometimes think middle- and upper-class families, where the money just moves from generation to generation, don’t get this, that lack of a safety net, what it feels like to stretch $20 bills farther than they are meant to go. My parents didn’t grow up with any money so “making do” was what you did, but as a teenager I resented this hand-to-mouth living. The breadwinner of our household had a debilitating mental illness and made a number of bad choices that would follow me for a long time. I wanted to break loose from all of it, financially, geographically, emotionally.

What changed? The first shift came in 1997 when we threw our few possessions into a small U-haul trailer and moved cross-country to Seattle, my first big life lesson that risk can indeed pay off. I came into a wave of dot-com money in the late 1990s and paid off $10,000 in student loans and a car loan (leaving about another $36,000 in student loans to go). A few years after being flush from our West Coast dot-com days, Mike and I both lost jobs and credit card debt went back up. Oh, and we had a baby. He was offered a job in New York City, and 11 1/2 years later, I’m still shocked we live here. We both did the nonprofit treadmill for a while and stayed afloat. I earned bonuses from exhausting office jobs and paid off what I could while Mike worked overtime. I got to the office early, Blackberried while driving home, arrived at daycare past closing, and watched a paycheck based on a 40-hour work week start to look small as the job consumed more of my life. Any windfall led to paying something off and, when we were lucky, a trip. First, small jaunts to the coast of Maine or back to Washington, D.C., where we used to live, and, eventually, trips to Belgium and England. Meanwhile, I contributed a meager 2 percent of my paycheck towards retirement—because daycare, credit card bills and other student loans ate the rest of my paycheck—and eventually that 2 percent grew to the point where we had enough for a rather laughable but legally-appropriate down payment on a house that was surprisingly accepted without issue. The real game changer, however, came in 2007 when my husband was offered a corporate gig that literally altered our lives. Nonprofit is called nonprofit for a reason, and folks can bash the corporate realm all they want, but the corporate realm helped us dig out faster, and I don’t badmouth the hand that feeds us. Because of one particularly awesome for-profit company that values my husband (and approves of work/life balance), I now have the freedom to attempt to write a novel while still being able to afford our daily expenses.

Which brings me back to the soccer field. The start of school and the new soccer season means the tail end of summer vacation. Sometimes I find myself chatting with a parent at the sideline and we talk about where we went and other trips we’ve taken. “Wow, you get around!” is usually the response, and I want to explain to this mom or dad how my mother, newly divorced, would yell at me for keeping my bedroom heat on too high because I was needlessly running up the utility bill when I could just throw on a sweater; how during my freshman year of college there was that discussion about whether I could afford to continue; how there would be a stack—a stack—of credit card bills on my desk; how I asked an ex-boyfriend for money.

But I don’t say any of these things.

When I meet others in our ‘burb, they ask what I do, the typical American chitchat filler. I explain how I stay at home and write freelance, and oh, yes, I’m working on my first novel, and yes, my husband writes for a mutual fund company, and really, you should go visit Iceland because the lava fields are beautiful this time of year, and I catch myself. But what can you really say on the sidelines of a kid’s soccer game? That it took you 20 years to dig out of debt, that you still worry about money even though the trips you take suggest otherwise because ever since you were stuck at home listening to your parents argue, you knew you wanted to see the world, that, yes, by all appearances you sound like a suburban corporate hausfrau but you’re focused on becoming a novelist and there are people in the publishing industry who think your manuscript is pretty good, that what you see standing before you here on this manicured soccer field isn’t always how it’s been, that you once counted pennies to buy spaghetti and butter, that when you were 23, your mother would call asking for money to help pay for your own health insurance because you were still on her plan and it was eating into her paycheck, that it was a long, weird, often difficult road, that financially, the woman you see before you is a late-bloomer compared with the neighbors, and that sometimes she’s surprised to be having this conversation at all?

Smoky Days

You can still smell cigar smoke walking down Seventh Avenue. More than a century after its heyday as the cigar-manufacturing capital of America, men—and women—lounge about Ybor City’s sidewalk cafes and enjoy a break from the Florida sun by puffing on a cigar. It’s a long-practiced, ideal way to wait out the afternoon humidity because the sunset hours are always the best in Florida, so why tire out beforehand? Just sit, relax, smoke slowly, and wait for that perfect part of the day to come because it always does.

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During my recent girlfriend getaway in Del Boca Vista country, we made the time to schlep an hour on the highway to stroll Ybor City and experience one of Florida’s oldest dining institutions, Columbia Restaurant, where the key lime pie is sweet and glossy like fresh lipstick.

Before our dinner reservation, we had time to meander into Ybor’s many vintage and consignment shops, and what’s a girls’ weekend without a little shopping? My favorite was the addictive La France, a place described by its owner as being “like a museum without a cover charge.” La France had the enthusiasm of a gay pride parade with the diligence of a carefully curated exhibit. We were in there a while. Feather boas lined up by color, beaded flapper gowns, diaphanous hats that would send sunbeams ricocheting, hairbands with beaded skulls, necklaces with beaded skulls, earrings and bracelets with beaded skulls. (Did I mention the beaded skulls? A touch of Mexicana in Tampa, apparently.) Floridians, like Southern Californians, don’t shy away from color. Forget urban black and embrace the magentas, corals, ambers and periwinkles! I found Tampa’s vintage shopping more interesting than New York’s, not just because New York’s may feel too familiar by now, but because Tampa didn’t seem to be trying so hard. These shops screamed “we love color and old stuff, so check us out!” and that was that.

At one vintage shop, a chain called Revolve, there, hanging on the wall behind the cashier, I spotted a green, floral-printed Old Navy dress I used to own around 1999-2000. I had purchased my dress in Seattle, had worn it to London (there’s a photo of me wearing it, standing in front of the London Eye in August 2000, shortly after I got engaged), and likely gave it to the Salvation Army sometime when I lived in Washington, DC, and became pregnant in 2003. I’m sure it wasn’t the same dress, though size-wise it looked like a match, and secretly, I wanted it to be my dress still traveling without me.

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But that’s new Ybor. What about old Ybor? The original Ybor? Like many American port towns, Ybor has a “those-were-the-days” story, when this Tampa neighborhood was a thriving immigrant community, and, like the old whaling town of Hudson, New York, a planned community built around a single industry, cigar manufacturing. Ybor’s golden age began as the 19th century was winding down and the 20th century was gearing up, the spin-off years after the Industrial Revolution when Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Romanian Jews, Germans and Chinese flocked to the area to make something of themselves. In 1869, Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spaniard in the cigar-making trade, decided to move operations from Key West to Tampa, where there was an active port and a new railroad line, ample opportunity to move boxes of fresh cigars around. Industry always leads to indulgence, and bars, restaurants, theaters and dance halls sprouted up as business boomed. Folks rolled cigars during the day and then puffed and partied at night. It had to have been downright dreamy.

I’m part German, and I had a hard time imagining my fair-skinned ancestors coming from a place of mountains and snow and adapting to Tampa’s climate, but history says they were business leaders there, supervising cigar factories and working as managers and accountants, no doubt bringing their quintessential German efficiency to the task at hand. The Germans arrived to Ybor in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, the Great Depression had knocked the wind out of Ybor’s sails, and like everywhere else in America, things dried up. Difficult decades followed, and then folks started realizing the faded potential of Ybor’s old brick buildings, that one of the state’s best restaurants was just down the street, and that if things could be dusted off a bit, business could boom once again. That’s when places like La France began to bloom.

Walking Seventh Avenue in Ybor City now you hear roosters crowing—just as you do in Key West—though the street is quiet during the heat of the day and not as busy as it appears in the sepia-toned photos I found of Old Ybor. Trolley cars still crisscross town. You still smell cigar smoke, you smell sweat, you see signs for sangria and promises of sales and a Greek man standing in a window making the perfect crepe for the umpteenth time that day. There is French food, Cuban food, Greek food, Spanish food, bar food. You likely won’t hear music unless stepping into a restaurant or cafe or bar because everyone keeps their doors closed to ensure the air-conditioning doesn’t escape and evaporate into the street because it’s really, really hot in Tampa most of the year, and coolness—the tangible kind—is social currency; it literally draws people in off the street, as it did us.

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We cooled off at Columbia Restaurant, which has weathered Ybor’s various transformations over the decades since 1905. Sangria pitchers there weren’t $15, but the booze was light, smooth, and went well with the black bean cakes and grouper that I ordered. It was Friday night and packed. If you’re going to go, make reservations. I gluten-bombed during this dinner, but it was worth it. Order the key lime pie and if you’re gluten-sensitive, just eat around the graham cracker crust. I recall tasting delicious, silky key lime pie when visiting Key West five years ago, and thinking “Damn, that’s good pie!” Columbia makes all its own desserts, but our waiter informed us the key lime pie comes from Mike’s Pies, and let’s just say Mike gets pie. He really, truly gets pie. I once savored cantaloupe gazpacho at Daniel, an extremely expensive restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and blurted out loud so that every coiffed Upper East Side diner heard me: “That’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever eaten!!!” And the waiter there smiled because he knew; he had just never heard someone say it so bluntly.

Then came Mike’s Pies.

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A Four-Day Vacation With My Former Self

There appears to be three primary reasons people fly to Florida: to visit an elderly relative, to attend the funeral of an elderly relative, or to party on the beach. On the flight home, I sat between two people returning from two different funerals. At age 42, I can proudly say I was the one who had partied on the beach.

I use the word “party” loosely. I couldn’t hold my drink then and I can’t hold it now. While sunbathing in my SPF-50 long-sleeved rashguard on Siesta Key, I barely drank my daiquiri, some ruby-colored concoction that melted the second it was made (I’m discovering I’m a high-end tequila gal, anyway). Everyone else looked leathery and was gulping down what looked like cheap beer or neon-colored drinks like mine. On the beach, I scuttled toward any bit of shade, like some frightened crab eager for protection. I’m not getting any younger, and have somehow remained wrinkle-free, like some freshly laundered white Oxford shirt. In fact, I received a few compliments on my clear complexion while visiting Florida last week and at first, I thought “What the hell? Are the labels on my overpriced skin care products actually true?” Then I looked around at all the raisins in the sun.

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So what brought me to Bradenton, Florida? Me and my mates from college try to meet up every few years to just hang and reconnect. Without planning for it, this trip fell almost exactly 20 years after our college graduation. Our last jaunt was to Savannah, Georgia, in 2012, so it was good to get everyone together again; our chemistry as a group is something I’d snort and sell because it’s so special. Come to think of it, we meet up in the Southeast frequently and I have no idea why. We’ve met up in Savannah twice and New Orleans twice. One year, they threw me a bridal shower in New Orleans’ delightfully spectral French Quarter, a fantastic time in which I received far too many skimpy pieces of lingerie, drank lemonade that could trigger diabetes, and danced with an eighty-something-year-old man who had some serious sweet moves.

Now we’re all a decade or more into marriages and mortgages, some of us have kids and menageries of pets, some of us are already talking early retirement, because, Holy Crap! the mid-fifties are closer than we care to acknowledge. We’re scattered across the United States, one in Los Angeles, one in Kansas City, one in Washington, DC, one in my hometown of Rochester, NY, and then me. This past winter we were all bitching about the cold, Florida came up in the conversation, and one of us mentioned her mom’s friend’s place in Bradenton where this friend’s mom’s friend snowbirds with her husband. My advice to you, at any age: when a friend’s mom’s friend says “Hey, I’ve got a house in Florida you can use!” you show up. No matter where it is. Just go.

For four days, we hung out in a house about twice as big as mine and purchased at less than half the price because everything is bigger and cheaper outside the New York City region. I was grateful the house wasn’t decorated in the aquamarine-seashell kitsch I expect of Florida. I sipped morning coffee on a lanai—a word I never get to use in the Northeast—while watching lizards dart everywhere. We affectionately referred to the area as “Del Boca Vista” (a Seinfeld reference for those of you who came of age after 1998). Next to the visiting grandchildren, we were indeed the youngest in the ‘hood. The best perk—besides being almost free—was that the house stood just feet away from a beautiful, inground pool—a Florida backyard staple—where the water temperature never dropped below 80. Every day, my friends and I sat in the pool until our skin pruned. The pool was where we chatted bluntly for hours about everything under that unforgiving Florida sun because that’s what you can do with friends who have known you since you were 18; you can say anything, anytime. That’s why we do these trips.

I’ve always been sensitive to my environment, and was worried Florida would get under my skin and make me feel old before my time. The exact opposite happened. If anything, hanging with my college friends made me feel 20 again. We blasted the Gin Blossoms in the car. We gossiped. We compared notes on sex. No one counted calories because no one cared.

Which made driving around Bradenton a little weird because the town, like the rest of Florida, had its fair share of funeral homes, and since I was the one skipping the second daiquiri to drive three forty-something women around town, I noticed these things.

But the area surprised me, too. We encountered Loggerhead turtle eggs on the beach. I ate fish tacos that were almost as good as the ones I ate in Mexico. We visited Bradenton’s quirky, thriving arts community where we bought the same kind of funky jewelry we used to buy 20 years ago. It wasn’t all Winn-Dixies and funeral homes; there was a heartbeat in Bradenton that was still going strong. The Del Boca Vistas in America may be cookie-cutter, but they haven’t flatlined. In fact, they’re oddly rejuvenating.

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By the time I boarded my flight home, I realized I’d had a Doctor Who moment. Yes, Florida is strange—the crazy aunt of the Continental 48, as someone once said—but I had enjoyed time travel. While in Bradenton with my college friends, I got to revisit the old me, which is still vocal, chugging along, and dropping a few too many f-bombs, but is also occasionally overshadowed by the forty-something stuff, which is to be expected. We can’t be 20 forever. Yet it was fun to fly alone. I wore artsy jewelry and bought a $12 dress at some secondhand shop (though I think the term is “upcycled” now). I didn’t feel like a suburban hausfrau. I went four days without talking to a neighbor about school districts, property taxes or who has what disease (their favorite topics, not mine; I’d rather talk about books, but no one in my zip code reads for pleasure). I was just Kate, the blonde woman blessed with good skin tone who always loved to travel but hated to fly, the girl who never could hold her liquor, the one working on a novel, listening to the Gin Blossoms.

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