Gratitude abounds on any visit to St. Marks Wildlife Refuge but on the first Saturday in February, the Wildlife Heritage and Outdoors Festival is a celebration that is a refuge for all. The festival is one of many firsts that signal spring.
The afternoon is overcast but warm, almost balmy. Snow, ice, and road closures of the previous week are a mere matter of record. The joy and gratitude of being alive is in the music that is in the air. Hot Tamale is playing.
I sway to the nuance Hot Tamale brings to each cover for Craig and Adrian are also songwriters, sensitive to the music in words. Not surprisingly, their own music is layered in story. Sometimes, it is pure poetry.
The “natural stage” for Hot Tamale overlooks mini pools of clear water covering golden leaves and amber needles. That is also a festival first as pine and oak trees signal islands of spongy, black dirt tufted like frosting on a cake.
Adrian’s rendition of “Somebody to Love” echoes Grace Slick and 1971, a year Adrian and I shared similarly, although completely unknown to each other and physically, thousands of miles apart.
In another century, Adrian first sang that song in a gymnasium somewhere on the East Coast, and I, in the Rocky Mountain West, was also singing Grace Slick in a building very like a gymnasium. It is entirely improbable that Adrian and I were singing the same song on the same day for the first time but it is not completely impossible.
The memory moment passes as Hot Tamale turns to calypso–“Day-O…D-a-a-y-O”–there is mention of “The Lion King” and Harry Belafonte but it is the movie that most seem to remember as occupied picnic tables sway in rhythmic response.
A young girl with sunshine blonde, kinky hair whispers to me she has not seen the movie. That is a first. I have never met anyone else who has not seen the movie. I do not ask her about Harry Belafonte. It is enough that we sing along as if we were born to it.
After the performance, Adrian comes over and we hug, saying how good it is to see one another. The young girl wonders whether Adrian and I are sisters, definitely a first. We smile at one another as Adrian responds, “we’re just good friends.”
And then we all talk for a while as friends, new and old, before leaving the picnic table, the makeshift island and the music. I drive on to the St. Marks Lighthouse on Apalachee Bay.
All along the roadside, cars pull over and stop, a wildlife event, as cameras of every size and shape point and shoot, lenses looking East as well as West.
It is late afternoon now and the warm sun has diminished the clouds, an event welcomed by alligators. In less than three miles, I spot four gators but there are a lot more if the sea of cameras is to be believed. Waterfowl, mostly cormorants, form a crowd away from the banks of basking gators.
I park near St. Marks River and walk to a point on the bay. It is high tide, a first for me in all the years I have walked the refuge so there is no balancing on old oyster beds. I am content to watch the bay waters lick the sanded shore.
Firsts at the Refuge are a constant whether one visits day by day, year by year, or month by month. The turn of time and tide, the changer and the changed.