I locked my bike at one end of Fort De Soto and drove to the other. Armed with sunscreen, a hat, two GPS apps and one fragile psyche, I was ready. Ready to walk. Ready to reset my life.
By any account, it had been a rough year. I lost my parents, who each died in my arms less than three months apart. My seven-year relationship ended. My new home had hugely expensive issues the inspector missed. One of my closest friends betrayed my trust. Another ripped me off.
After a year of grief and sadness, something had to give.
I make my living onstage as a motivational speaker. I teach how to lead by moving beyond your insecurities and taking charge of your potential. Happiness is a choice, I say. Thoughts are powerful, and you will manifest what your mind expects, good or bad. I believed it all, because it always worked.
Until it didn't.
There weren't many outward signs of what was happening, but it was real. I'd put on some weight. I wasn't laughing as hard as I used to laugh. I wasn't going out as much, wasn't engaging with people in my usual spirited way. I was functioning well on stage, but offstage I'd lost my spark.
I feared that, if it lasted any longer, the darkness that had wrapped itself around me would never leave. The idea came to me on a Sunday: I would walk Pinellas County's gulf coastline, all of it, even the parts accessible only by boat. Spending endless hours walking where the water meets the sky would heal my hurt. I knew it.
On Monday, I woke up, cleared my schedule, and headed to Fort De Soto. My only prep was looking at Google Earth and calculating some distances with Map My Walk.
This was my Forrest Gump moment. When Forrest had enough of life's rigors, he started running across the country. I had no plan for how far I would walk each day or how long it would take, but I was done being sad. It was time to go.
Last year, I probably walked 400 miles on north Clearwater Beach, Caladesi Island and north Honeymoon Island. We have miles of coastline here, but like just about everybody else, I picked my closest beach and walked the same stretch over and over.
Familiarity is comfortable, but the real growth happens out where you haven't walked.
Easy to say, harder to learn.
At Fort De Soto, the first thing I saw was the Skyway Bridge in the distance. I'd crossed that bridge every week for the last 15 years to visit my mom and dad. A pang of grief shot through me, but it didn't last. Instead, I thought about what I'd survived.
On my second day, it rained all morning. I debated whether to even walk. The clouds over Pass-a-Grille hung low and ready. Others saw a blah day and found something else to do, but I started to groove on the drama in the sky. Those weren't thunderclouds. The worst thing that could happen was that I'd get wet.
It didn't rain, and that's when I realized my senses were hyper-performing as I walked. I was so present. Not depressed, but not really happy. Just very, very aware of what I was seeing and feeling.
I slept straight through the night, something I hadn't done in a while. I woke up excited -- almost giddy. For the first time in a very long time, I was more interested in what was in front of me than what was behind.
I became intoxicated by wide-open space, blue sky and big waters. I embraced everything I saw. There was a dad beaming as his little girl showed off her cartwheels in Treasure Island. In Indian Rocks Beach I shared a belly laugh with a guy who had struggled hard to reel in the tiniest fish in the whole Gulf of Mexico. I saw a young couple making out on a lifeguard stand on Sand Key, and warmed at the memory of doing that myself a million years ago.
Tourist information sites all say Pinellas has 35 miles of beach. But the two GPS apps on my phone both clocked it at almost 60 miles; hugging the waterline and hiking the remote islands makes a difference. I walked Pinellas' contiguous coastline for eight consecutive days, then covered four keys on four more days in the next two weeks. I had short and long days, ranging from three miles to 13.5. I locked my bike where I expected to finish, then walked to it and rode it back to my car so I could drive home and sleep in my own bed at night.
Along the way, I saw impressive cloud formations, treacherous waves, pods of dolphins, an inexcusable amount of trash at Fort De Soto and Shell Key, canines frolicking on dog beaches, palm trees, driftwood, seashells, sand dollars, a dead bonnethead shark and three guys wearing see-through thongs.
The hardest day was a cold, windy 9.9-mile haul from Redington Beach to north Belleair Beach. Yet it was in those relentlessly windy moments that I achieved my greatest clarity, because all I could do was take the next step. And the next.
I have told so many thousands of people onstage: You don't know how close you are to turning the corner until you turn the corner. That cold wind tried to push me back, but I kept moving forward.
At some point, I noticed I was talking to myself, out loud. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," I was saying. On the fourth day, when I saw the pink Hyatt Regency ahead in Clearwater Beach I heard myself say, "There's Clearwater. There's Clearwater! I'm home." There was so much prayer, and all of it was gratitude.
At first, I walked alone. I told few people about it and did not post online. I was not walking to get attention. I did text pictures to my former partner, Julie, and called her at the end of each day to tell her what I'd done. Something was shifting in my mind about us, but I didn't force myself to figure it out. I could tell I was opening back up. Though the second part of the journey would prove more spectacular visually, the real inner work was being done in those first eight days of back-to-back walks.
The final part of my quest was the islands accessible only by boat -- Egmont Key (yes, I know it's technically in Hillsborough, but so what?), Shell Key, Three Rooker Bar and Anclote Key. They are, by far, the most exquisite pieces of nature I have experienced in Florida. And, for the first time, I was not walking alone. My friend hiked Three Rooker Bar with me after she and her husband ferried me out there. We stood, mouths agape, as smiling baby dolphins jumped like Flipper and raced on top of the waves.
On Anclote Key, my friends, including Julie, were anchored on a pontoon boat offshore, watching me make it to the end -- of the island, of the quest. They cheered when I got there. I needed to do something to mark the finish, so I got on my knees to write in the sand. I didn't want to overthink it. "DONE," I wrote.
Looking back, it was the right word. Sure, I was done walking. But I was also done feeling like a victim.
I was done with the darkness. I'd turned the corner.
Fawn Germer, 53, is the bestselling author of seven books, including the Oprah pick Hard Won Wisdom. She is an international leadership speaker who lives in Dunedin; her website is FawnGermer.com.