Several years back, I had three vertebrae fused in my lower back, the “solution” to nagging sciatica that, when the surgeon reported to me, post-op, was caused by my S1 vertebrae cracking and slowly splitting.
“I bet you didn’t know you’ve been walking around with a broken back,” he said, noting the crack and split hadn’t shown up in the pre-surgery imaging. “Probably for a few years.”
No. I had no idea. But I did know that I was in constant pain. Sometimes mild, sometimes crippling. But always constant. It would start in my lower back, pulse through my left butt cheek (sometimes the right one, too), and burn down through my leg to my foot, where, on particularly bad days, I could watch my big toe twitch.
I thought about what the doctor said. Broken backs don’t just happen – there had to have been some trauma. Thinking back, I pinpointed the most likely culprit: a mid-stream rock the size of a Smartcar in Virginia’s Hughes River. It was a total slip-and-fall event – the product of an overconfident boulder hopper in his mid-30s thinking that invincibility is, A) real; and B) that it applied to him.
I hopped up onto the rock – it was to be the ideal casting platform from which to cast upstream to the Hughes’ eager brook trout – and my feet immediately slipped on the slimy surface. Down I went. Hard. Like… so hard that I just kind of lay there a moment, sprawled out on the rock as the river moved around it as it had for eons. Stunned, I slowly made my way to a sitting position, but I was hurt.
I gimped my way off the rock, and waded through a hip-deep section of the river to the bank, where I climbed up to the trail and started an arduous three-mile hike back to the rental car. Uphill, of course. I was miserable.
It bugged me for a few weeks – a dull ache that I assumed was a significant bone bruise. But I was in my 30s. I could stand in front of the mirror and slice my skin open with a rusty hacksaw and watch as the wounds started to close.
Of course, over time, the ache became permanent. The sciatic nerve got and stayed angry. And some 15 years after I took the fall, I went under the knife.
Now, four years removed from surgery, I can report that I don’t have the constant pain I once did. I can also report that I have lost significant core strength and that my balance is pretty jacked up. And, as predicted by a friend of mine before I had the surgery, the correction could very well result in vertebrae farther up the spine misbehaving. I haven’t resorted to another round of imaging – ignorance is kind of blissful. But, as they say, “something ain’t right.”
Mostly, I think, it has to do with the weather. The colder it gets, the more I feel it. And where I live, in eastern Idaho, I find myself feeling like a hammered owl turd more often than not. So, following the advice of a certain Caribbean troubadour, I set out a few years ago to change my latitude. I wasn’t picky. I just needed decent fishing and dependably warm weather.
I combed the condo markets on Zillow for hours at a time, ruling out the far-too-expensive places like the Florida Keys or the hurricane-prone coast of Grand Isle. For a while there, I was pretty certain I’d end up somewhere Port Isabel, Texas – great inshore fishing for redfish, trout and sheepshead, perfectly breezy weather all year along and an easy two-day drive from eastern Idaho. But just as I was about to dig into a condo purchase, two things happened. First, I was informed that the property I identified couldn’t be listed on the short-term rental market when I wasn’t using it. Second, the real estate boom erupted, and I was quickly priced out of the market.
I’m a journalist. I’ve never been wealthy. This venture to ease the pain in my back was going to have to walk a financial tightrope. Getting away from winter a few months of the year was going to have come with some balance – wherever I ended up, the house or condo (at one point, I was convinced I could just “work from the road” in a trailer towed behind my truck while I chased winter sunshine across the South) was going to have pitch in a bit and help pay for itself.
So I kept looking.
As a kid, I spent my formative years in East Texas, about 60 miles west of Shreveport, La., and while it was a great place to be a kid, I also remember a few brutal winter weeks where it would literally rain ice and sleet. I also remembered that 45 degrees in East Texas, with its abundant humidity, was bone-chilling cold at times.
So I drew a line across the South. I didn’t want to invest in property that was any farther north than, say, the Houston suburbs. And, after recalling a couple of prodigious hurricane seasons (including 2017 when Harvey blew through southeast Texas), I realized I really wasn’t up to storm watching from afar. So… a bit inland would be best.
The search slowly migrated east and I thought maybe Lake Charles would be a solid landing spot – lots to do, great fishing, amazing local food … but then Laura and Delta struck the region within six weeks of each other during the 2020 pandemic. So farther east I went.
Biloxi? No. Too coastal. Gulf Shores? Beautiful, but crazy busy and right on the beach. A sitting duck. Then I started looking at Lake Seminole. A lake house. Now we’re talking. But just as I got serious, my employer eliminated my job after 16 years (too old, too expensive, too… well, you get the idea).
Then, as I followed the Zillow map across the Southeast, I came across a place that, despite possessing all of the attributes I was after (good fishing, good weather, a bit of protection from named storms, etc.), remained a bit undiscovered. The Suwannee River country of north Florida and southern Georgia has remained perfectly rural, largely undeveloped and, dare I say, pristine.
Certainly, there are issues. It’s been plowed over and logged, regrown and relogged a number of times since it was first polluted with European explorers when they landed on its shores 500 years ago – Spain’s Juan Ponce de Leon first wrote about Florida in 1513, and St. Augustine is the country’s oldest permanently inhabited city. Today, threats come from mining companies digging in the sand for titanium dioxide and other precious minerals, and there are typical water and air-quality issues that seem to pop up if nobody pays attention.
But the fishing … I was reminded of the stealthy and prehistoric bowfin of the Okefenokee, swamp and the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers. Most of the lakes and ponds in the area have some public access, and Florida, despite its seemingly unending desire to cut off its nose to spite its face (you listening, Gov. DeSantis?), maintains one of the best state park systems in the country.
And, of course, anywhere in Florida is close to the beach – and the snook and pompano and redfish of the state’s inshore waters.
So, years later, I found the latitude I was after. I built a little house in the woods and bought a pair of knock-off camo Crocs (when in Rome, right?), moved a modest quiver of fly rods south and here I sit, nestled perfectly into the beautiful white sand on the banks of the black-water Suwannee River enjoying the heat.
I’ll be back in Idaho in a couple of weeks for summer. If you’re looking for a place to stay while you’re fishing north Florida or south Georgia, I can hook you up.
But for now … my back feels great.