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Total Surrender

Letting go of a dream is not easy, but in my case, it's what led to one of the most impactful moments of my life.

When my wife and I packed up all the belongings we had from our 647 square foot Baton Rouge bungalow (yes, you read that right, we were tiny house living before it was trendy) and relocated to Pensacola, it seemed like we were just following the signs the universe had put in front of us. On New Year's Day just a few months before, I'd gotten up early to make a list of resolutions. "Get a new job" was at the top of the list, but it was more than that. I knew I needed a career change, but did not have any specific direction yet. I just knew when I looked at my two young sons, crammed into one bedroom in said tiny home, that I didn't want them to see their old man coming home unhappy from work all the time. And I was at that point. The decision was one thing, though. Speaking it into existence was another, but sure enough, six weeks later, standing at a Mardi Gras parade, as soon as I said out loud that I was ready for a change, it led to an offer that led to our move.

I don't mean to gloss over how hard the decision to leave our neighborhood and friends was, but we knew the neighborhood, as it was, wouldn't be for long and that we were just the first to go. There were tears, and there were doubts, but if we needed proof this was meant to be our next step, we got an offer on our house as soon as I hammered the sign in the yard--and I mean, my phone literally buzzed in my pocket as I was on my way to return the hammer to the utility closet / laundry room / bar / dining room / closet / library / multi-function enclosed porch on the back of our house. If you've lived in close quarters like this, especially with kids, you know about multi-purpose rooms.

To be transparent, three years earlier, I'd wholeheartedly believed the universe was telling us to move back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and that was with a two-month-old and no job prospects. Just a dream of being back on the Coast, on the water, and believing we would figure it out once we moved. We found a house while driving Ocean Springs backroads on my wife's birthday, spent the afternoon hanging out with the elderly couple who owned it and admiring the view of Horn Island from the front porch, and by the next morning, we were sitting at the negotiating table (at Whataburger) where their realtor, dumbfounded and none-too-happy, informed us the couple had dropped the price 50K for us. I mean, how could it be more clear that this was meant to be?

"Hang on, hang on," my wife interrupts at one point in a total buzzkill moment. "What happens if a hurricane comes along and blows this place away?"

I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of calling her a wet blanket. It's a funny thing about my wife. Anyone who has ever met her knows she truly is one of the sweetest, most genuine people you'll ever meet. She is someone whose soul shines through everything she does. What most don't know is that her radiant smile masks an an inherent, deeply-rooted skepticism.

"If that happens, you'll get your earnest money back and walk away," the realtor says matter-of-factly, and we proceed to sign a 60 day contingency-sale contract. My wife's birthday is July 20th, every year, which should have put us moving mid-September, but on August 29th, Hurricane Katrina not only destroyed all evidence that that house ever existed, it ensured that I would never again question my wife's skepticism without pausing and remembering that moment and knowing I should probably listen. But I digress. This prospect was different. Plus, we were so much older and wiser these three years later and knew better how to interpret the universe's signs and signals.

We arrived in our new town on a Friday afternoon, and first thing Monday morning I went to work on the new dream of building my business. It's hard to overestimate how little I knew, but that didn't stop me from plunging in and faking it. In fact, I'd started faking it long before I moved to town when I contacted vendors like Patagonia and North Face to let them know what I planned on building and selling them on why they should bank on someone who had zero experience. All I had on my side was that my wife's family had a business reputation I could stake something of a claim on, but still, theirs was a completely different industry. Lee Tracy was, and always will be, a women's fashion boutique, and here I was telling the titans of the outdoor industry they should sell their goods to the future brand I planned on starting. A funny side note here is that my friend and neighbor Crazy Matt (see "Big River" blog for more on him) was the first person I told of our move, but it was late in the night and we had been drinking. Next thing I knew the word on the street was that I was moving to Florida to "sell dresses." Thanks Matt.

No indeed. I mean, yes, I would be working in the business with the women's side to do whatever needed to be done to improve operations (except sell dresses, of course), but I was moving to Pensacola to start my own brand. My own outdoor thing. Because that's where my passion was. And is to this day, but I'm getting ahead of myself. The early days were exhilarating as I told anyone who would listen to disregard the current state of my business and instead focus on what I planned on building, asking them to dream with me.

Making friends took time, and the early days were hard with small children and, well, no friends. Beaches and sunsets don't matter much when you have no friends to enjoy them with, and at times it felt like we were cast in a follow up to Stranger Than Paradise. And it turns out when you move, even when you do find another couple to hang out with it's a lot like dating. You have no idea what you're getting into, whether or not there will be chemistry, and whether you'll even want to see each other again. I'll never forget hosting our first Sunday afternoon Saints watch party, only to find out the couple I invited didn't care about sports, didn't drink, and were vegetarian. Check please.

Still, times were good and kept getting better. I got lucky and found a product that helped launch my own brand. If this were a movie montage, this is where I'd be slinging out boxes of 5 Finger toe shoes to smiling customers, all eagerly waiting in line to put on some of the ugliest shoes ever made (to be fair, I loved the damn things and knew they would blow up first time I tried them).

Business is so good, in fact, I open another location, and just like Truvy in Steel Magnolias, I'm sure I was thrilled to become a chain. Three weeks after I opened it, though, the BP oil spill hits, and the sound man for my movie montage goes on strike. At the end of a grueling and chaotic year, we decide to renovate the building where I'd been building my downtown business to make room for Lee Tracy, which had been on the beach for five years up until then. There was room for both stores in the building, and I felt confident I could absorb the move to the back to give the new store center stage. And this didn't just feel like survival. It felt like the right move, and my handyman and I did all the work, with a little help. After spending the early years of my career in the classroom and then working retail, it felt good to get back to my blue collar roots and do meaningful manual labor.

In fact, as bad as the oil spill year was, once we made the decision to close, move, and renovate, it was like my sound man got back in the booth. When the montage resumes, we complete construction on the building with a high five, have the ribbon cutting, and next thing you know, I'm the lead canoe on a float trip down a scenic river full of shiny, happy people. In an effort to bring more of my passion for the outdoors into my business, I start taking customers on organized outdoor trips. This first trip turns into the Coldwater Creek Revival, and waiting at the end of the canoe trip is a bonfire, catered food, and live music by the talented Mr. Michael Lockwood.

I lead other trips, and they are all a blast, but despite all my best efforts, business is just, well, hard. And

even though I documented those trips with short

films produced by another talented friend, Stephen Moody, at some point, the sound man doesn't quit, he just steadily turns the volume down until I'm back in my retail shop wondering if this is really the dream I had.

I vividly during this time remember my brother in law, who by this time had traveled internationally, and fairly extensively for his job, standing in my shop and remarking that he couldn't imagine going to work in the same location for a long time. He said it in passing, with no intent to diminish what I was doing, but it certainly made me reflect. I'd had a career itch before, and it was one that needed scratching so bad I put my house up for sale and relocated my family to do so. That first itch came seven years after I'd started teaching, and though I don't recall the exact year he spoke those words, I know I was already feeling restless.

But then, just as I was starting to get pretty bored with things, my wife and I had an opportunity to buy a lot and build a house. During a weekend in the woods and after a few beers, I'd agreed to build my own house and act as the GC for the project, with a little help. I'd been thinking about it, so this wasn't a total knee-jerk reaction. In fact, the same Michael Lockwood, who'd played music at the river festivals I'd organized and donated his musical talents to several grass-roots fundraising events I'd held at my shop, had recently built his own house and had been in my ear about it, telling me he thought I would love it.

And he was right. We broke ground in my business's busy season, and I'd check on things every day before and after work, but then we hit our slow season, and I pretty much took three months off to finish the house. We got our CO five months after breaking ground, and as much as I'd enjoyed managing that project, as much as it had tapped into my blue collar background, when I stepped back into my business I thought, you know what, I do still love this. I'll never stop loving the outdoors, but I also love my customers and my employees. And I love being in a family business. Yes, I thought, and wanted to tell my brother in law, I can see myself in this location--forever if that's what it takes. Because that's what I came here to build and by God I'm determined to see it through. The dream was back on, and I was reinvigorated to do whatever it took to keep it going.

As you might have guessed, that feeling didn't last. The truth was, our downtown location was suspect. I reminded the landlord of this fact during a lease negotiation once--that since I'd arrived in town, over thirty businesses in our district had gone out of business, and these were not all mom and pops. These were big names. I read the list aloud for effect. And while we seemingly did everything we could to drive traffic to our store, we were a stand alone building and had to drive it all. Through good times and bad, ups and downs, we kept on. We kept on serving our customers as best we could because that's what we truly love to do, but with each passing year, I had to be honest that I definitely was not having fun anymore. The exhilaration was gone, and I wasn't sure what I could do to rekindle the fire.

This is a terrible feeling by the way. Knowing that the thing you worked so hard to build just isn't working like you'd hoped. Like you'd dreamed. But if you're wired a certain way, you just press on. You lean into it. And that's what I did.

Even when COVID shut the world, and my business, down, we doubled down. People were dying for interaction, so we called and checked on customers. We hit social media, made home deliveries, and hustled like never before. I remember making one such delivery to a good friend and his wife and admitting that I wasn't sure how much longer I was up for this, but I wasn't willing to say any more than that. There was too much work to be done to stay alive, to survive until things got better. And they did. We even got asked to open two new stores during the summer of 2020, both of which were in Mississippi and one of which was in the hospital where I took shelter from Hurricane Elena when I was a kid because my dad was a pharmacist there. Traveling to those new locations every week to be a part of that expansion felt like maybe it could be the jolt I needed. It was at least a spark, one that just a few months later Hurricane Sally would snuff out for good.

I still have the sign I made for our front door, letting customers know that due to the "possible" damage of Sally, we were closing early that Monday and would "likely" reopen by noon on Tuesday. For those unfamiliar with the Pensacola area, there are bridges everywhere, and none more important than the 3 Mile Bridge, which Hurricane Sally knocked out when a fleet of Skanska barges broke loose and smashed into it. What that meant for us was a circuitous detour on roads never meant to handle that kind of traffic, and so not only were we closed more than a week due to Sally's wrath, when we did open, it was an absolute pain to get there, and that was nowhere near the worst part. Our building sits on a one way highway that connects 3 Mile Bridge to I-110, which meant post-Sally that we were effectively on a business cul de sac in what felt like an abandoned neighborhood.

So now, in order to get to our business in time to open it, we had to leave two hours early, and even once we got there, hardly any customers showed up, as most were still busy with storm recovery. Then, as you closed up after not doing much if any business all day, you knew you had a minimum of a two hour commute home. It was hard not to lock the doors those nights, especially after the time change, and feel anything but despair.

My brother in law's words echoed during those long days, and I knew I couldn't take it anymore. Still, what was I going to do? An older customer had told me his business story years before, about how he'd been effectively ousted out of a business he'd helped build and had to start over from scratch. "Try remaking yourself at 40," he said. "It sucks." I would sit up at night, researching, taking notes, thinking about what I might want to do next. But the thing I always came back to was that damn, I really didn't want to do anything else. I wanted to finish what I started, but in the same way I had known I couldn't continue teaching all those years ago, I knew I couldn't keep on the path I was on. I prayed so much during this time, hoping for wisdom, but truth was, I had no idea what I was going to do next. The universe seemed to communicate so clearly when I was younger, or was that just the naivety of youth?

A month after Sally, times were so desperate in our area that I was invited to set up a pop up shop in one of our new Mississippi locations--in the same hospital where I'd spent so much time growing up. It was a much needed break for me, as sometimes a road trip is just what I need, and it didn't disappoint. I did more business in the first day than I could do in two weeks with the state of things in Pensacola. Plus, I had a ton of family in from Texas staying at my mom's house, and I brought part of the pop-up shop to them. It was fun, slinging product all around and making some money, but I knew what I was doing was a band-aid measure and wasn't sustainable. Day two at the hospital was much slower. It was a beautiful day outside, but inside, time just dragged on, and at one point, things got so quiet, something in me broke.

"I'm closing Intracoastal at the end of this year," I told my sister in law and partner.

After a long pause and with a blank stare, "Okay, what are you going to do?" she asked.

"I don't know, but I can't keep doing this." I also told her I'd keep running the financial side of the company because I enjoyed it and wanted to at least stay somewhat involved in the business I'd been a part of for so long. But I'd finally hit rock bottom and was giving up the dream I'd moved to Pensacola to build. I didn't care anymore what I'd do next, and I couldn't stand the thought of my three sons seeing their old man coming home defeated all the time. Even if I faked it, I felt like they'd know. That wasn't the example I wanted to set.

The rest of the hospital show is a blur in my memory, but within a few hours, we'd packed up and shut the pop up shop down. It had been a successful show, and I felt relieved with a little more cash on hand and a little lighter now that I'd finally spoken the words out loud that I'd been thinking and praying about for months. My wife had known my worries and doubts, but even she didn't know the finality of things. She wouldn't be surprised, but as reality sunk in, that lightness turned into something else as I knew I would be telling her next. And then the phone rang.

I was sitting at a stoplight on Highway 90, the afternoon sun nearly blinding me, when the call came in. I knew the caller, but was confused. It was the landlord who owned the boardwalk where our stores used to be on the beach. We'd stayed in touch throughout the years, mainly just connecting at occasional events, but we certainly didn't talk on a regular basis. He loves to talk and would have probably told me his whole business story all over again if I'd have asked about it (it is a good story, I'll admit), but after catching up for a minute, I asked why he'd called.

"Islanders is closing," he said.

I didn't hesitate. The owner of that store is not only a friend, but has been a reluctant mentor to me throughout the years. I say reluctant only because John is not warm and fuzzy, and I don't mean that in a bad way. He's a shrewd businessman whom I deeply respect. He created a successful brand and symbolized in many ways what I had hoped to create, but had never seemed to even come close. And mentoring takes time, time he doesn't really have because he is busy running his own business--one that he stays very much involved in. So involved that he's one of those people that always responds almost immediately to texts. I hoped this moment was one of those times.

"You really leaving the beach this time?" I texted. John was always threatening to leave if the lease didn't suit him. He was a hard negotiator.

"Yep. You ready to come back?" he shot back immediately.

And that's when I knew it. Adding to the moment was that I was driving my stepfather's old truck, the one I'd bought from my mom when he had passed away recently--it was like he was riding with me. I also knew I was on my way to see my grandmother, a hard-nosed entrepreneur in her own right who'd survived the Depression and thrived afterward as an independent businesswoman. Anytime business was hard, it was comforting to talk to her, someone who'd survived such a tough time in history. And, of course, I was back in my hometown and had just left the hospital where I'd spent so much of my youth and was now involved in business. It wasn't just that it all made sense or that it felt right. And it wasn't that the universe had finally given me a sign. I looked up and smiled because by the time this phone call came, I had become more and more aware through the years of how God had always worked in my life, even when I didn't know it or believe it. I knew it was His work now, and the feeling was, well, exhilarating.

Everything I had feared, all the pride I felt like I was going to have to swallow because I'd failed at what I'd set out to do--all of it faded away in a phone call, but not before I had surrendered to HIS plan for me. I didn't know what I would do next, but as soon as I let go of the fear and trusted that whatever path HE had for me would present itself--that's when I was presented with something much bigger than I'd ever imagined. But I had to give up my dream and trust HIM. Only then could I see the truth that everything that I'd experienced, all the ups and downs, the stress, the worry--everything had led to that moment and had prepared me for what HE had in store. That knowledge, that trust, that faith--that is what made all the difference.

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Nov 26, 2023

Wes, my validation that you were intended to be in the business with us came with a phone call as well. When I answered the call and was approached to buy Comfort Zone I said "Only if someone in the family can come in to help." On a flight to Vegas to market later that day it came to me ."What about Wes". You had shared with me on that Mardi Gras day that you were leaving teaching and had no real plan. God is so good. He has always shown up just in time! And He always will!! You continue to amaze us with your talent and enthusiasm. Your concept has been a joy to watch unfold and your…

Jan 10
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I was praying this morning and laughed out of nowhere thinking about how much that Mardi Gras moment changed my life and how blessed I have been because of everything that unfolded afterward. What a wild time.

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