For 26 winters, Lois Gargano and her husband, Fred, followed a pleasant routine. In mid-October, they packed their warm-weather clothes, forwarded their mail, and said goodbye to friends. Then they headed south from their suburban Maryland home to a Florida condo for six months to play a distinctly American role: snowbirds.
"We joked that we liked to just come down and hang out," says Mrs. Gargano, who was widowed last year. This winter, her 27th in St. Petersburg, she has come alone, continuing familiar activities and enjoying the company of winter friends.
So great is the appeal of "coming down and hanging out" that more than 1 million seasonal residents pour into Florida each winter, making it the top state for snowbirds. At their peak, they swell the population of Pinellas County by 246,000, accounting for more than a quarter of the population.
You see them on Florida-bound planes. "How long you staying?" one man asks a seatmate on a flight from Boston to Tampa. "Two months. What about you?" "Three," the other man replies.
You also see their cars everywhere, from supermarkets to waterfront high-rises to mobile home parks. License plates tell the story: Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ontario. Midwesterners often gravitate to Florida's west coast, while Easterners are more likely to head to the state's east coast.
Even the February newsletter at Gargano's retirement community acknowledges the migration. "Welcome back all you snowbirds, we sure are happy to see you," one year-round resident writes. Another adds, "Lots better here than back in the cold North, right?"
These temporary residents are not always beloved by locals, who grow weary of congested roads and crowded restaurants. But snowbirds remain the darlings of businesses and newspapers. From February through May, they add 41,000 subscribers to the St. Petersburg Times, along with impressive jumps in single-copy sales.
From 2000 to 2003, however, Florida saw the effects of what one official calls "the big dip." Many Canadians stayed home or came for a shorter time, following a downturn in their economy. Sept. 11 also took its toll. Now the numbers are rebounding.
Behind all the publicimages - the condo potlucks, the poolside chats about where to eat tonight, the trips to Disney with visiting grandchildren - there is another, invisible side of snowbirding. Even in Florida, which is often seen as a vast playground, filling 24 hours a day can be a challenge.
"There's a lot of loneliness down here," says Gargano, an outgoing woman with a warm smile.
To ease some of that loneliness during the holidays, she and her husband opened their home and their hearts every year to other residents, inviting 10 guests for dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Gargano also helps to dispel stereotypes that seasonal residents are interested only in leisure and "hanging out." At 9 a.m. last Monday, as sunshine glinted off the Intracoastal Waterway and seagulls squawked overhead, she was already at her condo clubhouse to help plan a pancake breakfast next month. Speaking of the volunteer work that dots her calendar, she says, "It's a very rewarding thing."
For some snowbirds, dual residences raise a question: Where do I belong, North or South? Lengthy absences leave them feeling temporarily disconnected.
Then there are the logistics. "It's a lot of work," says one veteran of 18 winters in Florida - 36 1,300-mile trips by car. But, he quickly adds, he's not complaining. After all, this is a choice.
It is a privileged way of life, to be sure. But as winter residents trade snow shovels for golf clubs and boots for sandals, a question hangs in the subtropical air: Could a generational shift be on the horizon as retirement patterns change?
Many of those in the next wave of retirees, the baby boomers, expect to keep working, at least part time. Will they still be able to set aside six months, or even three, to enjoy a place in the sun?
The answer is of no consequence to current snowbirds, intent on enjoying the weeks remaining before they head home.
In mid-April, Gargano will reverse the process she began in October. She'll shut off the water and phone and bid friends goodbye. Then she and her son will put her car on the train for the overnight trip home. He is one of countless solicitous children of snowbirds who accompany their parents on this annual migration.
As these returning migrants pull into the driveway, they are happy to have outwitted another winter. But many also realize the powerful tug of roots and home. Eager to reconnect with families and friends, they echo the feelings of travelers everywhere who walk through the door and say with a sigh, "It's good to be back."