For the Love of the Gulf
Florida’s Gulf Coast couldn’t be more different from the Atlantic shore.
It’s a long march across the Everglades, slogging over 41 or I-75 for 150 miles. Leaving behind the Atlantic, and her coast. Pushing from one shore to the other. After almost 10 days in Florida, I went at it like a chore—a thing to be endured.
Nothing about the state’s eastern face made me comfortable. Save a few quiet spots, it's length felt like a living ad campaign. Every road is a "Coral Way" or "Coconut Path." Every strip mall a gaudy shade of pink, or teal stucco. It’s a vast stretch of the country built by marketers—not real Florida, but an Ohio real estate developer’s idea of the place.
Even the Keys, far flung and beautiful, are soaked in an insecure insistence that this is America’s paradise. And maybe it was, once. Before the bridges, when getting there took a gamble. A measure of determination beyond closing the car door; a short ride in a small boat or smaller plane to the last speck of land in the sprawling, shallow sea.
I didn’t expect to love the Gulf. I didn't expect to feel at ease there. We ran through Tampa during a spring thunderstorm and watched the lightning stab the bay as we jumped from one bridge to another. Let the city slide by, then abandoned the interstate for less manic by-ways. We stopped for the night at Manatee Springs, where tourists shared a clear pool with a pair of patient water snakes, and where we followed a shy white crane through the stalagmite stumps of a Suwanee River swamp.
And in the morning, we pointed ourselves west. Rolled along 98 through the big emptiness of the rural panhandle, its forgotten beaches hidden behind a thick veil of loblolly pine. We found the old Florida, there. Tiny oyster shacks and long abandoned motor lodges. Roadside boiled peanut stands made of little more than a pickup bed and a plywood sign. Vast, green cow pastures and little else.
The road runs right up against the coast west of St. Marks, and the drive from Carrabelle to Mexico Beach is gorgeous—a winding two-lane skirting from one tiny seaside town to the next with nothing but a scattering of houses between you and the lapping Gulf. The water’s been busy there, nipping at the shoreline and dragging houses into the surf. Beautiful old places stand with collapsed roofs and open windows, the saltwater just feet from their pylons.
There’s not much call to stop in Gulf Breeze. There would be no way to tell it from the outskirts of Pensacola if it weren’t for the long bridge that splits the two. It’s just a smattering of businesses and schools on the side of the four-lane. But that’s where we went. Headed straight there because for three years we’ve been promising to visit a friend I’ve known since we were kids. A promise we’d convinced ourselves we never had time for when the calendar held less than 10 vacation days. A promise we’d nearly forgotten, even when she needed our love and support more than she’d ever say.
It’s an ugly symptom of the life we left, the way we'd convinced ourselves that a stack of bills and our small pile of pretty things needed more care and attention than the people that mean the most to us. The idiot belief that they’ll always be there. That there’s time, or there will be time, later. I can’t stand the arrogance of it.
So we didn’t park the truck on an abandoned beach and set up camp. We didn’t watch the stars flicker above or listen to the waves lash against the sand. We pulled into a new subdivision, the short brick houses identical save the numbers on the eaves. Nosed into a driveway, tumbled out of the truck, and spent the time we should have spent years ago.