Oct. 17, 2019
Tropical Storm Nestor is rolling in tonight, and as I write this from a small office on Okaloosa Island, I can see the palm trees bending. The wind and rain aren’t supposed to be too severe, thus my wife, Caitlin, and I have decided to batten down the hatches instead of fleeing inland. By sunrise, Nestor should be gone. Soon enough, he’ll be somewhere around Virginia. Then he’ll disperse completely.
Nestor, for what it’s worth, is a rare tempest. Since 1851, only 10 tropical storms have formed in the Gulf of Mexico after Oct. 1, and lo and behold, Nestor decided to do just that during our first trip to the Emerald Coast. I don’t welcome him in the slightest, but he doesn’t give a hoot in hell about my wishes, because Mother Nature is a beast, and I am but a small human male — insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yes, but a man for whom a great change is occurring. The derelict days of my 20s have been over for awhile now; I harbor no illusions about that. Yet this vacation on Okaloosa Island is one of life’s significant pivot points, from which afterward nothing will be the same.
I am 30. Married, with a house in the mountains of Western North Carolina. In a little over two weeks, I will enroll in the Asheville Fire Department’s trainee academy, which I will attend five days per week for six months. During those six months, my wife will likely become pregnant with our first child. And from there on out, life will be irreversibly different. The wind will pick up, I’ll be a father in no time, and this vacation, like Nestor, will fade into the past, remembered solely through pictures and the occasional hazy memory.
With this trip meaning so much in the grander context of my life, I wish it was taking place in a loftier location: somewhere foreign, like Rome, Croatia or Mauritius. But my wife and I are relatively poor, so Okaloosa Island will have to do. It’s beautiful enough, anyhow — despite the strip malls, strip clubs and jacked-up macho trucks.
Earlier today, I was floating on saltwater inside of a hard plastic pod for 60 minutes of sensory deprivation therapy. My world was jet black for the first 20 minutes or so: there was no difference between closed eyes and open ones. Utterly alone with my thoughts, I embraced the nothingness as long as I could. By turns, I was (1) floating untethered in outer space, (2) a fetus in the womb and (3) a single-celled organism crawling out of murky prehistoric waters.
I began drifting off to sleep, but woke with a jolt, unsure of where I was or how I had gotten there. I turned on the dim lights — purple, blue, red — then started the meditation music. Time was warped: How long had I been in there? Five minutes? Forty minutes? Two minutes? Three hours? I began wondering if I’d ever even existed outside of the pod. The pod became my mother, my cave. Did anything lie beyond it?
Feeling weightless, I battled my thoughts. Fear arose — what if I get stuck in here? What if I’m somehow electrocuted? — but by breathing deeply, I worked through the anxiety and achieved a greater sense of harmony. This cycle repeated itself — small worry leading to minor panic softening into peacefulness — numerous times before I was finally able to relax. Nervous thoughts about the future cropped up here and there: was I strong enough to make it through the fire academy? Would I fail as a fireman, as a father, as a husband, as a human? I reminded myself that these fears were merely projections, and that I needed to remain in the present moment.
I felt like a blob of meat lying on Jello. I was a mind without a body. Watching the colorful lights dance on the ceiling of the pod, I embraced the boredom and its endless teachings. I told myself: learn to be entertained without the bright lights of technology. How did our ancient ancestors enjoy themselves? Not by staring at screens, that’s for sure. Then I took a deep breath and let it all out. The pod was everything.
Soon enough, the jets kicked on and my stay in podtown came to an end. I’d been in there for four hours or four minutes, it was hard to tell. As I climbed out, my 30-year old muscles ached from lying immobile for so long. I showered, then walked into the hallway, where I prepared a cup of tea. There was a whiteboard upon which people had written about their pod experiences.
“I was born again,” read one of the inscriptions, penned by someone named Malk.
I grabbed a blue marker and made my own contribution.
“I was in the womb,” I wrote.
And so I was.
A quick update on Tropical Storm Nestor: he seems to have been an absolute dud, at least for this part of the Sunshine State. As I look out of the office window, the trees are no longer bending (it doesn’t even seem to be raining) and a gecko has taken up peaceful residence on the glass. I can see its silhouette.
The radar, which I’m looking at now, depicts the brunt of the storm passing through the St. Petersburg/Tampa area. The entire green/yellow/red storm mass is turning in a counter-clockwise manner that could paint a dangerous picture for locales east of here. I hope everything ends up alright in that part of the state — and I hope Nestor (“the Molestor,” as Caitlin has dubbed him) will be gone by sunrise so we can enjoy these last five days on Okaloosa Island — maybe even with some sunshine. Now wouldn’t that be something?
Each morning during this vacation, I’ve woken up relatively early (before 7 a.m.) and, after meditating, taken a jog along the white sands of the Emerald Coast. One morning, I ran a mile-and-a-half to the nearest fishing pier, where thousands of scantily-clad men and women had gathered for a beach volleyball tournament. It was strange, stumbling upon all of that action. I watched for awhile, unsure of my movements — antisocial and stupid — then I shuffled home.
My other morning excursions have taken me a mile-plus in the opposite direction, to the end of hotels and motels, past a NO TRESPASSING sign that explains how all land beyond said sign belongs to the United States military, and that those who dare to step on it will be prosecuted. I have it on good authority that this law is never enforced, and thus I’ve repeatedly ignored the sign and pressed onward, down an entirely isolated stretch of albino beach. I’ve seen a few people venturing that far, but not many. Footprints taper off with each step.
It’s peaceful out there, amongst the herons, small birds and beached jellyfish. I’ve concluded my run each day at a set of four stone pillars that rise from the ocean like sea monsters. I’m assuming these beasts once held up a structure of some sort. Now they serve as resting spots — or hunting perches — for birds of prey. A couple of days ago, I tried to sneak close to a statuesque heron to snap a picture. But I’m not swift, so the bastard opened his wide-spanning wings and took off across the gulf, wing tips just inches above the water. Birds, in private, are insufferable. But in the wild, they’re often regal.
Indeed, birds make up the majority of the wildlife that I’ve seen in the land beyond that white NO TRESPASSING sign, along that strip of sand that runs between rolling dunes and the Gulf. The Gulf’s waves, in the wake of Nestor’s exit, have been large and chaotic, pushing hard into the shore and breaking at odd angles. Out there on military land, amongst the pounding surf and the occasional dead creature, I’ve tried to uncover some latent secret about the universe. Or, if not a secret, at least a feeling: a feeling of magical infinity that’s often elicited by standing on the precipice of a great body of water. Anyone who has taken trips to the beach as a child surely has been gripped by a similar feeling. I’ve tried to pin it down time and time again during my morning jogs, and I can grasp it for a moment — the youthful optimism, the sense of liberation that comes from knowing that the future hasn’t been decided — but its thrust is muted, like a piano covered by a blanket in the attic. My mind has become too familiar with the world, my heart has grown too bored with its predictable machinations. I’m too old now to be fooled by the lies whispered by the sea. Yet sometimes I allow them to fool me with their sweet nothings, so I can momentarily recapture the euphoric churning I once knew so well.
That’s what I’ve done during my morning jogs here on Okaloosa Island: listen to the seabreeze for clues. What, if anything, can it teach me, now that my future is all but decided? Is there room within my soul for change, even though I’ve begun to solidify? Could I crawl into the clear waters of the Gulf and re-emerge as a single-celled creature, entirely open to the forces of evolution and an uncharted future? Can I continue to rediscover the newness of it all, before it’s too late?
It should be noted that, no, I don’t think about all of this existential crap while I’m actually out jogging. Instead, my mind is honed on low-human topics, like cursing some tanned guy for feeding bread crumbs to birds. I am, on the whole, a shallow and average man, whose thoughts in real time are painfully short, banal and sometimes mean-spirited. It’s only after I sit down to write that I’m able to, in some small and perhaps insignificant way, organize my puny ideas in an attempt to dig to the bottom of this madcap circus of existence.
The written word elevates me.
Though this essay is mostly about my experience on Okaloosa Island right before my life changed forever, I feel as though I should give the reader some political and cultural context. This trip aligns with the impeachment inquiry of President Trump (it still pains and confounds me to write those two words together), and though life on the Emerald Coast seems to be relatively uninfluenced by larger political matters, this particular topic is of such importance that it warrants at least a passing mention.
The gist of it is this: President Trump asked the Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenksy to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden’s, role on a Ukranian energy company’s board of directors. Asking a foreign leader to meddle in an American election is sketchy enough, but Trump took it one step further by withholding military aid to Ukraine until the investigative deed was done (which it never was). Trump, of course, denied this was the case, but then acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney went on national television and flat out admitted that Trump was seeking a quid pro quo.
Watching American democratic norms be so blatantly disregarded by a vile and dishonorable sociopath has been a shocking experience. And things only got worse a few days ago, when the red-faced moron foolishly removed all American troops from Syria — troops that had been protecting the Kurds (who’d helped America beat back ISIS in the region) and acting as a buffer between said Kurds and Turkey. Naturally, as soon as American soldiers left the region, the Turkish army moved in, slaughtering Kurdish fighters and preoccupying the Kurds enough to allow hundreds (perhaps thousands) of ISIS captives to escape from prisons. Trump’s decision to pull out the troops was widely condemned by politicians on both sides of the aisle, but in typical Trumpian fashion, he deemed the move to be a brilliant one.
So yes — this is what has been going on in Washington, and the world at large, as I enjoy the sand between my toes. This may or may not be relevant to the rest of this essay, but nevertheless I believe it was important to at least give this country’s ongoing political crisis a passing mention.
One of the most notable advantages of vacationing on the Florida Panhandle is that one has the rare opportunity to see the sun rise and set from the same vantage point. Last night, Caitlin and I walked to the end of the Okaloosa Fishing Pier and, amidst countless dirty fishermen trying to reel in big catches, watched the glowing orange orb dive into the Gulf of Mexico. On Monday morning, Caitlin and I woke up at 5:30 and walked to the beach to watch the orb return. It was just as beautiful.
There’s something primally synchronous about watching the sun rise and set each day. It’s a warm visual representation of startings and endings. It brackets a 12-hour period, giving the day two distinct points from which to work. More than framing, however, sunrises and sunsets remind us of the inherent strangeness of our world: a giant glowing ball in the sky that, based on our sensory evidence, appears to be moving, is actually stationary. Modern day humans scoff at the idea of ancient ancestors worshipping the sun, but is it not perhaps the one object in our daily lives deserving of worship? Without it, none of us — indeed, nothing on Earth — would exist. And yet humanity, in its infinite absurdity, has somehow made it seem more reasonable to worship a being whose existence cannot be proven than a tangible object that brings us life every day.
Humanity is endlessly perplexing.
The first thing to know about Seaside, Florida, is that it feels like a rich person’s dream because it is a rich person’s dream. Founded in the mid-80s, it was developed to mimic the slow-paced peacefulness of an Italian coastal village. And, indeed, that’s what it has become. Seaside is the East Coast’s answer to California’s Carmel-By-The-Sea: an unfathomably perfect hamlet (located about 30 miles east of Fort Walton Beach) within which no regular human being could afford to live. The cheapest house I found online was $600,000, and for what it’s worth, it’s apparently a favorite vacation spot for celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow and even Danny Wuerffel. There’s a private beach (“Wristband required!”) that juts up next to the public beach, as if to say to the masses go fuck yourselves, working class, we have no desire to share a public space with you.
But who am I kidding? If I was a multi-millionaire, I’d want a private beach, too. So much vitriol aimed at the rich is just jealousy in disguise: the common man (and woman) would love to live lavish lifestyles, but can’t, and that makes us bitter. And yet, how much happier would the average middle-class person truly be if he or she was able to, say, buy a house in Seaside? Does that sort of hyper-materialism have bearing on spiritual fulfillment? I can’t say for sure, one way or the other — Seaside, after all, is a breathtaking place — but perhaps these questions can only be answered on an individual basis. There are happy people, rich and poor. Likewise with bitter people. The deciding factor is gratefulness: does the person in question appreciate what he or she has, however much or little?
Whatever the truth may be, Seaside possesses an undeniable southern/coastal charm — not unlike Savannah, Georgia, or Charleston, South Carolina. The cobblestone streets are highly walkable and arranged in such a way that the seabreeze penetrates deep into the neighborhood. There’s also ample vegetation to provide shade from the notoriously aggressive Florida sun. Caitlin and I got lost walking the narrow, precisely-designed streets. The homes are painted in pastels and arranged perfectly within the context of the greater community. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to heaven — or the Christian ideal of what heaven looks like.
There was even a Roman-style lyceum at the center of the town which served as a school. As we walked past, 100 kids were sitting outside on white stones during their lunch break. Perhaps a couple of the children were having a conversation that went something like this: “My dad owns the Miami Dolphins? What do your parents do?” “Oh, my grandma is Cheryl Crow…”
My Hawaiian shirt was unbuttoned, revealing a hairy and sunburned chest. I also had a camera draped around my neck. A long-haired kid who looked like a surfer in training waved to me through perfectly manicured trees. I waved back, hesitantly.
“Don’t wave at children with your shirt unbuttoned,” Caitlin warned me. I suppose that was good advice.
I don’t have much else to say about Seaside other than (1) you should visit, and (2) once I make my millions, Caitlin and I will be buying a home there and enjoying that private beach, while the rest of you plebeians pummel and fellate one another on public sand like the detestable buffoons that you are.
The fairy tale beauty of Seaside is made doubly apparent when juxtaposed next to the plague of strip malls that infect this region. There are more than 65,000 strip malls in the United States, according to an article in The New York Times, and if I had to venture a guess, I’d say about 60,000 of those are concentrated in Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach. These beastly, soulless boxes are the herpes of the American landscape: they’re unsightly, and continue to spread — despite their hideousness — into every corner of this great country. In doing so, they eliminate an area’s sense of place: when nearly every town in America features horrible rectangles populated by Papa Johns, Kohls, Food Lion, et cetera, it’s impossible to distinguish Florida from Virginia or Iowa or anywhere else. Individuality evaporates, the heart of a given town is eliminated, and the road from one coast to the other — from sea to shining sea — looks more or less the same.
During our final day on the Emerald Coast, Caitlin and I drove to Pensacola so she could get a cost-effective, high-quality massage. I toiled around for the 90 minutes that she was being rubbed down by a stranger, grabbing a hot tea from a local coffee shop and then heading to a library, where I wrote the above heated passage about the ubiquitousness of strip malls in America.
I apologize for my explosive bitterness. The listlessness of Pensacola, mixed with the sleep deprivation I’ve been experiencing from consistently waking up before 6 a.m. to watch the sunrise, had me in a generally tense and pessimistic mood.
After picking up Caitlin — who was feeling loose as a goose — from her massage, we drove down gorgeous Route 98, through Pensacola Beach, the Gulf Islands National Seashore and Navarre Beach. This stretch of sand, I’m convinced, is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The sand is whiter (and the water more aquamarine) even than Okaloosa Island, which is picturesque in its own right. The rolling, windswept dunes soften the atmosphere, but my shoulders and mind were wound tight as hell as we drove past the beautiful scenery. I needed to refresh. So I pulled the big-bodied Buick LeSabre, which I recently inherited from my late grandfather, into the parking lot of a public beach. I threw on my American flag swim trunks and sprinted across the empty sand and into the warm waters of the Gulf.
I floated there, taking it all in: this would be my last time in the water during this trip — and for the foreseeable future. I looked back at Caitlin, standing on the shore, surrounded on three sides by white sand and overhead by a flawless blue sky. Soon this scene would be a memory, a recollection from our younger years, a callback to a time before the winds of change utterly overtook us. This moment was perhaps the last threshing from our relative youth — a final joyous spasm — as we prepared to leap from that hazy shore into the wild and open waters of irreversible adulthood. Maybe the winds and rain won’t be too serious out there, but either way, we’re preparing ourselves for the unknown.