The following is the fourth and final entry in Our Land’s summer travel series, “A Summer of Unremarkable Travels.” Enjoy.
It’s the second day of a seven day vacation in Panama City Beach and I’ve already been caught in two separate downpours. The first time it happened, my wife, Liz, and I noticed a break in the rain and decided to take a brisk walk around the block. “The radar looks fine,” she said. “We’ll be alright.”
We were 10 minutes away from the condo when the clouds unleashed enough water to drown a school of fish. We momentarily sheltered under an overpass, then elected to make a mad dash for the condo. It wouldn’t have mattered either way: we ended up soaked to the very fiber of our beings. I ran back to the condo in slippery, decade-old sandals, while Liz casually walked the final couple of minutes, impervious to the wetness. “It’s actually kind of refreshing,” she said. “But I don’t want it to happen again.”
Several hours later, after it looked like the rain had moved on for good, I snagged my camera and took another stroll around the neighborhood. This is something I often do when I’m in a new place: wander around like a lost bat and snap photos of my surroundings — photos I’ll probably look back on in five years and think: “Why the hell did I take these?”
But that’s beside the point: about five minutes into my photo-taking excursion, the sky opened up again. For the second time in less than two hours, I had to hang my clothes over the shower rod to dry.
“Screw this,” I thought to myself. “I’m not going outside anymore today. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, I’m a fool for life.”
So the wife and I chose to play board games, as people often do when they’re on vacation and the weather is crappy. But we didn’t play an adult game like Monopoly. We played Guess Who.
For the uninitiated, Guess Who involves each player picking a card with the face of a creepy cartoon human on it. Then, through a series of simple questions, players attempt to figure out which person is on their opponent’s card. It’s not a complex game and it quickly becomes boring. But the rain wasn’t stopping, so we dove right in, with a shameful sort of exuberance. We completed a few rounds with normal questions — i.e. “does your person have glasses?” et cetera and so forth — but that felt too bland, so we spiced it up with edgier inquiries, such as:
“Is your person kept up at night with a crippling sense of regret?”
“Has your person masturbated within the last 36 hours?”
“Does your person have a punchable face?”
“Does your person look like a child molestor?”
We embraced these inappropriate lines of questioning for one round, but even that got old. So we switched to Yahtzee, which Liz and I play a lot. She beat me for what I’m pretty sure is the fifth time in a row. I threw a fit — as one does when one loses a game as infuriating as Yahtzee — and she called me out for being “the worst sport I’ve ever met.”
“I’m not a bad sport, Christ,” I said. “Losing is just an unacceptable outcome to me.”
The stretch of land from Pensacola to where we are, in Panama City Beach, is known as the Redneck Riviera. It’s called as such because of the “strong southern culture of the hinterland,” according to trusty old Wikipedia. Strong southern culture, indeed: the Confederate flag is frequently displayed with apparent pride from the backs of trucks, and there’s a store devoted solely to Trump apparel located next to a gas station somewhere between Panama City and St. Andrews State Park. There are enough Trump flags flipping and flapping to make a man want to move to a distant country, or at least hibernate until election season is over. The most questionable pro-Trump slogan I’ve seen thus far — and they’re all questionable, to be sure — is “TRUMP 2020: NO MORE BULLSHIT.” Odd that one of the greatest con men in American political history is promising to eliminate bullshit. But that’s neither here nor there. Because if one can forgive the ubiquitous fanboyism for Trump, and likewise the Confederacy, around these parts, it becomes clear that the Redneck Riviera features the most gorgeous beaches in the country. There’s white sand and clear water for 100-plus miles.
This part of Florida is also known as the Forgotten Coast, because compared to other regions of the state, it’s sparsely populated. There are no major cities here. The biggest urban area is Pensacola, which has a metro population of around 500,000. Apparently nobody has forgotten about this coast since we arrived, however, because it’s been absolutely packed. That’s all well and good — it’s hard to fault people for wanting to drink and relax in an area with so much natural beauty — but we’re in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, for chrissakes. COVID-19 has already claimed 150,000-plus American lives.
This part of Florida is also known as the Forgotten Coast, because compared to other regions of the state, it’s sparsely populated. There are no major cities here. The biggest urban area is Pensacola, which has a metro population of around 500,000.
I can already hear viable criticisms being raised by those reading this: “But you’re part of the problem, too, Mr. Moon! You decided to vacation in Florida when it’s the freakin’ epicenter for the virus.”
OK, sure. I’m deserving of some harsh judgment. A responsible person probably wouldn’t have taken a vacation at this moment in history, much less to Florida, which is simply a flat out bad place to be right now. But there’s a distinct difference between the way we’ve been vacationing, and the way I’ve seen thousands of other people vacationing over the past few days. We’ve been avoiding large crowds, socially distancing, staying away from indoor spaces as much as possible, wearing masks when we do go indoors, and sanitizing our hands when we leave public. We haven’t gone out to eat once since we’ve been here and don’t plan to do so in the coming days.
The masses, on the other hand, aren’t giving much of a damn about anything. In a state with the highest elderly population by percentage, pretty much everyone here is acting as though the virus is an utter myth. The scene has been, at best, a debaucherous free-for-all: Restaurants are slammed to the gills. Bars, which are supposed to be closed per governor’s orders, are still serving sit-down customers, packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Tourist hotspots like Seaside and Panama City Beach are just as dense with sweaty bodies as ever, and virtually no one is following social-distancing guidelines or wearing masks. The governor is apparently mulling a statewide shutdown because people are either too selfish or too stupid (or both) to comply with basic safety recommendations. It’s been a masterclass on ignorance and self-absorption.
Earlier this evening, we ordered take-out from a place named Salty Sue’s. The plan was to call in the order, pick it up from the bar (with our masks on, of course), and get the hell out as quickly as possible. But when my father-in-law (Papa) and I arrived to snag our order, the guy working the bar said our food was still a few minutes out. The place was seething with people, so we waited outside. Before making it out the door, however, a patron sitting at the bar engaged us in a conversation about how several Florida Marlins’ players had tested positive for COVID-19 after (apparently) going to a strip club together.
“What a bunch of idiots,” he said, sitting inside a packed restaurant with no obvious ventilation. “Can you believe people could be so stupid?”
We said we really couldn’t. Papa and I headed outside, where eventually our food was delivered. “Sorry for the wait,” said the guy who brought it to us, perhaps transmitting COVID-19 in the process. I grabbed the to-go boxes and we split for the car, dousing our hands in sanitizer as soon as we sat down.
“I can’t believe how dang packed it is down here,” Papa said in his Kentucky drawl. “I knew it was going to be kind of crowded, but dang. These people really do not give a flip.”
He paused for a moment.
“The got dang Redneck Riviera!”
The anxiety of being surrounded by so many COVID-19 ignorers finally got to us this morning: we decided to get a refund on the final three days of our AirBnB, and split for Tallahassee, where Liz’s cousin, Paulina, lives, and where hopefully there will be a greater number of virus-respecting individuals. I grieved upon the initial word that our beach vacation would be cut short (Tallahassee, after all, isn’t on the coast). Frozen yogurt, I figured, was the only thing that would cheer me up. But when we got to Sweet Frog, there were at least 15 people slurping down chilled dairy products indoors, sans masks. “So much for that,” I thought.
Disappointed, I turned my attention to a night time beach stroll: that, I thought, would help me process the dual griefs of leaving the beach three days early and failing to score a delicious treat for dessert. As soon as we stepped onto the sand, however, we noticed a small camp of people proudly displaying two flags: TRUMP 2020 and “Don’t Tread on Me.” Never mind that Trump recently sent federal agents to Portland, where they were apparently snatching seemingly peaceful protestors off the street and whisking them into unmarked vans. Never mind that Trump has reportedly been giving government employees the OK to tread on the very liberties these Trump supporters were touting by hoisting the Gadsden Flag.
Forget all that, though, because humor is always the best medicine.
“One of us should go over there and take a poo on their pow-wow,” I said to my wife, ashamed of the childish words as soon as they left my lips.
“I’d do it,” she responded. “But this pregnancy has me constipated. It’ll have to be you.”
Crass, I know.
Crass, and downright silly.
I’m sorry I brought up Trump again. And I’m also sorry I suggested relieving my bowels in public. I hate when people are unable to talk about anything other than politics or poop for more than a few minutes. Yet here I am, talking about politics (and poop), once again. Jesus! I’m going to attempt to stay off these topics for at least a few paragraphs, OK? Wish me luck.
What are some non-partisan things to discuss? This morning, I went on a five-mile run through Panama City Conservation Park, a 2,900-acre wildlife refuge that features a well-maintained trail system. I woke up unreasonably early — at like, 5 a.m., because for some reason my body refuses to sleep in until a normal hour — and went on a casual jog, before the brutal Florida sun rose above the trees and baked everything to a crisp.
It was isolated and peaceful out there at the crack of dawn. The air was heavy and smelled of sweet flowers. “All right,” I said to myself. “Let’s do this.” Seconds after stepping onto the trail, however, I heard a great snorting and grunting from the marsh. A dog-sized black creature darted in front of me. Then a second one. Then a third. GRUNT, GRUNT, GRUNT. A rustling of grass. Wild boars. I recoiled, totally frightened. I even ran a few steps in the other direction, ashamed of myself for not knowing the proper technique for handling a feral hog encounter. The general thought when confronting most wild animals is to make oneself appear large, and to let out hysterical noises, not unlike someone who’s been set on fire. But I wasn’t sure if this approach would work with boars, which are notoriously aggressive creatures. The last thing I wanted to do was give them the impression that I was up for a fight. So instead I turned and ran, like a wee little bitch. Eventually the gruff trio disappeared into the marshlands. I scooped up my pride, which was lying in the dirt, and moved forward.
The rest of the run was uneventful. I didn’t see any gators, though I’m sure they were out there somewhere, waiting for me to pass close enough for a meaty breakfast. As I moved down the trail, step-by-step, paranoia began to creep in: was I being watched by a Florida panther, which I’ve read can grow to 160 pounds? It was an irrational fear (apparently there are no documented attacks on humans), but there it was, nonetheless, brought on by a shaky nervous system still recovering from the Hog Incident.
I didn’t encounter a panther, of course. Their populations are concentrated more in the Everglades than in the Panhandle, or so I’m told. On my way back to the condo, I saw a couple of black neighborhood cats playing near a drain pipe. “Get out of here, you wet rats!” I shouted.
Once inside, I attempted to convince my wife that I’d seen two “dwarf panthers” roaming around ominously outside.
“Nuh uh,’ she said, convinced. “What’s a dwarf panther? And what do they look like?”
“Small and black,” I said. “And they love tuna.”
At 691 miles, Florida’s Route 98 is the longest road in the state. It starts in Pensacola and runs parallel with the coast until just north of Clearwater, where it cuts across the center, before terminating on the Atlantic side in West Palm Beach. Route 98 isn’t as popular as, say, the Pacific Coast Highway. It doesn’t feature breathtaking cliffs or dramatic rocky seascapes. Yet it’s undeniably scenic in purely Floridian ways: marshes. White sand beaches. Shacks-by-the sea. Charming gulf front towns. These sorts of things. Go further east on the Panhandle — around Port St. Joe and Apalachicola — and the tourist population starts to thin. These towns offer a taste of old Florida, local Florida, a Florida that doesn’t rely on towering condos or a sprawl of beach houses to sustain its economy. Here, it’s easy to picture a grandmother taking a homemade casserole to some community event at the local library.
Grant it, I’m sure there are plenty of outsiders in these towns, drifters who come to stay for a short time or perhaps permanently, transient souls who’ve traded the hustle of capitalism for a slower breed of life down by the Gulf. It’s easy to see the merits of such a lifestyle. The charm of the Forgotten Coast — particularly along this section of Route 98 — isn’t glitz and glamour (although that can be found, too, in places like Seaside and Rosemary Beach), but its gritty isolation. Again, the biggest city on the Emerald Coast is Pensacola, but that’s so far west as to feel like a completely different state than, say, Port St. Joe: which, for the record, is three hours from Pensacola, and two hours from the capital of Tallahassee (the largest city on the panhandle). This stretch feels like the heart of the Forgotten Coast, separated as much by distance from Florida’s shinier towns as it is by aesthetic and attitude. Here’s a place to lose oneself. Here’s a place one can forget that anything exists beyond seabreeze and sand. Here’s a place to forget that this is even America.
(Sidenote: If you’re going to drive the coastal section of Route 98 — which I recommend you do at least once in your life — might I suggest listening to the album “Wave” by jazz artist Carlos Antonio Jobim. It’s a perfectly breezy soundtrack for a perfectly breezy ride.)
We took Route 98 from Panama City Beach to Tallahassee. It was two hours longer than the shortest route, but well worth it. On the ride there, I made the formal decision to rent a bike and explore the state capital. When life gives you lemons — i.e. makes you leave the beach three days earlier than you were expecting — why not peddle away the frustration?
And if you’re going to bike, why not ride 32-plus miles in a single day? St. Mark’s Trail offered a perfect opportunity to do just that: starting in southern Tallahassee, the paved path runs 16 miles to St. Mark’s, a charming shanty town that rests at the confluence of two rivers: Wakulla and St. Mark’s. So Liz, Papa and I rented some bikes and headed south, where we were to meet my mother-in-law (Mama) and Paulina for lunch at the Riverside Cafe (don’t worry, it was an open-air restaurant and we sat in a far corner, away from everyone else).
The trail is straight as a pencil and flat as cardboard. On one side, a road runs parallel. On the other, one can gaze deep into Apalachicola National Forest (for a portion of the trail, at least) and — further south — into multi-acre plantations complete with donkeys, horses, chickens, and old farm dogs. Twice I nearly slammed into a rooster at top speed. Another time, a scraggly old hound chased me for a mile before giving up the ghost. I spotted a deer, too, but she was gracious enough to step out of the way before I t-boned her. It was a rustic journey, to say the least.
From the onset, though, it was clear that all three of us — Papa, Liz and I — might not make it the full length of the trail. Papa started strong, darting out sight within the first mile. Liz’s bike was somewhat ill-fitted for her, however, and because she’s pregnant, her nether regions were more sensitive than normal. She wasn’t physically tired, but the hard seat was causing more irritation and trouble than it was worth.
She threw in the towel at the halfway point. Paulina picked her up on the road and shuttled her to the cafe. Before Liz hopped in the car, though, there was a moment of magic: as we drug her bike to the main road, through a sliver of forest, she looked across the street and saw two donkeys — one white and one brown — strolling across a field to say hello. Liz, a lover of all things cute, was positively floored.
She looked across the street and saw two donkeys — one white and one brown — strolling across a field to say hello. Liz, a lover of all things cute, was positively floored.
But sometimes things aren’t as cute as they appear at first glance. The brown one was chill, allowing us to stroke him behind the ears. The white one, however, was a real son-of-a-bitch: he whacked the brown one with his large skull, and when the brown one started hee-hawing like a maniac, he bit the back of the brown one’s neck hard enough to leave an indentation. Apparently this wasn’t the first time this had happened, because the brown one was covered in cuts and scars, plus a festering wound seething with flies. The magic was at least partially ruined. I said my goodbyes to Liz and the feuding donkeys, then continued down the trail.
I hadn’t seen Papa for so long I figured he was probably nearing St. Mark’s. As I passed a trail-side bench, however, I saw an older man with gray hair taking a rest. It was Papa, sure as the day is long, whittling a stick with his pocket knife. “I’m making a toothpick,” he said. “We ain’t in the Redneck Riviera anymore, but got dang, we might as well be.” The bike seat was hurting his ass. So I gave Paulina another call, and five minutes later, there she was, hoisting a second bike into the trunk of her car. “I should start a biker rescue service,” she said. “I think I could make a pretty good business out of it.”
After that, it was just me and the open trail. It became less-populated the further south I went — not counting the wildlife and farm animals. And the heat was steadily rising: 84 degrees when we started, but the high for the day was 96, and it was beginning to come through in full force. The warmth wasn’t as draining as the sheer monotony, however: seeing nothing but a paved trail far off into the horizon made it seem like I was pedaling on an endless treadmill. My legs went numb with fatigue. I’d never biked this far in one go-round, and my inexperience was starting to bear rotten fruit.
Right when I was becoming slightly delusional, however, I popped out in the heart of St. Mark’s. The town was as quirky as expected. There was a restaurant near the water called COOTER STEW CAFE, which is precisely what one would expect a cafe in a small Floridian river town to be named. “Say Liz, would you ever eat something called Cooter Stew?” I asked in serious tones, later in the day. “I wouldn’t,” she responded. “But you do it all the time.” I couldn’t deny this was indeed true, though I didn’t appreciate her out-and-out crudeness.
I later learned that “cooter” is actually a slang term for “turtle.” This revelation made the cafe’s name more reasonable, but also less entertaining.
There was a restaurant near the water called COOTER STEW CAFE, which is precisely what one would expect a cafe in a small Floridian river town to be named. I later learned that “cooter” is actually a slang term for “turtle.” This revelation made the cafe’s name more reasonable, but also less entertaining.
We spent a couple hours exploring the St. Mark’s area — eating at the cafe, venturing to Shell Island, not slurping down turtle soup at COOTER STEW CAFE — before I hopped on the bike and retraced the 16 miles back to Tallahassee. The first 10 flew by, except for when I nearly clipped a farm dog in the torso with my front tire. The final six miles, though, were extraordinarily taxing: I was soaked in perspiration and could sense a caloric deficit coming on. To distract myself from the strain and boredom, I began counting my pedal strokes: a hard 200, followed by a brief break. Another 200, another break. I mostly kept my eyes focused on the pavement immediately in front of me. Shadows danced psychedelically. My vision waved.
Could I have taken a break whenever I felt like it? Absolutely. Sunset was still hours away. There was no need to rush home. Yet I chose to push myself harder than was logical, because I knew the Gatorade and protein bar I planned to buy afterward would be extra rewarding if I was plum worn out.
My hypothesis was proven correct. The first rush of chilled Gatorade down my esophagus was orgasmic. The protein bar grounded my body. It had all been worth it. Later that night, I laid on the couch and sipped a glass of red wine, because I’m an adult now, and that’s the sort of thing that a responsible adult does after biking 16 miles to a small river town in Florida and back again, for no discernible reason other than to do it.
The more I visit Florida — particularly the Panhandle and the Redneck Riviera — the more I’m torn about what to think of it. On the one hand, I love it. The gators, the palm trees, the white sand beaches. The seafood, the clear water, the old towns. Part of me even loves the heat — that salty old dog — because it fills my bones with vitality. But part of me also despises the heat — its suffocating uterine mugginess — just as part of me dislikes the Forgotten Coast in general, with its strip malls, widespread Trumpism and skyscraping beach front condos.
But Florida often imitates life, as that old saying goes (is that how it goes?). And the opposite is also true. What’s coming to mind now, as I prepare to leave this place, is a moment from early in our vacation, back in Panama City, when all of us walked down to the beach to take in the sun after two straight days of rain. Mama, who’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s, was walking arm-in-arm with Papa, who regularly helps her put on shoes and complete other routine tasks made difficult by the disease. Also by Mama’s side was her sister, a former yoga teacher who was born “Betty” but changed her name to “Zelena Elizabeth One” over two decades ago, which is also about how long it’d been since the two of them had spoken. A familial rift, you know how those things go. But the long-standing disagreement was over now.
What’s coming to mind now, as I prepare to leave this place, is a moment from early in our vacation, back in Panama City, when all of us walked down to the beach to take in the sun after two straight days of rain. Mama, who’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s, was walking arm-in-arm with Papa, who regularly helps her put on shoes and complete other routine tasks made difficult by the disease.
Also by Mama’s side was her sister, a former yoga teacher who was born “Betty” but changed her name to “Zelena Elizabeth One” over two decades ago, which is also about how long it’d been since the two of them had spoken. A familial rift, you know how those things go. But the long-standing disagreement was over now.
I remember how Papa was standing in the surf that morning in Panama City Beach, a camera pressed to his right eye, as COVID ravished the nation and the president tore a divided country even further apart. I see Papa snapping a picture of three smiling ladies — Zelena, Mama and my pregnant wife — and can’t help wonder how many more days we’ll have like this, together just as we are, before the final hammer descends like a temperamental August thunderstorm.