Guerilla Camping on the Forgotten Coast

There are a few things to be afraid of: alligators, drug smugglers arriving in the dark of night, murdering rapists from a prime time television program and of course… the cops.  What we are doing is probably illegal.  We are not sure if it is private property or public property because it wasn’t posted as anything.  But this is the US of A after all so no doubt this little stretch of paradise is technically under the dominion of someone.  We stayed in a real campground last night.  It was beautiful and all but it cost 25 whole bucks (plus tax) just for a spot to set up our tent.  So tonight we decided on the more radical option.  Driving down the main highway between the San Blas peninsula and the town of Apalachicola, we turned off on a random dirt road that led through a small stretch of palm trees, scrub pine and swamp to arrive at the shoreline.  It’s not a campground or anything.  There’s no stretch of sandy beach or flat solid ground to set up our tent.  But we do have privacy.  There’s not another soul around.  And so, as the sun sets on the Gulf of Mexico, splashing the horizon with pink and purple and orange, we settle in and make ourselves at home…

Our journey from the campground in rural Georgia to the coast of the Florida Panhandle really is through Third World America.  We leave the main highway and travel the back roads.  No longer a land of bright lights, big business, and massive energy consumption, instead what we see is trailer parks and shotgun shacks with the occasional odd independent business; taxidermy, boiled peanuts and bonsai trees.  How weird is that?  The highlight of this leg is the surprising town of Dothan, Alabama which dubs itself the city of murals and lives up to its name.  Half the walls in the whole downtown are covered with impressive hand painted murals.  We like it so much we consider getting a room and staying a while.  But the beach calls out to us so we continue on.

We reach the coast at Panama City and then head east along the panhandle.  Third World no more, we are back in the first; strip malls and corporate competitors clutter the ocean side parkway.  It must have been beautiful along this road once.  But now it looks like everywhere else.  The same bright lights, the same big signs… the same, the same, the same.  There’s a major military base here and like so many other places in this country, that base drives the economy.  Tax payers give money to the government.  The government gives it to the soldiers and the soldiers spend it at the strip malls.  It’s a bizarre hybrid of socialism and capitalism.  Round and round the money flows, where it stops, nobody knows.  If only they had better taste in architecture.

Our first coastal destination is a place called St. Joseph’s state park which is located at the tip of the San Blas peninsula.  The image from the map and brochure gives us high hopes for an idyllic setting.  But we have some doubts about the affordability factor.  Apparently, the San Blas Peninsula is known for having some of the most expensive real estate on the planet earth.  Prices run in the vicinity of a million dollars an acre.  We’re not planning on buying any acreage or anything but if the purchase price is so high so must be the rent.  As we soon find out, however, most of the million dollar real estate stands empty.  I can’t help but wonder if the entire scene is somehow a product of the real estate collapse or perhaps fall out from the big oil spill in the Gulf.  The road along the peninsula is lined with luxury mansion after luxury mansion.  But only rarely do we see cars or people and almost every home has a “for sale” sign.  I think of the homeless and hungry on the streets of our cities and suggest an overnight occupation of one of the luxury homes as a symbolic act of protest.  Chances are… we’d never get caught and it would definitely save us the cost of a night camping.  But Ms. B. thinks I’m getting carried away with my revolution so we continue on to the campground.

The campground at St. Joe’s is spectacular.  A white sand peninsula juts out into the Gulf like a finger.  The almost empty beach seems to stretch out forever.  Colorful shells, apparently clean water and a sunset for the record books.  They charge us almost 30 bucks for a campsite though (25 plus tax) and most of the other campers are retired senior citizens living out their golden years as semi-nomadic RV dwellers.  Is this a campground or a retirement home?  I guess most people of working age have no time for camping.  Work now…enjoy later; is the lesson we learn in school.  I, however, didn’t learn that lesson well.  Enjoy now, enjoy always is my motto.

We find our campsite and make ourselves at home.  But because it costs so much we are only staying one night so we don’t bother with the tent.  Instead, like before, we transform the back of the Subaru into a comfy sleeping shelter.  Once our setup is established, we head to the beach…

Wow.  It’s been awhile since I’ve dipped my toes in the ocean and the white sands of this place are like from a vision rather than reality.  There are very few people around; maybe 7 or 8 as far as the eye can see.  Me and Ms. B have this particular slice of heaven more or less to ourselves.  Several large pieces of drift wood scattered here and there are the only solid objects against the background of pure white and deep blue.  The warm tingles start inside me.  I feel like a performer on the stage of the planet earth.  Where does this feeling come from?  Maybe it’s the full on beams of the setting sun.  Or maybe it’s the smell of the ocean or the taste of the wind.  I can’t explain it.  I feel so alive I’m ready to fly.  As if this moment is the climactic scene in a glorious show.  Accordingly, I leave my civilization accessories (camera, cell phone and wallet) on a piece of drift wood for safe keeping and perform…really, I do.

I dash towards the ocean and do a diving somersault in the sand.  I walk on my hands and do cartwheels.  I splash in the water up to my knees but don’t go all the way in because it’s cold and there is a shark danger at the sunset hours.  I return to the sand for more acrobatics.  I land flat on my back when I try a front handspring…aaaugh!  But even that feels good in a painfully alive way.  I roll over, push up, and walk some more on my hands.  I may be getting old and rusty but I can still do this stuff.  Why do I stop?  Why do I allow myself to become sedentary?  It feels so great to be awake and alive, why don’t I move like this all the time?

While I perform, Ms. B. shoots photos; artistic shots of the drift wood, the sunset and a couple of me.  Afterwards, we walk the beach together…looking for shells, breathing the sea air and being happy. It’s after dark by the time we get back to the campsite where we have a romantic meal of pb and j’s with a side of chips and salsa.  Oh yeah, life is so good.  And for desert…well… a little bit of green.

Our timing is so good I impress myself.  You’d almost think we planned it this way.  Our first night on the ocean is the night of the full moon.  The big glowing white orb climbs above the tree tops and soaks our world with its magical rays.  It’s so incredible in fact that we decide to take another walk.  Back to the beach we go.  A full moon stroll on an empty beach with the beautiful Ms. B.; oh yeah!  Some stories are just too good to tell.

The next day, we leave the campground.  I’d be happy there for a week or two but we really can’t afford it.  We have to find a cheaper alternative.  So we leave the San Blas peninsula and head east along the panhandle towards the town of Apalachicola.  Once off the big peninsula, there’s no more newly developed luxury mansions lining the roadway.  Instead, there’s undeveloped swamp and scrub pine with palm tree forest separating the main road from the ocean.  A few plots have been marked off and the occasional dirt road cuts through the tangle towards the shore but there are no buildings.  Thankfully, the real estate boom went bust before it consumed this territory.  And all us interlopers need is an opening and we will lay claim to a space.   We continue on to Apalachicola but take not of the uncivilized dirt roadways as possible sleeping spots for later.  The universe provides the opportunities; it’s up to us to take them.

How much do we like Apalachicola?  A whole lot.  We like it so much we discuss its potential as a winter residence.  It’s an atmospheric small town where the river meets the ocean.  There’s a good coffee shop, a couple restaurants and bars, several excellent local art galleries and even an independent bookstore.  Ms. B. is particularly impressed with the fine details in the historic architecture while I rather enjoy the colorful local characters we meet in the shops.  This one older guy with a big fluffy mustache and only two teeth is my favorite.  In response to my polite question “how are you today?”  A smile to save the world envelops his entire face and he sings out with a southern twang, “I could not possibly be any better.”  His enthusiastic response brings joy to my heart and is catapulted into the realm of the miraculous when the shopkeeper informs us afterwards that the man who uttered those words is dying of cancer.  Wow!  It’s truly amazing how one brief human encounter can put a whole lot of stupid shit into perspective.

After the leisurely wander around the town, we have an early dinner in one of the seafood restaurants.  It’s a bit beyond our budget but since we are planning to camp for free a little splashing out for food can be justified.  Bellies full of fish, we head back to the undeveloped stretch of land along the highway and seek out a secluded spot.  Sure enough, we find a random dirt road that disappears into the underbrush and we follow it to the shoreline.  There’s not another human soul around as the sun goes down over the ocean with a dazzling display of purple and orange and read and pink.  Yeah sure, it might be illegal to camp here.  But it’s not posted or anything and it certainly doesn’t seem wrong.  As a matter of fact, it’s so beautiful now it almost seems like the universe is wishing us a great big welcome.   And so, we transform the Subaru back into a sleeping shelter and settle into our new found temporary home.

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3 thoughts on “Guerilla Camping on the Forgotten Coast

  1. Hey pat, glad ur enjoying ur trip. I passed on the copy of The Way To…Timbuktu u gave me to my parents. They both read it, loved it, and gave to some friends of there’s. I realize this doesn’t make u any money but it does help get ur name out there outside of “our circle”. Hole that’s cool with u.
    -Matt from O-town

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