Sea shells on the sea shore call out to me with their colors. The full spectrum is scattered there but all together it seems white…blinding white in the direct sunlight. What is the story behind this scene? When the infinite comes together and seems white, can some of the infinite be re-arranged to bring out the color? We collect the tiny shells and put them in a pile by the water’s edge. I shape and mold the damp sand to form a small spiraling tower. It won’t last long because the tide is rising to wash it away so we work against the clock. We use the colored shells to line the pathway that wraps around the tower. To my over-active imagination, I like to think of it as a miniature stairway to heaven. As if this particular shape with its great variety of colors somehow symbolizes something important in this universe. Perhaps what it symbolizes is the impermanence of all human endeavor. It can be something small and beautiful like a colorful spiral of sand and shells or something big and ugly like a condo complex of concrete and vinyl. But in the long run, it matters not. Mother Nature will eventually re-claim her territory. And so, we build our miniature masterpiece and then watch it wash away…
We survive our night of guerilla camping with no problems or setbacks. We have no visitors in the dark of night and the alligators keep their distance. We awake to a beautiful sunrise on the gulf and then head back to Apalachicola in the morning. After breakfast and e-mail, we unload the bicycles and go for a ride around town. It really is a pleasant place with impressive old south architecture and a wonderful collection of friendly people. Yeah sure, the name sounds like a soda pop for rednecks but I recommend Apalachicola to anyone looking for a nice place to hideout or hangout on the Forgotten Coast.
Actually, I like the name Forgotten Coast too. And that is what they call it around here. I guess the name derives from the fact that this particular shoreline is not really what people think about when they think about Florida beaches. And now especially, after the oil spill in the Gulf, this whole region is going to be forgotten in the minds of vacationers. But forgotten does not mean ugly and in reality most of the long term visible damage from the oil is closer to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The beaches we see in the Panhandle are nothing but pure white sand and clear blue water. No doubt some ecological horrors still lurk under the surface, but to the human eye, at least, everything looks peachy keen.
After our bike ride around Apalachicola, we load the bicycles back up and head for Saint George’s island. We need no boat to get there, because like most islands in these parts, there’s a bridge connecting it to the main land. The bridge is an impressive feat of engineering showcasing the potential of humans in the modern civilized society. But the island it leads to is another example of the aesthetic offensiveness that manifests when development “develops” too much. How many big ugly luxurious beach houses and condos can you crowd together on one island? Almost all of them stand empty with “for sale” signs in front. Would people wealthy enough to afford such places really choose to live in homes that look like this? There’s no intricate, detailed and original architecture like the beautiful historic homes we saw in Apalachicola. Instead, it’s a grotesque amalgamation of concrete and vinyl. They are probably built that way to withstand the bad weather that blows in from the Gulf. But it seems to me another example of civilization gone mad.
Indeed, from one perspective, St. George’s is the perfect expression of the American irony. It’s a beautiful, idyllic island that was almost impossible to live on because of the harsh climactic conditions (little fresh water and bad hurricanes). Nevertheless, thanks to the genius of modern engineering, civilized humans developed the island to make it livable. Unfortunately, the development in question is an energy intensive process (vinyl and concrete = lots of oil). In order to acquire the massive amounts of energy necessary for St. George’s development and similar kinds of development, energy companies have to probe deeper into the earth and attempt riskier and riskier drilling operations. One of those drilling operations goes awry (Deep Water Horizon) and a major disaster results. So now the million dollar homes stand empty because the very thing that made them possible also destroyed the environment around them. And people wonder why I’m afraid of the hydro-frackers.
Thankfully, the entire island is not completely developed. The outer most tip is reserved for the general public as a state park. The cynic inside me surmises that the park was created to justify the public funding that was necessary to build the massive bridge. But that thought is pure speculation. Ultimately, the reason for the park is not relevant. I’m just glad it’s here. Of course it costs us five whole bucks just to enter and if we decide to camp it will be even more. Like usual, the park belongs to the government and not to “the people”. Oh well, it’s so darn beautiful out here, it’s well worth the money.
We park at the end of the road and walk upon the beach. There’s so few people around it seems strange. I know it’s the off season, but that does not explain the desolation. We see no oil spots or other sign of environmental damage but I can’t help but wonder. How come we have this world of white sand all to ourselves? Where have all the people gone?
No matter, we like the isolation and decide to make the most of it. We sit in the sand, smoke a little green and soak up the scene. Looking again at the endless expanse of white, I notice a splattering of color here and there. Imagine that; there are sea shells on this sea shore with an infinite variety of colors. Perhaps a little art project is in order. Maybe we could make something symbolic…
When the ocean washes our symbol away we head back to the car. We consider paying the requisite fee to “the man” for permission to set up our tent, but after last night’s success at guerilla camping, we decide to look for a “free space” to sleep in this not so free world. Thus, we head back to the mainland and continue east along the shoreline. Our tentative destination is either Tate’s Hell State Forest or the Apalachicola National Forest; two very big green spots on the map with a number of campgrounds scattered around. Maybe some of the campgrounds will be primitive and therefore very cheap or maybe there will be some nice unofficial campgrounds or open spaces along the dirt roads that wind through the forest. Hopefully, we’ll get lucky again and find another hidden paradise to call home for the night.
The road along the coastline is surprisingly pleasant. I’m not sure if it’s protected government land or if the developers don’t like it because the off shore islands block this territory from open ocean. But the few homes and businesses we see are old, somewhat ramshackle and charming rather than gigantus, collosul and developed. At one point there is even a third world trailer with a million dollar view. I wonder sometimes if it is a flaw in my character that I see such beauty in economic failure and such ugliness in economic success. Or is it perhaps a more fundamental problem with how our economic system defines success.
The sun has set by the time we turn inland and follow the road through the center of the state and national forests. Tall trees and endless swamps surround us. Except for the paved road we are driving on, there are no more indications of the civilized world. Occasional dirt tracks turn off the main road and lead into the depths of the dark forest. One such track is marked with a camping sign so we turn down it. But the campground is not easy to find. Beyond the main road is a labrynthian maze of criss-crossing dirt tracks. The Subaru has all wheel drive and we may need it because this way is more trail than road. We turn left and right and left and right. Where are we where are we going? Where in the hell can we camp?
Realistically speaking, we could park the car and camp anywhere in here. There’s no place to pull off the narrow track and no opening in the dense forest. But it’s so lonely and isolated we could probably stop, park and set up camp in the middle of the track. I’m fairly certain we won’t see anyone till morning and we may not see anyone here for days and days. But it’s not exactly paradise and it sure would be nice to find something a bit more comfortable.
How dark and creepy can a forest possibly become? When we turned off the main road, we expected a short little jaunt down a path to an open and welcoming place. But now we’ve gone several miles and the road just gets narrower and the forest more dense. We’ve turned so many times, we wonder if it’s possible to even re-trace our tracks. Are there…perhaps… sociopathic rednecks from the Deliverance movie waiting in the woods for our vehicle to break down? Will an army of alligators charge forth from the swamps and swarm our car? Probably not. But as the maze of narrow criss-crossing dirt roads gets more and more confusing, those are the thoughts that run through our heads. Tate’s Hell forest? Is that where we are? Or have we found some legendary backwater where the forces of darkness reign?
Somehow or other, we must have gotten ourselves totally turned around, because after driving in circles for a seeming eternity, we end up back at the main road where we entered. How in the heck did that happen? It’s kind of freaky and sort of like something that would happen in a horror movie but at least we aren’t lost anymore. Nevertheless, we still haven’t found a place to camp for the night. Not liking the maze we just escaped from, we decide to continue down the main road until we find a more promising alternative.
We probably only drive another seven or eight miles before we find another random dirt road disappearing into the forest with a sign for camping beside it. Once again, we enter a dark labyrinth of narrow dirt tracks searching for a comfortable place to stop and stay for the night. No moon yet and sun long ago set, the forest is smothered in a blanket of darkness. The pathway twists, the pathway turns; left, right and left again. Should we turn around? Can we still find our way back? Where are the hillbillies? Where are the alligators? Is this a stupid thing for us to do?
And then we see it. It’s a camping spot… sort of. Or perhaps the stage set for a late night low budget movie on the horror channel. Ms. B. has watched a few episodes of that HBO vampire series True Blood and when we stop the car and look around, I feel like I’m auditioning for a scene in the series. Visualize the creepiness. There’s a flat open space surrounded by swamp with a few tall trees. Dangling from one of the trees is a long twisted rope. There’s a fire pit large enough for human sacrifice and in the pit is a big chair like a throne as if the seat for the intended sacrificial victim. Under the chair is a pile of kindling, wood and paper that only waits for a match. What sort of bizarre ritual is supposed to happen here? In a pile by the tree, there’s an assortment of smashed bottles and bullet ridden beer cans. And on the ground by the picnic table is a collection of spent shotgun shells. Oh yeah, someone had a wild time here recently. But at least is it a legitimate campground and no one else is around. I think we have found ourselves a wonderful temporary home.
Ms. B. is not so sure. She expresses doubt. She’s a little freaked out by the creepy vibe and she points out a big sign near the picnic table. “Post Permit Here. All campers must be registered with the Park Service.” Obviously, we did no such thing and therefore we have no permit. So if we stay here, we will be breaking the rules again. I guess that means it’s an occupation… an occupation of government land. We will be guerilla camping in a backwater bayou. How much fun are humans allowed to have?
Ms. B. is not nearly as thrilled as me by the prospect. She wonders if someone else has this place reserved. And maybe they are planning to return later tonight to finish what they started here. We could be interrupting something bad. Maybe this is not a good idea… And that’s when we hear the story on the radio. The timing could not possibly be worse. Here we are, looking at this weird scene, discussing camping as the radio plays softly in the background. All of a sudden, the volume turns up to make an announcement. It’s a news bulletin about an escaped mass murderer in Louisiana. We are nowhere near Louisiana. We are in the Florida Panhandle. Why does the world have to tell us about this now?
I turn off the radio and tell Ms B. that there is no reason to worry. Mass murderers hang out in big cities and we are in the middle of nowhere. We could probably stay here a week and never see another person. Let’s set up.
We don’t use the tent though. Like before, we move the luggage to the front of the Subaru and transform the back into a sleeping shelter. Ms. B. does not wish to invite paranoia into the already bizarre situation and thus decides to not partake in the smoking of herbs. I, however, enjoy a little paranoia as long as it’s not an overdose. So I sit outside on the picnic table and smoke a pipe in the dark solitude. There’s still no moon and there must be some clouds blocking the few stars because I feel like a blind man in a black room. I can’t see my hand in front of my face. The rustling of a large animal in the woods nearby makes me jump. Alligator or raccoon; I don’t know. But the little bit of adrenaline rush is good for my soul. I click on my flashlight and point it at the trees but see nothing. It’s fun to be scared sometimes in this great big world.
When my pipe is finished, I join Ms. B. again in the back of the Subaru. I settle into my sleeping bag and make myself comfortable. So, here we are, camped out alone on a random dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Are we having fun yet? Shortly thereafter, we see the lights and hear the motor. Someone is driving down the track in our direction. Oh no! Apparently, we are not as alone as I thought…