Running on the beach in the first light of morning, there’s not another soul around. Ms. B. sleeps in the tent that is tucked away between the dunes. We are camped out in another Paradise. Indeed, Perdido Key on the Gulf Coast of Florida is one of my new favorite places on the planet earth. We arrived yesterday in the very late afternoon. By the time we hiked the mile in to set up our tent in the free “primitive” camping area, it was already dark and I couldn’t see the surroundings. So I awoke before dawn and exited the tent to discover the wonder of our new temporary home.
We are the only campers. Is that because it’s the off season; because of the oil spill or because Americans just don’t like “primitive” camping? I’m not sure. But it seems crazy to me that a place like this exists and no one else wants to be here. The national park is on a narrow peninsula that sticks out into the ocean for about eight miles. There’s a paved road for the first three miles but after that you have to walk. Our tent is set up a mile or so beyond the road. As I jog the remaining four miles of forgotten and isolated beach, I feel just a little bit like the very last soul on an empty and abandoned planet. The sun is rising but I can’t quite see it yet because of the hovering mist. Instead, the water vapor in the air captures the light and refracts it into sparkling prisms. The sand is pure white on my left and the ocean is pure blue to my right. I run along the damp brown shoreline surrounded by the ethereal cloud of sparkling light. The earth is soft but firm beneath my bare feet. My muscles and bones ache and strain gladly from the effort. The lungs breathe in deep the fresh ocean air and the heart pounds loudly in my chest. I feel so good, I might explode…spontaneously combust…join the light particles and disappear into the ethereal cloud. I feel so good, I might flap my arms, watch them turn into wings and fly off into the nothingness. I feel so good I could die right here and right now and that would be all right… Nevertheless, I’m not quite ready for that. So perhaps I’ll slow down and walk for a while.
Our stay at the Fort Pickens Recreation Area of the Gulf Islands National Sea Shore is a good one. The beach is nice, the ruins interesting and the relatively untraveled road is good for biking. We also use it as a relatively cheap place to stay while we explore the nearby and interesting small city of Pensacola. I must say, it’s nice to know that there still exist a few places in America that are not completely strip mallified. No doubt the outskirts of the city are a nightmare of corporate sameness but at least the historical center retains a sense of originality and charm. It has lots of interesting old South architecture, a vibrant arts scene, lots of live music and some good locally owned restaurants that serve actual food rather than mass produced food product. For Valentine’s Day, we have ourselves a night on the town. We go out for a real dinner at an organic vegetarian restaurant and then treat ourselves to a live music show at one of the several fine venues. Contrary to what some people may think, I am not opposed to all economic activity. I just prefer an economy based on human activity and original culture rather than the ever increasing consumption of petroleum products. This right here is the kind of economic activity that I personally like to encourage.
After Fort Pickens, the next destination on our travel agenda is a place called Perdido Key. Truth be told, I wanted to go there from the moment I first read about it. Part of the reason I want to go is because I’m poor and cheap and we read that you can camp there for free. Since I have no paying stone work until Spring and my books are failing to fly from the proverbial shelves, free places to stay are an important part of my economic survival. But really, the main reason I want to go is ideological. I am, after all, a primitive man rather than a civilized one and Perdido Key is a place where primitives are welcome.
They call it “primitive” camping. What that means basically is that there are no facilities. There’s no comfort stations or restrooms; no electric hookups or wifi; no waste disposal services or laundry; no camp store or parking pad. All there is is “untouched” natural world and the legal right to set up a tent and stay for a few days without getting harassed by guys in uniforms. In my universe, this kind of camping would be available virtually everywhere. If a territory is not occupied, you should be able to occupy it. Indeed, the fact that free “primitive” camping is not readily available throughout the country is the key to the fundamental problem with the entire American economic system. This travel story blog is not really the place for an extended discussion of this topic but think about the underlying truth. The theory of Capitalism is based on the notion that human beings can mix their labor with nature and create value and then trade the value they create for value created by others. Give a man a few acres and a mule and he can take care of himself. But in reality, there’s no nature left for man to mix his labor with because everything is already owned. And in this country, almost everything is owned by a corporation (a bank) or a government rather than a person. Since there is no free nature let for persons to mix their labor with, persons who want to survive have no choice but to become slaves of the corporations that own everything.
Perdido Key is located only twenty or thirty miles away from Fort Pickens. Nevertheless, we arrive there late in the day because we get a late start and then get stranded at Starbucks catching up on computer stuff. Not surprisingly, there’s an eight dollar entrance fee to the National Park. But at least the entry pass is good for a week and our info is correct that there is no extra charge for camping. The ranger informs us that we are the only campers and that we must walk at least a mile beyond the end of the road to reach the area allowed for camping. The mile of walking probably explains the absence of other campers.
The most difficult thing about camping at Perdido is the water situation. There is none available on the island so all water must be brought with you and then carried the mile to the camping area. This is not a big problem for a short stay but it does make a long term occupation rather impractical. We have three gallons with us and that should be enough for a couple days. If we decide to stay longer, we will just have to get more. Weighted down with tent, sleeping bags, cook stove, food and water, the mile hike in is not an easy one. But the time we are set up and comfortable, it is after dark. But it is well worth the effort. We have a wonderful evening on the dunes watching the waves roll ashore in the darkness.
The next morning is as good as it gets. I awake before dawn and crawl out of the tent at dawn’s first sign of light. The air is cool but not cold; probably in the 60s. I’m wearing shorts, tee-shirt and a zip up hood. I leave the flip flops in the tent but bring a little weed in a pipe and a lighter. I head towards the shore in search of the perfect spot for a sun rise smoke. Our tent is tucked away amid sand dunes to protect it from the wind but it’s only a couple hundred feet to the water. In a matter of moments, my toes are in the ocean waves and I’m taking in the sights and sounds of a completely empty and very long stretch of beach. That’s when I begin to run.
I’m not sure why, actually, the feeling just comes over me. My walk picks up it’s pace and before I know it, I am jogging. The experience that follows is indescribable. The whole world turns up a notch and my senses seem charged with electricity. The white sand shines and the ocean sparkles. My run speeds up and I am sprinting. I feel so good I could fly. But no…I better slow down. Don’t want to die of a heart-attack.
Wow…that felt good. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Slow down, not so fast. There, that’s better. I find a nice big piece of drift wood to sit down upon. My breathing slows as I watch the waves wash on shore. The morning mist is clearing and I see the first bit of sun. I guess it’s time for my morning offering to the sun God. And so, I smoke my pipe. Afterwards, I walk back the way I came, collecting colorful shells as I go.
It’s on the way back after run that I notice the first one; a dark blackish spot on the brown damp sand near the shore. It’s not a huge blotch (about 2 feet by 3 feet). I’m not sure what it is but it looks somehow wrong…unnatural. I wonder if it’s related to the oil spill. I stop for a closer look. I’m no scientist and I could be wrong but it seems like a pollution spot to me. A dark filmy slippery substance slightly discolors the sand. It’s only a thin layer. If you brush away the top couple of inches, the sand beneath is pure brown. So it’s not really a big deal. It’s just a small pollution spot. But it’s not the only one. On my several mile walk back, I see a couple more. Not a million more or a lot more…just a couple more. Just the occasional blemish interrupting the long stretch of sand. The perfect paradise of Perdido Key is not quite as perfect as it ought to be.
Nevertheless, we have a most amazing and incredible day. Ms. B. is awake when I return to the tent… I start up the camp stove and put the coffee on. Real coffee in a French Press. Just because we’re roughing it, doesn’t mean we’re not living the dream. Then we fill our bellies with hot organic oatmeal and slices of perfectly ripe apple. How good is it to be alive in this wonderful world?
I start the project after breakfast. I had the idea during my earlier walk but don’t begin construction until after our leisurely morning. I use one of the ugly blotches along the shoreline as my surface area background. It’s right at the top of the wet spot left by the high tide. There’s a bit of a hill or bank washed steep by big waves and I visualize a magical being sitting there, looking out at the ocean. I use my hands to brush away the blackish filmy sand and work the wet brown sand underneath. My plan is not specific, but my hands mold the earth into the shape of a woman…a pregnant woman. I then use the shells I collected earlier to add color and texture to her skin. Ms. B. comes forth from the camp site to help me with the decorations and details. We find a nice clump of seaweed to use as hair. Finally, after several hours of inspired creativity, our little masterpiece is complete… A metaphorical mother earth rises up from the wasteland of their oil spill to oppose their civilized empire. The line is drawn… What side are you on?