But when a southern anthem rings,
she will buckle to that sound.
When that southern anthem sings,
it will lay her burdens down.
-Iron & Wine
It is difficult to believe that the Deep South is part of the same country I have called home for most of my life. Sure, there are Home Depots and Wal-Marts and McDonald’s and Starbucks, but the Gulf Coast feels so… foreign. So strange. So much different than the world I inhabit in the Southwest, or that in which I was raised in Oregon. I feel my hackles raise and I am on edge, like I am when traversing foreign countries, in anticipation of the inevitable swindler, hustler, or criminal waiting for opportunity. I feel entirely out of place here; a feeling not unwelcome.
From Savannah, I drove straight around Jacksonville and began my trek through northern Florida. I joined Interstate 10 on the beginnings of its long journey to the Pacific, but then our paths diverged as I took a detour through the piney woods. I find the most interesting sights, people, and places are to be found away from the interstates and their thundering semi trucks, long haul pit stops, and endless fast food establishments. Plus, I wanted to avoid at all costs traffic in any major city, and I was rapidly approaching Tallahassee. So off I went, toward St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge and the Gulf Coast.
I passed small backwoods towns such as Lamont, with people lazily inhabiting the front porches of single wide trailers on a weekday afternoon, smoking, eating, or drinking from paper-bag-clad bottles. The narrow paved road was lined with dead armadillos and mangy street dogs with their tails tucked between their legs, warily chomping on some unidentifiable piece of refuse. The road soon dwindled to a dirt track through swampy pine forests, and my car was bombarded by swarms of suicidal dragonflies and butterflies. Flocks of wild turkeys ran alongside the road, and vultures circled above. I soon joined Highway 98, which would eventually carry me along the coast all the way to Mobile, Alabama.
I passed Tate’s Hell State Forest and stopped in Apalachicola, a tiny smudge of a bayside town comprised mostly of rundown shacks beyond the gentrified main drag. I drove a few blocks up the bay to a seafood shack called “Up the Creek”, and ate a marvelously local meal of raw oysters, an alligator burger, and sweet potato fries (oddly, with cinnamon and sugar on them) while sitting on a deck overlooking the marshes. I pressed on toward Panama City, my planned stopover for the night.
As I came into town, I was overcome with the urge to sit in my hotel room, drink gin, and watch TV. I am definitely the kind of person who listens to such urges, so I stopped at a liquor store. The store was combined with a sleazy bar, so smoky that after 5 minutes I smelled like an ashtray. Some rough-looking drunk women hung on the arms of even rougher-looking men. I grabbed my gin and tonic, a lime, and hastily exited. At the hotel, I was greeted by more unsavory characters, shirtless this time, lounging about in front of the building drinking 40-ounce beers poorly hidden in paper bags. I went to my hotel room, watched TV, and drank my gin. It was a good night.
The next morning, I left Panama City for New Orleans. Though I had only 5 hours of drive time, I was certain it would be an all-day undertaking due to frequent stops, detours, etc. Bypassing most of Panama City Beach, its sandy shores weighed down by strip malls, outlet retailers, and slick-haired young people in a perpetual state of Spring Break, my first stop was Laguna Beach. I paused to enjoy the relatively quiet white sand beach and warm turquoise waters. Cruising further down Hwy 98, I followed the coastline toward Alabama. I couldn’t help but check out the creepy-looking “Shark Museum and Souvenir City” along the way in Florida also; a run-down and thoroughly depressing collection of dead fish and other creatures, taxidermied, dusty, mounted on industrial metal shelves or hanging from the ceiling. More shelves housed a startling collection of hideous souvenirs: glass miniatures, snow globes, shot glasses, keychains. In the back of the store, against the mirrored back wall, were 4 morose caged parrots in cavernous, rusty, barren enclosures. Each bird was over 30 years old, according to the handwritten signs. Time to move on.
I stopped at Tacky Jacks in Mobile, Alabama for a lunch of blackened crawfish tails (yep, more southern delicacies). Less than a mile from there was the Battleship Memorial Park, where a giant WWII-era battleship is permanently docked for public tours, and a collection of tanks, bombers, fighter jets and helicopters from WWII through Desert Storm litter the grounds. Some were severely damaged, and others were n pretty good shape. I was amazed, as I usually am when thinking about war, at the ingenuity of mankind when coming up with new ways to kill one another. Our capacity for violence is just as impressive (and commonplace) as our capacity for kindness. Both extremes live in each of us. And here I was looking at such a wide array of instruments contrived for the sole purpose of killing other people. Strange.
From Mobile, I drove down I-10 until I saw another “Scenic Byway” sign. I took the exit, which delivered me to Gulfport, Mississippi. Sandy beaches, largely deserted, stretch on for miles. Piers jut out into the surf, some only skeletal remains after the barrage of hurricanes in the past few years. Hermit crabs scuttled through the shallows; I picked them up, held them in my hand until their tiny striped legs emerged to drag their cumbersome, barnacled shells across my palm. Small silver fish darted through the water, fleeing my oncoming feet by hurling themselves from the water and skipping across the surface like a river stone. Pelicans flapped lazily by, a foot or two above the water. Herons ruffled and croaked at me as I passed on my lengthy beach stroll. I imagine it was quite sad to see this lovely spot adulterated by the Deepwater Horizon incident. You can see the remnants still; the occasional sign reads “BP Claims call…” or “You are STILL entitled to a Deepwater Horizon settlement.” But there were no tar balls here, no oily patches along the tide line.
Driving toward the blood-red setting sun, I traversed the seemingly endless bridges across the bayous to New Orleans, arriving shortly after dark. And now here I am in the Big Easy, at my host’s house. There is a potluck this afternoon, and I will explore the city over the next couple days. More on that soon!
PS- I apologize for the increasing verbosity of my entries. Just feeling inspired as I progress!