I'm not usually one to take chances, but something about that article in the travel section of the Sunday Tennessean really captured my imagination. There was this place, you see, in Florida, on the Gulf Coast, that sounded like it was meant for me.
Very little development, it said. No "high-rise" hotels, it said. Not crowded, it said. Pristine beaches, it said. No wave-runners, it said. Very laid back, it said.
"We're going," I said.
This was back before everyone had internet, so actual phone calls had to be made. A rental catalog arrived, and we picked out our dream house. Beach-front. Screened porch. Outdoor shower. A Sea Urchin. How charming.
I spent several weeks packing boxes with sheets and towels, soap and toilet paper, books and coffee, and everything else I thought might come in handy for our week at the beach. To this day, the act of packing is part of the necessary preparation for me. It sets the mood and puts me in the proper frame of mind. It's part of the ritual.
The drive from Nashville to St. George Island, Florida, took us a good nine hours. The last third of the trip takes you down Highway 231 through southern Alabama, and it's then that you really begin to feel that "Gulf vibe" and sense the ocean. You start to see palm trees and live oaks with spanish moss. You pass by little shacks called "The Nut Hut" and "Bama Nut House", and you see hand-lettered signs that say "Boiled P-Nuts". Even though you're in a hurry to get there, you have to go slower.
When we drove into Apalachicola, the quaint little oyster town about an hour east of Panama City, past the Red Rabbit (now a Piggly Wiggly), the old cemetery and the little church with the outdoor baptismal pool made of cinder blocks, and then across the bridge to Eastpoint, then another to the island itself, with the windows down, I was fairly quivering with anticipation.
I had grown up on the shores of Lake Erie, a rather large body of water in its own right, but I had only been to the Gulf once in my life before this. Smelling the humid salt air, seeing the sunlight glint on that great expanse of water, I heard a tiny voice in my head say, "This feels like home."
Rushing up the stairs, carrying our supplies into the house, and then opening the sliding door onto the porch and the deck, seeing the rise of dune and the sea oats, and beyond that, the endless ocean and sky, I felt like this had just been waiting there all this time for me. "What took you so long?", the tiny voice seemed to say.
The house itself was funky and basic. "Weathered" is the word that comes to mind most often. Everything that was metal was trying unsuccessfully not to rust. Everything that was wood was trying unsuccessfully not to warp. I know that it's a constant battle between any man-made structure and the elements (sun, salt, wind, water) in the Gulf. But I love that little house. We tried a couple others over the years, but we always came back.
So many trips since that first one, and they all blur together in my mind. Since we like to go in the autumn (when "not crowded" can turn into "virtually deserted"), we were chased out twice by hurricanes. With Opal, we couldn't come back, and we spent the rest of our vacation week in a blue funk back in Nashville. With Josephine, we spent a night in Tallahassee, and then got to come back the next day. Another little adventure to store away and pull out later.
There were books read, sandcastles built, shells gathered, all manner of wildlife sighted (porpoises, stingrays, sharks, herons, crabs, sea turtles, plovers and pipers, pelicans and gulls, ibises, and even the occasional bald eagle) and miles-long walks taken. One time, we managed to walk from the end of the paved road at the state park all the way to the eastern edge of the island. There we saw dozens of starfish along the still shoreline on the bay side, and a porpoise that came so close we could almost look it in the eye. I don't think we encountered another person the entire time.
Many pounds of shrimp and grouper (from Dail's seafood truck) eaten and bottles of wine drunk on that porch by candlelight, usually with the quiet sounds of Stan Getz or Antonio Carlos Jobim in the background. (As long as I live, I will never be able to hear this record without being transported back to the Sea Urchin, feeling the evening breeze blowing in off of the Gulf.)
We saw the ocean in all of its moods, in total darkness and under full moons. We always joked that, if only we could see a porpoise jump out of the water with a mermaid on its back right in the spot where the moon's light shown on the water, our lives would be complete. But the truth is, nothing like that was necessary. Just being in that place at that moment, seeing the edge of the Milky Way, was all that we ever needed.
And knowing that it would always be there - that no matter what we were doing in our "regular lives" at any given moment, the sea oats would be blowing in the breeze and the waves would be caressing the shore in front of the Sea Urchin - made the other 51 weeks of the year a little more bearable.
But, oh, that last cup of coffee on the deck before leaving. Sharing a kiss and promising to come back. Turning away, trying not to look again. Taking a last glance around the house. Getting in the car and driving north. So hard.
Like so many people right now, I am sick in my heart and soul, thinking about what is happening each and every minute in the Gulf of Mexico. I never dreamed that our last trip to St. George in October 2009 would be the last one before such an unimaginable catastrophe. (But it's not really unimaginable, is it? Sadly, I think it was inevitable.)
I have been thinking about what we'll do if we can't go back - if places like Boss Oyster and Julian G. Bruce State Park don't survive. I know that the very act of driving a car those 500 miles back and forth makes me complicit in what is happening. As much as I love it, though, if I had the power to stop the leak right now, with the price being my never returning to St. George Island, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I know that's too little, too late.
So, I wanted to share some of Jim's photographs from that last trip, which I hope won't be the last trip. I think that these convey, just a little, some of the magic of this place.
I love you, St. George Island. I love you, Gulf Coast. You don't deserve what is happening to you.
For more truly stunning photographs by a man who has spent many years living among the people of the Apalachicola Bay, please visit Richard Bickel's website. I can only pray that his next series won't be the one that documents the complete devastation of the bay and its people.