I'll never forget my first glimpse of the Perfect Beach.
It was 1996, right after Christmas, when I was first introduced to the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen.Mike and I had been dating for a few months and pooled our meager finances (he was between radio jobs, as usual, and I was a poor student), drove about six hours south from Atlanta toward the Gulf of Mexico through Tallahassee, Florida, and then the quiet fishing villages of Apalachicola, East Point and Carrabelle, over a long causeway spanning Apalachicola Bay to St.George Island where we had rented a little beach front cottage for a three-day weekend.
Mike had been visiting the island for 15 years, but I had never seen that part of Florida.All I knew of Florida beaches were the rowdy drive-in tourist places like Daytona, or the crowded real estate of Panama City with its towering hotels and noisy restaurants.This was different. They don't call it "The Forgotten Coast" for nothing; it was something out of another time.On St. George Island you could walk for a mile and not see another human being.There were no high-rises, no fast food restaurants, no surf shops.Just pristine beaches as far as you could see, small mom and pop establishments,two gas stations and colorful, modestly-sized individual houses dotting the seashore.
This was unlike any beach I had ever visited.The sand was golden/pink powder, with gentle dunes covered in waving sea oats.The air was so clean, so sweet-smelling, it had a weight and substance that reminded me of what it must have been like in a more primitive time, before commercialism utterly destroyed those beaches with which I was familiar. Here, the seashells were scattered everywhere, carelessly, undisturbed.Sea birds circled overhead in great flocks, dolphins swam so close to shore you could almost look them in the eye.The waves were surprisingly gentle.Body surfing was a powerful thrill, especially if a storm came up.Locals fished right on the beach, waving to us as we strolled along the shore looking for seashells, which we collected by the bucketful.There were notes in our cottage that reminded us to turn off our porch lights at night so as not to confuse the pregnant sea turtles that nested on the beach, waiting to drop their eggs into the scooped-out sand.At night we watched the tiny lights of the shrimp boats on the horizon under a blanket of stars so thick, and moonlight so bright, you could walk on the beach at midnight and actually cast a shadow.
Mike said that on previous trips he had taken his kids to the inland side of the island, which borders Apalachicola Bay, where they had rented a boat and scooped up oysters out of the water, cracking them open and sliding their salty goodness into their bellies by the score. He described terrible storms with explosive lightening way out in the ocean as he watched safely from the beach; millions of tiny red crabs so thick they moved like one giant organism along the bay shore.Large blue crabs were so abundant you could catch them with a net if you waded off shore about 30 feet to a sandbar, where you could also scoop up dozens of perfect, intacts and dollars. (Mike had jars of shells and sand dollars at home; he was hooked on collecting them.)
On this my first visit, we drove about 45 minutes west from Apalachicola toward Port. St. Joe on highway C-30 along the gulf, and made a sharp left turn onto Cape San Blas, a spit of land that juts into the ocean and faces directly west. Here was yet another stretch of endless, vacant beach, even more deserted than St. George Island. And unlike the island's fine, pink sand, here it was snow white and impossibly finer. Like powdered sugar, blindingly white in the bright sun. And the dunes were like rolling hills; some of them near the State Park on the northern tip of the island towered over the random two-story beachfront houses. We spent the day there walking the beach. We might have seen four other people. We stayed for the big show sunset. The cape faces directly west and you can watch the sun sink into the ocean and be astonished as the sky turns from yellow to orange to hot pink to magenta, then purple and indigo in the space of an hour. I used up two rolls of film (no digital camera then) trying to capture the magic of the changing sky.
There is no way to visit that area and remain unchanged.The peace and calm and beauty of the place stays with you forever, reminding you that despite all the other things going on in the world, there is a place oblivious to the day-to-day melodrama and chaos. A quiet, natural place where you can escape every once in awhile to discharge all that clotted frustration and regain, or establish for the first time,your balance and serenity.
After Mike and I were married and moved to Chicago, we would drive 15 hours to get there. It took two days but we didn't care. Sure, there were closer vacation spots, but nothing that compared to the Forgotten Coast. We would arrange these trips six months in advance, sometimes lucky enough to coordinate with Mike's grown children who loved the place as much as we did, and at least twice we enjoyed a week-long family reunion in a rambling beachfront house,enjoying cookouts on the beach, constellation-counting competitions, endless games of Frisbee, massive sand castles, ghost stories in front of the fire pit we all dug earlier once the sun went down and the air cooled. We reconnected as a family the way you can when there are no distractions, no TV shows or newspapers or laptops.We laughed and played like carefree children.
We left Chicago and moved back to Atlanta in the summer of 2000 too late and too broke for a trip to our perfect beach that year. But Mike and I visited The Forgotten Coast at least twice a year without fail after that. When Molly was born in July of 2004, one of the first things we did was reserve a beachfront house on Cape San Blas for Thanksgiving, where Mike's grown children (and grandchildren !) met their little four-month-old sister (and aunt!) for the first time. On that trip we were delighted to hear Molly laugh out loud for the first time ever, watching her three-year-old niece Lauren and five-year-old nephew Jake chase each other on the screened porch in the twilight. Since then she's spent many weeks in her almost six years on those beaches, learning to body surf; building sprawling sand castles and mermaid palaces; marveling wide-eyed at the sheer number of stars and squealing in delight when spotting a meteorite streaking across the night sky; napping under a beach umbrella as the round of the waves lulled her to sleep; digging for tiny cochinas as the waves lap over the shore, grabbing mounds of wet sand and watching in amazement as the rainbow-colored shellfish burrow down into her cupped hands. Our last trip to this magical place was right after Christmas, and once again we were fortunate enough to have Mike's grown children and elementary-aged grandchildren join us for a few days. We were looking forward to a summer visit later this year.
But now there is an unstoppable volcano of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to kill everything in its path and destroy the beaches we love so much.
Scientists say the Gulf Stream current may pull the massive and growing black pool of poison around the Florida keys and up into the Atlantic. Efforts to stem the flow from the sea floor and remove oil from the surface by skimming it, burning it or by dispersing it with chemicals continue with little or no success.
According to Dr. Ralph Portier of Louisiana State University, "Coastlines from the panhandle, through the Tampa Bay area and the Florida Keys may be overrun by a toxic tide that will poison wildlife, foul the air, and further punish an already crushed local economy. The Gulf spill is at the top of "the Loop Current,' a part of the Gulf Stream that sends water around Florida and as far north as Cape Hatteras, NC . . ."