Photo Essay

Solitude in the Sunshine State

My Private Florida!

"You've NEVER been to Florida? Never.... how is that even possible?" The head of the Middle Tennessee Mafia looks through my passport incredulously. Cindy's one of those iron Southern bells full of moxie and infectious charm filtered through a soft accent. She loves Florida. Goes several times a year: Key West, Miami, the last NASCAR race of the season in that same region. When her last kid hits the road for college in a couple years, a condo on Florida's Atlantic coast will be her permanent residence.

"I've never heard of some of the countries stamped in here? Where in the hell is Leosotho?" tilting her strawberry blonde head puppy style towards me.

I am about to break the cherry on my Sunshine State virginity. Got the car packed, dogs primed and GPS set, but this isn't a Florida trip Cindy wants to come on. I'm going camping. I'm the type who'd rather stay in a tent than a Hilton. My southern gal pal is just the opposite.

My destination is straight south through Alabama to Florida's NW corner, south of Pensacola to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a days drive to the Gulf Coast from my new Tennessee home in the Upper Cumberland Plateau. I'll hear and see waves again for the first time in five years. Been too long. The last ocean I saw was the Indian.

It's one of my "First Week of December" adventures, the perfect week I've found to go anywhere in the United States, dead center between this country's two craziest weeks of travel: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Popular destinations this time of year are wonderfully quiet, uncrowded. I've had entire campgrounds to myself in Zion National Park. Ski runs open and chairlift lines non-existent in Vermont. The high season for northern Florida is spring and summer, unlike other parts of the state, so I'm confident the western edge of the Panhandle will be similarly devoid of crowds.

And it is. Once out of Pensacola Beach and past the high rises I imagine stuffed to the gills in warmer months, civilization vanishes. Low dunes and tall salt grasses frame a frenzied surf being enjoyed by a lone kite surfer. The second loop of the Ft. Pickens campground, next to a historic fort used for national defense since the 1820's, supports the campground host and one other high end RV. I have my pick of sites, can sprawl out a bit with no tented neighbor boundaries to mind. I set up Camp during the last hour of sunlight in time to walk towards crashing waves and a sugar sand beach. That's what it's called. It's aptly named. Whiter sand than I've ever seen, softer on my feet than any I've walked on. San formed from clear quartz crystals eroded from the Appalachian mountains a thousand miles north east of here where I was raised. Having discovered this geologic fact, the romantic in me knew this was the Florida I wanted to see first.

Looking east and west towards a half sunken sun there are no people, no footprints. Only short legged shorebirds winding their way through recently beached neon blue jelly fish. In the morning I'll also be able to see the sunrise. The Gulf of Mexico is of the few places in the world you can watch the sun both rise and set into a salty sea.

And it stays that way...all week. Torrential rainstorms hit some afternoons. The dogs curl in tent corners corners while I read popcorn Florida fiction Cindy gave me to set my literary mind. Aftter wards walks along the bay side of the islands are perfect for bird watching and botanizing. Every time I set foot on the beach I am completely alone. My Oregon coast kite flies southern skies with no competition. I skinny dip on sunny afternoons with no witnesses. A supper of boiled shrimp cooked on a pot on the campfire fills my belly most evenings, scraps fed to the migratory songbirds, the true snowbirds, perched in the slash pines above me.

Footage from Ken Burn's brilliant documentary "National Parks:America's Best Idea" comes to mind, particuarly a quote from Lancelot Jones, a native Floridian who helped save wild places like this:

" I am alone, but not lonely. When you have plenty of interests like the water and the woods, the birds and the fish, you don't get lonely."

It's a transcendental travel experience, a week of perpetual solitude in one of America's busiest destination vacation spots. I hear myself telling the girls of the Middle Tennessee Mafia when I return "If you had told me I'd have a Florida beach completely to myself....." . Well, ya'll know how that sentence ends.

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