At the western end of the Florida Panhandle, and along the very bottom of eastern Alabama, the best roads go on for a while, then dead-end at the Gulf Coast passesthose places where water from farther inland empties into the sea. It is always a disappointment when one of the passes is finally bridged in the name of progress, making the Gulf Coast more accessible. Something wild is lost; wildness being, often enough, the mere opposite of accessibility.
The openings from the bays into the Gulf, especially the narrow ones, are tricky, with shifting channels, strong currents, and shallow bars. They were ideal for pirates and rum runners, who found this coast congenial in their day. A good man with nerve could slip through a pass that would scare off the feds, especially if he did it at night. It's a skill that, regardless of the legal questions involved, is becoming a lost art. And it's one more reason I hate to see these inlets bridged and bulkheaded.
The passes make land navigation interesting, too, since they haven't all been bridged, so you can't just put the Gulf of Mexico out of your mind and drive along its shore forever. Sooner or later the road ends, and there is only water.
So if you want to drive along the Gulf Coast, you have to keep turning inland. And once you turn away from the shoreline, everything changes. It is striking how quickly the world goes from blinding white sand and sea oats to dense, gothic live oaks, sweet gums, and cypresses, all dripping with Spanish moss. Just a mile inland, the water changes, too. The emerald Gulf is replaced by the dark, tannin-stained rivers that feed the passes. The T-shirt shops, tourist bars, and half-million-dollar condos of the beach towns quickly become patch farms, pecan orchards, and little Baptist churches with graveyards out back.
If it were all one world or the other, the Gulf Coast would be considerably less fun to drive. As it is, though, you can slip from the vastness of the open water to the lushness of the inland, rural South almost without noticing.
My favorite Gulf Coast road trip begins near the mouth of Alabama's Mobile Bay and runs down the length of the Florida Panhandle, eventually picking up old U.S. 98a killer highway if ever there was one. The beginning stretch, though, on Alabama 182, is one I have driven so often that I know it like a commuter. If you begin at Gulf Shores heading east along the beaches, you pass from Alabama into Florida at the same moment that you pass one of the finest honky-tonks in Christendom. It sits on the line between the two states (where the highway number changes from 182 to 292), and for reasons having to do with state liquor laws, it is calledcleverly enoughthe Flora-Bama. People go there from at least six states to do their drinking, and on a Friday or Saturday night the sheriff sometimes has to dispatch a deputy to direct traffic. The Flora-Bama is close enough to the Gulf to be within easy striking distance of any serious hurricanes, and there is a gazebo-like deck/bar built out on the dune and a few volleyball nets strung up on the beach. On Sunday afternoons, skydivers have been known to drop in from 12,000 feet and make landings close to the gazebo, after which someone hands them cold beers. The Flora-Bama is obviously quite a place, and the spiritual distance between it and the Baptist churches a few miles inland can be measured only in astronomical terms.
Continuing east on 292, if you pass the Flora-Bama (and sometimes you should), the road will dead-end on you. This is because the mouth of Pensacola Bay has not been bridged, and probably never will be. It is, however, guarded by forts. These brick forts were built in the 1840s; they are abandoned now, but during the Civil War they were active. On the sea side of Pensacola Bay, the forts were in Union hands; on the land side, they were manned by Confederates. From a historical perspective, the arrangement is typical of things in this part of the world. The coast is always one thing, the interior anotherand as for the margin in between, it has always been imprecise and interesting.
From the end of Highway 292, you can park your car and walk a couple of miles to the fort and the western edge of the bay. Jetties made from old ballast stones angle off into the pass from the beach, and if you dive around them you can almost always spear a few flounder. More serious diving will now and then yield cannon balls and other treasures from the days when the forts did their part for the war effort.
The beach along here, both on the Gulf and Bay sides, is usually fairly empty. Sailboaters sometimes use the bay as an anchorage, and you can often smell their steaks grilling in the afternoon. A surf caster might make it this far along the beach, too, but often as not you will have the place to yourself. And not more than ten miles from the Flora-Bama.
The quiet water of Pensacola Bay is one of the best spots around for mullet, which you can take with a cast net, wading in the shallows. In this part of the world, mullet is to the coast what catfish is to the interior. Everybody eats the fish, always fried. And if you go back west a few miles, to the Gulf Beach Highway, then turn inland and wind a few miles through the live oaks, you will come to Rusty's, a place that's been serving superb fried mullet approximately forever. When I first ate there, John F. Kennedy was president and the mullet was all you could eat for a dollar. Now it's more like nine dollars. Same fish, cheaper money.
It is this way all along this stretch of coastif you have the sense to stay off I-10 and Highway 98, which are essentially designed to move people from condo to shopping mall to restaurant and back. Still, once in a while you have to join 98, if only to get yourself down the beach to another fine, lonely spot. If you follow 98 east, you will eventually hit the twin Florida towns of Fort Walton Beach and Panama City, where resort-town vulgarity reaches its highest flower: ceramic sharks, plastic pennants, miniature golf courses, water slides, go-cart tracksthey're all there. But if you keep going, you come to the towns of Port St. Joe and Apalachicola, genuine fishing villages where people harvest the best oysters on the Gulf, those from the waters of Apalachicola Bay. Both these towns have a number of fine roadside hotels (one being the turn-of-the-century Gibson Inn), and just across St. Josephs Bay there are rental cabins and a campground at St. Josephs Peninsula State Park, a semi-wild and semi-uncrowded place that you can get to by following the beach road out onto Cape San Blas.
East of Apalachicola, you have to work a little harder to find the beach by car, but it's worth it. Dog Island, which is owned in part by The Nature Conservancy, is reachable only by passenger ferry and is worth a day's trip if you tote along all the beach gear you can carryincluding a shade tarp and a cooler. Just a few miles farther east you come to the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge, a marshland rich with wading birds; it's a good place to visit at sunset.
East of the refuge, you enter the Gulf's Big Bend, a place that, with its empty beaches and glassy coves, is considered by sailors to have the best cruising around. As a land traveler, though, you'll have to explore your way toward the water off Highway 98, poking down side roads off nearby U.S. 27, and making time to visit the towns of Steinhatchee or Suwannee. Both are small outposts named after the stately, unhurried rivers that feed them. There is nothing in these places to suggest the pricey, frenzied Florida that lies a few hundred miles to the east in the fever swamps of Walt Disney World and Epcot. And if you have the good sense to stay off the interstates and other auto arteries in this part of the world, your reward will be the last vestiges of a disappearing Florida. The pleasures of driving here aren't in long vistas and amusement parks. They are subtler, like those Gulf passes that make you turn back inland, following an empty road from white sand to red dirt and back again. They are the tasty fried mullet and catfish, the lush richness of a marshland sunset, and the shifting character of the place as you pass through it. These roads traverse a fast-vanishing worldenjoy its imprecise boundaries while you can.