Down The Coast Of Imprecision
Outside magazine, August 1991
Down The Coast Of Imprecision
Paradise–and paradox–in the realm of Flora-Bama
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 passes–those 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
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
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
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. 98–a 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
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,
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
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
It is this way all along this stretch of coast–if 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
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 carry–including a shade tarp and a cooler. Just a few miles farther east you come to the Saint Marks National
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
Geoffrey Norman’s most recent novel is Sweetwater Ranch (Atlantic Monthly Press).
Copyright 1991, Outside magazine