“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
When taking a trip – even across town – I find it’s always better to be a traveler than a tourist.
There’s something about driving through new places – or even your own hometown – with a leniency of purpose that slows things down, lets you absorb the surroundings with all your senses and truly experience the essence of a place.
That’s not possible scurrying about on a tourist’s itinerary. You can’t plan for it; you have to let it happen.
Florida’s Big Bend Scenic Highway takes you east from Apalachicola, over the causeway traversing East Bay, and into the small town of Eastpoint. While crossing the bridge, we began to notice an increasing number of fluttering objects filling the air, small bodies darting and swooping wildly in the breeze.
We had unexpectedly encountered the early fall migration of the regal Monarch butterfly.
Each fall, thousands of Monarch’s begin their 3,000-mile flight from the United States to winter habitats in Mexico. The area between St. Marks and Apalachicola is rich with swamp milkweed – apparently the only food source the butterflies will take during their long trip south.
The butterflies become increasingly more prevalent as we drive over the four-mile bridge to St. George Island on Highway 300, the only land-based connection between the mainland of Florida and the natural beauty of this incredible barrier island.
Once you arrive on-island, the first thing you notice is the St. George Lighthouse, complete with its small, weathered keeper’s house, positioned in a picturesque setting that welcomes you to the white dunes and soft sands of St. George.
The current lighthouse is the forth iteration of the structure, which was rebuilt after the original crumbled into the Gulf of Mexico due to the effects of constant beach erosion and a whipping by Hurricane Opal in 1995.
Like most lighthouses, St. George’s has a rich history – that’s part of why I’ve always been fascinated by them. During the Civil War, the light was extinguished so as not to assist Union naval vessels during their blockade of the bay – and the light’s third order Fresnel lens was taken down and placed in the old oil house for safekeeping.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew carried away a large section of beach around Cape St. George and the Coast Guard deactivated the light as an active navigational beacon two-years later.
In 2004, the St. George Lighthouse Association, in cooperation with Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, salvaged bricks and other parts of the lighthouse from the water and opened the beautifully restored lighthouse to the public in 2008.
Today, the site houses a small museum and boutique gift shop in the keeper’s house.
If the beach is your idea of a vacation paradise, then St. George Island should be on your bucket list.
Some 28-miles long and one-mile across at its widest point, the island has a smattering of small beach-themed stores and restaurants (I’m happy to report that no chain stores were evident).
In addition, the island is home to the Dr. Julian G. Bruce State Park offering primitive camping, hiking trails and a variety of “eco-tourism.”
One thing I noticed was the abundance of native dune vegetation, seagrasses and goldenrod, all growing naturally among the flood-stilted vacation rentals that are very prevalent along the island’s southern coast.
Nothing moves fast on St. George Island – including time.
Turning north onto the causeway headed back to the mainland we encountered a group of happy children all bunched together at a porch rail, passing the early afternoon waving wildly and laughing at passing motorists.
As we honked the horn and waved back, the kids screamed in delight, and I thought how that simple surprise so appropriately accented the open and friendly feel of St. George Island.
Continuing east on 98, we encounter the southern edge of Tate’s Hell State Forest, a uniquely named 200,000-acre monument to what happens when man attempts to manipulate nature for his own reward.
In the 1960’s, the ecology of the forest was substantially altered to dry the land for the production of timber and turpentine. The unintended consequence was massive amounts of freshwater runoff containing phosphorus and nitrogen laden fertilizer into Apalachicola Bay – home to the sensitive oyster beds and abundant fisheries that have sustained the residents of this area since the Creek Indians called it home.
In an effort to protect the Bay’s natural resources, in 1994 the State of Florida began purchasing the majority of the property with Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) program funds and continues to acquire additional land for restoration.
At the mouth of the scenic Carrabelle River we come to the small town of, well, Carrabelle.
As we pass a cool little public beach, complete with concrete cabanas, picnic facilities and restrooms, I happen to notice one of those “historical markers” that seem to pop up out of nowhere.
Fearing we may have inadvertently missed the World’s Second Largest Ball of Twine, we turned around and drove back to take a quick look just to satisfy our curiosity, and I’m glad we did.
Interestingly, during World War II the area around Carrabelle was the location of Camp Gordon Johnston – an amphibious training base where the heroes of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division practiced for the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Although the barracks and training facilities are gone, the waters and beachfront between Carrabelle and nearby Dog Island stand as a scenic monument to the brave soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division who spearheaded the landing on the bloody shores of Utah Beach.
After their successful landing, the men of the Ivy Division fought through the hedgerows of the Cotentin Peninsula on their way to taking the critically important port of Cherbourg, France.
I never knew this place existed.
Continuing to the easternmost part of Franklin County we turn onto the narrow access road leading out to Alligator Point. This unique ecosystem is dotted with fresh and brackish ponds, slash pine flatwoods, sea oats and stands of cattails and other marsh grasses.
Driving through these pristine wetlands we begin to notice the first real impacts of Hurricane Hermine.
The shoulder of the two-lane roadway was littered with piles of decaying sea-grasses, and we saw the effects of saltwater intrusion on the abundant freshwater plants and succulents due to Hermine’s strong storm surge.
Apparently, the salinity of Alligator Harbor nearly mirrors that of the Gulf of Mexico, and the area is quickly becoming home to a vibrant clam harvest. As we drive along commercial farming operations are evident in the shallow estuary between the sand spit and the mainland.
Turning west onto Alligator Point we get our first view of Hermine’s damage up close.
Along the coast road, wind-whipped water has completely eroded and undermined the asphalt, leaving large slabs of broken concrete and detached road surface scattered chock-a-block on the shoreline rendering the area completely impassible.
You can tell that it’s a hardy bunch out here, and I have no doubt they will quickly rebuild and restore the infrastructure. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Hermine, a resident of Alligator Point was quoted in the Panama City News-Herald as saying, “We have running water and beer. We’ll survive.”
My kind of people.
Leaving Alligator Point, we took time to explore Bald Point State Park which encompasses over 4,000 unspoiled acres of upland pine scrub and oak thickets at the confluence of the Ochlocknee and Apalachee Bays.
The park is popular with bird watchers as bald eagles and other raptors call the area home.
Now moving northeast along the Coastal Highway, we pass southeast of Sopchoppy through the tiny unincorporated villages of Panacea and Medart, across the dark waters of the Wakulla River, then right onto Lighthouse Road toward St. Marks.
Originally known as San Marcos de Apalache, the town was founded by the Spanish in the 17th century and is now home to just 272 people – a ton of boat slips – and two really cool bars.
Pulling into what passes for downtown, essentially where the road plays out, you have a choice of the Cooter Stew Bar and Grill or the aptly named Riverside Café.
At first blush, Cooter Stew’s “Cold Beer – Good Food” is extremely popular with the middle age biker crowd who cruise along the scenic byways of Wakulla County – most of whom can be seen wearing leathers and sporting their various colors, having beers, and passing a really good time at several wrought iron tables outside the establishment’s small porte-cochere.
Instead, we opt for the Riverside Café – a massive Seminole-style, palm-thatched “chickee” expertly constructed of cypress logs and intricately woven fronds.
Given the fact that the restaurant is located directly on the St. Marks River, and Hermine damage was evident all around with docks pushed onshore, wooden walkways uprooted, and boats sitting askew in the weeds – it was clear that this natural construction method weathered the storm better than any other structure on the river.
We stretched our legs and ambled inside the cavernous tiki bar, through the security check announcing that all patrons are subject to search (which told me things can get pretty hot on a Saturday night in St. Marks), and took a seat at one of two bars.
The friendly 20-something bartender was busy mixing a long line of tall, aqua-colored rum concoctions served in quart Mason jars, and directing good-natured jabs at the manager, who later told us it was a family operated business where arguing with your siblings is just one perk of working there.
We quickly downed a couple of cold beers and Marlboro’s – which was just what the doctor ordered following our morning’s travels.
For those who don’t know, my traveling companion and I have been best friends for 50-years now – and that’s a unique achievement given the transient nature of the Halifax area. We grew-up together, joined the Army together on the old “buddy system,” and served in law enforcement in neighboring departments until our respective retirements.
Through the years and miles, we’ve become family.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for us to “fall off the wagon” at the most inopportune times, and more than once we’ve had to be rescued by our wives after leaving for a quick trip and ending up double-shitfaced at some obscure bar miles from our intended destination.
The stories are legendary.
It was clear we were rapidly slipping past the point-of-no-return when we contemplated shots of George Dickel whiskey as a natural complement to another round of beers.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and we begrudgingly ended our party before it really got started – leaving St. Marks in the same slightly disheveled, but infinitely welcoming condition that we found it.
Next – Part III: Exploring Steinhatchee via the Fish Creek Road, then on toward home.