Don’t You Forget About Me: Week 15

Greetings from Mobile, Alabama – a city we’ve now passed through three times and are finally getting to see. I’d never been to Alabama before, so I’m excited to explore a brand new state in the week we have here before we’re Texas-bound. But for all intents and purposes, we’ve been in a fairly uncharted portion of the map as far as Florida goes – the Forgotten Coast of the panhandle.

Mexico Beach, FL – Jan. 2022

For those unfamiliar with the area, it generally refers to the stretch of coastline between St. Marks and Panama City, named because well…it does seem somewhat forgotten. For dozens of miles, you won’t encounter anything larger than some small fishing towns and vacation rentals – pretty unusual in a state that can seem so densely packed with high-rises and strip mall shopping centers back east.

Our drive here the previous Sunday was unusual for us in at least one respect – we took the longer route. In some perverse way, I think we were lucky to have what I hope will be one of our longest drives of the trip first, from DC to Helen. Our GPS told us this leg, from near Jacksonville to the Forgotten Coast, was a mere 3 1/2 hours – we could do that standing on our heads (even Linus, the little trooper)! Unfortunately, this shortest route took us back mostly along I-10, a road we’ve driven quite a bit in the past few months and will continue to see in the future. So we hopped off the interstate and hit the back roads for the majority of the trip.

If you’ve ever made the misguided argument that Florida is not the south, I would encourage you to spend a little while driving through the rural parts of the panhandle and Big Bend (this one, not that one.) It is certainly the south – but also something else too. It’s just Florida. It’s a strange feeling to be in the middle of a thick pine forest, or surrounded by farm fields filled with cows and horses, and also know you’re less than ten miles from the coast of one of the most pleasant bodies of water on earth. And then, suddenly, the Gulf is right there. Those looking for an off-the-beaten-path road trip could do a lot worse than Highway 98 in Florida.

This area doesn’t lend itself nearly as well to exploring via aimless strolls as New Orleans did, and that was frankly just fine with me as I regained my strength from last week’s Great Glutening. So as we took some scenic drives through the area, something began to become obvious – there are a lot of very nice and more importantly, very new homes and buildings here. It took a few minutes before it clicked as to why.

The very first time I can remember ever hearing of or thinking about this region was back in October 2018, when Hurricane Michael made landfall between Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base. I was worried about the safety of my Aunt on Sanibel, but also more selfishly about a trip there Morgan and I had planned there the next weekend. It skipped southwest Florida and made landfall here on the panhandle. To say this area was walloped would be an understatement.

The homes around here ranged from messed up to missing entirely, and in parts of the area, there are no businesses to speak of anymore. 100% of homes in Port St. Joe suffered some sort of damage. In Mexico Beach, nearly half of all structures were totally destroyed, washed away by 14 feet of storm surge and 160 mile-per-hour wind. Highway 98, which is at points only a few feet away from the water, was practically wiped off the map. It sounded in a lot of ways like what Sandy did to my beloved New Jersey shore, or alternatively, Katrina and Ida in southeastern Louisiana. But the big difference between Louisiana and here is quite simply, money. People with money live along the coast here, so gargantuan, shiny, pastel houses on preposterously tall stilts get rebuilt, a few feet from the Gulf. I don’t begrudge them that they can afford this. I’d have a home here too if I could. But based on the abnormally large number of beachside lots and for sale signs on property, a significant enough number of people decided they just couldn’t do it again. Again – I can’t blame them.

Back to Port St. Joe. It’s located on St. Joseph Bay, sheltered by the barrier island of Cape San Blas. There is a beach, but it’s fairly short and narrow – not exactly the world-famous beaches along other parts of the Forgotten Coast. Still, it’s got a good stretch of waterfront parkland, along with the beautiful Cape San Blas lighthouse, which was moved here in 2014. There’s a nice downtown with a few restaurants and coffee shops, along with a smattering of lawyers, real estate brokerages, and a handful of signs that perhaps the area has seen better days

I’m going to take a moment here to re-tell the history of Port St. Joe (formerly known as St. Joseph) because it is really a wild and remarkably petty story. It all started during the tiny span of the 1700s when England ruled this area as West Florida, where a company bought the land that would later become Apalachicola. Once the U.S took over, settlers moved in (as they do.) In the 1830s, a court found that the British company did still, in fact, own the land, and rather than pay for their homes, the wealthy inhabitants decided to just start a new town down the road instead, explicitly designed to choke commerce away from their rival. Florida!

The new town Saint Joseph (at one time the third-largest city in Florida) didn’t really work out as a shipping and commerce center for a variety of reasons, mostly involving a very 18th-century mix of railroads, canals, steamboats, and cotton. But that didn’t stop these two towns from trading very aggressive editorials in their respective newspapers for years. And anyway, they’d already built a railroad, laid out the town, put up one of only four horse racing tracks in territorial Florida – and you could even get ice cream! Frankly, there were too many stubborn people involved to just give up so they decided to try tourism.

This actually worked…for about a year. Then, 90% of the town’s residents got yellow fever and died, so quickly they filled three cemeteries and needed to be put in mass graves. To add insult to injury, the area was hit with a devastating hurricane and a wildfire the month after the epidemic finally ended. Everyone who was left pretty much decided there had to be somewhere better than this, even in Florida, so they left. All of this, from court decision to biblical-style removal from the face of the earth, happened in the period of roughly six years. Ten years after the city was founded, even the ruins disappeared when a hurricane swept in a massive amount of sand off the bay. The new town of Port St. Joe (where we stayed) was founded a few miles up the coast about 70 years later. The moral of the story: don’t spend a fortune starting a town out of sheer pettiness and cheapness.

I learned all this at Constitution Convention Museum, located here, near the site where Florida’s constitution was drafted – another prestigious oddity for this tiny bayside town. I pretty much walked through the museum constantly shaking my head at the town’s story and history, muttering “No, that can’t be right…” at things that are real historical facts about this seemingly forgotten place.

Port St. Joe and the Forgotten Coast are beautiful. That’s true at pretty much every time of day, in almost every kind of weather. The bays and sounds are about a half-dozen shades of blue, the beaches are sparkling white, and there’s more dense green jungle than you could ever see. While it was not great beach weather, we couldn’t spend a week around some of the country’s consistently top-ranked beaches without visiting a few. My personal favorite was at Indian Pass, across from the St. Vincent Island wildlife refuge. Indian Pass is also home to the famous Indian Pass Raw Bar, which has the incredibly fun but also potentially dangerous system of self-serve drinks from giant coolers at the back, marked on an “honor system” scorecard turned in at the end of your meal.

But all of this area is most beautiful at sunset, as we learned on what we’ll call an unplanned road trip Monday night.

Morgan apparently loved driving her mom’s car so much while we were visiting that she decided to steal the keys. Or just forgot them in her purse, if you believe her side of the story. Either way, we were both shocked to find the closest Fed Ex location was roughly 40 miles away in Panama City, the ugly older sister of Panama City Beach The former was originally known as Harrison, which even 19th century Floridians knew had an image problem for a would-be beach resort. I learned this later that week at the Bay County History Museum, a tiny storefront museum staffed by an incredibly sincere and charming older gentleman.

This is a good time to point out something notable about Port St. Joe. It’s the last town in the Eastern time zone portion of Florida, before Central time takes over in Mexico Beach, on the Bay County line. This leads to situations that, as far as we are concerned, are time travel, like us arriving in Panama City at roughly the time we left home.

This dividing line isn’t in some remote rural area. It’s on the corner of a street at the edge of Mexico Beach’s official city limits, with miles of developed homes and businesses on either side. I truly think I’d lose my mind having to navigate these issues day-to-day. The time zone boundary alone might be confusing enough. Now, add in the fact that there are relatively few cell towers in the region, and our phones couldn’t quite figure out where we were some of the time. Frankly, it got a little mentally trying never being entirely sure what time it was, and not in a beachy, no-worries type of way.

Still, for our first trip over the line, it was a little charming – even as we passed through some of the most hurricane-devastated parts of the area. Here, between Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base, was where the eye came ashore, snapping mature trees in half like toothpicks.

All in all, it’s pretty lucky that out of all the areas of Florida, Michael hit one of the least populated areas. Can you imagine what a category 5 hurricane would do to Miami, Tampa, Fort Myers, or Jacksonville? In any case, we spent a lot of time thinking about this as we made our way to Panama City, and then time traveled back in a less pleasant way, arriving “two hours” after we began our one-hour trip.

Probably the biggest city in the region is Apalachicola, which was located about a half-hour drive back east from us. My first trip there came on Wednesday, the first day I felt well enough from last week’s glutening to undertake a longer trip on my own. “Oyster City,” as they call themselves, is pretty charming. There’s a historic downtown with shopping and restaurants, public waterfront docks and green spaces, and a still-active seafood industry.

The waterfront area smelled overwhelmingly seafood-y, but not in an unpleasant way. It was fairly cool to walk along past oyster canneries, shrimp processing plants, and family-owned fish markets. But the Oyster City also earned its names with some truly enormous piles of oyster shells. Like, the size you feel compelled to climb just to see what it’s like on top. I didn’t try this, mostly due to the generally disapproving stares of oyster workers who seemed surprised to see me taking a photo of their shells.

It’s a mind-boggling amount of oysters, and hard to conceive of. Until you go to an event like the Apalachicola Oyster Cookoff, which was held on Saturday. We arrived just as the volunteer fire department was doing a choreographed dance with the Forgotten Coast Dancing Witches, which to me was a sign that this was going to be a very weird and fun event.

Fortunately for Morgan’s sake, they also had other food and drinks available as I gorged myself on what were, without a doubt, some of the most delicious, freshest oysters I’ve ever had. I skipped the fried (for obvious reasons) and the baked (which I later regretted.) Looking at the lines for food, suddenly the massive mound of oyster shells began to make more sense. As a side note, I did end up getting more oysters later that day – 15 more, to the point where I was fairly sure I’d never eat another.

Shipwreck Raw Bar, St. Joe Beach, FL – Jan. 2022

After a little shopping in Apalachicola (and Morgan accidentally winning a silent auction), we hopped back in the car for the highlight of the day, the week, and probably Morgan’s year, something I could practically tell had her trembling in anticipation – horseback riding on the beach. This was a great Christmas present from Morgan’s parents, and a very memorable Forgotten Coast experience. We arrived just as the clouds began to blow in and turn a beautiful, warm afternoon into a windy, stormy evening.

We met up with our guide from Two Bit Stable at Salinas Park on Cape San Blas, and hopped about our rides for the hour. Morgan got the sweet leader of the pack, Bug, while I rode the somewhat sassy, slightly grizzled Preacher. Morgan was a natural, and I like to think I didn’t do too badly once I figured out how to keep Preacher from snacking on branches and grass along the path to the beach.

Out on the beach, it was extraordinarily peaceful. The wind was so loud that I couldn’t hear our guide, who spoke in such a kindly grandma voice I probably couldn’t have heard her on a calm day, either. So Morgan and I just relaxed and let Preacher and Bug do the work.

Mercifully, we made it back to the parking lot just as the skies opened up for what would become an absolutely torrential downpour that lasted the next 12 hours.

We didn’t realize it until it was too late, but we left eastern time on Sunday for what is likely the last time for a while. From Mobile, we’ll spend the next two months in Texas and New Mexico, and from there, the rest of the west and northwest. Throughout the fall and winter, we’ve weaved our way around the south, but our time here is rapidly dwindling. I look forward to the results of our grand experiment into whether Mountain and Pacific time can turn Morgan into a morning person.

Westwardly yours,

Nick and Morgan

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