I haven’t been so in love with a beach since I first laid eyes on the shimmering waters of the Florida Keys, what seems like a million years ago. I was in college, and we were on a field trip (I have a history of taking all the right classes) to Islamorada. I am ashamed, almost 20 years later, to admit that was my first trip to the Keys. As soon as we broke clear of the mangroves and I saw the sparkle on water that was unlike any transparent emerald I had ever seen, there was a sigh in my soul and I felt as though I had come home. I went back again a few months later, with another college class (as I said, I take only the best classes). I came home again, ever more resolute that that green was the color of my blood.
Years pass. Things change. I married someone who hated the beach. We only went to the Keys once. We divorced. These two things, while not the whole story, are more than a little related. No matter; before the judge decreed the divorce final I had packed my kayak and bike and headed for the Keys.
I still loved it. The water still took my breath away as I came over the bridge. But there was so much… crap. Key Largo had started to take on the familiar chain store patina I’ve grown to hate; Islamorada was still a respite, but clearly giving up the ghost. Marathon was nice, but KMart and Publix? No, thank you.
The water, though. Man, that water was still the same. It was ever glassy, eternally aquamarine. It’s the kind of water that makes you yearn for better adjectives. I can write about it a million times over, and if you’ve never seen it, it will be a pale fantasy compared to what I see in my head when I write about it. It is paradise in a thousand shades of an aquamarine rainbow.
That’s how I felt the past few days in the panhandle. The Keys will always, always have that place in my heart, but the placid thrill of finding a slice of paradise where I didn’t expect it flowed over me anew when the sea forest opened up and I saw the beaches just south of US 98 along the panhandle. Glass met pale, luminous green, which met penetrating cerulean. The beaches were windswept sand dunes with sand fences; the sand itself felt like cake flour when I walked on it but sugar when I brushed it off my feet. I found sand dollars no bigger than a pinkie nail. The water was clear, like it wasn’t there at all, and it felt so good to be surrounded by all these glassy green prisms sparkling back up at the sky that I laughed when the waves caught me unaware.
I laughed a lot in Grayton Beach, and I didn’t want to leave. Gulf Beaches National Seashore and Navarre Beach made me want to cry for the sense of longing and realization I felt simultaneously in my soul. I loved Panama City, too, and its chintzy touristana. Apalachicola and her oysters also slurped me in to the unreality of living up here. If not for winters I suspect would be unfailingly cold, I could move here. I could make a life here. I could spend my afternoons on the beach and my mornings and nights trying to write a career for myself. I would never, I told myself, try and write on the beach; not for money.
Grayton Beach was, for a moment, the Florida Keys dream that I held for so long until I realized the dream has vanished under the weight of chain stores and chemical runoff. Will the panhandle meet the same fate?
We left this morning and will spend the night at Falling Waters State Park tonight, in the middle of the panhandle, west of Tallahassee. Monday night will be St. Augustine, and after three days along Florida’s least destroyed beaches, I am anxious to return there. The spaces in between, it seems, are filled with cattle ranches, cotton fields, state forests, and forgotten downtowns begging the world to remember them. I want to race through them and find my way to the sea once again. I want to laugh as the salt water washes over me, and at the day’s end, I want to feel sun soaked and salty sleep.
I fear, though, that it’s the Keys all over again: no beach will ever satisfy unless they are these, the sugar and cake flour beaches of Florida’s panhandle. We are but two hours gone and already I am planning my return, wondering about rental prices, dreaming about a life there.
It’s a dangerous dream, because Florida is fickle. She will give you your dream and then change it on you. After all, look at the Keys. Hell, look at our beaches anywhere. They were all perfect, once. Now? Now popular has replaced perfection.
But still… that green. That perfect, undulating sea of green.