Voyages of the Uss Camry - Chapter One

1. the most beautiful spot on God’s green earth (so far)

During my post-divorce odyssey, I was visiting friends in Mobile, AL. Every morning they asked over breakfast, “Well, what do we want to do TODAY?” Some days we decided “A down day…” chores, rest, laundry and non-stop chattering. Others, I chose from the extensive menu they offered. “Um, I pick New Orleans today.”

This particular day, Jerry was pushing gently for the beach. I am not by nature a beach person, partly due to lack of opportunity (not a lot of ocean front in land-locked Pennsylvania) and partly due to genetics. I am very fair-skinned and often quote George Carlin: “I don’t try to get a tan – I just try to neutralize the blue.”

“The beach” conjures up images of blistering heat, noisy crowds and long hot trudges from the motel I can afford through a chintzy touristy town and across a stretch of foot-searing coarse sand to find a tiny open island on a packed beach, all for a dehydration session on an uncomfortable beach towel.

My friends had been so generous to and so understanding of me that it seemed crass to balk at going to the beach if that’s what they wanted to do. I agreed readily.

In the South, everything is “not far.” In Pennsylvania, you have to start out before the morning milking to get anywhere. Not so in Mobile. You rise, have leisurely coffee and scan the paper, do a little laundry, feed the cats, have a relaxed shower and dress. If you leave the house before noon, it’s an unseemly rush, and you return home before dark, still having had time to about as much as you have energy to do.

On this day, being eager to be about our travels, we strolled from the house in Mobile around 11 a.m. and struck out for Florida.

They had been telling me about an artist’s colony called Fairhope. “Artsy-fartsy,” they called it. Fairhope’s residents don’t (or at least didn’t then) own their land; they lease it from the city, which affords the city a fair amount of control over the use of that land. It’s a clean, crisp little city, and money talks from every lanai and terracotta roof. I didn’t see many mobile homes on weed-choked lots in Fairhope.

We stopped down by the town park, rich with rose gardens, at the water’s edge, and walked out on the pier.

A young man was drawing a large fishing net about 25 feet long, made of glistening white filament with a few inches of deep green border, from the water as we approached. We watched him lift a couple of sizable fish from the depths of the net and put them in a five-gallon bucket, which he then lowered over the side into the water, once more busying himself with his net, which clearly required some savvy.

I asked if we could watch for a bit and he graciously agreed. As he untangled the net, he explained it was a new one which he’d paid $230 for, still stiff, and would be easier to handle once it got “broke in.” The top end of the net had a sliding loop of metal attached to a drawstring mechanism, which both closes the net once it is cast, and makes it possible to retrieve it.

He held the top of the net bunched in one fist and sorted the folds of the bottom half against his knee, a procedure that took some minutes, flipping the material over and over until it hung in several dozen pleats, neat and manageable. Holding the net against his body, for all the world like the skirt of a prom gown, he stepped up on the bottom rung of the railing that edged the pier and gazed down into the waters. When he spotted some likely-looking fish, he grasped the top end of the net in his left hand, the bottom end in his right, and tossed the net over the railing.

It blossomed through the air, billowing out as it went, and settled on the water spread out to maximum advantage, the weights at its bottom then pulling it below the surface. He tugged on the rope fastened to the metal loop at the top for a minute or two, then yanked the drawstring to close the net and pulled it back to the pier hand-over-hand. It was empty the first time, and he patiently and quietly went through the procedure again. The second throw yielded a couple of mullet, around a foot and a half long, nice and fat.

“Do you sell these, or are they for your own personal use?” I asked him.

“Oh, I give them all away,” he said.

“Seems like a lot of work to give away the proceeds.” 

“You have to love it,” he answered me.

We left Fairhope and moved on toward Pensacola, FL. Our first goal was to locate a boarding-house-style restaurant called “Hopkins House,” and we found it, in a slightly down-at-the-heels section of Pensacola. The neighborhood speaks of impoverished gentility, large frame houses with cupolas and pillared porches, but cracked windowpanes and peeling paint.

The wide shady porch of Hopkins House was furnished with rocking chairs and benches, and a few men, one with a little boy with a pacifier in his mouth, watched as we came up the stairs, nodding and smiling Southern style. “Hi, howya doin’?”

Inside, three rooms decorated and furnished like old-fashioned family dining rooms, filled with tables of varying size, the largest table seating twelve, the smaller ones four or six. We sat in the furthest room at a table with a husband and wife and their grown son.

Given my talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was not surprised to learn that Hopkins House’s signature specialty is fried chicken, which they serve at least four days a week, but not THAT day.

It turned out not to matter in the least. Main dishes: chicken ‘n’ dumplings, so delicate and light they almost floated in mid-air, beef stew, rich with meat and tomato and rice. My first turnip greens, and let me tell you, my silly fellow Yankees…STOP THROWING OUT THE TURNIP TOPS. Cooked with onions and a little bacon, they are gooo-ooood. Stewed rutabagas, like boiled potatoes with an edge, a little tangy. Delicious dressing (or stuffing or filling or bread pudding, depending on where you’re from) although it helped not to look in the pan at the half-inch of melted butter that gave the dressing its richness. Summer squash, sliced thin, lightly breaded and deep fried. Peas, biscuits, cornbread, banana pudding. Tall frosty glasses of sweet tea. There were thirteen separate dishes, served on platters and large serving dishes and y’all just pass them on around, while the waitresses restock everything constantly. It was wonderful.

On the verge of carbohydrate-induced comas, we left the boarding house and headed for the beach. Passing the high water tower bearing the legend “Pensacola, Florida, the world’s finest beaches,” we drove down a spit of land along the ocean, packed with mostly cheap condos built for rental by beach going tourists on a weekly or time-shared basis. Every now and again, a very attractive home, like a beautiful girl at a fat farm.

One house begins at ground level in the normal fashion, with wooden steps and decks running busily about it. On top, though, a 40-foot high slightly flattened metal egg, with porthole like windows. Jerry pointed it out, saying, “There’s the space ship.”

We pulled into a spot just past a sign reading “National Beach,” shed all unnecessary clothes (in my case, that still leaves a good many clothes) and walked across a wooden bridge to the sand.

I caught my breath. I had never seen a beach before. Not like this one.

The center of this barrier island is sand dunes, sculpted by ocean winds, crowned with sea oats and tall spears of grass ending in fluffy fans that look like ripe wheat. As you move toward the water’s edge, the incoming tides have flattened and smoothed the sand – sugar sand, fine and soft.

During my visit to St. Augustine I saw some seascapes at a small art gallery that I thought at the time were fantasies. The artists used light in their paintings in a way I had never seen, with pale green waves illuminated from beneath curling over a white beach, as though a row of hidden landscape lights was tucked into the ocean floor.

The paintings weren’t fantasy. They could have been photographs of the beach at Pensacola.

As we stepped onto the beach proper, I fell in location love again.

For a couple of hundred yards out, the calm sea was a lucid green, fresh-squeezed lime juice, glowing with the color and luminescence of a lava lamp, the silvery oxygen bubbles in the gently cresting waves gleaming in the Florida summer sun. The green is caused unromantically by the seaweed on the ocean floor, but the graceful undulating of the seaweed gives another dimension of movement to the water.

Looking out to sea, there is a distinct straight line that marks the color change of the water, as it deepens from that incredible clear pale green to a vivid navy blue. The sky above is soft delft, the clouds as white as the sand.

I was astounded to see that this beach was (how could this be possible?) nearly deserted. The three of us strolled down the sand for a half mile or better and encountered exactly nine other people. My escorts told me that the “touristy” commercial beach, with the hot dog stands and soda vendors, near the Pensacola water tower, was always jammed with bathers. When we stopped walking, a stretch of beach at least as long as we had already walked disappeared into the distance, still deserted.

My friends collected seashells swept in by the waves as we wandered across the sand, while I tried to comprehend the exquisiteness of this place.

The water laps up over the white sand, darkening it in scalloped patterns like mountains against the sky, and the retreating waves erase the sand art as they recede. Tiny jellyfish, transparent and improbable, some the size of quarters, some the size of a large tomato slice, wash up and come to rest on the sand, sparkling in the sun like miniature fallen stars.

Live crabs are tossed up by the ocean and scuttle furiously back to the water, burrowing down into the ocean floor in a cloudy flutter. Sandpipers stalk worriedly along the water’s edge, stilt-like legs dancing in the shallows while long beaks plunge into the sand, seeking bugs or plankton surrendered by the waves.

Myrtle Beach in the wintertime was a fury of austere and terrifying splendor. The Orlando wetlands were wild and remote, prehistoric. Pensacola is like paradise.

mamapolo mamapolo
56-60, F
5 Responses Sep 13, 2008

I know about at least one of those wild places in Florida - watch for "Bullcreek Wildlife Management Area Massacree," coming soon on an EP near you.

Made me think of the St Augustine area... the beaches there also have the dunes & sea oats & occasional sea turtle nests... :-) <br />
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There really are places in Florida that haven't been swarmed over with humanity, but they're primarily in the northern parts of the state.. unless you wanna be really hardcore and go into the 'Glades... which also has a wild beauty, but harder to appreciate when you're trying to avoid being carried off by the mosquitoes..<br />
(I'm Floridian, I can say that, LOL!! )

There is another little town along that route called Conucuh. They make the best smoked sausage you'll ever eat.

One of my favorite Alabama things is the monument to the boll weevil in Enterprise, AL. The boll weevil wrecked the cotton crops and an 'enterprising' man introduced peanut farming - which made money and saved the day. So the monument thanks the boll weevil for forcing them to consider diversifying the crops. :) When life hands you lemons....<br />
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I was interested to learn that mullet is not a very valuable fish. Glad I didn't ask for one to make a sandwich.

I do most of my beaching there in the gulf. Pensacola is a great little town.<br />
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As for the mullet. It's highly abundant there, but not a very tasty fish. On the border of Alabama and Florida, there is a famous redneck bar called the Florabama. In May they have a big party and engage in a competition they call the Mullet Toss. Yep, they throw the fish. Only in Alabama...