Saturday, December 7, 2013

Remembering a Forgotten Coast

“I know I don’t get there often enough. God knows I surely try. It’s a magic kind of medicine, that no doctor could prescribe.”* 

What if we stayed? If we didn’t go back? Back to our jobs, to responsibility, to our lives? What if we decided to start over, to find a salty piece of land that was worth the heat, the humidity, the crazy-ass bugs and the occasional hurricane? What if we did what everyone talks about doing? What if we were a couple of those insane people who had worked hard for years only to realize there’s more to life than corporate ladders and profit sharing and conference calls and Sunday showings, and sold most of what they had, packed up the rest and piled the pets and the fishing rods into the truck and drove until the weather suited their clothes?

Seven days. I just enjoyed seven days of getting sand between my toes and fish scales on my hands. The original plan was for a family vacation to St. Augustine, but as family plans often do, the logistics of balancing work and school proved too much to overcome, and the trip was set aside for another week in the hopefully not-too-distant future. Instead, I remembered a forgotten coast a few hundred miles south of our home, and after a nearly spur-of-the-moment online rental, Betsy and I packed up our beach gear and drove eight hours south to the St. Joseph peninsula on the Gulf of Mexico. We arrived at dark, after a meandering drive through lower Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, through pecan groves and palmettos and scrubland, and down a sand-and-gravel road to our rental house. At first morning light, I was up, looking out the big screened porch and watching and listening to the greenish-blue surf rise and fall just a few yards away.  

The sand was still cool from the previous evening’s chill as I made first tracks. Nobody had been here in a while. Behind me, the sun rose and my shadow touched the water’s edge. Brown pelicans cruised inches above the slow-rolling and ebbing tide, and a sandpiper relentlessly probed the foam, followed closely by her miniature offspring, searching for periwinkles and small crabs and expertly dodging incoming waves.

There was a convenient washout directly in front of me, and I dropped my tackle bag, two beach chairs and an umbrella and walked a few yards down the beach. One sand spike will go here. An equal distance to the other side of my chair, another spike. Within minutes, two surf rods were appropriately placed, with their tips slightly bent westward, tethered to three-ounce pyramid sinkers and two-hook pompano rigs. After deploying the umbrella, I plopped down into my chair – I remember how it sounded as it crunched into the sand and shells – and inhaled deeply, flooding my lungs with salty air, holding it for a few seconds and slowly exhaling. I watched my rod tips as they deliberately pulsed with the waves. It looked as if they were breathing. I dug into my tackle bag and found my paperback and opened it to page one as gulls called from an unseen place above.

Twenty-three pages later, Betsy joined me. Pretty as always, wearing a red hat and smelling of sunscreen, she sat down and opened her own book. At noon, we snacked on chips and carrot sticks and I cracked a beer and took a satisfactory gulp. Later, as the tide shifted into high, a surf rod began to bounce wildly, and Betsy reeled in our first pompano of the trip. That evening, the fish was the main course in a wonderful “home-cooked” meal, which was followed by an unusually early bedtime. I think we wanted to wake up early and make the most of every moment.

A couple of days went by just like that. Our souls soothed by the sun and our spirits aerated by the gentle breeze.

“Salt air, it ain’t thin. It can stick right to your skin and make you feel fine.”**

On Day 3, we drove to the nearby St. Joseph Peninsula State Park with intentions of launching our kayaks into St. Joe Bay. At the pay station, the uniformed attendant informed us that the $6 entry fee was waved in honor of our veterans. We thanked the attendant and slowly drove under the rising gate and into the park, and I kid you not: within a few feet of the station, a bald eagle majestically glided across the road directly in front of our truck. I wondered aloud if the bird was tethered to a string and the whole presentation was a theatrical part of the park’s celebration of Veteran’s Day. Regardless, it was pretty cool.

The bay was choppy, but we successfully deployed kayaks and paddled around awhile before anchoring up on the edge of one of the many “potholes” of empty sand amid the acres of grass carpeting the bottom of the sprawling bay. As I rigged up Betsy’s rod, a school of jacks exploded on bait a few yards off the bow of her kayak. “Look! A bunch of fish! Hurry!” Betsy exclaimed/ordered. Laughing, I rapidly tied a jig on the end of Betsy’s line, fumbled in a rush with attaching a Gulp! shrimp to the hook and casted to the edge of the slashing and splashing in front of us. A fish nailed the offering immediately, and I handed the bent rod to Betsy. The Zebco's drag emitted a harsh NNNNNGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!, but within a few minutes, my wife slid the beaten fish towards my kayak. I lifted the three-pound jack crevalle from the water, removed the jig from its lip, showed Betsy the pretty yellow underside of one of my favorite species of fish, and dropped the little guy back into the bay.

The incoming tide brought on a frenetic bite, and we fought the wind in order to repeatedly catch fish. Flounder, whiting, ladyfish, lizardfish and a king-sized ocean catfish were landed within the next half-hour. When a large bull shark showed up and menacingly cruised between our anchored kayaks and into the open pothole in front of us, we carefully pulled anchor and moved to a different spot.

By then, the sunlight began to falter, and the high tide flooded the flat we had paddled across two hours ago. A few more fish were caught, but with fading light and a sense of completion, we made our way back to the ramp.

Where the no-see-ums lurked.

They waited until we were most vulnerable, with the truck backed down and tailgate open, and Betsy and me working in tandem to heave the salty yaks out of the brine and into the bed of the Titan. Then, they attacked. We fought off their assaults while loading both boats, but after valiantly enduring the bloodletting, Betsy surrendered to the onslaught of the marauding bugs and ran, arms waving wildly and profanity flowing freely, and jumped in the passenger-side of our truck, slammed the door shut and hit the lock button. Through thick clouds of evil biting insects, which crawled in my beard and among my eyebrows and into my ears, and lanced my flesh seemingly just for the hell of it, I secured the kayaks in the back of the truck, stuffed the keeper flounder in the cooler and hopped to safety inside the cab of the Titan. Bastards. All of them.

“Give me oysters and beer for dinner every day of the year and I’ll feel fine.”**

Days four and five were spent inland, as an impressive cold front chilled our lonely beach, allowing us to wander about the forgotten coast. We filled our bellies on oysters and shrimp at the Indian Pass Raw Bar; we walked the nearby beach and took zoomed-in photos of the incredible array of birds resting at the point of St. Vincent Island; we spotted a monstrous bald eagle’s nest near the peak of a pine tree; and, we drove to Apalachicola and strolled around the downtown harbor area, trying to remember where we had been before 17-plus years ago on our engagement weekend.

We spent the fifth day in Port St. Joe, doing some early Christmas shopping in the quaint entertainment district and enjoying a fantastic early dinner at Joe Mama’s Pizza. Not wanting the day to end, we wandered across highway 98 to a liquor store that promised “live music.” Inside the stand-alone building, we found a crowd of locals bellied up to a bar as a young woman belted out R&B hits to pre-arranged backing tracks. She was accompanied by a salty-looking older guy who played a Gibson Les Paul. He looked as if he had recently stepped off a shrimp boat, and my mind played with the idea that he had just wandered into the store seeking Very Old Barton and wound up being the captain to Tennille, who was currently pouring her heart into a Rihanna cover.

The bar patrons were there for happy hour, and one of them was celebrating a birthday, as tables of food and the perfunctory cake boxed in “the band.” A large, glass-doored beer cooler filled one wall, while wine racks stocked with an array of brands and styles lined the other. A solitary aisle in the center of the shop brought forth the liquor selection, while a walk-in humidor offered quality stogies. Most everyone was at or around the bar. We had to stick around. The vibe was too good.

I ordered Betsy a glass a wine and I got a dark porter on draft. The band played on. Sitting on a barstool near the liquor shelves sat a heavy-set guy with a Johnny Unitas haircut. He was playing the spoons. We recognized him from the Indian Pass Raw Bar. Around the bar, the conversation hummed, as gallons of alcohol were guzzled and bleary-eyed guys in khakis and cell-phones attached to their belts leaned over and chatted up well-coifed secretaries fresh from a day at the office. Betsy and I mused that even in the early evening, bad decisions were already being made. But, everyone was having a great time. 

At one point, a denim-attired 30-ish guy in a ball cap emerged from the crowd, stepped up to the make-shift stage, grabbed the microphone in his non beer-carrying hand and began to belt out spot-on Al Green tunes. The white boy had some serious soul. While he forgot some of the lyrics (beer’ll do that), he more than represented, and brought down the house … especially when Tennille joined in. It was a great scene and a very fitting way to end a fun day.

“The years go by, quicker than a wink. Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.”***

On the sixth day, we went back to the beach. One last day of toting chairs, coolers, umbrellas, fishing rods and a gigantic tackle bag through the short walk over the dune to the water’s edge. Even with a north wind howling in my right ear – which caused me to bundle up in my beach chair – I was determined to catch a few post-cold-front pompano, even though I knew fishing would probably be pretty tough. 

I employed three surf rods, with staggered presentations to cover a variety of depths of the washout and the bookends of the broken sandbar. Initially, the fishing was poor, as expected, but an incoming tide held promise and I routinely checked baits and carefully watched the rods for any abnormal movement. The morning bite was non-existent, though.

Betsy did the smart thing and waited until the sun was high overhead and the wind shifted out of the east. The dune behind us blocked the breeze and I shed my sweatshirt as the tops of the waves of the incoming tide retreated, and we were left alone on an empty beach in front of our own private paradise.

As we approached high tide, the first rod began to shake. I sprung from my beach chair and grabbed the bouncing Ugly Stik and tightened the drag on the Penn Spinfisher. The deep bend in the rod betrayed the species, and after an energetic two minutes of fighting, a silvery pompano flopped on the beach at the edge of the wash. Our first keeper of the day headed for the cooler.

The next 30 minutes were awesome as schools of pompano cruised the edges of the sandbar and routinely fell for the multi-colored Fishbite offerings. Not all were keepers, but every fish fought hard and their aggressiveness had Betsy and me out of our chairs and standing near the surf rods. My wife easily won big-fish honors with a hefty, 19-inch-at-the-fork pompano that probably weighed four pounds or more.

As the afternoon progressed, the bite waned, and any fish caught were small. Betsy packed it in after sundown, and I stayed out for a while longer, changing out pompano rigs and Fishbites for big circle-hooks and chunks of ladyfish. I was hopeful for a bull redfish, which is well known for cruising the beaches at night during the fall. As these bruisers can easily yank a rod from a sand spike, I only used two rods and kept a constant patrol between them. Just after dark, the bluefish arrived, and the rods began shaking as the toothy fish chomped on my bait. I caught a couple, including a good-sized specimen, but released them (carefully) back into the surf. An hour later and in pitch-black darkness, my biggest surf rod began to shake, and after a quick fight, I beached a four-foot blacktip shark. The redfish just weren’t out tonight. Running low on bait and knowing that I had five pompano waiting to be cleaned, I gathered my beach gear for the last time and headed back to the beach house.

The last day, it rained, which was actually fine with us. It allowed us to sleep in, to casually clean the house and to pack up the truck for Saturday’s drive home. I worked on a painting, too, making good use of the art supplies I had brought with us. In late afternoon, the rain paused for a bit, allowing Betsy and me the chance to walk the beach one last time. We managed one final sunset, too, before the clouds thickened and the skies opened once again.

“I wanna be there. I want to go back down and lie beside the sea there.”

The drive home was routine. We stopped in Port St. Joe for some fresh shrimp and we hoped to see one more bald eagle before leaving the coast. We succeeded, but unexpectedly. The last national bird we spotted was scavenging on a dead skunk in the middle of the highway. Maybe not as majestic as we’d hoped, but an eagle, nonetheless.

We were refreshed and satiated. It was a vacation of the highest order, with no regrets, other than the same lament we almost always have: it just wasn’t long enough. The draw of life near the water comes from a deep place within my soul. It fuels dreams and lingers in my consciousness. I love what we’ve been able to establish here in Tennessee. I am proud of what we've accomplished and thankful for the world Betsy and I enjoy. But, I know one day, we’ll drive to the coast, pull up to a house on the water, and unpack our gear.

And stay. 

Thanks to Jimmy Buffett for the borrowed lyrics to "Tin Cup Chalice"* and "One Particular Harbour,"** and to Carl Sigman and Herb Magidson for a line from their classic song, "Enjoy Yourself."*** 

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