Entering “the South,” My Last Florida Sunset, and the Calm Before the Storm …

My last Florida sunset ... at Port Saint Joe, on the Gulf Coast

My last Florida sunset ... at Port Saint Joe, on the Gulf Coast

I’m now in Panama City Beach, the heart of what’s affectionately called the “Redneck Riviera,” after a very long drive today from Tampa. I can hear the waves of the Gulf crashing outside my beachfront hotel room, which is really cool … but I arrived here after dark, so can’t go swimming until tomorrow. My trip yesterday took longer than expected, because I got caught in bad traffic. With even more miles to cover today, I had to plan out my drive from Tampa … which meant leaving right away.

It’s a shame I had to leave so early, especially given that I arrived last night at 10:00 p.m. The Hostel I stayed at in Tampa, Gram’s Place, is a funky and friendly place … with lotsa musical items, including a piano. The owner was also very nice, and he gave me a few tips on how to avoid traffic getting out of Tampa. While I wanted to start driving up Route 19 right away, he advised me not to … or else I’d run into the same problems I had yesterday. Instead, he told me to take 589 — an expressway tollroad that will help me get out of town more quickly.

The living room of my hostel in Tampa

The living room of my hostel in Tampa

He also suggested a breakfast place in Tampa — Teresita’s, a delightful Cuban restaurant. You can’t beat bacon & eggs for less than 3 dollars, and sitting at the counter with a group of Cuban seniors — who come eat breakfast there every morning. They taught me how to “dunk” your Cuban bread into Cuban coffee, and were a pleasure to hang out with before leaving on a very long drive that day.

As I left Teresita’s, the weather was cloudy … yet another reason to take the tollroad, rather than a (possibly) scenic highway closer to the Gulf. The Moxy Fruvous CD was still playing, and by the time it ended I was on an acappella fix. So I popped in my CD of the UC Men’s Octet — a fabulous singing group at Berkeley that I tried many times in college to audition for, but never prevailed. The Octet guys, however, were all great friends … and I was one of the “groupies” who knew each and every one of their songs. As the car zooms up 589 (the “Suncoast Expressway”), I sing along with the Octet songs — except for the ones where I know the back-up vocals. Anyone who ever tried out for them knows the back-up to “Runaround Sue,” because they teach it to you during the audition process.

The clouds quickly turned into a nasty rainstorm, as I turned on the windshield wipers and sang along to the Octet — while keeping my eyes on the road. The tollroad ended, and I got onto Route 98 — which eventually follows the Gulf Coast all the way to Alabama. When the Octet CD ended, I put in the soundtrack to one of my favorite movies — Moulin Rouge — as my first impression of 98 was more of Florida’s suburban hell. But the scenery got better, and it stopped raining during the “Elephant Love Medley.” I now had the open road virtually to myself, as I sang along to Ewan McGregor’s lines … only wishing I could have someone else in the car to play Nicole Kidman.

For the next 170 miles, Route 98 stays inland … but I was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful it was. I also got the feeling (more and more) that I was truly entering the South. The first give-away was the gorgeous trees with Spanish moss. Then, there were all the roadside churches … a disproportionate number that were “Assembly of God.” And, to top it off, I started seeing a few Piggly Wiggly stores. I then crossed the Suwanee River into Dixie County, and arrived in Old Town … where Frank (who gave me road advice yesterday on my way to Tampa) comes from. I decided to reward Frank for his kindness by stopping to have lunch in his hometown, and check it out.

I figured it would be a good idea to blog from the restaurant, so I take out my laptop. But when I asked the waitress at a sports bar if they had wi-fi, I had to explain to her what it was. She gave me a menu, and everything made sense … except for a “grouper” sandwich. I asked her what that meant, and she was a little surprised I didn’t know what a grouper was. Apparently, it’s a kind of fish.

As I get back into the car to keep driving, I figure this is a perfect time to start playing Johnny Cash … as I have now truly entered the South. The Johnny Cash CD ends, and the Southern scenery on Route 98 is still gorgeous. So I pop in the soundtrack to the film Oklahoma! … Yes, I know. Besides having a very white taste in music, I am also very gay and into showtunes. And while I believe that cowboys are sexy, a cowboy who can sing is sexier … I belt out every song to Oklahoma! most of which I’ve memorized. We’re in the Florida Panhandle … good excuse to sing about Oklahoma.

Carrabelle Beach, off Route 98 on the Gulf Coast

Carrabelle Beach, off Route 98 on the Gulf Coast

By the time Oklahoma! has run its course, Route 98 has finally met the Gulf of Mexico … and the Southern backroads have been replaced with the gorgeous white beaches of northern Florida. I stop the car as soon as I can — in Carrabelle Beach — and check out the water. It’s too cold to swim in, but I hang out with three college students from Florida State … who are stereotypical southern frat/sorority kids. They were nice enough, until I realized on my way out that their truck had a Confederate flag bandana on the dashboard.

As I travel the white sandy beaches of small towns, I sing along to my Roy Orbison CD … a unique combination of 50’s and 60’s optimism, along with a thick hillbilly accent. We’re not in California … this is the Redneck Riviera, so Beach Boys music just ain’t gonna cut it here. It’s almost 5:00 p.m., and I need to figure out a good place to watch the sunset. I stop in Port Saint Joe, a cute fishing town, and as I wait for sundown I realize this will be my last Florida sunset on the trip. Unlike the other times, it’s awfully windy and cold … and the waves of the Gulf are making some crashing sounds. But I find a nice spot in a public park to hang out, and take a few pictures.

Panama City Beach: During Spring Break, the tables at this restaurant will be packed.

Panama City Beach: During Spring Break, the tables at this restaurant will be packed.

Now the sun has set, and it’s time to drive straight down Route 98 to Panama City Beach for the night. I pop in R.E.M.’s Greatest Hits, as the pink sky reflects on the Gulf Coast through the sandy beach towns. All the beachfront houses in this area were built on stilts to plan for hurricanes, as they produce an interesting visual for Route 98 travelers. As I arrive in Panama City, R.E.M. is singing their last song on the CD — “It’s the End of the World As We Know it.” I look around the dark streets, and it’s nothing but a suburban hell of chain stores and strip malls. It is the end of the world we’re coming to, but I feel fine.

I arrive at my hotel at 8:00 p.m. — actually 7:00 p.m., because we’ve shifted to Central Standard Time. I am right on Beach Front Road, party central for Spring Break college students every year. But it’s not Spring Break yet … not for another week at least. I’m hungry, so I go to Harpoon Harry’s — a popular nearby restaurant. The place is so dead, the waiter has wandered off so I have to find him. In fact, the whole neighborhood is dead. On this trip, I’ve been to Key West during its peak season … and will be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. But it’s possible to go to both of these places during “off-season,” and there’s still lots of people and lots of things to do. In Panama City Beach … if it’s not Spring Break, there’s really nothing going on. Maybe I should just go to sleep early tonight.

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2 Responses to “Entering “the South,” My Last Florida Sunset, and the Calm Before the Storm …”

  1. Kris Says:

    Hep hedep heda heda heda hep! Octet groupie fistbump! 😀

  2. nafiss griffis Says:

    The road. Punctuated by the sea, the sky and the motion. An experience that will ferment in sweet souvenirs. Hope Obama will build a robust public transportation system that will alleviate the roads.
    Panama City sounds bleak. Those chain stores are a curse. In Kona Hawaii too, they are coming by the dozens, they already have a giant Wal-Mart.
    At any rate, it is good to see first hand what’s going on in the country, and how things are changing to the pleasure of corporations. Thank you for sharing with us your observation without bias.

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