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Road Trip 2023 Part 1: Scenic 30A and the Florida Panhandle Beaches

Most of my experience with Florida has been the Southern East Coast on the Atlantic side. Southern Florida is beaches filled with high rise hotels, flocks of tourists, strip malls and development all the way up to the beach itself. A place where no signs of the nature that existed before Flagler’s railroad, steamships, A1A and I-95 started bringing tourists to vacationland.

So when I planned my road trip North to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan this year, I decided to go West first then up so I could see parts of the United States deep South that I’ve never managed to traverse before, including the Florida Panhandle, Alabama and Mississippi. I now have Florida license plates to help me blend in, and if I’m going to claim the South as my new home it is time to take a look at it.

What most people don’t realize in the United States is that before the pilgrims and the English settlements of Puritans and other religious freedom seekers in the Northeast, the Spanish and the Catholic Church were hard at work attempting to place missions and convert the natives in Florida. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States because Northeastern Florida’s indigenous population of Timucuans were a kind lot. They let the Catholic priests and their Spanish government representatives landing on the shore survive and tell them about their god. In fact, the first day the Spanish were on shore the priests said mass to honor Mother Mary – and a vestige of Our Lady of Nursing Mothers has been in St. Augustine since as early as 1560. Multiple missions to the Tampa Bay area were not so lucky before this date, because the West Coast Florida natives were not so welcoming. They simply killed the priests and explorers who landed on their shores like annoying mosquitos.

Eventually, after the “settlement” of St. Augustine, the Franciscans made headway in Northern Florida and established an outpost in Pensacola. Everything South of the northern part of what was then known as La Florida was a deadly swath of swamp and jungle filled with “savage” indigeneous populations unwelcoming and unwilling to hear about the Catholic faith. So for Spanish America i.e. La Florida (which it was until 1819, save for a minor stint of British occupation) Havana was more closely connected to its people than the seat of the “protestant” British Colonial Government. You wouldn’t know it today except for some small remnants of architecture in St. Augustine. And there is definitely no sign of the once wild inpenetrable jungles that DeSoto landed upon in the 1500’s when you visit Panama City Beach and the other communities along scenic 30A.

I picked up a Southern Living “Best of the South” issue at my local Jacksonville area Publix in June and found myself reading a very short article (with a lot of photos) about scenic 30A and that sealed in my route planning. It showed me pictures of little quaint hippie beach towns with bakeries and people lazily paddling on waterboards through beautiful azure waters. There were no large hotels in the background and everything still looked quite serene. It looked like a very nice place to stop for an evening and a pretty drive on my way through the South to get to the Northern most place in the US. Upon my arrival in Panama City Beach I found none of what was promised in the magazine.

I found my “hotel” to be a broke down bleach smelling multiplex with spackled holes in the walls, really high damage deposits and undisclosed pet fees filled with loud complaining families marching on the white sandy beaches with five days of provisions in coolers and water wings. According to the Weather Channel 40 were dead from recent Riptides, and let’s not even talk about the traffic congestion along the miles of cheesy beachy food and beverage establishments with billboards of unnatural blue and pink tiki drinks.

Where was the quiet picturesque towns from the magazine? So far this was worse than Fort Lauderdale could ever have be.

I deposited Charlotte in the expensive hotel hell hole and gave her permission to earn the pet fee and started the “scenic” drive up 30A in hopes of finding something like the pictures. I never did really, but I did find a lot of very white colored developments. Like so much white & cream & beige. It was so curated that they even had signs telling me that I couldn’t take pictures without the permission of the development. Welcome to Alys Beach.

The area just north of where I stopped exploring is where they filmed the Trumann Show – which is a picture perfect town apparently – and I really could see that there was a certain Stepford Wife Motif going on in this part of Florida that lies in stark contrast to the noise of Panama City and the poverty of broke down trailers and volunteer fire fighters standing in the street with boots begging for $ in the rest of the panhandle.

There is no sign of the Catholic Missions or any indigenous American – just monotonous monochromatic architecturally curated buildings and businesses. Men were in golf shirts and shorts and women in maxi dresses. This is where the well off of Alabama come to relax. While having a mocktail and a snack at Neat I met a family from Texas (getting away from the heat 95 degrees was cool in comparison) and two men “bar hopping” in style. The men had previously lived in Burien, Washington and were fascinated that I had moved to Florida. They recommended a couple places for real food and a view of the beach.

They all left and I got my bill (and credit card back) with a beautifully thematic white pen (which I promptly put in my purse).

Then I considered driving another hour north to the recommended restaurant, but I couldn’t make myself do it after a long day on the road, and a longer one tomorrow – so I opted for Cafe Thirty-A because of its location and good reviews. I should have made the effort – as I found myself, a single diner, shoved in a corner out of the way, where I couldn’t do anything but stare at one table across from me.

But it was great eavesdropping – as the vapid comments flew from the barely legal table of golf shirts and cleavage sporting summer dresses across from me. Dinner was rich – and genuinely tasty, even if the people watching and listening proved to leave a little to be desired.

I was ready to hear the sound of waves on the beach and my dog snoring so I headed back home to my crusty beach hotel.

When I arrived around 9pm I found myself having to park over two blocks away in the furthest reaches of overflow parking and hobble my tired self across parking lots and busy streets to find Charlotte waiting for me at the the door (only slightly panicked by my long absence). We sat together on the deck listening to the sound of the Gulf of Mexico and the loud air conditioning unit inconveniently placed immediately behind us.

It had been a big day, a long day, a good day of exploring the State of Florida and soon the country in my first South to North road trip. Seattle to L’Anse, Michigan had become old hat, only one highway, no real other options besides the same towns and roadside attractions – now the whole middle of the country beckoned. So many route choices. And tomorrow I was on my way through Alabama to sleep in Mississippi my 48th state.

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