April 12, 2016
The Timpoochee Trail, a Gauntlet Through Coastal Development
My wife, Elisabeth, and I agree to embark on a day of cycling the Timpoochee Trail, near Destin, Florida. Located on the shore of the Florida Panhandle, the Timpoochee Trail is an example of the great bike trails proliferating around the nation, as more and more people turn to cycling for fun and exercise. At 18.6 paved miles, the Timpoochee Trail parallels the entire length of Scenic Highway 30A from Dune Allen to Inlet Beach.
Unfortunately, this once pristine section of the Gulf Coast has been overtaken by developers, whose profit-driven schemes are responsible for the profusion of luxury condominiums, restaurants, shops, and other lifestyle-related accoutrement. However, the destruction of natural Florida is not news – it has become the backdrop to all who live in the Sunshine State. So I will attempt to tell this particular adventure without further ranting.
(Well. Without too much further ranting.)
* * *
The Lure of Breakfast and The Beauty of the Coast
We start our day with a hefty breakfast at the Donut Hole, a Destin favorite. And while, sadly, we don’t actually eat any donuts, the apple crumb variety awakens fond boyhood memories of feasting on those very same delights at Mims Bakery (Jacksonville) in the 1960s. After fueling ourselves, we make our way to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, which is directly across the street from the Timpoochee trail head, and park (it costs $6, but, hey, it’s easy), hop on our trusty bikes, and wind our way to the trail, which parallels the beach.
The calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico beside us, we pedal east, passing some of the rarest ecology in the world – a unique cluster of coastal dune lakes. These fragile ecosystems exist only in certain areas of New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, Oregon, South Carolina, and, yes, the Florida Panhandle. Walton County is home to fifteen such lakes, and during our ride we passed eleven of them. These exquisite forms are created when the freshwater from higher inland elevations flow into lowland basins, which are separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a single row of high sand dunes. A mixture of salt water and fresh, the lakes appear almost black, a coloration derived from the tannins in fallen leaves, and look like misshapen black pearls against the brilliant white sand and deep azure of the ocean sky.
Beneath the wild blue yonder, a cool breeze blows in from the north and the entire scene seems postcard perfect. Almost.
The Ghost of Edward Abbey
We ride slowly through the small villages of Dune Allen and Gulf Place, weaving in and around throngs of tourists dragging assorted coolers, chairs, and umbrellas. As we pedal past the luxury condominiums and palatial mansions that line the beachfront, we notice the occasional older beach home tucked in between them. These as-yet-unbulldozed relics of the nineteen fifties, ’sixties, and ’seventies stand as sad and lonely sentinels of an earlier, less congested time.
By the time we reach Blue Mountain Beach, which is both the highest point in the entire Gulf of Mexico and approximately eight miles from our starting point, I find myself thinking of what desert environmentalist Edward Abbey says in his 1977 book, The Journey Home: Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Surrounded by the sprawl that has been created despite attempts to block it, it is difficult to find fault with his sentiment. But as we crest the mountain at a nosebleed elevation of sixty-four feet, I come to a halt.
There, at the very top of Blue Mountain, is a lone red brick home. A mansion by nineteen-fifty standards, this home has presence; it exudes authority. If the old beach relics we passed earlier were lonely sentinels, this is their tribal chieftain. Fittingly, its grounds do not suffer from neglect. The lawn is manicured, and I even spy a fresh coat of white paint glistening on the window trim. The yard, which comprises acres of freshly mown grass, leads to an expansive view of the Gulf. It is a view that conjures a bluff high above the New England coast and a lonely widow waiting, hoping against hope that her husband will return from the sea.
My heart sinks. I am no captain’s widow, yet I have a sense of impending doom. It is not the sea that threatens, however. It is developers, circling this house like sharks, waiting to tear it to pieces in a bloody assault.
When I turn and see Elisabeth sailing down the other side of Blue Mountain, I begin pedaling to catch up. But inside I am grieving. I hate – and I never say that word and mean it, but I do now in this moment – I hate that the state I love has come to this.
* * *
The Battle of the Two Hughs
For us, the Timpoochee Trail is proving itself a game of environmental hopscotch. Our emotions continue to rollercoaster as, after Blue Mountain, we ride, alternately, past the magnificent ecological treasures of the dune lakes and through mutant coastal communities: Grayton Beach, Water Color, Seaside, Seagrove, Water Sound, Prominence, and finally Alys Beach, each of which, once a pristine place of natural Florida beauty, is now an overly sophisticated, thoughtlessly developed abomination.
Still, as we bicycle, I notice myself thinking that, well, maybe, if we were to find a home on the outskirts of one of these towns – closer to the nature part of the roller coaster, possibly by one of the dune lakes – it might be a fun place to live. Lots of night life. Neatly planned communities. Pretty houses. But when I turn and share these thoughts with Elisabeth, she comes to a squealing stop and, hands clenching her handlebars, barks, “Have you lost your fucking mind, Hugh?”
Ah. Good question.
I believe I must stop here and reveal my inner duality. There is Ardent Hugh, he with whom I am proud to be associated, who is righteously overcome by the horror of what we see as we pedal. Honest with himself, he recognizes that he is a member of the generation responsible for inflicting such injury on his beloved landscape and vows to do something about it.
The Yielding Hugh, whom I try to keep shoved quietly out of sight in a single small chamber of my heart, tries to negotiate with the damage. He not only attempts to find the positive in a land that Ardent Hugh sees teetering on the edge of destruction, he actually finds something alluring about the trendy, always accessible luxury. He responds to the fabulous foods and the architectural facades, and he envies, just a bit, the crowds of beautiful people whose fancy cars and fine clothes say, We made it.
Those two aspects of my personality generate a friction that has plagued me for most of my adult life. Ardent Hugh would have me be an activist. But the other half of me prefers an easier road: He wants to go with the flow, not dig in and make a stand. And as these two hang in the balance, I am afraid I don’t have the courage to be as responsible or honest as Ardent Hugh would have me be. Am I a hedonist? Maybe. Because, while Rome may be burning, I could definitely go for a microbrew right now.
I glance at Elisabeth. Standing astride her blue Orbea Aqua speed bike, clad in skintight spandex cycling garb and wearing a blue helmet and mirrored shades, she looks like some kind of superhero. And like a superhero, she is immune to the fever that is infecting me. She is the rock. But I, Yielding, am the willow that bends.
The trendy shops, more at home in cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Miami than in north Florida, murmuring slogans with mood words like calm, grace, and serenity are brick-and-mortar streetwalkers, which, with the restaurants, the new beach architecture, and the finely tuned graphics are out to seduce me. It’s ok, they whisper. This is what you want. You belong here. Spend freely. Relax, and enjoy the contact with “nature.” You can have it all. Right here. Right now. And Grace Point, Water Sound, Hidden Harbor at Redfish – each subdivision name tugs at me. Now, facing a sleek new condo that coos, Relaxation is an art form, and displays the sexy silhouette of a woman, I am ready to sign a lease.
No wonder a generation of baby boomers has flocked to this coastal destination. The subliminal mind fuck got to them. But Elisabeth is stronger than all that. With a snap of her head she looks away from the mirage and says, “This is crazy. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Right. It is crazy. But even as I push off and follow in my wife’s super-powered slipstream, I know that as we slip in and out of these perfectly manicured villages, my Achilles heel is exposed. Despite my desire to cleave to Ardent Hugh’s convictions, the need I have had all of my life – to belong, to fit in – but have never been able to really achieve leaves me vulnerable to the false promises of the manufactured paradise we are cycling through.
Now, as we enter Seaside, the jewel in the crown of Florida’s master-planned communities, I have to laugh. This is where The Truman Show was filmed. In the movie, Seaside itself is an elaborate stage, upon which the main character, Truman, lives the perfect life, surrounded by loads of happy, smiling people, who love him. The whole thing is a charade, though. Truman’s entire life is actually a reality TV show, and everyone in his village is in on it – except for Truman.
As I pedal through the quaint, looks-like-handcrafted beauty of the business district and residential neighborhoods, I long, just for a moment, to be Truman, living a peaceful, if deceived, life at home in this small city of perfection, where everything is nice and sweet and clean – and uncomplicated. How blissful to be completely unaware of real life. (Hush, Ardent Hugh!)
The creators of Seaside knew what they were doing. Knew exactly which buttons to push, when they crafted this place. They created a town that’s a drug too potent to fit in a bottle – it emanates its numbing vibe from every side, and each and every detail is a reminder of how much you need its soothing high. Chrome bike stands on every corner, stripe-awning covered shops beckoning softly, small Airstream food trucks lining the town center. Yeah. They’re good.
I approach one of the adorable food trucks and pay $11.75 for a teacup-sized “bowl” of granola – and I’m smiling to myself because it comes with sliced bananas and organic almond milk. As I spoon each precious morsel, a small bag of organic coconut macaroons catches my eye. Perfect macaroons. Sweet. Organic. Almost as if I were hypnotized, I hand over an additional $8.95. I slip them into my pocket before Elisabeth can see.
Back on our bikes, we pedal through a neighborhood of houses – “residences,” as they are called – a tribute to the architecturally sublime. Each one looks as if it has won an award from Southern Living. At first, I feel the heat of envy rising, but as each street flows into the next, rows and neighborhoods seem to clone themselves, one after another, and I begin to wonder, Is this an architectural Garden of Eden or a giant maze, a dark Disney World from which there is no escape?
But there is still that part of me who can picture myself walking out the front door of my perfect “residence” each morning, perfectly brewed cup of coffee cup in hand, reaching for the perfect paper – the one filled with only happy news. My perfectly friendly neighbor waves at me with a satisfied grin, and, together, we listen to the perfect, endless piped-in loop of perfect, chirping birds.
Content. Safe. Uncomplicated. Perfect. I repeat these words like a mantra.
I stop to photograph a small, lavender home that looks as if it was conceived in a storybook land and has just been made real in this world. I want to capture it to view later. To prove to myself that the story is true. But when I when I look up, I am completely alone. Elisabeth is nowhere in sight, and there are no inhabitants – no people – in view on this storybook street. An eerie stillness pervades the neighborhood. Then, two houses down, something catches my eye. I look over and see my doppelgänger standing on the perfect stoop of a perfect, sky-blue “residence.” He is wearing blue jeans and an old T-shirt with a faded peace sign. Like the one balled up in my laundry basket. And he is smiling. He doesn’t look like he fits in, as I would not if I lived here, but I am pleased that he looks so happy.
He (or is it me?) points to me and raises his mug in a toast. He is trying to tell me something, but I am just a bit too far to hear what he is saying. Then Elisabeth appears, making a swooping circle and beckoning me to come on. I mount my bike and turn, wanting to see myself on my beautiful, vine-covered porch, one more time. But the apparition has vanished.
And I follow suit.
Elisabeth is in the lead, beating feet for the next stretch of scrub oak and pine forest, all the while making happy comments about nature and our escape from Seaside. But in my mind, I am still back at the perfect sky-blue “residence,” focused on the vision of a better version of myself. A new and welcome addition to my complex personality. This is Clear-eyed Hugh, the voice of reason, the me I have been waiting for nearly six decades. He wears no cape, but his insignia, a peace sign emblazoned on his chest, reminds me of an action figure straight out of the nineteen sixties. Might there be two superheroes lurking in this family?
* * *
Into the Arms of Clear-eyed Hugh
Ever since I was a child, I have dreamed I would be a part of something, that I would fit in and not remain standing on the outside looking in. A part of me has longed for the perfect surroundings, the just-right circumstances in which I would feel accepted and safe. I have always thought that people who live in towns like Seaside must know something I do not – something that provides them passage to such a safe harbor as that.
This angst about who I am and where I fit in the world has only become sharper as I have aged.
Granted, I am a bit slow on the uptake. Understanding some of life’s important details sometimes takes me longer than it does others. It is the primary reason that, for fifty-nine years, I have struggled to find my place in the world. But I have a feeling that’s all behind me now.
You see, for all those years I have waited for a sign from above. Today, I simply rode into the arms of Clear-eyed Hugh – and, circling back towards Destin, his message sent a jolt of electricity straight to my brain. You don’t belong here, at all, he was saying. You were never meant to stand on the stoop of this perfect residence. Your life is about asking questions and writing down the answers you find. Your role in life is different. You can only play your part if you sit in the bleachers. It’s the only way to view the show.
Elisabeth’s voice brings me out of my reverie. “Look,” she says. “Isn’t it beautiful?” I glide to a stop and hop off my Surly. There before us is Eastern Lake, a black pool of brackish water stretching for a half mile towards the Gulf of Mexico. “It is beautiful,” I agree.
The sun warms our faces and I feel as if I have received the blessing I have desired for so long. Whatever happens, starting today, the memory of today’s tiny journey will stand out for me as the day when I put doubting aside and began acting like my Clear-eyed, superhero self.
* * *
Take A Tiny Adventure
We live in a complex world. We don’t always fit into the ideal that society wants to sell us. What distinguishes us is our uniqueness. So much of the time it seems we are pulled along in a way that goes against our nature. And the struggle is to find what feels right. Sometimes that can take a while, as it has for me. The important thing is to make the effort to rise above the subliminal message that our culture churns out. This can be a difficult thing to do. But maybe it’s enough to know that we can stop pedaling and head in another direction.
Clear Eyed Hugh notwithstanding, after today’s meeting with myself, I realize I must accept that I am not the guy that joins a community action committee and attempts to block the new development from being built. I am, however, the guy who can talk about it and ask a few questions. I am the observer, the guy who writes about the things he sees. But that doesn’t keep me from making a few suggestions now and again. I offer this one, today: Take a tiny adventure. Take many of them. I can’t say what may happen for you, but if you step into each one with an open mind, I believe your adventures will guide you where you need to go.