It was about 6PM when I arrived at my AirBnB rental in Pensacola Beach, located at the far western end of the Florida Panhandle. It was raining as I dragged my luggage up three flights of stairs on an outside stairwell. Only later did I discover that there was an elevator in the building! A cold wind bore down upon me, nearly ripping the glass storm door from its hinges as I fought to type in the key code to get into my apartment. It was 44 degrees and the weather report was calling for lows in the mid-20s that night. This was not exactly the way I’d envisioned my winter getaway to sunny Florida to begin.
The apartment I was renting for a month was in the perfect location, located in the very last residential complex before the entrance to the Fort Pickens Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore. Beyond my building there was nothing but miles of unspoiled white sand beaches on this barrier island. This is quiet area in general, especially in the winter. But given that the bridge from Pensacola has been out of commission since Hurricane Sally struck the area last fall, making what used to be a 10 minute ride from Pensacola a 45 to 60 minute, traffic-clogged adventure, it was even quieter than usual, and that was exactly what I was looking for. I’d booked the apartment for a full month, partly because I’m thinking about moving to this area at some point in the future, and partly because I was looking for a remote and peaceful escape from the “civilized” world, where it seems that almost every conversation has become a veritable minefield of tension over politics, masks, and vaccines.
The apartment itself was built on two levels; there was a living room, dining room and kitchen on the upper level, and two bedrooms and two bathrooms on the lower level. Each floor had its own balcony looking out toward the Gulf of Mexico, which was right across the street, and the master bedroom had a whirlpool tub facing out onto that same view. I could literally just exit my building and walk the beach for miles and barely see another soul for hours.
One of my greatest challenges when I travel is that I seem to have a hard time just resting and staying in one place for a long period of time. I hoped to change that with this stay. But as the wind outside howled and a cold rain pattered against the windows, I wondered what it might be like to be trapped here if the cold, windy weather continued. Thankfully, after a few days of rain and some chilly nights, the weather warmed up and I was able to take advantage of this amazing place.
One of my favorite things about the apartment was being able to hear the sound of the Gulf every night. Even when it was chilly, I’d leave the sliding glass door to the balcony in my bedroom slightly ajar so that I could be lulled to sleep by the crashing of the waves. Even better, there were several nights of thunderstorms while I was there. I don’t know if it was because these storms were out over the ocean, but I’ve never heard thunder quite like this before. It was gentle and muffled, soothing rather than jarring, and I refused to let myself fall asleep until I was certain the storm had passed.
After the first week or so, the weather warmed to the upper 60s and low 70s and despite the water temperature hovering around 63 degrees, I began going for long walks, wading, and eventially swimming. I got a kick out of the confused looks of the occasional passers-by who were walking the beach in parkas, scarfs and knitted hats. One woman called out to me, “Aren’t you freezing?”, to which I laughingly replied, “Nah… it’s just like July in Maine!” No matter how chilly it might have been, one look at the pristine waters of Pensacola Beach and I couldn’t resist wanting to just immerse myself.
On a typical day, I’d walk up the beach for a mile or so and might pass two or three people the entire time. I felt like a castaway with an entire beach to myself. I played in the water and built elaborate sand castles like a chubby, 62 year old child without having to worry about people pointing and laughing or mean kids stomping on my castle! One sunny day I sprawled out on the part of the shore where the waves break and let them wash over me, almost dozing off with the warm sun on my face and my legs and torso submerged in the water. A few times, lifeguard helicopters passed overhead, and I chuckled, wondering whether I would soon have paramedics rushing to recover the seemingly dead body washed up on the beach.
I was frequently entertained by the antics of local birds and began to think of them as friends. Enormous brown pelicans swooped overhead, casting an ominous shadow with their huge wingspans and reminding me of prehistoric pterodactyls. They’d then make a freefall into the water, diving down for several seconds and triumphantly emerging with a beak full of fish. Sanderlings, a variety of sandpipers, constantly ran back and forth along the shore, while larger, slower-moving dowitchers watched them and seemingly marveled at how speedily they were able to move on their tiny legs. The aptly named laughing gulls gathered together in groups and their cackling, laugh-like calls made me feel like they were making fun of me for building my sandcastles. And I had a good laugh one day as I watched a 3 foot tall heron (I think) brazenly walk up to a fisherman’s fishing pole and stand there watching for several minutes, as if thinking to himself that this might be a more efficient way to catch dinner.
One day I saw a pod of dolphins swimming along the shore, and another day I found a deceased, 3-foot-long manta ray lying on the sand. It was hard to imagine that these pristine waters are so filled with sea life that we don’t realize is there. I scoured the shore for shells and surprised myself when I realized how caught up I’d become trying to find sand dollars. The beach here is littered with large sand dollar chunks, and I longed to find a whole one as a souvenir. Judging by the size of the pieces lying on the shore, I estimated that an intact one might be 6 to 8 inches across. I ultimately found a number of much smaller, intact ones, less than an inch in diameter, and I noticed that there were other beachcombers out there with net-like contraptions that they used to scoop up a large amount of debris and search through it for sand dollars as if they were panning for gold. I found good uses for the sand dollar pieces; they can be thrown like a little frisbee and tend to skip 4 or 5 times across the water, and they also made excellent reinforcements for my sand castle walls.
I did venture out from my beach hideaway a few times to explore other parts of the Panhandle. I explored downtown Pensacola’s charming Seville Historic District and East Hill neighborhoods. I drove east to explore Seaside, the town where the film The Truman Show was filmed, and spent time in Panama City Beach, which despite being far more crowded and built up than Pensacola Beach, boasts the same amazing white sand beaches and spectacular sunsets.
Back closer to “home” I discovered Outta the Blue Seafood Market in Gulf Breeze where on several occasions I bought a pound or so of local Royal Red shrimp. The folks at the market will steam them for you in Old Bay seasoning, and I would bring them home and have a dinner fit for a king. I also had some fantastic fish tacos at the nearby Native Café, but mostly I was content to cook at home, and I found that a month not eating out at restaurants, coupled with walking the beach a mile or two a day did wonders for my weight and that my clothes felt a lot looser.
Perhaps the only care I had in the world for my entire month in Pensacola Beach was a pinched nerve in my back that has plagued me on and off for years. It began to flare up and really bother me, sending waves of tingling sensations down my left arm and into my hand and was accompanied by intense itching in that hand as well. I decided to seek help from a local chiropractor, Richard Jacobs, who had earned high praise online and whose online photo revealed one of the most handsome men I have ever seen. I ended up seeing him for a series of x-rays and several chiropractic adjustments. It was my first time seeing a chiropractor, and though I trusted him, I found the neck-snapping and spine-cracking very unnerving. I joked with him that every time he snapped my neck, I held my breath for a second, sure that I would be either be left dead or paralyzed from the neck down! He laughed and said that only happens in Chuck Norris movies. When my friend Gail in Virginia saw his picture, she exclaimed, “Hell, he could snap me in half if I could just look at his face while he did it!” Wouldn’t that make a great line for a review on Yelp? At any rate, the problem is not entirely resolved, but it did significantly improve, and the doctor offered to help me find another chiropractor who uses similar techniques once I get settled somewhere else.
All good things must come to an end, and so after what was one of the best months of my life, it was time to pack up and move on, bound for south Florida for a few weeks to scope out St. Pete, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Daytona. In the following weeks I visited friends, swam with manatees, explored lush landscapes draped with Spanish moss, marveled at aqua blue shorelines in the Florida Keys and cobalt blue natural spring waters. It was all wonderful, but I will never forget my simple, carefree days of roaming my own private white sand beaches and being lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves. And perhaps some day in the not-too-distant future, I may find myself becoming a full-time “Panhandler.”