Along the Florida Panhandle
We got up in Biloxi, checked out and started driving east. First we went in and out of Alabama on the I-10 — a short visit that lasted less than an hour, due to its short coastline (approx. 60 miles). At 1:30 pm we drove into Florida, the last state we were to visit on this trip.
The Florida Panhandle is a thin line of land along the Gulf Coast, shaped, well — like a panhandle. The coast is lined with beautiful, white beaches and several holiday resort villages - and after a while we drove into on of them: Pensacola Beach. We’d read that the sand on the beaches here were so white that people had been fooled into thinking it was sugar. And upon taking a look on our own, we could easily understand why.
Sparkling white sand at the Pensacola beach
We drove through surprisingly empty streets (it must have been out of season) and stopped by the beach. It was 112°F (44,4°C), the hottest we’d noticed during our entire trip, and the sun was shining from a clear, blue sky. And we sure felt tempted to stay for a while in this paradise! The sea was clear blue with a tint of green, the sand was as white as sugar — or as snow (it actually looked like piles of snow, which was absurd in the intense heat), palm trees were swaying behind us, and as we tried to force Brad to pose for us on the beach, a bright yellow lifeguard truck went past us on the almost empty beach. Throw in a few voluptuous lifeguards in red bathing suits, and we’d felt as if we’d been planted in a Baywatch episode!
It’s getting hot in here!
Lining the beach was a bunch of rental vacation homes, many of them with creative architectonic constructions - some very beautiful, others just.. weird. We went down a straight road, with resorts and hotels on one side and the bright, white beach on the other, until we reached a gate where the road was closed for further driving. We just stopped for a while and took another look at this fascinating, white sand — and at that moment we could easily understand those who spend a week or two here. But we had to move on further into Florida, so we turned around and went back to the highway.
The end of the road - and our beach break
An hour and a half later we arrived at another resort “paradise” along the Gulf coast, Panama City Beach. Several Norwegians have vacation houses here, but neither of us could understand why they didn’t go for Pensacola Beach instead. The sand is probably just as white here (we didn’t take the time to check it out), but the atmosphere wasn’t as pleasing as we felt in Pensacola. Oh well.. a few hours in the area hardly makes us qualified to pass judgment.
On the way out of Panama City we drove into some heavy smoke from a fire along the road, causing traffic to slow down a bit. We saw TV network cars, and figured a fire like this was a rare happening. Little did we know that heavy fires raged across the northern part of Florida (and southern Georgia), but we were to find out later.
Our first encounter with forest fire smoke
It started to get late, and we debated whether to find an inland freeway to speed things up, or to continue (more or less) along the scenic coast on Highway 98. We decided on the latter, but first we had to drive through what was obviously some kind of military area (later we checked the map and discovered we had passed through an area connected to the Tyndall Air Force Base). First we had a few choppers hovering over us. Then two fighter jets passed over the highway. And along the road there were signs with “DANGER! Explosive disposal range - keep out!” So we did.
Chopper from the Tyndall Air Force Base
For several miles, the road was lined with trees, and many of their trunks bore evidence of resent fire. We thought they’d been doing some controlled burning of the forest bottom to ensure further growth. For some parts, it almost looked like driving through a autumn landscape, with all the brown trees. We listened to some funky non-stop music at the satellite radio system, and missed out on the news about the fires spreading along the north of Florida.
After the fire - red trees along the road
We crossed over the 4+ miles long, almost everlasting, flat John Gorrie Memorial Bridge (named after the guy who invented air conditioning!) between Apalachicola and Eastpoint — and it felt just like driving straight on the ocean. With more time on our hands, we could have taken a detour down yet another long bridge and visited the 28-mile-long and 4 blocks narrow paradise-like St. George Island. But even as we continued further west, we could definitely catch glimpses of paradise. We looked down at some beautiful houses along the Gulf shore, secluded behind trees. Some of the houses were huge, and the scenery was really idyllic. We witnessed a beautiful, red sunset, and really started to feel eager about reaching Key West and indulge in some shameless relaxation!
A beautiful sunset as we drove into the Florida night
Even though we could see some houses here and there, we didn’t see many people. We were almost alone on the road, and as it started to get late we began to worry that we wouldn’t find a place to stay for the night. As always, Louis suggested we could continue driving throught the night and take a power nap along the road, but — as always — Selma was more hesitant. We thought about driving up to Tallahassee (being the state capitol, there had to be some places to crash there), but that would mean a serious detour from our planned route. We checked with Kitty, who told us we had a place called Perry an hour or so ahead of us — so we decided to try our luck there.
At nine thirty it was pitch dark, and the headlights of our car were the only light sources in near proximity. The air was filled with bugs, crashing to our windshield, and it felt almost like driving through a snow storm. Weird to be in a summer landscape and have a feeling of being surrounded by snow twice in one day!
Surrounded by darkness
We were running out of gas, and we hadn’t passed a gas station in ages. But as luck had it, we came upon one before it got critical. We filled up, and Selma had a long anticipated cigarette. She poured half a bottle of water on the stump to make sure it didn’t start a fire - ’cause even if we didn’t yet know about the forest fires in the region, we had noticed that the vegetation was fairly dry!
Shortly thereafter, we finally drove into Perry. We stopped at the first and best motel, settled into a room, and went straight to bed.
There are more photos over at Flickr! Check them out!