Accidental Tourist

I’ll never forget my first glimpse of the Perfect Beach.

It was 1996, right after Christmas, when I was first introduced to the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen.  Mike and I had been dating for a few months and pooled our meager finances (he was between radio jobs, as usual, and I was a poor student), drove about 6 hours south from Atlanta toward the Gulf of Mexico through Tallahassee, Florida, and then the quiet fishing villages of Apalachicola, East Point and Carrabelle, over a long causeway spanning Apalachicola Bay to St. George Island where we had rented a little beachfront cottage for a three day weekend.

Mike had been visiting the island for 15 years, but I had never seen that part of Florida.  All I knew of Florida beaches were the rowdy drive-in tourist places like Daytona, or the crowded real estate of Panama City with its towering hotels and noisy restaurants.  This was different. They don’t call it “The Forgotten Coast” for nothing; it was something out of another time.  On St. George Island you could walk for a mile and not see another human being.  There were no high-rises, no fast food restaurants, no surf shops.  Just pristine beaches as far as you could see, small mom and pop establishments, two gas stations and colorful, modestly-sized individual houses dotting the seashore.

This was unlike any beach I had ever visited.  The sand was golden/pink powder, with gentle dunes covered in waving sea oats.  The air was so clean, so sweet-smelling, it had a weight and substance that reminded me of what it must have been like in a more primitive time, before commercialism utterly destroyed those  beaches with which I was familiar. Here, the sea shells were scattered everywhere, carelessly, undisturbed.  Sea birds circled overhead in great flocks, dolphins swam so close to shore you could almost look them in the eye.  The waves were surprisingly gentle.  Body surfing was a powerful thrill, especially if a storm came up.  Locals fished right on the beach, waving to us as we strolled along the shore looking for seashells, which we collected by the bucketful.  There were notes in our cottage that reminded us to turn off our porch lights at night so as not to confuse the pregnant sea turtles that nested on the beach, waiting to drop their eggs into the scooped-out sand  At night we watched the tiny lights of the shrimp boats on the horizon under a blanket of stars so thick, and moonlight so bright, you could walk on the beach at midnight and actually cast a shadow.

Mike said that on previous trips he had taken his kids to the inland side of the island, which borders Apalachicola Bay, where they had rented a boat and scooped up oysters out of the water, cracking them open and sliding their salty goodness into their bellies by the score.  He described terrible storms with explosive lightening way out in the ocean as he watched safely from the beach; millions of tiny red crabs so thick they moved like one giant organism along the bay shore.  Large blue crabs were so abundant you could catch them with a net if you waded off shore about 30 feet to a sandbar, where you could also scoop up dozens of perfect, intact sand dollars. (Mike had jars of shells and sand dollars at home; he was hooked on collecting them.)

On this my first visit we drove about 45 minutes west from Apalachicola toward Port. St. Joe on highway C-30 along the gulf, and made a sharp left turn onto Cape San Blas, a spit of land that juts into the ocean and faces directly west.  Here was yet another stretch of endless, vacant beach, even more deserted than St. George Island.  And unlike the island’s fine, pink sand, here it was snow white and impossibly finer.  Like powdered sugar, blindingly white in the bright sun.  And the dunes were like rolling hills; some of them near the State Park on the northern tip of the island towered over the random two-story beachfront houses.  We spent the day there walking the beach.  We might have seen four other people.  We stayed for the big show – sunset.  The cape faces directly west and you can watch the sun sink into the ocean and be astonished as the sky turns from yellow to orange to hot pink to magenta, then purple and indigo in the space of an hour.  I used up two rolls of film (no digital camera then) trying to capture the magic of the changing sky.

There is no way to visit that area and remain unchanged.  The peace and calm and beauty of the place stays with you forever, reminding you that despite all the other things going on in the world, there is a place oblivious to the day-to-day melodrama and chaos.  A quiet, natural place where you can escape every once in awhile to discharge all that clotted frustration and regain, or establish for the first time, your balance and serenity.

After Mike and I were married and  moved to Chicago, we would drive 15 hours to get there.  It took two days but we didn’t care.  Sure, there were closer vacation spots, but nothing that compared to the Forgotten Coast.  We would arrange these trips six months in advance, sometimes lucky enough to coordinate with Mike’s grown children who loved the place as much as we did, and at least twice we enjoyed a week-long family reunion in a rambling beachfront house, enjoying cookouts on the beach, constellation-counting competitions, endless games of Frisbee, massive sand castles, ghost stories in front of the fire pit we all dug earlier once the sun went down and the air cooled.  We reconnected as a family the way you can when there are no distractions, no TV shows or newspapers or laptops.  We laughed and played like carefree children.

We left Chicago and moved back to Atlanta in the summer of 2000 – too late and too broke for a trip to our perfect beach that year.  But Mike and I visited The Forgotten Coast at least twice a year without fail after that.  When Molly was born in July of 2004, one of the first things we did was reserve a beachfront house on Cape San Blas for Thanksgiving, where Mike’s grown children (and grandchildren !) met their little four-month-old sister (and aunt!) for the first time.  On that trip we were delighted to hear Molly laugh out loud for the first time ever, watching her three year old niece Lauren and five year old nephew Jake chase each other on the screened porch in the twilight.   Since then she’s spent many weeks in her almost six years on those beaches, learning to body surf; building sprawling sand castles and mermaid palaces; marveling wide-eyed at the sheer number of stars and squealing in delight when spotting a meteorite streaking across the night sky; napping under a beach umbrella as the round of the waves lulled her to sleep; digging for tiny cochinas as the waves lap over the shore, grabbing mounds of wet sand and watching in amazement as the rainbow-colored shellfish burrow down into her cupped hands.  Our last trip to this magical place was right after Christmas, and once again we were fortunate enough to have Mike’s grown children and elementary-aged grandchildren join us for a few days. We were looking forward to a summer visit later this year.

But now there is an unstoppable volcano of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to kill everything in its path and destroy the beaches we love so much.

Scientists say the Gulf Stream current may pull the massive and growing black pool of poison around the Florida keys and up into the Atlantic.  Efforts to stem the flow from the sea floor and remove oil from the surface by skimming it, burning it or by dispersing it with chemicals continue with little or no success.

According to Dr. Ralph Portier of Louisiana State University, “Coastlines from the panhandle, through the Tampa Bay area and the Florida Keys may be overrun by a toxic tide that will poison wildlife, foul the air, and further punish an already crushed local economy. The Gulf spill is at the top of ‘the Loop Current,’ a part of the Gulf Stream that sends water around Florida and as far north as Cape Hatteras, NC . . . ‘The trouble with our marshes is they’re already stressed, they’re already hanging by a fingernail,’ added Dr. Denise Reed of the University of New Orleans.  ‘And yet it now seems possible that the influx of oil from the still-gushing well in the Gulf could deliver the killing blow to the whole coastal ecosystem. The volume of oil that now seems likely to wash up on the Louisiana coast could overwhelm the coastal grasses’ ability to recover. If the roots die, the plants die and the ground underneath turns to mud and disappears into the sea within a year.” And, with hurricane season approaching, powerful storms could blow the oil into the marshes and wetlands with violent force, or drive it  further up the eastern seaboard to the beaches, fishing areas, national wildlife refuges and estuarys there.

Accidents happen. That seems to be the attitude of both Washington politicians and the Corporate Media.  But the Deepwater Horizon disaster is as much an accident as the drunk driver who plows into a school bus and kills all the children on board.  Sure, it wasn’t done deliberately, but it was 100% preventable nonetheless.  A simple shut off valve on the main pipe would’ve prevented this deadly nightmare.  But it cost $500,000 and why should BP pay that?  With a complete disdain for the risks and the government regulations needed to minimize those risks, one can assume Dick Cheney – in his secret energy meetings – had assured BP  (and how many other oil companies?) they could do whatever they wanted in the Gulf. Who cared?  Fishermen? shrimpers? vacationers? . . . they don’t count.  Any more than coal miners do, or those poor folks who live in the desert near nuclear waste facilities.

Dead oil rig workers?  Dead fish? Dead sea turtles and sea birds? Dead whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals? Dead migratory sea birds? Dead fishing industry?  Dead tourism? Far-reaching economic devastation? More unemployment?  Biggest environmental disaster in history?  So what!  That’s half a million bucks! . . . That’ll almost pay for my new G5.  Greedy bastards.

Obama visited Louisiana on Sunday to survey the spreading oil slick from a helicopter in a move weirdly reminiscent of Dubya’s flyover of the nearby real estate to peek at the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.   Obama’s visit had great optics, as the PR people would say, but zero affect on the problem at hand and was ultimately pointless from anything other than a photo-op standpoint.  “Let me be clear: BP is responsible for this leak,” Obama said to the cameras Sunday “BP will be paying the bill.”

This could have been a defining moment in the Obama presidency, an opportunity to confront the rabid “drill baby, drill” Republicans – whose policies were instrumental in causing this disaster – with full force.   Instead he scolded BP like a forgetful child who had accidentally forgotten to take off his shoes and tracked mud into the house.  “Look at the mess you made, Billy!  You’re going to use your allowance to pay to clean the rug!” Worse, he did not reverse his position on offshore drilling. As a sop to consumer food safety he did ban commercial fishing in the area for 10 days.  From the predictions of the expected environmental damage, that time frame might stretch to 10 years. “Your government will do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to stop this crisis,” he said.

But . . . what about the government policies that made it possible for this deadly disaster to happen in the first place?  What about the eleven oil workers who are dead because of Halliburton/Cheney’s super-secret energy meetings in which oil industry lobbyists successfully eliminated from government policy any effective regulation or safety measures that would’ve prevented this kind of disaster?  Did I miss that part of the speech as Obama metaphorically wagged his finger at BP?

And, of course, there’s been not a peep from Corporate Media about the cause of this disaster. They cover the sensational aspects of the story – the first bird treated for oil poisoning, the local fisherman who worries his family will now lose everything, the lady who runs the oceanfront B&B who cries because people are canceling their reservations – but they ignore the deeper story: that this disaster was predicted and preventable.

As reported by Seymour Friendly, “Article after article after article after article has highlighted and exposed just how ill-prepared both industry and government were for a predictable disaster in an offshore drilling operation that both industry and government together allowed to proceed. . . The deeper story in this wreck that is being missed is the story of an industrial energy production system – offshore oil drilling – that is in general emphasized by a big industry and normally co-opted or coerced government officials and agencies – and that continues to produce major disasters despite decades of technological focus and advance.”

Largely because of the lack of pointed media coverage, those folks most likely to be affected by this disaster – the fishermen, oystermen, boat rental operators and coastal business owners dependent on tourism –  will likely continue to vote for the very Republicans in government whose anti-regulatory attitudes allowed this disaster to occur.  Just as they will likely believe Rush “Deaf by Temptation” Limbaugh as he outrageously accuses liberals and “Eco-Nazis” for this disaster, suggesting they blew up the rig and murdered those on board to discourage further drilling.  Or, they will nod in lemming-like unison as Glenn Beck calls the spill “Obama’s Katrina”  . . .  while the wildlife around them withers and dies.

SUNSETBEACH.jpgYesterday I thumbed through my photo albums and savored the memories of our time on the Forgotten Coast.  Periodically I glanced at TV, watching the advancing pool of toxic goo spread like a cancer across the Gulf.  I kept thinking of the last lines of the poem that ends “. . . for want of a nail, the war was lost . . .


For want of a shut-off valve, the coast was lost.

This article has 20 comments

  1. Denny NNWofLA

    So very glad you’re still with us.

    Thank you for sharing this info. You painted quite a vivid and touchable image.

    A song from ’57 has been haunting me lately.
    the song is Soft soft Sands by the Chordettes.
    Perhaps it would be an appropriate soundtrack to compliment the story.

    Thanks for being and sharing. Regards, Denny

  2. Michelle

    What a beautiful and wonderfully-written memoir, Kathy, and a poignant way of tying in the tragic negligence of corporations and government in America to the contrast of that special, fragile place in your and your family’s memories.

    A relative newcomer to the South, I’ve never visited the Forgotten Coast in Florida, but your memoir makes me want to do so before it is too late. Given recent events, I fear it may be. Thank you for sharing this experience with us, just in case.

  3. Andre NYC

    Function: noun
    Etymology: Greek katastroph?, overturn, from kata-(down, low, deep) + strophe (to turn)
    1 : the final event of the dramatic action especially of a tragedy
    2 : a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin
    3 a : a violent and sudden change in a feature of the earth b : a violent usually destructive natural event (as a supernova)
    4 : utter failure

  4. Skip Estes

    Hi Kathy, I grew up in the mid sixties surfing in the Ventura County, Santa Barbara areas; They had off shore oil rigs. At that time I could sleep on the beach for nothing and surf all day for nothing. Every weekend I would come home and scrub the tar off me and my surfboard. Now there is no camping except in state campgrounds which are about $30 a night, and the freeway is 50 ft away. A priceless treasure sold off to Corporate profits.

    Poway Skip

  5. Matt

    The only thing I would add to “Accidental Tourist” is that the $500,000 “Main Pipe Shut-off Valve” is REQUIRED for off-shore oil platforms in Europe…
    Halliburto/Cheney strikes again!

  6. Donna

    Dear Kathy;

    Thank you for your pictures. They show a strong family bond, and a special place to bond. I was very happy to see your blog and know that you are still with us and even in your time of need, you are working to save the wild.


  7. wendy

    Thanks for sharing your memories. My family has lived in Florida since 1968, and I lived there for many years, but I never got closer than Tallahassee. But I KNOW how beautiful those beaches are and what we stand to lose from all my relatives who visited.

    Just like all corporate incompetence, we will never hear the whole truth. The best we can hope for is that BP is bankrupt by this event.

  8. Josie Tagliente

    Dear Kathy,

    Delightful that you have painted this poignant image for us, despite your need to rest; and deep in sadness for the sea turtles and other precious life forms in pain, as their breath smothers within them ~~~
    This is an unimaginable terror. The earth is truly in peril with this constant piercing of her heart~~~thank you for being the voice that travels ~~~

  9. Edie

    On Malloy’s show last week Mike Papantonio talked about an inexpensive safety tool the oil companies use everywhere in the world except HERE! WTF?!

    Apparently, our government sees no reason to insist that all precautions be taken when drilling off our shores.

    It is hard to believe that we can think of ourselves as a great nation; when Oil Companies, China and Corporations continue to shit in our faces!

  10. Kathy P.

    Kathy, I am so glad you’re okay. Wish I could say the same for the oceanic ecosystem. Sad, so very sad but thank you for the photos and your beautiful description of your time on those pristine beaches. I have never seen them and likely never will. The death and destruction is overwhelming. It is infuriating that it could have been prevented but this is what corporate american does best: they cut corners and say to hell with it all in the name of higher profits. BP=Big Profits. You are absolutely right that many of those affected directly by this terrible, sickening disaster will probably vote for the very people who made it all possible! What a miserable shame!

  11. CandyVarnes

    I work on St. George Island and live in Apalachicola. We are very grateful to all of you who care so deeply about our area. Please be assured that should the oil reach us – we might be down but we will never be out! We have overcome much through the years – including oil on the beaches in the early 80s. We are preparing now because we are passionate about our Bay and the estuary in general. In fact,it’s the estuary we are most concerned about …it’s the second largest in the nation. Our hope is to direct any oil that comes our way on to the beaches because it is much easier to clean up this way. Please don’t spend too much time stressing about the future of our paradise. If it hits our beaches, we will recover…please pray for our Bay!!!!!!! As for the political side of this…congress did not enforce their laws they passed in 1994 after the Exxon Valdez disaster. The list of entities responsible for this mess is very long- including Transocean, the company who owns the rig as well as the current administration who did not immediately have even one fire boom on hand as required by the 1994 response plan. Several of those booms are coming in from South America as we speak. There were multiple safety components on the rig… they all failed. Transocean has performed most of the maintenance so please don’t let them off the hook!!!!!

  12. LittleRedShoes

    I am reminded of something George Carlin said about the planet shaking us off like a bad case of fleas. Makes you wonder if the itch is reaching the scratch point, doesn’t it? Anyway, thanks Kathy for sharing your beautiful memories & photos of Miss Molly (very glad your procedure was a success, by the way).

  13. arlene

    Thank you for your story Kathy. Although I cry each day as this nightmare is unfolding, your words gave me peaceful, beautiful images of a paradise, that, for a moment in time, gave me some comfort.

    When the enormity of the inevitable, horrific consequences that lay ahead unfold, when I see the thousand of birds on the videos, then close up pictures of their stunning beauty, and other precious wild life, I become so frightened for them, and I’m so angry.

    Angry that the land and sea has been ransacked and raped and the wildlife murdered by these evil bastards who have stupidity, apathy and greed as their guide, and I just want to scream!!

    Aside from all the souls, all the brothers and sisters that deeply care about these animals and our environment, there are many that don’t, that are oblivious.

    And while they eat their dinners, go about their business, watch ridiculous TV sitcoms, the animals in the sea and on the ground, will be suffering, a slow, horrible and torturous death.

    Sometimes I am ashamed to be a human!

  14. Paulyd

    It’s unreal. The corporations and their political robots that have co-opted our country from the top down just keep pumping out news cycle drivel to distract the populous from the terrible dismantling of our wonderful earth and its unique ecosystem.

    I am sorry for your personal loss as memories made in such a wonderful place replaced by scars that are no fault of your own are the hardest to understand. But we do understand the who and the how it is the why that you’ll question for eternity.


  15. rickg

    Great story Kathy and I too am glad you’re doing well. My wife and I have made several trips to the panhandle beaches in Florida. We live in the Daytona Beach area (by the way its not as rowdy as it used to be) but we love the beaches of St. George Island, Panama City, Mexico Beach, Cape San Blas, Deer Lake State Park, Destin, Ft. Walton Beach and Pensacola Beach. I fear the worst in this disaster. I have found myself perusing my photos of the aforementioned beaches this past week hoping that the oil won’t make it onto the pristine shores. This is a pathetic comment on our society and what it stands for.

  16. Merle from Michigan

    Wow Cathy! What a story. I can relate your Florida trips to the coast of North Carolina. (My plan was to go to the coast in September, but I told my significant other that we may have to go somewhere else because by September, the contamination will have devastated the Carolina coastline.) While reading your story, I had my own flashbacks of growing up and going to the coast of North Carolina and remembering how peaceful and serene things were. We would attend our family reunion in Enfield, NC the 3rd weekend in August, then about 5-6 car/minivan loads of folks would head southeast to Surf City, NC and rent 4-6 houses for a week of pure R&R. There is absolutely nothing like going to sleep by the sound of the ocean and waking up to the sound of the ocean. This will soon, most unfortunately, be just a sweet, forever-stored memory. Thanks for sharing. God it brought back memories. U & Mike continue to keep it lit.

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