The Redneck Riviera
by bj max
Memphis, Tennessee; Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll, sits in the extreme southwest corner of Tennessee, with its suburbs spilling over into Mississippi. It is jokingly referred to as Mississippi’s largest city. The state line is just a few miles from our home, and on a beautiful spring morning the sun, peeping over the horizon, caught my wife and I fudging on the seventy MPH speed limit as we blew past the “Welcome to the Magnolia State” sign.
Mississippi smells good, too. I-55 south is lined with pine, mimosa and magnolia trees all wrapped in honeysuckle and lilac, and the aroma on a damp spring morning almost takes your breath away. There’s not much traffic on this stretch of I-55 and man’s encroachment on the land is not as evident as on other systems. It’s like a high-speed version of the Natchez Trace. Be careful south of Grenada though. Deer are as common as rabbits and can be seen in small herds grazing in the meadows alongside the highway.
Sugar Booger and I are on a two-day jaunt to Florida for no particular reason other than the love of riding a motorcycle. With the remains of a week’s vacation on our hands and nothing better to do, we packed a small bag, jumped on the bike and struck out for the Gulf Coast. Exiting the Interstate at Vaiden, one hundred twenty five miles south of Memphis, we cut through the woods via Highway 35 and 15, then intersect with US 98 below Hattisburg and race for the Alabama line. In Mobil, we merge with I-10 and get swallowed up by the tunnel that runs under Mobil Bay.
I have a fear of riding through holes in the ground that run under bodies of water. It probably stems from one of those old movie serials I saw as a kid. I think it was chapter eleven of Batman when he and Robin found themselves in a tunnel similar to the one that runs under Mobil Bay. The villain, ever the opportunist, dynamited the tunnel and I will never forget the horrifying sight of this giant wall of water thundering around a bend, hot on the heels of my heroes. Holy Hydrophobia Batman. I’m still haunted by the vision of that wall of water and usually ride through such tunnels at speeds that send those flashing yellow “You are going too fast” signs into a fuse frying frenzy.
Exiting the tunnel, we found ourselves covered by the sixteen inch guns of the mighty USS Alabama. De-commissioned now, this relic from the past is the center piece of Battleship Park. Docked alongside is a claustrophobic WWII submarine with several vintage military aircraft guarding the display, including a massive B-52 with it’s vertical five story tail section.
We crossed the Florida line around four o’clock, and were soon weaving our way into the heart of downtown Pensacola. After checking in at the La Quinta Inn and showering away a couple of pounds of sun blocker and road grime, we strolled to the nearest restaurant and had a quiet dinner. The cool and dimly lit interior combined with a glass of White Zin was a healing mixture, soothing aching muscles and comforting our tired eyes.
Next morning at dawn, we were up and raring to go. Ain’t it wonderful how the human body can bounce back, completely rejuvenating itself with just a few hours sleep. After the breakfast bar at Shoney’s, we were soon rolling east on I-10. And it was hot.
At exit 12, we roll south on state route 85 through Valparaiso and into the Ft. Walton/Destin area. Blue collar workers from Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama flock to these beaches every summer and it is affectionately referred to as the Redneck Riviera, but known officially as the Emerald Coast. It’s popularity is all too evident as we ride the next sixty miles in a miserable stop and go parade past water parks, video arcades, hot dog stands and tee shirt vendors. The heat shimmering off a million cars and a thousand square miles of concrete was almost unbearable as we dog walked the bike through an endless succession of stop lights, and breathed enough exhaust fumes to last a lifetime.
Finally, after clearing Panama City and crossing East Bay, we leave the congestion behind. Pulling off the road, we park under the shade of a moss-draped oak and chug-a-lug bottled water. Your tax dollars are at work nearby and we are appreciative, enjoying the repetitious splashing of an Air Force sprinkler. Across the road, fighter pilots from Tyndall Air Force Base entertain us, hot rodding their F-16’s in near-vertical takeoffs. For fun, we calculate how many motorcycles could be worn out with the fuel consumed on just one of those fiery lift off’s.
Break over, we head on down the Emerald Coast. Inspired by the jets, I crank on full military power and in no time at all we are cruising through the little town of Mexico Beach. The highway runs alongside the coast here, and the sea breeze feels like the Old Master flipped on a hidden air conditioner. The beaches are beautifully deserted and there is nary a sign of Mickey and not a water park ‘nor alligator pit to be found.
Further down the road in Port St. Joe, the St. Joe Paper mill dominates the skyline and its unpleasant aroma dominates the atmosphere. Breaking off highway 98 onto C30A, we head for Cape San Blas. This narrow spit of land juts west into the Gulf for a couple of miles then turns back north. Riding along, blabbing and pointing ,with the Gulf on our left and St. Joseph Bay on the right we go sailing around a bend and without warning, the pavement disappears. I grab and stomp as the overloaded Wing plows into a sand trap that would have intimidated Tiger Woods. I wobble the next quarter mile from one patch of scraggly asphalt to another, finally working the bike onto solid pavement. Through it all, Sugar Booger never uttered a sound. The mark of a faithful companion, or simply a terrified passenger?
We headed on up the peninsula, admiring the beach houses scattered among the dunes. The thermometer is in a steady climb and the blazing sun fires the white hot sand like a forge sending the heat index soaring into triple digits.
There’s supposed to be a lighthouse out here somewhere, but we can’t find it so we pull into Captain Jack’s Trading Post and Tee-shirt Emporium. With the clattering hum of an overworked air conditioner straining in the background, we guzzle Gatorade and quiz the lady behind the counter. “Yeah, there was a lighthouse, but a hurricane blew it down. The same one that scoured away the pavement back down the road.” she said. “All that’s left is the dome and it was hauled off to town and mounted on stilts. Taint’ worth seeing.” she advises. We thank her, buy souvenirs for the kids, brace ourselves and step back out into the furnace.
Back on Highway 98, we roll on down the coast to Apalachicola, a sleeping little fishing village famous for it’s oysters and Dr. John Gorrie, who pioneered air conditioning way back in 1847. This was a major cotton exporting port during the War of Northern Aggression. Thousands of bales of cotton were loaded onto Confederate blockade runners bound for Europe, raising much needed cash for Uncle Jeff’s war machine that was slowly being decimated by the mighty armies of Sherman (pa-tooie) and Grant.
We cross the Gorrie Bridge and cruise down the shore, enjoying the cool sea breeze blowing in from St. George Sound. Arriving in the little hamlet of Carrabelle around six, we check into the Moorings, a Marina/Motel; luck out and get a mini condo with a patio that overlooks the marina. It’s the off season and the rates are dirt cheap.
After cold showers and sub sandwiches, we wind down on the patio and enjoy a little taste of how the rich folks live. We linger in the dusk, nursing wine coolers, while watching the seabirds dip and dart amongst the gently rocking masts, and quietly discuss our day. The wine worked its magic, melting away fatigue, and reluctantly we say goodnight to a full moon and hit the hay. In minutes, we are cradled in the arms of Morpheus, as content as a box full of sleeping puppies.
From Mexico Beach to Carrabelle there is a Florida that is amazingly untouched by the tourism industry. Miles and Miles of sugar white beaches with hardly a footprint to mar their beauty; much like Ponce De Leon found them five hundred years ago. If lounging on a deserted beach strikes your fancy, the Emerald Coast just might be your Shangri-La. Better hurry though, ‘cause the land grabbers never sleep.