The far western edge of the Florida panhandle takes a distinctly different approach to development than I have seen up to this point. In an attempt to recreate what I think is an “Old Florida” feel, the developers basically create complete small towns, including town squares, service alleys, common architecture on narrow streets with broad sidewalks — basically little Mayberries on the coastline. It actually works rather well. The building heights are modest –may be 4 or 5 stories is what they consider high rise — and the use of HWY 30A as sort of the driveway to all of them slows everything down and makes for a mellow vibe. A good friend generously provided me access to his place around Alys Beach, which meant awesome views, a place to do laundry, and the ballgame on high definition. This is an edge I could get used to.
Further west, once you get to the Destin/Fort Walton/Pensacola area, the landscape gets a bit more vertical and commercial. Mayberry kind of gives way to Vegas with a not quite as good a paint job. Once I crossed into Alabama, I went through Foley over to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, up and around and under the tunnel to Spring Hill.
Here’s an exercise: call up the parents of friend. People you haven’t seen in 30 years. Tell them you are wandering around and wondered if you could stop by. See what happens. What happened to me was among the warmest experiences of old school hospitality I could ever imagine. After a wonderful time of catching up and covering all the intervening joys and tragedies, I was treated to fresh oysters and fish at the bar in the kitchen, and a level of convivial conversation that, sadly, I’m afraid todays’ screen grabbing, updating instagrammers don’t understand. I’m not knocking social media, I’m merely pointing out the importance of the “social” part of the moniker. We had a blast — we tasted bourbon, we told stories, and we came together around the common notion that friendship persists across time and space and absence. The meal was expertly prepared by The Captain. Capital T, capital C. And he was to be my guide into the Mobile Tensaw River Delta (MTRD) today.
I want to tell you all about the MTRD, but I’m not qualified to get it all correct. I want you to do this — post this into your browser and watch the entire thing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEynUn8VW3Y&feature. If that doesn’t work, go to YouTube and search “America’s Amazon” and watch it that way. There is advocacy in this documentary for making MTRD a National Park, and I am neither endorsing nor rejecting that notion. What’s important is that I believe the documentary gives you a good idea of just how special this place is. And what you see in the documentary, I got to see first hand today.
The Captain has been coming into the MTRD since he could walk, basically. And his father and grandfather before him did the same. That sort of knowledge, experience and stewardship brings with it a sense of a place that defies everything from science to politics to fundraising. Three generations of living in a place, and taking care of a place, creates a legacy of judgment that has to be heard. That has to be honored. A lot of scientists and a lot of politicians and a lot of do-gooders will tell you what we should do about a particular place, but three generations of stewards will show you how to do it.
The MTRD is changing, a lot. And it has changed a lot in the past. What is changing it and why it is changing, quickly grows so complex that arguments naturally form. What is too often not heard, are the voices of those who have been here all along. Caring and trying, warning and soothing, asking and doing, in these special places throughout the country. I talked about it on the Chesapeake and in other areas I have visited along the edge. The people who are in the place — who have been in the place — have the best and fullest sense of what is what and why is why. They don’t panic. They don’t react to short term issues. They dwell on generations of experience and guide with a steady hand. We should listen to them.
The edge has many special places. It has challenges and failures and glories. But on the south edge of all the water that enters Alabama, it has the MTRD. The most diverse ecology in North America. America’s Amazon. And we need to know that. And we need to value that. And we need to treasure the stewards who have, for generations, called it home.
This is my last night on the edge trek. I eased away from the MTRD and made it to the south coast of Mississippi before dark. US Hwy 90 hewed tight to the shores of the gulf from Pascagoula west, peacefully shimmering into an iron gray storm on the horizon. Tomorrow morning, my edge trek journey will end. I will arrive at the end of the road, south of Venice, Louisiana where it all began. I will make the lap. Tonight, I’m toasting my last night on the edge trek with a 12 year old bourbon, thanking my lucky stars and the creator of the edge itself, for the chance to see this. To go and search and listen and find. To be on the edge.
See you tomorrow.