APPROXIMATELY 40 MILES EAST of Panama City, Florida there exists a special place. Geographically close to other areas of the Florida shoreline known affectionately by some as the “Emerald Coast” (and not so affectionately by others as the “Redneck Riviera”), this area remains separate and distinct. The beaches are not as expansive, the water not as clear, but the natural soul of a state more often bought and sold, remains here. This is Real Florida, as they say. This is the Forgotten Coast.
Though some locals might argue the exact boundaries of this place, the 100 mile stretch along US-98 beginning at Mexico Beach and ending at St. Marks, is a general and approximate definition. Strangely enough, what is more distinct than a numerical configuration on a map is the feel of this place, the sense of it in the air. Driving east from Panama City along 98, the beach resorts turn into more modest things on stilts, or more often than not, no development at all. Outside of Tyndall Air Force Base, the acres of planted, neatly rowed forests of longleaf pines impossibly tall and thin give way to more verdant places, perhaps never cut by men. There is less overt wealth here, less flash, less bluster.
Few and rare are the places in the United States where the natural world still casts its spell. Fewer still are such places east of the Mississippi. I have a thesis, and it arose in my head the minute I crossed the bridge spanning the Ochlockonee (o-klock-nee) River as it enters the estuary of Ochlockonee Bay, widens, and joins the Gulf. The water here is tannic and dark. The river is brown, organic—full of the stuff of life. Its shores are only dotted with sporadic houses and small tracts of private acreage. These are dwarfed by much larger stretches of protected land. Seeing the river, its dark water, my thesis was born—there came a sense that the natural and the human, the “unnatural,” are balanced here. If extant, this is a rare and precious equilibrium.
Over the next couple of weeks this series will explore this special place as I myself do. I’ll talk to people, get to know them. I’ll hike the trails, canoe the rivers and walk the beaches. I’ll investigate this thesis and the larger question, inevitably arising. Is it possible that such things are more than just temporary aberrations, anomalies in the worldwide trend toward homogenization, steel and concrete? Is it possible for such a place to retain its natural soul?
Join me on this journey through a “forgotten place” and discover the answers as I do. Feel free to subscribe here via email or follow me on TWITTER so you don’t miss anything, and of course, comments and discussion are always welcome!
Will Burcher is a former police officer and current author of “The GAIAD,” a story of ancient secrets not quite forgotten and the positive power of global perspective. He lives and works in Colorado, USA.
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