October 2, 2012
Donna brought us our last coffee which we sipped slowly in the melancholic awareness of the transitory nature of time, feeling wistful about life’s comings and goings, beginnings and endings.
Donna blessed us, saying she would pray for us and our safety, opening a conversation on the value of prayer. She says she is religious in a quiet way, and thinks that in the end – when we are held accountable for our deeds – it’s the trail we leave behind and our interactions with others that will shape and determine the future of our hereafter.
Leaving Mexico Beach, we traversed the Tyndall Air Force Base on narrow roads built in the 1930’s – pot-holed, bumpy, and lacking shoulders – under the threatening, droning sound of young pilots playing games in the air overhead, turning somersaults and sideways loops, flying straight up into the sky and dive bombing towards the ground, pulling their planes back up only at the last possible moment.
Grateful to leave the base behind, we found ourselves in amongst a stream of logging trucks delivering pine trees to a paper mill – littering the road with bark, twigs, branches and pine needles in the process. The area around Panama City is dominated by the paper plant, the heavy traffic of delivery trucks, the trees stacked and kept damp by gigantic sprinklers, the oversized vehicles stripping bark off trees and lifting them towards chippers and crushers which fabricate ever smaller bits and pieces of wood; the smoke escaping the pressure cooker through old style chimneys reminiscent of the 1940’s billowing and spreading the distinctive odor of paper-making into the air for miles around. On Trip advisor, lively discussions are held about whether the smell of the paper mill is too horrible to vacation or live in Panama City – which most people agree – it is not. A mixture of chemicals used to separate the fibers and break it into pulp, and bleaches to brighten it, escape with the steam from rolling and drying the pulp, mixing with the other odors and complicating the thick, all-pervading industrial perfume. Trucks, tidier than the loggers, exit with the finished product, distributing it to the great beyond.
This part of the journey was an obstacle course, calling on our dexterity and concentration to dodge the debris on the road while staying clear of the heavy trucks.
Having skipped breakfast, we took an early break at a small crowded Italian place, run by a New Yorker and her Italian husband. The Air Force base provides a regular stream of young customers, and although it’s non-stop work, the Pizzeria is successful enough to feed their family.
Crossing the Hathaway Bridge into Panama Beach, we were confronted by an equally ugly but flourishing strip of high rise hotels, minigolf courses, fast food joints and scooter and car rentals. A smaller version of Myrtle Beach North. The reason the businesses in Panama City no longer prosper is that the affluent customers now shop and live on this side of the bridge.
We stopped twice to price car rentals. Avis was too costly, Enterprise reasonable but lacked available cars. So we continued. At Walmart we stocked up on provisions and bought tire patches and safety vests, in case we get caught out on the road after dark.
Shortly before sundown, exhausted by riding for hours against the fiercest head winds we’ve yet encountered, we were charmed by a European- looking village, cobble stone roads and side walks, lined with Swiss and German style houses, just as a group of bicyclists from Tennessee finished riding five hundred miles in five days.
A hand-painted banner hung across the street to welcome them, while the crowds on the sidewalks cheered and clapped as we rode into town with them. Taking for granted that we were part of this illustrious group, we were welcomed like heroes with high fives and hand shakes, introductions and questions about our tour.
Advised by the locals to stay in the Pension, I envisioned myself, freshly showered and attired in a light summer dress and my new heels, sipping a glass of white wine at one of the elegant places in town. . .
My dream of staying in Rosemary Beach – way too exclusive for our budget – was over quickly, so we pressed on to the state park, slipping on the new security vests to increase our visibility in the fading light.
After setting up our tent in the dark, we went off to shower. On returning we found our dinner, crackers and guacamole, scattered on the ground, although Christof had taken the precaution of hanging up our food bag on the laundry line. The culprit – a greedy raccoon – stood a few paces away on a wooded pathway, waiting for an opportune moment to continue what we had interrupted. With Jim’s stories fresh in mind, of squirrels and raccoons in Florida chewing holes in bags and tents to get at food, we lost our appetite, and after cleaning up the mess on the ground, hung the remaining food on a hook in the bath house, before retiring to bed without supper.