Saturday, May 23, 2009

Visiting an Old Friend

In September of 2004, Hurricane Ivan swept through the area and wrecked a lot of lives. I and my folks were fortunate--just some shingles off the roof.

The most direct effect the storm had on me was that it demolished a few miles of winding asphalt road that ran like a backbone along Santa Rosa Island to end at Fort Pickens. My last drive out to this, my favorite place on Earth, was just a few days before Ivan blew in. The National Park Service scrambled to rebuild or repair the road in time for the 2005 tourist season.

On practically the first day of Hurricane Season 2005, Tropical Storm Arlene left her trailer park, cruised along the Gulf of Mexico in her ratty old 1984 Camaro, and threw a relatively small amount of water around...and washed out the damn road. The other storms of 2005 did their bit to wreck the road.

By October, the word was that Fort Pickens Road was in limbo. The National Park Service and Florida Department of Transportation wanted to study their options. The park was re-opened, but the only way to get to the Fort was a 7-mile hike with maybe 5 miles of good road and 2 miles of sand. In November of '06 I just couldn't take it anymore--and I determined to hike and bike my way to the fort.

The first mile and a half was easy. From there, for another mile and change, the road was washed away and the island itself looked like a river bottom. The sugar-white sands were mixed with tawny brown, and there were chunks of asphalt (from rice-grain to several feet across) that made it all look like a "cookies & cream" dessert. There were places where the road had been bent like toffee. And there was a 30-foot-high mountain of asphalt chunks and sand that was visible for miles: I dubbed it Mount Asphalt. This was the halfway point between the ends of the destroyed road.

I'll post the transcript of that original hike tonight or tomorrow--it's pretty long.

But I had those images in mind this morning. Fort Pickens Road officially reopened yesterday (5/22/09), just in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

And, ironically, just in time for the first sizable cyclone-type storm of the season. For several days, a weak system spiraled its way out of the Atlantic, dumping several inches of rain on Jacksonville and points south, then crawling over Central Florida to go into the Gulf. The center of rotation stayed offshore, roughly level with Tampa's latitude, and it kept going more or less West. Until this morning, when it decided it'd had enough swimming and made north for land. It came ashore somewhere along the Alabama-Mississippi border, and it brought us some 10 to 15 foot waves.

The road flooded. All those places that had been damaged or destroyed by storms in 2004 and 2005, all the areas where the island itself had been cut through from the Gulf to Pensacola Bay, all the places graded flat, are all the places that were under several feet of water.

So here's me, impatient to get to "my" fort, pissed off already because I managed to hit EVERY bleeding red light but 2 on the way out, pulling up at the entrance to the park to find it blocked.




I went down to the Gulf side of the island and took pictures of the rollers and combers smiting the shoreline. There were some gorgeous opportunities for shots of an advancing stormfront far to the southwest, out over the Gulf, and stretching north along one of the bands of that cyclone for as far as the eye could see.

I waited for 2 hours, went off to find lunch, came back...and now the roadblock was gone.

Road was still flooded, but only inches deep. Good idea to roll your windows up; I got drenched from my own bow wave before I could manage that. But I didn't care. The only thing that mattered was getting to the fort.

It's still there, of course, and still as lovely and brooding and majestic and wounded as ever. I didn't break down in tears of joy--but I did caress a wall occasionally, an irrational greeting as if to say, "Good to see you again, old friend."

Things are finally right in my little part of the world.


  1. I just wanted to say I'm glad you've got something good to write about. I was getting a little worried about the series of unhappy things you've been posting.

    The fort sounds like it's in a lovely area. The only fortification of any size near me that I occassionally visit is Presidio La Bahia near Goliad, a flat, deserty, dry, shadeless little spot whose claim to fame is a massacre of Anglo soldiers during the Texas Revolution. A nearby monestary (still active) is attached to the presidio, and that place is a fascinating museum in a much prettier setting. -- LR

  2. Most of the posts have little to do with my mood at the time--since I started this blog I've made a huge list of future ideas to scribble about, and if I'm feeling like writing something I'll look through that and pick one. OR something will trigger a memory, like Mother's Day did for "Saving Whitney" (which happened on Mother's Day).

    Yes, Pickens is in an almost paradisical setting: the nearest habitation is a mile and a half north, across the bay, aboard NAS Pensacola. When the tourists and their kids aren't making ghost noises in the place, all there is to hear is the waves, the wind, and the gulls. Very peaceful.

    The Presidio sounds like such a place (substitute appropriate geography/weather/bird).