The house wine was half off at Patches Pub, and it was Thursday. We were basically in weekend territory when we perched ourselves at a high top table and settled in for an afternoon of work. The Merle Haggard cover band was in full swing, and two carafes of house Pinot Grigio were quite enough for me to saunter up to the lead singer, a cherub retiree in a straw hat and faded Hawaiian shirt, and ask if knew any Billy Joel.
It was then that I knew. We needed to get the h**l out of Panama City, Fla.
I’ll admit that we were not looking forward to Florida. We’d both visited in various capacities for work or fun or Disney World (hey, it’s a right of passage). What we’d seen of Orlando, Miami and Orlando, specifically, did not excite us. Florida was basically what I’d deemed as the South’s answer to Las Vegas, and I hate Las Vegas. And Panama City, specifically, was precisely the kind of place I could recall sorority girls on campus squealing about, always adding “isn’t that the place where they had the MTV Beach House?!”
We stayed at St. Andrews State Park, a place that lands on the top 10 beaches in America list all the time, and rightfully so. In the campground, the pads are heavily lined with palm trees and wooded patches that play home to dwarf-like deer. We parked Elsie in a crowded patch of spirited campers the first night. The neighbors were almost instantly friendly, and very interested in Elsie, in Costello and our trip (we’d forgotten about the huge sticker we have on the back promo’ing our web site).
After a twirl around the park the next morning, we saw some pretty cushy ocean-facing sites — we can be kind of vain when it comes to views. We moved the next morning to a site inhabited by a big blue heron on the water, and we were home.
The longer we stayed at St. Andrews, the greater we felt the complications and worries of the road lifting. We walked the sandy beaches, pocked with women and men digging for pristine shells in the sand banks; we biked the perimeter of the park, stopping to wander the path at Gator Lake (there were no gators — its hibernation season); we purchased cheesy Florida souvenirs at the “Everything is A Dollar” store. We even went to the local watering hole, Patches Pub, for the BBQ chicken pizza. So when we found ourselves at Patches yet again that Thursday, we were genuinely sad to be leaving. Sure, it wasn’t hot enough to swim at the beach yet and we had a hard time finding a place with internet that wasn’t Panera, but something made this place feel special and safe.
Then it hit me: we’d been surrounded by snow birds and retirees for the past week.
In fact, I don’t think we ran into but a handful of wait staff and campers within 20 years of our age group. We’d come to Panama City in late February and early March, just before spring break season was set to begin. It was all abuzz in the city, and you could see businesses shaping up, switching out the Grey Goose for the Barton’s Vodka. There was even a lively debate going on in the city: this season would be the first that the city banned alcohol of any kind on the beaches. An effort to cut down on the hooliganism inherent with hoards of blindly drunk college kids.
As we pulled out of the park on Friday, we understood the appeal. Panama City was in fact a magical place; you just had to find the right timing and the right crowd. Ours turns out to be 60+. We’ll make great snow birds someday.
Our tour of Florida wouldn’t be complete without a little drama. We learned a big lesson: BOOK THE WEEKEND. Weekends are hell for finding camp sites because they tend to fill up fast with locals looking to get a little outdoors time. We forgot to inquire about spots until Thursday evening, in a post-Patches stupor. We scrambled on Reserve America, the major reservation site for most state parks, including all of the SP’s in Florida, and entered the weekend dates. Nothing returned. There were zero camp sites available in the entire state of Florida, save for a few spots in the Keys, a days drive and serious gas money away.
We went through our Facebook rolodex for anyone living in Florida, and one entry returned. Margo Brown, a classmate from my high school who was a good 4 to 5 years my senior. Which meant that the last time we would have actually known each other, I would have been a 13-year-old 8th grader dreaming about when I’d get my driver’s license and whether or not my mom would let me dye my hair blond next year. My most notable memory of Margo was that she drove this old sweet-pea colored BMW that I adored. I reached out on Facebook to see if she could accommodate a teenager turned adult from her past for a weekend in her driveway in St. Augustine. She did not even hesitate to offer to help, told us to drive her way and that she’d figure it out. Turns out she arranged for us to stay in the driveway of her friends, Scott and Erin. They greeted us late Friday evening with wine and good conversation. We met their two cute corgis, they plugged us in to the same outlet as their porch lights. We were home, again.
St. Augustine is a place we wished we’d had more time to explore. It hit us by surprise just how much we liked the charm of the old streets, the grandeur of Flagler College. We went to the local Farmer’s Market on Saturday and snacked on strawberries and kettle corn; Carson visited the bungalow where writer Sinclair Lewis penned Main Street; and we toured the the streets and shops of downtown St. Augustine all afternoon. Costello caused at least 500 tourists to stop and stare and gawk. We lunched at the local hot spot Crave and caught the last tour of the day at St. Augustine Distillery, where we enjoyed our first Florida Mule. As we waved goodbye to our friendly hosts, we were still sad to leave.
Florida really did a number on us. I don’t know how our psyches will be able to reconcile that the same state that produces convention centers and chain restaurants is also home to such sweet pockets of people and nature and character. I guess this is why people travel, right?