There was a sign on the inside of the cabin door explaining that because the place was just run by the two of them and not the government that they would have to charge a supplement of $25 per hour (or part thereof) after eleven for people checking out late. As a precaution, I put my bag in the car when I went to meet Steve at six so that I was ready to go as soon as we returned from the swamp.
Steve had hooked up the trailer with the boat and was ready to leave on the dot. It ensured that we would be the first ones out and that would apparently mean more to see. Given that they had made it so clear that it was out-of-season for swamp tours, I assumed that it wouldn’t be too busy whatever time we set out but I was glad for the early start. I had a long slog ahead of me to get across the Florida panhandle and into Alabama today.
My first impressions had led me to believe that Steve was not ideally cut out to be a tour guide. Such folk usually need to be at ease with the spoken word, and Steve was a dedicated minimalist when it came to conversation. It appeared that he didn’t value precision either, if his first “spot” was anything to go by: “See that post there, well look left about twenty or thirty yards, see the alligator..?” It puzzled me immediately, given that the stretch of water we were in was only ten yards across. The animal turned out to be surfacing about six feet from the sign.
The swamp was surprisingly still and quiet. The water was jet black and gave a perfect mirror reflection of the view ahead. Even though it was the color of cold coffee, it was clean enough to drink due to its high acidity. Steve said that guides used always to dip in a glass and take a slurp but had been stopped now because traces of mercury were present from acid rain. I wasn’t enough of a wildlife enthusiast to get the most from the tour. Plants don’t generally excite me and any enthusiasm I could muster for lilies and cypress trees started to abate after the tenth consecutive mile of them. Likewise, the alligators. The first dozen or so were quite exciting, but after that it was hard to maintain the buzz. Steve turned out to be a nice enough bloke but his lackadaisical slur did little to pep the enthusiasm.
With the yellow-fly feasting on my ankles, I eagerly took the offer of heading back early. We’d been out on the swamp for two-and-a-half hours and I could see little benefit in another ninety minutes of the same. It might have been an area of intense ecological significance but, to the layman, Okefenokee basically amounts to 700 square miles of sub-tropical peat bog. And after you’ve seen one of those square miles, you’ve kind of seen them all. An early return would give me more breathing space for my day’s schedule and would also guarantee avoiding any late check-out penalties.
The road away from Okefenokee dropped south into Florida where pink diamond signs informed me that State Prisoners were at work on the highway. I picked up the Interstate and headed west. I had now done the whole of the east coast bar New England and was on to phase two. By eleven I had reached Tallahassee and was heading towards the coast. I had expected Florida to be crap, the American equivalent of Ibiza or Bali. I had expected to be overwhelmed by bronzed posers, packed beaches and drunken foreign tourists. Admittedly, I was sticking to the top portion of the state and hadn’t gone anywhere near the Walt Disney World bit, but it wasn’t like that at all. The shoreline from Lanark Village through to Carrabelle was more or less deserted save for the few residents of the stilted houses, under which you could see the water from the road. It was picture postcard stuff.
I reached Apalachicola at lunchtime and was immediately entranced. It was a hybrid of the south and the tropics, with antebellum homes set against a fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico. The broad highway that swept through the town was empty and, for once, parking couldn’t have been easier. The sun was beating down and obliged you to join in the sedate pace. I wandered around the shops and then found the place that I had come looking for: the Apalachicola Seafood Grill and Steakhouse, purveyors of the largest fried fish sandwich in the world.
I didn’t think I needed to look at the menu, but was glad that I did. It carried a warning that the kitchen took its time preparing all food from fresh and that if customers were in a hurry they should go to Burger King just around the corner. There was even a little map showing you how to get there. They also pointed out that Panama City was only 70 miles away and you could get all the fast food junk that you could possibly wish for there. The fish sandwich wasn’t really a sandwich at all. It was a plate piled high with fish with the top portion of a burger bun balanced on the top. After twenty minutes of solid wolfing down, I discovered the bottom portion of the bun under what had been the pile of fish. I’ve no idea what the fish was, but it sure was mighty tasty. I asked and was told “might be grouper, might be something else altogether…whatever they’ve caught today”.
I went for a stroll around the town and found some old trawlers in a harbor around the back and the now defunct Sponge Exchange (not cakes, but marine life). At one time, Apalachicola had been the Sponge Capital of the World. By three Eastern Time, and having worked off about 4 pounds in fluid from my walk, I was back in the car and taking the 70-mile drive along the coast to the fast food heaven of Panama City. With the pristine white sands of Mexico Beach came a switch into Central Time, affording me a much-needed extra hour for the day. The glories of the coast continued to enchant until I reached Callaway when the traffic coagulated and the Pigeon Forge drag hove into view. This was more of what I had expected Florida to be like. On the rare occasions that the numerous traffic lights seemed to turn in our favor, flip-flopped sun worshippers sauntering across the road prevented any progress.
What can only be described as a pimpmobile drew up alongside me. It was a well-polished deep burgundy, with gold wheel trim and opaque windows. It had “I’m the man, don’t mess with me” written all over it. My respect turned to surprise when it pulled away and I saw the Honda Accord badge on the back, signifying another example of the cultural divide: a car that was only fit for old farts in the UK being fine as cool wheels for a pussy and cocaine peddler in the US of A. I tried peering inside to see if the driver was wearing an old cardigan and perhaps open-toed sandals with plaid socks, but the glass was to dark for me to confirm one way or the other.
Foolishly I took the scenic diversion via Panama City Beach. There was little scenic about it, unless you enjoy 10 miles of looking at the back of the waterfront hotel chains that stretch endlessly along its length, but as Panama City receded so the road returned to its previously delightful self. The junction with US 331 turned me sharply north and I was rising over the spectacular bridge that spans Choctawhatchee bay. De Funiak Springs’ main claim to fame was that it contained the world’s only (of course) perfectly circular natural lake. It was about a half-a-mile across and it was impossible to evaluate from the ground whether it was perfectly circular, but it certainly seemed round enough to me. Either way, it was the only thing worth seeing in town and I was soon back on the Interstate after my Floridian backwater diversion.
The day felt like it had been going on for about a fortnight, but it was only 5.30 Central Time as I crossed the state line into Alabama. I had telephoned ahead and booked myself into a B&B called Away at the Bay in Fairhope. The woman who had answered the phone had certainly been away on the effervescence stakes. She urged me to get there by six as they were having a small reception on the lawn and there’d be lots of folks from the town who would just love to meet me. It looked like I was just going to make it. I pulled into town and stopped at a local store to get directions to my lodgings. It was a pretty little place, with several parades of smart boutiques and bedecked with floral arrangements. Even the municipal rubbish bins had blooms sprouting out the tops and sides.
The house overlooked Mobile Bay. It was an enormous family home with an additional four or five guest suites feeding on to the lawn atop a bluff that led down to the water. A private beach and pier awaited those who took the steep path down and the upper lawn was home to Bingo – and that was indeed his name-oh – a Jack Russell that was tethered by a fifteen yard rope to a pulley that ran along a washing line. It gave the dog a running domain about the size of a tennis court, with a hut and food bowl at one end and bushes for poop and pee at the other. The suite came complete with a jar of dog biscuits with which guests could indulge the little fellow.
The home was owned by Dr Joseph F Gravlee Jr and his wife Glenda. I knew this because the sitting room of my suite was decorated with various framed articles from medical journals highlighting Dr Gravlee’s world pioneering cataract surgical procedures. The diagrams and photographs were not for the weak-stomached. Mind you, I was already feeling slightly queezy before I even reached the room. Glenda had met me on the driveway, as if she’d been waiting for my arrival. She welcomed me and thrust a small white tub into my hand: “That’s there some dippin’ sauce for your claws. You know blue crab… we’ve been havin’ so much fun..!”
I took the pot from her and followed as she led me round to the waterside front of the house. A polystyrene box was outside my door and inside were three very alive and – from where I was standing – very pissed-off-looking crabs. Her son had caught them earlier today down by the shore and they thought I might like some for my tea. Apart from a snake in Beijing and a trout in Poland, I had never seen alive anything that I had subsequently eaten and on both those previous occasions I hadn’t had to do the killing myself. But I figured these people would have no truck with such woosiness – especially after I’d seen the close-up photography of scalpel piercing eyeball that passed for domestic decoration – so I smiled as appreciatively as I could manage.
Guests soon started arriving for the reception that was clearly being held on the bit of lawn in front of my lodgings. A big dump-bin full of ice and bottled beer was next to a table that had been set with a hotplate warming platters of barbequed chicken wings and ribs. The food looked rather sticky so I settled just for beer until I’d got the measure of the company. It was decidedly middle-aged and middle-classed. Everyone was wearing a name badge appended with the company they worked for; it turned out that the reception was somehow linked to the local Chamber of Commerce, a regular gathering of the community’s business gentlefolk to swap ideas and offer mutual support.
I was chatting to a woman called Mary who was originally from Portsmouth in England but had moved to Alabama with her American husband over ten years previously. She shared what must be an Anglo-Saxon view of the southern breakfast speciality of grits, describing it as “a waste of a clean plate”. Glenda came over and told me that I had to meet their mayor who had “heard all about me”. I was led over to where a portly distinguished gent was chatting affably with a rather non-descript, wispish man. I hovered for a moment before there was a break in the conversation and I had the chance to introduce myself.
“Hi, Kevin, I’m Joe Gravlee” the large man boomed as I stretched out my hand to shake his, “Let me introduce you to the Mayor of Fairhope”. He turned out to be a quiet but very warm man. His background wasn’t politics but horticulture. He had been brought to Fairhope by the previous mayor to spruce the place up and turn it into “the Carmel of the South”. He’d ended up doing such a good job with the flowers that the townsfolk had voted him into office at the very next election. Naturally. Who needs a background in local government when you’ve got green fingers?
I’d had a few beers by the time the party started to break up, so Glenda offered to drive me into town to a good night spot called Gambinos. I wished that she had waited while I took a look inside. It was a karaoke bar and burger joint. There was no table free to eat so I went in to witness some of the singing. I had once had an unfortunate experience at a karaoke bar in Minneapolis where I had got kind of plastered and sung “American Pie”, “Stand by your Man” and “Delilah” with full gusto and in quick succession, only to discover the following morning that some business associates whom I was meeting for the first time had been in the same bar. This episode had scarred me to the extent that I now had a Pavlovian aversion to these kinds of places. The singing was very good but after one more beer – or was it two? – I went outside and ordered a taxi.
When the cab arrived it was a stretch limousine and the driver had never heard of North Mobile Street. He explained that he only ever did rides back to Mobile or Pensacola or sometimes Biloxi. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t just driven myself if I were staying in Fairhope. Obviously the fact that I’d been drinking beer for five hours was neither here nor there. I managed to give him directions and when he dropped me off he said he had no idea what to charge me as he’d only taken me three miles. I gave him ten dollars and apologized profusely for bothering him with my custom.
The house was quiet as I snuck back to my door. As I fumbled with the lock my foot kicked something. I heard a scuttling rustle and looked down to see three freshly disturbed crabs in that box. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t know enough about crabs to be confident they could survive the night being out of water, or whether this might amount to an even crueller slower death for them. I went inside and with the help of my Dutch courage started to boil a vat of water as Glenda had instructed. Outside I found a child’s plastic bucket and spade. Using the spade, I flipped the first crab into the bubbling pot. It struggled momentarily before sinking.
The second proved testier, snapping its claw around the spade’s leading edge. I lifted, dangled and dipped and the claw loosened its grip. The last was the toughest of the lot. I chased it with the spade around the box for a number of minutes before finally trying to flick it out and into the water. It seemed to pirouette on the edge of the pan before falling outside. It was now on top of the stove and had clamped its claw around the hot ring beneath the pot. Perhaps its sinews had melted or something but it couldn’t be shifted with the spade. Summoning a courage I never knew I had, I grasped the body of the crab with my hand, wrenched it free and flung it in the pot.
Invigorated with shivering spasms down my spine that I was powerless to control, I danced Travolta-like around the room while making Neanderthal noises for the entire duration of the ten minutes it took for the crabs to cook to full pinkness. Satisfied that they were most definitely no longer of this world, I retired to a night of fitful sleep behind a locked bedroom door secure at least in the knowledge that I was definitely not built for survival in the wild.