Crossing Florida

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From Sarasota a seventeen-hour voyage on the Gulf of Mexico brought us to what had been promised to be “a tiny fishing village and artist’s colony” unknown to the bigger cruise ships. And with good reason. I’ll protect its name, but let’s just say we were all expecting the Gulf version of Carmel or Bar Harbor. Instead we found a lightly populated community with few streets and boarded-up stores. The stop was necessary, a crew member said, since that was about as far as the New Shoreham II could travel without a refueling break.

Next morning the ship pushed inland on the Intracoastal Waterway, moving into what Capt. Bob Gifford promised would be the most remote country we’d see on this trip. As we cruised into Wimico Lake, it grew darkly cloudy and rain threatened for the first time all week. The channel turned the color of mud, and a pair of bald eagles soared overhead. “There’s only one road in here for some miles,” the captain said. Even so, this moodily appealing swampland isn’t really being left alone; much of the land belongs to a huge paper company that works it to produce “trash wood” products, such as veneer.

My journey ended the following day in Panama City, an agreeable surprise, since in its rare mentions in guidebooks, it’s usually coupled dismissively with the “redneck Riviera” ten miles distant, Panama City Beach. The ship’s crew knew only that there was a good place to do laundry in town. The area was settled by Englishmen of pre-Revolutionary times who planted fields of indigo and brought rosemary from the home country that still thrives on the beach’s dunes. The classic Florida promoters didn’t appear until the early 1900s, when a local landowner and soon-to-be mayor, R. L. MacKenzie, persuaded J. B. Steele of Atlanta to use the fledgling town on St. Andrew Bay as the terminus of his new railroad. Mr. Steele supposedly glanced at the map and said, “I want this to be Atlanta’s outlet to the Panama Canal.” The name stuck, but these days it is mostly military installations and a paper mill that keeps the town going.

MacKenzie’s home and office, a Dutch-colonial frame building, “typical of northern Michigan,” as a nearby marker describes it, sits on a beautiful little square in the center of town. With a central fountain, huge old live oaks hung with Spanish moss, an airy gazebo, and the music of crickets in the dusk, this spot exudes a real sense of the past. Later a chat with Glen Connally, of the local improvement association, reveals that although MacKenzie Park had occupied this land even before the town was incorporated, it had fallen into decay and only recently was renovated by community volunteers.

This example seems to have gone some distance toward re-animating the rest of downtown. The local arts center is housed in the ornate former city hall and jail, and the Art Deco movie theater has made a comeback as a concert hall. An up-to-date library, gleaming with computers and busy with patrons, stays open several nights until eight—better than New York City manages to do these days.

Among the New Shoreham II ’s passengers was a Tampa woman whose grandparents had homesteaded in the Panhandle, not far from our route, around 1900. “You’ve seen it all, the rich and the poor,” her husband said to me one afternoon as we stood out on deck, caught up in the mood of a particularly narrow, dark stretch of river, where the trees from opposite banks stretched toward each other. “And,” another passenger added, “the desolate.” But we all knew she meant it in the best possible way.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP