Pensacola, Florida, USA
It was too early— in the season and in the morning— to go to the beach. But I was in Pensacola on a blindingly sunny day with six hours to kill, so I headed over the bridge to Santa Rosa Island for some pre-season sunbathing and breakfast.
I belatedly had the last laugh at the car rental guy who tried to sell me an unlimited toll pass for $9 a day. The toll to cross into Pensacola Beach was $1. I spent my other $8 on eggs and grits at the Native Cafe.
On the advice of the waitress, I drove east along the island for a few miles; Away from the crowded party beaches around the Holiday Inn resort and out into a suburb of empty beach houses. The island is so narrow to the north and south that the flour-y white sand blows in from the beach and piles alongside the roads like recently plowed snow. Keep driving east and the villas peter out until the entire island is nothing but sand and underbrush. I eventually returned to ditch the car in front of a house because I was worried my wheels would just sink if I pulled off the highway in the middle of nowhere.
Sinking is what Florida does. Flat, marshy, and exposed on all sides to rising ocean, it’s a place that reminds us how much maintenance, vigilance and money it takes to sustain modern conditions of life. The Pensacola area is arguably the oldest European settlement in the mainland United States, and it still has visible traces of Spanish architecture and cultural influence. But the subtropical climate reclaims things quickly and it’s easy to imagine the remains of Spanish, French and Native American treasures sitting in some swamp, shrouded in hanging moss and guarded by grinning gators with beady eyes.
Which brings me to Fort Pickens, the other main attraction on Santa Rosa Island. Built after the War of 1812, used in the Civil War as a minor Confederate base, then modified for WWI, and then abandoned, it too has become an overgrown ruin with ceilings that leak whether or not it’s raining. It’s well maintained as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore park, but they’ve let it mesh with the landscape, breaking up the white-green-blue of the Florida Gulf Coast with the odd slab of grey concrete and rusted iron.
What captured my heart about the Pensacola area is not just the distant past, but its fairly recent history. 50’s and 60’s nostalgia is everywhere from the cream colored concrete hotel blocs to the retro signage dotting the main roads. For my postcard this week I hand-traced the lettering from the iconic Pensacola Beach sign in Gulf Breeze that points drivers over the bridge to the beach. It is a magnificently kitsch slab of hand-lettered metal and the world would be a better place if someone made it into a font.