In the Shadow of the Beach October 7, 2013Posted by Mark Folse in The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Alabama, beach, Orange Beach, The Original Romar House
The Rosemarie Dunes trailhead is right on the shore highway of Orange Beach, Alabama.. The most striking view isn’t the loblolly pines or yucca and grass undergrowth but a towering condominium. You have to ride until tree-bearing high land behind the dunes can hide the monstrosities that have become for most tourists their vision of the beach, a slice of high-rise life rising a dozen or more stories built on foundations of sand and lifted into the air by balloons of boosterism.
On both sides of the trail are visions of tall dead things, the gray tree trunks Orleanians will recognize from drives in and out I-10 across the spillway. Everywhere in sight of the beach towers are trees that did not survive the flooding or salt spray, and resilient more resilient pines shorn of all their lower branches as if by the clippers of a bonsai artist. On the day I arrived at the Romar Guest House, a carefully preserved specimen of the pre-high-rise shore, Tropical Storm Karen formed at the mouth of the Gulf of Campeche and took more or less direct aim at Orange Beach. On my first ride into Gulf Shores Park I was reminded how far storm surge or salt spray can reach, far past my ground-level room less than 200 feet from the high tide line.
Orange Beach is thankfully a gap-toothed work in progress, with private cottages both weathered and ancient and extravagantly new, a declaration of the wealth to be made shuttling tourists to their breath-taking room views by elevator. The Romar Guest House’s deck is nestled in the afternoon shadow of that high-rise but has a clear view of the beach, and a stretch of several hundred yards to the east with one nouveau beach mansion next door and a line of older beach houses. That land is owned by an association of ten people, and my gracious hosts Greg and Deb assure me the chances of getting ten people to agree on anything are slim. They think that land safe from development but I’ve seen Destin’s endless parade of highrises as I crept through Saturday night traffic. It’s not efficient to recycle glass–which is basically melted sand–but there are hordes of people who have figured out how to transmute sand into concrete and then into gold, so I’m not so sure.
I take solace in October and what amounts for me to a private beach, and in my daily rides down the Rosemaire Dunes trail. Once past the views of condos and hotels it’s easy to get lost in the loblolly and slash pine and wiregrass, to catalog with my camera unfamiliar flowering plants and a peculiar thing which looks like it belongs underwater and grows in great profusion in certain spots along the trail. With my limited knowledge I think some sort of wort, but I can`t seem to find a matching pictures of the dozens of varieties native to Alabama. I peer out into the bogs looking for alligators. At the stretch signed “alligator habitat” and fenced in wire there is a bridge with a Do Not Feed the Alligators sign and there it is, a good-sized specimen basking exactly where most convenient. I’m tempted to toss a coin at him to see if he is real but I can see his eyes follow me as I maneuver for a good picture. Further on there are isolated patches of cactus and I wonder if these are native or perhaps storm-planted refugees from someone’s home garden.
The trail is busier than the beach but on a beautiful weekday not much more so. Intent cyclists pass me on narrow-rimmed alloy racers and recumbent bikes but they are counting miles not flowers. The one inescapable reminder of where I am are the regularly spaced benches with the donors names burned into them: the Michigan Snow Birds Club sticks in my mind among the memorials and Rotary clubs, but I am here in the peculiar season between the sun worshipers and the snow birds, breezy days of low eighties and scattered cumulus with the children all in school and the parents busy working to save up for next year’s condo week
At trails’ end I am deposited back onto a busy highway. The bike path ends to my left, leaving me to huddle on the shoulder until I reach a shopping center accessible by a wooden bridge over a pond filled with lilies. As I make my way past CVS and Holiday Inn Express, before I reach the imposing row of relentlessly identical Phoenix condo towers in their endless Roman numeral variations, I pass a few reminders of the pink and aqua stucco motel beach of childhood memories. Souvenir City raises its high pink roof promising endless shelves of conch and dried starfish and ships in a bottle. I hesitate for a moment but resist the temptation to redo my apartment in retro beach chic. I don’t have enough room for the things I already have. A Flora-Bama t-shirt complete with hangover and sunburn more pink than any shell I might buy will be my souvenirs. Just before I reach the condo cliffs I pass an older cottage with a yard filled with tropically colored aging single-wides nestled on crushed shell. The past is not completely erased here as it is in Florida. The conquistadores came to Florida seeking gold and eternal youth. They arrived a few centuries too early for the gold and after sizing up the glittery examples of eternal youth in the Flora-Bama as dance partners, I settled for leaning on a railing sipping a Red Stripe, making chit-chat with my neighbors. Eternal youth, with the best potions and surgeons available, is not all that attractive a proposition in acid washed jeans and sequined tops.
I leave early with my shirt and head back down Perdido Beach Boulevard, stopping at the Waffle House for breakfast and flirting with the bored waitresses who for once seem genuinely interested in the attention. I am the only customer they have seen for hours. Back at the Romar House I am no longer the only guest but at 56 still the youngest and the rest retreated to their rooms hours ago. I pour out a glass of Meyers and step out onto the deck to listen to the surf in the idle solitude I have enjoyed for days, glad to know I have found one outpost of the old beach just down the road from the faded tropical trailers and Souvenir City. There is hope for Orange Beach yet.