Tuesday, June 18, 2019 to Thursday, June 20 ~ AL-FL (315 miles)
Birmingham, AL; Mobile, AL; Pensacola, FL
If you pay attention to my route, you might ask why I drove 60 miles out of the way to Mobile, AL instead of cutting south on the direct route of Hwy 113/29. And the answer is simple: there is no Florida Welcome Center along that route and therefore no official Florida state map. Mom was determined to collect a state map from every welcome center as a souvenir. Also, the way we always and forever entered Florida was through Mobile, so for the sake of upholding tradition, sacrifices must be made.
Arriving in Pensacola, at exit 1a we are greeted by a water tower emblazoned with the words ‘Cradle of Naval Aviation’. Then Pensacola Bay appears in the distance. The fury of the highway subsides and we enter the city. A quiet I cannot explain settles over me, like returning home after a long journey. Here is no flash, no hype of other seaside communities. It is a town of just over 50,000 with a clear purpose: train naval aviators. Dad was stationed here and flew here and fell in love with it. My childhood is filled with memories of our visits. My parents intended to retire here.
That all ended with his death in 1985.
I did not make hotel reservations, an insane choice in high tourist season. With my mother’s health a factor, I was not sure if or when we would arrive in Florida. The area is 97% booked but again by serendipity, I got on my phone and somehow managed to reserve a 6th floor bay view room at the Pensacola Grand Hotel. Hooray for the internet!
Our goal is to visit Santa Rosa Island.
When mom first started coming to Florida, the whole island was nothing but a white sand beach and a road. Now it is full of condos and hotels except for the part that is protected by the Gulf Islands National Seashore. There are plenty of tourists, but we stay on the mainland, in the historic district. We are not beach bums with a beer cooler, suntan lotion, and loud music in an open-air jeep. We are interested in the nature preserve, historic monument, and some quiet contemplation while walking on the white sand.
We also have beer in the cooler but that’s beside the point.
I wonder about moving here, to one of the small cottages in town with the lazy cats on the sidewalk. Like everywhere, living would be different than visiting, particularly during hurricane season. But to be able to cycle to the beach on the weekends? Holy shit!
Truthfully, I love the ocean, but I am not possessed by it in a way other people are. Most visitors to the beach are tan and windswept. They don’t match the sand like mom and me. It is just the natural recreation area available for locals. It’s a fun place to take the kids, to wear them out. To not be at home or at work, to have a minute with your spouse.
Beats the crap out of Lake Nokomis (sorry Minneapolis).
I drove I-65 south out of Birmingham, I-165 through Mobile, I-10 east, then I-110 to Pensacola
Here are some highlights along the route:
The I-10 Florida Welcome Center  just east of the Alabama state line has a Blue Angel A-4L Skyhawk fighter jet mounted over the many palm trees and lizards that inhabit the rest area. Like all welcome centers, it provides a variety of tourist information but unlike others, offers a free cup of Florida citrus juice in tribute to the citrus industry. Tourism, not orange juice, is the number one industry in the Sunshine State. According to the latest economic impact study, Florida visitors spent $112 billion and supported 1.4 million Florida jobs.
The Pensacola Grand Hotel  is the former Louisville and Nashville passenger depot that was constructed in 1912 and is listed on the National Historic Registry. In the 1980’s, a 15-story glass tower of hotel rooms was added, converting this vacant property into a stunning hotel. The interior of the lobby feels like you are awaiting a train to arrive and is filled with antique furnishing and mosaic tile and marble floors. Mom and I enjoy dinner at the CAVU Club which has a large collection of Naval Aviation photography and memorabilia as well as a large, stained glass ceiling over the main bar that was found in a Vaudeville Theatre in Youngstown, Ohio, circa 1905.
Of course, we have to stop in at McGuire’s Irish Pub  with its tagline, “Feasting Imbibery Debauchery” painted over the front door. Visitors have been signing and stapling 1-dollar bills to the ceiling of the pub since 1977. The waitstaff informed us that there is now an estimated 2.8-3 million dollars hanging from the ceiling.
Fort Pickens  on Santa Rosa Island is a historic fort completed in 1834 and was the largest of a group of fortifications designed to defend Pensacola Harbor. The fort operated until 1947 and is now preserved as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. When we arrive, I hear someone say, “They are lining up already” and sure enough, people are lined up in their cars along a seawall for reasons unknown. I spend much of the visit trying to keep us organized with sunscreen and water in the heat and humidity. I do not get to spend as much time as I would like touring the fort and more or less wander aimlessly until I hear the roar of jet engines… I go outside in surprise and watch the Blue Angels  practice their airshow over Pensacola Bay.
Santa Rosa Island  is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore . It is an incredible natural white sand beach that is also a bird sanctuary with a campground. It is the number one destination of our entire road trip. I am so grateful we visit but it is the most stressful part of the trip.
There were heavy rains on the island leaving six different places on the road covered in standing water. Driving through the water, engine belts shrieking, I am terrified of hydrolock . If my tiny Chevy Spark ingests water into her cylinders, we are totally screwed.
Sand is hard to walk on even if you are young and healthy. Mom struggles to walk on the sand with her cane and opts to lay down on a beach towel. I go for a long walk, away from people, to the sea birds, and the crabs, until I realize that I have left my mother to die of exposure. Some caregiver.
Pensacola Light  is a 150 feet tall active lighthouse built in 1858 and still operates as a navigational aid by the US Coastguard. The lighthouse keeper’s quarters are still used as a museum and giftshop. When we first arrive at the light house, we take a photo and the fire department shows up. Someone is at the top of the tower with heart trouble. We leave in favor of the National Naval Aviation Museum.
The second time at the lighthouse, I plant mom at the base of the tower and make the steep climb up the 177 stairs. I stand outside on the 360-degree deck overwhelmed… The Gulf of Mexico, Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola Bay, Naval Air Station where the Blue Angels park… There is heaven, as I remember it as a child. There is contentment. Peace. Endless summer. I could have stayed all day.
The National Naval Aviation Museum  is full of airplanes. Its mission is “to select, collect, preserve and display” appropriate memorabilia representative of the development, growth and historic heritage of United States Naval Aviation. More than 150 aircraft and spacecraft are on display. And when I walk around them, a part of my brain flips on that I have not accessed in years: my pilot self. The serious walk on the tarmac, among flying machines that can kill you. I was conditioned to be disciplined around them and even though I am in an airplane museum (graveyard), my brain doesn’t know the difference. In the corner, a naval officer retirement ceremony is underway. Mom reminisces about dad’s love of aircraft. He is there with us.
On our last day in Pensacola, we end up at Nick’s Boat House , a restaurant with a deck on Pensacola Bay and we sit for hours. We watch shrimp boats go out and pelicans and other sea birds fish. Living beings come and go: military men, dogs on the deck, wild birds looking for chips, a cat resting and looking for birds. Afternoon passes to evening and we eat dinner, margaritas, and beers. Mom speaks of our previous vacations, of my brothers playing by the bay during their first trip. I intend for our visit to bring back good memories for her. It did.
Pensacola will always belong to my parents. When mom is gone and I come here to visit, I will see them. I will remember them. It is a place where I can go to be with them… a beautiful shrine on the white sands of Santa Rosa Island.
-Copyright C.M. Mounts, August 2019
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