Travel Essay: Freedom and Insignificance

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Adjacent to the Visitor Information Center in downtown Mobile, Alabama are the city’s cargo docks. My wife Margaret and I crossed a set of tracks to access a tumbleweed field with half a view of the action. Jaws agape, our eyes locked on four towering cranes loading hundreds of truck-sized containers into the belly of a cantankerous orange freighter. Trains of 100 cars or more presented themselves as scaled toys compared to the barge’s monstrous girth. There were no words to mumble, so we stood transfixed as tons upon tons of product were maneuvered through the air, landing tidily in their designated spots like pillows on a freshly made bed.

This pile of freight had shipped on CSX rails from every corner of the USA or beyond, and was hunkering down for a float across the ocean. The logistics of this operation rattled my brain as I roughed a count of how many hired hands were required to produce this mountain of goods, sort them into containers, string them up into trains, shuffle them over to Mobile, and load them into the bowels of a ship. 1,000,000? 10,000,000? Maybe more?

As Margaret and I pulled out of our Atlanta driveway for another jaunt into the unscripted, I did not brace myself for staring insignificance in the face. Nor did I intend to ponder the microscopic impact most human beings manage to leave in the wake of their brief existences. We broke pavement in search of that indefinable, palpable taste of freedom and adventure that alludes the vast bulk of the everyday.

In its entirety, the planning phase of this trip lingered for about 45 seconds. One of us suggested we point the hull of our 2003 Honda Element in the vicinity of Florida’s upper region, known as the Panhandle. The other agreed. I do not recall who can claim either bit of dialogue, nor does it matter.

Work ended later than either of us hoped on Thursday, landing us in the thick of Atlanta rush hour on a holiday weekend. Perhaps not the most exhilirating launch to our gallivant, we made lemonade by tapping some of our favorite NPR podcasts as we wound through the thick ribbon of cars.

Numerous interstates in the Southeast are littered with billboards and other saturated monstrosities that vie for the attention – and dollars – of the wandering tourist. Explore the Caverns of Heaven one sign might herald. Sink your teeth into the Nirvana of Florida Oranges another may tout. Alabama’s I-85 is not such an interstate, with mile after barren mile of flattish brush and scrubby trees.

We staked our tent six miles south of downtown Montgomery, the state’s capital and a city best known for the prodigious bus boycott of the Civil Rights movement. A tasteful museum and library is perched at the corner of Montgomery and Lee Streets, the intersection where Rosa Parks refused to vacate her bus seat to a white passenger. I purchased two six-dollar entrances to the museum’s multimedia presentation and automated reenactment, a small price to plunk on the counter considering how much richer Margaret and I were as we returned to the Element for further adventure.

Rosa Parks was 42 years of age when she transcended her daily routine and ignited a chain of events that would spark a revolution. Humiliated by the dehumanizing bus policies and tired from a lengthy day of work, she refused the bus driver’s request to stand. Parks’ brains and wit shone as she responded to the driver’s threats to call police and have her arrested when she spoke the simple words, “You may do so.”

As stated in the museum’s presentation, “This carefully chosen phrase defined Parks as an activist, not a victim.” Would this level of candor mark my response to a similar situation? Decidedly no. Her deliberate actions and the monumental bus boycott that ensued became the peaceful template for the Civil Rights revolution. Though the tale has found my ear numerous times, a visit to this respectful museum placed Rosa Parks on the short list of my heroes.

Back in the all-wheel-drive saddle again, we galloped southwest down I-65. Depressed by the havoc of hurricanes, Mobile is concerting a hearty effort to revitalize its hollow downtown and allure thick-walleted tourists to darken the doors of its businesses. Credit is due to the city planners hard at work in this small locale. Remarkable museums, eateries, historical sites, and convention arenas are lassoed into a manageable 10-block radius, all easily accessible via free shuttle bus. Kudos.

Despite all the effort however, the attractions were mostly echoey. Among other sites, we perused the Phoenix Firehouse Museum, an ode to the city’s longstanding volunteer fire department. Lodged in the original brick construction that was painstakingly moved a couple of blocks for reasons unknown to me, the exhibit houses horse-drawn and engine-driven firefighting relics from the 1930s and before. The museum’s lone curator perked up as we creaked open the Phoenix’s front door. This wiry, white-bearded gentleman informed us we were the first patrons of the day, which was all the preface he needed to launch into a lengthy monologue… most of which had little to do with fire-related facts.

As the Mobile skyline and its massive loading docks faded in the rearview, I briefly mulled over my three decades of life, comparing my measly graphic design business to the massive accomplishments of corporations that ship goods worldwide. A bittersweet moment of the journey, I felt the weight of insignificance bear down on my shoulders.

Thankfully, the excitement of the Rand McNally roadmap shook me out of the brief funk as Margaret and I charted the next leg of our course. An hour outside of Mobile, motorists can roll their wheels over a three mile, two-lane bridge to a narrow strip of land known as Dauphin Island.

Named after Louis XIV’s great-grandson and heir, Dauphin Island is easily traversed; only one main road runs from end to skinny end. Aside from a gas station, a restaurant, and a convenience store barely passing as a grocery, the landscape is a palindrome of ocean, stilted houses, roadway, stilted houses, and ocean. Covered in fine, sugary sand typical to the Gulf region, the ethereal scene appears to be carpeted in snow. With only enough time for brief beach kissing and a few snaps of the camera, we rambled over to the east side of the island where a 30 minute ferry puffed us over to Fort Morgan. A road leading to an overbuilt oceanfront town known as Gulf Shores greeted our tires, and we rolled along.

We didn’t happen upon any of the alligators we were warned not to feed at our campsite in Gulf Shores, a positive development as cardiac arrest was not a desired outcome of the adventure. I mused at the shrill of Margaret’s would-be shreik if she were to spot one such toothy creature near our tent, though I must sheepishly admit that my panic would have blown her decibels out of the water. Either way, I am delighted our visit to Gulf Shores was reptile-free.

The city of Gulf Shores is an electric beachfront carpeted with neon lights and purveyors of ocean-related tchotchkes. The local economy exists exclusively for and because of tourists, most of whom are college-aged. As such, we were hardly surprised when finding edible supper proved to be a daunting task. Five restaurants into our search, we stumbled upon a divy Mexican food joint packed to the gills with flip-flopped beachcombers sipping on bulging glasses of indigo Sangria. Enticed, we scooted ourselves into a golden vinyl booth and savored some of the tastiest Tex-Mex we have ever ordered. The Margherita we split had enough booze in it to blur a sailor’s vision; we straw-sparred for the last drop.

After banana pancakes and coffee the next morning, we continued east along the chain of bridged islands that forms Alabama’s and Florida’s outer Gulf Coast. With windows wide open and a few toes dangling in the salty air, Margaret and I meandered in the direction of Pensacola. Cotton wisps of clouds feathered corners of cyan sky as an even breeze fluttered through our car. Amos Lee and Glen Hansard were our dashboard crooners as easy smiles and relaxed shoulders melted away the stress of everyday Atlanta life.

We anticipated the fun and wonder of traversing the Gulf beaches, but we were in no way prepared for the marvelous museum that would greet us at the Pensacola Navy Base. This perfectly groomed Naval facility houses the National Museum of Naval Aviation, a stunning multi-level homage to the service’s breathtaking utilization of flight. Over 150 carefully restored aircraft perch on the hall floors and hang from its rafters, including the world’s first trans-atlantic airplane (an NC-4 ‘Flying Boat’ biplane) and several retired aircraft from the Blue Angels fleet. Surprisingly hands-on, the museum encourages visitors into several cockpits of helicopters and fighters and allows up-close looks at scores of others. This national museum is the finest I have ever visited, and the free admission only sweetened the experience.

Anyone who has visited Florida’s beachfront cities will attest to a boatload of tackiness and kitsch aplenty. On any given stretch, patrons can acquire tattoos, inhale funnel cakes, purchase apparatus for smoking or otherwise ingesting illegal substances, and stockpile screened t-shirts at a cost of three for $10. I especially enjoyed the abundance of blatent misnomers dotting the strips, including the Key West Motel located in Miramar Beach and the Oceanfront Inn perched in a grassy field about a mile from the water’s edge. Perhaps a sap or two would book a room at the Oceanfront without inquiring about waterviews, but is it possible that someone would intend to make the journey to Key West and wind up vacationing in the Panhandle?

Rampent commercialism is central to Florida’s schtick, but for every stretch of party-crazed visual litter, visitors can find as many pristine state parks and lengths of untouched national seashore. Sandwiched between Ft. Walton Beach and Destin is a three mile section of unharmed seafront. A speed limit of 35 miles per hour encourages visitors to meander along a two lane blacktop with panoramic beach extending in all directions. The island is not wider than a quarter mile, providing stammering views of the Intracostal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico. White foam caps baubled over green waves gently lapping against rolling, bleached dunes. Delicate folds of sand lent soft shadows and subtle topography to the endless expanse.
My heart fluttered with energy and my toes wiggled in the open window. As the ocean invigorated my being, I was once again presented with thoughts of insignificance. Long before humankind discovered how to muck up a landscape and fish a buck (or several) from it, these sands blew into dunes, these waves flapped motorically against the sloped shore. I watched as a seagull pecked a crack into an oyster shell. How brief this bird’s existance is, each day filled with scouring food from the ocean. How fleeting is my life, each moment blending into the next with little legacy to show for it.

A cone of ice cream is one of life’s simple pleasures made all the more euphoric with feet buried in warm sand.  Locating a parking space soaked up a half hour, but our moments of spring bliss at the Destin beachfront justified the hunt. One cocky high school student clad in flowery surfer garb observed us licking chocolatey drips from the edges of our cones.

“Can I have a bite of that ice cream?” he called in a singsong tone from across the lot. I called his bluff and motioned for him to come over. What one moment was a pompously puffed teenager instantly morphed into a sheepish kid unsure of how to deal with this unprecidented turn of events.

“Come enjoy a taste, brother,” I called out to him. We were both a little surprised when he took me up on my offer. One lick was all he could handle before scampering off to laugh it up with his buddies.

April is the month during which throngs of college-aged students pilgrim to beachfront meccas in search of a Spring Break party. One of the most popular locales for wild times is Panama City Beach, the very city where we pitched our tent for a final night. Other seaside towns certainly are overbuilt, but Panama City is the shock and awe of them all. As we traversed the strip, gaggles of giggly coeds flirted with frat boys piled into pickup truck beds. At one red light, four shirtless young men put on a show for my wife, boinging at their nipples and cupping their pectoral muscles – clearly wishing for her to do the same. Needless to say, their requests went unanswered.

Long after we shot a round of mini golf and climbed into our sleeping bags, we could hear the distant clamor of auto honks and screaming people with hormones for blood. Each of these reckless teenagers live the lie that they are significant beings. Whoops, hollers, and irresponsible choices all reflect their notion of invincibility and reveal their burning desire to live large.

As I struggled to find sleep amid the frenetic atmosphere, I considered the goodness of life and the simple, profound gifts that mark my daily existence. I have a gentle, softspoken wife who is a rock of faithfulness and a sea of wisdom. She loves me far more than I ever considered myself to be lovable. Together, we are adopting a beautiful baby boy who will be home in three months; there is not anything in the world about which I have more excitement. Sentiments of freedom emerged as I considered the beauty of insignificance, and I drifted past anxious thoughts into a comfortable sleep.

How fitting that the final day of our ride was Easter Sunday, a holiday that celebrates life overcoming death, hope rising from despair. As we sat in a blue pew at a small Panama City Catholic church celebrating the risen Christ, I felt small, I felt inconsequential, I felt insignificant. And for the first time in a long, long time, I felt free.

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