The first glimpse of Louisiana is ominous. Clouds hang low over Lake Pontchartrain, casting inky shadows on the water. It looks, from on high, as if the Macondo well has erupted again, right here, blotching the surface with great slicks of oil.
It is, of course, a chimera. It has been months since BP put an end to the oil spill that fouled the Gulf of Mexico. Of the billions spent on recovering from the disaster, a good many have gone to cleaning things up.
The Gulf Coast, that haven of succulence and sunshine and sand the marketers describe as "sugar," has spent the fall and winter waging a pitched battle to scrub away the stains of what went wrong.
That they haven't yet fully succeeded is something I won't discover until I find my hands sticky with a tar-like crude so thick even soap won't clean it off.
For now, all I know is this: This is a place thirsty for renewal, a destination eager to show off its new self. I figure I'll explore the coast, venture from Pensacola to Apalachicola, Fla., from Orange Beach to Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan, Ala., and along the coast into New Orleans. And I decide there's only one real way to see this place. I need a motorcycle. The bigger and louder, the better. I need a 400-kilogram Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic.
And so, as the brilliant Florida sunshine burns away the morning fog, I begin to drift east. I turn onto a road marked "Great Florida Birding Trail," but the hog is so loud, the only birds I see are fighter jets at the numerous air bases along the coast. It doesn't really matter, since it's hard to look up past the brilliant beaches.
This is the image favoured by the marketers – who, depending where you are, call it "The World's Most Beautiful Beaches," "Pleasure Island" or "The Forgotten Coast."
Whatever the name, it's hard to exaggerate how much beach there is. Though it is also home to rows of condos and restaurants, sand of just about any flavour is impossible to avoid. There are wild beaches and groomed, populated and deserted.
And, if you start in Mississippi and head east, you will discover a virtually uninterrupted strip of sand that stretches through Alabama and deep into Florida, traversing a coastline of wild dunes and blue herons and pelicans, that continues for well over 500 kilometres. It is a natural phenomenon that begs to be explored, which helps to explain why, two years ago, 4.6 million people came to the relatively short segment of beach around Gulf Shores, Ala., alone.
It also helps to explain why that spill is such an important subject. Last year, as images of oil-spoiled beaches dominated front pages, the Gulf Shores number dropped to 3.6 million.
But that seems like ancient history as I rumble down the Great Birding – or, as I'm experiencing it, Birdless – Trail, along its coast-hugging path. I stop at Deer Lake State Park in Florida, where on the other side of a wooden boardwalk, the gulf beckons. It's early afternoon on a weekday, and the sand is empty. In the distance are condos and gated communities and pubs and clubs. Here, it is quiet. Only footprints sully the beach. The sun has warmed the sand. At home, temperatures are sliding past 20 below. Here, it's well over 20 above.
There is only one thing to do in a situation like this. I grab my phone, call my boss and taunt.
East of Deer Lake, past the urbanized shores of Panama City, Fla., the road opens onto tree and swamp and beach. I have entered the Forgotten Coast. Ahead lies Apalachicola, a small fishing community that promises a taste of something that ranks high on the gulf's list of primary attractions: oysters. Ninety per cent of Florida's oysters come from the nearby waters, and the town feels like everything a "Forgotten Coast" is supposed to feel like. Next to Buddy Ward & Sons Seafood, fishing boats are tied up to the wharf with names like "Miss Donna" and "Lady Louise."
More important, it's about a 30-second walk from the water to the sight I've really come to see: a plate full of oysters. At That Place Off 98, you can get them raw on the half-shell, Rockefeller style (spinach, garlic, Parmesan), southern fried (breaded, served with horseradish), Apalach (garlic, bacon, mozzarella), or – I didn't make it through the rest of the list. I had already ordered. Not that you have to pick just one. A dozen raw cost just $7.75.
The only problem is that eating on the coast requires a strange kind of self-control. In a cornucopia of food, stomach space becomes a precious commodity, to be rationed only to the most appealing of flavours.
And yes, oysters are prime material. But so is the locally harvested bowfin caviar. And the blackened swordfish. And the alligator po'boy. And the shrimp and grits – a meal that is great at breakfast and better if you repeat it for dinner. And the grouper sandwich. And the filet of fried catfish, with a side of wood-smoked ribs, served in a to-go bag so it can be savoured on the beach. And the platter of brilliant-red boiled crawfish.
And the mother of them all: a meal at King Neptunes' Seafood Restaurant, in Gulf Shores, Ala., where I return after the Florida venture. It starts with crab bisque, then moves to a plate full of royal reds, a kind of large deepwater shrimp served with full head and shell. Closing duties belong to the New York cheesecake, rolled in corn flakes, deep-fried and crusted with pralines. It's the kind of dessert that requires compromise: Either you forfeit the last bites of a towering culinary achievement, or you risk potentially serious medical damage. There must be a hospital nearby, I reason.
There seems to be an inverse relationship between how well-travelled a road is and how interesting it is. This is true at Cape San Blas, Fla., where a small strip of pavement leads to an aging lighthouse that offers a full moon hike to the top. It's true along another great southern waterway, the Mississippi, where a dead-end road leads to a centuries-old leprosarium. It's true when the road turns rough and uneven alongside gulf waters in the state of Mississippi, where a hurricane-devastated region has yet to rebuild the skeletal remains of many houses and a hand-painted church sign boasts: "Katrina was big but God is bigger."
And, I figure, it will be true at Fort Morgan, which lies at the end of a great sandy finger of Alabama shore, away from the madness that has erupted in Gulf Shores. The region's first post-spill season has officially begun, and the madhouse has returned. Bikinis are back at the beach. Children play in the water. The streets are clogged. Lines snake out of restaurants. Patios are jammed. A DJ calls out the jitterbug over throbbing club music.
But with the narrow road beckoning, I head west, past the dunes and oak trees to Fort Morgan. It's a U.S. Civil War site, the failed Confederate defence against David Farragut, the U.S. Navy admiral famous for uttering some version of "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" It is, today, an open canvas for reimagining the past, with open rooms that invite exploration and walls that, when I climb them, look out on waters blanketed with fog.
A trail leads to the water's edge. I follow it. It is quiet in the fog. A fisherman pulling a cooler and gear stops to clean away sand before loading it into his car. I stop to ask what he has caught. Nothing but two stingrays, he says, speaking through a tracheotomy with a deep rasp. Then he points to the tires he has been cleaning.
"That's oil," he says. "It's terrible."
It takes me a moment to understand. Oil? As I lean over, I see that a sticky black substance has caked onto the tires.
I'm still skeptical. Discovering oil on shore doesn't seem possible. So I head for the water's edge, where it takes only seconds to discover the fisherman is right. Lumps of tar dot the sand. One is the size of a cantaloupe. Tar balls the size of quarters bob in the waves. I reach over to grab one. It smells unmistakably of crude, and leaves my fingers coated with a thick goo.
I leave the beach to clean it off, but end up just staining a bar of soap. Workers at the Fort say the beach is as bad as it was at the height of the spill. I leave to see if the oil remains at the Gulf Shores beaches, which have seen a deep cleaning that has not yet reached Fort Morgan. It's sunset when I arrive, and a pink sky silhouettes families grilling dinner. The sand looks clean. Hidden in the water, however, are more tar balls.
Are they from the BP spill? The gulf, after all, is filled with natural oil seeps. Only a scientist could tell what comes from where. I don't know for sure. I do know, thanks to tourism officials who later admit as much, that workers are still being paid to surreptitiously walk among bathers and clean the shore. I also know that I have oil on my hands. Even a beach patroller, who warns that it will take years to fully scrub the spill, has nothing to remove it. As night falls, I drive to a local home improvement store, and buy a chemical cleaner. It leaves my hands white, but it works.
What it can't do is erase the questions. If oil is still washing ashore, would I want to swim? Do I still want to eat the seafood? The water is too cold to be comfortable this time of year, so that's not an issue, at least not for now. Ultimately, on the seafood question, I trust those who say it's safe and vote with my taste buds.
And though it's hard to forget the sight of oil on the beach, it's also hard to forget those unending kilometres of inviting sand. I'm reminded of a couple I met earlier in the day, sitting on a sun-kissed bench and looking out over the very beach I returned to at sunset. They own property nearby, and are laying plans to come back with food and a cooler full of beer for a picnic on the sand. There is, for them at least, little doubt that they will be surrounded by visitors.
"There are fabulous hotels and great restaurants down here," the man says. "People are not going to stay away from here. It's too nice. Where else are you going to find a beach like this?"
Travel South helped fund this trip.