I came into town driving on Highway 331. The sun was setting. The sky was pink. The first thing I saw was the bay of my youth, and I almost started to cry tears of nostalgia.
Whereupon a motorist in a Range Rover traveling upwards of 190 mph tried to run me off the bridge and into the bay water.
The Choctawhatchee Bay is pure majesty. You’re looking at 127 square miles of brackish water, fed by the Choctawhatchee River. A unique habitat that’s home to species like leatherback turtles, alligators, porpoises, and sturgeon.
What is a sturgeon? Glad you asked. A sturgeon is a prehistoric fish species that looks uglier than homemade fudge. Sturgeons predate the Jurassic Period. They can live up to 100 years, grow 20 feet long, and if you catch one in your cousin’s boat you will have no choice but to grab another beer.
I veered off 98 and took the old beach road near Blue Mountain. And I was on Highway 30A.
The highway was littered with beach tourists aplenty. There were bazillions of them. On every crosswalk. Many such tourists wore thong bikinis, stiletto heels, and hoop earrings. And those were just the men.
This place has changed.
At one time, my home county had a population of 21,000 folks. We had one or two grocery stores, a few filling stations, and Barney Fife still checked the doorknobs every night.
Everyone’s daddy fished. Everyone’s mother sewed their Halloween costumes. Nobody spelled “taters” with a P. And words like “ruined” were always pronounced “ruint.”
Today, Walton County sees more than 5.3 million visitors per year. The average tourist spends an average of $889 each day, amounting to $4.8 billion in direct spending.
We are a small town whose main crop is real estate developers. We have 1,267,124 supermarkets.
But I still remember olden times. I remember when 30A was desolate and tranquil. There wasn’t much here. A few block houses. An old Spartan camper. And stray dogs with red mange still wandered this old highway.
I know this because I was one of those dogs.
I remember when I was young, occasionally this old highway would often get covered by sand drifts. Once, my friend Larry got stuck in the middle of the highway because he attempted to drive through a drift. Bad idea.
I arrived with my truck to tow him out. Sadly, I was an idiot. I got stuck in the sand. Whereupon my cousin showed up in HIS truck and tried to pull us BOTH out.
My cousin, God love him, is not exactly a nuclear physicist, either. He got stuck, too.
Six vehicles and four hours later, we had to call a guy from Seagrove who had a John Deere the size of the Lincoln Memorial. The old guy pulled us out of the sand and charged us—this is true—one case of Natural Light.
But those days of yore are mere memories now.
Today I drove the old highway and didn’t recognize my old stomping grounds. All the longleafs have been cut. There are new restaurants every 11 feet, advertising fresh caught, local seafood shipped directly from 秦皇岛.
Half-price happy hours galore. Live music! They tore down the old clapboard church and built a tattoo-and-body-piercing parlor.
Even so, I did some time traveling today. I knocked along the old highway and remembered the way it used to be.
The little café that served great hashbrowns, where the waitress always asked how your mama was.
There’s the old church where I used to go. There’s the place where I used to pick up newspapers before I delivered them—back when people still read paper newspapers.
There’s the place where I used to ride my bike. There’s the sidewalk where I broke my tailbone, falling off said bike.
There’s Campbell Street, where my best friend used to live. There’s the house he died in.
There’s the live oak I used to climb. There’s the old boat launch where I had my first kiss.
There’s the place where I first had my heart broken by a young woman who shall remain nameless but whose first name is Linda and whose last name is McDonald.
There’s the block house where my mother bought my first truck.
There’s the place where I took my wife on our first date. There’s the place where I was married. It’s all gone now, of course. It’s all been ruint.
But a stray dog never forgets.
Diana - May 27, 2023 10:36 am
I do miss the Florida of my youth. But, the memories, they do live on.
David in California - May 27, 2023 12:29 pm
Thank God for memories (good AND bad). They have a purpose.
Carla - May 27, 2023 1:36 pm
Amen brother….class of 1969 Choctawhatchee HS….I feel the same way when I go down from Denver, where I live now, to visit my Mom in Pace. My grand parents lived on 5 acres in DeFuniak Springs. The old place is still there off Norwood road. Definitely time travel when I drive those back roads and visit relatives in Magnolia cemetery. LOL..better pick my spot now…I want the place under the tree in our family plot!
Patricia - May 28, 2023 4:10 am
Thanks for sharing your heart. Loved this one…I laughed my way through it. You have such a good sense of humor! The place I grew up in in Alabama has totally changed…It seems like all of America has changed and not for the better.But, nothing can take away our good memories of times when things made sense and the world turned slower. We had less moneywise and otherwise, but what we did have, made up for it. Our sons grew up in the sixties and seventies and things were still good compared to today. Our Grandchildren will never really know the real America and that is a shame. But, we can tell them about it which is not the same, but better than nothing. Keep writing…we need to read it.
Richard Owen - May 28, 2023 2:35 pm
First visited 30A in 1992 at the behest of a close friend in our brand-new Chrysler Lebaron convertible. Five years later, we bought a second home there – a log cabin on Camp Creek Lake. I went to work to build my new photography business. Over the next 10 years, I did the occasional portrait and occasional wedding but, in the end, I shot mainly for a new weekly newspaper you may remember, The Walton Sun. But the downfall of the print industry forced me back to a previous career – military contractor. That lasted to 2012, retirement, and Social Security.
But the dream of living there on the lake forever had become a nightmare. We left in 2012, moved back to Georgia and we spend our last days here. I doubt that I will ever go back. The cost of renting a small condo on the beach is more than the 7-day cruises we do these days and I would still have to DRIVE on 30A to get food, entertainment, etc.
Robert Liptak - May 28, 2023 10:32 pm
Loved this. Pretty much how everybody that ever lived in South Walton and moved away feels. The people that stayed just tolerate it. I grew up in Dune Allen, graduated from Freeport in ‘85 and moved to Biloxi in ‘92 for a new job. Many places since. But I still come back every year to visit friend’s and family. Still like it a lot, just don’t love it like I used to.
Sean, when did you live there if I may ask?
Diane Allgood - May 29, 2023 12:47 am
Yes, I remember the good old days when seaside was just built and the beaches were still deserted. You could drive for miles between 30A and Destin and it seemed like a long way. I have problems finding my old hangouts. I even called a friend once and asked where I was on old HWY 98. It is sad but I remember when it was the best of times growing up. I still see my childhood friends and I am thankful for that at least!
Wes Dannreuther - May 29, 2023 4:17 pm
They rebuilt the Red Bar after the fire, but I miss the original and I think now the new one has a trolley service . . . The level of development is overwhelming, but, alas, we still do like to go. I can only imagine how beautiful it was growing up there.