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.”