Cape San Blas.

I just got back from a camping trip. It was such a good trip that I surprised even myself, and I have to think hard to understand how to describe what made it great.

I am finishing up a week of time off from my job. For the first few days of the week, I stuck around the trailer. My allowances to myself were going running in the mornings and spending time working on my bike so I could ride it for the first time this year. Other than that, I kept myself working: writing for FasterSkier and studying up on my botany vocab so I’ll be ready for my new job.

My reward for working during my time “off” was going to be a three-day camping trip at the end of the week. I browsed the Florida State Parks website looking for places to camp. I picked out the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. It was a long drive – three hours from my home in Navarre – but it was one of the few parks in northwest Florida which offered primitive camping.

I also picked it out because the setting seemed fascinating. The park was on an improbably long and skinny peninsula, Cape San Blas. The first several of the fifteen miles of coastline were home to beach houses. The last were home to the park and over 240 species of wildlife.

The website warned that the primitive sites had no shade and no fresh water. I was excited but nervous, and considering how far I had to travel to get there, I really didn’t want the experience to be less than great. I packed my small backpack as full as I could and set off.

First of all, regardless of whether it’s an ideal camping spot or not, where else can you (legally) stay on the beach for two nights and only spend $11.10? State parks one, rest of the U.S. zero.

I parked in my allotted spot and started off down the Wilderness Trail. The last seven miles of the cape are a wilderness preserve, and it was into this area that I set out. The trail was made of deep sand and the walking was slow. There were scrubby trees on either side of the trail, but it was wide enough that they generally couldn’t provide much shade. The sun beat down on me as I made my slow way along the trail.

After about an hour and a quarter, I reached the second of three trails crossing over from the bay side of the island to the gulf side. I had decided to camp here as I could only set up a tent close to the gulf beach along one of the crossovers – you can’t camp just anywhere in a wilderness preserve. I walked towards the beach and soon left the trees for secondary dunes. I looked down from the trail and saw a perfect flat spot in the last group of trees, so I stopped and dropped my pack in the shade and then continued on towards the beach.

As I crested the last of the frontal dunes and the beach spread out before me, I couldn’t suppress a smile. I couldn’t not laugh. I felt totally free. I ran the rest of the way down to the beach, pulling off my Chacos and my shirt. I walked along the edge of the perfectly clear, shallow water, which rested on top of patterned white sand. There wasn’t a soul in sight, only beach stretching as far as I could see in either direction. It was exhilarating. I had this world all to myself.

That evening I found a sand dollar, pitched my tent, and fell asleep at sunset to the sound of the waves. I was surprised at how exhausted I was now that I could sleep when I was tired rather than when I finished the tasks I had set out for myself.

The next morning I woke up to the sounds of birds chattering back and forth. I took my breakfast – an apple – over to the top of one of the frontal dunes and ate it overlooking the beach. Then I walked along the shore again and saw a school of large silver fish jumping out of the water just fifty feet offshore.

I had absolutely nothing I had to do that day, so I spent it exploring.

First I walked barefoot the four miles down the beach to the end of the island. As I strolled around the water’s edge, sand bars came and went, shorebirds ran in front of me, and the frontal dunes changed from gentle hills to eroding cliffs and back again.

Driftwood and shells had washed up on the beach and, sometimes, coarser sand.

In a few places, channels of water had formed, washing in one side with the waves and then running back into the ocean on the other side of an expanse of sand. In others, there were small pools left behind by the retreating tide. Sometimes there were schools of tiny fish swimming in them, which raced and scattered when my shadow passed over the water. In one of the little streams, barnacles opened and closed as the seawater periodically moved through.

I saw a dead ray on the beach, but only three other people in the four miles.

When I reached the tip of the cape, the shorebirds seemed to multiply. They came in all shapes and sizes. Terns screeched at me. The water cut in towards the interior of the island, providing even more habitat for the many different species. They shared the beach with crabs, but not other people. It was a bird sanctuary sticking out into the gulf. After looking around a bit, I started the walk back to my campsite.

By the time I got back I was hot and sweaty. The shade of the trees was a relief and I rested up during the hottest part of the day, sitting on a dead trunk and reading John Steinbeck’s tales of King Arthur, which seemed out of place but lovely (and infused with a sense of humor – way to go John).

In the afternoon I wandered in the dunes, following the tracks of coyotes and beach mice. I saw small white flowers on spiked leaves and an endless array of dune architecture.

I ate my dinner atop one of the dunes and then went for a swim. The water was perfect and comfortable, the waves were gentle, but I was still nervous for some reason. With no people for miles, what if, I don’t know, a shark came and gobbled me up? This wasn’t likely, but it was the only time the whole weekend that being alone made me wary. Still, I sank into the pleasant water and relaxed.

Finally, I watched the spectacular sunset over the water. The last minutes as the sun sank into the ocean went so fast.

It stayed light even without the sun – the reason we are not working this week is that the moon is quite full. I had no reason to hurry back to my tent, but when I reached it, it was with the weariness of someone whose energy has been sapped by the sun. Once again I slept like a baby, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves.

The next morning, I had my last breakfast on the beach, waded in for the last time, and set off down the Wilderness Trail back towards the car.

A couple of miles later I reached it, hot, sweaty, very smelly, and coated in a disgusting layer of sunscreen. And completely happy.

I had never been lonely, the whole three days. I had never been bored. I love camping, but this had surprised even me. I don’t know if it was something about the landscape or something about my particular frame of mind, but I had been perfectly content just by myself for three days. The freedom was exactly what I had needed, and I came out of the trip feeling infinitely more at ease with myself and the world than I went in.

Which is the point, isn’t it? I hope that many of my future adventures can be this good.

I Saw a Sea Turtle Nest.

This is a sea turtle crawl. I saw it!

This was my week off, but my boss called me up on Sunday night anyway. “I found a turtle crawl when I was walking along the beach today,” she said. “It’s right near the trailer. I gave the turtle people a call and they are going to work it up tomorrow morning. Do you want to come?”

My roommate said no way; it would have meant leaving our trailer at seven, which was too early for her. Me? I was ecstatic. I knew that I wouldn’t see an actual turtle, but sea turtles are some of the most symbolic threatened animals in ocean systems. Tens of thousands of sea turtles are caught by fishing vessels each year. The turtles are also threatened by global warming, and here on the Gulf Coast, they had a particularly rough season last year with the BP oil spill. So: everyone knows about sea turtles.

In fact, many days when we walk to work people ask us how the turtles are doing and are surprised to find out that there are other species of interest on the beach besides the turtles. Besides the obvious importance of the turtles, it would just be plain cool. So yes, I said, I’ll be there.

After a walk down the beach we found Marv, the turtle volunteer looking at the nest. He was a pretty old guy, still wearing his bike helmet from the ATV ride which had taken him here. He had already dug down to find the eggs – which were buried about a foot deep in the sand – and then covered them up again, but for our benefit he dug down and brought out one of the eggs.

It was incredibly soft, fragile, and, well, un-egg-like. It was not like a bird egg or a snake egg or anything else I’ve seen on land – there was no hard shell. It was just there, kind of diaphanous. Apparently the shell is permeable, which allows the turtle babies to breathe. How cool is that? Other fun facts are that the temperature of the sand in which they are buried determines the sex of the little turtles.

So, it turns out that Marv wasn’t supposed to dig up an egg, and that it was a really bad move. When we mentioned it to the head of the turtle program later, she freaked out. The embryos attach to the shell walls after only a few hours, and after that point, turning the egg may disattach the embryo and, well, kill it. So, touching the eggs is generally a really bad idea. And by innocently mentioning it to the program head, we might have gotten Marv fired.

Which sucks. Because Marv was an old guy who really loved being a turtle volunteer. He told us about how he’d been doing patrols up and down the beach to look for crawls and nests for the last ten years and had found twenty nests. Poor Marv. I’m sorry, Marv. Don’t pick up the egg next time.

But anyway. After that, he took some measurements of the crawl and the nest. The crawl was pretty cool – you could see where the turtle had planted her flippers and dragged her body along the sand. Based on the width and pattern of the crawl, both Marv and the program head decided that it belonged to a Kemp’s Ridley, the smallest and one of the rarest species of sea turtles. I’m a little confused because everything I’ve read about them suggests that the females came ashore en masse to nest, and this was a single nest, but whatever. They are the turtle people, so they are almost certainly right, and it’s cool that the one nest I saw was from the rarest of turtles.

Next, Marv put down some wire mesh and stakes to cover the nest.

The wire will keep raccoons and coyotes from digging up the eggs and eating them, which would be bad news bears. He finished the site off with some orange tape and signs to tell beachgoers – which there aren’t many of, since we were on the restricted part of the Air Force base – not to mess with the nest.

And then we walked home, having seen a crawl and a nest and a real sea turtle egg, which is definitely more than most people can say (for good reason, turns out). How cool! I don’t know if Jamie thinks she missed out, but to me, it was definitely worth the early morning wakeup.

If you want to learn more about sea turtles, there’s a couple of websites you could check out: SeaTurtle.Org, which keeps track of nests and sightings around the world; the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the world’s oldest sea turtle research organization, now a nonprofit based out of Florida and working worldwide; the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, a more politically-active nonprofit based in California; and many others.

Pensacola (corrected).

Saturday was my first full day off from work in a couple of weeks. While my entire vacation probably won’t be particularly exciting, I wanted to get out and do something on that first day of freedom. Sleep late? No. I wanted to take advantage of having an entire day to do whatever I wanted to. I started by running for an hour, early in the morning before running would make me melt into a puddle on the pavement. That was nice.

Then, I headed to Pensacola. Even though it’s only a half hour away, I had never been to Escambia County’s seat, a city first settled by the Spanish in 1559 and then decimated by a hurricane that very fall. Some thing haven’t changed much in the Florida Panhandle, have they?

The first place I visited was Plaza de Luna, named after the Spaniard who supervised that first ill-fated settlement attempt. It was a nice little park by the water, but nothing special. The most notable thing, in fact, were the great blue herons, which were clearly used to receiving snacks from the many people fishing from the edge of the park. They had no fear of humans and simply walked around on the boardwalk. It isn’t how I’m used to seeing these birds.


A bit further along the fence, I had to stop and take another picture. One of the herons had gotten on top of a fisherman’s car, and didn’t seem keen on getting down. The fisherman laughed, but was clearly perplexed at the bird’s interest in his vehicle.

Anyway, onward. I found Pensacola’s Art in the Park festival, which was kind of cool. I liked looking at all the art – painting! photos! cool sculpture! carving! – but the thing I hate about art shows is that whenever I look at someone’s booth, I feel obligated to talk to them. Sometimes I want to, but sometimes I just want to look at the art. Sorry, artist. I’m sure the artists don’t always like talking to all of us uneducated browsing idiots, either. It’s just kind of awkward. But still, it was cool to see some local art.

Next I explored the historic part of downtown, hoping to find some cool shops to look in. Not so many shops. I was kind of disappointed actually. There was a lot of space being used for offices or other things that a tourist wouldn’t be interested in. I did find a farmer’s market, though, which was oddly enough sharing a park space with an antique car show. The car owners and the farmers didn’t seem too keen on mingling.

For lunch, after perusing the options, I picked out Sluggo’s Vegetarian Cafe. I chose it because it looked like one of the few restaurants which would actually be creative. I saw another cafe which looked cool, but it was right next to the Art in the Park, so was bound to be extremely crowded. I also chose Sluggo’s because it had a great name. Plus, it looked a little, well, dingy. I wanted to give it some business. Vegetarian places with character should be rewarded.

Once I went inside, it became apparent that Sluggo’s wasn’t actually dingy, and probably didn’t need my help. It seemed like it was a very happening bar at night, and it was a hipster heaven. The waiter and cooks were some of the most stereotypical hipsters I’ve seen in a while. Nothing wrong with that. The place had a rotary telephone behind the counter, a framed picture of JFK, and a lot of PBR in the cooler as well as on tap. There was a placard that read, “There used to be a gay bank on Palafox Street. It had a rainbow flag ATM and the lobby was purple and fabulous.”

I liked Sluggo’s.

I had a mushroom and walnut burger, which turned out to be not what I was expecting, but in a good way. There are a lot of other things on the menu I would have liked to also try, but generally not the ones involving fake bacon. Potstickers? Sign me up. Barbecue Tofu Sub? Not so much. But it was a great little cafe to discover.

Next, I drove out to the Naval Air Station.

My grandfather Peter had recommended that I go to the National Museum of Naval Aviation. It turns out that my great-grandfather, Bobby, learned to fly in Pensacola. He turned out to be an admiral, so they obviously taught him pretty well. So I took off for the naval base, which is undoubtedly very different than it was when Bobby lived there.

I did find a memento of Bobby. He’s not in this picture, but there was a display about the capture of the U-505, the first German submarine captured in World War II. The codebooks and Enigma machine found onboard helped the Allies break the Germans’ code. Here’s what my grandfather told me in an e-mail:

“Bobby was Executive Officer on the carrier that was the central ship in the operation, so he was second in command to the Captain both on the ship and overseeing the operation. He is not in the photo on the sub but there are frequent pictures of several officers on the bridge of the carrier that includes him.”

Peter also pointed out, later, after I had posted this, that the U-505 was actually the first enemy warship captured at sea since the War of 1812, making it even more significant. Go great-grandpa!

So that was cool.

I also saw a lot of airplanes. A lot, lot, lot of airplanes. I didn’t realize how many different kinds of bombers there were in World War II alone! But the most interesting ones, I thought, were the planes from World War I. It made you realize exactly how dangerous flying was. Here’s one:

It looks so… little! and flimsy! Those pilots were really, really brave. They were just out there in the air, not really protected from anything. It must have been terrifying. It was incredible to see the advances in technology since then. Besides little flimsy planes, there were also giant ones. And flying boats. I keep saying this, but it was really cool.

Finally, I hit up a bike shop to grab some supplies, and it happened to be close to The Drowsy Poet, a coffee shop I’d heard a lot about. So I went there too. I was a little drowsy by this point in the afternoon, so a nice coffee sounded great. I am ashamed to say, though, that I didn’t take advantage of the coffee which they roast themselves and is supposedly so good. No, instead I got a delicious frozen drink with a shot of espresso, coconut, and mocha. It had whipped cream and chocolate syrup on top. I don’t regret my actions at all, but I usually look down on that sort of thing. Whatever, it was delicious. I don’t care!

I finished up my day by working on my bike and cooking an Afghan dinner…. stay tuned for the details of that adventure.

Off day: check! I accomplished my goal of making the most of it and doing some new things. Hooray!

Improbable.

I had never known, before, that running a flat five kilometers in just under 21 minutes was something very exciting.

But this weekend, I competed in the Sunset Stampede 5k here in Navarre, and clocking in at 20 minutes and 43 seconds was very exciting indeed. It was good enough to get paid, which is something that I have never before been able to say about running. Here’s the story.

When I arrived in Navarre, I didn’t have much to do. I didn’t know anyone. I was living in a trailer with my single co-worker, and we saw plenty of each other during the day. I read books, and I researched a few stories for FasterSkier, but all in all, I was looking for something to do. And so I ran.

I didn’t run much, but the production of deciding to go for a run, changing into running clothes, going for the actual run – which was often only 35 minutes long – and then coming back, stretching, changing my clothes and taking a shower, eating…. well, that took up enough time. It gave me a window that I had all to myself, just me and the surprisingly deserted streets off highway 98.

That lasted about a week. Then I remembered that I was retired from racing and training and didn’t have to run if I didn’t feel like it. So I didn’t.

After I went through those two phases, I decided that I needed something to focus on. Luckily for me, there was a 5k right in Navarre at the beginning of May. I was sure I wouldn’t run fast then, but I decided to sign myself up anyway. Then, at least, I would have to run a few times a week, because everyone knows that racing while out of shape is no fun at all. I also knew that I would have to work the day of the race, so figured that I might as well train a little bit to give myself an opportunity to make up for the fact that I’d be tired.

I made myself a training plan, but I didn’t follow it. I never got around to those VO2Max intervals. Why would I? I’m retired, for God’s sake.

And so the week of the run came around, and I did a short run every other day. I meant to do a hard workout, but I didn’t. And then the day of the run arrived. I took special care to drink gatorade all day at work to stay hydrated, and by a lucky break, we finished early, so I had the afternoon to recover.

I warmed up just as I would for a normal race when racing was still my job, trying not to think about how the 40 minutes I ran were as long as any workout I’d done in almost two weeks. When we lined up on the starting line, I was in the midst of many very fit-looking Air Force men. Most were tatooed and were wearing nice running flats. I had my year-old Salomon trail shoes and a silly pair of sunglasses.

When the gun went off, I followed the leading woman. We ran at what seemed like a sustainable pace, going through the first mile at 6:26. Compared to the men we were running with, our strides were efficient. We were having an easier time of it, not fighting our bodies or our feet or the pavement, just running.

Then she got tired. I was in the lead on my own, trying to reel in men, at the halfway point when the race turned around and went back to the start. As I passed all the runners behind me, I noticed that I had a decent, although not indefensible gap. So I just kind of ran.

I had no idea how fast to run. I hadn’t run a race since Thanksgiving, and I hadn’t even really run any hard pieces. I didn’t know when I’d get tired. I just had no idea what I was doing out there. I went through mile two at 13:13, a bit slower than mile one, and told myself to pick it up.

With half a mile to go, I was undeniably tired. But it didn’t seem to matter; none of the women had caught me. I did my best to make it towards the finish line. As I turned off the main drag, a photographer told me that I had 40 seconds left. But as I entered the finishing straightaway, I heard a different message.

“She’s coming! She’s coming!”

I looked over my shoulder (bad form) and saw that, to my horror, someone was, in fact, coming for me. If I wanted the win, I’d have to start moving. I’d have to sprint. And so I did. It wasn’t a sprint I am proud of, but after running alone for two miles, I won the race by two seconds.

My time wasn’t something I’m proud of either. I didn’t train for the race, but I’m a competitive person and I hold myself to high standards. I ran faster than that in high school all the time. Training or no, I know what an okay 5k is. That wasn’t it.

But.

I won.

And I got interviewed by the local newspaper!

And….. I won a cash prize of $200.

What???

In my entire ski career, in which I was supposedly a “professional”, I did not win that much money combined. So I’m not sure what it says that as soon as I “retire”, I start winning money in a different sport. I guess the last few years of my life have been rather futile.

Mostly, though, I’m confused because I have been in more competitive races which have no prize money at all. I guess I just picked the right race on the right day. I couldn’t be more pleased with myself, even if it all is pretty confusing.

After the race, there was a fun little party at a beach pagoda, where there was free beer, dinner, live music, swimming, and a volleyball court which was mostly populated by people’s children. My roommate Jamie came out to watch the race – these pictures are hers – and we had a good time watching the sunset on the beach.

It was a really fun experience. More than the winning or the cash, it was fun because a lot of people came out for it. It was a big race, and an event that people were excited for. We heard the national anthem on the start line and had a moment of silence for our military comrades. There was a bouncy castle for kids, and everyone stayed for the post-race party. A lot of the racers weren’t from Navarre, so I can’t say that I became part of the town, but still, it was fun to see a bunch of local people get together, and it was fun for me to do something that I don’t do every day.

Mostly, it was fun to race in a low-key way, with no expectations, no pressure, just because I wanted to. That’s what I get to do for the rest of my life, and this was a great start.

Oh yeah, and I sweat a lot. I grossed Jamie out with my sweat. That was also kind of fun.

Ghost tower.

Let’s play a little game of free association. I’m going to give you the word ghost. What comes next?

For me, the first thing I think of is, somewhat surprisingly, Ghost Pain, a book of poems by Syd Lea.

Next comes a ghost story, followed by a phantom limb. Then Ghostface Killah. Closer to the end of the list I come to ghost crabs, something we see on the beach every day. They camouflage themselves quite well in the sand but we see their skittery sideways tracks and if you catch one unawares – or when he thinks you haven’t noticed him – he’ll brandish his little claws at you.

One of the last things I think of is what some Fort Walton Beach natives call the ghost tower. To me, it’s just the tower.

There are water towers all over the island, but on the restricted part of Santa Rosa Island, where the Air Force does so much of its research, if you say “the tower” everyone knows what you mean. You aren’t allowed to take pictures of things on air force bases, but apparently the engineering firm got a special allowance. When you see what the tower looks like, you’ll understand why it’s so unmistakable.

After working on Eglin Air Force Base for a month and driving by the tower at least twice every day, we had gotten used to it. Which is why we were surprised and elated that on Tuesday, my boss, Margo, told us that she had arranged a tour of the tower. It’s 300 feet tall and has a deck on top covered by a retractable dome. What did the air force do up there? We were about to find out, and it was awesome.

We had my boss’s sister Marlies to thank for the tour, because she had come down to help on the project and Margo wanted to at least show her a few interesting things instead of work, work, work (mostly it was work, work, work). Without Marlies, we might have gone our entire time without making it inside the tower. Wahoo!

The tower staff had been booked to help the air force with a mission that day, but the mission had canceled, and so they had nothing to do. Instead of lounge around in his office all day, a very nice, talkative man met us in the parking lot and explained the tower’s history. We took an elevator up – slowly, as it’s main design feature is that it can carry up 20,000 pounds, not necessarily quickly – and watched the ground drop away below us and the island flatten out. By the time we reached the top, the views were incredible.

Thanks to Marlies for the photos, too; she had her iPhone, which was lucky because none of us had brought our cameras. I, for one, assumed they wouldn’t let us take pictures.

We learned a bit about what sort of testing they did on top of the tower and how they helped coordinate missions, which was pretty cool. We work on the island every day (literally, every day) but I know next to nothing about what actually happens there. Much of the time, the only other people we see are the firemen washing their trucks or testing out the lights. It’s often at night that the excitement happens. We’ll set up a site and come back the next morning to find fresh ordinance or casings all over the ground.

The guys in the tower also keep track of when they see sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, or other interesting critters in the water. It was pretty cool to hear a guy switch from talking about radar and missiles to showing us video of two sea turtles playing in the surf.

After we had toured the inside of the tower, we spent a long time out on the catwalk, reveling in the views and the breeze. What a treat! My trailermate/coworker Jamie is afraid of heights so she didn’t even come out on the deck, but the rest of us had a great time. It was quite a thrill to look down on the parking lot. 300 feet is serious business.

After the tour, it was pretty hard to go back and finish our day’s worth of fieldwork. But the work had to get done, so we sucked it up and reluctantly returned to manual labor. Play time was over, but at least we got some in the first place. Thanks Marlies!

Beach Vacation.

I work on the beach every day, but nevertheless, I am taking a beach vacation.

For the last few days I have been staying at my grandparents’ condo, which is about an hour down the coast from Navarre. They usually rent it out, but this weekend, there were no renters. So I drove over and enjoyed having the whole place to myself and reading a trashy romance novel on the beach. It’s not my usual reading genre, but on the beach, it’s about the only thing you can read. My biggest accomplishment was tanning my legs sufficiently to get rid of my five-year shorts tan.

I also had some great meals. Sunday was the last morning I’d be able to go out to breakfast before work started again, so I wanted to do something special. My original plan was to check out the Hibiscus Coffee and Guest House, but it turned out that Sunday was Easter (when you are all alone, holidays aren’t on your radar), so they had something special going on. Instead, I walked literally across the street to check out the Liars Club Cafe, an excellently-named offshoot of Stinky’s Fish Camp. I got to sit at a bar and had great eggs Benedict. On my list of things to do: learn how to poach an egg.

Tonight I checked out The Red Bar on the recommendation of my uncle Chris. It was a trendy spot and packed even though it was just a Monday night. After asking for a mojito, I chose a shrimp and crawfish dish for dinner. One of the pluses of dining out by yourself: everyone else had to wait 20 to 45 minutes for a table, but I got served at the bar immediately. Ha! And it was great, a fun atmosphere with live music playing in the background.

Vacation is over, so unfortunately my lazy days of lying on the beach and eating food prepared by other people will be a thing of the past. Ah, well, it was good when it lasted – and I finally have a job that pays me enough so that I can take myself out to dinner every once in a while.

The early-morning workout bribe.

My drinkbelt hasn’t seen the light of day for quite some time – not since Monday, March, 21st to be exact. That day, I went for a short ski with Jennie Brentrup at Oak Hill in Hanover. The snow was, well, not good. But we had fun. After that, I packed my trusty training partner in a small Dynastar duffle bag patched with duct tape. The bag traveled down the east coast in my 4-Runner and ultimately was shoved under my bed, where it has stayed, mostly unopened, since I arrived in Florida.

Last night, I dug out the duffle bag and filled my drink belt up with water in preparation for an early morning.

It was our first day off in 25 days, and it seemed masochistic to wake up early in the morning yet again. But that’s what I wanted to do. I have been running after work most days, waiting until 6 or 6:30 in the evening when it is cool enough to work out comfortably. Instead, I wanted to run in the early morning, and do my first “very long” run of the season.

To accomplish this, I resorted to an old trick. I call it the early-morning workout bribe. It’s a system I began using in Crested Butte, Colorado the summer before my senior year of college. I would start fieldwork for my thesis at 8 a.m., but because of the thunderstorms that rolled in almost every evening, it was best to train before work. When I was running, this was no problem- I could get up a little early, run from the cabin, have breakfast, and head off into the field. But when I needed to rollerski, things were more complicated. It was a 20 minute drive to get to a place with pavement appropriate for rollerskiing, and I had to take all of my work gear with me and go straight to the field afterwards. It required an earlier start and a lot more planning.

So on the mornings when I rollerskied, I would buy myself breakfast and a coffee at Camp 4. Not only was their coffee delicious, but their breakfast burritos were to die for. If you are ever in Crested Butte, check it out. Camp 4 was pretty much the sole reason that I rollerskied that summer, and it was extremely effective.

This morning, I tried the bribery method again, and set my alarm for 6:40, 20 minutes later than usual.

I started running on the mainland side of the Navarre bridge. The foot path on the side of the main bridge felt a little sketchy – rather than being an integrated part of the bridge’s concrete structure, it was a metal outcropping. Luckily I’m not afraid of heights, because it felt a bit like I was dangling out over the Sound.

One I reached Santa Rosa Island, I turned right and ran out the bike path until I reached the start of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. I can’t say that I was running particularly quickly or efficiently, but it felt good to be out in the early morning. I assessed the beach houses as I ran by and passed innumerable walkers out in pairs or with their small dogs. I passed a place called “Sandy Bottoms” which advertised Baja Fish Tacos and might have started salivating.

But I didn’t stop. I ran out to the seashore and then turned around and stopped at a small entrance to the beach, where I took in the views and had some water (thanks, drinkbelt!).

The beach looks pretty much the same anywhere, but I was interested to see the difference that four miles can make. Whereas the beach where we park and walk to work is wide and dominated by dunes, this beach was narrow. It made me remember that our usual walking route sports signs advertising that is was selected as one of America’s best restored beaches. My grandparents always talk about how the hurricanes hammer the beach and destroy the dunes, literally washing them into the ocean. At Navarre Beach State Park, the dunes had been rebuilt, whereas a few miles away, they were left to fend for themselves. In time, they will accumulate more sand, but for now, the beach is much smaller.

It was still just as beautiful. And so quiet! There weren’t even any early-morning fishermen out setting up.

After running back to my car – I ran 9 or 10 miles, something I haven’t done since, hmm, October? – I stretched, put on a dry shirt, and headed out for breakfast. That was, after all, my reward for getting up early on my day off.

As far as I can tell, there’s only one permanent coffeeshop in Navarre. I have passed it a few times. It’s called Higher Ground, and it resides in a cute, tiny building with a fresh fruit stand behind it. When I walked in, I was greeted by sunny, bright colors on the walls, vintage prints and advertisements, and some cheery yet calm Flamenco guitar music in the background. I took a booth and was soon sipping a capuccino and perusing a menu.

Was I tempted by the gourmet veggie quiche? Yes. What about the buttered croissant with fresh fruit? Why, yes.

But I could not order those things. When I imagine a perfect southern breakfast, I think of one thing: biscuits and sausage gravy. Not the crappy kind, but the good kind. This idealistic breakfast vision was born in Wakulla Springs, Florida, some years ago, when I stayed at the lodge of the State Park (which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places) with my parents and had amazing biscuits and gravy for breakfast in the beautiful dining room.

And Higher Ground specifically advertised biscuits and gravy. I had to try them. I ordered “The Eye Opener”: one biscuit topped with an egg and another with sausage, all covered in gravy.

It was amazing.

I loved the food, the atmosphere, and the nice women who ran the place. I was tempted to order another coffee to go, but since I haven’t been drinking coffee in the morning, that seemed like it could lead to an overcaffeinated disaster. I also wanted to buy some more baked goods from the counter, but reined myself in. Overall, I was so happy to find a place like this in Navarre; before now I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was just a giant strip mall of a town with no local, independent character.

Could I eat breakfast here every day?

Ah. But then it wouldn’t be a bribe.