But it was hard getting out of Los Angeles.
First, Mike and I had to say goodbye. Which meant drinking and smoking and snorting cocaine in Burbank. I said goodbye to the gang at Pago Pagos--goodbye to Bob and Brenda, to Jeff, to Julia, Lenny and all the others. Mike and I had rented a cheap room along Olive Avenue for the last night--a place close to our down-and-out pals and the Burbank Airport--and when we got back we did more coke and talked and went wild-eyed. We set an alarm, as the flight was early, but the alarm never went off. So, I missed my flight.
Mike got me to the airport. We were hungover and deflated. I said goodbye. The person at the counter was nice enough and found me a later flight, though I had to wait for hours. In the meantime, I had to try and contact Matt to let him know I wouldn't be in Pensacola when he was in Pensacola (I had no concept about how big or small Pensacola was, or how far it was from the little town where he lived). This was a time with no cell phones or emails. I'd set most of the trip up by letter and I'm not sure Matt even had a phone. I had no credit card and was poor and cheap, but I had Mike's father's phone card number (because of work) and I guiltily used that to try and contact Matt. All I could do was leave a message with his workplace (the Paradise Cafe) and with the airline counter at the Florida airport.
Finally, off I flew, feeling like a hundred pesos. Lousy. I don't recall much of the flight, it was probably only the third or fourth flight in my life (my family never flew and I never took a flight until I was in my mid-twenties, from L.A. to Chicago). I believe I changed planes in New Orleans, got on a little puddle-jumper to Pensacola, which, though not a small town, was a very small city. It was late in the evening when I arrived--what with the time difference from California and missing my flight. Matt had been and gone and, after a call, he could not come get me until after the restaurant closed, which was like 11pm, and after the 1 & 1/2 hr drive to Pensacola. So, I sat and waited. And waited. The airport cleared of people until it was just me and the cleaning lady. And the cleaning lady--who only spoke Spanish--kept staring at me and asking (I think--my Spanish is very limited) if I had no place to go. I thought that maybe she was coming on to me, but wasn't too sure. Anyway, I was going to wait for Matt.
And, after midnight, he showed up.
I hadn't seen him in quite a while. He'd been living in Key West with Brock (who was still down there) and some crazy guy from New York City. Matt and I drove off in his car--the same broken down red Chevy Vega that we'd driven up to Alaska and back in 1983. I was still dazed, confused, crapped-out. I could not gather in where we were, what direction we were headed in: he drove down an endless strip of highway, flat and dark except for the sprinkling of lights. In my mind, after having been in L.A. and working all over SoCal, it was all part of Pensacola, all the same city stung out for miles. Though, really, it was a series of towns and communities along the Gulf of Mexico.
Finally, there was an obvious break in the lights and community, then a drive down a little, quiet, forested road, to another road, and I could smell the sea as we headed into the town of Grayton Beach.
Again, it was dark and I was bleary and my surroundings, my understanding of where I was, did not really register. I was in some backwards burg in north Florida, yes, but I had no idea of its proximity to anything else.
Matt pulled up to some small, dark blue house and we got out. I got my U.S. Mail duffle bag and stowed it inside. And inside was Holly and some other people who I met and they told Matt that there was a big party--that some bar up the road had closed down without paying the staff and the staff had stolen all the liquor and they were all drinking it up at Sam's house in town. Whoa. So, off we went, walking down sandy streets, to Sam's house and Sam was a young woman and her house was packed with other young people, just mobbed, with music blasting and heavy drinking and cigarette smoking and marijuana smoking and other things going on. And I was new in town and spent and had come from the smoggy-dry air of complex L.A. to this heavy-lidded humid air of tiny town Grayton and--Jesus from Mars--here were all these wild young people partying down.
I jumper right in.
I got my fourth wind and we were up all night. At some point Matt and I and a few others I'd met left the party and hiked out to these dunes, sand beneath me, but I was tired drunk stoned and, again, it just didn't really register with me, Matt and I sat and talked, talked, talked until the sun came up. And when the sun came up I was blown away.
Grayton Beach was Right On The fucking Water! The sand was white as milk, white as salt, sugar, calcium, snow. It was silky and pure and stacked into tall dunes and laid out flat all the way to a calm Gulf of Mexico, whose water was a bright blue and green and bluegreen/turquoise. I. Could. Not. Believe. It! Here was this sleepy little town of low beach bungalows with sand streets and a wide white beach and blue calm water and little amber/whiskey/tea colored lakes and streams and limegreen pines, sabal palms, live oaks entrenched with hanging moss and other sandy plants; here was a town full of wild young people, bohemians like me and Matt and Brock, people easy-going and friendly and sweet and Southern. There was the beach and lakes and woods and dunes and a big bay to the north. The sun had come up and revealed all of this to me with its light and I was very happy.
I was very happy for almost all my time in Grayton, along Highway 30-A in south Walton County in the Florida panhandle. I ended up living in Gulf Trace and Sea Grove Beach and up towards the Bay--and in Destin, in Pensacola--as well as Grayton--but south Walton, the whole panhandle, was all and still is all Grayton Beach to me. I can't think of anywhere quite like it and would not sell my years there for the world. The place changed while I was there, of course. It was too beautiful and individual not to be discovered. In fact, I was back there for the first time in many many years last May. And it was crowded, the south county developed and bustling, Grayton grown and a little shabby (a bad shabby, not the good shabby I remember--of course). But it was still Grayton. The place was still stunning. Only, now it belonged to throngs of people. Before, it only belonged to "us", it only belonged to me.