A few months ago, while sitting on a park bench outside a crowded restaurant, it occurred to me that it might be time to write a book set in my new stomping grounds. I mentioned that idea to Older Daughter, who was with me, and within about 45 minutes, we had the germ of an idea for a series of connected books loosely based on some of my favorite fairy tales.
I had a book to finish before I could start writing, but it’s time to get to work now, which means it’s time to actually research this place I’ve been living for the past 8 years. And so, in the spirit of that research, I’m here today to share with you five things you might not know about Florida’s Gulf Coast region. They’re 5 things I didn’t know, anyway.
Number 1: Pensacola, Florida could have been the oldest continually inhabited community in North America if not for some really bad luck. Tristán de Luna y Arellano came to New Spain from Balboa in, you know, Old Spain, and, in 1559, was sent on an expedition to Florida with the intent of colonizing the area. They landed, and de Luna sent one ship back “home” to announce their safe arrival. He sent a couple of ships to Spain and dispatched some parties to explore the area, leaving most of their supplies on ships in the harbor. Turns out, that was a bad decision, because a hurricane with storm surge hit before they could unload their supplies. A number of sailors were killed, six ships were sunk, a seventh was grounded and their supplies were ruined. The explorers moved inland to an abandoned native city they’d found and waited there for relief supplies to be sent from Mexico. Those supplies kept them alive for a few months, at which point they moved north into Georgia.
For some reason, (can’t imagine why) tensions began to run high between de Luna and his men, so he was replaced as governor in November 1560. There were exploring parties milling about for the next 100 years or so, but the viceroy’s advisers had determined that Northwest Florida was too dangerous to settle, so the area was largely ignored for 137 years or so. So while Pensacola is an old city and is America’s first settlement, the honor of being the oldest continuously inhabited city in North America goes to St. Augustine.
Number 2: Pensacola is known as the City of Five Flags because five different national governments have controlled the area during its history. The first, of course, would have been Spain, then France, then Britain, then the Confederate States of America, and, finally the United States of America. As a result the cultural history and the architecture is rich and varied and always interesting.
Number 3: This area really is home to the best beaches in America. The area from Pensacola east to Panama City is generally known as the Emerald Coast, aptly named because on most days, the water in the Gulf looks emerald green, especially in contrast to our sugar-white sand beaches. The area east of Panama City is often referred to as the Forgotten Coast, although I’m not sure why. Or maybe I forgot. Seriously, I think it’s because the Emerald Coast is becoming more tourist-oriented all the time, while the Forgotten Coast isn’t–at least not yet.
Number 4: It’s Florida. There are gators. Not all over the place as I imagined when I first moved here, but there is the occasional sighting of a gator in the area, maybe on the golf course, maybe in someone’s office parking lot checking out the cars. You never know. There are also bears, and bear sightings are actually more common than gator sightings. That’s because we have more farmland and forestland than beaches. True, there’s beach on every inch of the coast, along the Panhandle, down one side of the southern part of the state and up the other, but the forest grows thick and lush right up to the beach almost everywhere. There are reports several times a year in my community of someone’s dog being hurt in a bear attack, and it’s not all that uncommon to hear a friend relating how a bear raided their garbage or garden overnight. I was used to the deer crossing signs I’d grown up seeing in Montana and Utah, but the bear crossing signs here kind of freaked me out a little in the beginning.
Number 5: The Panhandle area of the Gulf Coast is really part of the Deep South, less like you might imagine Florida to be and more like you might expect Alabama to be. Some people around here refer to this area as “Lower Alabama.” As a result, we say “y’all,” with the plural “all y’all” or sometimes even, “y’all two.” (as in “Y’all two need to knock that off.”) Though we have a large population of people from other parts of the country and the world living here because it’s a large military community, local accents are thick. Words that are a single syllable where I come from take two- and sometimes three syllables to pronounce around here. Although, to be honest, the accents seem less thick to me now than they did 8 years ago. Some people I thought I would never understand now barely have an accent at all. Amazing how that happens.
And there you have it: Five things I didn’t know about this area before I moved here, and five things you may not know either.