An Alien Landscape in SoWal:
Fog in the Coastal Dune Prairies of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
By Nic Stoltzfus
April 9th, 2014
I have had many great experiences down here at South Walton working on the Coastal Dune Lakes of Walton County (working title) documentary. I worked with my Dad, Elam, and our editor, Joey Dickinson, on filming a paddling event last October on Lake Powell. I kayaked through the Western lake outfall into the Gulf of Mexico. I have photographed many sunrises and sunsets along the area. And it truly is a beautiful area. One of my favorite days so far was in late February when I was assisting Dad as part of the Escape to Create program.
February 19th, 2014
We were busy today: Steve Newborn, a radio reporter from WUSF Public Media, drove up from Tampa to do a story on the coastal dune lakes. Elam, Steve, and I interviewed County Commissioner Cindy Meadows in her office that morning, took a break for lunch, and then interviewed park ranger Jeff Talbert of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park that afternoon.
After the interview with him he took us out on an exclusive “behind-the-scenes” tour of the dunes of Topsail. The four of us loaded up in one of the park’s oversize gas-powered golf cart (in these here parts we call them “gators”). Our destination was the dune lake prairie between Morris Lake and Campbell Lake. We arrived as the afternoon light was filtering in through the overhead clouds. I snapped a couple nice photos in the light and we kept walking through the dunes, headed to the highest dune at the park. As we walked eastward, the sun started arced closer towards the horizon and fog started filtering in. And a blanket of hushed water vapor enveloped the dunes. It was quite mystical—and I got the same feeling I did when I was at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan.
Dad and I went to Fushimi Inari around 4:00 in the afternoon (about the same time we were here at the dunes) and I got a strange feeling. The sun was slowly setting, light of day fading, and the tens of thousands of vermillion torii gates around us formed giant darkened monsters. It began to rain and the oversize cicadas that orchestrate Japan’s summers crescendoed with the arriving water. All around us objects casted shadows, doubt, and I felt strange premonitions of the past breathing down my neck, surrounding me. Lights by the temples struck on, adding to the strangeness. I got this sort of feeling that the past, present, and future were all around and that this moment was stuck—time suspended.
I don’t know why I felt that way then or now. Maybe it was because in Topsail the mist blocked the sunset and the light just hung there, an afterglow of the sunset and the tracking of time was lost to us, we were oblivious to the movement of Earth through the heavens and, for a spell, God stopped time. After we trekked back to the trail we got on the golf cart and headed out to the beach. The dunes had been blocking the sea breeze and when we got out into the ocean I could smell the salty air. As we drove down by the ocean, the cart headed back to the main office, I got this strong sense, an awareness of my own existence, and I wished that this moment could go on forever, this timeless loop that never ends. If I would have taken a series of pictures and stitched them together and run them over and over again as a .gif that is how it would have looked. The light from the golf cart in my left field of vision and the constant roaring and rushing of the waves coming in and the fading light from the day seeping into the ocean. Wave crash. Wave recedes. Over and over again. I held onto the bar of the cart and silently wished that this moment would never end, would span on for the rest of my life.
Perhaps this is what heaven is: when you are on your way up to the pearly gates you drive on a dusky evening past white sand, a salty smell of death and dankness of the human body hanging in the air. In a golf cart you drive heavenward towards St. Peter.
The ocean has feeling of a journey coming towards the end, a spiraling towards the center of a seashell. This concept is hard to capture in words. What I mean is that the ocean has this timelessness to it, this ever-cycling, ever-looping feedback of waves crashing down on one another and it is ceaseless. Waves have been crashing on the shorelines since time immemorial. The dinosaurs heard waves crashing on the shores of Pangaea. The people-groups who walked over the Bering Strait heard it when they spanned out and reached their destinations—the present day lands of California, Florida, Mexico. Columbus heard waves lapping up along the dock as he sailed out into the New World.
Jeff stopped the golf cart for a moment at the beach and we got out. By this time the sun had set and we were walking around in near dark. We walked up and approached a dip in the sand that stretched towards the gulf. With the sound of waves was another sound. Two sounds that are rarely heard together. And that is the sound of the ocean and the sound of a babbling stream. The sound of a stream filtering down through the outfall of the dune lake and out into the ocean. Where else can you hear that? Where else?
The four of us paused to take in the scene and then got back on the cart and headed back to the main office. I don’t know how everyone else felt, but I felt like an astronaut returning from Mars or some other alien landscape. An alien landscape right here in South Walton.