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Making Waves in Alabama | Nathaniel Lawler

Making Waves in Alabama | Nathaniel Lawler

Finding Unexpected Adventure on the Gulf Coast

I munch on my Louisiana Red Beans and Rice, sitting in the back of my silver SUV with the hatch splayed open. My face is painted by neon lighting that screams of the best that Fort Walton, on Florida’s Gulf coast, has to offer, and I assure myself that this is most definitely the quirkiest place I’ve ever enjoyed one of my Backpacker’s Pantry meals. 

But first, let’s back up a bit, to that time I moved to Alabama. It’s the reason I was able to make this beach-bound road trip, after all. 

Moving from Colorado to Alabama, and the shock that followed

“You mov’d to Alabama from Colorado? What’s wrong with you? Why n’da hell you do that?”

I’m surprised by most Alabamians’ unchanging response when they learn of my move from the west towards the deep south. It’s a strange thing when so many seem to share a common disdain for their home.

“I moved to Birmingham because my brother lives here,” I tell them, “It seemed like the right time to get some quality time with him.”

“Well,” they say, the conversation now too personal with family as the new topic of discussion, “hope you have fun in Alabama.”

Getting to know Alabama’s wild and beautiful side

The wild biodiversity, seemingly endless systems of creeks and rivers, and incredible limestone for climbing all have made Alabama really enjoyable. 

However, I do miss scrambling up the talus field with my climbing partner Luke, trudging through knee-deep drift during a weekend of snow camping, and the other grandeur that the landscape out west provides. Most of all, I find myself missing the times I’ve spent on the west coast, mornings and evenings on a board floating in the Pacific. I miss that feeling and I have for some time.

I need to get to the ocean. I need to surf. 

Road tripping from Alabama to Florida in search of surf

I’m off work for two days. I have a board. A storm swell is pushing 4-foot waves directly into the Florida panhandle. It’s a four-hour drive through Alabama to the nearest ocean at Fort Walton, in Florida’s panhandle. 

Before I know it, I’m in my SUV, camping setup thrown in the back and ready to go. As I hurtle south down I-65, it never seems to feel like I’m getting any closer to the ocean. Endless weaving through Alabama backroads has me wondering if Siri is lying about the direction she’s taking me. 

Nevertheless, after a few rest stops, gas-station coffees, and picking up a surf leash that had been stashed behind an A/C unit for me at a local Fort Walton surf shop, I finally rolled into the oceanside town. I’m greeted by a surplus of fluorescent lighting that makes sleeping in the beach parking lot quite difficult, but my stoke is still high. 

Surfing surprises in the south

The wind blowing towards me from the ocean is cool in the morning. As I suit up, finishing the rest of the Red Beans and Rice from last night’s dinner, two other surfers walking through the parking lot wave at me. 

I wax up my bright yellow board, the salty breeze smelling the same as it does in California. The grogginess of an early morning is ever-familiar. The chill of the water first hitting my toes is exactly the same. 

It’s always a joy to be surprised by circumstances. Today, Alabama and it’s surrounds are surprising me. Everyone told me there was nothing to do here, that I’d always be wishing I’d be back out west, but in this moment I’m pleasantly shocked to find myself living in Alabama, waking up to surf choppy storm swell, happy as I’ve ever been to be in the water. 

Colorado is Colorado, California is California, but it turns out Alabama ain’t so bad either. My Adventure is here for now, and it seems that it tastes a bit sweeter when it’s has been harder to find. 

Making Waves in Alabama | Nathaniel Lawler

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