At twenty-two hundred I leave metro Atlanta in my rented pickup, chasing a blood red crescent moon towards my battered homeland.
I stop in Columbus, Georgia, at a waffle house, for what I assume might be the last hot meal for a while. The waitress is friendly, curious about my pilot uniform. Sheepishly I explain that I just hadn’t had time to take it off, but wanted to order dinner first—it will be my first meal of the day.
When she asks if I’m going or coming, I tell her that I’m from Panama City, and heading down to help my parents.
Her reaction is the same as everyone else I’ve told since arriving.
A face that suddenly drops.
I have hash browns, all the way, a pecan waffle, and a side of sausage, and wash it down with water.
On the road once more, the moon is gone.
Sixty kilometers north of Dothan, Alabama, I begin to see the first little hints of storm damage, the first signs that something isn’t quite right; dead wood here and there that had fallen into the ditch. Leaves, small branches.
It increases quickly.
At fifty kilometers, it becomes noticeably consistent but sporadic, isolated—the sort of damage you’d expect to see from any major storm.
The power is still on, the lights, the picket fences, all mostly intact. There are a few trees on the side of the road, and more deadwood broken over the guardrails that protected the four-lane from the encroaching swamp.
Forty-five kilometers north of Dothan, the fallen branches begin to multiply—still a little here, a little there. The lights, still on… the signs? Still unharmed.
I pass a lumberyard. At midnight, there were workers moving lumber into piles outside. Before I can ponder this, I am passed by a convoy of seven electrical trucks, going the opposite direction.
Inside of 40km, more fallen trees… except these are young and healthy, not deadwood.
Trees that shouldn’t fall.
I pass a hotel.. bright white lights are on, and the parking lot is full of electrical trucks… Clearly staging, but for what I cannot say.
I pass a car in the median. It is parked at an angle in the grass, nose towards the ditch. The windows are down, but nobody is inside.
Mostly things are in good shape… and then I see the first fallen giant—a mature oak tree, with a trunk as thick as my truck. It’s mature and green, healthy, and has a full root system now hanging into the air.
And then I pass another.
The shoulder, normally pristine, is now lined with detritus.
I leave out the forest and hummock, and come into an area of wiregrass.
I pass a mailbox.
It is askew.
A stop sign is pointing at the highway instead of the side road that it serves.
Three billboards in a row have no faces.
It is 62°… this night … you’ve never seen so many stars.
I pass through Dothan, then decide to stop for gas now. The first gas station only has premium and is cash-only. The second is cash only. The third has caution tape cordoning off its pumps. The fourth has people at pumps, just sitting in their cars, but each pump has a yellow ‘out of order’ bonnet on the handle.
The fifth station has 92 and 89.
All of the gas stations advertise a $50 limit.
I fill my tank and head south out of Dothan, feeling little jolts of emotion every time I see a sign that says “Panama City” or “231 south.”
Words that, to me, have always meant home. And coming home has always been a happy time.
I drive on. My unease grows.
After a while, my subconscious mind puts a label to the vague feeling of wrongness and danger.
There are no street signs.
Just before the Florida state line, everything goes black.
ot even at I-10 yet, I am already in a war zone. No power. What trees I can see in my headlights are tangled wreckage, many still intruding into the road, four days after the storm.
I pass a demolished, twisted gas station. The awning is crumpled like aluminum foil, the windows broken out, the roof destroyed.
The persistent smell of death lingers on the night air—many did not survive this storm, two legs and four. I am in a world thrown out of time, where people lurk in burned-out shacks and huddle around coleman lanters in the ruins of their roofless, wall-less houses.
Every five hundred meters, things get worse. All the trees are down, all the houses reduced to rubble. Cars and trucks are overturned and abandoned, some destroyed… and I’m still in the outskirts.
Alford, my dear old peanut brittle fudge boiled peanuts tourist trap on the way to Dothan, has been turned into a twisted ghost town, black and collapsed, with ghouls prowling the blackness behind the missing glass of the windows. Tens of thousands are trapped by trees in the wilderness of the panhandle, stuck alone on roads impassible. Forgotten?
The moonless sky is spattered with more stars than you’ve ever seen, and not the slightest light to spoil them, while below these tens of thousands of people struggle for survival. Overworked, sleepless, bewildered volunteers wander in shock; where does one begin?
This is my home; these, my people. My kind, caring, poor people. And yet they are also animals, and the seams of civilization wear thin on the conscience of those fighting for survival—they help each other now, pulling together, but you can feel the strain on the social contract.
I grew up here, between the Marianna Caverns and falling Waters state park. I know this land; the air; the water; the trees. It is my domain, and yet I am terrified of the twisted fragments in the dark, the devastation that descends into the shadows which straddle the road…
This is a wild, wasted land which I do not know. It is a nightmare version of home, a horror movie given form. Fearing the worsening aphotic ruin, I turn around to find a lighted parking lot to rest and wait for dawn.