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July 24, 2013

May: Inspiration from the beach at Santa Rosa

Local Column — Do you remember using turpentine? There was always a tin of it on my grandfather’s workbench. Dad used it to clean the paint from his brushes. Turpentine, mixed with beeswax or similar compounds, is used to make fine furniture wax and a protective covering over wood finishes. Even many modern chest rubs, such as Vicks’, still contain turpentine to assist in breaking up colds and congestion.

Would you believe that a mixture of turpentine and the Florida coast can produce an incredible elixir for many of life’s ailments? Founded in 1910 as the center of a thriving turpentine industry from Florida’s resources of oak, pine and terebinth trees, Santa Rosa Beach was one of Florida’s first communities to mix industry with tourism.

Located along a 26-mile stretch of the Florida Panhandle’s famed Emerald Coast, Santa Rosa is one of sixteen distinct beach neighborhoods in south Walton County. Wander up Florida’s state road 30A and you will find the gamut between luxury beach houses, planned communities, and small hidden one room beach homes. Unique artist colonies pepper the entire stretch of the coast. Dining opportunities range from 5-star masterpieces to food trucks and coastal shacks. Each community is known for its own traditions, style and Florida charm.

The entire area boasts natural scenic beauty, turquoise waters and white sandy beaches. “Travel + Leisure” magazine named the area among its “Best Beaches on Earth” for families. Yahoo! Travel named Santa Rosa Beach as one of its “10 Best Beach Destinations for 2011.” What used to be our family’s best-kept secret is fast becoming one of Florida’s vacation destinations. What keeps us coming back year after year?

Foremost, the area provides a real sense of community for families. The attendants and staff remember our faces from year to year. Local eateries like Stinky’s, La Playa, or Another Broken Egg become traditions for dining and fun. While more nightlife and adventure can be found twenty miles up the road in Destin, the beaches of South Walton — SoWal as myriad window decals state — hearken back to the small beach communities of an age gone by.

There is something about this area that stirs the creativity inside me. In an open area courtyard near the largest condominiums in Santa Rosa, the artists at Gulf Place work on their crafts and sell their wares. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, blown glass and pottery are just a few of the uniquely coastal items that can be enjoyed.

Just up the road sits Grayton Beach, a quaint village that has been a stopping point for notable artists and authors through the decades. Magnolias, pine trees and picket fences line the well-worn roads giving you the feeling that not much has changed in the last hundred years. Funky art, eclectic décor and edgy jazz and blues music make everyone smile, step lighter and sing along. Perhaps Grayton Beach’s unofficial slogan says it all: nice dogs, strange people.

This year I drove away from Santa Rosa with two ideas for books, three magazine articles, a plan for these columns for 2014, and a wish that I had one more week to watch the Gulf. As the tide brought waves consistently battering the shore, it became evident that this beach draws me not just because of the community or the creativity, but because it has found a way to embrace change, to see it against the unchanging backdrop of the Gulf.

With every wave, the coast line is altered slightly. With every movement, sand is shifted. This beach community has found ways to reason with hurricanes and compromise with oil spills. The economy of other communities dictates its own business and economy. Whether you need to change simply so that the tide doesn’t overcome your beach chair, or you need to change because tourists no longer are buying your New Kids on the Block beach towels, there is a sense here that change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

By taking home the lessons of community, creativity and change, you can make each of your days a walk along the beach.

— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast.

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