Last October I found myself in Rosemary Beach, Florida, and while I was there heard that this was Karl Rove's new hometown. Forget Texas and DC - one of the most influential political operatives of the last decade lived in a million dollar home in this upscale New Urbanist community on Florida's Emerald Coast.
I had a plan. I was going to find Karl Rove's house and stand outside it and do something - I didn’t know what - but I felt like I had to make a statement about my complete disgust with him and his cold Machiavellian ways. He left a trail of tanked elections and dirty tricks behind him when he abruptly left Washington in 2007 to spend more time with his family. Since then he's ignored a subpoena by Congress investigating the firing of U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department and was found in contempt of Congress when he failed to show up. I felt like Rove had no scruples, no ethics, was a two-faced hypocrite, and deserved to be found and at the very least, mocked.
I went to my carriage house rental - an adorable Pan-Caribbean style carriage house with off-white walls, white woodwork, dark wood slat blinds, rattan furniture, and a sleeping loft - and immediately threw open the door to the second story porch. I could see the blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico about 40 yards away at the end of the narrow cobblestone street. Two-story carriage houses and three-story houses were jammed onto the lots on either side of the street, giving it a neat, European feel. The houses were stained lovely earth tones - all community-approved colors - and there were no lawns or gardens per se, just landscaping with native plants. On all the porches and verandas were chairs and side tables in a state of constant readiness for an inevitable cocktail hour.
But something was amiss. As I sat on my porch and looked at the Gulf and thought about how I was going to find Rove, I heard a mockingbird sing, sing, sing from the top of an oak tree across the narrow street. I looked around and saw a pigeon perched on the silver tin roof of the neighbor's house. A distant mockingbird called back beginning a duet with my bird. I looked back down to the Gulf. Still there. Still beautiful and calm with blue and green streaks of water hitting the white sugar-sand shoreline. I looked up and down the street and got an eerie feeling. There wasn't a person in sight. It was as if a neutron bomb had gone off somewhere in the little village and KABLAM all the people had vaporized.
I went to the Rosemary Beach rental office and asked about the people. How many people live here and where were they? I was told that although there are over 600 housing units in the 107-acre community of Rosemary Beach, only 105 people lived there year round. Most of these homes are vacation or second homes or maybe third homes and are valued between almost $1 million to $8 million. Route 30A bisects the town and only five people live on the south side - the Gulf side - of the highway and the rest of the houses and carriage houses are either for rent or vacation houses. In early fall after the beach umbrellas are folded down for the season that becomes the creepy side of town.
I grabbed a bike from the bicycle rental office and headed out over the boardwalks and the cobblestone streets of the ghost town. Once I crossed route 30A I did see signs of life - several women in their little tennis skirts and visors hitting fluorescent yellow balls on the clay courts and one man walking two very small dogs - but that was about it. No cars, no other bikes, no body. I rode past house after deserted house looking at the verandas and porches, wondering if I'd see Rove. Then wondering for moment if I'd recognize Rove if I saw him but I dismissed that because of course I'd know him - he was the nerdy mean kid who grew up to be the nerdy mean adult. I'd know him.
I rode on, my little Sony camera bouncing around in the wire basket attached to the front of my white comfort bike with the fat tires and the foot brakes. Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, the camera jiggled against the wire basket as I rode along a boardwalk on the edge of the town. I came to a little butterfly garden and it being October, scores of monarchs flitted from flower to flower hoping to get enough fuel before crossing the Gulf of Mexico on their annual migration. How do they do it? I wondered as I watched their paper-thin wings open and close while the insects drank in the nectar.
I headed toward one of the few lawns in the town - it was surrounded by houses whose big verandas and porches faced the grassy square. I walked my bike over to look in a small polygonal concrete lily pond hoping to see some koi or a frog or something besides a few lily pads and lots of algae. As I looked in the water I felt the presence of someone else and looked up. A teenaged boy was sitting in a rattan chair on the porch of a tan-colored house directly on the other side of the concrete pond. His head was buried in a book but I suddenly felt like I was trespassing and intruding on his Saturday morning routine.
I got back on my bike and pedaled slowly down the paths and boardwalks and paved streets - meandering toward the ghost town and my little carriage house. I thought about the elements that make up a community and knew that just because you called something a community it didn’t make it one. I loved the houses with their Pan-Caribbean and New Orleans influences and liked the whole walkability of the place but it was soulless both literally and figuratively. Only the rich, rich could live here. There was no municipal or community government (although there was a big white Dutch-inspired Town Hall used for social gatherings like weddings), no school, one teensy playground, no place to buy groceries or gasoline, no church - none of the things that usually define a community; the things that tie people to place. Rosemary Beach was a collection of lovely, beautifully designed houses and that was it. It's seemed a travesty to call it a community.
Then it made sense to me that Karl Rove would chose to live here - a place where he didn't have to interact with other people. An empty place. A faux community. A place where the alienated and disconnected could live without having to even make an effort to be friendly. A vacant place.
When I got back to my carriage house I googled Karl Rove and Rosemary Beach and, of course, easily found out where he lived and realized it was the house next to the one where the boy had been sitting. I rode back later and stood and looked at the house for a few minutes - a white house with white blinds and a couple of green and yellow chairs on the porch. A garbage can was sitting near the garage. And I was struck by the ordinariness of it all. I had come looking for someone who had affected the political course of our country from his involvement with Nixon and CREEP to serving as George W. Bush's Chief of Staff, and I found him. And then I didn’t know what to do. The fact that the boy might be in the house next door threw a monkey wrench into my small-minded plans at low-level property destruction. That tiny portion of the faux community suddenly became real because of the kid. It’s like I came out of a trance because the boy made me realize that I didn’t want to be sucked down to Rove’s level and behave in an underhanded sneaky way. This isn’t how I’d behave in my own community.
So I put up my kickstand, got on my white comfort bike, and rode back through the community that was as deep as an inch and as wide as a mile. And I couldn’t wait to get home to my village in Upstate New York where I knew I’d see my neighbors raking up the fallen leaves and walking their kids to the elementary school and waiting for the bus at the bus stop. I was going home to a community of people.
Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York where she writes for a variety of publications including the Atlantic, Audubon, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and Executive Traveler. Her book Falconer on the Edge: A Man, his Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin) will be out this spring.