NORTH FLORIDA — As a child, Jerry Guilford lived all over the world thanks to his father’s military career — France, Texas, Michigan. By the time he was in the eighth grade, though, his family settled in Blountstown, a small north Florida town with just a couple thousand residents.
“Very backwoods and exactly between Panama City and Tallahassee — 50 miles to Panama City, 50 miles to Tallahassee,” he said.
That’s where he fell in love with the Apalachicola River, which he’s boated on regularly since he was a teen.
Now, he’s in the middle of the trip of a lifetime after leaving Blountstown via the Apalachicola River Nov. 16 on a pontoon boat he converted into a houseboat and heading to Texas, if all goes as planned.
“I’m a professional on that river. It’s real beautiful, but I’m only familiar with that river down 30 to 35 miles,” Guilford said. “I’ve always wanted to see what was beyond that portion of it. I had the vision burning in my brain when I was 16, the winding river and the swamps and what else was out there, and it never went away.”
That’s when he decided that one day he would see the entire river by boat, far past the familiar areas he knew like “the back of (his) hand,” and he wouldn’t stop there. He’d keep going past the river’s end and explore other bodies of water along the Florida Panhandle, the other Gulf Coast states and anywhere else he felt like going.
While he’s certainly fulfilling his teenage dream on his current adventure, the trip is about more than that for Guilford; it’s also a way for the 70-year-old to honor the memory of his son, Michael, who died in 2007.
Jerry Guilford is traveling from Florida to Texas in a houseboat he built from a pontoon boat. (Courtesy of Jerry Guilford)
As a father, he shared his dream trip with his son, a student at the University of Florida.
He asked his father, “When we get out of college is there a rule or a law that you have to go to work right away?”
They talked about taking the trip together once Michael graduated and traveling across the Intracoastal Waterway by boat. They thought that they could even get all the way to Brownsville, Texas.
In 2007, this dream was cut short when his son, only 19 years old, was killed in a single-vehicle motorcycle crash.
He was visiting Michael in Gainesville the night of the tragic accident. His son was a member of the Gators football team, playing for UF icon coach Urban Meyer alongside Tim Tebow.
Michael’s teammates nicknamed him “Sunshine” because he had long blonde hair similar to quarterback Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass in the movie “Remember the Titans.”
When the team gathered at Meyer’s home for a meeting that evening, he left his father in his apartment.
“He hugged me and said, ‘I love you,’ and he went out the door,” Guilford said.
Afterwards, some players continued to hang out, showing off their motorcycles to impress a group of girls, taking them on short rides. Michael took one girl, a junior, for a ride on the back of his Kawasaki — a “crotch rocket,” Guilford said — and both died in the crash.
“Nobody knows what happened,” the father said. “It was something no parent deserves.”
He was asleep in Michael’s bed when authorities and his son’s roommate, also a football player, came to tell him the tragic news.
Shaken by his son’s death, Guilford pushed aside any thoughts of their grand boat trip for years. Then, slowly, it started to creep back into his mind.
“I’m thinking if that had been reversed, would I want Michael to take a lawn chair out to the cemetery and waste his life looking at that tombstone or moving on with his life and enjoy it?” he said. “I would want him to go, go get it, and I couldn’t quit thinking about that. I think he’d say, ‘Dad, remember the trip. Go get it.'”
He spent much of his career as a contractor and carpenter, before getting into real estate.
“So, I got a little pontoon boat. I know how to build. I’ve built about 150 homes in a 30-year career,” he said.
Guilford stripped the boat down to its bare bones and turned it into a houseboat. He insulated it, installing cedar paneling for the walls and ceiling, and wired it for electricity like he would for a home.
“It’s nothing real fancy, but it’s nice enough, you know?” he said
As he built his boat and got ready for his trip, he lived at a hunting camp, where he also served as its caretaker.
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When the boat’s construction was complete, he sold most of his belongings, including his pick-up truck.
“Anything I couldn’t bring with me — gone,” Guilford said.
Since he left a little over two weeks ago, he’s made it about 100 miles from Blountstown. He’s used Google Maps to plan his trip and track his route, especially when he’s so far from the coastline that he can no longer see land.
“I’ve seen more big water than a small-town country boy has ever dreamed of,” he said. “North Bay, East Bay, West Bay, Choctawhatchee Bay, Lake Wimico. Those are not bays. That’s an ocean. Just takes a little bit of a breeze to make one of them get your attention. I’ve been more than scared at times; I’ve been a little horrified, is what I’m telling you.”
He’s currently in Destin Bay, where he stopped to meet his daughter, son-in-law and 6-month-old grandson — named Michael, after his son — for Thanksgiving.
Guilford’s goal is to make it to Texas, but he’s 100 miles from his next major stop on his route, Mobile Bay in Alabama. From there, the trip gets more dangerous in his pontoon-turned-houseboat.
“Mobile Bay is serious. You’ve better watch the weather,” he said.
He plans to stay on the eastern side of the bay for a while and befriend more experienced sailors to learn whether or not it would be smart of him to cross it and enter the Intracoastal Waterway alone in his boat.
“When I get there, I’ll mop floors or wash tables. I’ll do whatever it takes to stay there a while and learn everything I can,” Guilford said. “That may be the end of the line. I don’t want to get out there (in the bay) and get in trouble. But I won’t know until I get there.”
He’s not sure if he’ll ever go back to Blountstown, even if he doesn’t make it to Texas.
No matter what happens during the remainder of his trip, he’s not done dreaming, he said. “I want to go to the Outback in Australia and catch animals that are rarely seen. I used to catch rattlesnakes in school, cage them up and sell them. People would pay $1 a foot for them.”
Guilford would also like to compete on “America Ninja Warrior,” a reality show where athletes tackle challenging obstacle courses.
“Listen, I can do that. I’ll go up that wall like a squirrel,” he said. “I see them kids falling and I’m like, how did they just fall? I have real strong upper body and my core is solid. I’ve even googled Ninja Warrior gyms along my path.”
And if nothing else, he hopes others are inspired by his story.
“It might inspire somebody that’s stuck in a little ol’ job, working in a hardware store or grocery store or maybe they’re a prison guard, and they hate it, but they get a check every two weeks,” Guilford said. “Baby, that’s not life. Life’s too short. Life is too beautiful and short, and we have just one short shot at it.”
He added, “You’ve got a whole lot less tomorrows than you did yesterday and if you want to do something, don’t worry about the money. The money doesn’t have anything to do with it. Just make it happen.”