A Drive to Pickens

A Drive to Pickens

This short story was written in 2011. It is a true story with the exception that the Blue Angels did not fly by that day. As local Pensacolians know, along with thousands of Navy men who have been stationed here, we are treated to their aerial feats quite frequently. So to include them in my little story of a day on Santa Rosa Island, is not far from the truth at all. They just did not fly by the day I helped the young couple get their car out of the sand. This is a story of the natural beauty found in the Gulf South and of the gift one can give to oneself, in giving.

A Drive to Pickens

I often drive out to Fort Pickens, when I can spare an hour or two. It is located on the west end of Santa Rosa Island, the last 6 miles of which are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Certain stretches of the island are little more than a sandbar.

Driving with all the windows down, I watch the white sand glisten around me. The green Gulf rushes by me on the left, the Bay on my right. The sea oats bend gently, their gold and green the only accent colors on the sugary sand.

As I get closer to the end of the island, the vegetation becomes more abundant. The live oaks there are forever small by live oak standards, having endured decades of Gulf winds. They share the sandy soil with the shortleaf pines, the palmettos and the majestic straight trunks of the yellow pine.

Fort Pickens comes into view. The road squeezes through the thick, brick walls, built during the 19th century. At the time, the Pass was just off the walls of the fortress.  Early etchings show the waves crashing up against the Fort. But the island is shifting ever so slowly to the west and now the Point is several hundred yards away.

Fort Pickens, used by the military for so many years, is now part of the National Park System. I continue past it and drive through an area of white frame structures, trimmed in kelly green. I find it fascinating these buildings have survived so many hurricanes. Yet there they stand, just as they always have:  unpretentious, classic, southern coastal architecture with porches that wrap around and plenty of windows to take advantage of the persistent breeze.

The red summer wildflower, mixes in with the gold oats and the tall green grasses. There are few trees at the Point.

I park my car and though it is midsummer, few people are about. I like that. When I get out of my car, a man speaks amicably to me about the beauty of the day as he loads up his rods and reels.

“Did you catch anything?” I ask.

“No, but I don’t mind,” he answered. “It’s just so great to be here.”

“Yes, it is,” I reply. “I’m going to go walk the Point. One of my favorite things to do.”

“Well, you have a wonderful day!” He nodded with a smile, and I was on my way.

Those not of the South often misunderstand this kind of friendliness. Most likely the fisherman and I will never see each other again, but we shared a bit of warmth and spread a little joy. That’s all. No expectations, no preconceived ideas, no judgments, no fear. I wish people in other areas of the country would do the same.

The walk I take is long. I start inside the Pass at the mouth of Pensacola Bay. There are a few scuba divers and some young families. Fishing rods are propped up in the sand and their owners watch them carefully for any significant jerk. I am careful to walk under or around the fishing lines. A young man and his girlfriend give me a smile of appreciation.

Stopping at buckets to see what they have caught, the fishermen are happy to share their stories of the day’s catch. Their accents are quite thick, and I know they have driven an hour or more from the north end of the county. No matter what their station in life, I realize they are not lacking in the finer things. We smile as we recognize our commonalities.

Less than a half mile into my walk, I realize there is no one else in sight. The pristine white sand stretches in front of me. I have it all to myself. And I thank God.

The tide is going out, and the current is very strong.

The Pass is not wide here, perhaps a quarter mile. The Lighthouse and Fort Barrancas are in clear view on the other side. The Navy has a base there and beachcombers are often treated to a surprise airshow as the young pilots practice their maneuvers. For now it is quiet. I can only hear the wind and the water. Then a distant motorboat passes and suddenly, the Blue Angels fly over in perfect formation. They may be coming in from practicing their flight operations, or they may be returning home from a show. They are low, so I wave…and I hope at least one of the six pilots has seen me. I smile. Then it is quiet, and again I hear only the wind and the water.

It gets deep very quickly in the Pass. Within a few feet from shore it can drop to eight feet.

The sand looks yellow through the shallow water, then, there is a gradation in the color from gold to pale green to a deeper and deeper green. It is so beautiful. I step in to feel the current and cool off. I go under and gaze at the color gradation from below. I decide to wait to swim until I reach the Gulf side.

From the time I was a girl, I have said a small prayer while walking the beaches.  “Lord, help me to find one small treasure today, just one.”

The shells are seldom plentiful here along the northwestern coast of Florida. However after a storm, you can usually do some good shelling and sometimes nature will bestow enough of one particular specimen to line the beach. Sometimes it will be sand dollars and sometimes a type of jellyfish. More often than not, there are few shells to be found other than the olive shell, scallops or the common coquina. Tiny in size, and displaying a dizzying array of colors, the coquinas live where the waves meet the shore. Walking this line, I come across patch after patch of them. As the waves push the sand back, they dig hurriedly back into their home. The ones that do not make it are left by the receding tide to die and dry out. As they dry, their beautiful shells open wide to resemble so well a butterfly, hence their commonly used name, the Butterfly Shell. These shells always lie gently on the sand, pushed up by the waves and sprinkled amongst the broken fragments of other shells, coloring the shore.

The Portuguese Man-o-War is a visually welcome sight with its vibrant blue bubble and violet stinging nettles. When washed up, it sits gently at the water’s edge. Yet, its looks are deceiving; the sting it delivers is known to be one of the worst in the Gulf.

Repeating to myself, “A treasure, just one treasure today, Lord.” I walk with my head bent down to take in all the wonders at my feet—patterns in the sand, the patches of seaweed, the shells, broken and whole.

I pick up a few small scallop shells for their bright color and leave the faded ones in the sand.

I find some nice olive shells worth pocketing, but no “treasure” yet.

The sandpipers scurry out of my path, and a majestic blue heron flies by. I look toward the wide expanse of white that makes up the Point in time to witness at least a hundred seagulls take flight. A sailboat passes on its way to the open Gulf.

The confluence of the waters in front of me is amazing. The Gulf meets the Pass and the waves collide with the outgoing waters of the Bay. The fury, though hardly apparent on the surface, is easily recognizable to the seasoned beachcomber. Though the surface remains relatively calm, a thin line of foam forms where the green water of the Gulf meets the brown, brackish water. The tide line can be seen well out from the shore.

I decide it would be wise to walk well beyond the Point to avoid the undertow.

Walking east now with the Gulf of Mexico stretching out for hundreds of miles to my right. The Yucatan Peninsula is straight south from here as I stand at the edge of the North American Continent.

I feel so small and yet so large. I am one with this incredible beauty. I am a part.

A small point reaches out from shore, creating a calm pool in which to swim.

It is waiting for me. It was created for me to enjoy. I thank God.

Taking off my shorts, tossing down my towel, I dive in. Swimming beneath the surface, I am in awe of the color around me. The white sand below and the deep, pure green that reaches out into the distance, mesmerize me. Suspended beneath the surface, I wish I could stay there much longer than my breath will allow. When my lungs force me up, I swim until I am 40 to 50 yards from shore.

The view is excellent, so I tread water for a while in order to take it all in: the old lighthouse across the Pass, a WWI-era tower, Fort McRae to the west, a few boats.  Finally, I lie back and float. It is so easy to float in the heavy salt water of the Gulf. My toes pop up, my palms face the sun and I am soon close to sleep.

I rest. I swim. I imagine I am a mermaid and move beneath the surface toward the shore. Once there, I spread out my towel and nap in the hot sun.

After a while, I awake, cool off in the Gulf and begin my walk back around the Point. Walking where the water meets the sand, I continue my search for the day’s treasure.

Shells drift up and down the small incline with the gentle waves. Facing the Gulf, I scan the shallow water at my feet. A perfect olive shell rolls back and forth with the waves and I grab it before it disappears.

The deep auburn fragment of a fighting conch is worth pocketing, as are a few well-patterned scallops. The coquinas are abundant in their infinite variety of colors and designs. I see the tiny holes of the sand fleas as they scurry beneath the wet sand.

Then I spot my treasure, a delicate murex. Not more than two inches long, the prickly spines are intact. Although the very tip of the thin spire is broken, it is the best I have yet to find. The murex will take a place of honor on my kitchen windowsill where I will enjoy its beauty every day.

It is time to pick up the pace and head home. A flock of pelicans fly by and head toward the Bay. Two dolphins swim some 50 yards offshore and seem to be enjoying their day as well. Their dorsal fins playfully rise above and dip below the water’s surface, rise and dip again and again.

Within a half hour I am back at the small parking lot, where I slide under the outdoor shower to rinse the salt off my skin and the sand off my feet.  Using the hose to rinse my shells, a young boy stops to look at what I have found.  We share a smile as I tell him the names of the shells and offer him an olive to take home. He thanks me, and I'm on my way.

Some five or six miles down the stretch of lonely highway, a young couple is struggling to get their car out of the sand. “Oh dear,” I think to myself. “They obviously have no idea what they are doing.”

When I was a girl, we never saw African Americans at the Point. I am happy they have come to enjoy the island’s beauty but I can tell they, like so many other visitors, have never learned the rules of parking on the sand. I park my car and step out.

“Hi! Do y’all need some help?” I ask, as I walk towards them.

“Yeah, got stuck tryin’ to turn my wheels around.” replies the tall, thin man.

“Well, rule number one when parking on the beach is that you never allow both of the front wheels or both the back wheels to get in the sand. You’ll get stuck every time. This is what we have to do….” I start an explanation as I approach the front of the car. Then, I notice the toddler.

“There’s a baby in the car?” I ask.  Motioning toward the child’s mother, I continue, “You two need to get out and stand over there, well away from the car.”

The young woman gets out of the back seat with their precious daughter and gives me a smile of appreciation.

Kneeling down next to one of the wheels I begin to dig the sand out from around and behind it. The man goes to the other side and does the same. The front wheels are just a foot or two from the pavement. The back wheels are secure on the road.

“Once we dig the wheels out a bit,” I explain, “you’ll push and lift the front end while I put the car in reverse and hit the gas, OK?”

“OK,” he replies.

After a few minutes, we give it a shot. The wheels spin madly and kick up more sand, but the car goes nowhere.

“Let’s dig it out some more,” I say as I hop out of the car and start pushing more sand away.

A young man in khaki shorts and a designer shirt stops his BMW to help.

“Hi, thanks for stopping. They’re stuck. You know what to do, right? We need to dig the wheels out some more.”

“No, I don’t know what to do.”

“You never got stuck out here as a kid?” I ask.

“No, I’m not from around here.”

I stop digging and stand up, brushing the clean sand off my knees.

“OK. Well, it’s real important to remember never to allow both of the front wheels or both the back wheels to ever get in the sand. You’ll get stuck every time. You have to park parallel to the pavement and only allow two wheels on the same side of the car to touch the sand.  So, we have to dig the wheels out some more. Then, I’ll put the car in reverse and hit the gas while y’all push and lift the front end up at the same time, OK?”

“OK,” he says. I watch these two young men from different worlds working together.

When I try the gas again, we still have no luck. The wheels spin madly, but the car still doesn’t move an inch. As I get out of the car again, two older men in a pickup slow down. I notice not only their long, gray beards, but the gun rack mounted on the back window and the towline in the truck’s bed.

“Can we give y’all a haynd?  We got this here tow that’ll pull that car out in no time flat.” True rednecks, I think to myself as I notice the full cheek of one, which was no doubt, a wad of chewing tobacco.

“Gosh, that would be great!” I reply.

They back the truck up and begin to hook the car up to the cable.

“Well, I guess y’all have it taken care of. This is so nice of you! We tried to dig it out, but the wheels just kept spinning in place.”

“Yeah, this soft sand out here, it’s like mud just about. Ain’t no getting’ a car out if you get both front wheels off the road.”

“Or both the back!” I add.

“That’s the truth.” he replies.

“Well, I’m going to take off then. Thank you.”  I wave to the young couple and say, “Good luck to y’all, and have a nice day.”

Turning to the young man, I can’t help but think he’s a well educated professional in from Atlanta. “Thank you for stopping to help. I really appreciate it.”

“No problem,” the man says as he gets back into his nice car.

Driving off, I look in my rearview mirror. The two rednecks and the young, black man work together hooking up the car, while the little girl and her mother stand off to the side.

“Look what I have been a part of.” I think to myself, “Life is good!” and I continue down the narrow stretch of island toward home.

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