I deliberately booked four nights here at Ft Pickens State Park so that we’d have time on our hands to do nothing. A two or three-night visit is always busy; setting up, seeing the local sites, running an errand, making dinner, etc., until the final tear down, which always comes too soon. With four nights I knew we’d have time to visit the downtown, spread out, see most of the state park, and visit the beach … and then have another day with “nothing special” planned. That’s today.
It would be better if today weren’t Monday — the day my phone is most likely to ring and the day I receive the most emails — but the people who really might need to reach me all know better than to expect an immediate response. My motto has always been that there are few true emergencies in a quarterly magazine schedule. Whatever it is, it can wait until Tuesday, when I’ll have lots of time in the car as we tow the Airstream westward along I-10.
Sunday was our day to visit Fort Pickens, which is only a mile from the campground and technically part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore rather than the state park. I think I was last here in 1983, as a senior in college. Pensacola was one of my favorite hangouts, four hours drive from Baton Rouge in my heavy old hand-me-down 1977 Camaro. I loved coming down here and seeing the dazzling white sands and the long empty stretches of dune covered with sea oats, along Santa Rosa Island.
The island has of course changed with the tropical storms and hurricanes that stretch and replenish the island, but Fort Pickens is still the same as I remember. It was fun to show it to Emma and Eleanor, with the ghostly dark passages and dramatic brick arches.
The interpretive museum adjacent to Fort Pickens is currently empty, having been devastated by Hurricane Ike, and so all we saw there was a 25-minute video and the historical buildings that now house the park staff. Nearby on the bay side is a small fishing pier, and further along toward the west end of the island is apparently a popular diving spot. We saw families surf fishing, people zipped past on jetskis and in larger boats, aircraft practicing approaches from the Naval Air Station across the bay, and schools of fish jumping all at once. Yes, it was hot (86 degrees) and humid (don’t ask), but I can see why many people pay the $8 entry free to the National Seashore — there’s so much to do, and the park is beautiful.
More than once we were asked by someone where we came from. To keep things simple, we usually just say “Arizona,” rather than try to explain the complexities of our current tour. Then they say, “Oh, well you’re used to this heat!” or “So this is nothing to you!” I guess they think that Arizonans don’t feel the heat. We do; It’s just that we don’t stand around in the direct sun for long when it’s 108 degrees, even if it is only 6% humidity. Since we were out walking in the sun most of the day, we had broken out the same gear (clothing & sunscreen) that we’d wear in Tucson in June. When it came time for our picnic lunch, we chose a fine spot in the shade of a grove of Live Oak trees.
Afternoons like this were made for the beach, or perhaps the quartz-white sand of Florida’s panhandle were made for hot days. The sand never gets too hot for bare feet, and it squeaks as you walk on it. The water was crystal clear and bathtub-warm. The water’s edge at first seems sterile, with few shells to collect, but when Emma and I waded out we made some little fish friends, who circled us curiously and seemed to be wondering if we might be carrying a bit of seaweed that they could nibble off. Tiny schools of fish wandered by, and there were occasionally clear jellies with pinkish edges floating by (all dead for reasons unknown to us) many of which were hosting cute little scavenger fish taking their lunch from the tentacles. We were three of perhaps 20 people spread out over a half-mile of beach. There was nothing to do but make sand castles and play in the water …
Having learned from prior nights, we wrapped up at the beach an hour before sunset so that we never saw a mosquito. That left plenty of time to rinse off in the campground showers and enjoy a moment of coolness. We were lucky last night; our neighbors’ charcoal fire was carried off in a different direction by the wind, so we finally got that blissful evening of fresh breezes in the trailer while Eleanor made a fine dinner for all.
That brings us to today, the Monday that we will pretend is Sunday, part 2. We have no plans. We may go somewhere, we may not. Looking ahead on the travel schedule I see many long days of driving and absolutely no beach time, so this is our last chance to soak up la dolce far niente and we will make the most of it, or perhaps more accurately, the least of it.