Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 23, 2007

The sea, the sand and the sky

Husband Art and I arrived at our Florida hotel after dark. It was on Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island, one of the world's longest barrier islands near the Florida panhandle. The primary purpose of our trip was to attend the reunion of 457th Bomb Group veterans who were stationed near Peterborough, England during World War II. But I had made it clear to Art that I would need some beach time, too.

So when I looked out of our hotel room window the next morning, I was delighted to see white sand beaches as far as the eye could see. We had breakfast on the patio that morning. Just beyond the hotel swimming pool, the shimmering waters beckoned me.

When we finished, although we had plans away from the hotel that day, I insisted on at least setting foot on the beach. Art, still a Northerner at heart, said the white sand, swept into dunes, reminded him of snow drifts from his native Wisconsin. Then he laughed at me and said, "Go ahead."

So while he went back to our room, I walked to the beach and took off my shoes so I could feel the fine sand around my toes.

Later, with my immediate cravings satisfied, we took off for Fort Morgan, Alabama. It was built after the War of 1812 when Congress decided the country needed strong fortifications along our coastlines. It and Fort Gaines across Mobile Bay - where one of Art's distant ancestors had served - were the focus of a number of important Civil War battles.

We spent an hour or so in the museum and then walked the fort foundations, stopping long enough to watch pelicans flap overhead and to ward off the huge black mosquitoes that swarmed around us.

On the road to and from the fort, we passed mile upon mile of beaches. But the view wasn't very inviting because natural gas rigs poked out of the water everywhere we looked in the Gulf of Mexico. The beaches were hardly pristine either. They were covered with immense multiple-story condos with names such as Eden, Sea Breeze, Sundial, Heart of the Sunrise, Sea and Sun, and Ponderosa in the Sand. Some of the condos and homes were painted lavender, sea-foam green, lime, apricot, sunny yellow, garish pink, turquoise and baby blue. Every now and then there was a rundown home on stilts, probably left over from earlier days before developers took over.

Although I suppose it is the same yearning I have to see the water that makes people want beachfront property, I wondered what happens when a hurricane or a strong Gulf wind comes along. I was appalled at the enormity of the construction and wondered what effect it would have on the seashore. The only effort I noticed to protect the area were small signs urging pedestrians not to walk on the dunes so as not to disturb the sand and sea oats.

I was glad when we arrived at the part of the shores that are federally protected through the National Park Service. We visited one of the sites of the Gulf Islands National Seashore - the Naval Live Oaks visitor center. The tree is named the live oak because it never loses all its leaves at once. In the 1800s, these trees provided durable wood for the construction of navy vessels. The walking trails took us past magnolias, saw palmettos and other native species of plants and provided beautiful views of the water and birds.

But even these two adventures didn't satisfy my need for beach time. So, while Art attended the business meeting of the reunion group, I took the opportunity to walk along the stretch of beach near our hotel.

The water looked deep blue from a distance, but took on a green color as I got closer to the edge. I took off my shoes again and walked along the wet sand, watched pelicans, sandpipers and gulls, gathered perfect pink, white and gray clam shells of all sizes and sat - soaking up the sun and breathing in the salt air.

I know others who react as I do and I have heard it suggested that the sights, sounds and smells near the edge of the sea may resonate with the more primitive part of our brain. But I don't need a scientific explanation. It's enough just to experience the way the expanse of water and sky and the steady rhythm of the surf mesmerize and calm me, making any worries I have seem to melt away.

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