Fort Pickens

Sunny days on the beach with friends

Just before new year’s, Corrinne and the kids rejoined me at Big Lagoon. We had a quiet new year’s around the fire, and then the next day we headed out to the Fort Pickens portion of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

If St. George is the best spot in the panhandle, Fort Pickens is a close second. The beach that is. The park has a not so great vibe, but we mostly avoided that by not really doing anything other than going to the beach. The beach is a short walk from the campground, maybe 100 yards, but somehow in that 100 yards you leave all of humanity behind.

No matter how full the campground is — and it was close to full the whole time we were there — there’s never more than a couple people, if that, on the beach. Where does everyone go? It’s something I’ve never understood, but I’ll take it.

After a couple of cloudy, but still warm days, which we spent playing soccer on the beach and attempting to make parachutes, we hit a stretch of the kind of warm, sunny days you dream of when you come to Florida in January. For a solid week it was like winter didn’t exist. We swam, played, and laid around the beach, relaxing. It really was one perfect day after another.

The only flaw was the people running Fort Pickens. This was the topic of nearly every conversation I had with fellow campers or overheard. It was mind blowing honestly. We’ve been all over this country, stayed in 100s of campgrounds, including this one years ago, and never encountered anything like this. Fort Pickens is the most uptight place we’ve ever been. If you go digging through reviews you can read stories of crazy experiences people have had. Camp hosts measuring rigs to ensure they’re under the site limit (even if they fit in the site), camp hosts telling people they’ve done something wrong and then flexing their muscles to the other camp hosts, showing off their power. Wild stuff, utterly ridiculous sorts of things I never knew people did after high school.

I’ll confess the first time I read that stuff I thought to myself, boy, these reviewers really like to complain. Plus I know every park has to deal with plenty of problematic people. But then, the more park staff I met the more I found myself thinking, wait, why was that person so rude? My general default reaction in those kinds of situations is to think, gosh, that person must be having a bad day, they must not be on their path, that’s too bad. Still, that’s just one person, I generally go on my way without another thought. But then it was two people. And then three. And then there comes a point where you realize it’s not the reviewers, it’s not you. It really is just totally bonkers here. As one woman put it, “it’s like everyone here is watching you from behind a dune, waiting for you to do something wrong.”

Prairie warbler in the back window of the bus photographed by luxagraf
This Prairie Warbler really wanted to come in the bus. It tried every window, but never could make it work.

It’s no way to live. For the people working here that is. For reasons I can’t explain, we were mostly left alone, but it was still a strange place. And it wasn’t just camp hosts, it was systemic. From the moment you arrive here there is none of the usual “welcome to your national parks!” enthusiasm we have found at every other park. Here everyone makes you feel as if you are a burden the staff has to bear. You also get the feeling they see everyone as someone who’s out to screw them over somehow. At least that’s how you feel. The sooner they can catch you doing something wrong, the sooner they have a reason to get rid of you.

Still has a great beach though.

I’m not sure how Fort Pickens got this way, it certainly wasn’t this way when we were here in 2017 and 2018. Perhaps the new superintendent is a bad leader. Perhaps the land itself is tainted. Battles were fought here. Geronimo was imprisoned. The past leaves a mark on the land, colors the character of the people who live on it. Sometimes places are like that, you just have to ignore it and carry on, which is what we did. We’re just passing through, though we will be back again next month, and the month after that, so we’ll see. If all else fails we’ll just spend more time on the deserted beaches.

Part of the reason we didn’t pay much attention to the shenanigans of Fort Pickens is that we had company. Some friends of ours from Wisconsin came down to visit, spending a week with us at Fort Pickens. The kids got to reunite some of the pack they ran around in all summer in Washburn and the adults got to spend the days in relative peace on the beach.

One of the things I think people don’t understand about traveling the way we do is how quickly you can become very close friends with people. These friendships often, in my experience, prove more durable and long-lasting than any other. The crucible of shared experience is, in my opinion, far stronger than almost any amount of shared time. I am still in touch with people I traveled with 20 years ago, and feel like I know them far better than some people I’ve lived nearby for those same decades. The same is true for children, as far as I can tell.

The difference is that our kids have been doing this for more of their life than I have, which has given them an ability to form friendships quickly. That’s a skill I wish I had. I know some of that is being a kid, it’s just easier when you’re young, but even then, the process has never come easy for me. Luckily, in this case, the apples fell far enough away from my tree that I don’t have to worry.


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