By Sean Dietrich
I was there by accident. It was night when I pulled onto the old beach road without even thinking. I guess my brain was on autopilot.
This used to be the way I took home every night. Back when my family lived up the street in a little yellow house. I live in the next town now.
I parked near the beach and hiked to the water. Just because.
The humid Gulf air has its own taste. One that stays with you. It smells like oysters and Coppertone.
You can’t really see anything on a beach at night, but there is a mysterious feeling you get when standing on a shore in pitch darkness. It almost feels like standing on the doorstep of heaven.
The Gulf’s prairie-like flatness is downright eerie. And if you look at this water long enough you will get disoriented.
Soon, it will seem like water and sky is all there is. All there ever was. And you’ll forget all about the gaudy real estate around you.
You’ll start to remember when this was all just dunes. Back when the fishing rodeo was the biggest thing in town, and stoplights were a myth.
I saw a young couple walking on the beach. Hand-in-hand. They removed their surgical masks and made conversation. I said hello to them, but they didn’t hear me.
You can’t hear anything on a beach. It’s too loud. One of the things I love about it.
As it happens, I once stood in this exact spot when I suffered my first case of heartbreak. I was hardly a teenager. I stared across this dark water at constellations and wished God would’ve made me better looking. I felt like the ugliest boy on earth.
I also visited this shore the night before I got married. It was bitter cold because it was December. Even though I was overjoyed about my upcoming day, I felt lost.
I don’t have a big family. The little family I did have fell apart when my father died. A wedding brought all that to the surface.
So the night before my ceremony, I walked to this beach and listened to the surf. For hours.
People don’t realize how special the white noise of the Gulf is. It’s like a voice. A familiar one. One you recognize from far away. Like your mother calling you. Only this mother can kill you if she wants. She is as fierce as she is beautiful.
She’s fed by 33 major rivers that carry water from 31 different states. She was formed in prehistoric times by the Mississippi River and other rivers that spewed mud and grit into her basin.
These seafloor deposits turned into reefs. The reefs turned into land. The land turned into a Floridian peninsula. And this peninsula turned into high-rise condos.
In her tummy are 2,000 known historic shipwrecks spanning 500 years of maritime history. From the Spanish explorers to the American Civil War. Also, I’ve lost my keys here at least six times.
I worked as a lifeguard on this beach for a little while. I’ve seen some weird things happen in this wild water.
I’ve seen swimmers caught in rip currents, lulled out to the end of the world, only to reappear miles downshore, alive and confused.
And one time, only hours after we saw a swimmer die of hypothermia onshore, a wedding took place on the same sand. The bride had no idea.
I’ve seen young men and women baptize themselves here. Most of them in street clothes.
I’ve watched elderly Europeans, who don’t believe in Speedos, suntan naked here. People whose body parts have been ravaged by the effects of gravity.
I have camped beside this Gulf in a pup tent. Which was, technically, against the law. But nobody cared back then.
Every dog I ever loved has frolicked in this green water, chasing sticks and stuffed ducks.
I’ve seen weathermen stand where I’m standing, in tropical winds, putting on a good show for the cameras. They flailed and hollered like they were in a war zone, while their cameramen held coffees and danishes.
I’ve seen this Gulf get so mad that it swallows everything, tries to kill everyone, snaps hundred-year-old oaks, ruins mainstreets, and upheaves the shore.
I’ve caught redfish here with nine-dollar rods. I’ve seen the Blue Angels fly overhead in such a patriotic display that even buck naked Europeans put hands over their hearts.
I’ve seen church people lug portable electric organs onto the sand. I’ve attended bonfires where parents said goodbye to sons who were leaving for Parris Island boot camp.
I once played baseball here, barefoot. I cut my foot on an oyster shell when sliding into second.
I have seen families—more than I can count—scatter the ashes of loved ones into the clear blue drink.
And once, I held my wife on this shore. The day after her father died. She cried into my shoulder because losing someone feels worse than dying.
The young man and woman found a place near the water. They sat.
They burrowed into the sand using only their haunches. They wrapped arms around each other. She leaned onto his shoulder. They kissed. And it was perfect.
Florida has more cases of COVID-19 than most states. We are a mess right now. And I don’t know when it will be over. I hope soon.
But in the midst of a worldwide endemic, I saw love. It was on a seashore. It was undiluted and thick, like cake batter. The purest kind. The kind that can only be found upon the doorstep of heaven. Or at home.
Or right here in Destin.