If there's one thing the Florida panhandle has in plentitude, it's coastline. In many areas barrier islands, inlets and bays double what looks on the map like one strip of beach. We drove west to explore part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which preserves some of the barrier island real estate. The park conserves chunks of seashore, but is not one coherent piece of land. In some cases the water interrupts the park; in others a town or condo development interrupts a tract of the natural. The park extends into Mississippi and protects historic fortifications as well as the flora and fauna.
Before we entered the park we stopped for lunch at Pensacola Beach. It was a beautiful Sunday and the beach was thronged with people enjoying the weather and their day off. A large circular grouping of longboards jammed into the sand caught our eye. There is little surfing in Florida, so people stand on longboards which look like surf boards to paddle across the water. Many of the longboards were covered with flowers and petals were scattered on the sand. Speakers were plugged into generators and we were sorry to learn that all of this was being set up to honor a local longboarder, who had recently died of a heart attack. The service was to end with his friends, heading out to sea on their boards.
The end of the road brought us to Fort Pickens and we were glad that we arrived as a park ranger was about to give a guided talk. In these times of shrinking budgets, getting to talk to a real park ranger is something you can't take for granted. The fort was begun in 1829 and what makes the site unique is that there are remains of other fortifications built on the site from that early era right up to the end of World War II. Ironically, the only time fighting took place was during the Civil War, when the fort remained in Union hands while the mainland was in the Confederacy. Even then most of the soldiers who died there, were done in by the heat which was exacerbated by the heavy wool uniforms they wore. Indians captured in the wars on the plains were housed in the fort, Geronimo being the best known. He was actually supposed to go to a prison in St. Augustine, but local politicians lobbied to have him stay and become a tourist attraction. He learned how to play the game and would sell sea shells he had picked up on the beach with his name written on them.
Pickens was one leg in a triangle of three forts built to protect the deep water port of Pensacola and its ship building industry. At one time it housed 276 cannons, which were rarely fired. The mere presence of all this military might caused potential enemies to look elsewhere. And of course the military tradition continues to this day. Pensacola is the site of Eglin Air Force base and the Pensacola Naval Air Station and the military is still a major employer here.