Gulf of Mexico

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.


  1. T Snipes - August 19, 2020 6:43 am

    My husband and I were blessed by living on Oklaloosa Island and going to sleep every night with that beautiful Gulf music playing in our ears. I taught kindergarten at Destin Elementary when it was still just a fishing village. Teachers would bring in big coolers of crab, shrimp, etc. from their husband’s fishing boats and we would buy fresh, off the boat dinner. I had the most beautiful drive to and from work each day with blue green water and the whitest of sand on either side of me.

    What a blessing to live in such a beautiful place!

    Thanks for reminding me!

  2. Steve Winfield [Lifer] - August 19, 2020 7:25 am

    I’ll be 60 next month. There’s been very few of those 60 years that I didn’t make it to the Gulf. Usually Panama City but I’ve been as far as Miami and to Houston the other way. There’s a photo of me 3 years old sitting in that huge monkeys hand at Goofy Golf. I’ve got enough stories to write a couple books. I’ve always talked of moving there but never my old neighborhood. It’s the only other place I’ve even considered living. I’ve bottom fished from Captain Anderson’s boats dozens of times. An old boss had a 26 footer at Perdido. I caught a 32 lb king mackerel in the 80’s. 45 minute fight I’ll never forget.
    I love it there & love the way you bring it to life with your words.

  3. Leslie in NC - August 19, 2020 9:02 am

    Trading the heat & humidity of my home state of Florida for the cooler mountains of NC for the past 5 years, I nevertheless miss the Gulf of Mexico…from St. George Island to Cape San Blas to Pensacola…sometimes so bad it hurts. The salt water from the Gulf in my veins and the sugary white sand between my toes will never leave me. Thanks, Sean, for putting into words what my heart remembers so vividly.

  4. Dianne - August 19, 2020 11:37 am

    Sean, you did it again. This column touched my heart and stirred so many memories that I had tears in my eyes. There is no place like this part of the Gulf………it is heaven on earth to me and has been since I was four on my first trip there. I am now a great-grandmother and will be going with all of my family there in about five weeks. I can already smell the air, taste the salt on my lips, hear the waves breaking on shore at night as I sleep like a baby. Again, thank you for stirring memories of a place that is truly heaven on earth.

  5. Shannob - August 19, 2020 11:51 am

    Oh my goodness…. beautiful.

  6. Steve Moore Watkins - August 19, 2020 12:09 pm

    Recommended reading: “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea” by Jack E. Davis.

  7. Sharon Brock - August 19, 2020 12:33 pm

    In 1975, I was young, pregnant, and alone. I lived in the unincorporated community of Cinco Bayou surrounded by Ft. Walton Beach. Newly separated from the Air Force, I used to walk from my tiny, one bedroom apartment across the bridge to Destin. I would spend hours on the beach looking at the waves of the Gulf and healing. Within 6 months I was back in Kentucky. I have walked Gulf beaches on the Gulf from Corpus Christi to Ft. Meyers. That little patch of dunes, sea oats, and waves in Destin remains my favorite. Thanks Sean for reviving the memories.

  8. Morton Vice - August 19, 2020 1:08 pm

    Raised on Pensacola Beach !!! A beautiful place to figure out life. Thanks for sharing. Morton Vice

  9. AlaRedClayGirl - August 19, 2020 1:38 pm

    While I didn’t grow up on the Gulf, I have spent many summer vacations there – just got back from there two weeks ago. I’ve been to beaches on the Atlantic, but nothing compares to the beauty of the Gulf. You have described it beautifully!

  10. Rhonda - August 19, 2020 1:39 pm

    Reading this column this morning I could so vividly see everything you are talking about but more than that I feel it in my soul and this column brought tears to my eyes. I was born a Carolina girl and grew up with the Atlantic ocean. I moved to Florida 37 years ago and feel in love with the Gulf. I have vacationed and roamed the waters from Marco Island to Orange Beach, Alabama. There is something so magical about this area. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Mark Fendley - South Carolina - August 19, 2020 1:40 pm

    Just returned from Grayton Beach 2 weeks ago. I try to find that little spot to escape the crowds, escape the “people” noise. I love my early mornings and late evenings there. And the dunes lakes are magical. That place is calling me so hard, that I do consider moving from South Carolina to Point Washington, Blue Mountain, somewhere “there”. And as a native of Middle Georgia, having vacationed in Pensacola, and spending time on grandparents farm in Clarke county, Ala…the heat and humidity make me think of Harper Lee, “Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon and after their three o’clock naps. And by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer.” Thanks for the local insight, from a wannabe local.

  12. Della Holmes - August 19, 2020 1:45 pm

    The Gulf Coast is something special…..I miss her. This was perfect in so many ways…. Thank you Sean.

  13. David McClellan Jones - August 19, 2020 1:48 pm

    I forward your blog to my wife each morning. I had made a habit of copying and pasting a funny line as an intro to the email. But I find your writing has become a little more serious. And very, very beautiful.

    Please keep inspiring us.

  14. Pam - August 19, 2020 1:57 pm

    I love Destin! Wishing I were there right now. I can see it in your words.

  15. Earl Williams - August 19, 2020 2:45 pm

    Love these pictures you paint Sean.. ♥️

  16. Berryman Mary M - August 19, 2020 3:08 pm

    Sean, that was wonderful! Made me cry. My family has owned a vacation spot in Destin since 1985. Every time I come across the mid-bay bridge I hold my breath in anticipation of the first glimpse of the water; because when I have been away my mind plays tricks on me and I cannot believe that the colors of the beach, sand, water are “really” real. That heavenly sight is a balm for my soul and reaffirms that there is a God who has created such magnificent beauty for us. The smells you describe so perfectly are like aromatherapy to me – smells of love and happy times. My brother went to flight school at Pensacola and these beaches were his training ground. I have watched as of my dearest friends had her ashes shot out over the water in a fireworks cannon, a perfect ending for her! Likewise, I have made known to all that I wish my ashes to be scattered over the waters of Destin at sunset on the 4th of July. Destin holds a very special place in my heart.

  17. Candice - August 19, 2020 3:19 pm


  18. Bobbie - August 19, 2020 3:23 pm

    What more can be said? All the comments reflect my feelings about the special place God made for people like us…those with salt water in our veins and the beautiful images of the Gulf that can never be erased. You are so blessed to be living there. What inspiration the ocean gives, and in all its fury, peace…even in the midst of a storm. Oh, to be there this morning, but I have to be content with the image in my mind. Thank you Sean for the pictures you paint with your words. Like Mary who commented about her ashes, I too have a directive for my family to gather at sunset at the end of Tobago Dr on Cape San Blas to scatter my ashes into the Gulf. This is the street where I built my dream house while so blessed to be living there. So many beautiful memories being smiles as well as tears as I read your column. I was back there again if only for a few moments. God bless you…never take it for granted. ❤️🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸

  19. Dave - August 19, 2020 3:41 pm

    I suggested to my wife, since we are retired and mostly alone, we should develop alter-egos. Then, we would have four people. Mine is named Fred and hers is named Lee. She says it is really stupid, but, that’s OK, we still have three.

  20. Char Stidd - August 19, 2020 4:22 pm

    I closed my eyes and saw it all just as you described it, then I sighed and smiled. Beautiful.

  21. Dee Thompson - August 19, 2020 4:27 pm

    Beautiful post, Sean. Maybe one day when this nightmare is over I will come down there and scatter my mother’s ashes. Covid took her from me on June 28, despite all my efforts to keep her safe. I got it too, but just a mild case. This disease is so tricky, so scary. I did a long post on Facebook about this. I want everyone to wear a mask in public! It’s just common decency. I hate wearing a mask. It’s much easier than watching someone you love die, though. Take my word for it.

  22. Anne Godwin - August 19, 2020 4:28 pm

    This could have been written from any city that’s blessed to be touched by the Gulf. Healing water…

  23. Ted - August 19, 2020 4:37 pm

    I was there just last many wonderful memories over the years…. truly an amazing place.

  24. Linda Moon - August 19, 2020 5:08 pm

    ‘Just because’ is often a good reason for just about anything, except gaudy real estate. You brought back so many memories of me, my girlfriends, and family who spent lots of time on the beaches there in the Gulf. My cousin lost his life in 1944 at 20 years old when he was a pilot-in-training; his airplane went down in the Gulf. I have many good memories of happy times, but Cousin Gordon’s is family lore that happened before I was born. I’ll never forget the large photograph of handsome him in his uniform that my Aunt kept on her mantel. The COVID will end someday, Sean, and I bet you and Jamie will make more good memories there.

  25. Kevin Hughes - August 19, 2020 5:22 pm

    Yessir, so many first and last moments for so many. Not the first or last Pandemic those sugar sands will see. Thank you for sharing. Well done.

  26. Shirley Jensen - August 19, 2020 6:27 pm

    I absolutely loved this story. My son lives in Destin, and loves the beach. Thank you for sharing this.

  27. Billy Moore - August 19, 2020 7:20 pm

    I have a clear visual memory, sometime around 1949 -1950 of standing on a dune – I think Blue Mountain – and seeing cows scattered up and down the beach, just their heads sticking out of the surf. People tell me they were probably escaping from dog flies during a north wind. My dad delivered propane/butane gas – about once a month it seems – to the few houses South of the Bay in those days. We lived in DeFuniak.

  28. MAM - August 19, 2020 7:28 pm

    I miss the Gulf. Unfortunately, my chance to visit Padre Island on the Texas coast ended with the cancellation this year of our high school reunion. Dang virus! But the smells are burned in my brain, and the soothing sounds of surf are the best sleeping opportunity ever. Thanks, Sean, for painting the pictures with your words.

  29. Larry and Becky - August 19, 2020 7:57 pm

    You’re so right on, Sean! Thank you for reminding us all about the love and beauty we share in this part of our world in the panhandle of Florida. We’re so lucky.

  30. Sharron Paris - August 19, 2020 8:40 pm

    As a service brat I was fortunate enough to see and experience life on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean coasts growing up. I saw the Pacific as a young adult but it was in the early 80s that I was introduced to Destin and the beautiful Emerald Coast. At the time I was in my early 30s and lived in Virginia. My sister made and sold jewelry on the beach in front of Silver Dunes. She lived just blocks away from the Gulf near Henderson Beach State Park, which didn’t exist then. When my oldest graduated from High School I brought him down for his graduation trip. It was awesome. Never did I truly imagine that I would later be blessed with being able to live near Pensacola Beach. It was an unspoken prayer that God saw fit to provide. I will be forever grateful for the beauty of the place that will more than likely be my final home. The beautiful colors of the Gulf will be forever in my mind and for that I am truly blessed. Thank you for documenting so well the beauty of the landscape and the people that inhabit this truly beautiful corner of earthy paradise.

  31. Joy Taylor-Lane - August 19, 2020 9:10 pm

    This story makes me realize that I need to go to the beach. Lately it seems like hauling three boys and all of the stuff we need to the beach is too much trouble. Thank you for reminding me that it’s always worth it.

  32. Amanda Bay - August 19, 2020 9:47 pm

    This is EXACTLY how I feel about the beach/ocean….

  33. H J Patterson - August 19, 2020 10:33 pm

    Thanks Mark Fendley for that great quote and one my favorite lines from To Kill A Mockingbird. You really need to be southern to understand it.

  34. Sonya Tuttle - August 19, 2020 11:49 pm

    Glad you saw the beauty at night, and had the memories. Now I think of Destin as a concrete jungle. We lived in Port. St. Joe, which still has an old time feeling, and those other villages east of it, from Apalachicola on. Cape San Blas is peaceful and serene. I too, love the Gulf of Mexico, the water, the sand, the smell, the sound of the surf….but progress has polluted the personality of the place.

  35. Mary K Judice - August 20, 2020 1:41 am

    Sean, I love the string words together to bring to mind the perfect description of things. I find myself nodding yes (not falling asleep) because I know exactly what you mean. I also smile and laugh a bunch, too. Thank you!!

  36. christina - August 20, 2020 6:50 am

    “It was thick and undiluted, like cake batter”…, now I want to have your wife’s pound cake. Kidding aside, now I really want to visit the Gulf. Thanks for sharing a piece of heaven and home.

  37. Janet C Averett - August 20, 2020 11:50 am

    Thank you for sharing this Sean. I am a 58 year old native to Panama City, FL. I have seen and participated in so many of the things you reflected on. We are Blessed to have the Gulf of Mexico in our back yard. God is so good with his creation. God Bless You and please keep writing

  38. Chasity Davis Ritter - August 20, 2020 8:46 pm

    We were supposed to see your beautiful gulf in June. My son made reservations for the vacation almost a year ago then CV19 happened. He has rebooked for next year though and if the world is back on its axis maybe I’ll be waking those sandy shores with my grandkids and hear the baying of a big ole bloodhound named Thelma Lou and see my favorite red headed writer walking there as well. What a dream that would be. I’m sure I’d cry just like I do when I read most of your blogs. I don’t know if you get to read the comments but if so maybe you’d recognize my name too since I comment on most of them. When I finished this one and it said Destin my breath caught for just a moment. I sent the blog to my daughter in law. There dream vacation spot bucket list destination…. and you make is sound even more magical…. thanks again Sean. I’ll picture you there all the same……. and this sounds like a dumb question but maybe will there be dragonflies too?!!!

  39. Nancy Nunnally - August 21, 2020 3:46 pm

    Did you get my comment? ive lost it.

  40. Nancy Nunnally - August 21, 2020 5:12 pm

    Your post about the feelings derived from being on the beach made me want to tell you a little of my story.
    My son (Cy) and my husband of 40 years (John) found a beautiful home on the bay near Sikes Cut on St. George Island. They called me and wanted my approval to purchase it and, of course, I said “Yes”. Our family and friends made so many wonderful memories on that island. We would sit on our 3rd floor balcony and drink wine and rate the mullet jumps from one to ten when we were not on the beach or on our dock.
    Fourteen months ago, Cy was tragically killed in a horrific airplane crash. He was an excellent pilot of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft and everyone that knew him said he could fly anything .He inspired others to want to learn to fly. To do what he did. He also had a servants heart and was always willing to help out a friend. Cy had a friend who was learning to fly and had purchased an airplane and wanted Cy to fly it and make sure everything on it was okay. It wasn’t. The motor was too large and there was no ballast in back. Cy died instantly. There were over 2,000 people at his funeral and the airport was named for him, The Cy Nunnally Memorial Airport”. We buried him on top of our best hay field on our farm. It was where he always landed his 1947 yellow Piper Cub so we named it, “The Landing Strip”.
    John and I were devastated, as were Cy’s brother, sister, nieces, wife, and many friends. Six months later John died of a massive heart attack. I tell everyone that he died of a broken heart. John is buried beside Cy on that hill.
    It took me a year to go back to St. George Island and I only went because my youngest son insisted that we go. I found it to be very healing. I cried a lot but I, also, smiled a lot remembering the many wonderful memories that we had there. There were so many wonderful people who just wanted to tell me of all the kind things that Cy had done for them. After Hurricane Michael, Cy flew his helicopter down there loaded with dog food, cat food, diapers, and bottled water for anyone who needed it. He flew the sheriff over St. George and all the surrounding areas to see all the damage. John, too, had donated to help the wonderful people of St. George, Eastpoint, and Apalachicola.
    We sat on our dock at sunset and were amazed at God’s beauty and how close we felt to Cy and John. We walked on the beach and found peace there. We rode in our boat and played with the dolphins, we sat on the porch and watched mullet jump and rated their jumps.
    The love and support of the people, the sound and smell of the ocean, the sunset from the dock and the home that Cy and John bought were all blessings for us. We hope to keep it for generations so that everyone in our family will know what a magical place it is.

  41. Kathryn - September 24, 2020 7:15 pm

    I grew up in PC Beach. I love the Gulf. I don’t live there now; I always planned to move back after I retired, but the PC of my youth is long gone and what stands there now is ugly and heartbreaking.

    I loved the Blue Angel comment; it reminded me of a summer day when I was baking my skin on the white sand at Navarre and suddenly heard a mighty roar right on top of me. I sat up and it was the Angels flying in formation at what looked like at altitude of 50 feet! I felt like I could touch them, they were so close! But, in the blink of an eye they were gone, out of sight, as quickly as they arrived. They flew faster than sound, I didn’t hear their engines until after they were gone. It was mind-blowing!

  42. Deborah G. - September 25, 2020 12:10 am

    Don’t forget stepping on a pop-top in the sand!!

  43. kikz - September 25, 2020 11:36 am


  44. Cathy Putman - September 26, 2020 3:14 pm

    I am so sorry for the loss of your son and our husband. May God continue to heal your broken heart.


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