I came of age on Florida’s Emerald Coast, watching tourists ebb and flow at the South’s loveliest beaches. I know they come for the soft dunes, the gentle waves sunset turns into liquid mother-of-pearl. These things are not lost on locals.
But I rarely went to the surf. The bays and sloughs curling off the Gulf near Fort Walton Beach had captured my still-water heart. My backyard was a cove on Poquito Bayou, a name I find endearingly incorrect. (Pequeño is Spanish for “little.” Poquito means “a little bit.”) In lieu of a swing set, I had a dock.
I can still feel its weathered wood under my feet as I ran, barefoot, and jumped. I love the threshold between elements, that split second between dock and bay. With a crash and a rush and a lungful of air, I could enter another world. Under the surface of the bay it is timeless, calm, still—so different from the restless Gulf—and if you listen through the throbbing silence, you can hear the crackle of sea life. You can sense the faint buzz of a spinning prop, the muffled patter of rain. You can trace crooked footprints to a hermit crab, watch minnows parting around you. You can study the barnacles under a dock and see their shy fingers feathering out, combing the water for food.
At night, blue crabs scuttle through the yellow-green shallows, and redfish circle the dock light. If you swim far enough away from the light, the green glow of bioluminescent plankton glitters in your wake. Float on your back awhile beneath the stars, twinkling in an infinite ocean of their own.
Mornings, though, are the most sublime, when the electric blue of twilight gives way to a tangerine dawn. An outboard motor mutters awake, then whines away in a minor key. A pod of dolphins visits from the Gulf, cutting seams in the glassy water. A great blue heron tiptoes through the shallows, fishing for breakfast. Gulls cry to the rhythm of clinking masts.
My little bayou spills under bridges and into Destin’s East Pass, where the waters turn from yellow green into the brilliant blue of the Gulf. It’s part of the network of bays and coves, saltwater rivers and man-made canals, that makes up the three-thousand-mile Intracoastal Waterway. From here, I could swim to the tip of Texas, or around Miami and up to Boston, hardly touching the open sea.
But I’d rather just jump off my dock and float in a bit of bayou.