Once upon a time, I had a reason for wanting to go to Amelia Island. But that was long ago, and the reason has been lost, and now I only have “Amelia Island” written on a list of someday destinations, like a forgotten address on a slip of paper tucked into an old book. But why not go anyway, I think, so I drive south, to the last of the Sea Islands, just past where Georgia and Florida meet in the Atlantic.
This strip of land, smooth on the ocean side and craggy where it’s separated from the mainland by the meandering Amelia River, has been conquered by so many different powers (some major, some fleeting and obscure) that it’s known as the Isle of Eight Flags.
Whatever it was I once expected to find here, it certainly wasn’t pirates and mermaids, depictions of which are everywhere, or low-slung houses on hushed streets named for a fantasy forest of mismatched trees: gum, date, jasmine, fir, cedar.
I wander around downtown Fernandina Beach, one of several hazily delineated communities on the island. It is the sort of place where all-American Main Street meets permanent vacation, where childhood blends into retirement. A life-sized pirate stands outside of Florida’s oldest bar, and a mermaid is painted on the exterior wall of an antique store. The post office flanked with palm trees. There is something detached about this place, timeless or removed from time. The eight flags of past regimes fly proudly over Florida’s oldest hotel, and I get the feeling nothing much would change here if a new one was raised. The tether to reality seems frayed, and only the smallest things, like a TRUMP sticker on a large, shiny car, bring me back to real life.
South of Fernandina Beach, down the coast, past a cavalcade of increasingly eclectic vacation homes, I turn off the main road toward the beach. I walk over a raised boardwalk, one of several that cross the dunes like tributaries, leading to the ocean. I cross the scorching sand, looking out for the four-wheel-drive vehicles that are allowed to drive beside the sunbathers relaxing on towels. I stand ankle-deep in the Atlantic, sandals in hand, and watch the waves come and go, and come and go, and come and go.
Soon enough, I think, I will be standing in the Pacific, if this mad, broken world survives long enough for me to get there. It seems impossible; but then, when I started this long drive south last week, it seemed equally impossible that I would soon be here.
I walk back to the parking lot and drive away, around a roundabout and down a road completely shaded by a canopy of moss-laden trees. I cross the low bridge back to the mainland. Over the next few days I will drive northward, past garish billboards, through violent bursts of rain, into and out of snarls of traffic, past colorful splashes of wildflowers planted in the median of the highway. When I get home it will be cold and damp, and I will scarcely believe that I was just standing in a turquoise ocean under a blue sky. Florida will start to seem almost imaginary, like an eye-patched pirate, or a mermaid rising from the foam.