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The Islands

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

When you grow up on the Mississippi Coast, there’s nothing quite like going to the islands. There’s prettier water to be found just about anywhere, but on the ride out, you aren't looking at, much less worried about, the color of the water. You're scanning the horizon for the islands, anxiously watching them take shape and anticipating the moment you can set the anchor and go play. Or set the anchor and do nothing. Just depends on the day.

I love the picture below for a lot of reasons. Besides capturing a typical island scene, it's also a picture of my boat more than a decade before it became my boat. And, because I have an affinity for keeping old things like new, she's still my boat. She looks very different now as I had to rehab her after Hurricane Sally, but she mostly stands out nowadays because she only has one engine . . . Most boats you see today seem to have at least three, like it's become a requirement. Not only did we not have that luxury back in the day, we were lucky if our parents packed more than three hot dogs, and no I don't mean each.

But we didn't care. Our parents were escaping. And so were we. Sometimes we all gathered together like in the picture to the left, but as a kid, the islands were a place where you could go off on your own and explore for hours at a time. Or just be left alone like in the picture below. I have no idea who the child is below, but like the picture of my future boat, it was taken by my future mother in law, which means it’s someone I likely know. Good enough for me. Most of my old island photos are gone as the house I grew up in was flooded by Katrina and later torn down.

By the time we reached high school, we weren't waiting on our parents to take us to the islands anymore. We'd all been driving boats since we were kids, and times were different back then. Our parents didn't need Life 360 to know we were at the islands. That said, that leaves a reeeeaaallly wide range of possibilities considering the size of each island and their distance to shore, but that's where we were every chance we got. Fishing and camping on our own, feeling our independence, but swimming and playing all the same like the kids we still were.

In college, I missed the islands like crazy. My freshman roommate and I talked about them so much with our new dorm friends that by the time Spring Break rolled around, they wanted to come see them. Now, I know for a fact we told them the trip would be a multi-day campout, but it's hard to prepare folks for how harsh conditions can be out there. Even when you are prepared. You can dry your clothes by a fire, for instance, but there still might be ants inside them when you put them back on. My favorite memory, though, is seeing one of our buddies, nicknamed Shrub, show up at the dock wearing jeans and a t-shirt and carrying a 30 pack of Coors Banquet beer. And that's all he had for the trip. But like we had as kids when our parents' beer to food ratio was similarly proportioned, Shrub survived. The picture below is not from that trip in particular, but it is some of my college buddies, and Brannon's in this one, and he's gone now so I figured that was a better one anyway.

I'd spent my entire life up to this point riding to the islands in power boats. After college, I was ready to experience the islands in a different way. My stepdad and mom had just bought a sailboat, and while that was definitely a cool new way to travel, much to their dismay, I talked them into sailing me within a mile of the island, where I then rowed their dingy to Horn and buried it. I started my hike at the east end, and a few days later, after hiking around the entire island, dug up the dingy, and rowed back out to meet them at the time we'd agreed upon, as these were pre-cell phone days. Which is partly why I don't have any pictures from that trip. That and upon further review of my life, I've never been good about taking pictures.

For instance, the picture to the right isn't even from the Mississippi islands, but it is from an island in the same chain, and it is my sea kayak, which is why I included it. My rowing trip to Horn had whet my appetite, and this time, to my wife's dismay, I started making regular paddling trips in that boat to Horn Island and Petit Bois. Her issue wasn't as much with me paddling offshore alone as it was me not really studying the weather too closely . . . And wouldn't you know it, the one time she threatened to call the Coast Guard to come get me (because the forecast called for 30 knot winds out of the north and 5-7 foot seas), the forecast had to be right. I declined her "offer," and like Walter Anderson, Shrub, and so many others before me, I survived.

And then I blinked and I was bringing my own kids to the islands. We camped at the spot in this picture after a 90 mile run from our home near Pensacola to Petit Bois--near some of the same spots where I'd gone as a kid, brought friends home from college to see, kayaked and sailed to (oh yeah, bought my first sailboat somewhere along the way and sailed to the islands many time before her mast broke in high winds, but that, too, is another story), and spent countless hours thinking about when I couldn't be there. This picture makes me smile, but not just for the obvious nostalgic reasons you'd imagine. My oldest son is pretty headstrong, and while I initially said no to him building his own fire, eventually I caved, which turned out to be prudent as the conversations around the main fire weren't exactly fit for their ears . . .

I left my hometown a long time ago, but I've never stopped going to the islands. Just this past weekend, I returned for what was supposed to be a quick trip to visit the site where my friend's ashes had been spread--a quick trip because I was dead set on getting back home that afternoon. We had agreed on these terms the night before, and so the next morning we met at the dock at the appointed time. I stepped onto my buddy's boat with a cup of coffee and a made up mind, but that coffee soon had RumChata in it, at which point I knew I wasn't going back home that day. The sadness I felt leaving the islands a few days ago is the same sadness I remember feeling as a kid, just a little bit deeper for a lot of reasons.

All those trips, all the different experiences at the islands--at some point when I was young I wanted to capture it all in a story, which is where Jimmy O'Connor was born. And while in hindsight I wish I’d have put more time into the writing and editing of Horn Island Dream, critics' feedback and the questions reader had played a key role in the development of South Toward Horn. That and an old man threatening my life at one of my book signings if I stepped foot on “his land” at Horn Island ever again. But that's a story for another day.

Ready for Jimmy O’Connors Horn Island adventure? South Toward Horn is available now! Get your copy at the link below.

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