Mississippi writer Mary Miller muses on her many returns to Ship Island

Reflections on that feeling of being far away and yet still at home

Illustration by Oli Winward

I first visited Ship Island as a child with my family, taking the hour-long ferry out of Gulfport. It is the only barrier island off the coast of Mississippi with ferry access, the only one you can get to if you don’t have your own boat. On that inaugural trip, swarms of gnats plagued us—in my memory we’re all wearing our shirts over our heads—and it was such a trauma that I’m the only one who ever returned. Perhaps it’s my nature to try again, to subject myself to the same experience in hopes of a better outcome.

My ex-husband and I used to wake early and drive down from Meridian on a Saturday, hopping the ferry just in time to catch the final boat. We’d pack fried chicken and fun-sized candy bars and beer, and hardly left our chairs except to move the umbrella. We were always pleased with ourselves, content to sit on the prettiest beach in Mississippi. Because the island is uninhabited, because there’s almost nothing there outside of a walkway, a tiny shop, and a historic fort, we felt very far away, eleven miles out and surrounded by water.

I went once with a friend and her son, driving down from Hattiesburg to forget about graduate school for the day. We read and took long walks, looking for hermit crabs and sand dollars and finding mostly fish carcasses. Somewhere there’s a picture of me smiling in my Miller Lite cap and baseball shirt, items which had been borrowed and never returned, which is generally how I think about my life as a graduate student.

On another occasion I went with a boyfriend and his kids and was irritated because I’d bought and packed the food and paid for everyone’s passage, and because he had eaten the leftovers I’d wanted for breakfast and hadn’t opened the car door for me, all of which I recounted in a journal I kept at the time. I came to the conclusion that he was pushing me to become a better version of myself—more giving and forgiving, more flexible—but the journals I’ve kept throughout my life have been full of such deception.

The most recent trip I took alone. I packed a small cooler with a bottle of water, a sandwich, and an orange. I carried a notebook because I was there for research. I knew plenty of facts: Both Union and Confederate troops died on the island, and it swapped hands throughout the war; shortly thereafter, it served as the country’s first quarantine station; in 1969, Hurricane Camille split it in two, separating it into East and West.

I bought an ice cream cone and toured Fort Massachusetts. It had been a decade since I’d taken a proper tour, and it was as haunting and beautiful and full of mosquitoes as I remembered. I mentioned to a young park ranger that I was doing research for a novel, mostly as a way to explain why I was alone. As always, it was an admission to be regretted.

As I write this, I haven’t been back in several years, and the novel I was working on remains somewhere between in-progress and abandoned. But a quick Google search tells me there’s news: A restoration project is underway, and the two-plus-mile break between East and West no longer exists. Work will be completed this spring, at which point I’ll pack another cooler and drive south once again. Maybe it was never about searching for a better outcome, it wasn’t about trying again. I just like riding the ferry and walking the island’s pristine beaches, thinking about all that happened in such an isolated place so many years ago. But mostly I like the feeling of being far away and yet still at home. Still in Mississippi.

Mary Miller is the author of two novels, Biloxi and The Last Days of California, as well as two collections of short stories, Always Happy Hour and Big World. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, Pushcart Prize 2020, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Norton’s Seagull Book of Stories, and the Oxford American. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with her husband, Lucky, and her dog, Winter.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.